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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November 22, 2016

Re-Routh Superman!

The guest appearance of Superman on Supergirl for 2 episodes; which displayed more wit, swagger, and simple sure grasp of the character than Zack Snyder’s 2 movies; led me back to thinking about a couple of unrelated moments this summer.

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I was watching Legends of Tomorrow, the audacious episode where three of our heroes are left behind in 1950s America, and Dad walked past, stopped, and asked “Is that Superman?” And yes, it kind of was. Brandon Routh, bespectacled, waistcoated, and jacketed, was lecturing excitedly on physics and slightly bumbling in keeping the space-time continuum free of catastrophic paradoxes. I have always considered that Routh in Superman Returns was a fine Superman, but I was less sold on his Clark Kent. His sensational cameo in Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, effectively playing Bizarro for extra meta-laughs, served notice that the still young Routh was developing his comedy chops apace. But with Legends of Tomorrow there is no doubt that the secret identities Ray Palmer and Clark Kent are starting to become interchangeable on occasion, and if Routh is secretly auditioning to get his cape back (Hell, Routh’s superhero guise still involves wearing a suit largely composed of red and blue), he’s certainly won me over regarding his ability to play Clark. So, with Snyder now having failed miserably, twice, to show that he understands in the slightest the character of Superman, has any coherent vision of how to direct Super-action, or has any sense of humour, might it not be time to simply pretend the whole thing was a fever dream and make a semi-sequel to Superman Returns, bringing back Routh to the role he only got one shot at?

DC's Legends of Tomorrow -- "Left Behind" -- Image LGN109A_0220b.jpg -- Pictured: Brandon Routh as Ray Palmer/Atom -- Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW -- © 2016 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW — © 2016 The CW

And the second unrelated moment… Watching Olivia Munn in X-Men: Apocalypse after watching her in season 3 of The Newsroom I was once again disappointed at how an actress who dominates a television screen ended up standing around like a mislaid prop on the big screen. If there was only some role in a superhero movie that would be as juicy for Munn as Sorkin’s creation Sloan Sabbith was… If only she could again play a journalist, someone with an overpowering hunger for nailing a scoop. Someone like… Lois Lane. In 2010 I wrote on this blog that Lois “lives for breaking news and will do anything to get it first – she’s not a particularly nice person but she’s charismatic, tough as nails and you’d always want her on your team rather than playing against you. Writing Lois as nastier than recent anodyne versions of her also helps solve the ‘problem’ of Superman’s uncomplicated morality about which essays of unsympathetic comparisons to Batman and Wolverine have been written. The meaner you make Lois, the harder it becomes for Superman to melt her cynicism, and the better the film will be as a result in selling audiences on his Boy Scout ethics.” Take a look at Munn in action as Sloan in the clip below, and imagine a Lois whose breath-taking abrasiveness in the service of the Daily Planet becomes perversely loveable.

The Snyderverse demonstrably is not working, and the Berlantiverse demonstrably is; surely it’s time for DC to acknowledge reality, reverse the reboot, and give Brandon Routh back his cape and give Olivia Munn another charismatic vinegary role.

June 27, 2016

5 Dispatches from Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day has been all over our TV screens, and the sequel, while entertaining enough, is never going to trouble it in popular esteem or take pride of patriotic bombast place in Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre. Here are observations on it.

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1. Hansoloitis

“It doesn’t need matter that you come back, just how you come back” proclaimed Longmire’s gruff season 4 tag-line; and Independence Day: Resurgence bungles beloved characters as badly as The Force Awakens. It’s always great to see Judd Hirsch, but that doesn’t mean he can literally just drive around in a parallel universe to the forward drive of the plot without seeming superfluous. Vivica A Fox’s return is on every level as baffling as Bill Pullman being given a kind of rousing speech to kind of deliver to Jeff Goldblum with kind of the intention of being overheard by pilots, but only kind of, to the point where even the orchestra string section doesn’t know whether to swell or not. And then there’s the great dilemma: is it okay to kill fan favourites just to ‘raise the stakes’?

