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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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

July 24, 2013

The Wolverine 3-D

Walk the Line director James Mangold salvages Hugh Jackman’s signature role after 2009’s ho-hum outing by injecting some genuine tension and feeling.

the-wolverine-hugh-jackman-rila-fukushima1-600x472Mangold’s trademark disruptive flashbacks enliven an opening which unexpectedly drops us into a POW camp in Nagasaki just as the bomb drops. Logan, incarcerated in a deep pit to contain him, saves the life of noble young Japanese officer Yashida (Ken Yamamura). He awakens from this memory to find himself talking to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but this is a hallucination… Despite 2009’s teaser Japanese bar scene this film is defiantly actually a continuation of X-3; with Logan living peacefully alongside grizzlies in the Yukon, still traumatised by his murder of Dark Phoenix. Forced by his sense of justice into a confrontation in a bar he is unexpectedly assisted by petite samurai Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an emissary of the dying Yashida (now played by Hal Yamanouchi). Logan arrives in Japan to find Yashida wants to capture Logan’s healing power for himself. Can Logan fight the Yakuza as a mere mortal…?

Wolverine’s repeated clashes with Sabretooth in the last instalment were ridiculous as they couldn’t kill each other. By contrast the moment here when Logan first gets a shotgun blast and staggers back in agony rather than taking it in his stride takes the breath away. The initially too busy script by Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4.0) and Scott Frank (The Lookout, Minority Report) layers family power struggles and mutant plots. Yashida’s son and heir Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada, Emily’s mentor in Revenge) is insistent that his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) marry the justice minister, rather than her true love Black Hand ninja Harada (Will Yun Lee), for Shingen’s political advancement. Yashida though wants his granddaughter as his corporate successor, and has instructed Harada to protect her from the Yakuza, while his mutant biochemist Viper (Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova in increasingly outrageous costumes) works on crippling Logan, and furthering her own agenda.

Mangold’s interesting casting of newcomers yields many very distinctive faces, with the instantly adorable Fukushima in particular shining as Logan’s self-proclaimed bodyguard. Visually the Yakuza assault on a funeral is impressively staged, especially in following Harada and his lethal arching along rooftops as he protects Logan and Mariko. The Wolverine’s highlight is a brawl atop a speeding bullet train as a wounded Logan strategically leaps to avoid dying by signal lights and scaffolding, while trying to also take out Yakuza assassins. Thereafter all momentum is lost for a second act in which Logan and Mariko fall in love at her remote cottage: a protracted sequence lifted from Elektra in which a lost assassin connects with someone and so girds themselves for the third act. The third act does deliver a tense medical sequence, a nicely choreographed samurai v mutant duel, and both wonderful imagery and visceral brutality at the snow-covered Black Mountain lair of the Viper. But you feel that Mangold is striving throughout for a level of emotional depth that the script simply lacks, and hasn’t noticed that Jackman is fed precious few good gags to deliver…

Mangold doesn’t quite deliver his gold standard, but silver Mangold is a substantial improvement on Wolverine; and the teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past, following after Logan’s coming to terms with Jean’s death, bodes well for the franchise.

3/5

February 6, 2013

2013: Hopes

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Stoker

March sees the acclaimed South Korean director and Tarantino favourite Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy, Thirst) make his enigmatic English language debut with a movie scripted by the unlikely personage of Prison Break star Wentworth Miller. Riffing on Hitchock’s 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt and the Southern Gothic literary tradition this slow-burning psychological horror sees Mia Wasikowska’s unhealthy affection for her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) gradually transform into a possibly equally unhealthy suspicion to the point of madness when he comes to live with her recently widowed mother Nicole Kidman. Park has a wonderful eye for startling compositions and a willingness to challenge his audience with his pacing so this intrigues.

 

Mud

April sees the great Michael Shannon reunite with his regular collaborator the singular writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) but this time Matthew McConaughey is the focus as his roguish fugitive is helped evade bounty hunters and reunite with his lover Reese Witherspoon by two innocent teenage boys. Sam Shepard and Sarah Paulson round out the impressive cast in an Arkansas-set tale that’s been likened in feel to Huckleberry Finn. Nichols has adopted a more mobile style of directing for this endearing drama, written especially for McConaughey after Lone Star, which is also a world away in tone from the intensity and ambiguity of his apocalyptic drama Take Shelter.

 

The Iceman

Michael Shannon takes centre stage though as a notorious Mob hit-man Richard Kuklinski in this dark drama. Winona Ryder is his wife Deborah, who has no idea that this warm-hearted family man is also a cold-blooded contract killer with a huge and lengthening roll-call of victims. Director Ariel Vroman has rounded up an impressive supporting cast that includes Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, James Franco and Robert Davi. But the real draw here is, as ever, Shannon. He has a remarkable ability to project menace from a still centre as you sense bubbling fury beneath his calm face, and the ambiguities of this role recall his tour-de-force in Take Shelter.

