X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

★★

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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

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

★★★★★

Mad Max Fury Road PosterDirector: George Miller

Release Day: May 14th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

Vehicles have always played a huge part in the Maxverse and veteran director George Miller decides to hammer this point home in Mad Max: Fury Road. Various characters are seen to cherish steering wheels, hauling them around in the same way Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain clung onto a spoon in Mad Max 2. His spoon could pick at leftover tinned food, a novelty apparently long gone. Small-scale scavenging is out. This is a world dominated by distance, by grandeur, by gasoline. The spoon has become the steering wheel.

Or, maybe such pensiveness doesn’t exist within these characters. Maybe they just love to thunder across the desert. Maybe they can’t wait to get on the road. Miller certainly can’t.

After a brief prologue from Max explaining his post-apocalyptic mantra (“A man reduced to a single instinct: survive”) we hurtle into a half hour opening sequence that obliterates anything remotely resembling action we might have seen in previous films. These thirty minutes of total carnage, of collapsed worldbuilding, shoot past in an aluminium whirlwind, leaving your eyes watering and heart bellowing. It’s almost as if Miller has been waiting three decades to get something off his chest.

The plot is simple but by no means inadequate: Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself in an unlikely partnership alongside Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as the pair attempt to evade the monarchical clutches of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a slave-keeping cultish leader. The destination, or “Green Place”, dreamt up by the formerly shackled wives of Joe, is unknown. It is more or less a mystery, the characters unable to shed much light and, as such, we are left in the dark. This doesn’t matter, the journey does.

The best thing, unquestionably, about the franchise has always been Miller’s ingenious and realistic-looking action sequences. They are here in abundance, bearing the hallmarks of even greater ingenuity and somehow appearing just as authentic. Oil trucks are christened “War Rigs” and subsequently live up to the name. Amazingly, the majority of effects are practical, in line with the director’s penchant for traditional movie-making. As such, praise should be heaped upon the many stunt performers whose death-defying efforts play a key role in raising the stakes.

We are constantly reminded of the urgency facing Max, Furiosa and company: as the camera pans back towards the chasing pack, all we can see is an ominous mirage, a giant metallic silhouette in the distance. The threat is real and incoming, energised by a booming score that carries more than a hint of Brian May’s earlier franchise work. Other throwbacks to past films include: Master-Blaster-esque siblings (one of whom is former WWE wrestler Nathan Jones), and the occasional lower front bumper camera shot. There’s even that familiar feeling of disorientation, where the screen is so rammed full of carnage that deciphering who is fighting who becomes a task.

Of course, absurdity is tossed around like a hot potato. From vehicles in the form of mechanical hedgehogs, to an electric guitarist who looks like a cross between The Silence from Doctor Who and Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu, Miller has all bases covered. This includes humour: “Of all the legs, you had to shoot the one that was attached to his favourite”. Nicholas Hoult’s Nux is the ideal amalgamation of odd and funny, his obsession with the Gates of Valhalla both amusing and touching. Hoult absolutely throws himself at the role, which is arguably the best of his career.

Probably for the first time, Max truly is mad. He’s no more than a splash of white body paint away from being one of Joe’s skeletal followers, growling incoherently and shifting his gun aim maniacally. Hardy sometimes deviates verbally back into Bane-mode, but he is mighty impressive as the iconic loner. The Welshman is gruff, a far cry from Mel Gibson’s portrayal in the inaugural instalment and possibly more interesting too.

Hugh Keays-Byrne, the man behind Gibson’s nemesis in Mad Max, returns as new villain Immortan Joe. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that Joe’s world-weary appearance could very well be that of Toecutter after toiling for decades in the scorching desert. Imagine the sunburn? “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water,” Joe preaches to the subservient crowds upon affording them momentary respite from thirst. His voice croaks like the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, and he is almost as scary too.

In a film overflowing with eccentric and domineering characters, Imperator Furiosa is two things: a warrior and a realist. She handles herself in battle while aiding the escape of five enslaved wives, who are also each pretty handy when it comes to fighting and smarts (and who all somehow manage to keep their white clothing miraculously clean). Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is especially good, steely and determined, as Joe’s pregnant prized possession. The women drive this movie; Max is along for the ride through coincidence, but it is the female characters who initiate the chase because they value life.

“Out here everything hurts,” Furiosa states bluntly. Crucially, Theron does not play her as totally wound up — she is reasonable, and willing to work in a team because it is the right course of action. As a result, the relationship between her, Max and the rest of their ragtag band imbues believability. Some might accuse these characters of being too cordial too soon. They are all survivors though, in a harsh world, with a common enemy.

Without trying to sound overly hyperbolic, Mad Max has hit a new stratosphere. You can just about see Beyond Thunderdome — a perfectly fine outing, by the way — squirming in the corner. The direction, how the film has been pieced meticulously together only to then be blown apart, is all a work of art (in many other genres this would likely demand awards recognition). John Seale’s cinematography is wonderful — a night assault has the dreading echo and gloomy manifestation of something straight from Saving Private Ryan.

A Furiosa moment towards the end should, in time, cement its place in action movie lore alongside the likes of “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” and “Hasta-la-vista baby”. This is seminal cinema. The 80s had Die Hard. The 90s, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Give it 20 years and we’ll be talking about Mad Max: Fury Road as the go-to action jaunt of the early 21st century.

Mad Max Fury Road - Hardy and Theron

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures