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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January 9, 2019

Fears: 2019

The Death and Life of John F Donovan

We have waited long,

Too long, for Dolan anglais,

Now we fear for Snow

 

Captain Marvel

Brie Larson arrives

To save the day, 90s day.

Nick Fury’s phone friend

 

Dumbo

Tim Burton is back

Pointless ‘live action’ remake

This will not fly high

 

Avengers: Endgame

Free at last, says Bob.

Downey Jr’s contract’s up!

Snap away, Thanos!

Godzilla: King of Monsters

Um, may not contain

Godzilla… going by last

bait and switch movie

 

Men in Black: International

Thor plays dumb, again

Reunites with Valkyrie

But where is Will Smith?

 

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

It’s X-3 remade,

with little context for Jean,

who cares? C.G.I!

 

The Lion King

Like the classic one

But now CGI drawings

Why not just re-release?…

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

QT does Manson.

Bad taste abounds, but also

Pitt, Leo, et al

 

New Mutants

Fox does X-horror.

X-Men that is, obscure ones.

They’re affordable

 

It: Chapter Two

They’re all grown up now.

But fear never does grow old.

Yet may be retread?

 

Joker

Phoenix: Mistah J.

Dark take, from Hangover man.

I’m Still Here: Part two?

The Goldfinch

Dickens in New York,

Bret Easton Ellis Vegas,

Tartt’s chameleon.

 

Zombieland 2

Hey, the gang is back!

But what can they do that’s new?

A needless sequel.

 

Terminator: Dark Fate

Arnie’s back. Again.

All save T-2 not canon.

But Linda H back!

 

Kingsman ‘3’

Hasty sequel two-

Except, gasp, it’s a prequel!

So, but still hasty.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Critics applaud, not

because the thing is done well,

but because it’s done.

 

Star Wars: Episode IX

Fans don’t give a damn…

Who to kill off next? Lando?

Money grubbing sham.

 

Little Women

Gerwig’s needless film-

(Winona forever!)

-version seven. Sigh.

September 20, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Director Matthew Vaughn helms a hasty sequel to his Mark Millar absurdist spy fantasy which sadly displays its hasty production.

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Our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is waiting for a Kingsman cab when he is attacked by old rival Charlie (Edward Holcroft); unexpectedly, because he was presumed dead, and didn’t have a bionic arm. Said ‘arm’ leads to Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) being the last Kingsmen standing, and having to seek help from their American cousins, the Statesmen. They get a gruff reception from Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum), but a warmer welcome from Merlin’s opposite number Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) who has developed a maguffin for dealing with headshots. Et voila – despite Colin Firth being shot in the head last time out – Harry lives! But will Harry recover his memories and his co-ordination in time to save the world from the depredations of drug baron Poppy (Julianne Moore) or does his distrust of Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) bespeak incurable paranoia?

This sequel was written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, but the tone is off; right from the twisted but not funny use of Chekhov’s meat-mincer in Poppy’s introduction. The fact that Eggsy and Merlin face the same Kingsmen apocalypse in this first act as the original’s third act feels very lazy, as does the Hollywood cliché for raising stakes in the finale.  This is a bloated movie: Tatum is barely in it,  Jeff Bridges even less so, and the impulsive jackass President played by Bruce Greenwood (!) feels like a late Trump-bashing addition to the script; especially his final scene which is a transparent and asinine piece of wish fulfilment. The running time could be trimmed by removing Elton John; his foul-mouthed temper-tantrums in support add nothing. Indeed all the swearing lacks the purposeful artistry of a McDonagh or Mamet.

A notably bombastic yet unmemorable score is punctuated by ecstatic uses of Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ for elaborate fights as Vaughn relentlessly searches for but never really finds an action sequence to equal the church brawl from the original. Like The Matrix Reloaded, physical reality is traded for bullet-time and CGI, and the magic of choreography is lost. Oddly the most effective use of music is the most muted; John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ for an all guns blazing character moment. Hanna Alstrom’s Princess is now Eggsy’s girlfriend, possibly as a response to criticism, yet Poppy Delevingne’s femme fatale Clara is subjected to even more tasteless comic use than Alstrom was… Moore’s super-villain has an interesting plan; but you feel Vaughn and Goldman understand it to articulate something meaningful that they never actually articulate.

This strains to equal the fun quality its predecessor had naturally, but, despite many misgivings, there are enough good action sequences, gags, performances, and uses of pop to make this worth your cinema ticket.

3/5

January 28, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Director Matthew Vaughn eschews the current gritty James Bond formula for an R-rated absurdist spy fantasy from Mark Millar’s comic-book.

