Tag: james mcavoy

Submergence


Submergence (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those expecting a typical romance in which a potential couple meet, court, and live happily ever after are in for a big disappointment because, although beautifully photographed, Wim Wenders’ “Submergence” is more adult-oriented than fantasy-leaning escapism. Rather than focusing on plot, it is interested in showing challenging circumstances, building a perfect mood to capture longing and loneliness, presenting the details of one’s work, and underlining the distance between lovers than it is about showing its subjects physically interacting to make the viewers swoon. Its vision is without compromise and I respect that.

Notice the atypical technique in which succeeding scenes are presented. It is fluid, like water, an important symbol in the picture, almost as though we are seeing the images through a flow of consciousness or deeply personal, somewhat guarded memories. It is important, I think, that it is presented in this manner so that audiences get an impression of the feelings of incompleteness that the two lovers undergo when they are separated. Because of their occupations, there is no two-way letter-writing or texting involved. And in addition to the subjects not knowing each other for very long before they must separate, there is only uncertainty. Here is a film in which we grow increasingly unsure whether the protagonists would see each other again—a rarity in the romance sub-genre.

Danielle and James, a bio-mathematician preparing for a deep-sea dive and a British spy posing as a water engineer, are played by Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy, respectively. They share solid chemistry as their characters meet in a stunning seaside hotel in Normandy. As intuitive performers, closely observe their body languages as requisite lines are uttered with subtlety and passion. Because by also focusing on the unsaid, it provides us a more complete picture of what these characters are about and what they hope to achieve. It is critical that we feel or understand Danielle and James’ love for what they do, their personal and professional missions, so that we buy into the idea of why they ultimately choose to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations.

Yes, the dialogue offers some scientific jargon, which may be a challenge to sit through for some, but I think the focus ought to be on the intention behind these words. The dialogue is written so beautifully that at times, for example, Danielle may choose to use opaque words in order to hide her feelings of awkwardness with a man she just met. But what makes James interesting, for instance, is that he is a great listener, a skill that is required in his line of work, and so he is able to pierce through the fog and reach her. Still, however, she offers surprises in store. Their meeting is only the setup for the plot but it is so strong, it could have been an entire picture on its own.

Beauty and brutality collide when Danielle and James follow their respective paths. Hydrothermal vents in the deep Atlantic Ocean look like alien worlds while jihadists treat precious human lives as insects to be crushed at the slightest sign of annoyance. Interiors of ships, particularly of a laboratory filled with curious equipments, are polished and elegant while interiors of war-ravaged buildings, particularly the unsanitary clinic, highlight the fears and overall unhappiness—torment—of a community. We are meant to wonder whether Danielle and James’ contrasting worlds are so different, they might end up getting sucked into them, extinguishing every chance of getting back together. But what’s brilliant, I think, is the picture does not simply rely on a romantic reunion.

It: Chapter Two


It: Chapter Two (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

For a movie with elaborate set pieces and a willingness to experiment with different types of horror, “It: Chapter Two” is only entertaining parts. Perhaps the problem can be attributed to Gary Dauberman’s screenplay. It spends far too much time communicating how the Losers, now adults (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean), have become traumatized from their encounters with Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) twenty-seven years ago. Not one of their plight is particularly compelling or original and so it is a curiosity why the material feels the need to spell out the psychological underpinnings of their behaviors. I found it needlessly expository.

The opening scene is most promising because it underscores the idea that people around us can be just as evil—if not more—as the supernatural kind. A romantic date is turned into something so awful, the events linger in the mind for a while. One is led to believe, if one is not familiar with the source material, that perhaps we will learn, in detail, about Pennywise’s history, why he—or it—is driven to terrorize this particular town. Is it solely for its own survival or are the people’s behavior in this place (homophobia, racism, xenophobia) directly tethered to his bloody rampage? However, as the film goes on, we learn only one bit of critical information about the villain. Pennywise is pushed to the side until climactic special and visual effects extravaganza.

