X-Men: First Class (2011)

X-Men FirReleased: June 3, 2011. Directed by: Matthew Vaughn. Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence. Runtime: 132 min.

X-Men: First Class opens with what opened the original X-Men, but Matthew Vaughn adds his own stylish direction to it and extends the story. It introduces what motivates Erik Leshnerr (a.k.a. Magneto) and the main villain – Sebastian Shaw, portrayed by Kevin Bacon – from the get go. How Erik delves into her powers is through pain and anger, it’s shown through a heartbreaking sequence, mostly for Erik. I like it when a film gets right into the narrative. I think it compels from the opening scene – and it’s nice to see how Charles Xavier was good friends with Raven Darkholme (Mystique). 

The film then skips to 1962 after staying in 1944 for the opening fifteen minutes. The plot concerns Shaw, who is attempting to start World War 3 in 1962. Charles Xavier, and Leshnerr, team up with the CIA to stop the villains, and they recruit a few cool heroes in the process. I had only heard of Beast of the ones they recruit, but their powers are cool. I especially like Banshee’s (Caleb Landry Jones) sense of humour. Havoc (Lucas Till) is a bit of a total dick at times. The sequence where Xavier shows them how to control their powers is engaging and fun. Matthew Vaughn’s style and the excellent camerawork gives the film an extra fun layer, and engages one’s attention even more. 

I think setting this origins story in a very cool age is a smart choice, and Vaughn depicts the style of the age really well. It’s a sort-of Cold War/Cuban Missile Crisis film, and it seems to set up an imaginative way of how the Cuban Missile Crisis was started in this universe.The film’s also visually compelling. Prior to Days of Future Past, this is the franchise’s most engaging narrative thus far. It’s great to experience the chemistry shared between James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Leshnerr. Some of their clashes in opinions are heartbreaking, but necessary.

The two share a great scene together where Charles shows Erik to find out how to use his power – finding a balance between rage and serenity. What he does to show him how to do it is mesmerizing and emotionally charged. I seriously think it’s some of the strongest acting of the franchise shown in that simple scene. James McAvoy brings charm to his role, and a calm attitude; while Fassbender gives a sometimes chilling performance as Magneto. My favourite characterization for the film is for Mystique/Raven. She’s still coping with fitting in, as she has to use half of her concentration to stay beautiful all the time. It seems like a real struggle; because other mutants can hide and blend in easier than her and Hank McCoy, who has feet that are like an extra pair of hands. Nicholas Hoult (as McCoy) and Lawrence share strong scenes together. What Magneto says at one point about Mystique is thought-provoking: “How can society accept you, if you can’t accept yourself?” 

The only boring characterizations are for the CIA characters, largely Oliver Platt’s Man in Black Suit. Rose Byrne’s Moira gets decent characterization, but apparently humans are boring. I think Kevin Bacon is good as the big baddie Sebastian Shaw. He’s critical to Erik’s development. I like his power, but it’s also very lame when he can just flick someone and send them flying, because he absorbs so much energy. (He receives weird visuals at times, but weird in a good way.) At times, he is brilliant and super cool – and the introduction to his power is one of my favourite scenes. My favourite baddie in this film is Azazel – he is so cool. There’s a baddie called Riptide who is boring because I just saw him as a male Storm, and he doesn’t get an ounce of characterization. He’s dressed in a suit and he looks cool, but I don’t remember him having any dialogue other than nodding in agreement. At one point, I thought he might be an angel and Azazel a devil, and they might act those little dudes who show up on someone’s shoulder in a moral dilemma. Geddit? January Jones is awesome as Emma Frost.

One thing is certain: Matthew Vaughn handles his characters as well as Bryan Singer, and lightyears better than Brett Ratner or Gavin Hood. With the film’s great sense of humour and engaging atmosphere, Vaughn directs the franchise back to greatness – and helps re-invent it with a compelling story, too. There’s an endless amount of great sequences, even ones that aren’t primarily action-packed. This is my favourite film of the franchise and it features a great pace and a strong finish. The dazzling film has a musical score that complements the feature well, and it also has some great visual effects. At one point, the visual effects are mesmerizing discovery. They’re sometimes out-of-this world. I am just left astounded by the atmosphere Vaughn is able to create. This is how you make an origins story. 

Score: 90/100

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Neighbors (2014)

NeighborsReleased: May 4, 2014. Directed by: Nicholas Stoller. Starring: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron. Runtime: 96 min. 

