Call Me By Your Name

The sexual tension between Hammer and Chalamet is palpable.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso, André Aciman, Peter Spears. Directed by Luca Guadagnino


Under the languid heat of the summer sun in Tuscany, sexuality can be awakened, bestirred or even changed. All things are possible in an idyllic location like that.

Elio (Chalamet) is the 17-year-old prodigal son of an archaeologist/professor dad (Stuhlbarg) living and working in Tuscany with Elio’s German mother (Casar). Into the household comes Oliver (Hammer), a grad student interning with Elio’s dad. At first Elio is a bit testy to the new arrival; after all, Oliver is staying in Elio’s bedroom while Elio is exiled to the adjoining bedroom with a bathroom shared between them.

Elio is a talented pianist and composer with quite a future ahead of him. He is a bit standoffish as talented teens who know they are talented can be. There is a neighboring French girl (Garrel) who would dearly like to be Elio’s girlfriend and Elio isn’t particularly averse to the idea as he is dealing with raging hormones and desires.

As the summer wears on, it becomes clear that Elio is heavily attracted to Oliver – and Oliver is attracted right back. Eventually as the two circle each other warily their orbits eventually intersect and Elio’s sexual urges – gratified first by a ripe peach (don’t ask) and then by Marzia his French girlfriend, find explosive root in this newcomer. The two have a hard time (no pun intended) keeping their hands off each other (as well as other appendages). For Elio, this is truly first love with all the joy and heartache that it entails. Every summer, after all, eventually comes to an end.

A lot of critics have been singing the praises for this film and for some very good reasons but I must caution readers that while there are a lot of things to like about this movie, there are plenty of flaws as well. I like how evocative of time and place the movie is; you can almost feel the heat steaming from the screen on a hot summer’s day in Tuscany. You can feel the 80s vibe in a realistic way – many films set during this era seem to be of the idea that everyone sported Flock of Seagulls hair. Guadagnino got the fashions right without going overboard with the excesses of the era.

>He also did a masterful job of casting. In all the main roles exactly the right actor inhabits them. Chalamet delivers a performance that deservedly got an Oscar nomination and while he didn’t win, had he not been nominated in a year of Gary Oldman’s superlative performance in Darkest Hour I think he might have had a shot at it.

The reason Chalamet’s performance is so praise-worthy is that it is so layered. Elio has the arrogance of youth and the uncertainty of the inexperienced; he can be stand-offish but he deeply desires love. He has a high sex drive but he wants affection, both received and given. If this performance is any indication, he could be the next Daniel Day-Lewis but a note of caution; he has been anointed a once-in-a-generation performer by certain hysterical magazine writers basically off of one or two outstanding performers; let’s see how he does for consistency over the next five years or so before we begin throwing those sorts of superlatives around shall we?

Chalamet has some wonderful actors to play off of. Hammer is of course ruggedly handsome and has that preppy accent which stands him in good stead here. He has the right combination of worldliness and naiveté that makes the character such a perfect foil for Elio. The chemistry between Hammer and Chalamet is blazing hot and the relationship is never anything but genuine for a single moment.

Stuhlbarg who has acted in a number of prestige films this year outdoes himself in the almost too-good-to-be-true father. He has one scene with Chalamet in which he surprisingly gives his son his tacit approval and explains his own regret for not following his own feelings in a similar situation. It’s a terrific scene and if it is more of a fantasy coming out for a lot of gay men whose own experiences are/were somewhat different it can be at least understood.

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom turns in a lovely print with colors that pop off the screen and capturing perfectly the season (also in the coda which takes place on a snowy day) and the place. It’s a beautiful film to watch. Iconic screenwriter James Ivory who back in the day was one of the great art film directors of his time, shows that even at 89 he still has a great ear for dialogue.

As I said, though, the film is flawed. It runs almost two and a quarter hours and towards the end of the movie one gets the sense that Guadagnino didn’t quite know how to end th film, although the ending itself is beautiful and bittersweet – it comes after a series of false stops. Also, while I’m not squeamish about sex scenes – even explicit ones – it just seemed that there were too many of them. After awhile it came off as almost gratuitous. We get the sense that there is sexual heat between the two and that Elio is nearly insatiable sexually; it’s just ramming us over the head with it after awhile. A good twenty minutes of film time could have been cut with excessive sex scenes as well as a few extraneous scenes as well.

