X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

★★

Advertisements

X-Men: Apocalypse PosterDirector: Bryan Singer

Release Date: May 18th, 2016 (UK); May 27th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Oscar Isaac

It’s fitting that X-Men: Apocalypse should arrive on the heels of Captain America: Civil War, though not for the most flattering reason. Since Marvel Studios launched its Cinematic Universe back in 2008, the studio has carved out quite the mountainous niche for itself. From Iron Man onwards, the films under the MCU banner have followed a fairly compact narrative structure: stories with potentially world-ending consequences told atop a spine of levity. Civil War is the clearest, most effective representation of that structure we’ve had thus far, its serious themes of accountability and government distrust lightened via bouts of humour. While other outings have had some success, the Russo brothers’ tonal balancing act in Civil War is as close to faultless as the MCU might ever see.

Back, then, to X-Men: Apocalypse, a feature that strives to have more in common with this Marvel prerogative than its own pre-established mantra. Bryan Singer’s film, penned by Simon Kinberg (they last worked together on Days of Future Past), is probably the funniest X-Men instalment to date, bearing a commendable number of snappy one-liners and some less commendable instances of accidental amusement. But elements of its story are also deeply serious and the filmmakers struggle to marry this seriousness with the humour, at times to the movie’s downfall. The issue is not that Singer and Kinberg want to make us laugh, it’s that the filmmakers’ deployment of humour is grossly misplaced. More on that later.

It’s pretty much your bog-standard superhero showdown: a big bad (En Sabah Nur, played by an Oscar Isaac struggling valiantly against the character’s broad strokes) rises from the dust and ruin of a fallen ancient empire to wreak havoc upon the 1980s, and it’s up to the good mutants (led by Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy) to stop him. En route to worldwide recalibration — an odd sequence sees Nur decry the weakness of humankind and our technologies via television montage — the super-mutant recruits a handful of powerful followers, one of whom is Magneto (Michael Fassbender), plucked from a covert life in Poland with his wife and daughter. There are a bunch of others involved but that’s about the gist.

Unsurprisingly, most of the others are mutants and again we see a few treated unfairly, like freak attractions. We are introduced to Angel (Ben Hardy) in the midst of a one-sided cage fight and reintroduced to Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as his next opponent. Scott Summers’ (Tye Sheridan) unearthed Cyclops ability sets him apart in high school and primes him for bullying — lots of characters are either new or feel new because they haven’t had the chance to shine before, not that many get a chance to shine here. This demonisation of mutants, a class/race theme the X-Men series has sought to investigate more intensely in the past, is why Erik Lehnsherr wants to keep his true identity a secret from fellow co-workers and the authorities.

Lehnsherr is by far the most interesting character, not least because he’s the sort of intellectual powerhouse who can back up an Icarus and Daedalus reference (careful) with actual menace. While the excellent work carried out by the likes of Kinberg in previous outings has afforded Lehnsherr intrigue, it’s really Fassbender who has instilled authority and ethical contention into the character. A terrific moment in Apocalypse sees Lehnsherr have his peaceful family life unmasked through preventing the death of a co-worker, and Fassbender’s expression of subtle anguish as Lehnsherr realises his veiled existence is about to be torn apart is wonderfully judged. I won’t give anything else away about the catalyst that sends Lehnsherr over the edge other than noting its compelling moral dichotomy.

It’s fair to say this instalment is less concerned with class warfare undercurrents than before (Days of Future Past pitted human against mutant with more complex personal tension). Humour takes precedence in moments that otherwise would be weighty, most notably during a scene where Lehnsherr, Magneto tendencies in full flow, interrupts his own heartbreaking diatribe about loss and tragedy with a cheap made-for-laughs F-bomb. There are also unintentionally funny lines, such as Moira MacTaggert’s (Rose Byrne) revelation that Nur’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have fed religion and not vice versa (“The Bible got it from him”). Another hokily hilarious moment: an 80s hard rock guitar riff playing over a brooding shot of Nur.

Elsewhere we see a throughline about sacrificing oneself for the greater good, or bad. The film’s prologue — almost a National Treasure spin-off short — depicts the reinvigoration of an ageing Nur and those putting it all on the line to ensure his rebirth. Later, Charles offers himself up in a mental battle like any hero worth his or her weight in righteousness would do. Beneath these two opposing leaders are fractured souls: all four Horsemen are broken before teaming with Nur, for instance, while Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) feels the brunt of inner turmoil on the good side. Turner offers promise as the mind manipulator, a well-balanced mixture of Sansa Stark’s newfound steel and a teenager’s self-doubt, but the material doesn’t serve her well: “You’re not the biggest freak in the school now,” Grey laments to Summers as if reading from page one of How to Create School Stereotypes.