2. Turn on the bright lights

If The Bling Ring is the most over-lit film of our times, I have rarely wanted to scream ‘Turn on a bloody light!’ as much as for Independence Day: Resurgence. Markus Forderer aggressively discards the lighting schema established in 1996 by Karl Walter Lindelaub. This is possibly Emmerich’s murkiest film since Ueli Steiger hid Godzilla in night, rain, and shadow, and for no very clear reason. It hides scale in the African scenes, muddies action within the alien mothership, and gives the impression that commands are issuing from a bunker with a half-capacity generator.

3. Practical Magic

It is startling to see the practical VFX in the original Independence Day. Aliens that are CGI creations in Independence Day: Resurgence are costumes and puppets in the original. It’s odd to think that Independence Day by dint of being released in 1996 still had regard for tangible reality in blockbuster visuals; models of the White House et al blowing up mingled with real people and cars being yanked about on wires. And now, no, now we mostly get the same ‘awe-inspiring’ CGI as X-Men: Apocalypse. It is of course probably impossible to depict a city being ripped into the air by the gravity of a passing spaceship using models. But even trying and failing to get it all would sure have more impact than watching actors do their ‘amazed at the storyboard for the shot’ expression.

4. ‘Baby’

Bret Easton Ellis lamented that the growing importance of Chinese cinema audiences was leading to a quiet purging of gay characters from blockbusters. He feared supporting characters, like Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day, would be edited out by notes with an eye on the Chinese market, and gay characters, while happily surfing the zeitgeist in television, would disappear from American blockbusters. But Roland Emmerich, while pushing Chinese products and heroic Chinese characters, also reveals that Brent Spiner and John Storey’ Drs Okun and Isaacs are a gay couple. Almost entirely via body language and the word ‘baby’, as if chuckling that he might hoodwink the Chinese censor by insisting they’re just work colleagues, the censor has imagined something that’s not there in translation.

5. Funny haha

Aside from the unintentional hilarity, pointed out to me by John Healy, of cold fusion weapons, this isn’t very funny. Goldblum’s nods to Emmerich trademarks lack pizzaz, and new characters make little impression without memorable zingers. Emmerich co-wrote with trusted collaborators Dean Devlin and James Vanderbilt, and James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright (who starred in White House Down, in which everything paid off). How did writers so attuned to blockbuster structure under-nourish humour and over-complicate plot?

January 18, 2016

2016: Fears

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

January 29th sees the release of a small (a mere $50 million dollar) personal movie by an auteur, truly un film de Michel Bay. Six military contractors (including The Office’s John Krasinski, 24’s James Badge Dale, and The Unit’s Max Martini) make a desperate last stand when a US consulate in Libya is attacked on the anniversary of 9/11. Chuck Hogan (The Town, The Strain), of all people, writes for Bay to direct; with the resulting Bayhem being memorably characterised by The Intercept as Night of the Living Dead meets The Green Berets.

Zoolander 2

February 12th sees the release of the sequel nobody was particularly asking for… It’s been 14 since Zoolander. An eternity in cinematic comedy as the Frat Pack glory days have long since yielded to the School of Apatow; itself fading of late. Seinfeld has refused reunions noting that the concept of his show becomes depressing with aged characters, but Stiller apparently has no such qualms about airhead models Derek (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) being on the catwalk. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Wiig and Penelope Cruz bring new energy, but an air of desperation/cynicism hangs over this project.

