My Eight Main Questions Upon Leaving The Force Awakens

Star Wars 2Overall, I’d say I generally enjoyed Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. There were some thrilling set pieces, a scattering of witty one-liners and a couple of very interesting additions to the cast. However, I left the cinema with a number of burning questions, some of which I believe were intentionally left unanswered, but others too that rather undermined by enjoyment of the film. Here are six of the most pressing. Obviously spoilers will follow.

What happened to the other padawans?

Was there another youngling massacre? It is revealed during the movie that Luke was training a new generation of Jedi when one of their number — Kylo Ren, then known to Skywalker as nephew, or Ben — burned everything to the ground. But are they all dead, or did some of them escape and simply abandon their training? The introduction of Rey and Finn (as well as the film’s title) implies that people across the universe — whether scavenger or Stormtrooper — are developing Force powers, while a number of supporting characters appear to have an understanding of the Force that goes beyond simple study. Presumably, they are not alone, and, X-Men style, people throughout history have found themselves imbued with inexplicable power. Would it not have made a more interesting film to explore what they might do with these new abilities, without mentors good or evil to influence them? It certainly would have given The Force Awakens a unique slant, and a more complex morality.

Was that Coruscant?

We first see the full capabilities of Starkiller Base when it fires a sun across the galaxy to destroy the distant Hosnian system, home to the New Republic, and therefore the Senate. We know from George Lucas’ prequel trilogy that the original Senate was based on Coruscant, the city planet that also housed the Jedi Council. From the fleeting footage of life on the surface we see helpless citizens watch on helplessly as their world ends around them, and it certainly has a familiar air. I understand that the prequels are unpopular, and that J. J. Abrams might wish to distance his own films from them, but having spent half of the extant saga on and around Coruscant it seems unceremonious to say the least (more like spiteful) to wipe its entire star system from the galaxy with such senseless abandon. Would it really have hurt the film to base some of its action on the planet’s surface so to at least give the carnage some meaning? Even anonymous Alderaan got that honour, when Darth Vader blew it up in A New Hope with one of its residents — Princess Leia, no less — watching in horror. Remember guys: anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering…

How does Finn’s moral compass work?

According to Finn, he and his fellow Stormtroopers are abducted from their families at a young age and trained to do one thing — presumably to kill, or maybe to miss, it’s hard to say. Why this is easier than using clones bred on site is never really clear, but whatever. He also explains that during his first battle he chose to make a decision, that he would not kill in the First Order’s name. Let’s look past the fact that, if someone really was to be raised in an environment such as this, steeped in the Dark Side, would they suddenly decide that evil wasn’t for them? I suppose it’s possible that he somehow managed to fly under the radar, even with Captain Phasma watching, until adulthood, at which point he was able to orchestrate his escape. What really jars, however, is that having just forsaken murder he is so quick to turn on his own. Having acquired a TIE fighter from one of the Star Destroyer’s hangers, Po at the helm, Finn lays waste to battalion after battalion with obvious glee. So…he’s a good guy now?

What has the Resistance been doing all this time?

Thirty years have passed since the second Death Star was destroyed and Ewoks defeated the Empire, and all that the Rebel Alliance appears to have done in that time is change their name. (The Millennium Falcon has clearly had its deflector dish repaired too, though that might easily have been done by one of its subsequent owners.) Over the course of the original trilogy, having grown from the nucleonic Alliance to Restore the Republic established by Padme Amidala at the end of Revenge of the Sith, the Rebel Alliance clearly grows from a handful of fighters to a full-blown fleet with a veritable smorgasbord of vessels to its name. Worryingly, however, as of The Force Awakens, the newly minted Resistance has since resorted to the same tactics they used in A New Hope, namely to dispatch a dozen or so X-wings and hope that they can stop a planet-killing superstructure before it wipes them from the face of the universe. What’s more, it doesn’t even have Y- wings in its ranks anymore, let alone the B-wings and A-wings that were introduced in Return of the Jedi. We also learn that Han and Leia lost their son to the Dark Side, a trauma so great that Luke fled, Han and Chewie deserted and R2D2 simply switched off. None of this rings true in any way.

