X-Men: Apocalypse Review

“The third film is always the worst.”  This pseudo self-aware line is spoken as a not so subtle nod to the less than stellar reception X-Men 3: The Last Stand received.  And, as painful as it was hearing this piss poor attempt at irony, it couldn’t be more true.

X-Men:  Apocalypse is the third film in the new X-Men timeline and follows the events of the X-Men sequel / reboot Days of Future Past.  While Days of Future Past had its faults, it still stood out as one of the stronger entries in the X-Men film franchise.  Sadly, the legacy of the excellent First Class does nothing to elevate Apocalypse above mediocrity.

The film opens strong enough with a thundering score and the titular En Sabah Nur (Apocalypse) and his four henchman marching to a ritual to transfer his consciousness.  We’re treated to a fun, if a little clumsy, action scene right off the bat before the film tosses up the title card… and then devolves into a muddy mess of mediocrity and wasted potential.

The majority of the film is set in 1983, over 20 years after First Class, and it does little to emphasize this point aside from a few period outfits and a Return of the Jedi marquee.  Despite the cast having aged only 5 years since this new (old) class of heroes was introduced, we’re thrust into yet another decade with little to no reason.  Really, the only cues we have, aside from the punk clothing and movies playing in cinemas, that any time has passed between films is the damage done in the last two movies is barely a passing thought to anyone in this universe and one of the characters has a family now.

With First Class, and to a lesser extent Days of Future Past, the characters felt new and refreshing.  Even if we had seen them before in these films, the new interpretations added a new layer of depth.  In the original X-Men film, we were given a glimpse into what turned Erik into Magneto.  First Class took us deeper into that character evolution with an extended look at Erik’s time in Auschwitz and Michael Fassbender giving us a Magneto that, in spite of his feelings toward them, is more human.  The relationship between Charles and Erik in First Class gives more weight to each instance you hear the line “old friend” spoken in the original films.  It’s a compelling relationship and one I’d love to see more of, but one that takes a back seat to some of the new gifted youngsters as Apocalypse tries desperately to bridge the gap between the old and new.

While Days of Future Past did little to develop that relationship further, being essentially another Wolverine movie, the characters in that go ‘round were actually fun to follow.  Apocalypse shifts its focus to follow Jean Grey, Kurt Wagner, and Scott Summers in their “first” appearance in the franchise.  I’ve never been a fan of how Cyclops has been presented in the film franchise, being a bit of a whiny douche, which is disappointing because he was always my favorite in the comics.  Apocalypse somehow manages to make the character even less likable than the James Marsden iteration of the character.  I understand, he’s going through some unexpected changes that are difficult to handle, but the stilted performance, cringe-worthy dialogue, and lack of chemistry do nothing to make those changes relatable – or even tolerable.

On the topic of dialogue, the script is downright terrible at times.  With a hodgepodge of graceless exposition, ham-fisted attempts at humor, and standard, impact-less “us versus the world” hero speeches, you’re sure to shake your head more than a few times at just how utterly stupid these characters can sound when they open their mouths.  That’s not to say that it’s all bad – there are moments with true dramatic weight, but I think that has less to do with the script and more to do with Michael Fassbender’s better-than-this-movie-deserves performance.  Each scene he’s in is mesmerizing, with one in particular striking nearly every emotional cord.  It’s a shame, then, that he’s such a small presence in the film.  Each scene with Erik is like watching a different movie.  A good movie.

The primary conflict in X-Men:  Apocolypse centers on the return of Apocalypse as he gathers an army of mutants to push the reset button on the world so the strong can survive and start anew.  It’s an idea with potential:  all-powerful being hell-bent on world destruction and domination surrounds himself with other, like-minded powerful beings to see that plan through.  Unfortunately, it’s wasted on unnecessary subplots and stupid characters.

Apocalypse keeps four henchmen nearby and, of those, only two are actually interesting in any way.  Olivia Munn as Psylocke is hard to watch – even if she is just a blip on the radar in the film – and the inclusion of Angel is downright baffling (I don’t remember him being in his forties in The Last Stand).  Alexandra Shipp’s turn as Storm is a vast improvement over Halle Berry’s, but she gets about as much screen time as Psylocke – which is a shame because she manages to be one of the few enjoyable characters in the film.  Apocalypse himself is bland and a waste of Oscar Isaac’s talent as the blue makeup and boring progression do a fine job of making him as unrecognizable as he is uninteresting.  There are brief moments where you can see a glimmer of what could be only to be pulled back down by a groan-inducing line someone managed to choke out.

There was an opportunity to build toward something bigger with ApocalypseDays of Future Past reset the timeline and created the possibility to do something new; instead, they went with another paint-by-numbers standalone superhero flick.  While some of the action is enjoyable and the time you get to spend with the Magneto subplot is absolutely worth watching, there’s little to nothing else in this film worth recommending.  It’s like a cocktail of one part good movie, two parts painfully mediocre movie, and one part absolutely horrible movie.  While it’s not downright terrible as a whole, it rarely ever tries not to be.