It is not without good performances. Hader stands out as Richie, a man with a secret, whose life is so sad and lonely that he became a comedian in order to utilize humor as armor. I am familiar with Hader’s more dramatic roles but never have I seen him as effective as he is here. At times I caught myself looking in his direction while sharing the same frame as powerhouses like Chastain and McAvoy—highly efficient performers who can do next to nothing and yet remain in control of the screen. It helps that Hader gets some of the best lines. He sells every single one with conviction; we believe this character exists out there in the world. An argument can be made he is the heart of the film.

The movie offers fewer terrifying moments than the predecessor. Part of it is because we are following adults instead of children; there is a natural instinct for us to want to protect children and get them out of harm’s way. But the more interesting part is a lack of effective build-up to the scares. I can think of one exception: Beverly’s return to her childhood home when she is welcomed by the current tenant, an elderly lady whose father joined the circus. Other than this standout, a deliciously devious sequence, the rest of the Losers’ encounters with their pasts feel as though these were taken from other generic made-for-TV horror pictures.

Of particular annoyance is the numerous hallucinatory sequences. I felt as though these comprise the majority of the second act. Sharp writers should recognize that events surrounding hallucinations suffer greatly from diminishing returns. And yet it remains adamant in employing this approach without sudden, genuinely shocking left turns to keep us invested.

Both “It” chapters are based on Stephen King’s novel. His works are notorious for being a challenge to put on screen so that the movie is just as effective or even better than its source material. It is because many of his work are so pregnant with imagination that even the most expensive special and visual effects are not able to match the images formed in our minds. Despite the yelling, screaming for help, and terrorized expressions, “Chapter Two” feels like just another scary movie. It is a disappointment because “Chapter One” is a killer springboard.

Dark Phoenix


Dark Phoenix (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Given that both pictures attempt to tell a version of the Dark Phoenix saga, is “Dark Phoenix” better than “X-Men: The Last Stand”? Without question—but not by much. It does not nullify the fact that although Simon Kinberg’s film offers beautiful special and visual effects, especially during battle sequences, it is quite joyless for the most part—a curiosity because its universe is filled with mutants wielding unique powers and cheeky personalities. What results a finale that feels like a death march. Obviously, it does not need to be a comedy. But the screenplay fails to allow the material to breathe from time to time so that fluctuations can be felt throughout the experience.

Like numerous underwhelming superhero movies, this film, too, has a villain problem. An argument can be made that there are two enemies: the powerful cosmic force that possesses Jean Grey’s body (Sophie Turner) and the D’Bari, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), extraterrestrials capable of shapeshifting. With the former, the character’s evolution is not taken to an extreme length—which could have worked given a more intelligent and humanized writing. But in this case, hyperbole, I think, might have been the better choice: Make Dark Phoenix’ actions truly dramatic, epic, or evil. Continually reverting to Jean’s guilt after she has done a bad thing forces the material run around in circles. We get it: Jean is not a bad person, she simply is unable to control her amplified powers. But the self-pity is rife with tedious moments. It does not help that the dialogue often comes across as flat, especially when the X-Men disagree with how to deal with their ally.

With the latter antagonist, although Chastain is an alluring icy blonde, both in look and personality, the character is not given depth or dimension. There are three lines that describe her motivations (“its” is really more appropriate because the human body is simply a facade), but there are no layers to her yearning or desperation to acquire the Phoenix’ power—one that would allow her near-extinct race to be restored. I was more curious about the idea of this formless force, how it could be harnessed to do good or evil. It nicely ties into the exchange between eight-year-old Jean (Summer Fontana) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) involving a pen which occurs early in the picture. While the screenplay is not without good ideas, they are not fully realized.

Aside from Jean Grey and Charles Xavier, other members of the X-Men come across as mere pawns (Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters). They are shown reacting to a problem and other major turn of events, but the material does not bother to slow down so we can appreciate how they think or how they feel. And so when an actor is in pain or tears are running down his face, we feel it is nothing but a performance. The barrier between film and the audience is incredibly apparent; clearly, the film is not an enveloping experience. I got the impression that the performers were not given the freedom to go above and beyond. Meanwhile, we are handed yet another tired apology—or worse, a speech—from Professor X. Perhaps the best snark comes from Magneto (Michael Fassbender) acknowledging exactly this irritant.