Some have said that this is this decade’s Brokeback Mountain and there is some truth to that. Certainly a gay romance has rarely been portrayed so beautifully and so naturally onscreen, particularly in a film of this importance. Gay or straight, we’ve all been through first loves (let’s hope) in our lives and there’s no doubt this film evokes the feelings of that bittersweet experience for all of us. I wish the director had been a little bit less lenient at the editing bay but regardless of that this is an important and beautiful movie.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Chalamet, Hammer and Stuhlbarg are all exceptional. The cinematography Is beautiful, evoking lazy summer days in northern Italy. The ending is lovely albeit bittersweet.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie went on way too long. The sex scenes became gratuitous after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sexual content, some nudity and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sufjan Stevens was asked to write one new song for the film but was inspired to write two. He was also asked to re-record “Futile Devices” from his mostly electronic The Age of Adz album with a piano and vocals arrangement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
Killing Jesus


Atomic Blonde

This is what a femme fatale looks like.

(2017) Action (Focus) Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Roland Møller, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgård, Sam Hargrave, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa, Attila Arpa, Martin Angerbauer, Lili Gessler, Declan Hannigan, Daniel Bernhardt, Sara Natasa Szonda. Directed by David Leitch


Hitchcock famously had a thing about icy blondes; along comes a film that may have the best one yet. For one thing, Charlize Theron isn’t just a master manipulator – she can kick quantum ass. Here, set to a pulsing and throbbing soundtrack and a cornucopia of mayhem she becomes the coolest and sexiest assassin of them all – drinking, smoking and seducing her way to Bond’s title.

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI-6 agent in Berlin days before the Wall fell in November 1989 to retrieve a list of double agents that, should the Soviets get their hands on it, would mean the end of a goodly number of high-value assets, to use spy film terminology. Broughton, who also has an agenda of her own, is assisted by the none-too-trustworthy station chief who in the dry words of her MI-6 handler (Jones) “has gone native.” Basically she goes looking for the list and every step of the way she gets attacked by goons and beats the snot out of them while getting her share of lumps as well.

There are some amazing action sequences here, particularly one set in an abandoned apartment building that is as brutal and as realistic a fight as you’re ever going to see. Lorraine dishes out the pain but gets her own share of it as well and even though this is set up in many ways as a distaff Bond film, this feels more in tune with the real world. The soundtrack of mainly Euro-New Wave (heavy on the Depeche Mode, Nena and Siouxsie and the Banshees) will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was young during that era i.e. people my age.

The film, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City gets more convoluted as the film wears on but the pace is always frenetic and you’re never more than two or three minutes away from another breathtaking action scene. 2017 has been the year of the renaissance of action movies (and of horror movies as well but that’s for another review) and this one is right up there among the best of a year that brought us Baby Driver, Logan Lucky and The Hitman’s Bodyguard among others. That’s some fine company to be included in.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are stunning. The 80s soundtrack is perfectly matched to the action. Theron takes an unforgettable character and runs with it. As spy films go, this one is much more realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot gets a bit convoluted and the ending is not unexpected.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and violence as well as some graphic sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Charlize Theron cracked two teeth during the course of filming the action sequences for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Verizon, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
The Shape of Water


Me…and my shaaa-dow…

(2017) Documentary (Film Movement) Richard Hambleton, Paul DiRienzo, Richard Hell, Andy Valmorbida, Michael Carter, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, Keegan Hamilton, Nimo Librizzi, Robert Hawkins, Bob Murphy, Rick Librizzi, Robin Cimbalest, Mette Hansen, John Woodward, Michaael Okolokulak, Carlo McCormick, Anne Hanavan, Kristine Woodward, Phoebe Hobah. Directed by Oren Jacoby


An old boxing adage is the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In some ways, that also applies to art. The underground art scene of the 1980s in New York City was dominated by three figures; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton. Only one of them would live beyond the age of thirty.

