Everyone knows that when the world is imperiled in a comic-book movie, the world is never truly in peril; it’s not like costumed characters, after the Earth’s destruction, are gonna take their in-fighting to Mars for the inevitable sequel. But despite its foreboding title, the stakes in director Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse are particularly low, given that the action takes place in 1983, a full 17 years before the events of Singer’s 2000 X-Men. Clearly, as evidenced by the franchise forebears, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier will survive the climactic devastation, considering they still need to turn into Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Cyclops and Storm and Jean Grey are all on safe ground, as are Mystique and Beast and Nightcrawler. The winged bad guy Angel can probably go, unless he finds a way to remain a teenager for two-decades-plus and turn into 2006’s good-guy Angel. But are the filmmakers really going to kill off recent recruit Quicksilver when, as personified by Evan Peters, he’s been the best reason for the series’ last two films to exist?
In short, in Singer’s latest, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I felt fine – although I rarely felt great. This installment’s chief megalomaniac is En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse), a 5,000-year-old Egyptian meanie pissed about the 1983 preponderance of false gods and nuclear warheads, and I was jazzed by his presence once I looked past the blue face paint and electronic voice enhancement and realized he was being played by Oscar Isaac. Yet the thrill of (kind of) seeing and hearing this great character actor in the role was quickly diminished not only by the villain’s sadly generic plans for world dominion, but also by his incredibly vague powers that involve bright flashes of CGI energy and the ability to morph matter so that it acts like quick-drying cement. Isaac’s line deliveries boast a bit of wit, but none of his actual lines do, and by the time Apocalypse and his figurative four horsemen were spending the film’s final hour scheming and battling on what looked like leftover sets from 300, I had lost all interest in him.
By that time, though, I probably could have taken a number, because practically everyone on-screen was also looking like they’d lost all interest. Jennifer Lawrence, continuing her role as Mystique, appeared to have checked out from the film’s start, her blank countenance and unmotivated readings suggesting a slumming star who’s counting the days until her next David O. Russell script arrives in the mail. But the effects-heavy and damned-near-endless finale also finds new recruits such as Sophie Turner (our new Jean Grey) and Tye Sheridan (Cyclops) weakly feigning emotion and narrative engagement; when Olivia Munn’s baddie Psylocke blithely wandered off after the fight, it felt like the visual representation of what everyone had been doing mentally for the half-hour prior. (Poor Munn is also stuck in an outfit that looks like a tacky, off-the-rack Wonder Woman knock-off, so maybe, for understandable reason, she slipped off-screen to change clothes.) Even Fassbender gets lost in the climactic shuffle – and when the camera does notice the guy, he looks more than a little frustrated by how little is being required of him.
He didn’t look that way, though, in early scenes with Magneto’s alter ego Erik Lehnsherr in hiding in Poland, and if X-Men: Apocalypse is worth watching, it’s for the potent and pleasurable grace notes, and not the over-stuffed visuals and portentous, end-of-days hand-wringing. There’s a spectacular, paranoid thrill to the sequence in which Erik’s co-workers slowly realize that he may be an über-villain in disguise, and Fassbender reminds you just how intensely effective he can be in Magneto’s quick, elegant dispatching of a dozen police officers – a moment that also reminds you how powerful Singer’s staging can be when the man really puts his mind to it. (I could’ve done without this scene’s final image of Magneto shaking his fist to the heavens, but even in comic books themselves, I could always do without that particular cliché.) Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine returns, briefly, for a well-choreographed free-for-all that ends with an emotionally pungent first encounter with Jean Grey, and you can still get a happy tingle from the quietly explosive puffs of blue smoke that accompany the teleportation of Nightcrawler (played, as a charming Teutonic nerd, by Kodi Smit-McPhee). Given the overall solemnity, I was grateful for the occasional moments of levity in Simon Kinberg’s script: Jean Grey, coming out of a Return of the Jedi screening, making the in-joke acknowledgment that second sequels generally suck; Xavier’s comedic fumbling when confronted with former love Moira Mactaggert. (Series returnee Rose Byrne is again ill-served by the role, but hey – any excuse to see Byrne is a good one.)
And then, of course, there’s Quicksilver – or rather, as the most recent X-Men flicks are training us to call it, The Quicksilver Scene. As fans will no doubt recall, 2014’s Days of Future Past found its coup de grace in the super-speedy slacker’s mad scramble around a White House kitchen accompanied by Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” an ingeniously executed, utterly hilarious stunt that left you almost no choice but to applaud its finale. Here, at least at my screening, the applause came at the sequence’s start; all it took was the on-screen action slowly crawling to a full stop, the appearance of Quicksilver’s left leg, and the pulsing opening synth of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” for the crowd to collectively glean that “The Quicksilver Scene!” was about to begin, and react accordingly. Amidst our laughter and clapping, the kid amused himself by dashing around Xavier’s school saving dozens of lives and causing eventual embarrassment wherever possible – a glorious three-minute escapade that you wish would’ve lasted three hours. X-Men: Apocalypse is oftentimes tired stuff, but inspired bits such as the Quicksilver/Peters segment help negate your complaints, and while the choice of the Eurythmics song didn’t make as much thematic sense as the Croce, it also wasn’t inaccurate; in terms of giddy cinematic exhilaration, sweet dreams are indeed made of this.
ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
In rough outline, the plot of director James Bobin’s Alice through the Looking Glass – a Lewis Carroll adventure in name only – finds our heroine (Mia Wasikowska) using a time machine first to mend the broken heart of her friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), and then to mend the broken hearts of estranged sisters the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). While she was at it, couldn’t Alice have used that time machine to somehow turn 2010’s Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland into an enormous box-office flop, thereby preventing the broken hearts of everyone stuck at this incessantly busy, profoundly irritating sequel? I can’t fathom why screenwriter Linda Woolverton thought the world needed backstories for why the Hatter is so manic or why the Red Queen is so pissed. But you’ll certainly get them here, along with plenty of rote chase sequences, obnoxious visuals, fraudulent emotion, and the increasingly unpleasant sight of the 52-year-old Depp mugging and mincing about in heavy pancake makeup, as if trying to convince us – or maybe himself – that he’s still a viable casting option for lovable elfin sprites. Sacha Baron Cohen delivers some surprisingly underplayed amusement as a mechanical Father Time with a Werner Herzog accent, Alan Rickman (for the final time, sadly) provides some mellifluous sanity, and for 30 joyously depraved seconds, Andrew Scott goes the Full Moriarty as a sadistic madhouse doctor. But Danny Elfman’s achingly bombastic score – maybe the worst of his career – simply won’t give it a rest, and for a movie this anxious, the results are almost deathly boring; overstatement or not, it was no surprise to hear a fellow Alice through the Looking Glass patron exit the auditorium ahead of me opining, “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” (I would have beaten this guy to the exit door, but was too drained to make a hasty getaway.) It’s all just lethargic sci-fi steampunk re-designed as a slapstick soap opera, and maybe the first sequel I’ve seen in which even the CGI figures appear to be there solely due to contract obligations.
A BIGGER SPLASH
The first scene in director Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash finds Tilda Swinton, as the fictional rock icon Marianne Lane, striding onto the stage of an outdoor amphitheater and being cheered on by thousands of screaming fans. So you know that Guadagnino is doing something smart right off the bat, because in a fair world, this is how Tilda Swinton’s arrival would be greeted in all of her movies. For the next two hours, though, I’m not sure if Guadagnino, screenwriter David Kajganish, or their cast do anything that isn’t smart, to say nothing of shrewd, fascinating, and deeply, almost helplessly sexy. For a long stretch, it may seem like nothing much is happening: Marianne, on vocal rest following throat surgery, vacations at a stunning Italian villa with her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), and the pair is soon joined by Marianne’s ex-beau and -manager Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). During the film’s first half, we watch as the quartet shares meals and banter and the balmy delights of the Italian seascape, and patiently wait for what we assume is the inevitable trading of vacation partners. But as the movie’s score, one rich in classic rock, grows subtly more sinister, we begin to realize we’re actually in the midst of a hypnotic and tantalizing thriller – a sun-drenched noir in which no one’s motives are altogether clear, and anyone, at any point, might be the victim in a lusciously perverse psychological game.
All told, I ate this thing up with a spoon, and used my napkin to mop up my drool-inducing envy at the unmitigated gorgeousness of it all. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux photographs his frequently naked co-stars with the same lushly lit romanticism he extends to the Italian landscapes, and the collective heat generated by the performers keeps the atmosphere sizzling, from Swinton’s voiceless expressiveness to Schoenaerts’ damaged soulfulness to Johnson’s brazen flirtatiousness. (I do wish, though, that the wonderfully naturalistic Johnson would stop getting cast in roles she’s clearly too old for – and Penelope, it turns out, is a role she’s really too old for.) But the beautifully paced, increasingly engaging A Bigger Splash might not have been half as successful as it is if not for Fiennes. Here, the normally sedate actor is given the opportunity to dance and cackle and spew all manner of motor-mouthed reminiscences, and with the exception of his M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel, I’m not sure Fiennes has ever before been so deliriously enjoyable on-screen. Watching him here, you grin with amazement until an unexpectedly volatile outburst slaps that grin right off your face – at which point the shock of the moment, and the reminder of Fiennes’ protean talents, gets you grinning all over again. In all honesty, I never expected Guadagnino’s outing to land a local booking. (Its current, and concurrent, engagement at Iowa City’s FilmScene is less of a surprise.) But if we can anticipate a few more art-house releases such as A Bigger Splash alongside the de rigueur big-budget product – especially if they’re of this film’s quality – our area’s summer-movie season is gonna start looking a lot more interesting.
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