‘Private Eyes’ by Hall & Oates – My First Vinyl Album

Private Eyes album cover

Hall & Oates’ 1981 album “Private Eyes” was actually the first vinyl record I ever got which I could call my own. Years ago, my mother offered to buy me and my brother one vinyl record each, and we were both really excited at the prospect of having one of our own since our parents owned several dozens of them, many of them by Fleetwood Mac and The Beatles (they have great taste in music). I don’t remember exactly why my mom did this. Maybe we were well behaved or something (a rarity for the two of us as kids).

Anyway, my brother got this KTEL album (remember those?) called “Radioactive‘ which featured popular songs of the moment from Devo (their cover of “Working in a Coalmine” is one of my favorites), REO Speedwagon, Rick Springfield and Blondie among others. “Radioactive” was the equivalent of those “Now That’s Music” CD’s which get released every other month, but the music on this particular album was excellent and never groan inducing, and it was a good selection by my older brother.

But for me, my choice was clear from the start, and it represents one of my most decisive decisions at a video or music store.

I first got exposed to “Private Eyes” when I was in Kindergarten thanks to my friend Matthew who lived down the street from me in Marietta, Georgia. Matthew had the album on cassette and we kept listening to the title track endlessly, and when those claps came into play, I made it look like I was punching myself. This made the two of us laugh hysterically, and we didn’t listen to much else on the album at the time. That one song seemed to be enough for the two of us.

But later, we started to listen to “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” which I had heard on the radio, but I didn’t realize right away it was also on the “Private Eyes” album. Cool, I thought, this tape must have a lot of good songs on it. Sure enough, it did! Just before I got the album on vinyl, “Did It in A Minute” became Hall & Oates’ latest hit song. Getting “Private Eyes” at that point seemed like a do or die mission in retrospect. Come to think of it, it was!

I still have a lot of memories from listening to this definitive Hall & Oates album after all these years. My brother and I were dancing without a care to these songs, especially to “Did It in a Minute.” This was back before we both became saddled with those inhibitions which more or less came to define the adults we are today. Sometime later, my family moved from Marietta, Georgia to Thousand Oaks, California, and “Your Imagination” started playing on KIIS FM, back when Rick Dees was the morning disc jockey. I thought it was a very cool song, and I later realized it was also on the “Private Eyes” album as well. For me, this album now seemed so magical because it had so many great songs on it, and if there was a song I heard on the radio which I liked, it had to be from this album!

“Private Eyes” was just an infinitely fun album to listen to, and this is still the case more than 30 years after its release. It is one of several records from the 1980’s I can never get sick of listening to, and it always brightens my mood whenever I put it on. Hall & Oates went on to become a dominant musical duo during the 80’s with this album as well as “H2O” and “Big Bam Boom,” but neither of those albums, despite having some awesome tracks, could hold up as well as “Private Eyes” did.

Of all the songs here, I still think the best one is “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” While the other songs might seem stylistically dated, this one feels timeless and could fit in with the music of today. For a time, it was the ring tone on my cell phone, and when went off in the office I used to work in, a fellow colleague remarked about how Hall & Oates once auditioned for Smokey Robinson. Robinson ended up not hiring the duo, and he later admitted it was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

Of course, I don’t want to leave out other songs like “Did It in a Minute” which ends the first side of the record. A great up-tempo song, it was one which got me really excited about life when I listened to it (I was 5 or 6 at the time, so what did I know?). Going onto the second side, we have “Head Above the Water” which proves to be an appropriate selection to listen to during aerobic exercises. Lesser known songs like “Tell Me What You Want” and “Some Men” resonated strongly for me even when I didn’t understand the lyrics. Then again, it took me a long, long, long time after the first grade to really pay attention to a song’s lyrics. The music itself was all that mattered to me at the time.

I always kept wondering about John Oates though. Daryl Hall was always the most prominent of the duo, and John seemed to be there mostly as backup. I wonder if Mr. Oates ever got seriously resentful of Mr. Hall in a “Fatal Attraction” kind of way. But they are still together, so I guess it never got quite that bad. John, however, proved he is every bit as good a singer on songs like “Mano a Mano” and “Friday Let Me Down,” a song title which would have a depressing significance on me during my adolescent years. It didn’t even matter how I had no idea what “Mano a Mano” meant (it would be several years before I took my first Spanish class) because the song itself has a catchy rhythm which every decent 80’s song needed to have.