When one looks back at “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” there is wonderful energy and creativity that propel these stories. Familiar characters feel fresh. There is drama and intrigue; we feel every second of what is at stake. Then one considers “Dark Phoenix” and the fall from grace is massively disappointing. It does not feel like an appropriate finale, just another installment to be made and released because contracts were signed. I felt no passion here.

Trance


Trance (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

The heist, needless to say, does not go as planned. During the chaos amidst toxic fumes and people rushing to the egress, Simon (James McAvoy) was supposed to peacefully hand a multimillion pound painting to Franck (Vincent Cassel). Instead, Simon attacks Franck which leads to the former being struck on the head with a gun. Meanwhile, the latter thinks he has gotten away with the painting, but when he actually opens the container in his hideout, it is empty. Simon, now considered a hero by the media for attempting to stop the thief, is not better off. Because of the hard blow to the head, he cannot seem to remember where he hid the painting.

“Trance,” written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, is surprisingly successful given that it has a myriad twists and turns where some of the answers remain vague for the most part. It could have been just another gimmicky heist picture where not one character can be trusted, but underneath it all is a passion for storytelling. Red herrings are aplenty but the material actually welcomes us to want to get to know the deceitful people on screen.

It runs from its cage at breakneck pace without being incomprehensible. It is a challenge to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle fit together but they are all there so we do not feel cheated. In particular, I enjoyed trying to figure out which courses of action the characters may regret later. It is an engaging thriller because it sticks with the template that when something is going right a little too much or if getting something seems too easy, you get an uneasy feeling that it will all fall apart in a matter of seconds. Even though we expect them, the pitfalls hold excitement.

The three leads—McAvoy, Cassel, and Rosario Dawson as a psychologist who has been hired to induce hypnosis on Simon in order to help him remember the location of the painting—look appealing on camera and share good chemistry. They play their respective characters with a level of mystique and sex appeal which makes them dangerous. And because we are made to understand that they each have an endgame, one relying on smarts over violence (or vice-versa) over others, we are curious who will come out on top. Who should is an entirely different question.

Some may be repelled with the director’s techniques. He has the tendency to put too much on screen that it ends up distracting at times. For example, there are scenes running together—one involves the reality of the hypnotherapy and the other takes a look into Simon’s fantasy—which are coupled with music that demands attention as well as a gamut of colors where certain shots look like they ought to be framed and put in an exhibit. While the director is no stranger to playing with kaleidoscopic media, sometimes simplicity is the best approach. There is merit to claims that the picture can be overwhelming at times.

Directed by Danny Boyle, “Trance” requires complete attention to be understood. Even so, that still may not be enough to see how all the pieces fit together. There is great energy emanating from and within the twisty events and so entertainment value remains consistent.

Glass


Glass (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Although not short on ambition or ideas, it is a great frustration that M. Night’s Shyamalan’s “Glass” isn’t a stronger film. Part of the reason is for a closer of a trilogy (started by “Unbreakable” in 2000 and preceded by “Split” in 2017), the work is expository for the most part. Aside from an exciting opening minutes in which David Dunn (Bruce Willis), equipped with superhuman strength and psychic ability, is shown what he’s been up to, along with his now adult son (Spencer Treat Clark), since we last saw them, the material begins to move at a snail’s pace once the story shifts inside a psychiatric hospital. Initially curious, it gets duller by the minute. There is plenty of dialogue and monologuing, but these do not reveal anything particularly new or exciting.

The screenplay wishes to explore a grounded comic book universe which is full of potential because our culture now, especially the movies, is inundated with the commercialism of superheroes, products on a conveyor belt that we eat up right from the twenty-second teaser trailers. There is a stark difference between superhero pictures of today and superhero films before “Unbreakable” was released, for better or worse. This would have been a far more interesting avenue to drill into: 1) To show why relatively humble superhero movies should still be made despite the fact that several multimillion-dollar juggernauts are released annually and 2) To introduce an exciting discussion about superheroes in general and why they continue to be a staple in popular culture.