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Kingsman begins as it means to go on; tongue firmly-in-cheek; as terrible CGI explosions rock a Middle Eastern fortress, only for the falling stones to form into the title credits. Our hero Galahad (Colin Firth) is on a mission that goes fatally wrong, leading him to pay his respects to the widowed Michelle (Samantha Womack), and give a promise of aid, if ever needed, to her infant son Gary. Nearly two decades later a Kingsmen rescue of kidnapped climate change expert Professor Arnold (a cameo too good to spoil here) goes awry. A replacement Lancelot must be recruited, and all the Kingsmen must put forward a candidate. At this precise moment Gary, now known as Eggsy (Taron Egerton), gets into deep trouble with his criminal stepfather Dean (Geoff Bell), and calls in Galahad’s favour. Galahad proposes Gary as the new Lancelot, and so begins a dangerous mentoring in privatised espionage…

Kingsman is a blast. There’s a certain X-Men: First Class vibe to the Lancelot competition presided over by Merlin (Mark Strong) at a country house, with nice class warfare between chav Eggsy and upper-crust Digby (Nicholas Banks) and Charlie (Edward Holcroft). Egerton is endearing as someone hiding his potential because of his circumstances, and Sophie Cookson as sympathetic toff Roxy is a winning foil. Less sympathetic is the leader of the Kingsmen, Arthur (Michael Caine). There’s an odd meta-textual dance here between Egerton having played toff in Testament of Youth and cockney Caine’s enthronement as a cinematic elder. But that’s as nothing compared to the meta-madness when Galahad discusses old Bond films with lisping tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L Jackson). Firth is effectively playing The Avengers’ Mr Steed, and loving it, while Jackson seems to be nodding to his Unbreakable role as a squeamish super-villain, with a surprisingly interesting motivation, who delegates murder to lethal blade-runner henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella).

Vaughn’s use of music deserves special mention. Eggsy’s car-thieving exploits are rousingly accompanied by Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’, a surrealist gore-fest is played out to the strains of Elgar (in what feels oddly like a nod to Dr Strangelove), and then there’s ‘Freebird’… Vaughn tops Cameron Crowe’s demented use of that song in Elizabethtown, and, given that Crowe had a band rocking out on the guitar solo and determinedly ignoring the giant flaming bird flying past, that’s saying something. A vicious sermon by the great Corey Johnson is interrupted by utter carnage as Galahad gets embroiled in a fight to the death with the entire congregation. If The Matrix lobby scene used a high concept to banish guilt over massacres by heroes this pushes the envelope even further. Cinematographer George Richmond and Vaughn close up on the action and deploy a grainier look to hide cheats in their sustained bloodthirsty mayhem. And what mayhem it is – a choreographed wonder of continual stabbing, shooting, garrotting, strangling, bludgeoning that produces jaw-dropped, impressed disbelief.

There’re quibbles to be had, notably the rather tasteless use of Hanna Alstrom’s Swedish princess and the sudden ending, but Kingsman’s bloody good fun.

4/5

August 21, 2013

Hysterical Violence or Kick-Ass 2

I haven’t yet seen the sequel to Kick-Ass, a rambunctious movie which came 8th in my Top 10 Films of 2010. Luckily Elliot Harris has, and, after his brace of contributions on the topic of zombie bleakness recently, he’s happy to defend Kick-Ass 2’s comic-book violence against its hostile critics.

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I must admit, I am somewhat bemused by the level of negative feedback about the level of violence in Kick-Ass 2. Having read the reviews and heard the radio DJs run down this movie, I had expected that director Jeff Wadlow (Never Back Down) had abandoned the high concept exploration of real-world superheroes in favour of continuing the shark-jumping antics of the final fight scene from Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. Despite these reviews, I felt that the film was a justified use of a free ticket that I’d built up from repeat patronage of my local cinema. In fact, I would have been happy to pay for it.

Kick-Ass 2 is far less violent than is being made out. It’s no more violent than Christopher Nolan’s last Batman and much less violent than Zack Snyder’s Superman. It’s most certainly less violent than Kill Bill Vol. 1.  All of which raises the question, why has there been such an unjustified negative back-lash?

One possibility is Jim Carrey’s refusal to promote the film. Carrey plays the role of Colonel Stars and Stripes, a former mafia hard-man turned born-again Christian turned superhero. Despite his involvement in the film, Carrey refused to take part in the marketing of the movie, citing via Twitter1 his opposition to the film’s use of violence. It really is hard to find anything within the film to support his point. While his character is killed, we don’t see his death. Wadlow instead opts to end the scene with a defeated Carrey nearing death and facing his final execution. Surely if Kick-Ass 2 is the ultra-violent gore-fest that everyone is complaining about Wadlow would have embraced this grisly death?

