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

Spy (2015)

★★★★

Spy PosterDirector: Paul Feig

Release Date: June 5th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Comedy; Crime

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Jason Statham

When James Bond saunters into town, his pristine Armani suit hiding any number of high tech weapons, hair nestled to the last strand, there often isn’t an awful lot of room for laughter. To solve: swap Bond for Melissa McCarthy and his Armani suit for her grey cardigan. Paul Feig’s Spy is many things, but first and foremost the writer-director has made a film that ridicules other films through sharp satire and vulgarity. It is ridicule born out of admiration, though mercy is somewhat lacking.

Susan (Melissa McCarthy) works for the CIA as Agent Bradley Fine’s (Jude Law) office-based earpiece. She is self-depreciating and lacking in confidence, which makes it easy for those who she obsequiously admires to take advantage of her skills. When Fine runs into trouble while trying to locate a nuclear device, Susan ditches her hesitant psyche and volunteers to observe potential bomb supervisor Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) in the field.

Feig romanticises the spy genre before sticking a bullet in it. The contractual car chase sequence (there are two actually) matches slick low camera angles with precise steering, but is ultimately a nightmare for Susan who desperately needs a seatbelt. Later on a spot appears to be free at Boyanov’s poker table — of course the baddie plays poker — but Susan’s efforts to join are scuppered when she finds out the spot is reserved. The humour is fairly light-hearted, particularly during the first hour as the underlying stupidity of the genre unravels before our eyes.

Topical jokes about Jurassic Park bats eventually secede from the ongoing shenanigans, ironically at around the same time tough guy Agent Rick Ford starts rearing his hilariously bloated head. The influence of Jason Statham pours into the screenplay and the film thereafter becomes a hotbed of amusing profanity. Statham does a tremendous heightened impersonation of himself and steals the show in the process: eyes constantly bulging, words packed with punch.

He instigates a lot of “fucks” too — an additional thirty minutes and Spy might have given The Wolf of Wall Street a run for its sweary money. Solitary f-bombs increase in quantity as the film progresses, universally well-delivered but not as gratifying as Statham’s completely baseless, hyperbolic remarks (he claims to have survived a car crash on top of a moving train while on fire, or something). Ford is a reflection of the nutty stunts and brash egos prevalent throughout the Bond franchise, but he’s only one branch on the film’s satirical tree.

We travel with Susan to numerous glamorous cities, visiting Paris and Rome and Budapest, Robert Yeoman’s cinematography consistently painting each locale with a prosperous gloss. If this wasn’t so obviously a spy outing you’d be forgiven for confusing the whole thing with a holiday brochure. Early on, some cotton wool-wrapped admin staff marvel at all the incredible gadgets: hoverboards, Aston Martins, palm-sensitive weaponry. None of that for Susan though. She receives some security disabling aerosol disguised as anti-fungal spray.

Spy incorporates a large volume of female characters whose attributes range from quiet, to funny, to powerful, to supremely effective in combat. Rose Byrne hams it up with delectable aplomb as Boyanov. She’s a nefarious villain, indisputably, but she is also smart and sexy. Allison Janney snaps away as Susan’s boss, always ahead of the curve. Even as the goofy best friend, Miranda Hart gets in on the action. Susan is the antithesis of convention personified. She’s all of the above, but also kind and proficient when it comes to terminating bad eggs. McCarthy retains her Bridesmaids crassness and is such an affable screen presence.

The men don’t fair quite so well. They are smutty, degrading, idiotic and full of ridiculous non-truths. Good spies are actually bad spies, they’re apparently just good at being dicks. “I like things that are easy,” says Fine, referring both to the control he has over Susan and her penchant for making his job exceedingly less difficult. Peter Serafinowicz turns up the creep factor as chauffeur Aldo, essentially a reimagining of Bond with his sleaziest characteristics intensified.

At one point Janney’s character tuts, “Women,” and it feels like a nod towards the unfortunate consequences of institutional misogyny found within classically male-dominated workplaces — especially Hollywood, and spy films, where women have often been (and sometimes still are) defined as plot points rather than well-rounded characters. This time some of the men are purposefully shallow. They do have redeeming qualities — Fine isn’t really a rubbish person, he’s simply indicative of a groan-inducing fake macho culture — but here the gender roles are well and truly (and refreshingly) reversed.

The violence is comical, reminiscent of those splattery outbursts in Hot Fuzz. A tremendous kitchen fight scene spiritually resembles the supermarket brawl in Edgar Wright’s movie, with baguettes, lettuce and hand-piercing knives all used in an inventive manner. Not every gag hits the mark, especially ones driven by aimlessness rather than intelligent wit; Susan invades an outdoor techno entertainment event and chases around a slightly chubby Elton John-lookalike, with the whole endeavour feeling a bit lazy. That’s not the norm though. The film has a lot in common with the underrated Johnny English when it comes to silly comedy.