Summers fares little better, moping and angry in one scene then cockily orchestrating a mall trip the next. Their arc factors in burgeoning love, another trope explored under various guises with varying success. For Grey and Summers it’s about the immaturity of youth and finding common ground in how they are each unable to fully grasp their powers. Charles is whipped into an awkward frenzy when he reacquaints with Moira, she unaware of their previously held bond, he having erased it from her memory in First Class. The most effective relationship (or lack thereof), though, is also the most nuanced: shared by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult), at least there is some historical clout behind it.

Newton Thomas Sigel delivers scintillating shots from above as nuclear rockets shoot skyward, images that brilliantly denote the scope of Nur’s plan. It’s a shame such scope falls by the wayside during a climactic battle scene that devolves into a disengaging CG stramash, something the MCU has also struggled with. It’s clear the filmmakers are visually better than their final act, especially when you factor in another superb Quicksilver (Evan Peters) sequence from earlier in the movie. Again it is one of the best scenes, vibrant and witty and full of style and flair. Peters’ version of the character is an alacritous gem, free of the cynicism incumbent upon other mutants who have spent so much time fighting wars. He really ought to be a banner act.

McAvoy’s hair is more glorious than ever in preparation for the balding we all know is coming, and that aesthetic prerequisite is indicative of the film in a general sense. There is a lot of surface promise going on, a bunch of mild chuckles and some solid acting endeavour, but when it comes down to thematic development there is a sense of inevitability. You can see how all the pieces are going to fit and that hasn’t always been the case with X-Men. I did find the two and a half hours enjoyable enough, but then this is a movie that had Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender standing next to one another reciting baloney, both limited by bad tone management. That’s almost unforgivable.

X-Men: Apocalypse - Rockets

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: 20th Century Fox

Joy (2016)

★★★★

Joy PosterDirector: David O. Russell

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 1st, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez

Hey, look. Another film starring Jennifer Lawrence and another star turn from Jennifer Lawrence. The can-do-no-wrong actor is back alongside Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in Joy, all three under the familiar guidance of director David O. Russell. This is better than their last collaboration, American Hustle, solely because it pits Lawrence in the driver’s seat. It’s not better written, nor better shot. It is simply better shepherded by its central player, whose is clearly one of the best performers cinema currently has to offer.

She plays Joy Mangano, a multifaceted individual struggling to keep her domestic life on the straight and narrow. Her grandmother Mimi (Diane Lane) narrates in parts, telling us about Joy’s childhood and what the youngster had before divorce sent things by the wayside: family, pets, love, a non-idealistic attitude (“I don’t need a prince”). Now a grown women, Joy still doesn’t need a prince nor is she an idealist, but the inventor could do with a degree of leeway in terms of luck.

Mum Terri (Virginia Madsen) is obsessed with television, unwilling to interrupt her bed-based viewing for anything apart from the bare essentials. Like the lone passive smoker living in a cigarette guzzling household, you can see the obsession rubbing off on Joy. In Terri, O. Russell seems to be highlighting our inherent desire to live vicariously through others, and why this can be both good and bad (which is rich coming from a movie). We learn early on that Terri’s TV-induced laziness -cum-ineptitude meant she failed to get her daughter a patent for a potentially profit spinning invention years back.

See, Joy is an inventor. At least she should be. Unfortunately, her house has taken the form of a hotel for relatives. Whenever she visits her father’s (Robert De Niro) vehicle repair shop, the ideas woman walks past men taking aim at empty glass bottles. It’s as if her dreams and aspirations are shot to pieces every time she spends time with her family: Joy does the washing; Joy does the plumbing; Joy does the bedtime reading; Joy does the cooking. Joy even has to mediate verbal jousts between dad and ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez). Home life is a mess.

And yet there isn’t that same underlying darkness present in O. Russell’s latest offering that was there in, say, The Fighter. This threatens to leave the story hanging, particularly during the opening hour when the family shenanigans bear a fun streak despite boasting life-halting ramifications — heck, Joy and Tony are “the best divorced couple in America”. Lawrence does wear exhaustion well though, allowing only brief bursts of spark to shine through. It is obvious that Joy is the level-headed one, admirably unshowy despite having the intuitive capacity to back up any arrogance. The rest of them are oddballs.

De Niro’s recent filmography doesn’t exactly reflect his irresistible earlier stuff, but he does work well alongside present company. The veteran is as good here as he has been in a while, snarky and showing pinpoint comedic timing. Tony grates a little, especially when we see him in his basement setting without any character depth towards the start, but he fares better as the film advances. He is a singer and, like Joy, the screenplay wants to protect him — O. Russell has penned a celebration of creativity after all.