Carrey himself cited Sandy Hook as his reason for disassociating himself with the film. There is no doubting that Sandy Hook is a tragedy, but I can’t see its correlation with Kick-Ass 2. While Kick-Ass 2’s central characters of Kick-Ass/Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Anna Karenina) and Hit-Girl/Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz, Hugo) are only high-school kids; and the film depicts their difficulties in fitting-in in school; this doesn’t mean that there is any comparison. While the first Kick-Ass’s central theme was the exploration of real-life superheroes (and arguably mental illness/indoctrination), Kick-Ass 2 shifts tone to explore the themes of the need to fit in and dealing with loss. Countless films have explored these themes. Even superhero films have. None have been criticised for this and barring one near-shark-jumping scene in the cafeteria, the school is nothing more than a stage for character interactions.

The only other possibility that comes to mind is the scene in which a rape is threatened but not perpetrated due to erectile dysfunction. The scene is played out for laughs in what is clearly appallingly poor taste. There is no justification in the use of rape – threatened or perpetrated – as a point of comedy. It’s beyond poor taste and shows bad judgement on the behalf of Wadlow in retaining the scene. Surely it could have been re-shot as the beating that it ultimately becomes without any inclusion of, or reference to, rape. It must be said, however, that the scene is in keeping with the assaulter’s character and there is plenty of cinematic precedent – Cape Fear and Deliverance to name but two.

Despite the attempted rape scene, the negativity surrounding the film does not centre on this – violence is repeatedly mentioned, not sexual violence. So something doesn’t add up. At the time of writing this piece, I have yet to find any suggestion that the film was re-cut to reduce the violence. If the cut that I saw in an Irish cinema is the same as the U.S. cut, then I’m baffled as to exactly what the critics are objecting to. Is it simply a case of it being fashionable to object to violence? Are people lazily picking up on Jim Carrey’s objections (possibly to an alternative cut)? Is it that by his drawing the film into the real world, people are finding it harder to desensitise themselves from the effects of the cinematic violence?

The idea of examining the real-life effects of what would happen if superheroes truly existed has been studied in a number of places: Kick-Ass, Super and Mystery Men to name just three. Of these four (if you include Kick-Ass 2), Super is by far the most violent. While Super is arguably in-your-face about its violence, and even the first Kick-Ass for that matter, Kick-Ass 2 is much less gratuitous in its use.

Kick-Ass 2 possesses a dark humour about death, and is clever in its examination of the concept of how superheroes could fit into the real world. The film is funny (barring the aforementioned rape scene) and smart. It has a lower body count and, most importantly, is significantly more entertaining than Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The World’s End and Only God Forgives. In my opinion, Kick-Ass 2 deserves praise for this. It has a greater basing in reality than any of the Marvel films and genuinely reflects on the effects of what would happen if you or I were to attempt to become a superhero.

Kick-Ass 2, in my opinion, manages to avoid the latterly shark-jumping antics of its predecessor and presents a truly interesting and engaging story. This is by far the best summer blockbuster and is undeserving of the negativity surrounding it.

1 http://www.slashfilm.com/jim-carrey-cannot-support-violence-in-kick-ass-2-mark-millar-responds/

 

January 9, 2012

Top 10 Films of 2011

(10) The Adjustment Bureau
George Nolfi’s Philip K Dick adaptation had a too neat resolution, but against that one flaw must be set a brace of wonderfully nuanced and contrasting villains, a truly dazzling romance that craftily worked on two different levels, superb comedy from Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, and a delightful temporally skipping structure that organically built to an unexpected and thrilling action chase finale. Nolfi took an idea from Dick and built something warm and great around it.
 
(9) Never Let Me Go
Mark Romanek’s direction was ridiculously self-effacing, but he coaxed the performances to match Alex Garland’s subtle screen imagining of Kazuo Ishiguro’s offbeat sci-fi novel, while the casting of child actors to match their adult equivalents was very impressive. Keira Knightley as the villainous Ruth outshone Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield as she invested the smallest role of the trio with great cruelty and then complexity. This was a heartbreaking slow-burner.

(8) Submarine
Richard Ayoade made his directorial debut from his own adaptation of the Welsh novel and impressed mightily. The comedy was superb, as you’d expect, whether it was the offbeat character moments, deflating jump cuts and preposterous slow-mos, or priceless cinematic in-jokes. What surprised was his assurance in handling drama, from depression to mortal illness and infidelity to suicide, with growing overtones of menace and a refreshing lack of predictability.

(7) Little White Lies
An incredibly Americanised French film, whether it was fun on a yacht being sound-tracked by Creedence or grand romantic gestures being accompanied by Antony and the Johnsons. Marion Cotillard & Co leave a comatose friend’s bedside for their annual holiday and comic madness involving weasels and crushes and endless dramas over love ensue. It’s over-long but mostly the Flaubertian lack of plot made time cease to matter for both the characters and the audience.

