The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet (2014)

The Young And Prodigious T S SpivetThings haven’t been the same in the Spivet household since Layton (Jakob Davies) died. Sure, his older sister (Niamh Wilson) still wants to be Miss America, his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) still obsesses over insects and his father (Callum Keith Rennie) is still a cowboy out of time, but for young T. S. (Kyle Catlett) the tragedy still casts an incredibly large shadow. When T. S. — now 10 years old – receives a call from the Smithsonian Museum informing him that he has won their esteemed Baird prize for his work on perpetual motion he is at first reluctant to accept, but after some thought decides to leave a note for his family and set off alone on a journey that will take him from Montana to Washington DC.

Based on Reif Larsen’s 2009 bestseller The Selected Works Of T. S. Spivet, a book which defied convention by containing almost as many supplementary maps and annotations as plotted paragraphs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest marks the director’s first English-language feature since Alien Resurrection. Tonally, and in just about every other sense too, the film bears a much greater resemblance to Jeunet’s more resent French works, including the almost universally adored Amélie. Quirky, colourful and surreal, The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet is everything audiences have come to expect from the auteur.

As ever, it’s writer, director, producer Jeunet’s eccentric approach to characterisation that sets his film apart from Hollywood’s rather more homogenised attempts at coming-of-age drama. Even the deliciously dark A Series Of Unfortunate Events ultimately failed to break the mould for bonkers but not too bleak bildungsroman. T. S. is a gifted but troubled soul, and though he may be prone to flights of fancy and borderline Autistic asides there is real guilt, grief and regret at the character’s heart. Newcomer Catlett carries it off beautifully, and unlike most child actors he sells the character’s weaknesses with as much success as his innocent pluck.

T.S. Spivet is full of great characters — from Bonham-Carter’s tiger monk beetle-obsessed Dr. Claire to T. S.’s insecure science teacher, who dismisses his pupil’s homework assignments only to be shown that they’ve been erstwhile published in respected scientific journals — but they are sadly squandered on a scattering of half-realised scenes. Although it is in fact adapted from one book, The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet feels as though it has been carelessly assembled from episodes taken from across a series, for the various subplots are often awkward and disjointed, refusing to come together in any satisfying way. The ending is particularly disappointing, as T.S.’s issues are finally aired and put to rest — not with his family by his side, but on a televised chat show orchestrated and overseen by Judy Davis’ conniving Jibsen.

The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet looks great (particularly in 3D), goes to some pretty dark places (there is a reason T. S. feels responsible for his brother’s death) and boasts some fine performances (if you don’t remember Wilson from the Saw series then you will from this) but despite its many strengths the lacklustre narrative means that it ultimately disappoints. While idiosyncrasy in a character can be cute, when it comes to narrative shape and structure sometimes it pays to be a little more conventional.

3-Stars

 

 

Grace Of Monaco (2014)

Grace of MonacoBack in 1961 Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) was taking her first shaky steps on the road to becoming Princess Grace of Monaco. While her new husband, Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), wages a war of words over taxes with French president Charles Des Gaulles (Andre Penvern), Grace is approached by her old friend, Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths ), who wants her to star in his new picture, Marnie. Torn between returning to Hollywood and her duties as princess, Grace seeks guidance from Father Francis Tucker (Frank Langella), Count Fernando D’Ailieres (Derek Jacobi) and PR guru Rupert Allen (Milo Ventimiglia) in the hope of winning the respect of her subjects and making the most of what might well be the greatest role of her career.

Thanks to The Diana Effect, by which every biopic since Oliver Hirschbiegel’s account of Princess Diana’s final few years appears at least twice as accomplished than it actually is, it was possible to watch Mandela: The Long Walk To Freedom and see something almost noble and inteligent. Even with Hirschbiegel in mind, however, Grace Of Monaco still makes for irredeemably grim viewing, and may even come out of the comparison looking worse for it. Whereas Diana was laughable, maddening and cheesy beyond belief, Olivier Dahan’s Grace Of Monaco is blandly beige, stiflingly sincere and almost completely lifeless.

Nevertheless, the similarities are striking, at least to begin with. Both films star celebrated Australian actresses playing much-loved European royalty, yet neither film seems to have that much faith in their abilities; like Diana, Grace Of Monaco opens with a shot of the back of its namesake’s head, a shot which becomes a sequence and ultimately lasts for a string of increasingly strained scenes. Little do you know, but by the time the director has built up the courage to deal with his star head on the most successful part of the film is long over, and from this point on it will only get progressively worse. At least from behind it was possible to imagine that you were watching Grace Kelly.

