American Animals (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Bart Layton tells the story of an actual crime planned and executed by four university students with such joie de vivre that I couldn’t help but feel electrified by the images, feelings, and psychology emanating from the screen. It is strange, incredible, and fascinating—that Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) actually managed to convince themselves that they could get away with stealing extremely rare and valuable books, some of which date back to the eighteenth century, in broad daylight… and then actually sell them without the authorities knowing about it.
The young men gambled their futures simply because they were bored with the present. And so there is undeniable power in putting the real people portrayed in the film in front of the camera to tell the viewers directly what they thought about at the time, how they felt while planning the heist, and learning about what happened to them following the inevitable prison time. There is delicious irony particularly in Spencer’s case, the artist who found himself uninspired or dispassionate toward the craft he had chosen while in university. In a way, a compelling argument can be made that it is almost poetic, or karmic, or destiny that the heist would fail just so he would find his calling.
Layton plays with the story’s form like an expert juggler, shuffling between reenactment and documentary with buttery ease. There is an engaging flow in his approach, always propulsive, even when the pacing slows down at times, but not once painting his subjects using sentimental brushes or colors. On the contrary, his approach touches upon darkly comic moments, but never cruel, especially when the writer-director highlights the thieves’ sheer stupidity. They talk big but their actions are desperate, messy. They learn first-hand that heists are not like the movies where robbers simply slip in and out, despite sudden left turns, after excellent planning. We are meant to feel tickled by watching the quartet squirm and struggle under the pressure of possibly getting caught.
Keoghan, Peters, Abrahamson, and Jenner do share chemistry but it is not the kind that is pleasant—which is the correct decision. They must not come across as friends but accomplices. Instead, each performer brings something different to the table. For instance, we are able to recognize with ease which one is the most intelligent, the most practical, the most uncertain, the one most willing to take risks just so the plan becomes reality. I found it interesting that although each character embodies a certain archetype, the writing, as with everything else, consistently leaves enough room for uncertainty. (At one point, I doubted whether the purported real figures were truly the actual people involved in the heist.) Thus, not one of them is ever boring or one-dimensional. Although they are criminals, we are reminded they are still people who care about the ramifications of their actions.
“American Animals” is a success for the most part because it dares to tell a truly bizarre story in a strange way—combining the dramatic genre with that of a documentary approach. Although some level of suspense is sacrificed due to the handful of interruptions between reenactment and recollection, the film, as a whole, offers a compelling experience nonetheless because it inspires those watching to create our own interpretation of the truth. Heist films usually just… are. This film, on the other hand, leaves enough room for curiosity.
Adult World (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Amy (Emma Roberts) is informed by her parents that they can no longer support her poetry career. She has over $90,000 in student loans and all she has ever done since graduating from college is enter literary contests—which require money to enter. Clearly, Amy needs to get a job but the interviews do not go well since she lacks practical experience. Eventually, the aspiring poet lands a position at a sex shop. Although she has never imagined ever working in one, she figures she must hang in there until her big break arrives.
Written by Andy Cochran and directed by Scott Coffey, “Adult World” is the kind of movie that, I guess, should speak to those who have some level of animosity toward the millennial generation because the protagonist reeks of self-entitlement despite lacking a key ingredient: experiences that, in theory, would allow her to write about something real or substantial. Although the material offers a handful of amusing scenes dispersed throughout, it is not an effective commentary of a self-aggrandizing character because it lacks a critical third act. We remain to wait for the punch in the gut but next thing we know the movie is over.
Roberts makes Amy almost unbearable—which is a compliment to the performer. It is the kind of role that Reese Witherspoon would probably have spearheaded back in the ‘90s and excelled at. Although Amy lacks Tracy Flick’s determination, the two share an annoying, over-the-top willingness to impress whoever is foolish enough to pay attention. Amy hopes to be taken under the tutelage of Rat Billings (John Cusack), her favorite author whose career has peaked in the late ‘80s.
Even though the picture deserves some credit when it comes to not going for the obvious parallels between the aspiring and washed-up poet, their interactions ought to have been more meaningful—at least to us. Perhaps the problem is the technique behind the acting. Cusack tones it down, his character always brooding, often wrapped in his toughness. Meanwhile, Roberts turns up the energy to ten, her character seemingly on amphetamines because everything is so dramatic. Hyperbole may be a part of Amy personality but there is a way to play exaggeration with subtlety.