It should also be noted how Hall & Oates were a big hit on the R&B charts with their music back then, and this was a rare feat displayed by what some would call a “white act.” While many of us today may laugh at white people doing what others simply saw as “black music,” this musical duo was never seen as a joke, and they were respectful of the influences which inspired their musical choices. The song “Looking for a Good Sign” was actually dedicated to the original lineup of The Temptations, a huge influence on their work. The duo would later perform with two of the vocalists from The Temptations on the “Live at The Apollo” album.

“Private Eyes” is not an album with any big theme to hold all these songs together. It is not a concept album like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” an album which took me many years to fully appreciate. In the end, “Private Eyes” is still an endlessly entertaining album which can never be construed as boring, and it holds up really well. I still love listening to this album to this very day, and it remains one of my favorite albums of all time. Considering how it was my first vinyl record, it will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Years later, I did purchase the remastered CD of “Private Eyes, but I do still have the original vinyl record in my possession. Believe me, I will never get rid of it. Ever.

 

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‘Ready Player One’ Revels More in the Virtual World Than in Reality

Ready Pkayer One movie poster

Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” is a novel I could see a lot of directors being ever so eager to turn into a motion picture. Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Zemeckis and even (gasp) Michael Bay would have had a blast bringing to life the virtual world Cline wrote about to where the possibilities of what they could bring to the silver screen seem infinite. In the end, it makes perfect sense Steven Spielberg was the one to adapt it as no other filmmaker has captured our collective imaginations as much as he has.

The year is 2045, and Earth has long since become consumed by pollution, corruption and climate change (which is real folks, don’t let anyone tell you different), and its inhabitants, those situated in the middle or lower classes, are consigned to mobile trailers which are stacked on top of one another. While this cannot be mistaken for a glamorous lifestyle, many clueless politicians and wives of U.S. Presidents would be quick to describe them as FEMA luxury suites. Looking at how barren their existence has become, it’s no wonder these characters prefer a virtual reality as opposed to the one they are forced to live in and endure on a daily basis.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, manages to escape their depressing reality in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a VR world which allows its users to engage in activities of either an educational, entertaining, or a profitable kind. You can be any avatar you want to be whether it’s Freddy Krueger or Godzilla, and you go into it believing it will allow you to be a somebody instead of a nobody. But eventually, even its most devoted users need to find a way to better deal with the real world as a line between the two needs to be drawn.

One of the OASIS’ most devoted users is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old who lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio with his aunt. It’s no surprise how quick he is to dive into this virtual world, but his reasons for doing so run much deeper than we initially realize. We learn the OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric computer genius with an incredible love for 80’s pop culture. Halliday has since passed away, but he has left behind a trail of bread crumbs in the form of Easter eggs for his fans to discover. The first to find all these eggs is promised full ownership of the OASIS among other desirable gifts. Of course, there is a corporation, or a video game conglomerate if you will, named Innovative Online Industries (IOI) which is determined to gain ownership of the OASIS before anyone else. Will the rebellious users beat the greedy corporation to the finish line? Well, the answer might have seen obvious in the past, but these days it looks like the bad guys get away with far too much in the real world.

“Ready Player One” is essentially a combination of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Tron” as our protagonists are on the search for something which will fulfill their wildest dreams, but they have to find it in a world where the laws of nature do not necessarily apply. And when it comes down to it, the winner will not be someone who is the best at gaming, but someone with a good heart who wants to do the right thing, and who has a strong spirit. Finding someone like that in this day and age, let alone in the future, is an ambitious task as everyone appears susceptible to greed and corruption, but the filmmakers went into this project with the full belief such a person still exists, and a world without hope is not one we should be quick to live in.

The challenge Spielberg has with “Ready Player One” is balancing out the real world with the wondrous virtual world the characters are ever so eager to inhabit. But with all the tools he and his fellow filmmakers had at their disposal, it is easy to see how lopsided the balance is here. Spielberg clearly revels in amazing visual effects he can put onscreen. Watching this movie just once is not enough as there are an infinite number of Easter eggs to discover and acknowledge. While you may easily recognize such pop culture artifacts like Freddy Kruger and the DeLorean time machine from “Back to the Future,” there are so many others to acknowledge here to where you will be very surprised at what Spielberg and company were able to fit into a PG-13 movie.