Hambleton made a name for himself with the Image Mass Murderer series in a variety of cities including his native Vancouver – chalk outlines of human figures spattered with red paint looking disquietingly like blood. While the local gendarmes were less than thrilled by the street art (this before it was even called street art) the art world did stand up and take notice. Hambleton ended up in New York City where he became famous for his Shadowman series; human figures painted in black in unexpected places designed to startle people as much as possible. These paintings popped up everywhere through New York which at the time was in the midst of severe decay and neglect. Hambleton – young, leonine handsome and self-assured – and Downtown were made for each other.

But like most things it didn’t last and the fame and ready availability of drugs got to Hambleton. He would drop out of sight for twenty years, resurfacing in 2009 when a pair of gallery owners named Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida teamed up with Giorgio Armani to present an exhibition of his work. We see the difficulty in working with the obstinate Hambleton, by now beset by scoliosis and skin cancer, his face deformed and living one step away from the streets, almost obsessive compulsively painting over and over again, unwilling to finish his works.

During his time away from the spotlight, Hambleton lived in squalid squats and rat-infested storage facilities, using money he received for whatever work he could eke out for heroin. The ravages of the drug use and excess are readily apparent from viewing his more recent interviews. While those few friends who stood by him admit that he was victimized often by unscrupulous art dealers, he was also his own worst enemy and we can see that in his interactions, often passive-aggressive with the two art gallery owners trying to help him return to where they felt he deserved to be.

Hambleton took an interest in seascapes, painting amazing works of waves crashing on the shore which were patently out of favor at the time he painted them. As he wryly put it, “I could have made Shadowman bobble-head dolls and made a million dollars” and he isn’t far wrong. As Wall Street discovered Downtown, branding began to creep into the art world as insidiously as it did everything else. In retrospect Hambleton was a modern day Quixote, tilting at windmills that often savagely tilted right back.

In many ways it’s a heartbreaking viewing. The footage of Hambleton in the 80s and now are night and day; the degree of how far he had fallen pitifully obvious. For one so talented and so innovative, it’s hard to watch in a lot of ways but one can take comfort in that he lived essentially the way he chose to, even if those choices were bad ones. Not all of us get to say that.

REASONS TO GO: The artwork is thought-provoking and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit dry and occasionally too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as copious drug use and smoking and also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hambleton passed away October 29, 2017 as a result of skin cancer he refused to have treated. He lived long enough to see the film’s debut at Tribeca.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
Aida’s Secrets

It (2017)

A young boy is about to float forever.

(2017) Horror (New Line) Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Mollie Jane Atkinson, Steven Williams, Elizabeth Saunders. Directed by Andy Muschietti

Childhood can be a rough time, particularly that transitional time moving from childhood into the teenage years. As we go through that transition there are no instruction manuals, no online courses; we simply have to feel our way through. Of course, this transition is made all the more difficult when you and your friends are being stalked by a malevolent clown.

One rainy afternoon Georgie Denbrough (Scott) is playing with a toy boat his big brother Bill (Lieberher) made for him in the rain gutters near his home in Derry, Maine. Georgie idolizes his big brother and Bill loves his kid brother fiercely; unfortunately, Bill has a bad cold and can’t watch over his kid brother who loses his boat in a fast current that takes it down a storm drain. There dwells Pennywise (Skarsgård) the clown and there Georgie will meet a grisly end – but his body will never be found..

It’s summer and things are the same and different around Derry. Kids, like Georgie, are disappearing and while it is noticed, it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of urgency. That’s mainly because the adults in town are monsters just a shade below the level of Pennywise; Bill’s stutter has become even worse since Georgie disappeared and his father (Pounsett) Bill is pretty sure doesn’t think he can do anything right. Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer) has become a hypochondriac thanks to his hand-wringing overprotective mom.

Mike Hanlon (Jacobs) is queasy at the thought of killing the lambs his father provides to local grocery stores and butchers and Richie Tozier (Wolfhard) is as annoying as they come and swears like a sailor. Stanley Uris (Oleff) is terrified he’ll mess up at his upcoming bar mitzvah under the stern gaze of his rabbi father but worst of all is Beverly Marsh (Lillis) whose dad (Bogaert) is sexually abusing her. It’s really tough to be a kid in Derry.

But Bill has figured out that Pennywise, with his signature red balloons, is the culprit behind the disappearances, especially after new kid Ben Hanscom (Taylor) looks into the history of Derry and discovers that every 27 years there is a rash of kid disappearances – and it happens to be 27 years since the last group. And clearly visible in some antique photos of Derry – Pennywise the Clown.