Nicholas Stoller, a graduate of the so-called Apatow school of comedy, directs Neighbors, a film that is uncharacteristically short for Apatow’s brand of filmmaking. In this way, Stoller makes this film his own. The film follows a couple, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), who are severely bored, and are experiencing arrested development because of their extremely amusing new-born baby Stella. Soon enough, some spice in their life moves in next door, but it’s keeping them up at night. It’s a frat house, led by a charismatic Zac Efron. When Mac “violates the circle of trust” (as Dave Franco puts it at an inconsistent Robert De Niro party – which is the joke) by calling the cops to file a noise complaint, the war is on – which consists of the family trying to get the frat to get enough strikes to get them out of the neighborhood, among other things.

The film has a quick pace and the falling-out is mildly realistic. Rogen and Efron bond initially – sharing joints (a Seth Rogen comedy essential), impressions of Batman, and even talk about getting walkie talkies – but Efron’s Teddy doesn’t like it when people break promises. He takes it as a form of extreme disrespect and an act of war. It could be perceived as a bit of a childish reason, but the war of comedy that ensues is insanely entertaining. And not to mention very funny. While some of the humour misses, like the frat repeatedly saying a line of dialogue (“Standing around with our dicks in our hands”) seems a bit nonsensical at the time and not that funny, but the accuracy rate of humour hitting is a good 90 per cent. 

For the comedy genre, that’s great – because there are so many comedies that are just not that funny these days. This is memorable and hilarious, and its raunchiness potent. So avoid seeing this one with your parents, boys and girls. Because, like Apatow, this director doesn’t fear to show the penis. The film’s raunchiness is apparent with a running joke that Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character’s penis is very large. McLovin is surprisingly under-utilized otherwise, and he’s literally just there for that running joke – which does get some big laughs. Though, that joke might come to you as a selling point to get you to see this film, or as an aspect to make you avoid this. A few comments on the visuals: The cinematography looks pure, which is nice for a comedy – and some of the visuals are interesting. The party scenes might be hard on the eyes because of all of the lights, but they’re still very fun. I was a fan of the set design and I was a personal fan of a “Carpe that f**king diem” pillow.

This is a funny movie to watch with a few friends. If you’re Under 25, you’ll really enjoy this – but anyone older, it all depends on your sense of humour. The film is evident that the older crowd still knows how to have fun with the younger crowd, shown through Rogen and Bryne. Rogen didn’t have to prove that with this film though, because we’ve already known it for awhile. Byrne holds her own incredibly well, and even though her character is awkward at times, it’s the point. With this and Get Him to the Greek (and Bridesmaids), she has proved again and again that she could find a lot of success as a comedic actress. She uses improvisation with everyone else well, and so does Zac Efron – whose funny performance is as much of a discovery role as Channing Tatum’s was in 21 Jump Street. Dave Franco is funny in his role. A newcomer named Jerrod Carmichael is funny in his role as Garf, a primary frat member. The only person who feels like a stranger to the chemistry of everyone else is Ike Barinholtz. It’s nice to see the MadTV alum (who does do a fun Mark Wahlberg impression), but it was hard for me to buy into the fact that he’s supposed to be best friends with Rogen’s character. He gets a laugh or two, but his role is only sporadically useful.

Some good characterization is found in the film. Some themes of the fear of the future and trying to make your mark in history is nice. It’s nice to see that this situation is actually mildly beneficial to both parties. When the film threatens to all gooey, it jumps back with raunchiness. It might annoy some, but it helps the film stay true to its conflict-filled plot and raunchy tone. 

Score88/100

Bridesmaids (2011)

BridesmaidsRelease Date: May 13, 2011Director: Paul FeigStars: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose ByrneRuntime: 125 min.

This film is usually very, very funny and features a breakout role from the charismatic Melissa McCarthy. However, I think it pans out like a traditional romantic comedy, with room for originality. Melissa McCarthy and other select characters really make the film. Honestly, I don’t like how McCarthy got so much recognition for this role. Let me explain. She’s hilarious in this, but I think this has restricted to her to dirty and crude roles in the cinema universe. She’s still hilarious, but I just wish she would be able to play more tame comedy roles, or not play such dirty characters, because she’s really quite pretty. She still is a great screen presence, but this type of character might get old really quickly. Anyway, it’s usually extremely funny, but I get bored when it’s not being funny. The main conflict between Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne’s characters becomes tedious to me. And that’s what drives the film, so that’s a problem… The runtime is just exhausting. I really think 50/50 should have received the Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards instead of this. I respect this for what it tries to be, and I do laugh a lot when I’m in the mood for it. I might re-watch it, take notes of when the funniest jokes are, and just watch those scenes.

