Tag Archives: Oscar Isaac

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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X-Men: Apocalypse is Fox’s answer to Warner Bros’ Batman v Superman and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Like those blockbusters, it’s also an action- and effects-packed event film stacked with superheroes, stars and extremely high stakes. I loved First Class and Days of Future Past, the first two films in the McAvoy-Fassbender reboot, and so I was really looking forward to Apocalypse, with the brilliant Oscar Isaac as the titular mutant villain with powers unlike anything we’ve seen before.

But for whatever reason, the hype surrounding Apocalpyse just prior to its release has been surprisingly subdued. It might be that audiences are finally starting to suffer from superhero fatigue, or perhaps it’s the lukewarm early reviews it has received from some critics. There are claims that it’s boring, underwhelming and lacks logic, and I’ve even come across accusations of Jennifer Lawrence phoning it in with her performance as shapeshifter Mystique.

Well, I have no idea what all these critics are talking about, because I just watched it and thought it was awesome. I don’t know if it’s because of lowered expectations, but Apocalypse was nearly everything I had hoped it would be. Amazing cast, solid action, just enough drama and humour, and a fantastic villain worthy of the film’s title. It’s almost as though I watched a different version of the movie.

The plot is of course very simple. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), possibly the most badass mutant in history, awakes from his slumber in the 1980s and decides to…er…bring about the apocalypse on Earth. But first he goes about landing his Four Horsemen, and you’ll know who they are if you’ve seen the posters and/or trailer. I know what you’re thinking — why would someone as powerful as Apocalpyse even need minions? The film doesn’t spell it out, but I thought the reason was obvious.

Who can stop him? The X-Men, of course. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now running his school for gifted kids like it’s Hogwarts, with Hank McCoy, aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult), by his side. Meanwhile, Mystique, kind of a hero among mutants since the events of Days of Future Past, is still out there doing her thing, while antihero Erik Lennsher, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), has moved on with his life.

The film also introduces (in some cases re-introduces) us to younger versions of familiar names, like Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Also returning to reprise their roles are Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert and Evan Peters as Quicksilver. Additionally, there’s a nice little extended cameo that’s unfortunately been spoiled by the final trailer.

First of all, I want to discuss the character  of Apocalypse. Yes, he is cliched in that he’s an all-powerful villain hell bent on destroying the world for some reason. But honestly, with a name like that, what else could he have been without diverting too far from the comics? If you accept that the constraints of the character are unavoidable, everything else about him is awesome.

For all the negativity of when the photos of Apocalpyse were “leaked” more than a year ago, I thought he actually looked pretty good for a blue skinned villain. I’m glad they went the prosthetics route rather than CGI, giving him a sense of realism the character badly needed. The voice, added and modified in post-production, is also really cool (it’s hard to explain, just have to listen for yourself).

Apocalpyse’s assortment of powers is also impressive, and we at least get to know why he is as powerful as he is. I think the film gets it right in terms of just how powerful and invincible he is. He needs to be powerful enough to be intimidating and more formidable than anything we’ve seen in the past, but not so omnipotent that it becomes silly or ridiculous in the sense that the good guys still have to be able to stop him somehow in the end.

And what really elevates Apocalypse above just another cliched villain is the marvellous performance of Oscar Isaac. Despite being covered head to toe in heavy make-up and prosthetics, he carries the character with the right amount of menace, persuasiveness and god-like mentality. I’m sure the character would have been much less convincing without an actor of Isaac’s calibre and gravitas.

As for the other performances, first prize goes to Assbender. This dude always brings it, and once again he makes Magneto the most interesting character in the X-Men universe. He was bending asses left and right like he was bending metal. As with other X-Men films, it’s an ensemble cast with no real main lead, but in this one Magneto provides the emotional core in the same way Mystique did in Days of Future Past. His counterpart, McAvoy, also brought it as Professor X, and I was glad to see him contribute to some of the lighter moments of the movie, especially in his interactions with Rose Byrne. And I also found no fault with Jennifer Lawrence whatsoever. Sure, she’s not going to be winning any Oscars as Mystique, but I really couldn’t tell why her performance justified complaint. She wasn’t even in her blue makeup very much in this one. Take away her flatter delivery on a couple of the cheesier lines and she’s as good as she’s always been in this franchise.