(5) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher’s version surpassed the Swedish original by reinstating more of the texture of Stieg Larsson’s book, creating a mystery rather than a thriller, in which the characters dominate the plot and are allowed to have complex emotional lives outside of cracking the cold case. The villain is marvellously drawn, and Fincher not only draws out maximum suspense from the story, but betters the Swedish version by both keeping the nastiest sequences and then also refusing to soften Lisbeth Salander. Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig are both pitch-perfect in the lead roles.

(5) Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen amazed by somehow delivering a fantastical romantic comedy with screamingly funny lines and a great high concept brilliantly developed. Allen granted Owen Wilson and Rachel MacAdams’ bickering engaged couple numerous hysterical scenes of utterly failing to connect, not least with her hilariously snooty parents. The recreation of the roaring Twenties Paris of America’s Lost Generation writers was positively inspired, most notably in its Hemingway who monologues in an abrupt monotone, and the film itself equally warm and wise.

(4) Take Shelter
This stunning film is both a Donnie Darko inflected tale of approaching apocalypse that only our hero has foreknowledge of but which sets his sanity on edge, and a terrifyingly realistic story of a man’s descent into a mental illness so subtle yet devastating that he can bankrupt his family by being plausible enough at the bank to secure loans to carry out construction to safeguard against an imaginary threat. Taut, terrifically ambiguous, and nightmarishly scary on several levels, this achieves such intensity that at its climax the simple act of Michael Shannon opening a storm shelter door becomes a moment of unbearable suspense and incredible emotional consequence.

(3) The Guard
John Michael McDonagh’s directorial debut was an impressively inventive profane farce which could be best described as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – Connemara. Brendan Gleeson seized with both Fassbendering hands the chance to play the world’s most demented Guard while Don Cheadle was an effective foil as the exasperated FBI Agent teaming up with him to bring down the preposterously philosophical drug-smugglers Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong. Endlessly quotable and showcasing wonderful running gags, an unlikely action finale, and an ambiguous ending that poked fun at Hollywood resolutions this was the comedy of 2011.

(2) X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn finally got to direct an X-Men movie and, with his co-writers, at last gave some substance to the friendship and enmity of Magneto and Professor X. Michael Fassbender’s rightly vengeful Nazi-hunter Erik complicated comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass and added real weight to the tragedy of Mystique turning to his philosophy over the compassion personified by her mentor Xavier. Vaughn balanced this trauma with very funny montages of Erik and Xavier recruiting and training mutants for the CIA, but it was the casual tossing in of an enormous shock in the finale which exemplifed the supreme assuredness of this fine blockbuster.

(1) Incendies
This French-Canadian film unnerves from its opening shot, is always enthralling, and by the end has become quite simply devastating. A couple of Montreal siblings discover that their mother had unbeknownst to them lived a life of startling savagery in Lebanon’s 1980s civil war before emigrating. This is a merciless depiction of a vicious war where each side torches the other’s orphanages, burns women and children alive in buses, and recruits the other’s young boys as soldiers when not just shooting them in the head. The siblings uncover and come to terms with an extraordinary journey in search of vengeance, leading to the ultimate crime, and forgiveness…

June 15, 2011

Top 10 Father’s Day Films

Heroes tend to be portrayed as lone wolves, and families rarely interest Hollywood unless they’re psychotic, but here’s a list of men who made the protagonists what they are, and the complicated bonds that gave them the self-confidence to individuate. Joss Whedon defined Mal in Firefly as being a terrific (surrogate) father for Simon and River in contrast to their actual father, because he wasn’t just there and terrific when it was convenient for him, he was sometimes great, sometimes inept, but always there. There’s too much written about surrogate fathers in the movies (read any article on Tarantino’s work) so I thought I’d mark Fathers’ Day with a top 10 list of films featuring great biological dads and great complicated but loving father-son bonds.

Honourable Mentions:
(Inception) The moment when Cillian Murphy opens the safe and tearfully discovers his father held on to Cillian’s childhood kite as his most treasured possession is an enormously powerful emotional sucker-punch of post-mortem father-son reconciliation.
(The Day After Tomorrow) Dennis Quaid excels as a father who was always around but half-distracted by work, who makes good by braving death in a quest to rescue his son from a snowpocalyptic demise.
(Twilight Saga) Bella Swan’s taciturn relationship with her small-town dad, who she only ever holidayed with and who embarrasses her, slowly blossoms as he steps up to the parenting plate with some hilariously comedic unease.

(10) Boyz N the Hood
Before he got trapped in a zero-sum world of directing commercial tosh John Singleton’s coruscating 1991 debut portrayed the chaos of gang-infested ghetto life in a world almost entirely lacking positive male role models. His script privileges the bluntly honest wisdom of Laurence Fishburne to such an extent that he basically becomes the ideal father for a generation of black men that Bill Cosby acidly noted was raised by women, for the exact same reason that Singleton has Fishburne deliver: it’s easy to father a child, it’s harder to be a father to that child.

