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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February 3, 2015

2015: Fears

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 11:20 pm
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Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return, oh joy, in 3-D, more joy, with a tale of a young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she shares the same DNA as the Queen of the Universe, and goes on the run with a genetically engineered former soldier (Channing Tatum), oh, and he’s part wolf… The unloveable Eddie Redmayne is the villain, but the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton is also in the cast, and, oddly, there’s a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Alongside Star Wars, Greek mythology, and the comic-book Saga it seems…

 

Fifty Shades of Grey

Jamie Dornan is Christian Grey, Dakota Johnson is Bella Swan Anastasia Steele, Universal are terrible gamblers. Take one novel: which is 100pp of hilariously obvious Twilight homage leading to pornography for hundreds more and an unsatisfactory ending; a sensation because of the ability to secretly read it. Now hire art-house director Sam Taylor-Johnson to make an R-rated film focused on the romance, after 5 Twilight movies of said romance shtick; and force people to say out loud what film they’re seeing, or at least be seen going to it. Sit back, and watch this gamble fail.

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Blackhat

Michael Mann returns with his first film since 2009’s uninspired Public Enemies. Chris Hemsworth, now officially a god in Iceland again, plays a hacker who gets a free pass from jail to help Viola Davis’ FBI agent liaise with her Chinese counterpart (pop star Wang Leehom) following a devastating cyber-attack in China which led to a nuclear incident. Hemsworth is distracted in his mission by Lust, Caution’s Chen Lien, and, if you’ve read the vituperative reviews, an appalling script. Mann’s been on a losing streak for a while, and his hi-def video camera infatuation only doubles down on that.

 

In the Heart of the Sea

March sees director Ron Howard take on Moby Dick. Or rather, tell the true story that inspired Moby Dick, rather than try and out-do John Huston. Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson are among the hapless crew of the whaling ship Essex out of New England that runs afoul of a curiously vindictive sperm whale in 1820. Martin Sheen starred in a rather good BBC version of this disaster its grisly aftermath at Christmas 2013. Who knows if Howard will match that, but he’ll definitely throw more CGI at the screen.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon takes off the Zak Penn training wheels and scripts this sequel to 2012’s hit solo. James Spader voices the titular evil AI, unleashed by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man when fiddling about in Samuel L Jackson’s Pandora’s Box of Shield secrets. The great Elizabeth Olsen is Scarlet Witch, and Aaron Johnson is Quicksilver, but I find it hard to work up any enthusiasm for another ticked box on the Marvel business plan. Why? CGI and Marvel empire-building fatigue, a lack of interest in most of the characters, and great weariness with Whedon’s predictable subversion.

 

Lost River

What is the difference between a homage and le rip-off? The French should know and they loudly booed Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut as little more than Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch meeting up for a whimsical night out. Gosling also wrote this tale of a boy who finds a town under the sea down a river, and has to be rescued by his mother. Matt Smith, Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes, and Ben Mendelsohn are the actors roped in by Gosling to flesh out his magical realist vision of a hidden beauty lurking underneath decrepit Detroit.

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Far From the Madding Crowd
Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan), a wilful, flirtatious young woman unexpectedly inherits a large farm and becomes romantically involved with three widely divergent men: rich landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), dashing Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge), and poor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Hardy’s classic novel is a formidable predecessor for this May release. This version from director Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, The Hunt), was co-scripted with David Nicholls of One Day fame; another man whose tendencies are not exactly of a sunny disposition. Can the promising young cast overcome Vinterberg’s most miserabilist tendencies?

 

Tomorrowland

Well this is a curio… Brad Bird directs George Clooney and Secret Circle star Britt Robertson in a script he co-wrote with Damon LOST Lindelof about a genius inventor and a parallel universe, or something. Nobody really seems to know what it’s about. But then given Lindelof’s resume even after we’ve watched it we probably won’t know what it’s about. Bird proved extremely capable with live-action in Mission: Impossible 4, but explicitly viewed the talky scenes as mere connective tissue between well-executed set-pieces; pairing him with ‘all questions, no answers’ man seems like a recipe for more puzzled head-scratching.