Kudos to the kids who play the younger versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler too. Cyclops has always drawn the short straw in these X-Men movies, so it’s good to finally see him get a bit of an origins story and a much-needed personality. I’ve always thought of Tye Sheridan as a potential star, and hopefully he can continue as the future leader of the X-Men if they continue to make further entries in this franchise. Sophie Turner has a pivotal role as Jean Grey and she seems to have brought that Sansa Stark vulnerability and hidden strength along with her to this role. Kodi Smit-McPhee is also a standout, making Nightcrawler one of the most likable characters in the movie.

The one who steals the show again is Evan Peter’s Quicksilver, who has another fantastic super-speed sequence and delivers the best comic relief in the same way that Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) did in Civil War. Speaking of Civil WarApocalypse also does a similarly good job of spreading the love between the characters so that everyone gets enough screen time and their own chance to shine. Ensemble movies like these are like giant puzzles with lots of moving pieces, and director Bryan Singer nails the complex task impressively.

Having said that, Apocalypse is by no means a perfect movie. While Apocalypse may have reasonable motives for his actions, it’s not as apparent with his Four Horsemen. Other than Magneto, their reasons for following a villain determined to destroy the world are rather weak, especially Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who looks great in her skimpy outfit but doesn’t get to do a whole lot to develop her character. In fact, we have almost no idea who she is or what she’s about.

The action sequences as a whole are fine, though I felt the fight scenes could have been a little more creative. Nonetheless, it’s still better than what we got in Batman v Superman. The climatic battle at the end is long and well-executed. While it’s not in the same league as Civil War’s “airport scene”, it does make good use of the characters and their respective powers. Unfortunately, I did find all the destruction a little numbing and lacking in spectacle. If you’ve seen the planet get annihilated once, you seen it thousand times, and in this regard Apocalypse does not offer any new intrigue or perspective. One reason could be because we hardly even see any humans in the movie. Although we’re talking about the end of the whole world, the stakes appear to only involve the mutants, and all the human deaths (and there are a lot of them) aren’t made to feel like they matter at all.

The special effects are generally good enough, though there are some moments — particular the wide angle shots of landscapes from afar — look too CGI-ish. I also wasn’t a fan of the video-game quality of the opening sequence.

I also thought the movie had a good dose of comedy — many tongue-in-cheek and self-referential — notwithstanding some very heavy scenes, but I felt some of the transitions between the different tones could have been smoother.

Lastly, the 144-minute running time is long, but the storytelling is tight enough to not make the film drag. Could it have been shorter? Of course. But it’s not a huge problem because the pacing is sound and the narrative isn’t all over the place like that other superhero movie released earlier this year (cough, BvS, cough).

In all, X-Men: Apocalypse is a really enjoyable and satisfying experience that should set the blueprint for Marvel’s Infinity Wars in that it will also be about a bunch of superheroes with different powers teaming up to take on a single supervillain (ie, Thanos). I’ll have to watch First Class and Days of Future Past again, but at the moment I would rank Apocalypse just behind those two, which from memory had stronger plots, more of a “wow” factor and the advantage of freshness. However, in the scheme of all X-Men movies (there are nine if you include Deadpool and two Wolverine movies), Apocalypse is definitely in the top 5 for me, possibly even higher.

4 stars out of 5

PS: There is a post-credits scene, but without any knowledge of the comics it doesn’t really mean anything to me.

