Talking Movies

June 9, 2019

Notes on X-Men: Dark Phoenix

The last chapter in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men saga was the film of the week today in a return to Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

This is the way the X-world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Simon Kinberg first arrived as X-screenwriter with the awful X-3, and now he rehashes X-3 as X-writer/director and makes it even worse, which is perversely impressive. X-3 has some rather nice music from John Powell, strong acting even in minor roles, and a number of upsetting moments (that were doubly upsetting for how badly Brett Ratner handled them) that leaned on the good work of the first two movies. This movie has A-list composer Hans Zimmer only occasionally elevating the material with emotive minimalism, some of the worst acting outside of X-Men: Origins – Wolverine, and absolutely no memorable moments whatsoever in part because there has been no good work done in previous movies to establish anything. Cyclops was killed off 20 minutes into X-3 by Jean Grey to establish she was out of control, and here Mystique is killed off 40 minutes in by Jean Grey to establish she is out of control. Kinberg shamelessly reuses dialogue and the ideas of X-3, but doubles down on them to make what was once annoying now insufferable.

Prior to her merciful death Mystique spends her screentime whingeing about Professor X, after she dies Beast takes up the whingeing baton to the point where you just want to shout at the screen “Why don’t you just move out of the mansion you’ve been living in rent-free for 30 years if you feel that strongly about him being a bad man?” Professor X is the villain of this piece. Somehow. I’m not nearly as sure as Kinberg is that hiding from a girl, who just murdered her mother because she wouldn’t stop listening to Glen Campbell, that her father regards her as a monster and wants nothing to do with her is a morally evil act. How does he think Jean would react to hearing that? Badly? Would she kill many people in her rage? Oh, the rage. In a scene where Jean is moody at a bar one longs for Sarah Snook in this role as Sophie Turner renders Jean Grey’s transformation into Dark Phoenix the temper tantrums of a petulant teenager. Jessica Chastain barely acts as the emotionless alien Vuk, and Jennifer Lawrence projects only deep boredom.

J-Law may be the audience avatar in that respect, fed up so much talent could be squandered on a twice-told tale. Kinberg has Christopher Nolan’s regular editor and composer, and yet there is a cut with the X-jet arriving and the team appearing as jarring as the scene John Ottman apologised for in Bohemian Rhapsody. The cinematographer of Avatar is on hand to, well, hide the action under cover of darkness and big swirly CGI. Watching X-Men and X-2 in recent days they really are films of the 1990s rather than the 2000s with their emphasis on practical effects to which CGI is added; a quaint notion long abandoned by Marvel and DC films that superpowers are more impressive interacting with tangible physical reality rather than being a welter of CGI battling a big swirly thing of CGI in a CGI landscape populated by CGI extras. There is some pleasing practicality here, but this is not a movie to stand beside Guy Hendrix Dyas’ amazing sets for X-2. And let’s remember the big swirly thing CGI that reached its nadir in X-Men: Apocalypse began in X-3 for Dark Phoenix’s powers.

Kinberg reprises it here in another display of creative bankruptcy. What exactly is the point of filming the Phoenix storyline? To plonk an actress down in mauve garb to stare moodily/blankly at everything for two hours while everyone stands around agonising over killing her while repeating that she’s unstoppably powerful and therefore can’t be killed unless she wishes it? Does that sound at all interesting? At this point it seems safe to say that the writing credits strongly suggest that the only X-screenwriters worth a damn were David Hayter, Zak Penn, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman, and everyone else was just coasting off their story ideas. It seems perilously close to the truth to say that, as set up by Bryan Singer’s original decisions, these films rarely worked without Hugh Jackman as Wolverine – the best of the bunch were X-Men, X-2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past. Maybe the reason for X-Men: First Class succeeding was that the charismatic turn by Michael Fassbender as vengeful hot-headed Magneto stood in for Wolverine. This is a terrible way for the X-Men to end given that they started the Marvel era.

It’s especially bad given that Disney will fold them into the MCU and a Marvel executive seems to think the signal problem with the X-Men was not their farrago of continuity, their revolving door of writers and directors, their recycling of the same stories, their failure to properly establish characters, their over-reliance on one actor, their ever-escalating budgets, their out of control CGI, their limited palette of character motivations and plots, but the fact that they were called the X-Men.