It would be impossible to comprehensively list Dahan’s film’s failings, but the following examples may give you a distinct flavour. In addition to Kidman, who is decades too old and much too innocuous for the role, Dahan has also miscast Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Lindsay as a French aristocrat and Tim Roth as the film’s romantic lead. This is a movie in which the supposedly real car journeys look as fake as the film-within-a-film ones featured earlier, where Grace Kelly – one of the greatest screen actresses in Hollywood history – is taught to look surprised by Last Tango In Halifax‘s Derek Jacobi, and which spends much of its running time in extreme close-up for no apparent reason, only serving to emphasise the dearth of similarity.

If the film has a loose grip of its heroine (Nicole — never Grace – says family is everything, yet you barely see her children) then it has an even weaker grasp of its historical setting. Grace seems completely unconcerned with the local politics (“Oh, but colonialism is so last century”) but wonders why her subjects treat her with as much apathy. She’s far more concerned with Marnie, the script that has been personally delivered to her by Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, neither is much of a story (Monaco never did go to war, while Tippi Hedren ultimately won the role of Marnie), and the would-be plight of the overprivelaged Monacans and their uninterested Princess struggles to elicit any real sympathy.

At one point towards the end of the film, shortly before Grace single-handedly averts war by delivering muffins to soldiers, throwing a big ball and learning to look sad, she and Prince Rainier talk dismissively of Monaco’s “silly old throne”. It’s quite possibly the worst scene of the year, though in a film that gives it so much competition it’s almost impossible to be sure. When even the characters are questioning the point of it all you can’t help but feel that they’re wasting their own time as well as everyone else’s.

1-Star

 

May 2014 – Flattered grin, followed by a dashful half smile

Having had to cut down on films last month in order to complete the West Highland Way, I returned to the cinema with a vengeance in May in order to catch up on everything I’d missed.

I caught Next Goal Wins, Frank, The Wind Rises and The Two Faces Of January at the first press day of the month, enjoying the first two before having my patience tested by the others. This was followed a fortnight later by Godzilla, Postman Pat: The Movie, Fading Gigolo, Venus In Fur and Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, none of which made a particularly large impression.

I also saw Bad Neighbours, the latest and in my opinion best comedy from Nicholas Stoller, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, a film which defied all expectations by being really rather great, and Maleficent, which was almost as disappointing as X-Men was surprising. I should have a review of A Million Days To Die In The West online in the next few days.

Meanwhile, having written a chronological ordering of the extant X-Men movies in the months prior to its release, I took the opportunity after having finally watched Days Of Future Past to re-evaluate the franchise as a whole.

Now, however, it’s all eyes on June, with the Edinburgh International Film Festival set to begin anew on the 18th of next month. I hope to see some of you there.

Film of the month: X-Men: Days Of Future Past 3D

 

Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

Jimmys HallTen years after Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) left Ireland to start a new life in the US he returned home to help his elderly mother (Eileen Henry) on the family farm. Not everyone is happy to see him, however, and old rivalries reassert themselves when he reopens his old music hall to serve the residents of the village. While the church and local government conspire to close it down once and for all, afraid that it might threaten their theological and political hold on the townsfolk, Jimmy reconnects with his childhood sweetheart Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who is now married with children.

The film opens with archive footage of 1930s New York, intercut with a short introductory slideshow for audience members perhaps unfamiliar with the historical context of Southern Ireland (though for all its talk of Communism, Catholicism and Los Angelesisation the story is surprisingly simplistic and unspecific — this isn’t really a film about Ireland at all). We then cut to County Leitrim, where Jimmy is arriving by horse and cart. What follows is a lengthy, languorous introduction to the characters and country life, filling us in on the hall’s troubled past and setting up the various conflicts which the narrative will eventually address. It’s all pretty nuts and bolts stuff, then, with precious little in the way of style or substance.

Jimmy’s hall isn’t much to look at, but we’re told that it means a great deal to the community; after all, thanks to those four walls the local youth no longer have to dance in the street. It’s location is controversial, for reasons that it’s not really worth getting into, and the structure’s future is in question, thanks to Jim Norton’s puritanical Father Sheridan. Not exactly high stakes stuff, is it? The low rumble of Godzilla laying waste to San Francisco or Wolverine battling Sentinels in the neighbouring screens will likely be more than enough to draw your attention away from the latest peaceful protest outside the gates of the town hall. There is only so much time you can willingly spend watching a man watching other people dance.

Admittedly, being boring is Jimmy’s Hall‘s only real crime, for it’s otherwise reasonably well directed, nicely shot and sensitively acted. Ward is competent enough in the leading role, and it’s easy to sympathise with his struggles against local conservatism and corruption. It’s the supporting cast who really shine, however, begging the question of why Jimmy was singled out as the lead. It’s their hall as much as his, and either Kirby or Aisling Francoisi (as a young girl beaten for her secular beliefs) would have made far more compelling focal point for the movie. Arguably the film’s most interesting relationship is that between Father Sheridan and Andrew Scott’s Father Seamus, who are united in faith but divided by generation. Sadly, their difference of opinion goes largely unexplored.