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

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In the superhero era, sci-fi movies these days are bigger, louder and more special-effected (is that a word?), and so I was really looking forward to Ex Machina, the low-budget (US$15 million) directorial debut of career screenwriter Alex Garland, best known for penning the scripts to sci-fi semi-classics like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go (and he wrote the novel The Beach, which was made into that movie with Leo DiCaprio and Virginie Ledoyen).

The film received an avalanche of hype as early as last year, and I’m glad to say it does not disappoint. As a pure sci-fi story that goes back to the roots of the genre, Ex Machina delivers. Despite very little action and a deliberately mellow pace, the film is gripping, thought-provoking, tense and claustrophobic all the way through.

Without giving too much away, the film begins with a young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) from the world’s largest search engine company, Bluebook (basically Google), winning a contest to meet the company’s enigmatic billionaire CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who lives in a secluded research facility that requires a helicopter to access. Nathan invites Caleb to participate in an experiment involving his latest creation, a beautiful humanoid android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). It’s Caleb’s task, through conversations and observation, to judge whether Ava has consciousness, or whether she’s just simulating consciousness. And so begins an intriguing series of “sessions” between Caleb and Ava as Nathan looks on through surveillance video.

As you would expect, things are not as simple as they appear, and soon Caleb finds himself with a lot of unanswered questions. There are mini twists and turns galore, with Caleb growing more paranoid about both Ava and Nathan, and eventually, himself. Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying? Who’s playing whom? It’s one of those films where you never stop questioning the characters’ motives and what they are trying to achieve, and it’s this mystery that provides the strong pulse to the heart of the tale. It helps that it’s not a hackneyed plot that relies on one massive twist to shock audiences — this is a fascinating sci-fi story from start to finish.

In typical classic sci-fi fashion, there is a surrealistic feel to the experience that is almost dreamlike. The high-tech facility where the bulk of the film is set is grey and sombre, and the windowless walls seem as though they are closing in on Caleb as his paranoia and claustrophobia grows. The facility is juxtaposed nicely with the outdoor scenery the characters occasionally escape to, providing a technology vs nature dichotomy that plays into the film’s layered themes.

The film would not be what it is without the spectacular performance of Alicia Vikander, a Swedish actress whom I had only seen once prior, in the disappointing Seventh SonVikander is a perfect blend of beauty, sexuality and grace, and her dancing background really helped provide the right mix of human and robot to Ava. You believe what she is — a highly intelligent robot who could easily be mistaken for an attractive human but for the see-through limbs and mid-section. Everything about her performance, from the way she moved to the facial expressions and even the way she spoke contributed to making Ava so authentic that she bordered on creepy. Most importantly, she makes you believe in Caleb’s reactions to her. Vikander’s going to be a star, no doubt about it.

Oscar Issac also impresses as Nathan, a genius with demons to exorcise. After seeing him shine in Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January and A Most Violent Year, I knew this was going to be the case. Isaac is a chameleon capable of playing anyone, and the intensity he brings to Nathan elevates the character into more than it should have been. Can’t wait to see him in the new Star Wars film at the end of the year.

By contrast, Gleeson is the weakest link. He’s pretty good as Caleb — just not as eye-catching as the other two — though I suspect the burden of suppressing his Irish accent in favour of an American one affected his performance to some degree. Interestingly, the first time I saw Gleeson was in an episode of Black Mirror, the brilliant Charlie Brooker sci-fi series, where he played a life-like android himself. That was a phenomenal story with parallels to this one, and I’d recommend fans of the movie to check out the “Be Right Back” episode of Black Mirror if they haven’t already.

Ex Machina does have a few holes in it as the story veers towards its tense conclusion, a problem common to even the best sci-fi films, though on the whole it’s hard to ask for much more from Garland in his directorial debut. It’s also a fine film from an aesthetics perspective; the special effects are used sparingly but effectively — mostly on Ava’s semi-transparent body — and the cinematography does a solid job of balancing the emotional and visual aspects. This is a fable that will make you think about the inevitable fallibility of human nature and the future of technology, especially in an age when artificial intelligence is making it difficult to distinguish sci-fi from reality. Even Stephen Hawking said recently that he believes “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Now think about that.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

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Now that the Oscars are over I’m going to continue my movie reviews with a huge snub. For whatever reason, the critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year was not even on any radars this Oscars season, which is strange considering it features so many critic-pleasing characteristics — a unique premise, moral quandaries, superb performances, gripping drama, crafty action, and that solemn, Oscar-bait feel of a top-class production.