Instead, we get only crumbs of the more compelling themes until the third act—which does not work. We get the impression that the writer-director wishes so badly to surprise the viewer that the ideas that do end up on the platter are severely undercooked at best, thoroughly forced and unconvincing at its worst. Cue the flashbacks and would-be brilliant throwaway shots that the audience should have noticed all along. (I caught them all.) Perhaps it might have been better if the surprise is that there is no surprise, just a strong, well-ironed storytelling.

It is not entertaining enough—a head-scratcher because Shyamalan knows how to execute and shoot an action scene. For instance, When Dunn and The Beast, the latter being one of the twenty-four personalities (James McAvoy), must face-off in an abandoned factory, there is a real sense of excitement: the location is moody and dark, blows to the body are shown and actually felt due to the elevated sound effects, and stakes are high because we get the impression that the two are well-matched. Even when the action is shot in broad daylight, the director remains willing to play with the camera, showing us different perspectives of the sequence just because he can. The confidence is apparent when it comes to images. On paper, far less.

The title of the picture refers to Mr. Glass or Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a genius mass murderer born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterized by brittle bones, but we do not get enough moments with the character in order to have an appreciation of him. The charade of catatonia lasts for too long and it is quite boring. And when he does begin to speak, move around, and carry out his plans, not one thing he does is particularly clever or compelling—at least not one I wouldn’t have thought of doing myself. When the antagonist is this thinly drawn, it is without question that the screenplay requires further revisions. The work feels rushed.

Atomic Blonde


Atomic Blonde (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Some movies exist as an exercise of style over substance and David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde,” based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, is clearly an example of such an approach. One way to enjoy this surprisingly visually impressive film is this: tune out during the would-be mysterious verbal exchanges since it is clearly not the material’s forté (which can be concluded about thirty minutes in) and pay close attention during the flinch-inducing action sequences—not just on the violence but how they are executed. They must have taken weeks to plan out, choreograph, and execute. In the middle of all the wonderful chaos, I could not help but wonder how many perfectly good pieces of furniture they destroyed just for the sake of our entertainment.

The familiar plot, inessential if one so chooses, involves an MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) being assigned to Berlin to acquire a watch that contains invaluable information regarding the identities of secret agents working from both sides of the wall. Before her departure, her superiors warn that she trusts no one during this most sensitive assignment. From the moment she steps outside the airport, KGB agents ambush her. Viewers experienced with the genre will smell a mole hunt from a mile away, but the visual style of the film keeps it fresh.

There is a look of detachment to the picture which is interesting because it wishes to pique our interest in its world of spies and secrecy. Scenes shot outdoors almost always look cold and gray. Bluish shades dominate, pale skins nondescript, emotionless. Appropriately, East Berlin looks depressing, a hole of misery and corruption. It is only slightly better indoors, whether it be inside a hotel room, a club, or a warehouse, there is an aura of impersonality. Even the living space of Lorraine’s contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), despite being filled with books, magazines, and other collectibles, many of them considered illegal in East Berlin, these items do not look to have been touched or read. Except for the alcohol bottles. Percival’s relationship with spirits likens that of fish in water.

But the centerpiece is clearly the well-executed action sequences. Most impressive is perhaps the drawn-out scene involving Lorraine and a bleeding man being stuck in an apartment complex as protests for freedom rage on outside. The seemingly interminable line of thugs entering the facility, the lack of score or soundtrack, the shattering of glass and numerous appliances, crushing of bones, bullets to the face, chokeholds… all build up to an intense and exhausting visual splendor of violence. I enjoyed that it is strives to deliver Class A entertainment but does not sugarcoat the fact that violence is extremely ugly, gory, and painful. Characters simply do not walk away unharmed. I admired that the film is willing to show Lorraine bruised and battered when it would have been far easier to keep Theron physically beautiful and alluring all the time.