Two interesting performers who get a healthy amount of screen time are Evan Peters, who plays the manager of the sex shop, and Armando Riesco, playing a transgender woman. However, their characters are underwritten. The screenplay does a good job showing that Alex and Rubia, respectively, are people of substance—the kind of people that Amy needs to be around so she can be inspired—but it fails to present specifics. Instead, we get to see how Alex and Rubia live and that is somehow supposed to communicate how hard they have it in life.
The story takes place during a bleak winter and the color palate consists of white, black, and grey outside. Of course it is supposed to symbolize the protagonist’s made-up state of calamity. At one point she wonders what she has done to deserve becoming an unpublished poet. She got good grades, was placed on the ninety-seventh percentile on the SATs, received awards, and stayed true to her art in college. We are amused somewhat because we know exactly why. And yet some of us may feel repelled. After all, such a sentiment has been tackled in other, better movies before. The picture offers nothing special to separate it from similar works that critique millennials.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
It takes a delicate touch to helm an excellent action film. Such a claim might be counterintuitive at first but if one were to consider what makes an outstanding action picture, one might come to the conclusion that it can usually be reduced to three basic ingredients: a thorough development or exploration of the protagonist(s), an interesting villain with an endgame that makes sense with respect to the story’s universe, and well-executed—as well as well-photographed—action sequences. An eye for detail ties these elements together. It is clear that “X-Men: Apocalypse,” based on the screen by Simon Kinberg and directed by Bryan Singer, does not fulfill these requirements completely.
The film introduces about half a dozen new characters but it fails to show to us that every one of them is a compelling figure. Although some detail is given about Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), who develops an ability to shoot powerful lasers through his eyes, and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who has psychic abilities so powerful that even her mutant peers fear her, there is a lack of detail when it comes to the human side of the other new faces, namely the three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Storm (Alexandra Shipp). The material actually comes alive when we learn about Scott and Jean as humans who struggle with specific abilities—what it means for them to have such powers, which prove to be both a gift and a curse, how they relate to it and to one another.
Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is a rather dull antagonist considering he is supposed to be the all-powerful, very first mutant. His goal is to cleanse humanity because he considers them weak for having resulted to embracing false gods and idolizing powers such as nuclear weapons. Because his motivation is so ordinary, despite all of the powers the character displays, he, over time, becomes unremarkable. Also, we learn nothing about Apocalypse’s plans if he were to succeed. Does he simply wish to sit on a throne and be worshiped for the rest of time? Does he wish to transform the world completely? If so, in what direction and how? The supervillain is underwritten.
Action sequences are enjoyable but nothing special—with the exception of one: Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) well-timed slow motion rescue at the X-Mansion with Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” serving as a soundtrack. The one and only extended battle in Egypt offers a few moments of creativity and humor, particularly with Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but there are, for instance, no brilliant maneuverings designed to surprise both the audience and the very characters who are meant to be outsmarted so that the balance of power is tilted. Excitement reaches a comfortable level but there is a lack of surges when such a state is reached. No suspense is established.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” clearly has ambition and it entertains on the most superficial level, but not enough relevant details are provided in order to enhance the plot, story, and characterization. Details tend to pave the way for establishing complexity.
In this day and age where superhero pictures are drenched in questions about societal roles, identity, and morality, it is not enough to rely mostly on good-looking apocalyptic images via CGI. Superhero movies these days, especially sequels, must, at the very least, strive to be an original. Within this series thus far, “X2: X-Men United” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” have succeed and made a statement. By comparison, this outing is mere silent existence.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Since the development of the Sentinel program, spearheaded by Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), humans with special powers, collectively known as Mutants, have been hunted and eradicated. But the Sentinels, non-metallic machines that can quickly adapt to their environment, have gone haywire throughout the years: Instead of killing only Mutants, they somehow gained the ability to detect non-Mutant humans who are capable of having children with special mutations on the X chromosome.
This had lead to the planet being reduced to an apocalyptic wasteland and it is up to Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the 1970s and convince former partners, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), to team up and prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Trask—the very action that pushed the Sentinel program to pass.
Despite the first “X-Men” live-action film having been released almost fifteen years ago, it really is quite a feat that its sequels and spin-offs, which peaked in quality during “X2,” both, including this installment, having been directed by Bryan Singer, remain relatively fresh even though the franchise is not the most consistent. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is, in a handful of ways, a return to form—it offers solid action entertainment, jokes and references to previous installments that are actually funny but not distracting, and, by the end, it hints at the raw potential of future sequels. The final scene rewards those who have seen the entire series. I will say only this: I enjoyed how it plays with time travel and acknowledging the gigantic, if not maddening, miscalculations of previous entries. Yes, I am referring to you, “X-Men: The Last Stand.”