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December 3, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part II

If you’ve read the previous piece then you’ll be aware that I was quite often watching the adventures of the young(ish) Clark Kent for laughs.

So, why did I stick with Smallville? Season 1 was fun. It wasn’t a great TV show, but it was consistently entertaining, promised great future developments (not least when Lex’s future was glimpsed and it showed a white-suited black-gloved President causing a nuclear apocalypse), and the central conceit of a good Lex and a young Superman being friends was irresistible. You also had a nice thwarted but plausible relationship with Lana, complemented by Chloe’s loveable cub-reporter in the making digging around for meteor freaks for her Wall of Weird oblivious to the fact that her best friend was the freakiest. Season 2 was where the wheels fell off the wagon. I stopped watching for a while, as the removal of the obstacle didn’t lead to Clark and Lana becoming a couple, but instead to Millar & Gough ratcheting up the badly-written teen angst to unbearable levels. It also began a trend of dotting poorly explained ‘important arc plot points’ randomly at the end of episodes, and then forgetting about them for weeks, something which over the years eventually made the show both incomprehensible and unintentionally hilarious. Still the idea that Lex was prophesied to go bad by Indian Caves intrigued… Season 3 was loudly rumoured to have Ian Somerhalder starring as Batman, and Drew Z Greenberg writing episodes inspired by The Dead Zone. Only one of those happened though. Somerhalder was terrific as a haunted bad boy who disappointingly turned out to be Lionel’s stooge, but there was a nice exit for him in a Frequency inspired episode, and Chloe became more complex as she dallied with Lionel’s patronage. The best moments of this season though couldn’t rescue the overall sense of portentous drift, exemplified by the awful finale which killed off half the cast to the strains of opera.

I dragged myself back for season 4 because Jensen Ackles had joined the cast, and was surprised by a belter of an opener which kick-started an excellent fourth season that I regard as the highpoint of the series. A badly needed sense of fun was restored along with a completely new skill at touching moments. Millar and Gough finally lightened up, letting Clark fly in the season premiere with accompanying dialogue of “What is that? Is that a bird?” “Maybe it’s a plane”, while that episode for the first time in years actually felt like this show was derived from Superman comics, rather than The Flash; which is what the stubbornly non-flying Clark had made it veer towards. Ackles’ villain enlivened an actually well-developed arc chasing crystals that would create the Fortress of Solitude. Erica Durance unexpectedly arrived as Chloe’s cousin Lois Lane (and made Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang look wish-washy) and developed a wonderful spiky relationship with Clark. Chloe finally got to know Clark’s secret and, in a beautiful touch, had to teach an amnesiac Clark how to use his powers – in the knowledge that she’d have to go back to pretending she didn’t know about them soon enough.

Season 5 started off with the construction of the Fortress of Solitude and Clark and Chloe becoming a super-team: she detects crime, he fights it. The T-1000 reinterpretation of the Kryptonian artificial intelligence Braniac was rather great, and the Buffy overtones of James Marsters appearing for the writing of his colleague Steven S DeKnight were complemented by the ‘Clark goes to College and has a hard time of it’ feel that echoed season 4 of Buffy. There was a priceless conversation in which Clark and Chloe attempted to discuss the ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue’ problem, but the quickly reversed proposal to Lana which led to Jonathan Kent’s death was a disastrous mis-step for the show that brought proceedings down to the level of season 2’s angst in its insistence on burdening Clark with farcical levels of guilt; because apparently that’s what real drama is all about. The decision to move Lana towards Lex romantically was nicely done, but the feeling that Clark should be further down the road towards being Superman was starting to nag. The finale which saw Lex taken over by Zod’s spirit and Clark trapped in the Phantom Zone burned down the house in style.