Meh – 2 / 3

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Insidious: Chapter 2 review

Insidious_Chapter_2_PosterIn film, few genres give me as much joy as horror.  Even the bad movies have this odd charm to them that makes them just a joy to watch.  They fail so hard at being scary that the resulting entertainment is just unintended glee.  When they succeed at tension building and suspense, though, there’s a whole new experience to be had.  “Entertainment” isn’t really the best word to describe a good horror movie because it’s more a roller coaster than a joy ride.  It’s a combination of physical responses and unrelenting dread.  A successful horror movie is an entirely different experience than any other film.  Sadly, successful horror movies are few and far between.  Thankfully James Wan and Leigh Whannell are around to breathe new life into the horror genre.

The two got their start with what birthed the most successful horror franchise of all time, Saw.  While not all the films in the series are winners, it’s undeniable that the first film helped to reshape an entire genre of film while providing one of the most ingenious plot twists of all time.  Since their little torture porn, the horror duo have worked on Dead Silence (while not the best horror film, a fun throwback to campy 80’s killer doll flicks that I still enjoy) and the more recent Insidious.

The first Insidious raised the bar for me in what to expect from a horror film.  The film relied on tension building in tandem with jump scares and completely forwent any gore – being released with only a PG-13 rating.  Something not terribly common in horror films.  Most horror films up to that point had been R-rated murder romps that featured an overabundance of jump scares and creative kills to draw in audiences.  Insidious delivered something different:  a truly terrifying experience.  It was smart, fast, fun, and intense.  This isn’t to say that it didn’t rely on jump scares, but it was able to have lasting moments of constant tension buildup beyond those loud music cues and closets flying open.  Insidious set a new standard for me and its sequel had a lot to live up to.

Insidious

I had high expectations for the film but, with James Wan having directed another 2013 horror film (the well-received The Conjuring which also starred Insidious’ Patrick Wilson), there was a bit of concern in whether or not this film would feel like the lovingly crafted sequel I wanted or a quick cash in to a super successful modern horror classic.  I’m pleased to say that Insidious met my expectations – even exceeded them at times.

insidious-philip-friedman1Insidious: Chapter 2 begins with a bit of back story highlighting story elements that are hinted at in the first film but never delved into.  Josh Lambert had some experiences with astral projection as a child and this back story is more fleshed out in this sequel and plays heavily into the history of both films.  It’s an excellent preface to the subsequent events and really helps to broaden the scope of the film.  After the title card, which is pulled from the first film and “Chapter 2” fades in behind it, we’re taken to an interrogation room.  Picking up almost immediately after the events of Insidious, Chapter 2 reminds us that there’s a dead medium in the Lambert house and Josh is more than likely the murderer – though with the complicated alibi of being stuck in The Further.

The next 100 minutes are filled with answers, more questions, and plenty of scares.  Insidious: Chapter 2 avoids playing it safe by messing with the foundation laid in the first film.  Everything that happened in the first film has some new meaning in the sequel and it’s crazy how well it works.  Repurposed footage is given new life in mindblowing sequences where you’re left thinking, “If this wasn’t planned in the first film, this is damn brilliant.”

Jump scares and exposition play a much bigger role in Chapter 2 than they did in the first.  We’ve already been introduced to the idea of astral projection and The Further, so this time around we’re looking to get some resolution following the cliffhanger finish of the first film.  There’s still that building tension and I had chills running down my arm more than a few times during the course of Chapter 2, but lore building and fast moving thrills are a big part of the experience, too.  It works, too.

The way Insidious ended could have been the end of it all and I would have been okay with it.  It felt like a wonderfully fitting close to a horror film.  With that, it’s nice to know that the events that followed Elise’s death don’t feel shoehorned in.  There’s actually a lot of interesting happenings and the foundation they’ve built for the lore is left vacant at the end of the experience for even more adventures – though maybe absent the Lambert family.

EliseThe film also brings back Specs and Tucker, favorites of mine in the first film, and it brings them to the forefront.  They’re great characters and breaths of fresh air amidst all the tension and jumps.  It’s not always easy to have a balance between horror and comedy in a film, and these characters show that a balance isn’t entirely necessary.  When you’re dealing with absurd and bizarre matters, absurd and bizarre characters can fit right in.  Let’s face it, even when you’re facing a haunted family surrounded by horrors of unspeakable nature, you’d be glad to have a couple of oafish nerds hanging around to make light of the situation.  It was nice to see them back for round two and they were as enjoyable as ever.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is more than a sequel.  It’s a film so tightly knit with its predecessor that it’s almost impossible to think of the two films standing on their own anymore.  With one, you cannot have the other.  This sequel serves as a prequel, and interquel, and a sequel with content so heavily embedded in the first movie that it’s more like the sequel influenced its predecessor than vice versa.  As a continuation of a saga, this film is damn near perfect.  If the ideas presented in Insidious and Chapter 2 do spawn another chapter, I sincerely hope it stays in the hands of the masters of modern horror James Wan and Leigh Whannell.

 

Insidious: Chapter 2:  4 out of 5