Jimmy’s Hall is based on a play which is itself based on true events — Jimmy Gralton is to this day the only Irish national to have ever been deported from Ireland. As far as historical footnotes go it’s reasonably diverting, but not even Ken Loach can turn it into a dramatic and dynamic feature film. Maybe there are some stories which can safely stay untold.

2-stars

Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge Of TomorrowFollowing a devastating meteor strike, an alien parasite has invaded Earth and made short work of the human race. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a media officer for the military, is summoned by his superior (Brendan Gleeson) and informed that he is to follow the last regiments into battle. Unwilling to comply, Cage attempts to blackmail him, but this quickly backfires as he is branded a deserter, demoted to private and left to deploy with everyone else. Five minutes into battle, however, his regiment is overwhelmed and William Cage is killed, only for him to wake up hours earlier ready to live the day again. Through innumerable repetitions of D-day, Cage learns that the aliens have the ability to time-travel — which explains the speed with which they have overwhelmed humanity — and that by inadvertently killing an ‘Alpha’ he has inherited that ability. Seeking tutelage from Full Metal Bitch, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a soldier familiar with the phenomenon, Cage learns to control his newfound power and plots to use it against the enemy.

Based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel, All You Need Is Kill, but subsequently renamed Edge of Tomorrow for its theatrical release, Doug Liman’s latest film is a melting pot of influences and a hodgepodge of homages to other, often better movies. Take the time-travel mechanics from Groundhog Day, the creature classifications from Starship Troopers and the creature designs from Grabbers and you have Edge Of Tomorrow, not so much a derivation as a two-hour-long sense of deja vu. You’ve got the grass-roots perspective from Battle: Los Angeles, the aesthetic of The Matrix (the real world sections, anyway) and the foghorn cues from Hans Zimmer’s Inception OST. Some have suggested that Edge of Tomorrow is really a video game movie at heart — that the resets aren’t anything to do with time-travel but rather a return to the last save point as in most platformers — but really that’s ascribing it an originality that it simply doesn’t have.

What is remarkable about Edge Of Tomorrow, however, are the characters that inhabit it. As with The Bourne Identity, Mr and Mrs Smith and even Jumper, Liman has used cliché and contrivance to establish a familiar world only to have his audience view it through rather less familiar eyes. Jason Bourne wasn’t your typical secret agent, the Smith’s were more than just spies and David Rice wasn’t predisposed to use his superpowers for the betterment of mankind. Similarly, Cage isn’t your usual grunt, but instead a cowardly officer who — given the chance — would sooner betray his country than defend it. As character arcs go it is perhaps not the subtlest, but Cruise nevertheless succeeds in making it compelling. It’s Blunt who really shines, however, as someone who once had great power, has been shaped by it, but now must watch powerlessly as someone else seizes her destiny. She too is painted in relatively broad strokes — from Full Metal Bitch to sensitive love interest in the space of a day – but it’s just enough to set Edge Of Tomorrow apart from the norm.

While it’s easy enough to invest in the characters, the plot is somewhat harder to crack. The alien invaders are shown to be incredibly effective killers — with or without the upper-hand afforded them by time-travel — but you get very little sense of how they actually operate. These things bury under-ground, roll over-ground, can swim, and are able to fire projectiles; on the off-chance that their enemies manage to defy the odds and win the ‘Brain’ can simply reset time, having learnt their strategy and reformulated their tactics accordingly. Cage, and before him Vrataski, inherited this ability when they killed an Alpha, though the latter ultimately lost it when it – whatever it might be – left her bloodstream. It’s not entirely clear how she knows this (surely the only way to be sure would be to die and then not wake up again) or how it then entered Cage’s bloodstream (we only see the Alpha’s blood spatter his face), you just have to take the script’s word for it. The biggest problem is the ending, however – “How can they possible get out of this one?”, you might find yourself asking, after the fact, because thanks to scrappy editing and incomprehensible plotting it’s likely that you’ll never be quite sure of that either.

Edge Of Tomorrow is perfectly good fun, with some colourful characters and a time travel device that Liman gets a few good laughs out of. Expect any more than that, however, and you are bound to be disappointed. The film makes about as much sense as its title — either of them.

3-Stars

Maleficent (2014)

MaleficentWhen Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) falls for Stefan (Sharlto Copley), it seems that the human and fairy realms might finally exist together in harmony. Unfortunately, Stefan is corrupted by the power promised to him by King Henry, and severs Maleficent’s wings in order to prove himself worthy of the throne. Maleficent craves revenge, and curses Stefan’s firstborn daughter to eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday. Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is hidden away by the new king, entrusted to a trio of good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) who promise to protect her until the curse has lifted. They prove incapable of raising the child, however, and Maleficent begins to take pity on her. Together with her raven sidekick (Sam Riley), Maleficent watches over the child, even befriending her when she comes of age. Even she if unable to lift the spell, however, having only included a single loophole: true love’s kiss. For this she must employ the help of Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites), who met Aurora only hours before the curse took effect.