The film trundles along appealingly, though without too much in the way of bite or real depth. That changes in the second act, when the Miracle Mop takes shape and sales pitches are invoked. Cooper turns up as a distanced TV exec with more business acumen than generosity. Energy levels heighten as he shows Joy around the QVC studio. The piece comes to life and starts to really feel like a David O. Russell production: Melissa Rivers barters before our eyes as her late mother (uncannily by the way); words suddenly have urgency; a western twang sounds out; the camera swoops left and right as ringing telephones carry the frantic calls of seduced customers.

Real life Mangano has the spotlight but the film is really an amalgamation of many exceptional tales (“Inspired by true stories of daring women” are the first worlds we see on-screen), and as such you sometimes get the sense our central character is too good to be true — when she needs Miracle Mop personnel, Joy hires a bunch of female immigrants and turns her father’s male workplace into a sort of gender-balanced haven. Lawrence absolutely makes it work though: like her character’s family, the camera relentlessly pesters the actor, worried it might miss a moment of her brilliance.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is crisp but the film does parade an idiosyncrasy in the way it is structured. We get flashbacks that serve to fill some life gaps, but then there are these silly dream sequences dressed up as episodes of a melodramatic soap opera. They feel more suited to American Hustle than Silver Linings Playbook, and given Joy falls tonally on the side of the latter, the sequences don’t really mesh well with the surrounding drama and are ultimately superfluous.

Like American Hustle, it is a film that ages well; certainly, there were moments that had me feeling a bit blasé about the whole thing, but then it won me over and continued to do so even hours after the credits had rolled. Sure you can telegraph certain plot points, but you aren’t really paying for plot: you’re paying for Joy and Jen. The movie is about a functional mop. Isabella Rossellini appears as a bonkers love interest. There is a hotel room standoff involving a guy wearing a cowboy hat for goodness’ sake. What’s not to like?

Joy - Jennifer Lawrence

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: 20th Century Fox

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 (2015)

★★★★

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 PosterDirector: Francis Lawrence

Release Date: November 19th, 2015 (UK); November 20th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is an empowering film, and it was likely always going to be that. However, there is no denying the impact that recent tragic events have had on further funding its overarching message of hope. Movie-making, of course, manifests as a trivial pursuit when considered alongside matters of life and death. It’s a luxury, a pastime, a hobby, a passion. But it’s also a love, a source of joy, a triumph, an escape. Cinema is one of life’s most important unimportant things, and when it reflects reality in any form — big or small — cinema is arguably at its most engaging.

The Hunger Games franchise has always had its finger on the pulse of geopolitics and society; the struggle that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) faces, against tyranny and barbarism, is also the struggle that many people in this world are currently caught up in. You can feel the heightened reverence as you watch, and those behind the series — from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, from Suzanne Collins to Danny Strong and Peter Craig — deserve credit for bringing those aforementioned weighty themes to the forefront of young adult fiction.

The film opens with Katniss hoarsely attempting to say her name, battling against the damage inflicted by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) towards the end of the previous film. Instantly the outing is reinforcing its central notion of a silenced body fighting against said silence and not giving into an oppressive society. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is the oppressor in Panem, Katniss the symbolic body speaking out. As Snow and his cohorts sit around lavish dining tables, eating and drinking and toasting their own unsavoury greed, Mockingjay — Part 2 initiates the conclusive rebellion.

We know there won’t be any messing about when the title card appears on screen, white letters bluntly protruding from a black background. But the moral structure of this tale isn’t as clear-cut. “It’s war Katniss. Sometimes killing isn’t personal,” says Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whose righteousness has apparently seen better days. For the rebels, cause is supposed to take precedent over spectacle — The Hunger Games and Catching Fire particularly honed in on the consequences of the latter via their televised Gaming exploits — but there are even those in Katniss’ team who adhere specifically to marvel. This blurred morality keeps us on our toes as characters waver on who to trust.

Even Katniss, leader of the rebellion, feels harnessed by the warring tactics invoked by her superiors: “It doesn’t matter what you want,” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) spits. The film has a grey palette that is quite distinct from the flashiness of earlier films, but that is similar to the chalky aesthetic of something like Saving Private Ryan. Katniss, Gale and co. are part of an insurgent team that takes to the booby trapped Capitol in an effort to fuel their cause and, perhaps, deal with Snow. We think back to Saving Private Ryan again as the rebels carefully navigate the urban decay, threat constantly hanging over the screen like a dark shadow. It really feels like the final battle, especially following Mockingjay — Part 1’s more subdued, poised, and frankly justified prerogative.