Written and directed by JC Chandor (previously best known for Margin Call), A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, widely regarded as one of New York’s most violent years. Oscar Isaac (Finding Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January) is Abel Morales, the seemingly upright owner of a heating oil company on the verge of a major breakthrough. But when his oil trucks begin to get hijacked, making him to lose not just money but also precious reputation, Abel finds himself being painted into a corner and forced to take drastic action. At the same time, a local assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) begins to target Abel for alleged anti-competitive practices and tax evasion.

A Most Violent Year, despite its name, is not a particularly violent movie by today’s standards. What it lacks in violence, the film makes up in tension, atmosphere and style, though the presentation is grounded firmly in reality. In an age where protagonists are typically remarkable people with otherworldly skills, experiences or attributes, Abel is portrayed as an ordinary man with real fears and emotions like you and me. Unlike typical modern crime thrillers, are no criminal masterminds in this film, no outrageous coincidences, no expert marksmen or world-class racing car drivers in getaway cars.

And yet, rather than coming across as dull, the film becomes actually more compelling because it enables us to genuinely sympathise and empathise with the characters and their predicaments. Overexposure to onscreen surrealism has made most of us numb, so it’s refreshing to be reminded that, hey, guns are scary; dealing with mafia people is scary; burglars are scary; police looking into your business — even if it’s perfectly legitimate — is scary.

None of this would have been possible, of course, without Chandor’s skilful direction and script, which prove that he is a filmmaker who has clearly studied the classic works of the genre and the techniques of the masters. Rather than loud and shaky, the action sequences are smooth, slick and suspenseful, notwithstanding the lack of explosions and rapid cuts. Rather than pretentious and dull, the silences and lingering shots actually have meaning.

The other key element is the central performance by Isaac, who is destined for stardom and will apparently appear in the next Star Wars movies. He’s a tremendous talent who deserved recognition for this controlled and charismatic performance where anger, desperation and fear are all delivered with nuance and subtlety. It’s perhaps not a stretch to say he channels a young Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone.

All of the supporting actors are very good too, especially Jessica Chastain as Abel’s astute wife, whose father is implied as not being the most upstanding citizen. David Oyelowo, who got a whole lot of attention at the Oscars ceremony for his Selma snub, is also solid, as are Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and Elyes Gabel as one of Abel’s troubled employees.

I will readily admit that it is not a film for most modern average movie-goers, who tend to expect a lot of things to happen on the screen at all times. A Most Violent Year has a deliberately measured pace I would have found slow in my youth, and it adopts a “less in more” mentality in its execution some might find dull. While it is undeniably interesting, I would not be surprised if others wonder what the fuss is all about.

This is a ultimately story about a good man trying to survive in a corrupt world, and having to make some very difficult choices and compromises along the way. Gritty and brooding, and powered by Chandor’s self-assured approach, A Most Violent Year harks back to crime classics like Goodfellas, Heat and even The Godfather. It’s of course not quite on the level of those epics, but it is still a classy, well-executed film that commands your attention and respect.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Two Faces of January (2014)

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First the mirror, now January. Seems like everyone has two faces these days.

The Two Faces of January is an intriguing and elegant thriller set in the early 1960s featuring an A-list cast. It’s based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mrs Ripley), about a young con man (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis) working as a tour guide in Athens who gets involved with a seemingly wealthy American tourist (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst).