They’ve tracked the clown to an abandoned house on the site of an old well which leads into the tunnels and sewers of Derry which is the domain of Pennywise now. There they will find out the fate of the missing children – and confront the demonic clown on his own tuff.

As everyone knows, this is one of Stephen King’s iconic novels. It was made into a miniseries back in 1990 with Tim Curry famously in the role of Pennywise. That’s about when the current It is set – an update of about 20 years. Appropriately enough, it has been 27 years since the miniseries – the exact number of years between kid killings in the book and in the miniseries and now in the movie. Make of that what you will (I make of it coincidence but a terrific marketing opportunity).

There is a bit of a Stranger Things vibe here and it’s not just because Wolfhard, an integral part of the acclaimed Netflix series cast, is also in this one. The camaraderie between the kids is genuine and unforced and while it is set basically in the same era as Stranger Things there are some critical differences – It isn’t as wedded to its time frame as the TV show is and in some ways that’s a very good thing.

In fact, the ensemble cast does a bang-up job and in particular Lieberher and Lillis show the most promise and give the most satisfying performances while Wolfhard is a natural as the wise guy Richie Tozier – a part not unlike the one he plays in Stranger Things but enough of the comparisons. These are definitely two very different animals.

Pennywise is something of an iconic villain, the killer clown to end all killer clowns. Curry made the part his own back in 1990 and his performance is still one of the great monster portrayals in the history of the genre. Skarsgård is inevitably going to be compared to that performance and quite frankly, while he’s a very good actor in is own right he just doesn’t have a chance between the passage of time that makes memory fonder and the fact that Curry is so universally adored. That’s not that Skarsgård doesn’t do a great job – he does – but he simply can’t compete and he is kind of forced to by circumstance.

The special effects are for the most part special indeed and while the scares aren’t many they are entirely effective when they do come. There is a reason why this movie has been so successful at the box office and one viewing of it will tell you what that is. It isn’t the best horror movie of the year – it isn’t even the best Stephen King adaptation of the year – but it’s a very good movie that should get your Halloween scare needs easily met.

REASONS TO GO: The young cast does an exceptional job as an ensemble. The special effects are quite impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Although Skarsgård does a pretty decent job, he’s still no Tim Curry.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect there is a good deal of violence and horrific images, gore and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the biggest opening weekend gross of any horror film ever; went on to become the all-time highest-grossing horror film ever.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
Six Days of Darkness concludes!


Even reading a Ralph Ellison book in a Harlem schoolyard as a 20-year-old, the future President can’t get away from Joe Biden!

(2016) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Jay, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane Jenna Elfman, Linus Roache, Avi Nash, John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Judd, Sawyer Pierce, Eric Berryman, Ralph Rodriguez, Danny Henriquez, Tessa Albertson, Tommy Nelson, Annabelle Attanasio, Matt Ball, Markita Prescott. Directed by Vikram Gandhi


Barack Obama is a President who has provoked very extreme reactions. To the left he is a hero, a model of decorum and grace, whose intelligence and class has carried him through one of the roughest most vitriolic attacks from the opposition in the history of the Presidency. To the right he is nothing short of a terrorist, a Muslim whose mission was to destroy our country from within. There are some who take the middle ground between the two of course but largely those two extremes have been the popular conception from each political point of view.

But there was a time before that when he was just an ordinary college student. Back then, everyone called him Barry (Terrell) and he had about as much confidence in his future as any college student, maybe even less so. I suspect if anyone had told Barry that he was going to be the 44th President of the United States he’d probably want some of what you’ve been smoking – Barry after all is not above occasionally partaking in the wacky weed.

He has just transferred to Columbia University in New York City looking for a degree in political science. The product of a white mother and an African father, his parents are divorced; his mom is in Hawaii where he grew up, his dad has returned to Kenya. Barry is trying to write a letter to his dad to express what he feels but can’t find the words. Barry also feels like an outside in both the white and African-American spheres.

He meets Charlotte (Joy), the daughter of wealthy parents and the two begin dating but as always Barry isn’t sure where he fits in. He plays street ball with local guys from the neighborhood like PJ (Mitchell) with whom he strikes up a friendship, but he feels like an outsider. Similarly he doesn’t belong in the world of country clubs and pricey restaurants that his girlfriend is used to. His roommate Will (Coltrane) tries to help but mostly the two get high together.