Fans of The Walking Dead will see familiarities in the Capital-set roulette game, where death could befall anybody at any moment; as such we sit through nerve-shredding uncertainty. A genuinely scary sewer sequence is coincidentally similar to a scene in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, only this one bears even more edgy ferocity. The underground monsters here are spawns of World War Z’s sprinters and The Descent’s crawlers. Neither Francis Lawrence nor his writers shirk away from tough subject matters which means death, a lot of it, is inevitable. It’s a brave mantra and an honest one in my view (i.e. not exploitative), though there is a truly horrifying moment that some might find too tough for a film rated 12A.

We do get small glimpses of cheer: the wedding of Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson), for instance, ushers in a deluge of celebratory dancing. War thoughts never abate though; Katniss and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) watch the festivities from afar as they debate their separate roles in the rebellion. It’s a scene akin to one in The Return of the King where Gandalf and Aragorn discuss the probability of Frodo’s success while Merry and Pippin party nearby. The brooding calm before the inevitable storm. The screenplay also investigates how individuals scarred by war operate. Johanna, for example, is dependent on drugs. Avox cameraman Pollux (Eldon Henson) bears not only physical but also mental ailments. And Peeta spends much of his time conflicted, Josh Hutcherson playing the tortured soul with a sense of purpose.

Given the large cast involved, some characters only appear fleetingly: Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), to mediate the revamped Hunger Games with despicable aplomb; Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), affording the film greater substance with a simple glance; Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), humanised to the point of no return; Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), a key player in generating emotion; and President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), a burst of thunder amongst the clouded moral spectrum.

There are a few fairly minor problems, namely that the all-seeing Snow constantly believes Katniss has met her demise when it is clear she hasn’t and, without tempting spoilers, the unfair and somewhat puzzling fate of one key character (no death involved). The final half hour is unexpected in many ways — some good, some not-so-good — but it at least ought to be hailed for not conforming to a prerequisite narrative. It’s also worth pointing out that this is an action movie that manages to dazzle without sacrificing its politically-infused roots, which must be worth something in 2015.

Fittingly, we end with a nod to Jennifer Lawrence. Mockingjay — Part 2 packs an emotional punch because it has good writing and good direction, but those are only conduits for a performer and Lawrence’s performance here, just as it has been throughout the entire series, is wholly affecting. She absolutely is a filmmaker’s dream, both talented and marketable. But her commitment, her discernibility, also makes Lawrence a film-watcher’s dream, and it is through her leadership that this smart, pertinent blockbuster franchise has flourished.

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 - Katniss & Gale

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Crash of the Titans: The Decline of the Actor

Stars - J Law 2

Following a dour weekend stateside for new film releases, that ever-intrusive question is banging around the cinemasphere again: What has happened to our movie stars? Now more than ever films are sold to audiences through an expertly crafted marketing gaze, and it seems the most effective marketing strategy for studios these days is to repeat that which was once successful.

Through no fault of their own, actors are no longer truly bankable; even the biggest and best have financial flops lingering in their back catalogues like an unwanted infection. The same could be said for directors, many of whom have helmed a financial disappointment. If you’re not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, chances are you’re not getting top billing on the poster. In fact hiring less well-known directors to oversee large productions is becoming an increasingly popular trend in Hollywood.

Instead, distributors are all wrapped up in promoting a marketable product these days. It’s partly why franchises are in vogue; they have a ready-made narrative structure in place and are therefore easier to sell. Skyfall currently flies the most successful British film ever made banner and, as good as his performance is in the film, chances are people didn’t scramble to their nearest cinema to catch a glimpse of Daniel Craig. They went for James Bond, the character, the familiar entity. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the world’s most in demand actor, a reputation she has carved out for herself by being very good in two huge movie series (The Hunger Games and X-Men).

In the US, this past weekend saw name-value take another hit: Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock both had films released, and both films succumbed to poor box office returns. Cooper stars in Burnt, a culinary drama that took as little as $5 million, while Bullock’s vehicle is the political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis. The latter only managed to recoup $3.2 million of its $28 million budget. As those films struggled, grander ventures such as The Martian continued to reign supreme — thankfully, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi jaunt is one of the year’s best (another, in fairness, is franchise reboot Mad Max: Fury Road).

Stars - Sandra Bullock

While middle-of-the-road outings such as Burnt and Our Brand Is Crisis feel the weight of their franchise-less, big budget-less predicaments, the past 12 months have brought us this lot: Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions, four sequels (or prequel in the case of Minions) that greatly emphasised their pre-existing worlds during the sales pitch. Heck, Jurassic World went full throttle and unveiled distinctly recognisable posters to the world before incorporating an updated version of John Williams’ wonderful score in its trailer. Those movies, incidentally, are four of cinema’s largest ever grossers.

