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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July 19, 2015

Comic-Con 2015

Another year, another San Diego love-in of Hollywood’s brightest stars and all things comic-book and fandom-y, but what were the cinematic highlights of Comic-Con 2015? Here’s a teaser of my round-up for HeadStuff.org.

Suicide Squad

Fury writer/director David Ayer took to the stage to talk trash about Marvel, claiming DC had the better villains; and then backed it up with the first look at Suicide Squad. It’s kind of staggering that a film not scheduled for release until August 2016 could have such a polished trailer, down to the spine-tingling version of ‘I Started a Joke’. While the sheer size of the cast still worries, it looks like Ayer’s promise to deliver The Dirty Dozen with DC characters holds good. And for all Will Smith’s prominence as a perceptive but depressed Deadshot in the trailer, there are really only two characters that matter: Harley Quinn and her Puddin’. Margot Robbie appears an inspired choice for the first cinematic incarnation of Dr Quinzell, hitting notes of naivety, menace, playfulness, and sheer insanity. Jared Leto, who has received endless inane stick over the appearance of his Joker, also seems a perfect fit as the Harlequin of Hate. In full make-up his wiry frame makes him seem similar to the Joker as drawn by Dustin Nguyen, in close-up the much-debated steel teeth rock, and his sinister lines could actually be Batman dialogue; which is quite intriguing.

Click here for the full piece on HeadStuff.org, with X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, The Man from UNCLE, Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice in the mix.

March 21, 2015

JDIFF 2015: Barry Lyndon 40

If there’s a better way to see Barry Lyndon for the first time than on Screen 1 of the Savoy with Ryan O’Neal and Jan Harlan being interviewed afterwards by Lenny Abrahamson then I’d like to hear it.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

Whatever I knew about Barry Lyndon from reading a biography of Stanley Kubrick over a decade ago had long since fallen out of my head, so it was a treat to be able to approach the 1975 classic not having a clue what to expect. The first thing I didn’t expect was an intermission. The second thing I didn’t expect was that the first part of the movie would be quite so funny; I nearly fell out of my chair when I realised that Leonard Rossiter was playing an important role. Yes, Kubrick directed Dr Strangelove, but thereafter the black comedy in his films always seemed to me to be muted by his increasing desire to showcase an emotional detachment from the material. But Barry Lyndon is a hoot. The duelling in the first part doesn’t get as nonsensical as that in another 1975 period piece, Woody Allen’s Love & Death, but it’s started down that road with Rossiter’s craven attempts to buy his way out of gaining ‘satisfaction’. I also hadn’t expected the film to be quite so picaresque. Little wonder that Bret Easton Ellis repeatedly holds up 1975 as a golden year for Hollywood compared to the current predictable to the page number beat by beat method of screenwriting, as Kubrick faithfully reproduces Thackeray’s approach of depicting a series of misadventures that romp across countries and introduce new characters and throw away old characters, before sometimes bringing them back, whenever Thackeray damn well feels like it. Here is the early ramshackle Pickwickian Dickens’ approach to plotting, rather than the High Victorian rigour and schemae.

I was less enamoured, however, with the second part. Jan Harlan made the observation that Barry Lyndon should not be considered an oddity in Kubrick’s ouevre, but a vital entry in a continuing exploration of the frailty of the individual in the face of the pressures of a corrupt society. In this sense he said all of Kubrick’s films were political message movies. Barry Lyndon, he said, is a good man, a young boy in love, manipulated by his cousins, uncle, friends, and then brutalised by English and Prussian military, until it is inevitable that he becomes a conscienceless rake. But even then he is capable of acts of goodness, which cause him the two most crippling misfortunes in his life. All of which is true, and yet I couldn’t help feel that the second part was Thackeray fulfilling a Victorian desire to punish the wicked, and, especially in the detestable Lord Bullingdon, to assert the privileges of aristocracy over the nouveau riche. Given how Dan Gilroy ended Nightcrawler you feel that if (somehow) Barry Lyndon was made in 2015, the movie would end roughly 10 minutes into its second part. Indeed, given how Kubrick ended A Clockwork Orange in 1971, with the rake triumphant, it’s odd to see him follow a Victorian prescription to moralise…

Lenny Abrahamson handed over questions to the audience at a surprisingly early stage, with regrettably few questions being directed to the erudite Harlan. Harlan interestingly explained that Irish actors were plucked from the theatre because Kubrick, who’s not usually positioned in that world rather than photography and cinema, knew that the Abbey and Gate would provide interesting character actors.O’Neal, meanwhile, got the bulk of the questions, and gave every indication that his recurring role as Brennan’s roguish father Max in Bones is the closest a dramatic persona has got to approximating his own personality. The experience of playing Barry Lyndon changed his life, but he couldn’t say how. Marisa Berenson has very few lines, because women weren’t allowed to talk much back then. The film looks like paintings from the 18th century, because Kubrick would compose shots to resemble paintings; in one case forcing O’Neal to hold a tea-cup in his right hand because it matched the painting – O’Neal being left-handed this was extremely awkward to pull off…

But when he stopped giving comic and/or comically short answers he elaborated with two anecdotes. For six months he trained at fencing, including at nights with the University of Kansas at Lawrence coach while working on Paper Moon. When he arrived to meet Kubrick he was so cocksure of his ability that he refused to wear a mask, “Barry Lyndon wouldn’t wear a fencing mask”, only to be forced to don one by the British Olympic fencer who was to teach him and refused to fence without one. Harrumphing at this nonsense O’Neal donned the mask, struck his stance, and was disarmed within two seconds. So much for impressing Kubrick with his great swordsmanship. O’Neal also responded to a question about how he cried during a death scene by saying he thought of dead puppies, and tried like hell to ignore the noise of chattering monkeys floating in from outside. For they were filming at Longleat with its animal park. Eventually Kubrick had enough of the audio recording being ruined by simian gibbering and asked someone to sort it out. The ingenious solution? Throw the monkeys more bananas than they’d ever seen in their lives, and this would keep them too occupied to interrupt the scene with their cackling. The next day Kubrick and O’Neal got ready to go again. The tears flowed, the raw emotions were captured, and then an “Oh! Ohhhhh. Uggggh. Uuuuhhhh” floated into the air. The monkeys had eaten too many bananas and were now volubly gassy, stuffed, and digesting…

And yet, out of such chaos, Kubrick’s insane repetitious takes with no direction, and lighting and relighting scenes for hours with actors not stand-ins, came a film of some beauty and much wit.

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