To my way of thinking this isn’t so much a biography of the President as it is an exploration of how young men can be lost in not knowing who they are. Of course, it’s especially true for someone in Barry’s situation but it should ring true for just about everybody. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a biography in any case (Charlotte, for one thing, is a composite character) but it supposedly reflects Obama’s inner turmoil and his personality pretty well at that time of his life.

The overall tone is pretty laid-back which flirts with actual boredom from time to time. There is a whole lot of philosophizing going on and not a ton of conflict. Most of the conflict is pretty much internal; while Obama struggles with finding a place he’s truly comfortable with in both the white world and the African-American and there are moments in which he feels discrimination from both sides, it isn’t as if he is overly oppressed here. There are times he is hassled by a University Security guard for likely the color of his skin. He also is targeted by angry African-Americans who resent the opportunities he is getting because of his Caucasian blood.

Terrell does a pretty good job of playing Obama, capturing his very recognizable cadence of speech. This isn’t always a flattering portrait but then again, think of yourself as a 20-year-old and see if a film biography of you at that age will be one you’re particularly proud of. It’s a pretty layered performance and Terrell captures the essence of the man. How close it is to the real man is best left answered by those who know the ex-President well (which certainly doesn’t describe me) but I think that there are at least elements of the real Barack Obama here, or at least the real Barack Obama at 20.

As I’ve said with similar movies about public figures of recent years, I don’t know that this gives us any real insight into the heart and mind of our 44th president who is a notoriously private individual. It isn’t scintillating material but those who admire President Obama will find this interesting. Those who feel the opposite aren’t going to watch this anyway.

REASONS TO GO: It seems to be an attempt to humanize the 44th President by portraying him as a young college student trying to find himself.
REASONS TO STAY: I thought it went a little too low-key.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find a little bit of violence, some drug use, a smidgen of sensuality and a small amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film of both director Vikram Gandhi and star Devon Terrell.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.

Southside with You

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Deborah Geffner, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Preston Tate Jr., Fred Nance, Donn C. Harper, Angel Knight, TayLar, Alex Zelenka, Deanna Reed Foster, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Directed by Richard Tanne


Before they were the most powerful couple in the world, before they were household names, before they were Fox News’ favorite punching bags, they were a just a couple of African-Americans in Chicago trying to make a difference. One had just graduated from Harvard Law and was a summer intern in a prestigious law office, the other was a lawyer for that firm who also happened to be that budding lawyer’s mentor. At that stage of their lives, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what was to come.

Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) was putting on her make-up and getting dressed to go on. Her mother (Calloway) asked her about her upcoming date to which she snapped it was “not a date” – she just liked to look presentable. She was going to a community meeting with that promising young intern she was mentoring. His name is Barack Obama. “Barack O-what-a?” asked her father (Van Lear) gruffly.

Obama (Sawyers) arrived for the “not-a-date” several minutes late, pulling up in an extremely old car in which a hole on the passenger side allowed the passenger to see the road up close and personal. Nevertheless he’s cheerful and persistent. It’s clear he has taken a shine to his beautiful but aloof mentor. She is stern however; she’s the only African-American woman in the office and she has to work twice as hard just being a woman and another twice as hard on top of that for being African-American. Getting romantic with the first cute African-American man to come into the office would definitely set her reputation back. Obama’s response was only “You think I’m cute?”

They have some time before the meeting so Obama cajoles her into going to the Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition on local African-American art. One of the artists being displayed is Ernest Barnes, whose works decorated the house on the Good Times sitcom, similarly set in Chicago. The works there move the two to recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We So Cool which seems to perfectly illustrate the pool hall painting that is one of Barnes’ most well-known.

After a brief park bench lunch and an interlude watching some people do a traditional African dance, they attend the meeting where Obama is well-known and adored and where he gives a speech that will hint at his powerful oratory in years to come. Afterward there’s a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  to be precise) then ice cream – and a first kiss. In between there’s lots of conversation, the kind that sometimes goes on for a lifetime. Of such things marriages are made.