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Ant-Man

Ant-Man was in 2015: Hopes until director and co-writer Edgar Wright walked because Marvel shafted him after years of development. I was highly interested in seeing Paul Rudd’s burglar become a miniature super-hero who’s simpatico with ants after encountering mad scientist Michael Douglas and his hot daughter Evangeline Lilly; when it was from the madman who made Scott Pilgrim Vs the World. When this deservedly nonsensical take on a preposterous property is being helmed by Peyton Reed; whose only four features are Bring It On, Down With Love, The Break-Up, and Yes Man; my interest levels drop to zero.

 

Terminator: Genisys

Quietly brushing 2009’s Terminator: Salvation into the dustbin of history in July is this script by Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder, Night Watch) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry). Game of Thrones’ Alan Taylor directs, which presumably explains Emilia Clarke’s baffling casting as Jason Clarke’s mother. That’s going to take some quality Sarah Connor/John Connor timeline shuffling. And this is all about timelines. Arnie returns! Byung-Hun Lee is a T-1000! Courtney B Vance is Miles Dyson! YAY!!!!! Jai Courtney is Kyle Reese … BOOOOOO!!!!!!! Did we learn nothing from McG’s fiasco? We do not need another muscle-bound actor with zip charisma.

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Fantastic Four

August sees Josh Trank shoulder the unenviable task of rebooting the Fantastic Four after two amiable but forgettable movies. Trank impressed mightily with the disturbing found-footage super-yarn Chronicle, and scripted this effort with X-scribe Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect). The cast is interesting; Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and Toby Kebbel as Dr Doom; but this has had a troubled production, and carries an albatross around its neck as it must bore us senseless with another bloody origin story.

 

The Man from UNCLE

August sees CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB man Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) on a mission to infiltrate a mysterious criminal organization during the height of the cold war. Steven Soderbergh nearly made this with George Clooney from a Scott Z Burns script. Instead we get Guy Ritchie and Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia (Omnipresent) Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was dry tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

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Black Mass

Poor old Johnny Depp is having something of an existential crisis at the moment. People moan and complain when he does his quirky thing (Mortdecai). But when he doesn’t do his quirky thing people moan and complain that he’s dull (Transcendence). September sees him team up with Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton for Scott Cooper’s 1980s period thriller about the FBI’s real-life alliance with Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, exploring how  the bureau’s original good intention of running an informant was derailed by Bulger’s clever connivance, ending up as a sort of state-sanctioned take-over of the criminal underworld.

 

The Martian

Ridley Scott just can’t stop making movies lately, but he’s having a considerably harder time making good movies. November sees the release of The Martian starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars after being presumed dead in a ferocious storm. The supporting cast includes Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Sebastian Shaw, Kate Mara, and the regrettably inevitable Jessica Chastain. Damon must try to send an SOS forcing NASA to figure out how on earth to go back and rescue him. Drew Goddard wrote the script. There’s the reason this might work.

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The Hateful Eight

November sees the return of Quentin Tarantino. The writer/director who never grew up follows his rambling gore-fest Django Unchained with another Western. But this one is shot in Ultra Panavision 70, despite being set indoors, and has more existential aspirations. Yeah… Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, and Zoe Bell return to the fold for this tale of bounty hunters holed up during a blizzard, while newcomers to Quentinland include Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nobody’s told Tarantino to stop indulging himself in years so expect endless speechifying and outrageous violence.

January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

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(10) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer triumphantly linked X-ensembles as Wolverine time-travelled from a Sentinels-devastated future to 1973 to prevent Mystique assassinating Bolivar Trask and being captured by Stryker. X-2 vim was displayed in Quicksilver’s mischievous Pentagon jail-break sequence, J-Law imbued Mystique with a new swagger as a deadly spy, and notions of time itself course-correcting any meddling fascinated. The pre-emptive villainy of Fassbender’s young Magneto seemed excessive, but it didn’t prevent this being superb.