“Atomic Blonde” is a kinetic, hyper-physical, muscular action-thriller. It might have been a stronger work overall had screenwriter Kurt Johnstad taken more of a risk either by minimizing or removing altogether the official meeting between agents and superiors and focused on the protagonist navigating her way through her increasingly complex assignment. It is particularly challenging to establish a suffocating air of paranoia when the picture is divided into two timelines: before and after the mission. During these meetings, on occasion, they tell more than show and this is toxic to aspiring adrenaline-fueled action pictures. But because nearly everything else about the film is strong, it manages to rise above such shortcomings.

Split


Split (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

One criticism against “Split,” written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, that holds no weight is its lack of realism or truth in depicting dissociative identity disorder. The film is not a documentary but a horror-thriller after all. And the point of the horror genre is to take our fears to the extreme, to stretch it even to the point of disbelief, and explore it. But herein lies my criticism of the movie. Although it is well-made and well-acted, the plot certainly taking a real-life psychological disorder into the realm of fiction, the material does not explore deeply enough to function as a high level psychological horror-thriller.

A major limitation is in its utilization of flashbacks. Although these are meant to educate us about Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the three high school students (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) abducted by a man with multiple personalities (James McAvoy) after a birthday party, in terms of her personal history outside of the hostage situation, the jumps in time consistently sever the tension that builds.

Poorly used flashbacks is not an uncommon problem in horror and thriller pictures. But in order for this tool to work effectively, events during the present and the past must be equally fascinating. Here, the present is far more captivating and the past, while informative, is a bit tired and predictable. One extended flashback early on in the picture—or smack dab in the middle right before a pivotal moment so that we are suspended us in suspense—might have been a fresher, more potent alternative. I expected a more inspired choice from a master of tone and pacing like Shyamalan.

Another important shortcoming is in the presentation of personalities—not what we see on screen because McAvoy does a solid delivery with each identity but with respect to the writing. While understandable that we do not get to meet all twenty-three personalities due to time constraints, getting to know two or three on a deeper level might have made the experience eye-opening, highlighting the humanity underneath the disorder, fictional or otherwise. Having done so could have turned a clever ending into a powerful shot to the gut, further supporting the idea that this move is, beyond the superficial horror-thriller elements, a character-driven piece.

The writer-director is at his best when he plays with the camera, employing awkward angles and extreme closeups in order to highlight a sense of dread and impending doom. Shyamalan’s Hitchcock-ian spirit is one I’ve admired and will continue to admire for a long time because even though a scene or a shot doesn’t quite work, one cannot help but feel regaled, or alerted, by his sense of style and confidence when that camera moves with magnetic purpose.

“Split” offers passable entertainment but not a riveting experience. Although there are creative choices, such as a more complex than expected characterization of its final girl and McAvoy’s ability to balance terrifying, bizarre, and humorous personalities, the flow is broken far too often. When it comes to movies of this kind, gulping it down should be like smooth liquor.

Victor Frankenstein


Victor Frankenstein (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Victor Frankenstein,” written by Max Landis and directed by Paul McGuigan, is only a marginally interesting reimagining of Mary Shelley’s classic novel because it largely suffers from an identity crisis. Although the story’s core in this particular interpretation is the partnership forged between a scientist and his assistant, numerous subplots are introduced eventually in which the details provided are not as interesting. As a result, when a subplot is front and center, the material’s pacing slows suddenly and we grow tired of having to wait for Dr. Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) to continue with their most macabre but fascinating experiment.

The look and feel of the picture is highly attractive. From the costumes worn by various men and women from disparate social classes outside to curious jars housing strange specimens inside the laboratory, there is always something worthy of appreciation. During the film’s less effective scenes, such as Igor’s rendezvous with a love interest, one wonders at the possibility of a straight-faced period film and how that style might translate in a story that involves bringing the dead back to life.

How Dr. Frankenstein and Igor’s partnership evolves over the time is worth examination partly because McAvoy and Radcliffe approach the material with a level of seriousness and urgency. One gets the impression that they enjoy their roles through their level of commitment, especially during confrontations where the two characters who love science must argue their ideals. Particularly note-worthy is how McAvoy portrays a scientist who is really, really into his work and a scientist who has possibly gone mad. The difference is slight but important. A lesser performer could have easily given a one-note performance.