 

Iron Man 3

April 26th sees the return of the only indispensable Marvel Studios property. Director Shane Black provided Robert Downey Jr with the definitive outing of his fast-talking ironist persona in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang so it’s a mouth-watering prospect to see Downey Jr again delivering Black dialogue. But… the pall of The Avengers hangs over this movie, which we’re promised sees Tony Stark suffering PTSD, before being attacked by Ben Kinsley’s not racist at all (now) super-villain The Mandarin. Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce’s rival scientists join regulars Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau in the cast but can Downey Jr and Black really do sombre? And should they try?

 

Star Trek: Into Darkness

In 2009 I griped about both the intellectual con-job involved in the in-camera ret-conning plot and the poor villain of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek debut, but both gripes are now redundant. Rumours of Klingons conflict with Benedict Cumberbatch being Khan, but who cares? Cumberbatch is a genius terrorist destroying Starfleet from within and the crew of the USS Enterprise must travel into a warzone to stop him. May 17th should see another exuberant romp underscored with much seriousness as we fret about the fate of Zachary Quinto’s Spock. The only fly in the ointment is Peter Weller joining the cast. Have you seen 24: Day 5? Shudder.

 

The Wolverine

Yes, the first Wolverine movie in 2009 resembled a bad episode of Smallville at times, but it still had some good elements that could profitably be built on. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) should bring more intelligence to proceedings and given Mark Millar’s new comics consultant role at Fox we can hope that the script is slightly more together as well. Plus this one’s got ninjas. And everything’s better with ninjas. And not just any old ninjas either, Will Yun Lee appears as the Silver Samurai. And Famke Janssen returns as Jean Grey! July 26th might see this franchise renew itself as effectively as its laconic super-healing hero.

 

The Dallas Buyers’ Club

Quebecois writer/director Jean-Marc Vallee follows his unsettling and emotional Cafe de Flore with a 1980s set film about the real life AIDS victim Ron Woodroof. A womanising homophobic Texan, he defied not just his doctors, but his own prejudices and the federal government to smuggle in from Mexico alternative drug treatments for himself and his fellow HIV+ victims. It stars, wait for it, Matthew McConaughey; who’s this year confirming his rebirth as a serious actor; with Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner. Vallee’s last Anglophone movie, Young Victoria, was essentially a cinematic curtsy by scriptwriter Julian Fellowes to the Famine Queen, so let’s hope this receives Vallee’s magic.

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Only God Forgives

Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn and his Drive leading man Ryan Gosling reunite for another unhinged movie. I’m not kidding, Gosling said Refn’s script was the strangest thing he’d ever read. Shot on location in Bangkok, Gosling plays Julian, an Englishman running a boxing club as a front for his family’s drug-smuggling. Kristin Scott Thomas is his terrifying mother Jenna who instructs him to hunt down and kill the man who killed his brother. Refn has described this as a Western that takes place in the East, and a fairytale with Gosling as a cowboy. So expect virtuosity in visuals, sound, acting, oh, and some truly horrendous violence.

 

Carrie

Hallowe’en sees Stop-Loss director Kimberly Pierce’s delayed remake of Brian De Palma’s classic horror based on Stephen King’s hit debut novel. There are good and bad elements at work here that make this a toss-up between good and disaster. Chloe Moretz is the victimised teenager, Julianne Moore her crazy mother, Judy Greer the nice teacher, and Youth in Revolt’s Portia Doubleday the alpha mean girl. That’s a fine cast under a talented director. But, this has been mysteriously delayed, it’s been written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa who scripted the misfiring Spider-Man musical, and he’s promised to stick closer to the novel King insisted De Palma had improved on with his film.

 

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness will perforce be put to one side for a rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

On November 22nd the all-conquering Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss Everdeen for the second of four films adapted from Suzanne Collins’ best-selling YA trilogy. Having won the Hunger Games despite her seditious gestures Katniss finds herself thrown back into the fray as the 75th Hunger Games – the Quarter Quells – introduce new allies and enemies; including showy turns from Jena Malone and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson all return but, more importantly Gary Ross doesn’t; having been replaced in the director’s chair by Francis Lawrence who will presumably introduce a more considered visual style, more layered villains, and better action.

 

Twelve Years a Slave

Acclaimed director Steve McQueen’s first movie without Michael Fassbender in the lead role sees him instead working with Red Tails screenwriter John Ridley to adapt the true story of a free black man from the North who was kidnapped and forced into Slavery in the Antebellum South. The peerless Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the indomitable hero Solomon Northrup. McQueen has rounded up an incredible supporting cast (Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Fassbender, Ruth Negga, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Scott McNairy, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch) but this film will undoubtedly belong to Ejiofor and McQueen’s visuals which may well become less abstract in dealing with this topic.

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Yes, Peter Jackson, deserved everything he got at Christmas: to wit, being kicked like a dog with mange. But, even if the opportunistic and very ill-advised decision to adapt one short novel into three epic films represented the darkest hour for decent storytelling in the eternal battle between art and commerce, at least we won’t have to sit thru an hour of filler introducing dwarves we couldn’t care less about before the action starts with this second instalment. And we get to hear Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman together again! Freeman and Ian McKellen were reliably fantastic, let’s just hope this next film matches them.

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