If the waning power of the actor wasn’t so explicitly obvious before, Suffragette may well have totally pulled the plug. Focus Features heavily promoted Meryl Streep’s involvement in the project alongside main players Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, even though the iconic actor only appears on screen for a handful of minutes. Presumably, the studio expected her name-value to grasp the consumer’s attention and subsequently increase viewership. Unfortunately, the film has only grossed $11.6 million up until now (it’s in its fourth week), $2.4 million short of its initial budget.

There are pros and cons to our present age of sequel-dom. On the one hand, we get to see exhilarating and smart blockbuster outings such as the aforementioned Mad Max: Fury Road and also Marvel’s Ant-Man, these films succeeding in spite of their pre-established identities. But we also have to sit through monstrosities such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that when issued back in 2009 arrived on the silver screen warmed by the security blanket of a guaranteed audience. A film, sadly, that hardly values quality.

There are exceptions to rule — some may call them diminishing lights amongst the bleak darkness — and one of those might be The Revenant. Granted the upcoming film will be riding the Oscar wave, particularly given its director Alejandro González Iñárritu is fresh off a golden statuette victory himself. But even films touched by the shiny sheen of an Academy Award nomination rarely yield monster returns — the 2015 crop harvested a circumstantially low intake — and it’s worth noting that these often host the flashiest names too. Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, is another potential awards-hauler performing poorly.

Stars - Leo DiCaprio

But back to The Revenant. There is an argument to be made that any financial success incurred by The Revenant will lie solely at the feet of its genuine A-list star, Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the last original flicks to make any real cash was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, also starring DiCaprio, though to claim that movie’s monetary success was exclusively down to said actor’s involvement would be a stretch. A genuine exception might be Spring Breakers, starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hugdens who, at the time, were Disney starlets. It made over $30 million on a $6 million budget.

A24 Films delivered Spring Breakers to audiences back in 2013 and since then the studio has prioritised freshness (though its movies don’t always boast big names). Its highest grossing picture thus far is Ex Machina, which featured relative newcomers Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. Conversely, Under the Skin starring Avenger Scarlett Johansson failed to regain even half of its initial outlay. American Hustle, of the non-A24 Films variety, done well at the box office under the guidance of a conglomeration of star power: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner were all involved.

Is it a good thing? Recent history suggests that the demise of the actor as a wholesale draw has meant most studios see the establishment of a brand as the only way forward. If true this approach cannot be healthy, as it would almost certainly encourage a lack of diversity in cinema (many will claim cinema is already lacking diversity). You might argue Gravity, starring Bullock and George Clooney, is an example of a film that was beefed up by its two major stars, but even that was marketed largely as an immersive and stunning cinematic experience. Clooney himself felt the brunt of ebbing clout when audiences opted not to see Tomorrowland: A World Beyond this past summer.

None of this should come as a surprise. The days of the star system are gone and in their place we have a society that subscribes to Netflix not to see a particular film, but because it’s Netflix. A Will Smith-led Bad Boys can no longer make over $140 million based solely on Will Smith’s appearance. The solution, if there is one, is an entirely different matter, though perhaps actors don’t need one. Perhaps studios and audiences just need to have more confidence in original movie-making.

Stars - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: Metro, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures, 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

★★★★

X Men Days of Future Past PosterDirector: Bryan Singer

Release Date: May 22nd, 2014 (UK); May 23rd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence

Whereas Matthew Vaugh’s franchise revitaliser X-Men: First Class gained plaudits for its cast-iron story told with an injection of slickness and youthful energy, this next stop in mutant-ville is something quite different indeed. Ambition is the word that instantly springs to mind; from the moment livelihood-altering time travel is suggested (though it’s more mind travel) until the film’s final buzz-inducing reel, X-Men: Days of Future Past presents a whirlwind of famous faces enraptured in a spider’s web of plot, humour and enticing entertainment. Along the way Bryan Singer’s instalment exhumes a few hiccups, particularly as well-versed characters get caught up in allegiance purgatory, and the film’s lack of transparency when it comes to who wears the most villainous shoes is a problem too. But d’you know what? It’s tough to get anywhere without ambition, and this Inception-cum-Minority Report outing sprinkled with comic book enthusiasm has enormous ambition. Unsurprisingly then, it gets somewhere.

It’s 2023 and the world is being pillaged by Sentinel robots that bare only grudges, towards mutants and humans alike. Long-time enemies Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) congregate with a number of X-Men and hatch a plan to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) mind south, back to 1973, in an attempt to cut the Sentinel problem at its source — that is, Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Wolverine’s solitary hope in regards to changing the course of history lies in tandem with a united mutant front, where differences are pushed to the side for the greater good. Only, this proves to be an obstacle for Professor X and Magneto’s younger selves, the duo irrevocably at odds over morality.