(9) Kick-Ass
Yes, an odd choice, but filmic father-daughter double-acts of the Veronica & Keith Mars ilk are surprisingly hard to find. Nic Cage does an amazing job of portraying Big Daddy as an extremely loving father who has trained Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl to survive independently in a hostile world and to never need to be afraid. Matthew Vaughn mines an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos from suggesting that such empowering mental training is a legacy that would keep Big Daddy ever-present in his daughter’s life even after his death. It takes Batman to raise a true Amazon…

(8) The Yearling
Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque lawyer Atticus Finch was held up as the perfect father in Vanilla Sky, but I’d strenuously favour his father in this whimsical 1946 movie that at times feels it’s an original screenplay by Mark Twain. Peck plays the type of father who’ll let you run free, and make mistakes so that you can learn from your mistakes, but will always be there to swoop in and save the day when you get in over your head. This may be an idyllic portrait of the rural South but the father’s parenting style is universally recognisable.

(7) The Godfather
Vito grooms Sonny to succeed him and consigns Fredo to Vegas, but he loads all his hopes of respectability onto his favourite son, Michael. Eventually, in a touching scene in the vineyard, he accepts that the one son he tried to steer away from the family business is the only son truly capable of taking it on, and that he has to let Michael live his own life and become Don. The tragedy of Part II is that Michael makes his father’s dreams of assimilation his own, but his attempts to achieve them only destroy his family.

(6) Taken
Liam Neeson has been divorced by the grating and shallow Famke Janssen who has remarried for a privileged lifestyle, which she continually rubs Neeson’s face in. His relationship with his daughter, whose birthday he was always around for even if the CIA disapproved, has suffered from this disparity in wealth. But when she’s kidnapped hell hath no fury like an enraged father rescuing his little girl. Neeson’s absolute single-mindedness in rescuing his only child makes this an awesome action movie that uses extreme violence to prove the superiority of blue-collar values and earnest protective parenting over whimsical indulgence.

(5) Finding Nemo
Marlin, the clownfish who can’t tell a joke, is perhaps the greatest example of the overprotective father who has to recognise that maybe he’s projecting his own weaknesses onto his son; and that he has to let Nemo attempt something that he, Nemo, might fail at, if Nemo’s ever going to succeed at anything. This lesson is of course learned over the length of an extremely hazardous journey as Marlin displays his absolute dedication, to the point of self-sacrifice, to saving his only child. In a weird way this combines elements of both The Godfather and Taken

(4) Wall Street
“Boy, if that’s how you really feel, then I must have done a crappy job as a father.” Martin Sheen’s words to Charlie Sheen show just how far under the spell of Michael Douglas’ daemonic father figure Charlie has fallen at that point in the movie. Oliver Stone followed Platoon’s opposition between two surrogate fathers with a clash between the humble blue-collar integrity of Charlie’s actual father Martin and the unscrupulous white-collar extravagances of his mentor Douglas. In the end Martin manages to make jail-time sound like an exercise in redemption because he will never desert Charlie.

(3) Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O’Hara, the ultimate survivor, is very much her father’s daughter. The post-Famine Irish obsession with the land is transported to America, and with it a desire never to be beholden to other people. Add in her father’s furious and quick temper, which gets him killed, and huge pride, and nearly all the elements that make up Scarlett are complete. She adds a ruthless skill in fascinating malleable men to become the supreme movie heroine. When Rhett leaves her and she’s inconsolable, her father’s words echo thru her mind, and she returns triumphantly to Tara.

(2) Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
“He’s gone Marcus, and I never told him anything at all”. Spielberg likes to joke that only James Bond could have sired Indiana Jones, and Henry Jones Jr despite his eternally fraught relationship with Senior really is a chip off the old block; hilariously evidenced in their sequential relationship with Allison Doody’s Nazi; and that’s why they don’t get along. In a convincing display of male taciturnity it takes both of them nearly losing the other for them to finally express how much they love the other, well, as much they ever will.

(1) Field of Dreams
“I refused to play catch with him. I told him I could never respect a man whose hero was a cheat”. Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella has to bankrupt himself building a baseball field in his crops and magick the 1919 White Sox back into existence to do it, but he finally manages to atone for his sins and play catch again with his deceased father. There are few better pay-offs to shaggy-dog screenplays than when Ray realises the last player on the field is his father, as he never knew him, a young and hopeful man, before life ground him down. If you aren’t in floods of tears by their lines, ‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa’, then you’re already dead.