Score69/100

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines

Release Date: March 29, 2013

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

Runtime: 140 min

When one thinks of an epic, they might think Titanic, Braveheart or maybe Avatar. Even though this doesn’t have huge sinking boats, large wars or stunning visual effects; this truly deserves to be called an epic.

Derek Cianfrance (of Blue Valentine fame) brings us an small-town epic called The Place Beyond the Pines; a thought-provoking and realistic tale of generational feuds, fathers and sons, and corruption. It’s set in the small town of Schenectady, New York, that follows two families over a period of fifteen years. It’s essentially a trilogy of tales, going from chapter to chapter.

Glanton is a stunt motorcycle rider who, after finding out he has a son named Jason, begins to rob banks as a way to provide for his son and his lover, Romina (Eva Mendes). He does with the assistance of his employer, an auto repair shop owner Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), and his superior motorcycle riding skills. His motivation for this is easy to understand as he wants to provide his son and he sees this as the best way fit. He’s a guy who has his priorities in order, even if it implies reckless behaviour and breaking the law time and time again.

Cross’s motivations are harder to comprehend. He’s an ambitious young cop who wants to make his way up in the police force in as little time as possible, as he’s following in his father’s footsteps. The corruption of the police force itself poses enticing decisions for the young rookie.

The strong third act is difficult to discuss without giving too much away, but there are a few things that can be said. It’s admirably carried by young, up and coming stars Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. Cohen plays a character that is an irritating kind-of Eminem-esque wannabe  but he is portrayed adequately and his character is essential to the film.

The third tale explores the idea of legacies and how one split-second decision can send incidental shockwaves through generations. It also explores fatherly influences in a beautiful way; which is a theme that is also highlighted with Glanton and Cross, where Cross has a father figure, and Glanton is the opposite. Corruption and personal gain is best explored in the middle act involving Bradley Cooper’s haunted character. Finally, the bond between fathers and sons and the lengths they’d go to in order to protect their young is very well explored. One of the most prominent themes is, though, is there are (usually) consequences for your actions, admirably said in the movie’s most memorable quote, “If you ride like lightning; you’re gonna crash like thunder.”

The epic crime drama shifts focus a lot, and since it is a trilogy of intertwining stories, it really feels like it could end at any point. In this way, it might work better as a book – but the narrative feels fresh. It’s still one of the lengthy film’s main faults, that the film feels like it’s just coming around the bend to its climax. Thankfully, the ambiguous and hopeful ending at the place beyond the pines is more than pleasing. Some of the characters’ motivations can be also hard to comprehend, but despite the movie’s faults, it’s engaging and it packs a mighty, emotional one-two punch.

The large and talented cast carries the movie extremely well. Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Rose Byrne, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan (Am I the only one who thinks he’ll, at least, be an Oscar nominee someday?), Bruce Greenwood and Emory Cohen are among the cast, and they help carry the film and they make one heck of an ensemble. The tatted-up Gosling is by far the best of them all. The movie’s at its most booming and usually the most intense when he’s on-screen. He is most deserving of an Oscar nomination, and his powerful performance will remain one of the year’s most memorable. His character is as great and as mysterious as The Driver in Drive, and his performance is as good, if not better; he better not be overlooked by the Academy this time around. Even when he isn’t on-screen, his impact and legacy is felt. Other than Cooper and Gosling, DeHaan and Mendelsohn are the most notable. The score is also very memorable; with Mike Patton’s “The Snow Angel” playing in the background of some of the movie’s strongest and most emotionally sweeping scenes. Who woulda thunk one tune could be so haunting, but filled with such poignancy?

Gosling’s tale is by the far the strongest act of the three, Cooper’s sandwiched between in terms of quality, and DeHaan’s is the weakest, but saved by a fantastic ending. With an epic and beautiful drama like this, “weak” is used lightly – because it is by no means a bad act. They all just happen to pale in comparison to the act where Glanton is the focus. The intense crime drama is riddled with great performances, impressive writing, amazing emotional moments; and no matter how much the film may shift focus from story to story, all in a very lengthy flick, it all intertwines admirably in the end and Cianfrance never loses sight of his stunning and beautiful vision.

88/100