If Luke wants to be left alone, why did he leave a map?

So, since ditching his friends and leaving the galaxy in the hands of Kylo Ren and the First Order, Luke has taken a leaf out of Yoda’s book and exiled himself on a distant planet — one that, somehow, is completely off the charts. For some reason, however, a map exists to his location. Now, I suppose that if he were going to leave directions to a small outcrop off the coast of Ireland he would store them in R2 for safekeeping, but why R2 should then power down (and why he should choose some completely arbitrary point in the future to power up again) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Was there really no way of retrieving the information from an offline droid? Did Princess Leia even look? (Remember, having already programmed him with information, she clearly knows her way around an R2 unit.) The point that really rankles is made by Kylo Ren, who reveals that the rest of the map was actually recovered from the Empire. What? And, what’s more, it exists as a jigsaw puzzle, part of which was stolen from the First Order by Po. The completely baffling bit comes at the end of the movie, when R2D2 (now conveniently awake and willing to help) projects the map with Po’s piece of the puzzle missing. Was it saved on some sort of shared database, between the Rebellion and the Empire? Again, WHAT?

Are Finn and Po more than just friends?

When it comes to racial and gender politics, Star Wars has had something of a checkered history. The original trilogy only featured one non-white actor (and one non-white actor’s voice), who was revealed to be a traitor, and forced its only notable female character to wear a metal bikini; while the prequel’s came under fire for their depiction of Gungans and whatever Viceroy Gunray was supposed to be as apparent racial stereotypes. The Force Awakens raises a few eyebrows too, namely for a throwaway Han Solo line referring to Asian raiders as “little” and a scene showing Finn drinking from a trough. For the most part, however, thanks to the casting of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac in key roles, J. J. Abrams film boasts one of the most diverse casts of Hollywood history, even if it still doesn’t technically pass the Bechdel test. Rey is a capable character who can fight her own battles, Finn overcomes his fears to fight the good fight, and Po is repeatedly described as the best pilot in the Resistance. But there is a chance that it could be even more progressive than that. Whether the script is supposed to be setting Finn and Rey up as suitors or not (after all, there’s no reason that any of the new characters need pair up), the closest it actually comes to creating believable sexual tension is in a handful of encounters shared by Finn and Po. The actors may simply have been aiming for bromance, or perhaps homoeroticism, but their interactions hint at something more. When Finn returns to the Resistance wounded, Po even appears to rush to his sickbed, while Finn’s earlier question to Rey (“Do you have a boyfriend, a cute boyfriend?”) is strangely phrased to say the least. Not only would it be refreshing for a film of this scale to feature gay characters, it’d be worth it just to see the fanboys froth. If anything was going to break the internet, it’d be that.

Who is Rey, really? 

Regardless of how hard you tried to avoid spoilers, the rumour mill had ways of getting to you. With the trailer showing Rey on a desert planet much like Tatooine there was inevitably speculation that she was somehow related to Luke Skywalker, whether genetically or otherwise. The film reveals that Rey — a non-native to Jakku — has been waiting on the planet for her parents’ return, with a Rebel helmet and a hand-stitched doll in the colours of an X-wing pilot. She tells BB-8 that her backstory is also classified, which suggests she is of some importance, while later she notes that the Stormtroopers chasing Finn are shooting at her too. It seems unlikely that she would be Luke’s daughter, not least because she imagines that Jedis and such might be a myth, but there are a number of moments later in the film that imply otherwise. When she is saved from Starkiller Base and returned to Jakku she is greeted with a silent embrace from Leia, despite apparently never having met. They might have had some sort of Force connection (although Luke is described as the last Jedi, Leia is clearly shown to register Han’s death from the other side of the galaxy) but the fact that Leia should send Rey in search of Luke (with Chewie and R2D2 by her side) and not go herself suggests that she knows something that we don’t. Finally, when introduced, Luke and Rey something that JK Rowling might have described as a “meaningful look”.

What would Lucas’ Episode VII have looked like?