June 7, 2011

James McAvoy needs a new agent

INT.HOLLYWOOD OFFICE-DAY
DELANEY, agent to a galaxy of stars, well, James McAvoy and Mark Pellegrino, sits at his desk lovingly watering his potted plant while JAMES MCAVOY, paces around the office restlessly, waves his arms passionately, and complains volubly…

MCAVOY: It’s happened again! Again!
DELANEY: What? That I got you the lead role in a great film, yeah, you’re welcome.
MCAVOY: Pshaw! I’ve been upstaged as the lead in a great film, again, you mean!
DELANEY: What do you mean ‘again’?
MCAVOY: This is continually happening to me. Take The Last King of Scotland.
DELANEY: I did, you wanted that! You’re Scottish.
MCAVOY: Yes, I wanted it but look what happened. Forest Whitaker won the bloody Oscar for his supporting role. Best Actor for a supporting role! And I didn’t even get nominated!
DELANEY: Yeah, but then I got you Atonement.
MCAVOY: Where I was upstaged by a 12 year old girl! Who also got nominated! When I didn’t. Again!
DELANEY: She’s a very good actress.
MCAVOY: I’ll grant you that. (beat) Perhaps no one could have seen that one coming. But, Wanted, there’s no excuse for that.
DELANEY: You loved Wanted! When I told you I had the lead role in a Mark Millar action-movie, Mark Millar, Scottish comics genius, you nearly we-
MCAVOY: Yes! Yes, that’s true. But… if you’d told me Angelina Jolie was going to be playing Fox I would have thought twice about it, because she upstaged me! And she was always bound to upstage me from that role.
DELANEY: And your gripe with X-Men: First Class is what exactly?
MCAVOY: What do you think, Delaney? Fassbender upstaged me!
DELANEY: Well, couldn’t you have tried harder?
MCAVOY: Tried harder! Tried harder? He clearly had the better part!
DELANEY: What? That’s insane. Your name comes first on the cast-list. I checked before I told them you’d consider it. Only the best for my MacAvoy!
MCAVOY: Answer me this. What do I do in the movie that’s cool?
DELANEY: You drink from that silly long tubey glass, and hit on girls, oh, and read people’s minds, oh, oh, and make them do stuff they don’t want to.
MCAVOY: No, that’s funny, that’s what I do that’s funny, what do I do that’s cool?
DELANEY: Um…
MCAVOY: Nothing that’s what! Professor X wanders around like a spoilt rich kid, ignoring the fact that Mystique is plainly in love with him, and that the world does not want to sit down by a campfire and sing Cumbaya with the mutants. Meanwhile freaking Fassbender is…is… just…
DELANEY: Fassbendering?
MCAVOY: YES! He’s off in Argentina killing Nazis like he’s wandered in from some sort of deleted storyline from Inglourious Basterds while I’m doing my best to be as sleazy as Patrick Stewart’s proposed take on Professor X in Extras!
DELANEY: So, what’ s your point?
MCAVOY: My point, and I want you to pay very close attention to this because I’ve been talking to Pellegrino and so have a very realistic appreciation of the chances of you actually grasping this, is that – just because a name comes first in the list of characters or in the cast-list doesn’t mean that it’s the best part in the movie.
DELANEY: Wh-what?
MCAVOY: Sometimes, and I’m sorry for this because I know this will wound you deeply, it is actually necessary to read the script first and not just the list of characters before deciding what part is the best part.
DELANEY: Read…. Read…. (Delaney starts to hyperventilate)
(McAvoy walks over and places a finger to Delaney’s forehead)
MCAVOY: Just breathe. Calm your mind. Be Calm.
DELANEY: (Delaney’s equilibrium is magically restored) Read… the script?!
MCAVOY: Yes, or which would be better, just get Janine to read the script for you.
DELANEY: But what would she know about something like that? I’m the agent, I’m the litmus test of dramatic quality around here. She’s just the secretary.
(McAvoy hits speakerphone switch.)
MCAVOY: Janine, did you by any chance read the script for X-Men: First Class when it was lying around the office a while back?
JANINE (O/S): Yes.
MCAVOY: Now, Janine, don’t think about this, just answer instantly, which is the better part in your opinion in that script, Xavier or Erik?
JANINE (O/S): Oh, Erik of course. Erik is just a more complex and challenging role. He’s got such a compelling and justifiable motivation for his actions that it just completely skews all traditional comic-book morality. It’s probably Vaughn’s touch after co-writing Kick-Ass, but it’s hard not to think that he’s portraying Erik much like Big Daddy, as a dark superhero rather than as a super-villain.
MCAVOY: Thank you, Janine. (He clicks off speakerphone switch) You see?
DELANEY: X-traordinary. I’ve never seen anything like this before…
(McAvoy groans and slumps in chair.)