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Gods of Egypt

February 26th sees Bek (Brenton Thwaites) forced to align with Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) when the god of darkness Set (Gerard Butler) assumes control of Egypt in a truly stupid blockbuster. But not as stupid as the reception it can look forward to after Deadline’s Ross A. Lincoln wrote “based on the statuary and monuments that have survived, not to mention thousands of years of other cultures commenting on them, they definitely weren’t white people with flowing, curly blond locks, and their gods were definitely not Europeans.” Lincoln’s argument dynamites Idris Elba’s role in Thor, which is not permissible, so logically (sic) it’s now racist to not depict the Egyptian gods as Egyptian, but it’s also racist to depict the Norse gods as Norse. If the gods of Egypt ought to look Egyptian, who, that’s bankable, can play them? Amir Arison, Mozhan Marno, Sarah Shahi, and Cliff Curtis wouldn’t merit a $140 million budget. And casting them because (barring the Maori Curtis) they hail from nearer Egypt than Gerard Butler, but are not actually Egyptian, is itself racist. Does Alex (Dark City) Proyas, who hasn’t directed anything since 2009, really deserve this firestorm for just trying to work?

Hail, Caesar!

The Coens stop writing for money and return to directing on March 4th with a 1950s Hollywood back-lot comedy. A lighter effort than Barton Fink, this follows Josh Brolin’s fixer as he tries to negotiate the return of George Clooney’s kidnapped star from mysterious cabal ‘The Future’ with the help of fellow studio players Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich, and Scarlett Johansson. The relentlessly mean-spirited Inside Llewyn Davis was a surprise aesthetic nadir after True Grit’s ebullience, so we can only hope the return of so many of their repertory players can galvanise the Coens to rediscover some warmth.

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Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

Zack Snyder gave us the neck-snap heard around the world in Man of Steel. On March 25th he continues his visionary misinterpretation of Superman, and can also ruin Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Alfred Pennyworth, and Doomsday. Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons entice as Bruce and Alfred, and Affleck has undoubtedly got the script punched up by inserting his Argo scribe Chris Terrio into the mix, but Snyder is still directing. How Snyder ever got the keys to the DC cinematic kingdom is amazing, but when if he blows this he cripples The WB.

The Neon Demon

Keanu Reeves made a comeback in 2015 with John Wick and Knock Knock. But can he impart some of that momentum to Nicolas Winding Refn to help him recover from the unmerciful kicking he got for Only God Forgives? Refn is working on a third of Drive’s budget for this horror tale of Elle Fanning’s wannabe actress who moves to LA, to find her vitality drained by a coven led by Christina Hendricks. Details are very sparse, other than that it’s about ‘vicious beauty,’ but this could be intriguing, blood-spattered, gorgeous, and enigmatic, or a total fiasco…

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The Avengers 3 Captain America: Civil War

Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors who gave you the worst choreographed and edited fight scenes you’d ever seen in Captain America 2, return with …more of the same, because why bother doing it better when you’ll go see it anyway? May 6th sees Mark Millar’s comic-book event become a camouflaged Avengers movie as Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans’ superheroes fall out over the fate of Sebastian Stan’s reformed Bucky. Expect incomprehensible fights, the occasional decent action sequence, wall to wall fake-looking CGI, and more characters than Game of Thrones meets LOST.

Snowden

The master of subtlety returns on May 12th as Oliver Stone continues his quest to make a good movie this century. His latest attempt is a biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose distrust of the American government should be catnip to Stone’s sensibilities. Zachary Quinto is journalist Glenn Greenwald, Shailene Woodley is Snowden’s girlfriend, and supporting players include Timothy Olyphant, Nicolas Cage, and Melissa Leo. Expect a hagiography with stylistic brio, and no qualms about whether the next large building that blows up might be on Snowden for blowing the lid on how terrorists were monitored.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Oscar Isaac is Apocalypse, the first mutant, worshipped for his godlike powers, who awakes in alt-1980 and turns Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to the dark side as one of his Four Horsemen alongside Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Angel (Ben Hardy). James McAvoy loses his hair from the stress of being upstaged by the powers of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and the ever-increasing star-power of Jennifer Lawrence. Director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-fold in 2014 was a triumph, but rushing this out for May 27th invites disaster; can enough time really have been spent on scripting?