Season 6 saw Clark roar back from the Phantom Zone but in doing so unleash a horde of loose phantoms, the rounding up of which became his season arc mission. It was a step down from the previous two arcs but this season was characterised by let-downs as Lex possessed by Zod was dealt with far too easily, Green Arrow’s arrival promised a Batman like level of conflict that never really arrived, and Lana and Lex’s marriage bafflingly retreated from emotionally destroying Clark. However a finale in which Bizarro arrived and all the female leads died was a stunning episode. Season 7 saw the arrival of Supergirl, who was never really given a compelling reason to be on the show, while Bizzarro was dispatched too easily only to gleefully reappear undetected, but still arguably underused. The revelation that Chloe had become a meteor freak thru continued exposure was brilliant, not least her struggle to keep the secret from her boyfriend Jimmy. Lex finally killed Lionel, and also bafflingly his brother the Daily Planet editor, to become a supervillain rather than previous season’s St Lex being lied to by Clark. However Clark still not being Superman rather undermined their apocalyptic clash. Season 8 saw Lex replaced by his ret-conned protégé Tess Mercer while Sam Witwer starred as Clark’s ret-conned Kryptonian stowaway Doomsday. Chloe’s descent into darkness as she was taken over by Braniac was delicious, but her half-romance with Witwer’s heroic EMT was always unintentionally funny as she and Clark defended him against Jimmy’s charge that this man was obviously a serial killer, despite continual evidence supporting Jimmy. This left an extremely bitter aftertaste when Jimmy was unnecessarily killed in the finale to guilt-trip Chloe for trying to separate man and beast to save the man. Oh, then Clark abandoned her.

Season 9 saw General Zod, as a Kandorian clone, pop up in Tess’ mansion (it was never really satisfactorily explained how) thus beginning endless half-written political machinations between Clark and Zod over leadership of the Kandorians. Tess was revealed as a member of the shadowy organisation Checkmate run by Pam Grier, and hilariously Senator Martha Kent reappeared as their nemesis the Red Queen, who’d been acting sinisterly to keep Clark’s secret safe. Brian Austin Green as Metallo was absolutely thrown away, and it became all too noticeable for budget reasons that Metropolis only had one street – shot from different angles. Season 10 introduced Jack Kirby’s villain Darkseid as the final season nemesis but he never really showed up properly, but manipulated his minions in a number of poorly explained sub-plots, while The Suicide Squad were almost entirely squandered. Ultimately not just Lionel but then Lex returned for the finale where Clark finally just became Superman – after previous inane episodes had set a new record for ‘well that was easy’ moments, not least one of the minions of Darkseid destroying the Bow of Orion with contemptuous ease, having proclaimed loudly that it was the only weapon that Darkseid feared. The End…

Smallville ran for 10 seasons. Along the way there were heartbreaking episodes, such as Chloe’s reunion with her stricken mother who for a brief while was lucid again, adorable episodes, such as the first appearance of Krypto the Superdog, and brilliantly fun episodes, like the formation of the Justice League. But all too often episodes were entirely dependent on having a cute high concept or a good writer simply amusing themselves. So we got Steven S DeKnight writing Saw with Lionel Luthor, while someone else Fassbendered in rewriting The Game with Oliver Queen as Michael Douglas and Chloe as Sean Penn. What could be great on a micro level could never really break out of the shackles that kept the show from being great on a macro level. Hence the crippling levels of angst, endless body-swap episodes, Clark affected by shade of Kryptonite episodes, and parallel universe episodes. Watching the finale you realised that Erica Durance and Kristin Kreuk each starred in 7 seasons of Smallville but that Durance made Kreuk’s performance look anaemic from the moment she arrived, and the crushing weight of the mythology made you impatient for Lois and Clark from that point on. The show left Smallville itself in the rear-view mirror in season 5 but persisted in refusing to let Clark fly or don the cape for so long that it became increasingly infuriating/embarrasing. The handling of the major villains always disappointed – a synecdoche for the whole show. The implicit hook of the souring of Clark and Lex’s friendship was never paid off satisfactorily. Lex was in 7 seasons of Smallville, but at no point did you feel there was a clear endpoint planned where he and Clark would rise to their respective destinies. Its own continuously imperilled success condemned Smallville to continually deferred gratification.

Smallville never quite achieved its promise, but it handsomely saw off the challenge of Superman Returns, and kept live-action Superman viable despite all the nay-saying about the redundancy of the character in a Dark Knight world, and that’s not to be sneezed at. I just hope that Allison Mack and Erica Durance manage to walk into better written TV roles.

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

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