The short answer is that we’ll probably never know. When Lucas sold the Star Wars rights to Disney the deal included his treatments for the sequel trilogy, but he has since revealed that they were never used. Meanwhile, the future described in official Expanded Universe materials has also been discarded in favour of a new continuity. However, there are elements of The Force Awakens that follow tangents established in the canon films and the non-cannon literature, not least the fact that Luke founded a new Jedi academy and the son of Han Solo was seduced by the Dark Side. It’s not hard to imagine some of the other changes, either. The film would have probably featured more CGI than Abrams’ does, and it probably wouldn’t have been as well acted or directed. However, it probably wouldn’t have stuck so close to the plot of A New Hope (and therefore The Phantom Menace). Lucas has in interviews described the saga as poetic, so themes and narrative elements recur throughout, but none of Lucas’ films were quite as repetitive as Abrams’. The action starts aboard a shuttle carrying Stormtroopers from a Star Destroyer to the surface of Jakku, then returns to the Star Destroyer, then to Jakku again. It also features a desert planet indistinguishable from Tatooine, a bigger Death Star, and so many captures, tortures and escapes that it is impossible to keep count. What’s more, there is a dearth of memorable ships, planets and leitmotifs — issues (though there were of course others) that even the prequels never had. There is also the very real chance that it might have felt like a more comprehensive saga, with more elements carried over from the prequels. It might have felt a bit more like Star Wars.

Advertisements

Why Thor: The Dark World Is Marvel’s Best Phase Two Film

Marvel Phase TwoThe following contains spoilers for The AvengersIron Man 3, Thor: The Dark WorldCaptain America: The Winter Solider and Agents of S.H.I. E.L.D., as well as light discussion of Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s been six years since Marvel unleashed their cinematic universe on cinemagoers, and in that time they have released a total of ten films, structured into a series of multi-film phases of which there are currently two, though plans exist for many more.

Phase One began in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, and continued through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger until these four sub-franchises were finally brought together for The Avengers (renamed Marvel’s Avengers Assemble for UK audiences).

Nothing like it had ever existed in Hollywood before. There had of course been sequels, prequels, spin-offs and franchises before, but never separate long-standing sagas running parallel with interlocking stories that shared characters and a common goal. It was a real game-changer, and its influence is still being felt in cinemas today.

Right from the off it was clear that Marvel had a uniquely ambitious plan: Iron Man introduced playboy billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark and his self-sustaining arc-reactor, as well as referencing both S.H.I.E.L.D and The Avengers; The Incredible Hulk featured Bruce Banner and a cameo from Stark; Iron Man 2 fleshed out Agents Phil Coulson and Nick Fury, and introduced Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow; Thor established Asgard, Loki and Hawkeye; and Captain America: The First Avenger teased Steve Rogers, Hydra and the power of Tesseract.

By the time Joss Whedon’s The Avengers rolled around, every one of its members (excluding Black Widow and Hawkeye) had at least one stand-alone movie to their name. The film brought them all together in a way that felt perfectly organic, and in the process marked the beginning of a new age of blockbuster filmmaking: the mega-franchise. Not only was The Avengers a great film in its own right, with its own clearly defined beginning, middle and end, but it concluded a number of storylines from the previous films, continued others and set up more still. It was the end of Phase One, but the beginning of Phase Two.

The second phase of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man 3, and the problems were apparent from the get-go. After the ever-increasing forward momentum of Phase One, in which every plot beat or character introduction somehow fed into the larger narrative, Iron Man 3 seemed strangely rudderless, self-contained and inert. Like most of the films which proceeded it, the film started with a flashback, retroactively introducing a villain that felt at once extraneous and expendable. Having parted ways with Jon Favroux, Marvel instead hired Shane Black, an auteur who put his own creative fulfillment before the good of the franchise. Rather than revere the canon, the thing that makes the MCU so special and valuable, Black took liberties with it.