When it comes to the real world, I feel Spielberg could have done more to distinguish it from the OASIS. This man did give us “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.,” movies which exceeded anything our imaginations could conjure up. Years later, however, he gave us “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich,” films which did not shy away from the horrifying reality people are forced to endure. Surely Spielberg would be able to balance out the real world from the imaginary one to where we can see the difference between them or at least determine which one is more important to live in, right?

Well, “Ready Player One” functions a lot like the original “Jurassic Park” in that the spectacle gets the majority of attention while the human element suffers in comparison. But like “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg still has us captivated with incredible visual effects which leave us in complete awe. As the movie goes on, the avatars of the main characters start to look and feel more real than I expected, and this makes up for the limited character development they receive throughout. Cline co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, but it feels like everyone could have gone a bit deeper with the material.

On a personal note, I loved how Spielberg digs deep into 1980’s nostalgia. Being a child of this decade, I still very much enjoy the music and movies which came out of it. To his credit, Spielberg doesn’t reference his own movies here, regardless of the fact they play a big part in Cline’s book. It’s also great to hear the music of Alan Silvestri here as his themes from the 80’s, particularly those from “Back to the Future,” never grow old. Silvestri’s score here references a number of pop culture classics, and I’m sure you will recognize many of them.

Tye Sheridan has turned in terrific performances in “The Tree of Life,” “Mud” and “Joe,” and he fits comfortably into the role of the typical young Spielberg hero who is wise beyond his years and smarter than the average adult. Olivia Cooke is a wonderful and strong presence as Samantha Cook, a fellow OASIS player whose avatar goes by the name of Art3mis. Ben Mendelsohn also shows up as Nolan Sorrento, the infinitely greedy CEO of IOI who is determined to gain full control over the OASIS. It’s a lot like the character Mendelsohn played in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but this time he is playing someone who believes they are in charge and actually is.

But if there is one performance worth singling out here, it is Mark Rylance’s as James Halliday, the main creator of the OASIS. Rylance makes Halliday into a wonderfully eccentric character whose social skills could use a bit of work, but whose heart shines through in everything he has created and accomplished. Not once does this Oscar-winning actor make Halliday into a caricature of Steve Jobs and instead presents us with a human being desperate to find someone in this world who has not been completely corrupted by the powers that be.

“Ready Player One” will not go down as one of Spielberg’s best movies, but it is far from being one of his worst. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission and watching it once will not be enough as there are so many Easter eggs to identify. Heck, if you close enough, you can even spot a poster with Wil Wheaton on it. While its message of how important it is to spend more time in the real world than the virtual one might seem a bit hypocritical, this movie was directed by a man who knows the difference between the two to where he doesn’t have to prove to us that he knows this. Still, on a story and character level, this could have dug deeper beneath the surface.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘It’ Proves To Be one of the Best Stephen King Movies in a Long Time

It teaser poster

It” isn’t just one of my favorite Stephen King novels, it’s also one of my favorite books ever. On one hand, it is a terrifying tale of a malevolent force who takes the form of a clown and feeds on the fearful children living in Derry, Maine. On the other, it is a thoughtful and deeply felt examination of kids who are forced to endure a tougher childhood than anyone ever should. I read King’s massive novel (1,138 pages) back when I was a teenager, and it made me realize it was okay to be different than others. Looking back, it also reminded me of a line of dialogue from one of my all-time favorite movies, “Pump Up the Volume:”

“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point. Surviving it is the whole point.”

For those who have read this novel, you can see how it is more about the kids than it is about Pennywise the Dancing (not to mention incredibly vicious) clown. Thank goodness director Andy Muschietti realized this when he came on to direct the long-awaited film version of “It.” While Muschietti delivers the requisite thrills and chills a horror film like this one demands, he keeps a very observant eye on the kids and the conflicts they are forced to endure, and I don’t just mean Pennywise.

The film focuses on the book’s first half when the members of “The Losers’ Club” were suffering the slings and arrows of daily life at school. But while King set this half in the 1950’s, Muschietti moves things up to the 1980’s, a time of Ronald Reagan, calculator watches, New Kids on the Block, and movies like “Gremlins” and “Beetlejuice” which, like “It,” were released by Warner Brothers. This was a decade defined by greed, but for these kids, it was a time of innocence which would be destroyed for them far too quickly.