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(9) The Guest

Dan Stevens was preposterously charismatic as demobbed soldier David who ‘helped’ the Peterson family with their problems while director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett riffed on Dominik Moll and Stephen King archetypes. Wingard edited with whoops, Stephen Moore’s synth combined genuine feeling with parody, ultraviolent solutions to Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna (Maika Monroe)’s problems were played deliriously deadpan, a military grudge-match was staged with flair: all resulted in a cinema of joyousness.

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(8) Mystery Road

Writer/director Ivan Sen’s measured procedural almost resembled an Australian Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aaron Pedersen’s dogged Detective Jay Swan battled official indifference as well as suspicion from his own community as he investigated an Aboriginal teenager’s death. Strong support, from Tamsa Walton as his estranged wife and Hugo Weaving as a cop engaged in some dodgy dealings, kept things absorbing until a climactic and startlingly original gun-battle and a stunning final image.

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(7) In Order of Disappearance

Nils (Stellan Skarsgaard), snow-plougher and newly-minted citizen of the year, embarks on a killing spree when authorities deem his son’s murder an accident. Nils’ executions accidentally spark all-out war between the Serbian gang of demoralized Papa (Bruno Ganz) and the Norwegian gang of self-pitying and stressed-out vegan The Count (Pal Sverre Hagen). Punctuated by McDonaghian riffs on the welfare state and Kosovo provocations, this brutal fun led to a perfectly daft ending.

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(6) Frank

Director Lenny Abrahamson loosened up for Jon Ronson’s frequently hilarious tale of oddball musicians. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon joined the band of benevolent melodist Frank (Michael Fassbender wearing a giant head) and scary obscurantist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Great comedy was wrung from Jon viewing writing hit music as a means to fortune and glory, but then affecting drama when music was revealed as the only means by which damaged souls Frank and Clara could truly connect.

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(5) Begin Again

Once director John Carney delivered a feel-good movie as Mark Ruffalo’s desperate record executive took a chance on a guerilla recording approach when he discovered British troubadour Keira Knightley performing in a bar. The Ruffalo was on glorious shambling form, and was matched by an exuberant Knightley; who in many scenes seemed to be responding to comic ad-libbing by James Corden as her college friend. Carney was surprisingly subversively structurally, perfectly matched Gregg Alexander’s upbeat music to sunny NYC locations, and stunt-casted wonderfully with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as Knightley’s sell-out ex.

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(4) Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan’s wondrously ambiguous thriller saw Tom (Dolan) bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from mother Agathe (Lise Roy); but exactly why Guillaume had elided Francis’ existence, and why Francis needed Tom to stay at the remote Quebec farm, remained murky. Dolan showed off subtly; the lurid colours getting brighter during an ever-darkening monologue in a bar; and flashily; expressionistly changing screen format during violent scenes; and deliriously; a transgressive tango on a nearly professional standard dance-floor unexpectedly hidden in a barn.

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(3) Gone Girl

David Fincher turned in a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing it flew by. Ben Affleck’s everyman found himself accused of murdering his icy wife Rosamund Pike. Only twin sister and spiky voice of reason Carrie Coon stood by him as circumstantial evidence and media gaffes damned him. Fincher, particularly in parallel reactions to a TV interview, brought out black comedy that made this a satire on trial by media, while, from fever dreams of arresting beauty to grand guignol murder and business with a hammer, making this material his own.

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(2) Dallas Buyers Club

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee drew incredibly committed performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in this harrowing drama. McConaughey wasted away before our eyes as Ron Woodroof, an archetypal good ole boy diagnosed with HIV, who reacted to his terminal diagnosis with total denial before smuggling drugs. Leto matched McConaughey’s transformation as transvestite Rayon, who sought oblivion in heroin, even as he helped Woodroof outwit the FDA via the titular group. This was an extremely moving film powered by Woodroof and Rayon’s friendship, beautifully played from initial loathing to brotherly love.