Days of Future Past purveys an ever-increasing sense of magnitude. As the film progresses we entertain thoughts of grandeur, that this might be a final hurrah for some. There are so many faces on screen that the loss of simply just one begins to feel unlikely. Many will succumb, we feel, and this undoubtedly instils a weighty load atop proceedings. At one point Trask urges the need for his Sentinel program: “A common enemy against the ultimate enemy… extinction.” The line represents this all-or-nothing undercurrent that drives events, ushering forth supreme unpredictability. The most engaging X-Men films are those that contort whichever mutant-human relationship is in fashion during said time period, and here we begin to see the inner-workings of primitive convolution.

Much like its predecessor, Days of Future Past wears the international climate within which the film is primarily set like a rain jacket on a cloudy day: posing relevant questions and suitably prepared for any proceeding answers. We’ve advanced a few decades since First Class and are now thoroughly engulfed a Vietnam War culture where blame is tossed left and right like a hot potato and international relations are frazzled at best. Musings over corporate-compelled destruction of the mutant race are a reflection of US military intervention across Asia. Discussions between the suit-wearing brass are centred on geopolitics, the language bolstering accusation and condemnation. (“You will have lost two wars in one lifetime.”) Despite an inordinate helping of fantastical powers such as shape-shifting and object manipulation — a stadium relocation is equally as impressive as it daunting — the shrouding of events in familiar histories gives the film vital realism that otherwise might be lost. At various points, Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography shape-shifts into stock footage of JFK assassination ilk, further furnishing authenticity.

Action sequences that spawn from the aforementioned clash of mutant and humankind are exhilarating. Carrying a wonderful visual gloss, these moments serve to get the heart pumping and, admirably, never oust the film’s emotional prerogative. Though, the same cannot be said for plot goings-on. It’s not universally indecipherable, however the narrative does falter on occasion. As Wolverine awakens in 1973, “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” consciously lamenting with poignancy in the air around him, there’s a struggle between reality and non-reality that never fully realises closure. His present self is dropped into the past, but where is his past self? The Wolverine character hits a stumbling block or two as the film progresses. His main objective is to rally the X-troops, but that’s about it. Afterwards, the mutant mainstay becomes something of a generic piece in the puzzle. An impeding notion arises, therefore, that him being selected to go back in time is more of a Hugh Jackman star power issue as opposed to a Wolverine character arc issue. “You sent back the wrong man,” says the Aussie.

Nonetheless it is the characters who generally hold the key to success. A few have never been better relayed on screen. As young Charles Xavier, James McAvoy steals the show in a performance of initial enduring frailty and disillusionment. He has lost everything, yet refrains from morphing into a charity case. Rather, our sympathy is earned through the Scot’s heart-wrenching depiction of a broken man, one of McAvoy’s best turns to date. A scene between he and his older manifestation is arguably the best of the entire piece, a memorable moment made so with the aid of Patrick Stewart. On the flip side, Michael Fassbender’s domineering Magneto is cold and calculated; we never truly know where his allegiance lies. The impressiveness in Fassbender’s performance comes by way of a subtle regret that he exudes, a nuance that holds greater verve as Magneto embraces his thirst for resolution. Jennifer Lawrence is icy as Mystique, her desire for revenge both ambiguous and purposeful.

Though Mystique engages in a number of villainous acts, she’s never intended to be the definitive villain. In fact there is no real categorical antagonist here. The closest we get is Peter Dinklage’s suit-wearing scientist Bolivar Trask, though his infrequent appearances on screen tend to hinder any evil momentum. “Trask is the enemy,” we are informed and, although his Sentinel program is born from an unsavoury mindset, Dinklage never really comes across as the heinous bad guy that he probably should. Days of Future Past is layered with humour, often successful attempts too, and Quicksilver speeds off with many of the funniest moments. Evan Peters emits wit as quick as his feet, striking up a comedic dynamic with the dry banter of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Listen out for Jim Croce’s “If I Could Save Time in a Bottle” and look out for the ensuing scene; intuitive excellence.

Despite a small helping of problems associated with narrative, X-Men: Days of Future Past manages to leave a lasting impression on us, an emotional impact bred by the people involved and the morals that they relay. This has a special aura surrounding it, a magnitude that usurps its few flaws. Regardless, we ought to applaud scoping aim, particularly when the aimer just about hits bullseye.

I suspect Singer and company have been practising their darts.