Not allowing every Mutant to become the center of attention is a smart move. We get only a glimpse or a few seconds with once familiar faces like Rogue (Anna Paquin), Havok (Lucas Till), and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and they are not given a lot to do. Instead, the writer, Simon Kinberg, makes the right decision by focusing on Wolverine, the eyes in which we see the story through, and the challenges of getting the young Professor Xavier and Magneto to come to terms with each other and their own personal demons. These are men with a lot of anger, a lot of conviction, a lot of power—watching McAvoy and Fassbender navigate their characters through an archipelago of emotions is like watching a good old-fashioned drama. Take away their superpowers and they remain interesting.
Less effective are scenes with Mystique. Although Lawrence is more than capable of delivering the requisite emotions to play a conflicted character, the speeches between Professor X and Mystique—as well as Magneto and Mystique to an extent—as to why killing Dr. Trask will not solve anything become a bore eventually. Instead of being moved by the push and pull of Mystique’s morality, I found the whole charade somewhat disingenuous. Instead of being invested in the conflict, I noticed the syrupy attributes of the lines. Clearly, the writer is very smart and creative when it comes to how action sequences and overarching plots are going to play out. However, getting to the core of the emotions and allowing us to care in a deep way is an Achilles’ heel.
A character that does not get enough screen time is a teenager named Peter (Evan Peters), later known as Quicksilver, a Mutant with very special talents—so special that Professor X, Wolverine, and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) ask for his help to break into the Pentagon. The sheer brilliance of the scene at the Pentagon must be seen to be believed. I had not experienced so much excitement and glee since Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike’s duel in “X2.” To me, it is the essence of what makes “X-Men” so great: Its content need not be “dark” to be considered great—it just needs to be smart and cheeky.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” provides what one expects of a superhero film: astonishing special and visual effects, eye-opening action sequences, as well as characters worth getting to know and rooting for. However, it fails to surpass my expectations because it does not get the build-up of emotions—which lead to key realizations—exactly right. Alas, perhaps less discerning viewers will be more forgiving for this.
★★ / ★★★★
Aaron Johnson stars as Dave Lizewski, a typical geek who goes to a typical high school with typical hormonal friends (Clark Duke, Evan Peters). But what’s not typical is his dream to be a superhero, serving people at a time of need and rescuing them from bullies or dangerous criminals. I liked the first and last forty minutes of this film. The first forty minutes was amusing because the lead character was still trying to figure out how it was really like being a superhero; that one does not win every battle and sometimes a trip to the hospital is necessary. In a way, it worked as a spoof of those extremely serious adapted-from-comic-books superhero movies. The last thirty minutes was pure action. Comparisons of Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl to Uma Thurman’s The Bride was pretty accurate because both can deliver the eye-popping violence and snarky sense of humor. However, I didn’t like the fact that Moretz’ character overshadowed the lead character. After all, the movie was supposed to be about the blossoming of a nobody to a possible somebody who everyone adored on YouTube. As for the middle portion of the film, I thought it was weak and lazy. The bit about Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a rich boy wanting to be a superhero was very formulaic. I constantly felt that he was trying to be funny but falling flat every single time. I like Mintz-Plasse, especially in “Superbad,” but I thought he was miscast here. A pompous, know-it-all, conniving kid would have been a much more interesting a character instead of a wimpy wannabe. Other fatal shortcomings involved Nicolas Cage as the father of Hit Girl (and also a superhero). There was a history about his character that I wanted the film to get into. Whenever the camera was focused on Cage, “Kick-Ass” had an added gravity that it desperately needed in order to be something other than a spoof of superhero films. Instead, the movie unwisely spent much of its time showing us scenes involving the main character being mistaken for a gay guy by a girl he liked who happened to want a gay BFF. As cheeky as it was, it was also unnecessary; it got old pretty quickly and I wished I had a fast-forward button. Overall, however, I did enjoy “Kick-Ass,” directed by Matthew Vaughn, despite its shortcomings in terms of pacing and not focusing on the more interesting characters that could potentially provide an extra dimension to the project. The film did hint on a possible sequel which I think is a great idea because there were a number of questions that remained in my head by the time the credits started rolling. People compare this film to “Kill Bill” in terms of violence but I think “Kick-Ass” doesn’t hold a candle to Quentin Tarantino’s bloodbath. I think it’s more accurate to say that this is a teenage version of “Watchmen” that is less focused, less ambitious but more amusing with a modern twist.