It’s one of those classy yet twisted tales where interesting and complex characters who are not who they seem keep falling deeper and deeper and into a mess they can’t get out of. The fun comes from not knowing who is telling the truth and who is ultimately playing whom. There are twists and turns galore, but the progression of the narrative is subtle and deliberately low-key. Rather than a series of ups and downs, the film begins on low heat and gradually simmers all the way to the end without ever boiling over.

All three leads are phenomenal, as you would expect. Viggo, in particular, always one of my fave actors, shows again why he perhaps the most versatile and underrated performer of his generation.

The confident, controlled direction of debut director Hossein Amini, who also wrote the screenplay, is enviably stylish, creating a constant sense of tension and paranoia that’s hard to shake. Amini also wrote the screenplay for Drive, one of the slickest films of 2011, and the talents he demonstrated in that adaptation are in full bloom here.

The problem with the Two Faces of January, however, is that despite its look and feel of a top-shelf, A-grade thriller, the film’s story doesn’t quite live up to everything else. When you boil it down, the plot is actually quite mediocre and over-reliant on coincidences, resulting in a limp payoff that disappoints following the spectacular set-up. It’s one of those films that comes across as much better than it really is, and the more you think about it the less impressive it becomes.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the build up a lot and have feeling that Amini will go on to bigger and better projects. While it may fall short of potential, I’d still recommend The Two Faces of January for those with a taste for old-fashioned, character-driven thrillers.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

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My love for the Cohen brothers is profound. They may have had some misses over the years, but when they hit the mark the sky’s the limit. Their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, a comedy drama about a struggling folk singer, is not a miss, but it’s not quite a spectacular hit either. It features some of that trademark Cohens quirky humour that I love and plenty of wonderful music, but the story itself is not quite engrossing enough to keep me drawn in for the entire 105-minute running time.

Set in New York in the 1960s, Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is not doing too well. We can tell from the opening scenes that he’s a pretty good signer, but his solo album, which shares the same name as the film, isn’t selling, and he is forced to sleep on the couch of a friend’s family. He’s not a horrible guy but he’s not exactly likable either and often comes across as a bit of a dick who’s not afraid to speak his mind regardless of how offensive his words  may be.

It’s a bit of a meandering film with no real direction, one that follows Davis around for a week as he tries to land gigs and score performances to earn himself some dough. We see him looking after a ginger cat, get hassled by his casual girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) and taking a road trip with some interesting people. His personal life is in a complete mess and his relationships are all over the place, and his existence is more or less one misadventure after another, and the majority of them are his fault. It’s not exactly a riveting plot, and at times I wondered what the heck it was trying to say, or whether it was trying to say anything at all.

And no, it’s not one of those poignant dramas either. There’s no touching message about life or underlying beauty. It’s just Davis being who he is, for better or worse, battling to survive in a tough industry where artists often find themselves making compromises to make ends meet. I actually prefer that, though I wish there was more of a focus and a proper story to tell.

The strength of the film lies in the offbeat comedy that the Coens are masters of, and much of it comes from the sharp conversations between Davis and the people in his life. There are plenty of witty and dumbfounding lines that elicited chuckles from me throughout the movie, though not many huge belly laughs like the ones I got in Fargo.

I had never heard of Oscar Isaac before but he’s terrific in this — both his acting and his singing. And I had no idea that there were so many big names in supporting roles, from the aforementioned Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F Murray Abraham, Max Casella (Doogie Howser’s buddy!) and Girls‘ Adam Driver. All of them stand out in their own way, especially Mulligan, whom I didn’t think much of before but was thoroughly impressed with here as the straight-shooting and ball-busting ex. She was very funny.

In the end, I don’t really know what to think of Inside Llewyn Davis. I enjoyed this finely crafted film and found it highly amusing, no doubt, and I also surprisingly liked the music a lot. But at the same I was a little disappointed with it and wished I could have liked it more. It’s a strange experience that will probably polarize viewers, but if push comes to shove I would probably still recommend it, especially to people who enjoy a good Coen brothers project.

3.5 stars out of 5