X-Men Days of Future Past - James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

The Hunger Games (2012)

★★★★

The Hunger Games PosterDirector: Gary Ross

Release Date: March 23rd, 2012 (UK and US)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks

As District 12 native Gale peers pensively across a carpet of dense woodland, we know his thoughts are centred only on Katniss and what could’ve been. Many miles yonder, the Games are about to begin and the odds aren’t in Ms. Everdeen’s favour. In fact, the odds aren’t in anybody’s favour. The green canopy before him is an “escape” that Gale and Katniss have always cohesively pondered. Now, it’s likely too late. There isn’t much respite from this sense of pertinent dread throughout The Hunger Games. Themes of oppression, manipulation and artifice consume proceedings, each element tackled maturely and with a degree of intelligence. Though it’s based on Suzanne Collins’ teen-aimed novel of the same name, The Hunger Games beckons forth a far wider audience, a psyche that no doubt assists in creating close to an indelible franchise curtain-raiser.

In a dystopian future, the nation of Panem is segregated into 12 districts and a commercially rich Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is Capitol overseer, and his methods of maintaining ‘order’ in society rely heavily on a tournament of death called the Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) survives week by week in District 12, the poorest area of Panem, though since volunteering in place of her younger sister to take part in the 74th annual Hunger Games, survival has become a rare commodity. Alongside fellow district resident Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss now must participate in a maniacal free-for-all where there can be only one survivor.

An assured opening sets the stage for what is to come. The first act carries eerie subtlety, etching discomfort; a melancholic hum, almost vigil-esque, is interrupted by the hollow sound of a horn ushering in inevitable death. Later on, this underlying notion of distress plateaus as a 30 second countdown intermittently signals the immediacy of inhumane violence for Katniss. We see portions of District 12 that are hopefully its worst parts as anything poorer would imply extreme poverty — it is a place that could easily be mistaken for the downtrodden Ozark dwellings of Winter’s Bone, only unfrozen. Instantly an air of durability emerges, within which citizens have learned to fend for themselves. Katniss and Gale hunt in forbidden zones in order to feed their families, the former exclaiming, “Is this real?!” upon the sight of bread.

Shortly thereafter, the Reaping takes place and the Hunger Games players are selected. Booming screens represent a watchdog elite, the Capitol, whose justification for staging an animalistic melee is to protect those whom they rule over: “This is how we remember our past, this is how we safeguard our future.” It’s clear who the “our” in said statement denotes (and who it does not). The film’s inaugural goings-on are excellent, presenting an ideological enemy that bares no echelon of morality. We are already desperate to see those being held down rise up and, as promise dwindles, this desire escalates. President Snow refrains from showing face until events have advanced further and, in truth, has very little impact on the film as an active villain. His affects on events are delivered far more insidiously, his sophisticated whisper carrying indulgence, and this only serves to fuel a fire of loathing against the autocratic Capitol.

Having conjured up a seemingly impermeable enemy and a downbeat atmosphere bathed in truth — knowing these cruelties are very palpable factors in the real world makes them even tougher to comprehend — director Gary Ross must then offer a beacon of hope for viewers to grab hold. Occasional splashings of humour temporarily alleviate the heavy tone, but it’s Katniss who is the primary body of resistance. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss, moreover. Sculpted from the get-go as necessarily protective of her loved ones, Katniss’ strength stems from a hereditary place, ultimately one that resonates with viewers. She’s unaware of but not impervious to pain when her family is at risk (an early finger-stabbing scene cements this). With those paternal foundations in the bank, Jennifer Lawrence adds rigour and ambiguity — we’re never entirely sure where her loyalties lie away from District 12 — though in distancing herself from other characters, she never distances herself from the audience. It’s a tremendous performance in a clinical role, and Lawrence deserves a lot of credit.

Tom Stern’s cinematography resembles his work in Mystic River, chartering gritty immediacy which, alongside instances of on-point editing, generates a jolting disquiet in the face of in-game brutality. Bloody splurges are uncommon and therefore more impactful upon manifestation (included in the 15 certificate version, they make events in the arena seem more visceral). In contrast, Capitol life is artificial; the pre-game festivities are produced, and giant screens relay betting markets for the benefit of already wealthy residents, who wear extravagant attire and hide their faces with make-up. The filmmakers rightfully abstain from going down a commercial route though, instead engraving the tournament as an antidote of perverse enjoyment for Capitol civilians. After all, “it’s a television show” according to Haymitch, one of Katniss’ few allies, himself flawed as a result of the Games: his heart promotes authenticity, but his head is hampered by alcohol.