Though not without its old-fashioned charms, Sleeping Beauty was never one of Walt Disney’s best fairy tale films. The likes of Snow White, Cinderella and Ariel have enchanted little girls for decades, whereas Princess Aurora hasn’t had quite the same enduring appeal. Now, especially, with the likes of Tangled and Frozen telling audiences to be strong and independent, the story of a sleeping sixteen-year-old waiting to be saved by true love’s first kiss seems not just quaint but backwards. With Disney revisiting its classics for a series of live-action remakes the time seemed right for a 21st Century makeover, doing for Aurora what Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman had done for her peers. Maleficent had always been the most interesting character in Sleeping Beauty, and the studio’s decision to focus on the villain with Angelina Jolie in the leading role was met with intrigue and excitement.

The problem, however, was that neither Alice in Wonderland nor Snow White and the Huntsman were any good. Disney seemed unable to distance itself from its own source material, and rather than brave new imaginings what audiences received instead were hollow retreads of past glories. Big-name casts, impressive special effects and epic final battles were no substitute for the timeless magic of the earlier films, and Maleficent does almost nothing to buck this trend. The truth is that Shrek (DreamWorks) and Enchanted (developed outwith the studio before being bought by Disney) did more to shake up the traditional princess formula than any of these film-specific remakes, with the latter in particular already providing a modern update of the character in the form of Susan Sarandon’s despicable Queen Narissa. Rather than redefine Maleficient, Robert Stromberg’s film undermines her.

There was great potential for a deliciously dark comedy chronicling the ultimately doomed attempts of Maleficent to exact her revenge on King Stefan and his daughter (think Catwoman in Batman Returns or Winifred Sanderson in Disney’s own Hocus Pocus) — and there are occasional glimpses of it in Jolie’s occasionally remarkable performance. Her initial disdain for children and reaction to Aurora mistaking her for a fairy godmother are indeed smirk-worthy, but for the most part the actress is wasted on drab dialogue and repetitive scenes of shadowy sulking, which is a shame because she at least looks the part. The film robs her of her villainy, and by extension her place in the narrative; we are told through endless voiceover that Maleficent really isn’t so bad, and that she in fact regrets cursing the girl almost from the moment she does it. She then spends the rest of the movie nurturing the princess, trying to save her from her own curse. If Sleeping Beauty denied Aurora her agency, this film does the same for Maleficent.

As a result Maleficent doesn’t have a story to tell – no momentum, no stakes. Not that that has stopped Stromberg, who somehow manages to fill 97 minutes with…well, filler. The film takes place over approximately thirty years; for some reason we are introduced to Maleficent in her own childhood, decades before the original story started, in order to watch Maleficent fall in and out of love. You’ve already lost patience with it by the time Aurora is born, and even then it’s sixteen years before the curse kicks into effect and the drama really begins. Ostensibly a children’s film, audiences spend most of their time watching adults sulk; yet the film is far too immature and innocent to appeal to parents. When the story finally shifts to young lovers-at-first-sight Elle Fanning and Brenton Thwaites it is almost at its end, and both are quickly sidelined once more so that Jolie can have her final showdown with Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan.

Considering this is a project that has been in development since at least 2011, Maleficent is an incoherent mess. I don’t know who the continuity advisor was, or if the film even had one, but at times it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on. Aurora is swept between the human and fairy worlds for apparently no reason, Maleficent switches costumes almost with every edit and Prince Philip disappears and reappears as if at random. What is Maleficent trying to do? Who is this movie for? What on earth is going on? If the filmmakers don’t know after three years of development, how do they expect viewers to work it out in 97 minutes — however long they seem to last. One thing’s for certain: it’s not just Aurora who Maleficent will have regretfully put to sleep.

2-stars

 

Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (2014)

Legends Of OzA dark power is once again brewing in the Emerald City, and, in desperation Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) and the Cowardly Lion (Jim Belushi) use a rainbow emitter device to bring Dorothy Gale (Lea Michele) back to Oz. From her perspective, however, it has been mere hours since she was last there, and has only just started to survey the damage to her family home after the hurricane hit. Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are captured before she can complete the journey, and Dorothy must find new friends if she is to stop The Jester (Martin Short) – who has turned Glinda the Good Witch (Bernadette Peters) into a marionette using his late sister’s broomstick – and save the day. Together with Wiser the Owl (Oliver Platt), Marshall Mellow (Hugh Dancy) and China Princess (Megan Milty) she sets off once more along the Yellow Brick Road.

While X-Men: Days Of Future Past ambitions to unite each previous movie in the series, Will Finn and Dan St Pierre’s Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return marks the third spin-off from The Wizard Of Oz to completely ignore all which came before. There has of course already been a sequel to the film, Disney’s live-action Return To Oz, and a prequel, last year’s Oz the Great and Powerful. Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return isn’t even the first animated sequel, with the only truly official continuation — Journey Back To Oz — released way back in 1974. What the impetus might have been for this latest adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s series it is difficult to say, as the film adds nothing to the original save for a talking tugboat and a marshmallow man.

Glee‘s Lea Michelle makes for a completely forgettable Dorothy Gale, her voice notably lacking in Judy Garland’s breathless wonderment and her admittedly impressive vocal range wasted on a series of increasingly grating songs. Elsewhere the voice actors make more of an impression, but Aykroyd, Grammar and Belushi are ultimately sidelined to make more room for the newer characters. Patrick Stewart elevates the material whenever he is on screen, though his efforts are rather undermined by the fact he’s been incongruously cast as a tree which sacrifices its branches to become a boat. Of the characters, it’s Martin Short’s Jester who comes closest to justifying the film; he’s no wicked witch, though he has inherited her broomstick, but I for one have always had something of a soft spot for a hapless villain failing at every turn.

The only reason you might take a chance on Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return is if the only animated alternative is Postman Pat: The Movie — say you’re taking advantage of the midweek discounts and therefore unable to opt for that weekend’s matinee. Dorothy’s Return is indeed superior to Postman Pat — the animation’s more robust, the film is not completely devoid of humour and Simon Cowbell is nowhere to be seen — but it still leaves a lot to be desired. It doesn’t help that The Wizard Of Oz itself is scheduled for an IMAX 3D rerelease later this year, giving audiences the opportunity to be charmed anew by the original film. Why spend money on this pale imitation (a 2D film in the age of 3D) when you can wait and enjoy the classic that started it all?

Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return is competent enough. It’s reasonably well-paced and there are undoubtedly some laughs to be had in the case of younger children. That said, in the wake of Frozen and released in the months before How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6 the film just isn’t good enough to tempt children to the cinema, and simply isn’t aimed at adult fans of the original looking for a reason to take Dorothy’s heed and return to Oz.

2-stars

Venus In Fur (2014)

Venus In FurPlaywright Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is seeking to direct an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel, Venus In Furs. Before he can begin, however, he needs a leading lady, and that is proving more difficult than he expected. While on the phone, bemoaning the lack of credible contenders for the role, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) enters the theatre and begs Thomas to let her read for the part, despite the lateness of the hour. He agrees, and the two begin to run through the play with Vanda proving far more adept and appropriate than he ever might have imagined.

I’m not sure how much to tell you about the plot of Venus In Fur. In fact, I’m not sure there’s that much to tell. I went in knowing less than nothing (I couldn’t even remember the name), and found myself pleasantly surprised by Roman Polanski’s meta-fiction. Venus In Fur is indeed a play based on Sacher-Masoch’s novel — the story of a man, Severin von Kusiemski, who dreams of being dominated by a woman, Wanda von Dunajew – and Polanski’s film is an adaptation of that play. It sounds incredibly complicated, but the beauty of Venus In Fur is in fact its simplicity.

This is ultimately the story of a writer who becomes the character he is drafting; it’s a be-careful-what-you-wish-for fable which gives Thomas exactly what he — and by extension Severin — have always wanted. Similarly, Vanda becomes Wanda, playing with the theatre’s lighting and making subtle alterations to her own clothing until she becomes the character in question. Venus In Fur starts out as an audition, then transitions seamlessly into a rehearsal and finally becomes real life. It’s a film of almost innumerable layers, with the stage going through as many metamorphoses as the characters.

As impressive as Polanski’s writing and direction may well be, it’s the performances of the film’s two actors that are the most remarkable of all. Amalric is exceptional as Thomas/Severin, a would-be submissive who doesn’t just want to direct Vanda but be dominated by her. Seigner (actually Polanski’s wife) is even more astonishing, transforming before his — and our — eyes into someone else altogether. It’s a performance within a performance, and the way she flits in and out of character showcases a skill and method that more than justify’s her casting. You don’t know whether she’s a real person or simply a figure of Thomas’ imagination; all you know is that she really could be either.

Venus In Fur is a very small film — intimate and understated– but it makes more of an impression than you might expect. It’s quietly gripping, unexpectedly enigmatic and really quite mesmerising; titillating if never exactly exciting. It’s food for though, just as long as you’re not too hungry.

3-Stars

How Days Of Future Past Remade The X-Men Series

“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”

Contains spoilers for X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, The Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Back in the late nineties, the superhero genre was struggling to survive on the big screen. Superman, Batman and Howard the Duck had all tried their luck in Hollywood, but while some went on to become cult classics with dedicated followings the majority were consigned to an eternity of dusty bargain bins and late night syndication. The Crow, The Rocketeer and The Mask made small advances, but they did so as horrors, period adventures and slap-stick comedies rather than straight superhero movies.