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(1) Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater’s dazzling technical achievement in pulling off a twelve-year shoot was equalled by the finished film’s great heart. The life of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen in Texas with mother Patricia Arquette, sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and weekend dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) was followed in seamless transitions with teasing misdirection and subtle reveals. Child performances that began in comedy grew thru shocking scenes to encompass depth of feeling. Hawke gave a wonderful performance of serious comedy, Arquette grew older but not wiser, and Linklater was richly novelistic in revealing how surface facades belied the truth about characters and personality formation defied self-analysis. Watching Boyhood is to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

May 21, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D

Director Bryan Singer triumphantly returns to the franchise he launched in 2000 to link two ensembles together for one of the classic Claremont/Byrne comics stories.

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Professor X (Patrick Stewart) narrates a Terminator 2 cold open as dead bodies are piled amidst rubble while machines hunt down and kill mutants and humans. Can this war of extinction be won by changing the past? X, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travel to a Chinese monastery where mutants familiar [Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore)] and strange [Blink (Fan BingBing), whose portal-creating power is visually intricate] are kept one step ahead of Sentinels by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who uses her powers to send the consciousness of Bishop (Omar Sy) back thru time. Defeating the Sentinels means preventing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinating Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, then being captured by Major Stryker (Josh Helman); actions which kick-start the program and see her DNA make the Sentinels unstoppable. Only Wolverine can physically survive the time-shift, but in 1973 he is reliant on the broken men Charles (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) patching up their differences with the imprisoned Erik (Michael Fassbender). But might the past be immutable?

The X-movies are a farrago of continuity, and this instalment ignores that (Wolverine has adamantium claws? Professor X has his own body?). It’s a sequel toFirst Class, with Charles and Erik rejoining battle for Mystique’s soul; as a wonderful exchange has it – “You got inside her head.” “That’s not my power, Charles.” The future, with Sentinels attacking like The Matrix’s squiddies, is mostly a glorified framing device; but its startling killing of characters in the prologue establishes the stakes. The past is a foreign country; where Singer displays X-2 vim. Beast acts as Q in freeing Erik, Wolverine gets two wonderful sight gags, and there’s a delightful nod to the parentage of Quicksilver (Evan Peters). The fast-talking Quicksilver’s mischievous liberation of Erik is the outstanding action sequence; it’s like watching Seth Cohen wielding superpowers. Erik’s curving of a bullet at the Paris summit is thrilling, as is the idea that time is course-correcting their meddling. But Page has precious little to do, and the great Fassbender is overshadowed by McAvoy and Jackman as they get all the best lines.

This lands somewhere around X-2 and First Class, but I preferred First Class because Erik was less muddled. The future comes into play in the finale, and Magneto battling future sentinels while Erik manipulates old sentinels is a brilliant cross-cutting of action sequences to interrogate character; questioning the ability of people to change even as the future characters hope their younger selves will change. Lawrence (more recognisable as Mystique than Rebecca Romijn ever was) is a world of swagger away from First Class; Mystique is a driven and accomplished spy. She wants to kill Bolivar for murdering her friends just like Erik wanted to vengefully kill Shaw. Charles once again is opposed to such motives. But in First Class Erik flung missiles back at people, here his villainy becomes incomprehensibly pre-emptive; as if the Singer special sequence where he retrieves his helmet unleashes a need for flair; the option of silent sabotage of the Sentinel programme doesn’t cut it, when you can (undoubtedly quite counter-productively) stage a stadium-sized spectacle of terrorism. But this is quibbling about what is only the third superb X-movie in the series: an intricate, thoughtful adventure in which Singer returns from the wilderness with surprising confidence.

The ending made me think of the Doctor’s emphatic lines at the end of Moffat’s Doctor Who Blitz story in 2005. And after suffering thru X-3 we surely all deserve that calibre of resolution.

4/5

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