These are problems that recur throughout Phase Two: tangential stories, weak villains and indulgent directors. When Marvel should first and foremost have been exploring their shared universe, exploiting their biggest asset, they instead fell back on traditional, stand-alone storytelling while rival studios were catching up and putting the concept to better use. Captain America: The Winter Solider was conceived as a political thriller by directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and concerned Steve Roger’s reanimated friend’s manipulation at the hands of Hydra. There’s no denying it had a huge impact on the series (spelling the end of S.H.I.E.L.D., for one) but it all but ignored the destruction of New York, Miami and London, instead opting to level Washington DC as well. It also felt too self contained.

The MCU had enormous potential to change the way that stories are told on the big screen. By establishing a shared universe Marvel and CEO Kevin Feige had the opportunity to revolutionise the traditional three act structure and pursue long-running narrative arcs not possible in other less secure and less focused franchises. Instead, it reverted to formula, introducing a fresh conflict for every movie and ending on a big effects-laden battle for the future of mankind. When it was first announced, a tie-in television series focusing on the day-to-day operations of S.H.I.E.L.D seemed like a no brainer; it would allow Marvel to explore their cinematic universe from a new angle, to expand the mythology and continue to push the envelope of multi-media entertainment. Where the films largely ignored the wider universe, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D unfortunately became slave to it, reacting to Coulson’s death, Extremis and Hydra when it should have been branching out into new territory.

Whereas streamlined Phase One built momentum by converging on a single point, Phase Two has spread itself far too thin over dead end characters and pointless plot developments. Subplots such as The Mandarin, Extremis, Hydra and Centipede ultimately went nowhere, and with less than a year to go until Avengers: Age of Ultron we are no closer to understanding why our heroes would ever need to join forces once more — leaving Whedon with a hell of a lot of explaining to do before he can get on with his own story. All we really know about the film so far is that it will feature Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Ultron, but rather than setting up superheroes or killer robots Marvel have convoluted matters by introducing random fire people (seriously, WTF?) and a completely separate homicidal AI (which was since destroyed) instead. The post-credit teasers, handled so well during Phase One, have all but fallen by the wayside, ceasing to foreshadow future instalments and instead ending things on a hollow joke.

The final film before Age of Ultron is perhaps the most removed of the lot. Guardians of the Galaxy, however entertaining it might be in its own right, is little more than a footnote in the grand scheme of the MCU. Again opening with a flashback (this time to the 80s), the film sees human Peter Quill zapped to the other side of the galaxy. This isn’t the universe as seen in Thor, however, a vast array of realms connected by the world tree and accessible only by Bifrost, but a completely new section of space policed by the Nova Corp. Right at the point where it should all be coming together (at this point in Phase One Captain America was forming S.H.I.E.L.D, losing the Tesseract and offering his services as an Avenger), audiences are instead watching a talking raccoon and a walking tree attempt to save a distant planet. With hindsight, this may well be essential foreshadowing, but at the moment it all seems a little bit redundant.

The only film to truly recognise and embrace its place as a small piece in a much larger puzzle is Thor: The Dark World. It may not be the best film in the world, but at least it does its job. At once picking up from Kenneth Branagh’s origin story (Asgard is almost as we left it in 2011, while Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis and Erik Selvig have relocated to London to continue their research), spinning off from The Avengers (Thor and Loki return home to face the repercussions of their actions on Earth), telling a story of its own (involving Malakeith and his search for the Aether, like the Tesseract another Infinity Stone) and planting seeds for future instalments (the film ends with Loki on the throne of Asgard). Director Alan Taylor brings his own sensibilities to the tone of the piece (it’s more George R. R. Martin than William Shakespeare), but his direction never dominates the piece. Style and ambition are all well and good, but when you’re dealing with something as sprawling and ultimately quite delicate as the MCU caution and respect for the established canon is key. Marvel don’t need risk-takers, they need utilitarians.

Although it suffers many of the same failings as the other films in Phase Two (namely an unremarkable antagonist and a big, effects laden finale) it makes up for in stakes, drama and character-driven humour. At times it feels like a direct sequel to The Avengers, and the fact that together with the first Thor it plays out as one cohesive trilogy makes the character deaths, betrayals and cameos all the more resonant. Thor, Loki and even Selvig have all been through a lot together, and the relationships have a far greater resonance as a result. Stark may have had bad dreams after New York, Captain America may still be reeling from the loss of Peggy Carter, but it’s Thor and Loki who have the most pressing (and interesting) issues. The finale may be big and brash but thanks to the involvement of Foster, Lewis and Selvig it has much more personality than automated robots fighting one another in Iron Man 3 or automated helicarriers fighting one another at the end of The Winter Soldier. At the end of the film Thor is back on Earth ready to be called upon once more, whereas Phase Two leaves Tony Stark without a suit and Steve Rogers chasing ghosts.