The plot gets increasingly convoluted as more deals are struck and more bosses are revealed, but that is sort of the point. It’s part of the overarching joke. You’ll see Spy for the humour, which is adept and plentiful. But the film also has its finger on the cultural pulse, ready to pull the trigger on irreverent gender roles and uneven social standards via a barrage of well-earned laughs.

Spy - Melissa McCarthy

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

★★★★

The Place Beyond the Pines PosterDirector: Derek Cianfrance

Release Date: April 12th, 2013 (UK); April 19th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

The film that almost instantly springs to mind when watching The Place Beyond the Pines is Drive. Ryan Gosling stars in both, and in both he plays an outsider, a semi-vagrant. The Driver is a suave customer on the surface; he steers people away from danger in his glossy 1973 Malibu. Luke Glanton, on the other hand, trundles towards peril atop a motorcycle, common sense not in tow. For him it’s either a spherical cage of imminent perpetual risk or a bank robbery. Unlike Drive, Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious picture widens its berth to include a host of other characters. The result is an end product that is nowhere near as chiselled as the 2011 indie, at times detrimentally so, but one that should absolutely be applauded for its scope.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt motorcyclist who travels from state fair to state fair earning a wage. Upon rekindling his relationship with a previous beau, Romina (Eva Mendes), the marauder ventures into a life of crime. That’s where he encounters Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a police officer whose moral head space is struggling under the weight of a corrupt department.

Primarily, this is the story of two people and the incessant reverberations of their actions. We meet Luke from the off, and follow him as he strolls into a bowl of hell. His job, as a stunt motorcyclist, perfectly embodies his unconventional lifestyle. The quiet, edgy nomad is someone for hire and when we first meet Luke his already dirty attire fields smatterings of blood. Instantly we feel detached, yet the revelation that he has a son enshrouds our lead with some semblance of humanity. A church scene that pits a worn out Luke as a self-realised squanderer is powerful. The constant circle of danger that flares throughout the film — the cage, his annually reloading lifestyle — succumbs to a strive for rehabilitation.

Director Derek Cianfrance then violently cuts from intense, loud robberies to sweet family days out. It works. The desperation in Luke becomes apparent; here is a character whom we’re not necessarily encouraged to get behind, nor is he somebody tarred with pitch black strokes. His criminal exploits are stark but they’re not isolated, a notion that vividly rears during a home altercation. As he, Romina — Eva Mendes is an amiable foil for Gosling, but her character suffers from a lack of clear definition — and their child are having a family photo taken, Luke relays his instructions to the taker: “Just capture the mood… the bike’s part of the family.” It is one of his few moments of solemn happiness.

On the surface, Avery Cross is different animal. He is a do-gooder, a fresh faced police officer. Avery spends his days protecting people from the likes of Luke Glanton. However, the reverberations of an incident leave him shaken, more or less infecting Avery with the same ceaseless moral dilemma prominent in the mind of his criminal counterpart. Work also becomes his escape, and his workplace is one wrought with wrongfulness too. (“But that’s the job” is a phrase of resignation constantly thrown around). This is where the film runs into its first problem. Avery is part of a crooked police department led by the viciously enrapturing Ray Liotta, but we don’t really believe it. Is the whole division corrupt? The virtuous cop’s aversion to corruption paints him with a gloss of goodness but we’re left to ponder why he is the only impartial officer.

This is the first in a chain of coincidence that ends with a major bang, though by then we’re willing to forgive. Whereas the corruption layer is a similarly fortuitous addition installed by Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, it is one that rings less true, less authentic than the rest. In a sense, the director’s ambition suffers a tad as it becomes warped by sheer scope, but it shouldn’t be shot down as a result. Somewhere approaching the midpoint, the director unleashes quite the narrative swerve. The sequence is unexpected but ultimately rewarded because it endeavours to further the story, adding depth in the process. Regardless, the move signals the inception of a stunningly constructed piece of cinema.

Ryan Gosling’s work as Luke might be his best to date. The star manages to balance a controlled ferocity originating from struggle and toil, with a slice of unorthodox compassion. The Place Beyond the Pines does occasionally resemble Drive — a film whose slickness helped to paper over any cracks, a luxury not afforded here — but it is more rugged, and by proxy so is Gosling’s portrayal of Luke. As Avery, Bradley Cooper contributes with equal effort. It is true that his character follows a more recognisable and perhaps, therefore, more relatable path, but Cooper ensures there’s nothing generic about the police officer; in fact the further along we go, the meatier his role gets. Dane DeHaan’s performance is another worth singling out for praise, his stock on a seemingly unending rise.