June 2, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Matthew Vaughn finally gets to direct an X-Men movie, and the result is the best instalment of the X-franchise to date…

Beginning (as X-Men did) with Erik Lensherr traumatically discovering his powers of magnetism in Poland in 1944, the pre-credits sequence contrasts the parallel childhood experiences of Charles Xavier in upstate New York, where he welcomes in the young and terrified Mystique to his luxurious home, with that of Erik in a Nazi concentration camp, where Dr Schmidt sadistically hones Erik’s powers. Vaughn’s film pivots around the subsequent emotional and political developments, during the Cuban Missiles Crisis in 1962, of the events of this cold-open. Rose Byrne’s CIA agent Moira McTaggart endures Mad Men-style sexism while investigating the shady activities of the Hellfire Club. In a Mark Millar touch Vaughn and co-writers integrate Cuba into the story wonderfully, not by rewriting history but by suggesting that history as we know it is a carefully constructed cover-story to hide mutant involvement. Legendary comics villains the Hellfire Club, led by Sebastian Shaw (a nicely malevolent Kevin Bacon) and Emma Frost (an appropriately icy and under-dressed January Jones), appear to be manipulating both sides to ignite the Cold War. Moira needs help against mutants and so recruits Xavier, and subsequently Erik.

James McAvoy is yet again upstaged by someone lower-billed, because while McAvoy is very funny as a young Xavier using genetics as a chat-up routine, it pales next to the dark charisma of Michael Fassbender’s globe-trotting Nazi-hunter Erik. On seeing Xavier’s mansion Erik sardonically asks, “Charles, how did you ever survive such hardship?” The clash in philosophy between Erik and Xavier is finally given the substance it lacked in the original trilogy, and is personalised by Mystique (an affecting Jennifer Lawrence) being drawn to Erik over Xavier. Erik’s driven life is killing Nazis to avenge his race, while Xavier’s life has always been one of privilege. ‘Mutant and proud’ is a chat-up line for Xavier but, as Erik affectionately teaches her to embrace her appearance rather than hide it as Xavier wishes, it becomes Mystique’s self-definition. Erik’s quest to murder Shaw is a fulfilment of his tutelage by Schmidt, Xavier’s determination to prevent Erik the fulfilment of his compassion. Mystique must choose one philosophy…

Vaughn balances this tragedy with montages, of Erik and Xavier recruiting mutants for the CIA and training mutants at Xavier’s mansion, which are heavy on the Fassbendering. There are delightful cameos by a couple of cast members from the original trilogy as well as superb gags based on our knowledge of these characters’ futures. The action is also very well-handled with Erik’s single-handed attack on a Russian military base utterly thrilling, while an assault by the Hellfire Club on the CIA is notable for Vaughn showing real terror on the face of Xavier’s unprepared recruits, especially Mystique. The only gripe is that the second act can at times feel like two screenplays are being audibly bolted together. But these are mere quibbles when Vaughan can casually toss in an enormous shock in the finale, and then have a final scene that complicates comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass.

There was a danger with this film’s title that critics would immediately call it second-rate at the slightest provocation; instead, it really is X-Men: First Class in every sense.

4.5/5

May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

I realise with a shock that I’ve been neglecting Michael Fassbender in this blog, so it’s only right to devote my 100th blog post to the man from Kerry.

Fassbender has risen in just seven years from playing the villain in a Sky One show to playing the nascent super-villain in a keenly anticipated summer blockbuster. Next week will see a piece focusing on my concept of Fassbendering, but this week let’s focus on how he made this journey. Fassbender had appeared in Band of Brothers but arguably first truly came to public consciousness as the actor in that famous Guinness ad at the end of 2003 who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. Characteristically Fassbender ended the ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again. He then played the resident Big Bad in Sky One’s Buffy homage/rip-off Hex. As fallen angel Azazeal he impressed with dark charisma, cut-glass English accent, and the distinct vibe that he was enjoying this part far too much.

2004 also saw him star in Canadian TV movie A Bear Called Winnie where, as a compassionate vet in the Canadian Army who rescued an orphaned bear cub en route to Britain for WWI, he showed an admirable ability to goof around with the adorable pet bear that would be immortalised as Winnie the Pooh. He then played the first of his continuing series of historical figures in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot as Guy Fawkes, and ended 2004 in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, displaying his fine ability to be ambiguous as the murder suspect that Holmes insists is a killer despite all evidence clearing him. He then had a showy turn as he smoked and drank his way thru After the Funeral in 2006 as a dissolute possible murderer in ITV’s Poirot, before making the jump from TV movie to actual movie, and London to Hollywood; notably later than his contemporaries Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

Fassbender’s ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where things really caught fire. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning, perhaps because he’s realised just how flashy this supporting role is… Stelios is the Spartan who jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Fassbender delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner, and later forms one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre. When the Persian mystics are throwing bombs it is Fassbender who runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. Who does something awesome in the denouement to enable Leonidas be even more awesome? Fassbender, of course. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender. This is the kind of thing that gets you noticed when your film is an unexpected massive hit.