Again, there is every chance that I may have spoken too soon, and that next year Age of Ultron will show each movie to have been key in its own, unpredictable way. If Whedon pulls it off, Avengers 2 will likely trump The Dark World as the highlight of Phase Two. Even if that’s the case, however, there are still lessons for Marvel to learn if it wants to make Phase Three a more satisfying and all-round successful experience. A balance between style and substance is essential, as is a balance between the intimate and the epic, and the current model — hiring singular directors to branch out in new directions before overriding them for a far more generic last act — isn’t working. There are other ways to be bold and boundary-pushing, like following through with their promise of a shared universe and entering not just a new phase of stories but the next phase of superhero storytelling.

 

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.

Popcorn Addict’s 2013: Best Character

With awards season approaching, ballot papers will be asking the who’s who of Planet Hollywood to vote for their favourite movies and moviemakers of 2013. While it is of course correct to celebrate the people responsible for bringing the year’s characters to life, the characters themselves — often born from collaborations between writer, director and actor — don’t ever seem to get the individual recognition they deserve.

I have limited my choices — arbitrarily, you might say — to characters who have debuted in 2013, to avoid favouritism towards familiar franchises and bias against remake replicants, and to characters not based on real people. As such, I have had to omit the likes of Darcy Lewis (from Thor: The Dark World) Captain Philips (from Captain Philips) and Sarah (the wonderful Mary Louise-Parker from RED 2).

The top five characters of 2013, then, are:

5. Biaggio (Moisés Arias), The Kings Of Summer

2014 BiaggioYou may not yet have seen The Kings Of Summer, but I urge that you do as soon as possible. A social outcast who basically invites himself to stay with two fellow teenagers looking to start a new life for themselves in the woods, Biaggio ensures that there’s never a dull moment in camp, and provides much-needed comic relief when his housemates inevitably fall out. Arias is so brilliant in the role, in fact, that when he crops up out of character in Ender’s Game (where he instead plays a loathsome space bully) it almost derails the film.

4. Kate Grant (June Squibb), Nebraska

2014 KateAlexander Payne’s Nebraska is about real people and relatable relationships, and is therefore light on Avengers and shrimpanzees. Far from being boring, however, his main characters are just as unforgettable. Although the film is technically a father-son story starring Will Forte and Bruce Dern, it’s supporting actress June Squibb who ultimately steals the show as matriarch Kate Grant. An opinionated realist who is not to be messed with, Squibb is a revelation, and is at her funniest when giving her mind — whether at the dinner table or her in-laws’ gravesides.

3. Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), Iron Man 3

2014 MandarinAlthough audiences were initially lead to believe that Ben Kingsley was playing The Mandarin in Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, in reality he was actually playing someone else who was playing The Mandarin in Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. An original character created for the film, Slattery is a British method actor who has fooled the world into thinking he is a terrorist intent on killing Tony Stark — a distraction intended to draw attention away from the real villain of the piece. Some considered it a plot twist too far, but for anyone game for a laugh Slattery was one of the most entertaining characters of the year.

2. Olaf (Josh Gad), Frozen

2014 OlafWhile it’s true that ultimately Frozen‘s success is down to the complex and compelling relationship between sisters Anna and Elsa, I just couldn’t bring myself to choose between the two for the purposes of this list. Do I nominate Anna, the brave and playful younger sister, or Elsa, the strict older sibling, who may be less fun but can create ice castles and snow monsters with a wave of her hand? Instead I’ve gone for Olaf, the sentient snowman who loves warm hugs. It may sound like a gimmick, and I suppose it is, but listen to him sing “In Summer” and I defy you not to love him anyway.

1. Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving), Cloud Atlas

2014 Nurse NoakesCloud Atlas was full of memorable characters, with each actor getting at least one stand-out persona to play with, whether it was Tom Hanks’ cockney gangster or Hugh Grant’s tattooed cannibal. The character who made the biggest impression, at least for me, however, was Nurse Noakes, the abusive care-home orderly who torments poor Jim Broadbent in “The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish”. Weaving is both hilarious and horrifying in the role of Aurora House’s resident “demented bitch”, thanks to gender-confusing prosthetics that are at once ridiculous and a little too convincing. It’s almost as though they used Michael Myer’s mask as the base layer.

And the worst: Jenny from Man Of Steal, easily the most pointless character of  2013.

Ten 2014 Movies I Could Take Or Leave…Preferably Leave

There are a lot of films to look forward to in 2014, and earlier this week I compiled my own pick of promising upcoming releases, but as always there are an almost equal number destined to disappoint. Last year’s list of predicted failures was pretty much spot on (though I did surprise myself by enjoying both The Wolverine and The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug) so this year I’ve decided to compose another one.

So here they are, the ten 2014 films that I could take or leave…preferably leave:

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

2014 Jack Ryan Shadow RecruitI like Chris Pine. He’s great as Captain Kirk and his voice-work on Rise Of The Guardians was a large part of its success, but I just can’t get excited about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. This is partly due to a misplaced sense of deja vu — I keep typing Jack Reacher: Ghost Protocol by mistake — but also because no matter how many times I watch the trailer not a single set piece, actor or line of dialogue captures my imagination. It doesn’t seem to be entirely Pine’s fault, however, as a quick search of IMDb reveals that I’ve apparently seen author Tom Clancy’s character on the big screen before, only I can’t for the life of me remember why.

I, Frankenstein

2014 I Frankenstein2014 looks to be another bumper year for comic book adaptations, with three upcoming Marvel movies making my list of the year’s most exciting releases (and a fourth, Guardians Of The Galaxy, just missing out on a place). You can’t look forward to them all, however, and if there’s one that seems destined to disappoint it’s Lionsgate’s I, Frankenstein. Director Stuart Beatie’s last effort, Tomorrow, When The War Began (what is it with this guy and commas?), was simply awful, while the studio’s insistence that it is from the producers of the Underworld series does little more to inspire any confidence either.

Robocop

2014 RobocopI have yet to be compelled to watch Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original, let alone get excited about José Padilha’s inevitably pointless remake. “Reimagined” to look as generic and forgettable as possible — there is no trace of the previous incarnation’s apparent satire in the trailer — the new Robocostume looks like a characterless composite of Judge Dredd, Batman and the combatant programs from Tron: Legacy. Unknown entity Joel Kinneman could still impress, but the rest of the cast — the indiscriminate likes of Samuel L. Jackson (xXx, The Spirit, Snakes On A Plane) and Gary Oldman (The Book Of Eli, Red Riding Hood, Lawless) — is hardly encouraging.

Non-Stop

2014 Non StopLiam Neeson is back in action mode for Non-Stop, and if the promotional material is anything to go by the Love, Actually actor looks as incongruous as ever. The plot, naturally, sounds completely ridiculous — air passengers are picked off one by one while their designated air marshal is mistaken for a terrorist — but rather than poking fun at its own preposterousness the film instead seems to be taking itself very, very seriously. Neeson’s last collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra — 2011’s Unknown — was unremarkable at best, which doesn’t exactly bode well for Non-Stop, but Collet-Serra was also behind 2009’s Orphan so I suppose you never really know for sure.

Grand Budapest Hotel

2014 Grand Budapest HotelFor Wes Anderson fans, 2014 will see another offbeat offering from their beloved auteur. As someone who cannot abide Wes Anderson films, however, I’m dreading another few hours in the company of his quirky, manicured, superficial characters, played inevitably by the usual collection of collaborators. I’m sure it will look stylish, probably laboriously so, but unless the director has suddenly decided to think outside of the very, very limiting sandbox within which he has always played I just can’t bring myself invest in a room at the Grand Budapest Hotel.