Other factors are complimentary too. For instance, we get the raspy echoes of Bruce Springsteen rather than the melancholic waves of Kavinsky. At these points the outing hints at Scoot Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, a sentiment that gains more weight in tandem with Sean Bobbitt’s crackling cinematography. The camera stalks characters, firmly placing us amongst the people on display and invoking another degree of personableness. It’s guerrilla filmmaking finely executed.

Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his uncompromising hit Blue Valentine retains the same empathetic tendencies as said flick, but ambitiously rolls them out over a vaster blanket. The story presents two sides of the same coin, both engaging and effective. There are dips conjured by happenstance, but nothing catastrophic. Rather, we’re attracted to Cianfrance’s portrait of life, work, consequence and connection, and it’s a well-founded attraction.

The Place Beyond the Pines - Gosling

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features

Insidious (2011)

★★★

Director: James Wan

Release Date: April 1st, 2011 (US); April 29th, 2011 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins

As far as haunted house tales go, Insidious certainly does not fall into the dud category and for 40 minutes is actually very good. Unfortunately, the high volume of tension expertly built up throughout the first half of the film is let down by an average, scare-lacking second half which delivers a hokey logical explanation of the goings-on.

The film depicts the lives of the Lambert family — husband and wife, Josh and Renai, their two young sons and baby daughter — after the quintet’s relocation to a new house. The parents’ hopes for a new start absent of problems are soon dashed when their eldest son Dalton falls into a coma, triggering a series of weird and unsettling events.

James Wan, whose first directorial role was the innovative Saw back in 2004, is in his primary element when he is establishing trenches of tension and utilising shiver-inducing imagery to impart fear. This is exactly what Insidious offers for the first half of proceedings, as an ordinary family falls victim to a tragedy which bats away any explanation, and are then the subjects of various abnormal happenings, which are also devoid of explanation. The two are obviously linked, but in attempting to uncover how or why this is the case, the seeds of dread and fear for both the Lambert family and the audience are planted. This, along with a variety of common but still efficiently adapted elements of horror (doors randomly opening, figures appearing), ensure that the film sets standards high going into its second half.

When that second half arrives, however, proceedings begin to unravel a little. For every disturbing image in part one, there is a corny one in part two. For every discreet moment of tension built earlier on in the film, there is a disheartening logical explanation later. Delivering a unique, scare-inducing haunted house film is difficult in the present era, and this is mainly down to the vast majority of the tricks and frights being over-saturated year upon year. The ironic aspect of Insidious is that Wan gets the clichéd parts completely right, and even manages to add a twist to them. By the time we reach the end of the film though, it is Wan’s attempts at doing something different that comes back to haunt him. The logical (and I use that term lightly) explanation of events the audience is given is not scary at all, rather it is groan-worthy.

With that being said, the second half of Insidious is not without merit. Again, when sinister, almost maniacal imagery is present on-screen, the film grumbles as it threatens to erupt in a flow of ominous atmosphere. Wan delivers such imagery in the climax, but not nearly frequently enough, causing the scares to be overshadowed by some uninspired plot developments leeching onto Insidious towards the end. The opening 40 minutes does such a good job of building an unsettling atmosphere that it possible the remaining hour’s inability to keep up with what came before exposes the misfire more than the film deserves. Wan can do inventive, as he has proven in the past with Saw, but this time his attempt at originality veers too near to nonsensical logic than spontaneous genius.

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as the husband and wife pair and are thoroughly effective in their roles. Both come across as believable parents still trying to settle down into a comfortable way of living with their three young children. In line with the film separating into two parts, Wilson and Byrne appear to each take a turn at being the focal point of the piece. Byrne is at the centre of much of the spooky occurrences throughout the first phase of the film, and plays the traumatised, protective mother very well. Wilson on the other hand, sees much of the action in the second phase of the film, and is better than the hand he is dealt. Lin Shaye also makes an appearance as a paranormal investigator who fluctuates between calm and eccentric quicker than a tennis ball switches sides at Wimbledon.

The film’s tremendous box office returns have meant that Insidious: Chapter 2 has been scheduled for release later this year, and looks certain to be the autumn horror hit of 2013. James Wan will return to direct it and if he focuses on delivering a sequel more in tune with the first half of Insidious than the second, Chapter 2 will be as much of a critical hit as it will be a monetary one come September.

Credit: BoxOffice9
Credit: BoxOffice9