Blade too found an audience, and after a lull in TV movies re-established Marvel as a comic book studio with cinematic ambitions. It wasn’t until X-Men landed on the scene in 2000 that they gained any real traction, however, and with that one movie they defined what not just a Marvel movie but comic book adaptations in general were to be: spectacular, yes, but also funny, grounded and relatable. Mainstream cinema had mutated, changed irreversibly for the foreseeable future; the X-Men were superheroes and proud.

X-Men saw Professor X and Magneto resume their conflict from the comics, as analogues of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively. It opened during World War II, with a young Erik Lehnsherr taking out his frustrations on the gate of a concentration camp, before cutting to Mississippi where 17-year old Rogue accidentally put her boyfriend into a coma. Rogue (alongside Logan, a cage fighter calls himself Wolverine who she met in Alberta) join Charles Xavier’s X-Men, and fight alongside Cyclops, Jean Grey and Storm when Magneto threatens an international summit.

X-Men

For more than a decade the genre flourished, as X-Men found favour at the box office and soon opened the floodgates to its superhero kin. Thanks to Bryan Singer superhero movies would cast real actors, explore current themes and continue to develop the use of special effects in cinema. Before long Marvel had stopped releasing films and started launching franchises; and the likes of Spider-man, Daredevil and Hulk were soon breaking box office records for rival studios Sony, 20th Century Fox and Universal.

Singer, however, stayed ahead of the game, and in 2003 released what was arguably (up until that point, at least) the greatest superhero movie of all time. X2 made X-Men look like test footage, upping the ante with a larger cast, considerably increased budget and thematic complexity that had never before been seen in the genre. New mutant Nightcrawler brought religion into the mix, while Iceman came out (as a mutant) to his parents and anti-mutant crusader William Stryker used his own son’s gifts to commit genocide — a sort of genetic cleansing.

X2 still holds up to this day, largely thanks to Singer’s direction. Although the focus is on Wolverine, a mutant with the ability to heal himself, and his search for answers pertaining to the adamantium plating that was previously applied to his skeleton, almost every member of the supporting cast gets something interesting to work with. Weatherwoman Storm is struggling to have faith, shape-shifter Mystique doesn’t want to hide anymore and telepath Jean Grey is finding it increasingly difficult to control her abilities. The latter sacrifices herself to save her friends, but a final sequence suggests that she is about to be reborn as Phoenix, as in the comics.

X2

Singer has always been good at endings, and X2 boasted one of the most exciting yet. Before post-credits stingers became a thing and each superhero movie insisted in teasing the next in line, X2 invoked one of the most celebrated storylines in comic book history: X-Men‘s Dark Phoenix Saga. With Wolverine having found his answers at Alkali Lake it seemed that it was finally time to shift the focus to a different character. Wolverine would still feature heavily given his feelings for Jean, but if it was to stay true to the story the sequel would also require beefed up roles for Professor X, the previously underused Cyclops and the as yet unintroduced Beast (discounting Hank McCoy’s brief television appearance in X2 of course).

It was not to be, sadly, as Singer then left the series to reboot Superman over at Warner Bros. A number of directors flirted with X-Men 3, including Matthew Vaughn, before Brett Ratner took over the reins. Unsatisfied with merely concluding the Phoenix storyline set up in the previous film, Ratner also attempted to adapt Gifted, another much-loved miniseries created this time by Joss Whedon and introducing for the first time a mutant cure. The results were famously disastrous, as the story — a plot-driven and disappointingly shallow affair starring Vinnie Jones as The Juggernaut, Bitch — called for the deaths of about half the cast and left much of the rest depowered by the end of the film.

There were positives, though they were admittedly few and far between. The introduction of Angel was surprisingly effective — we meet him in the bathroom, trying to file down his wings so that his anti-mutant parents wont notice — but he never felt like an integral part of the story. Similarly, the introduction of Kelsey Grammar as Beast and Ellen Page as Shadowcat were undeniably astute choices, and both did excellent work throughout the movie. And while Professor X and Cyclops may have met with ignoble ends Jean Grey and Mystique got rather more fitting send offs: the former was murdered by a distraught Wolverine while the latter was de-powered by a guard and quickly abandoned by Magneto.

X-Men The Last Stand

Things only got worse when instead of continuing the story (with a cast as high-quality as Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Halle Berry they were beginning to get quite expensive) 20th Century Fox announced a series of prequel spin-offs centring on Wolverine and Magneto. Only the former ever actually made it into cinemas, and it became immediately apparent why — Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine continued to sully the franchise’s once good name. Just as X-Men: The Last Stand had wasted a number of characters, X-Men Origins: Wolverine introduced a number of fan favourites only to leave them stranded in the past or butchered beyond recognition. Gambit, though ably played by Taylor Kitsch, was never to be heard from again, while Deadpool, a comedic character with incredible potential, was reimagined as a mute henchman.