In a sense I’m not sure why this movie was made, or at least made now. It seems to be an effort to portray the President and First Lady, who have earned a place in history by virtue of being the first African-Americans elected to the highest office in the land, as just ordinary human beings. I don’t have a problem like that, any more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did the same for the nation’s most beloved president. However, Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than a century; Obama is the sitting President and it seems a tad presumptuous in some ways, although I suppose the same could be said of Oliver Stone’s W which presented a much less flattering picture than this film does.

In fact at times the script veritably gushes and thus those who are not supporters of the President may well find this movie about as palatable as liberals find the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza. The account here is slightly fictionalized although the actual events of the date are mostly accurate but there seems to be a concerted effort to idealize both the President and the First Lady. Supporters of the President (as I am) will certainly find more to like here. I do have to caution however that even I found the tone a little bit uncomfortably fawning towards the 44th President.

Sumpter and Sawyers both handle their roles well, capturing the cadences of their speech down nicely and some of their mannerisms. Sawyers even has the protruding ears that the President is often caricatured with and which Michelle gently ribs him for here. More to the point, the movie also idealizes the time and the place; the late 80s in Chicago with an urban soundtrack that is a little bit on the pop side (some Janet Jackson and retro soul) that is not going to offend anyone. It also captures the urban beauty of Chicago’s South Side almost lovingly with shots bathed in golden summer late afternoon light.

This is a pleasant film but then there are a lot of pleasant movies out there. The filmmakers aren’t trying to make a point about presidential policies or the legacy of Barack Obama at least overtly. One of the big issues I have with the movie is that it feels a little sitcom-like recalling Good Times a little too closely in places, as well as a little romcom-like with some of the cliches of that genre standing front and center. To the movie’s credit it captures the rhythms of life in an African-American big city community with affection much as Spike Lee is able to.

People are inevitably going to filter this movie through their own political belief system. That’s unavoidable. If you called the lead characters Michelle Jones and Barack Smith, it would certainly change your perception of it and perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. All in all we’re left with a movie that’s relatively inoffensive in a romantic sense but at the end of the day seems to portray the future President and First Lady through rose-colored glasses. That may not necessarily be your cup of java but for my money – and you can take this from someone who has voted twice for Barack Obama and supports his efforts in the White House at least to a point – it might give you a different perspective on the most powerful man in the free world (at least until January 2017) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s sometimes nice to take a step back from the rhetoric and be reminded that the public figure is also a person.

REASONS TO GO: Has a Spike Lee vibe in places. Revels in its soulfulness.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little bit idealized. Combines sitcom and rom-com cliches, not a good thing at all.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a disturbing image, a drug reference and the future President smokes like a chimney.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the director, all of the events that are depicted in the movie actually took place on the first date by the Obamas with the exception of the community meeting which happened on a later date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
NEXT: Bad Moms

X-Men: Apocalypse

Oscar Isaac strikes a dramatic pose.

Oscar Isaac strikes a dramatic pose.

(2016) Superhero (20th Century Fox) James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Lucas Till, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp, Lana Condor, Olivia Munn, Warren Scherer, Hugh Jackman, Monique Ganderton, Rochelle Kooky, Ally Sheedy. Directed by Bryan Singer


Human history is full of the strong oppressing the weak. Sometimes the strong are that in name only; they have strength only in the will to seize power and wield it. Other times they have the strength of numbers. Power can come from many different sources.

In the world of X-Men: Apocalypse the oppressed are feared by the oppressors. Mutants are powerful but they are few in numbers; it is the non-mutants who fear what they can potentially do. Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy), once the most powerful telepathic mind in the world, sees things differently. He sees a world in which mutants and normals live harmoniously, in which mutants use their powers to protect those who have none. He’s established a school to teach young mutants to fulfill exactly that purpose.

It is a different world than what Magneto (Fassbender) sees but with good reason. The Master of Magnetism is powerful, but was unable to prevent the deaths of his parents at Auschwitz, nor could he protect his wife and daughter while he lived in anonymous exile in Poland (methinks Magneto should stay away from Poland, where Auschwitz is also located, because horrible things seem to happen to him there). He is ripe for being swayed over to the dark side of things.