“It” was previously made into a wonderfully entertaining television miniseries by Tommy Lee Wallace, but Muschietti lets you know right from the start how the censorship of American television was not going to apply here. Little Georgie Denbrough suffers a most terrible fate when Pennywise bites his arm off and drags his body into the sewer, and even if you know this event is coming, it is still chilling to witness as this is the kind of thing movies typically avoid showing. From there, I couldn’t help but remain in a state of heightened anxiety as while I knew what was going to happen, the safety of network television was not around to reassure me about the horrors I was going to witness.

The misery and sufferings of The Losers’ Club feel much more unnerving on the silver screen than on television. It’s especially galling to see poor Beverly Marsh get wet garbage poured all over her in the bathroom as she has become the victim of unsubstantiated rumors that she is promiscuous. But judging from the moment she when she puts her backpack over her head for protection, she has been dealing with this stigma for a very long time. Or how about Ben Hanscom, the overweight new kid in town who has zero signatures in his yearbook, one of the saddest sights the audience is forced to take in here. While these kids’ sufferings don’t feel as raw as what Sissy Spacek endured in “Carrie,” it’s still easy to feel for these kids who have been cast out of what is perceived to be the realm of normal.

Heck, even their parents prove to be an emotionally distant, and if they are not, they instead prove to be ridiculously overprotective. Beverly’s father seems to care for her a little too much, and this care seems to imply crimes more insidious than our imaginations can ever handle. Eddie Kaspbrak’s mother is determined to keep him safe from any and every germ planet Earth has to offer, and at times she threatens to be as scary as Pennywise due her raising her son as if he is the reincarnation of Howard Hughes. As for William Denbrough, things will never be the same between him and his parents following the death of his brother Georgie.

There’s some passage in the Bible which says God only gives you what you can handle, but the members of The Losers’ Club have far more than anyone should ever be made to handle, and this is made clear before Pennywise begins to disrupt their unfairly depressing lives. As a result, they need each other to get from one day to the next, and the strength they have together allows them to be a formidable force against Pennywise. Muschietti’s attention to these kids’ struggles makes this film very effective as we come to care for them deeply, and this makes their stand against this homicidal clown all the more involving.

Speaking of Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard makes him into the freakiest clown and scarier than any clown Rod Zombie could come up with. Whereas Tim Curry’s Pennywise was at first approachable and then murderous, Skarsgard’s is vicious right from the get go whether the kids realize it or not. Even before those set of jaws come out, Skarsgard more than reminds the audience of how clowns have always been creepy, and he makes Pennywise into the clown who gleefully inhabits all our nightmares.

So where do I rank this particular Stephen King adaptation among the many already unleashed on the public? Hard to say. It is easily one of the best King adaptations in a while, but it is not as scary as “The Shining” or “Carrie.” This is not a motion picture filled with jump scares every 5 minutes as Muschietti is more in creating something which is infinitely chilling and suspenseful. What results is a highly entertaining movie which never feels like a simple remake of the miniseries. He is also blessed with a terrific cast of actors who are not afraid to embrace the depressing natures of their characters. I just hope none of them have to deal with this shit in real life.

I’m also thrilled no one tried to fit the whole book into one movie. There’s no way you could have done that without messing everything up. There was already talk of a sequel long before this movie even opened, and this is a sequel I am more eager to see than any “Star Wars” movie which has yet to be released. It’ll be interesting to see how The Losers’ Club will transition from childhood to adulthood as they attempt to put the past behind them. But as Peter Gabriel once sang, “Nothing fades as fast the future. Nothing clings like the past.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Oliver Robins Looks Back on ‘Poltergeist’ at New Beverly Cinema

oliver-robins-photo

On Thursday, August 16, 2012, Oliver Robins dropped by New Beverly Cinema to talk about the making of “Poltergeist.” Robins played Robbie Freeling, the boy who was terrified of that weird looking tree looming outside his bedroom window. These days Robins works as a filmmaker, but he explained how his time on the set of “Poltergeist” truly inspired him to make movies, and he helped debunk certain myths which continue to surround it years after its release.

Robins came up to the front of the audience after “Poltergeist” finished showing, and he talked about how he grew up at the New Beverly and discovered many movies which he might not have seen otherwise. He also remarked at how Steven Spielberg, who wrote and produced “Poltergeist,” gave him an 8mm camera as a present, and how the camera and the movie inspired him to become a filmmaker.

poltergeist-movie-poster

In talking about how he got cast, Robins said he had no real acting experience beforehand and that his only previous acting job was in a fertilizer commercial. The audition for “Poltergeist” was actually an open call which had hundreds of people coming down to be considered. Robins recalled having to wait for hours before he got inside to talk with the casting directors. When he did, they looked at him as being the true incarnation of Robbie as he talked about how he had lived in a haunted house while in New York.

Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper, however, were concerned because Robins couldn’t really scream, and they ended up getting a coach to help him learn how to. It got to where Robins was practicing his screams in his closet, and the neighbors began to wonder if there was any child abuse going on in his home. When he proved to the filmmakers he could indeed scream, Robins was informed he got the part.

When asked if a bond had formed between him and his fellow cast members, Robins told the audience “Poltergeist” was rushed into production and that there was no time for rehearsal. He did say, however, that JoBeth Williams, who played his mother Diane, really was a mother to him throughout the production.

One scene which really stands out is when Robbie’s father, Steven (played by Craig T. Nelson), teaches him how to count after lightning strikes to determine the distance between it and the sound of thunder. Robins remarked how Nelson was a comedy writer before he became an actor and that he made the set of “Poltergeist” very light-hearted as a result. Robins even remarked how working on the movie allowed him to stay up all night which he loved, and Nelson ended up telling him after one crazy night of filmmaking, “This is just another night in Simi Valley!”

Another famous scene from “Poltergeist” is when the tree comes through the window. Robins explained what ended up being 30 seconds of screen time where he got attacked by the tree ended up taking two weeks to film. Now this was back when digital effects were far from being a reality, so all the effects we see in the movie are real. Robins also pointed out there were several different trees being used for this sequence; one with roots, one where the branches reached out at him, and another which tried to eat him.

Robins described the tree sequence as being the most tedious and complex to film, and that he ended up spending much of the time being covered in molasses. He said being covered in that substance makes your body temperature drop precipitously and that he had to emote in his scenes in order create believability.

oliver-robins-in-poltergeist

Now there is an infamous story on IMDB of how when Robins gets attacked by the toy clown, he got choked for real and yet Hooper and Spielberg thought he was really acting. It was later said that when Robins face began turning purple, the filmmakers rushed over to remove the clown’s hands from around his neck. To this, Robins response was, “Maybe that did happen, but I can’t remember. Maybe I blocked it out of my conscious mind.”

When asked what it was like working with his sisters who were played by Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne, Robins said it was great and that they both felt like real sisters to him. He also remarked at how Hooper and Spielberg were cool to him and other actors about wanting to change their dialogue. As a result, there proved to be a lot of ad-libbing on the set of “Poltergeist.”

There is also this ongoing story of how there were two directors on the set of “Poltergeist.” While Hooper’s name is listed as the film’s director, many believe Spielberg had the most influence. Robins, however, cleared up these rumors once and for all:

“There was only one director on set, and that was Tobe Hooper. Spielberg did write the story, but Hooper was the only one who directed me. It does feel like a Spielberg movie and he did work closely with Hooper on this project. In many ways it was a team effort, but Hooper was the true director of ‘Poltergeist.’”

Robins was also asked what it was like filming the scene between him and Beatrice Straight who plays Dr. Lesh where she tells him what she felt the true nature of ghosts were. He said Straight made him feel like he was really talking with someone who knows about ghosts, and this kept their performances from ever feeling forced.

It was great to hear Oliver Robins talk about the making of “Poltergeist” and to hear him dispel several myths about the 1982 movie. Since making that classic movie, Robins has retired from acting and went on to graduate from USC’s film school to where he has since become a very gifted filmmaker in his own right. His work in the Tobe Hooper-directed movie will continue to stand the test of time.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

X Men Apocalypse poster

In the whirlwind of superhero movies which have come out in 2016, “X-Men: Apocalypse” ends up being sandwiched between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Like those two, “X-Men: Apocalypse” has far too many characters and plotlines to deal with, and its running time is much longer than it needs to be. But while this “X-Men” might not reach thrilling heights of “Captain America: Civil War,” it is far more enjoyable than the dour affair that was “Batman vs. Superman.” Still, after “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” this entry does feel like a comedown for the long running franchise.

The movie takes place in the 1980’s; a time of synth pop, “Knight Rider,” Ronald Reagan and “Return of the Jedi” among other things. The newest threat to both humans and mutants alike is En Sabah Nur, better known as Apocalypse, the world’s first and most powerful mutant. The movie starts off with him being entombed in a rocky grave after being betrayed by his followers, but he is awakened in 1983 and finds humanity has lost its way because, as he sees it, humanity was without his presence. As a result, he vows to destroy the world and remake it, and this time the X-Men may have a foe too powerful for them to defeat.

