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.

Listen here:

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February 10, 2016

Deadpool

Seven years later Ryan Reynolds gets to play Deadpool properly, but X-Men Origins: Wolverine is neither forgotten nor forgiven in this uproarious scabrous assault on cliché, and the fourth wall.

Deadpool International Quad

Deadpool begins with a credits sequence insulting all the crew (save the writers), and listing not actors but their tokenistic functions (British Villain, Hot Chick). Riffing on Batman Begins’ chronology we begin with Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) shooting the breeze with cabbie Dopinder (Karan Soni) before a massive motorway bloodbath, and get his origin story in flashbacks between arguments with Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) over said bloodbath. Once mercenary Wade Wilson did bad things to worse people for money, hung out in a merc bar run by Weasel (TJ Miller), and hooked up with equally abrasive hooker Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Then, attempting to beat terminal cancer, he said yes to a recruiter [‘Agent Smith’] (Jed Rees), and ended up being forcibly mutated by sadistic Ajax [Not his real name] (Ed Skrein) and Angel Dust (Gina Carano).

And lo, Deadpool… His mask looks like Spider-Man’s but there’s an R-rated lip under it; quipping about genre clichés, and anything else he might want to rip. There’s an Adult Swim vibe to proceedings, think Robot Chicken and The Venture Brothers: sarcastic questioning of the safety of Professor X’s mansion getting the immortal reply [from now Russian Colossus] “Please… house blowing up builds character,” Stan Lee making his most unlikely cameo ever, and Deadpool mumbling “It’s weird. This house is really big but there only ever seems to be the two of you in it. It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man…” FX’s Archer [Corinth is famous for its leather!] is also present spiritually in a festive sex montage [International Women’s Day – Ouchie!] and the abusive Archer/Woodhouse dynamic between Deadpool and his elderly blind housemate Al (Leslie Uggams).

Alas, the Fourth Wall. [And good riddance…] It never stood a chance against Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza’s creation. Imagine Seths Rogen and Green riffing over the first Wolverine and you’re close to how Deadpool feels. Deadpool’s origin is V’s in V for Vendetta, but such rehashing doesn’t matter because this movie knows the perfect Iron Man film would be all Tony Stark, no Iron Man. Deadpool’s fights are nifty, but the draw is the scatological absurdities director Tim Miller has Reynolds and Miller improvise over Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s script. Superhero landings, female superhero costumes, Hollywood; nothing is off limits [“Looks are everything! Do you think Ryan Reynolds got this far based on his acting technique?”]. Especially Hugh Jackman and the first Wolverine; there’s an inexplicable flight deck in a scrap yard in order to parody its finale.

Guardians of the Galaxy sprinkled absurdity over stale MCU story structure, but Deadpool mocks what little structure it doesn’t discard. Not since Wanted has a comic-book movie swaggered so unpredictably, and it’s to be hoped people respond to this the way they didn’t to Scott Pilgrim. We need more.

5/5

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.

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…

November 17, 2009

I’d Rather See the Wires

Possibly it was Lou Ferrigno’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk that inspired this piece. Everyone smiles at seeing Lou Ferrigno do his cameo, but he’s only alone in making the obligatory cameo with Stan Lee because Bill Bibxy is dead, otherwise Bixby and Ferrigno would be making their cameos together in the way Lee and Ferrigno shared their cameo in Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Which begs the question why shouldn’t two people play the Hulk and Bruce Banner? Why is it considered absolutely necessary for the Hulk to be a fake CGI creation? What if, to use the suggestion of the characters in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates in casting a film of their own lives, Steve Buscemi was to play Dr Bruce Banner and then transform him into say The Rock who would be painted green and shot with LOTR style tricksy perception filming techniques to tower over everyone else (a bit more than usual). Would it really be any more ridiculous than a plainly CGI creation rampaging around a plainly green-screened location throwing plainly CGI objects about at a plainly CGI villain with a few actual actors and physical props dotted here and there to give some feeling of reality to proceedings, unlike say Attack of the Clones’ over-dependence on pure CGI constructions around actors forlornly stranded in green-screen deserts.

It seems that CGI has become the first option in the blockbuster film-maker’s bag of tricks. I Am Legend’s vampires we were told were CGI creations rather than actors wearing vampire prosthetics and make-up because the producers wanted the vampires to be terrifyingly agile. Well, yes, they were terrifyingly agile, but did it really make up for the silliness that ruined 40 minutes of high tension when we first glimpsed them in all their shockingly obvious CGI glory? If only some technology existed for making actors seem super-humanly agile, some way of making people run up walls, and levitate in air, some way of – oh wait, it does, it’s called wire-work and you may have seen it used extensively in The Matrix where it looked, at least it did the last time I checked, extremely cool rather than silly, and beat the mortal crap out of the use of CGI Keanu v CGI Hugo Weaving in Reloaded’s showpiece fight scene which ended up looking…silly.

Cinema produced marvels for damn near a hundred years before CGI took over. The Thing has no CGI whatsoever, can you imagine anyone having the inventiveness to do that now? CGI has stopped being a technological tool that we marvel at, it’s become meat and potatoes, and the over-reliance on it by lazy film-makers has left special effects somewhat less than special. ‘How did they do that?’ is always now answered by ‘Oh, they just CGI’d it – of course’. That’s why the truck-flip in The Dark Knight drew astonished gasps from audiences. So here’s a plea for the next over-digitised summer blockbuster – I’d rather see the wires.

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