Enter Apocalypse (Isaac). He may or may not have been the first Mutant, but he is certainly among the most powerful. In his day, he had been worshipped as a God and in fact ruled Egypt as a living God, a despotic tyrant who was eventually ambushed by those who opposed his rule and buried under the rubble of a collapsed pyramid, knocked unconscious before he could change his psyche to the body of a younger man (which is how he remains immortal). His long slumber has been interrupted by misguided followers of his cult and now he’s back in the world, and he doesn’t like what he sees.

In his day, the mutants ruled the normals but that’s not what is happening in the 1980s. It is the height of the cold war and new wave, an era in which the mutants are regarded with suspicion after what happened in the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Apocalypse always has a personal guard of four powerful mutants whose powers are enhanced and in this case he chooses Storm (Shipp) with powers over the weather, Psylocke (Munn) who can hurl telepathic daggers and Angel (Hardy) with wings of steel that can hurl steel projectiles.

In the meantime, Mystique (Lawrence) has chosen to remain in her human form and is recruiting new mutants to the Xavier School, including the telepath Jean Grey (Turner) who has the potential to be even more powerful than Xavier himself, Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee) who can teleport and Scott Summers (Sheridan) who can shoot incredibly strong force bolts from his eyes. Along with Hank McCoy (Hoult) – the ever-loving Beast and resident scientist for the group – and Havok (Till), Summers’ brother whose force beams come out of his chest, and Quicksilver (Peters), a super-speedster, the school is full of very powerful and dangerous kids which attracts the attention of Col. Stryker (Helman) who has a mutant experiment of his own going at Alkili Lake.

Now we’re setting up a potential battle – Apocalypse who wants to destroy the world and repopulate it with mutants who would be the only ones strong enough to withstand the destruction, and Xavier who wants to save the world. Each has their own team; Apocalypse with the Four Horsemen, Xavier with the X-Men and they will duke it out with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Of course, the plot is fairly endemic to most superhero movies especially this year when it is the third of three different movies from three different studios all with superheroes battling one another. While critics have been decrying the similarity of the plots, there are subtle differences in each that for my money make them all different takes on a similar but not identical theme.

Here the theme has to do with the oppression of minorities and whether it is the responsibility of those with power to protect their own at the expense of everyone else, or to protect those who need it. The latter is a crucial question in the four color world of superheroes and one which does get repeated fairly regularly in the cinematic world of superheroes as well; as was said in a certain webslinger’s movie, with great power comes great responsibility.

As summer blockbusters go, it has plenty of spectacular action and amazing visuals which is what one looks for in a hot weather diversion. Unfortunately, the movie also has what has proven to be a superhero movie killer on many occasions recently; too many characters. I only touched on the main characters here and there were many others involved in the film, like Wolverine (Jackman) who shows up in a memorable cameo appearance in Jackman’s penultimate appearance as the character.

This is based on a classic comic story arc which is one I was actually familiar with as it was written while I was still collecting comics. The Apocalypse of the comic books was, in my opinion, much more of a villain than he is here and certainly much more dangerous, even though Isaac turns in a pretty strong performance despite the layers and layers of make-up. The Apocalypse of the comics was simply evil and didn’t really have an agenda beyond ruling the world; here, he has a philosophy which is supposed to give him motivation but ends up as unnecessary clutter. There’s a lot of that here, including the Wolverine appearance.

The producers of the X-Men franchise have said that this will conclude the trilogy started in X-Men: First Class in 2011. They have established several new young versions of some of the more beloved characters in the franchise. Where they will go with them is anybody’s guess but you can be sure there will be plenty more X-Men action coming in the future from Fox, for whom this franchise has been a gold mine.

This isn’t the weakest entry in the X-Men franchise but it’s certainly not the strongest. I think some judicious trimming of the number of characters as well as the plot itself (the movie clocks in at well over two hours) might have been beneficial to the final product. Singer has always had the best grip on the X-Men universe of any of the directors who have tackled it. Hopefully whomever inherits the reins will improve on this film which is merely decent.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the visuals are spectacular. It does give the First Class trilogy a nice definite conclusion.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels bloated and overpopulated with characters. Apocalypse felt far more dangerous in the comic book edition than he did here.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of superhero action and destruction, some brief strong language and a scene that is sexually suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Oscar Isaac’s voice was recorded with three different types of microphones, and then melded together to create the voice of Apocalypse.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
NEXT: Keeper of Darkness