Woody Harrelson balances Haymitch’s principle-jousting effectively and appears to be having a blast in the process. As does Elizabeth Banks, playing Effie Trinket, an eternally positive Capitol export whose drastic appearance and bubbly mindset do not connotate evilness as much as they do ignorance. Rather, malevolence froths from Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. Delivering a performance of poise, Sutherland compels the audience to detest Snow more and more with every muttering. Josh Hutcherson is solid as Peeta Mellark, though he does sporadically tow the corny line. A nod must also go to Stanley Tucci, whose Caesar Flickerman is the face of the Capitol, an ebullient television presenter. Tucci injects so much charisma that it’s difficult to dislike Caesar, though your teeth will grit upon hearing his pronunciation of the “Hungaaa Games”.

The film does suffer slightly from a quite lethargic middle act, particularly as it comes on the back a swift and purposeful opening. Throughout many of the training centre scenes, there’s a less-than-sure ambience and events begin to meander. We know Peeta is in the shadow of Katniss, no need for him to explain it over the dinner table. In comparison, the outing’s conclusion feels rushed, almost as if the filmmakers can’t wait to end proceedings and move onto the second instalment.

The Hunger Games is a decisive franchise opener. Shepherded by an accomplished lead performance, the film tackles issues carrying present day prominence in a manner feasible to most audiences. Like an arrow through an apple, Katniss must be emphatic when striking an enemy whose guard is down, when they’re not paying attention. They mightn’t be watching, but you should.

The Hunger Games - Katniss

Images credit: IMP Awards, What Culture

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Oscars 2014 — Final Predictions

Hollywood’s favourite night of the year is once again upon us. Stars have campaigned. Odds have shortened. Dresses have been selected. Cinema trips have come thick and fast. Jared Leto’s hair has been straightened.

And, now that I’ve seen all the nominated films in all the most talked about categories, here are my final predictions for the 86th Academy Awards.

If you want to know a bit more about why I picked what/who, there are a few ponderings towards the end. For my review of each Best Picture nominee, click on the respective title.

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Matthew McConaughey

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominatedAdèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour)

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

Who should’ve been nominated: N/A

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Lupita Nyong’o

Who should’ve been nominated: Scarlett Johansson (Her)

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will winAlfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: Steve McQueen

Who should’ve been nominated: Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

Additional Quick-hits

With the exception of a few glaring errors, The Academy has more or less come up trumps this year, at least nominations-wise. Time will tell whether the industry congregation get it right on the night, but until then, let’s take a look at some of the unfortunate snubbees (in a personal snub, I’ve opted not to include my Best Foreign Language picks above as, for whatever reason, i haven’t seen enough of the nominated films).

Inside Llewyn Davis, what is going on? Only up for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing, my personal favourite film of the year has strummed a valiant strum, only to be waived by another Bud Grossman. As unlucky as Llewyn himself (irony eh?) the film should be up for a lot more.

Tom Hanks delivers the performance of a lifetime in the final moments of Captain Phillips, but his name is nowhere to be seen. I’m a fan of Christian Bale, and thought he was really good in American Hustle, but no phony wig can hide the travesty that places his performance ahead of Hanks’. Having said that, old Tom’s already won a couple, so he might not be that bothered.

Another disappointingly shunned near-masterpiece, the folks behind Blue is the Warmest Colour must feel hard done by. Adèle Exarchopoulos’ raw, enchanting portrayal is criminally ignored. The film was ineligible for a Best Foreign Language nomination, but Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film nods should’ve been calling. It’s almost as if some of those hardened Americana execs don’t fancy reading subtitles…

On to the actual bunch clambering for awards, and it seems Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor are all pretty much sown up. I’d love Leo DiCaprio to finally receive the adulation he deserves in the form of a golden statuette, but McConaughey is the favourite and a worthy winner. Barkhad Abdi surprised at the BAFTAs, but won’t here. Cate Blanchett is the definitive stick on.

Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o have been tussling for Best Supporting Actress throughout this awards season, the former having come out on top more often. Nyong’o delivers the more powerful and wholly better performance, thus should win the gong. Gravity is up for a lot, but outwith the technical categories, might only win Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón.

What then, of the top prize? Best Film. It appears to be a three-way jostle between the important 12 Years a Slave, the glitzy American Hustle, and the floaty Gravity. Apparently, some Academy members find 12 Years a Slave too tough a watch – which is absurd – and Gravity ain’t exactly at its best on a laptop screen (most voters see the films at home), therefore a shock could be on the cards which would see American Hustle hustle its way to the top. I don’t think so. For me, there’s no looking past Steve McQueen’s haunting 12 Years a Slave.

There we have it.

After a fairly lacklustre spring/summer, the arrival of that typical awards scent in late autumn summoned a plethora of very good to great films. From Captain Phillips to The Wolf of Wall Street, and many others in between, we’ve seen a mixture of high intensity drama, awe-inspiring visuals, harrowing story-telling and debaucherous eccentricity. All in all, I reckon it’s been a pretty good year.

Here’s to another!