Warcraft

Duncan Jones completes the Christopher Nolan career path by moving from Moon to Source Code to Warcraft. June 10th sees Vikings main-man Travis Fimmel daub on blue face-paint as Anduin Lothar. The battle with the Orcs has an interesting cast including Ben Foster, Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, and the great character actors Clancy Brown and Callum Keith Rennie. But its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Has there ever been a truly great adaptation of a computer game to a movie? And if Warcraft’s a good movie that’s unfaithful to the game will gamers stay away?

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Finding Dory

June 17th sees another unnecessary unwanted sequel to a beloved early Zeroes film. Why exactly do we need a sequel to Finding Nemo? Besides it being a post-John Carter retreat into an animated safe space for director Andrew Stanton? Marlin (Albert Brooks) sets out to help forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) find her long-lost parents, who are voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy. Other voices include Ty Burrell as a beluga whale, Kaitlin Olson as Dory’s whale shark adopted sister, and Ed O’Neill as an ill-tempered octopus. Stanton is writing too, but can aquatic lightning really strike twice?

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek marks its 50th anniversary with this reboot threequel on July 8th, but the recent trailer didn’t whet any appetites. Despite having Furious maestro Justin Lin in charge and Simon Pegg as the final writer on a script with 5 credited scribes the footage was solely notable for (a) Kirk’s bad hair (b) a vaguely Star Trek: Insurrection with gaudier colours vibe (c) forced attempts at humour. Star Trek Into Darkness was a frustrating exercise in creative cowardice, a flipped photocopy of Star Trek II. Let us hope this time originality has been actively sought out.

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Ghostbusters

July 15th sees… another reboot. Paul Feig couldn’t stow his ego and just direct Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters 3 script, so… “REBOOT!”. Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig are great, but Feig wrote this with Katie Dippold (who penned his execrable ‘comedy’ The Heat) so it won’t be. Feig’s drivel about gender-swapping hides an obvious truth. The Ghostbusters were all male because Akyroyd and Ramis wrote for themselves, SNL pal Murray, and Eddie Murphy; when Murphy dropped out, Zeddmore’s part shrank as his jokes were redistributed. Feig’s Ghostbusters are all female to cynically reposition attacks on his creative bankruptcy as sexism.

Doctor Strange

November 4th sees Benedict Cumberbatch swoosh his cape as Stephen Strange, (That’s Dr. Strange to you!), an arrogant surgeon taught magick by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. Director Scott Derrickson is perhaps hoping to mash his resume of Sinister and The Day The Earth Stood Still, especially as Sinister co-writer C Robert Cargill has polished this. Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams co-star, but before we get excited, this is Marvel. Marvel took the outré world of comic-books and cinematically rendered it as predictable, conservative, self-aggrandising, boring tosh. How off the leash do you bet Derrickson will get?

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The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Kit Harington is the titular movie star who is undone when Jessica Chastain’s gossip columnist reveals his correspondence with a young girl, and an unreasoning witch-hunt begins. And it’s the first movie written and directed by Xavier Dolan in English! So, why Fears not Hopes, you ask? Because Dolan in a BBC Radio 4 interview expressed nervousness that he didn’t instinctively understand English’s nuances the way he did with French, and because with big names (Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Michael Gambon) comes pressure to tone down material and make a commercial breakthrough.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Didn’t you always desperately want to know the back story of that throwaway line about how brave rebels died to smuggle out the plans for the Death Star? … Whaddya mean ‘No’?!! Do you have any idea how much money Disney has on the line here?? You damn well better develop an interest by December 16th when Oppenheimer of the Empire Mads Mikkelsen has a crisis of conscience and enlists the help of his smuggler daughter Felicity Jones. Disney paid 4 billion for the rights to Star Wars, they retrospectively own your childhood now.

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