A subplot that works—to an extent—involves an inspector (Andrew Scott) and his partner (Callum Turner), on the heels of the scientist and his assistant’s big secret. One of the best scenes involves Inspector Turpin’s visit to Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the former highly observant and patient while the latter tries to keep a lid on the collection of body parts in the next room. The picture might have been more elegant and exciting if the screenplay had provided more opportunity for the cat-and-mouse game to evolve and flourish.

The final act is a near-disaster because special and visual effects take over—a common mistake that is easily made simply because there is budget for it. The beauty of the material is the sensitive portrayal of the “hunchback” and the man who rescued him from the circus. It is something new, an angle we have not seen from prior “Frankenstein” films. It is a colossal mistake, certainly an act of sabotage, to sweep such a unique element to the sidelines and embrace a more digestible—and predictable—way of wrapping up the story.

Filth


Filth (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

“Filth,” based on the screenplay and directed by Jon S. Baird, commits one big miscalculation: By the end, it tries to convince us that deep down the main character is a good person. He simply is not, despite his circumstances—which, one might argue, are the results of his actions—and there is nothing wrong by leaving the protagonist as is. It is the brave thing to do. No, it is the right thing to do for this kind of material.

A promotion to become detective inspector is up for grabs and Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) wants it so badly that he has already put several plots in motion designed to humiliate his co-workers (Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, Emun Elliott, Gary Lewis, Brian McCardie), preferably as publicly as possible. He is convinced that if he gets the job, his family will be one again.

The script is dirty, alive, and full of energy. Though it fails to create a convincing work environment, especially since there is murder case is involved, there is anticipation in what might happen next, who will be used—willingly or not—to set certain vehicles in motion, and what sort of lines Bruce chooses to cross just so he can get a smidgen of an advantage over the rest of his competitors. This is a portrait of a man who is always checking if he is ahead of the game. If he thinks he is second place, his aim would be to destroy the competition.

But watching a series of bad behaviors begins to get exhausting about halfway through. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Bruce had been a rotten person but is actually great in his line of work—so good at it that if he did end up snagging the promotion, we would, ironically, feel relieved about the fact? Instead, the screenplay is superficial in that it appears to be stuck in showing how “bad” he is: alcoholic, addicted to cocaine, misogynistic, homophobic. It fails to show Bruce as smart, pragmatic, quick to think on his feet when shoved into a corner—the very qualities necessary, in theory, to earn a higher supervisory rank.

Dream-like sequences and short hallucinatory shots do not work. These techniques are used as crutches—shortcuts—to communicate Bruce’s mindset as quickly as possible. As a result, there is neither depth nor dimension in how or what we come to discover about him. This proves problematic during the final quarter of the picture because we are asked to sympathize with him. It does not work because not enough time and effort is put into creating a whole person with whom we may grow to care about over time. Thus, the practical decision would have been to let Bruce be bad to the bone through and through especially since that is the material’s strength in the first place.

Based on Irvine Walsh’s novel, the core of “Filth” is quite soft when it should have been as hard as a diamond. There are all sorts of profanities but they are nothing new. Remove them from the equation and what remains is a standard picture with enough attitude to keep it barely afloat. The same cannot be said about better movies of its type, like Danny Boyle’s fast-talking “Trainspotting” and Martin McDonagh’s swaggering “In Bruges,” because there are more layers to them.

