Wednesday, October 12, 2016

New(ish) Releases: The Lobster (2015); X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Sure, the reviews are in Italian, but this
poster is one of the best ones I found that
conveys some sense of the "Wes Anderson
meets Franz Kafka" tone.
The Lobster (2015)

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

A rather brilliant, if often cold, piece of speculative, dystopian fiction.

Set at an unspecified time and place but one which seems not terribly far removed from our reality in the early 21st century, The Lobster follows David, a man whose wife is no longer with him. In this alternate world, adults are not allowed to be single. Instead, when their partner leaves through death or choice, the newly-single person is taken to a hotel where they are given forty-five days to find a new mate among the other single people at the hotel. If they are unable to find a mate, they will be turned into an animal of their own choosing.

If that description sounds strange, then it should. And there are plenty of other details that emerge about the bizarre world of the film that add to the unnerving oddity of it all. David, played by Colin Farrell, is an empathetic if mostly pathetic protagonist, who trudges along the pathways laid out by society. That is, until desperation leads him down a far more dangerous path. Seeing him try to negotiate his very limited and thoroughly unappealing options can be compelling, if ultimately depressing in nearly every way.

There is humor that runs throughout nearly the entire picture, although it is of an extremely dry and dark strain of comedy. The tone and crisp, careful cinematography of the movie put me in mind of several of Stanley Kubrick's films, in particular A Clockwork Orange, another terrifying dystopian story that has its own disturbing humor and internal logic. Like A Clockwork Orange, the overarching theme of The Lobster is society's control over individuals, although the latter focuses on romantic relationships between individuals, rather than looking at aberrant, violent criminal behavior. For this reason, The Lobster has far more intellectual food for thought to offer a larger audience, even if that audience will have to put in some serious mental energy to get beyond the strangeness of the proceedings. Imagine if Wes Anderson did a film adaptation of a Franz Kafka tale, and you get some idea. This is not to say that the movie is without a soul - it most certainly has it. But by the very nature of the film's themes, it must only give it out in very brief, small portions.

The denizens of the hotel go out for their daily hunting
expedition. What they are hunting and why is one of the many
darkly humorous and outlandish elements of the story.
The technical aspects of this movie are incredible. The cinematography captures the sad beauty of the settings and costumes perfectly, and the acting is pitch-perfect. Colin Farrell once again shows that he is far more than just a pretty face, as he plays the sad sack David wonderfully. Rachel Weisz is also her typically strong self, as are all of the other actors, minor and major alike. While the film's mood never asks the actors to emote very much, completely by design, the cast is able to add the subtle layers necessary to prevent the entire affair from coming off like robots on film.

This is a difficult movie to widely recommend. I found it quite fascinating, and well worth watching the one time. I am unlikely to watch it again, but I think that viewers who are unafraid of challenging movies that appeal far more to logos rather than pathos would find a lot in it. Whether I ever watch it again or not, The Lobster is certainly one of a kind, and a film that is extremely well-crafted.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Director: Bryan Singer

Despite being aware of the poor reviews, I was stunned at how weak this X-Men movie was, given who was at the helm and the resources he was working with.

Not long ago, I did a complete rundown of the primary X-Men movies, with a separate review of Days of Future Past. My takeaway is that, of the seven X-Men movies released before Apocalypse, there were three really good movies, two decent ones, and two really bad ones. Considering that Brian Singer had directed the three best (and one of the decent) movies in the series, I was confident that the recent entry would be solid. Yet somehow, Singer tumbled into a couple of the major pitfalls that he had skillfully avoided prior to Apocalypse.

Continuing with the retracing of the steps of the X-Men which was begun with First Class, Apocalypse picks up in 1983 - nearly ten years after the events of Days of Future Past. Mystique is a rogue who protects victimized mutants, and Magneto is off the grid, living the quiet life of a family man in Poland, under an alias. Charles Xavier's school in New York is thriving, with dozens of young mutants receiving an education while learning how to use their superhuman abilities. Meanwhile, in the middle of Egypt, a ancient mutant named En Sabah Nur is awakened after being buried for thousands of years. En Sabah Nur, also known as Apocalypse, is a virtually-immortal mutant who is able to transfer his consciousness into other mutants, not only avoiding death but also absorbing their abilities. He is also convinced that he is meant to rule the entire world, and goes about seeing this vision become a reality immediately after he is awakened in 1983. To this end, he starts to dominate and recruit powerful mutants, including Magneto and other faces familiar to fans of the X-Men comic books from decades past.

While the movie does boast a few good scenes and strong performances by its highly formidable cast, there are too many messy or sloppy elements. Apocalypse himself is yet another one-dimensional comic book villain with plans for world domination. And there is quite literally nothing else we ever learn about his motivations beyond this. This is what made Days of Future Past so strong - even the adversaries like Bolivar Trask and ultimately Magneto had motivations that were complex and provided some real drama. Using another megalomaniac as the arch enemy in the sequel film simply feels like a step backwards, as it merely served as an excuse for one battle scene after another. I can appreciate well-done fight sequences in this type of movie, but there is always a saturation point. Apocalypse hit mine by the midway point of the movie, which isn't good with a film that clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours. Such tedium probably wouldn't have set in had the action scenes shown a little more creativity, but they didn't. Case in point is the Quicksilver scene, in which his power is on display in order to save the students at Xavier's Academy. It's somewhat fun, but it's really just a lengthier retread of the same visual effect which was so much fun in the previous movie, during Magneto's breakout of the Pentagon. What was novel and entertaining the first time felt a little bit like the writers had run out of new ideas in the follow-up movie.

Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and Cyclops. Just three of way too
many "newcomers" who have long histories within the X-Men
mythology. In trying to give nearly all of them their moments,
the movie ultimately fails to give any of them any truly
meaningful ones. Or any worhtwhile depth, for that matter.
And then there is the fault that was one of the most glaring with X-Men 3 back in 2006 - character overload. I can only guess at how Singer allowed this to happen, as he so carefully avoided it in the previous movie. In Days of Future Past, despite including a couple dozen mutant characters, the movie felt tight thanks to its focus on only three or four of the stongest ones. Unfortunately, no such focus occurs in Apocalypse, where we constantly jump from one character to another, with no one's deeper stories teased out or elaborated upon.

I try never to be so arrogant to believe that I could come up with a better movie than the actual professionals, but I can't help it with this movie. I can't shake the feeling that this movie would have been far better served if it spent more time telling the back story of En Sabah Nur - about how his powers gradually increased and why he decided that he was fit to dominate the entire world. From that, a slower build of the threat and menace of Apocalypse would likely have had much greater impact. Instead, we get a tale that felt rushed and jammed with far too many characters to care enough about any of them, particularly the newcomers to the reboot trilogy.

I must remind everyone (including myself) that Apocalypse does have some fun ideas and solid sequences in it. For fans of the series, it is worth checking out, to be sure. I would simply caution anyone who saw and liked the previous two films to keep a tight rein on your expectations. I found Apocalypse to easily be the weakest of the reboot trilogy, and ultimately a missed opportunity that wasted, if not exactly all, then many of its vast resources.