2008 saw him tackle two more historical figures and also contribute an upsetting turn to stark English horror Eden Lake. I reviewed that film and argued for it as a socio-economic horror as Fassbender and Kelly Reilly’s polite middle-class London couple travel to an idyllic camping spot only to be mercilessly harassed by hoodie-wearing teenagers who steal their jeep, leading to a nigh unwatchable scene where Fassbender’s innocent victim comes up against the gang’s barbed wire and box-cutters. If Fassbender had undercut his 300 image by playing sacrificial lamb to Kelly Reilly’s survivor type he made up for in Channel 4’s Civil War mini-series The Devil’s Whore where he scooped the most dashing role, coveted by Dominic West, as the Levellers’ leader Thomas Rainsborough. He made Rainsborough so charismatic that you could understand why people ignored the contradiction of an aristocrat leading a prototypical socialist movement. The series itself lost momentum after Rainsborough’s tragic demise, which not only underscored Fassbender’s outshining of West and John Simm as leading man, but ironically hammered home the loss to history of the progressive ideas of the Levellers; stifled by Cromwell only to return as demands by the Chartists in the 1840s and actions by Clement Attlee in the 1940s.

Fassbender combined elements of those roles as sacrificial lamb and charismatic leader for his tour de force performance as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger. I regard Hunger as a biopic so utterly oblique as to de-politicise its subject; indeed in its shocking single depiction of just what it is the IRA does it invalidates all accusations that McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh are somehow ‘fellow travellers’. Turner Prize-winner McQueen reinvented the possibilities of cinema with a film that could almost be a video installation on how the human body slowly declines into death, and how beauty can be found in the mundane. Fassbender was luminous in his one lengthy scene with dialogue, where he argues with Liam Cunningham’s priest, forcing you to appreciate both his point of view and why men would follow this man out on hunger strike and die for him. Fassbender also emulated his acting hero Daniel Day-Lewis as he lost 14 kilos while playing the part and weighed just 59 kilos by the end of shooting. Writing about it at the time I praised Fassbender’s “awesome commitment to the part in the third act as he just wastes away in front of your eyes. This is a mesmerising performance of insane dedication that should see Fassbender go on to even juicier roles.”

And go on to juicier roles he did, as 2009 saw Fassbender work with two auteurs, and also Joel Schumacher. Tarantino’s riotous rewriting of history, Inglourious Basterds, oddly enough saw Fassbender being one of the few people playing things straight in his supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox. As a former film critic dispatched behind enemy lines, most of his lines were delivered (allegedly in a Kerry accent initially) in his second language, German, bar glorious exceptions like “There’s a special place reserved in Hell for people who waste good scotch”. He then starred as Connor opposite newcomer Kate Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s kitchen sink drama Fish Tank. A bracingly abrasive picture of life on an Essex council estate punctuated by moments of amazing lyrical beauty, Fassbender’s character opens up possibilities for his girlfriend’s two daughters in a stunning pastoral sequence where he gives them the attention and affection their mother denies them, and encourages Mia to channel her simmering rage at her life into focused attempts to escape it thru professional dancing. Arnold has made the most layered use of the possibilities of Fassbender’s ready smile, as his grinning Connor appears at first as the perfect surrogate father before she traumatically reverses that winning charm. This disquieting role emphasised Fassbender’s freedom from leading men’s crippling need to be loved in every role. Schumacher’s Blood Creek meanwhile may well be remembered eventually as the film where Superman and Magneto clash, but that would require that someone in the world sees it first.

In 2010 he reunited with both Dominic West and Liam Cunningham for Neil Marshall’s nonsensical historical British action film Centurion, which all concerned presumably filed under ‘guilty pleasure’. He ended the year in a nonsensical historical American action film as henchman Burke in Jonah Hex. His first appearance in the trailer saw him grinning manically while setting fire to a barn with someone in it, but sadly the film was shredded from its initial intentions. One hopes that Fassbender may eventually get to properly work with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films. And that leads us to right now, one week before the release of X-Men: First Class

So, why is Fassbender a personal hero? Obviously some of it has to do with Fassbendering, but it’s also because Fassbender is a genuinely talented actor with an immense range as well as a charming whimsicality. He can play comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains, equally well, and move from blockbuster to art-house, whimsy to avant-garde, with ease. His part as the younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, as he begins the slow and half-justified decent into super-villainy, is one of the performances I’m anticipating most this year. X-Men: First Class, and Soderbergh’s Haywire in August, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Promotheus next year, should catapult Fassbender into the genuine leading man status that Colin Farrell so narrowly missed out on through choosing big-name directors working on vanity projects rather than good scripts. Fassbender in addition appears to be about to make the leap without sacrificing his ability to take on interesting roles in smaller films; with roles as Carl Jung (his latest historical figure) in Cronenberg’s drama A Dangerous Method, Rochester in a pared down Jane Eyre, and the lead in a new Steve McQueen film Shame, all of which are due to be released in the same period as the Vaughn, Soderbergh and Scott blockbusters mentioned above.

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

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