The Conspirator


The Conspirator (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Seven men and one woman were arrested for conspiring to assassinate the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. Abraham Lincoln was dead and the government wanted someone to bury in order for the nation to be able to move on, not just from mourning and sorrow, but also to a new era in which the Civil War was history. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), manager of a boarding house, was accused of being a conspirator in the assassination led by John Wilkes Booth. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a veteran lawyer, came to her defense but almost immediately appointed young and reluctant Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Johnson knew that if he led the defense, Surratt would have no chance because Johnson was also from the South. Aiken, at least initially, was convinced she was guilty. Based on the screenplay by James D. Solomon and directed by Robert Redford, “The Conspirator” was a well-crafted courtroom drama about the scarcity of justice in a nation that felt terrorized to the core. I admired the film’s insistence on tackling difficult questions. It offered us answers from many points of view but it was wise in highlighting the fact that the so-called truth is irrelevant if the stage is plagued with bias. Aiken was an interesting character because he had a difficult task in separating his beliefs from his duty as a lawyer. McAvoy was quite good in the role. Although he looked a bit young, there was ferocity in his eyes when he witnessed something unconstitutional and downright immoral. As a former soldier in the war, he thought he had seen it all, but he learned, in a subtle way, that bureaucracies had its share of traps and subterfuge. It was fascinating to see him adapt and at times even fail. The picture was shot beautifully. During the courtroom scenes, I was transfixed in the way the light emanated from the windows and how it landed on clothing and people’s faces. Smoke and dust blurred certain images but it was so natural that it made me feel like I was in the room. However, there were a few distracting elements that took me out the mood. I felt as though the pace of the rising action was diminished by the flashback scenes when Mary still had her freedom. The flashbacks were somewhat unnecessary because it took away some of the mystery that surrounded Mary’s allegiance. I got the impression that Redford wanted to humanize Mary just a little bit more when he really didn’t need to. Furthermore, Justin Long, as Aiken’s friend, and Alexis Bledel, as Aiken’s romantic interest, were miscast. Their styles of acting were distractingly modern. I felt their struggles in adapting to the film’s specific time period. Regardless, “The Conspirator” contained powerful messages about patriotism. Watching the film, people can and ought to learn that a true patriot is not someone who cries hardest in times of terror or grief; a true patriot is someone can see past the overwhelming feelings and commotions, someone who is loyal to the concept of what is fair.

X-Men: First Class


X-Men: First Class (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

A spy for the CIA, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), had been tracking Sebastian Shaw’s (Kevin Bacon) activities for quite some time. Initially unknown to her, he was a mutant and it was his goal to start World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union. He believed that by having the world’s superpowers obliterate one another, Mutants could finally rise and rule. Shaw was also the man who murdered the mother of Erik Lehnsherr, future Magneto, during the Nazis’ evil rule in Germany. Through rage and other negative emotions, he trained Erik to control his ability. Fast-forward to the 1960s, Erik (Michael Fassbender) hunted the men responsible for his terrible past. Shaw was the final man on his death list. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, I found “X-Men: First Class” to be admirable not because of its action sequences but because its attention was largely on its story. It focused on the complicated relationship between Erik and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). The former favored violence while the other valued diplomacy. We learned that Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), also known as Mystique, were childhood friends and how her loyalty shifted over the course of their friendship. We also met Professor X’s first students: the intellectual Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), the timid Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), the assured Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edu Gathegi), and pretty boy Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till). The cast had great chemistry, especially Fassbender and McAvoy, but I wish the younger actors were given more screen time. The film would have been more fun and exciting if the politics wasn’t always at the forefront. I thought it was wonderful that the screenplay treated us like intelligent audiences by choosing a specific time to establish the parallels and eventual divide in Magneto and Professor X’s beliefs and ethics. But I have to admit that the picture had a certain energy that made me smile with scenes in which the students showed each other their powers and did a bit of destruction while being held by the CIA. Those parts made me realize that maybe it was taking itself too seriously. There were moments of humor dispersed throughout but it needed more to allow the material to breathe. Perhaps two or three grand speeches by Magneto should have been left on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, I’ve heard a lot of negative feedback involving January Jones’ performance as Emma Frost, one of Shaw’s most loyal henchmen, a telepath and whose skin could turn into diamonds. While I thought her acting wasn’t great, I didn’t think she was terrible or distracting. The way I saw her character was she grew up pretty and privileged, though not exactly intelligent despite being able to read minds, and so she was apathetic to the politics around her. To me, all she cared about was being Shaw’s trophy. With some girls, it’s enough for them to have a guy next to them. I want more superhero movies like “X-Men: First Class” because it was clear that it had ambition. Although its tone was vastly different from its predecessors, it made itself an important piece of the package.