Playing Apocalypse is Oscar Isaac who enters yet another incredibly successful franchise after leaving his mark on another in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” In a way he is undone here by the large amount of makeup he is forced to wear as it threatens to rob him of his charisma. Seriously, the less makeup you put on Isaac the better as he can lock you in place with just a look from his eyes. Regardless, he is still very good here as he holds his own opposite actors who have been veterans of this franchise for quite some time.

Many of the “X-Men: First Class” cast return as well like James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hout, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne and Evan Peters. It’s great to see them all back as they are still deeply invested in these famous comic book characters as always. McAvoy, portraying Professor Charles Xavier/Professor X, shows just how mentally exhausting it is to fight an antagonist with only your mind. We also get to see how Charles lost his hair, and we leave the theater wondering how his eyebrows managed to remain intact.

Lawrence remains an enthralling presence in any movie she appears in, and she makes Raven/Mystique another in a long line of wounded warriors. The Oscar winning actress makes this comic book character into a hero as reluctant as Katniss Everdeen, and we feel for even as she feels she deserves no respect because of her regretful mistakes. While Raven/Mystique has been an antagonist for many of the “X-Men” movies, Lawrence makes her a complex character who comes to see what she must fight for most.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto has a setup like Logan/Wolverine had in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in which he’s found peace but eventually sees it completely destroyed to where the only thing on his mind is vengeance. It’s a familiar setup we have seen many times, but whether or not you know how Magneto will end up in this mutant tug of war, it’s worth just seeing Fassbender inhabit this role once again as he is riveting for every second he appears onscreen. Compare him all you want to Sir Ian McKellen, Fassbender imbues this iconic comic book character with a lot of raw emotion which will not leave you unmoved.

Evan Peters steals the show once again as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver, the man who can move at supersonic speeds and yet still lives in his mother’s basement. Peters had one of “Days of Future Past’s” best scenes which was set to the tune of a classic 70’s song, and he does his thing here yet again to an 80’s song. It has been said that the next “X-Men” movie will take place in the 90’s, so we’ll have some time to guess what classic grunge song he will be saving the day to.

A number of other X-Men return as well, but this time played different actors. Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler finally returns to the franchise for the first time since “X-Men 2: X-Men United,” and he is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee who gives the character a good dose of humor. Alexandra Shipp takes on Storm and sports a mohawk which is as fierce as her attitude, so watch out. The terrific Tye Sheridan portrays Scott Summers/Cyclops, and this character gets fleshed out in a way we have not seen previously. “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner appears here as Jean Grey, and it’s great to see the actress portray Jean’s dark side which is her gift and her possible undoing in the future.

With Bryan Singer returning to the director’s chair for his fourth “X-Men” movie, you can’t help but walk into “Apocalypse” with high expectations. Both he and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have too many characters to deal with to where several are not developed fully enough to be satisfying, and others are simply there for dramatic conflict. The mutant hating William Stryker returns, but the character barely registers this time around. We also get introduced to new mutants like Psylocke whose talents seem no different from others like her, and more could have been done to make her stand out. However, it should be noted that Olivia Munn fills out Psylocke’s uniform very well.

But even with its inescapable flaws, Singer still makes “X-Men: Apocalypse” a summer blockbuster packed with action, and the movie also hits you on a deep emotional level. We’ve been following these characters now for nearly a dozen movies, and we still care about their predicaments regardless of whatever timeline they are living through. Other directors in this franchise, with the exception of Matthew Vaughn, have not had the same success in engaging us as Singer has, and he continues to set the bar high for others looking to helm the next entry. And once again, Singer is served well here by his longtime editor and composer John Ottman who gives us yet another rousing music score.

So yeah, “X-Men: Apocalypse” could have been better, but it still works for what it is. It has a serious yet playful tone which has been the mark of many comic book movies in recent years, and it’s better than its score on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. Regardless of how you feel about this movie, there’s still a lot of life left in this franchise and I am eager to see how the next “Wolverine” movie turns out.

Oh by the way, the filmmakers do pull off a none-too-subtle dig at “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Trust me, you will know it when you see it. Suffice to say, I don’t think Brett Ratner will be returning to this franchise anytime soon.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * out of * * * *