In 2o11, 20th Century Fox released another prequel, this time centring on the formation of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters. Taking its subtitle from the comics, First Class saw Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) form an uneasy alliance against Sebastian Shaw and the Hellfire Club. Having previously turned down The Last Stand, Matthew Vaughn took the reins for First Class, introducing a new team of X-Men that included Havok, Banshee, Mystique and Beast. Though ostensibly a prequel, Vaughn’s film also took a few liberties with continuity, like including a young Beast (remember: Hank’s still human as of X2) and having Charles meet Xavier before they meet for the first time in X-Men Origins, and before they meet for the first time again in the original X-Men.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was loathed by fans and mocked by critics, and to all intents and purposes it was ultimately dropped from canon by the studio. That didn’t stop Fox from pursuing a second Wolverine spin-off, however, and after intriguing talks with Darren Aranofsky broke down James Mangold signed on as director. Nobody was expecting a straight sequel from Hood’s film, but what was truly surprising was that The Wolverine was actually set after the events of The Last Stand, with Logan still haunted by the spectre of Jean Grey. Unexpectedly, The Wolverine was also quite good, and though it had little to do with the other films it took the time to explore Logan in more depth than ever before. With post-credit stingers now in vogue, it also teased X-Men: Days Of Future Past by reintroducing Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Ian McKellen as Magneto, together for the first time in over five years.

The Wolverine

Stewart and McKellen weren’t the only original cast members to be returning for the film, which was tasked with acting both as a sequel to X-Men: First Class and X-Men: The Last Stand. Based on the time-travelling storyline from the comics, Days Of Future Past would see both ensembles united for one cross-generational adventure. X1 and 2 director Bryan Singer was also set to return, and many expected him to use the film as an opportunity to erase the subsequent instalments from existence, or simply to ignore them all together as he had once done in Superman Returns. But could Singer do it? Could he replicate the success of X2 while juggling two separate casts and simultaneously trying to erase the last five years from history? Or were the X-Men destined to die out; outmoded, outdated and out-evolved by The Dark Knight Trilogy and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe?

The success of X-Men: Days Of Future Past comes from Singer’s obvious love for the franchise. This is not a vein attempt to reassert his dominance nor is it an attempt to dismiss the work of others, it is simply the continuation of a saga that is clearly close to his heart. The film opens with a long overdue and much missed Patrick Stewart voiceover, in which he muses about whether the future is truly set or whether it can still be changed. Singer knows the answer, and having — along with everyone else — witnessed his characters abused at the hands of Brett Ratner uses the opportunity to give them the send off they deserve. Sentinals have wiped out most of mutant-kind, but thanks to Shadowcat’s time-travel abilities the X-Men have managed to survive. Understandably unhappy with the status quo, however, Professor X and Magneto conspire to send Wolverine back in time to prevent their future from ever having happened.

Though not without its moments, X-Men: First Class suffered for its distance from the original series. Vaughn had for the most part been left with secondary and tertiary characters with which make up his team, and couldn’t take any real risks without upsetting the fans and jeopardising its place within the established canon. Not only does X-Men: Days Of Future Past inextricably link the two timelines, but having finally given the future team the send-off they deserve Singer could persevere with the prequel and rewrite history as he saw fit. In this respect X-Men: Days Of Future Past is in a similar position to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, only rather than threatening a fan culture that spanned ten movies, four television series and countless novels and comics Singer’s film would only erase five films, three of which had already been largely dismissed.

This rather unique situation had an unexpected side-effect. By establishing a new timeline Singer didn’t negate the other movies but validate them. By taking away their responsibility to uphold the main story, audiences could no longer criticise them for wasting characters or spoiling stories. They could be re-evaluated, assessed differently, and maybe even accepted as unremarkable movies that nevertheless had their place in the franchise. Singer facilitates this approach by featuring flashbacks not just to his earlier movies but to every film in the series. He also incorporates Ellen Page and Kelsey Grammar from Last Stand (not to mention the Sentinals first glimpsed in its Danger Room scene), and nods to X-Men Origins: Wolverine by giving the character bone claws in the past. What’s more, the ending arguably has more impact if you’ve seen The Wolverine.

Another of the film’s many successes is the way it shifts focus from Wolverine to the rest of the young team. Once in the past, Logan takes on something of a supporting role, sent back with a mission that is widely ignored by everyone he puts it to. Though he succeeds in convincing Charles and Hank to suit up, their plan to free Erik and reason with Mystique backfires when the former instead tries to kill the latter. It’s a shocking scene, and for the first time in the series puts Mystique front and centre. McAvoy and Fassbender do terrific work, once again acting as contrasts to Stewart and McKellen, but it’s Jennifer Lawrence as Raven who everyone will be talking about afterwards. In the original trilogy she was little more than Magneto’s right hand man, in X-Men: First Class she was Charles’ pet and Erik’s prize, but here she’s a force of change in her own right.

Having spent most of the movie trying to kill Bolivar Trask (an assassination which will directly lead to the events seen in the future section of the film), Mystique decides to spare him at the behest of Charles. No longer the killer that she was once destined to become, Mystique suddenly has a new fate to look forward to. She doesn’t stop there however, shooting Magneto in the neck with a plastic bullet and dooming him to a life in prison. The effect this is likely to have on the timeline is incalculable, as not only does it side Mystique with the X-Men rather than the Brotherhood of Mutants but it also takes Magneto out of action long before he can threaten the world in X-Men, X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand. She also changes Wolverine’s fate, rescuing him from William Stryker’s Weapon X programme and potentially saving him from ever having adamantium fused to his bones.

Ending the film here would have been impressive enough, but rather than finishing with temporal upheaval Singer instead chooses to depart on a far sweeter note. Waking in a new future, having succeeded in saving the world from Trask and his Sentinal programme, Logan finds that everything has changed. At this point Wolverine is the only character who knows the full story — knows that he was betrayed by his best friend, experimented on by the government and responsible for the death of Jean Grey — awakens to find most of that suffering erased from history. It’s a moment of incredible power and beauty, and continues to build as he sees Rogue, Iceman, Shadowcat, Storm, Jean, Cyclops and Charles all alive and well.

With X-Men: Apocalypse and an untitled The Wolverine sequel already announced, it’s clear that this isn’t the last we’ll see of the X-Men. Perhaps we’ll also get an X-Men 4, or a spin-off centering on Quicksilver, Gambit, Deadpool, Angel, Blink, Bishop or indeed any of the other characters under-served by the extant series. (Having written a small caveat into his latest film — revealing that time is like a current that has a way of re-establishing itself — he can really have his cake and eating it.) Right now, however, it’s important to take stock and to appreciate the magnitude of Singer’s achievement. Evolution has once again leapt forward; following Marvel’s The Avengers it seems that we have moved into a new age of superhero movies, and with X-Men: Days Of Future Past Fox has shown that they are still in the game. As I said in my review: Singer hasn’t just re-written history, he’s made it.

Fading Gigolo (2014)

Fading GigoloWhen his bookshop closes Murray Schwartz (Woody Allen) decides to reinvent himself as a pimp, at first renting good friend and professional florist Fioravante (John Turturro) out to his dermatologist (Sharon Stone) for the sum of $1000. To begin with Fioravante is reluctant, but he eventually comes around to the idea, encouraging Murray to increase his clientele and making something of a name for himself as a generous lover. However, when the two set their sights on Avigal (Venessa Paradis), a Jewish widow with six children and enough emotional baggage for the entire family, they arouse the suspicion of her local neighbourhood watchman and self-sworn protector Dovi (Liev Schreiber). Fioravante soon falls for his new client, and is before long struggling to perform his duties as a gigolo.

Despite sounding for all the world like a sex comedy (Schwartz, no longer a bookseller, rechristens himself Bongo) Finding Gigolo is almost the exact opposite: a surprisingly intimate drama that is spectacularly low on laughs. Turturro, who also wrote and directed the film, has cast himself as a near silent and unusually sensitive man’s man. Whereas the women in the film are used to being courted by pretty boys and insecure businessmen he provides an altogether more masculine and old-fashioned alternative. Unfortunately, while not without a certain credibility (and though undoubtedly the heart and soul of the movie), Turtorro’s not the most compelling lead.

Enter Allen, an essentially extraneous character who never fails to catch your eye as he fidgets and fusses from the wings. Having propagated the idea of prostitution, Schwartz really has no role left to serve once Fioravante gets going, yet clings on through a number of increasingly laboured and invasive subplots. Though ultimately redundant, however, these scenes at least offer a reprieve from the forced earnestness of the rest of the film. Though never funny, Allen is at least amusing as he defaults to his usual schtick. As he liaises with clients, mentors his godchildren and is later put on trial by some sort of Hasidic order the film seems to be bending over backwards to keep him onscreen.

Though strangely inert, there is something undeniably quite arresting about Turturro’s appointments with the various women, none more so than Paradis’ Avigal. As far as performances go, Paradis’ is comfortably the worst in the film, or at least the most stilted, and yet there is something about the actress that is nonetheless striking. She’s a real marvel, and though you’re never exactly sure who is less comfortable — Avigal or Paradis — she is utterly captivating to watch. Stone and Vergara are strong presences too, although they aren’t given enough screentime to fully develop their characters. It’s a real shame, as their time together is the closest the film comes to having any memorable set pieces.

A grating soundtrack, harsh lighting and a pervasive turn from Allen detract from a quite unremarkable but otherwise quietly absorbing tale of emotional awakening. Like Allen and Turturro say of Fioravante, Fading Gigolo may not be particularly beautiful but it does have a certain sex appeal.

2-stars

 

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