Divergent

SHAILENE WOODLEY and THEO JAMES star in DIVERGENTIn its ongoing pursuit for a cash-cow equivalent in value to Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter series, Hollywood has adapted the first instalment of just about every Young Adult saga going (before quickly abandoning all but the likes of Twilight, Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games). I say almost every Young Adult saga, because 2014 is set to see the release of yet another one: Veronica Roth’s Divergent. To say that the plot sounds familiar is something of a gross understatement, as this is yet another story about teenage empowerment, young love and sticking it to the establishment. At least it can’t possibly be any worse than The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones. Right?

Pudsey: The Movie 

2014 Pudsey The MovieTo be British is to know the annual embarrassment that comes hand in hand with seeing one of our quaint little television characters making the leap to the big screen, most often unbidden, with recent examples including Keith Lemon: The Movie and The Harry Hill Movie. 2014, however, boasts no fewer than three such affronts to the national identity. Whereas Mrs Brown’s Boys and Postman Pat at least have a passing familiarity with narrative storytelling, however, Pudsey: The Movie will somehow attempt to wring drama from last year’s Britain’s Got Talent victors, dancing duo Ashleigh and Pudsey (the latter of which — a dog — will be voiced by David Walliams). I’m already cringing and it’s not out until May.

Transformers: Age Of Extinction

2014 Transformers 4While it was of course true that neither Shia LaBeouf nor Megan Fox were ever likely to win an Oscar for their work on Michael Bay’s Transformers series (or that Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, meanwhile, was barely even fit for a Golden Raspberry), they were still by far the least of the franchise’s problems. The biggest issue was always Bay himself, with his inappropriately crass sense of humour, over-reliance on CGI and tendency to spend more time lingering on lingerie models than the eponymous pixels in disguise. This year he returns with a fourth instalment.

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

2014 Sin City 2Although a moderate success upon its release in 2005, Sin City has hardly endured as a movie worth revisiting. A sequel was nevertheless greenlit, and now nine years on we are finally getting a follow-up, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, and starring everyone from Bruce Willis to Lady Gaga, Sin City 2 certainly sounds as mad as the original, but it’s difficult to shake the suspicion that the film has been stuck in Development Hell for a reason. Unless Rodriguez just really wanted to make Shorts, Machete and Spy Kids: All The Time In The World (in “Aroma-scope”) first.

Horrible Bosses 2

2014 Horrible Bosses 2Were you one of the handful of people who found 2011’s Horrible Bosses funny, or anything other than unbearable, then I suppose a sequel doesn’t seem like that big a deal. I, however, thought it was one of the most joyless and offensive so-called comedies of recent years. The thought of another two hours in the company of Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis is almost too much to bear, and the only reason I can fathom for watching a sequel is morbid curiosity regarding the obscene lengths the writers must have gone to in order to crowbar Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey back into the new narrative, which supposedly sees the three set up their own business and become their own bosses.

Ten 2014 Movies That Can’t Come Quickly Enough

Only two of my 2013 predictions actually made it into my top ten films of the year, but far from being a disappointment the last twelve months have simply boasted some very pleasant surprises indeed. Still, that hasn’t discouraged me from making a fresh batch of inevitably premature predictions for the new year.

I have already seen a number of January’s scheduled releases, and reviews of American Hustle, 12 Years A Slave and August: Osage County will be appearing on the site over the coming weeks. As it’s impossible to anticipate something you’ve already seen, they have each been omitted from my choices (not that they would otherwise have been guaranteed a place, however).

With that in mind, then, here are the ten movies that I am most looking forward to in 2014.

The Book Thief

2014 The Book ThiefNarrated by none other than Death himself, Markus Zusak’s excellent source novel tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster child in 1930s Germany who develops a fondness for reading. Unfortunately, her appreciation for books is not shared by the Nazi party, and with her foster parents harbouring a Jew in the basement she cannot afford to draw too much unwanted attention. Starring newcomer Sophie Nélisse alongside seasoned thesps Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush, and boasting a score by John Williams, Brian Percival’s film is a very interesting proposition indeed.

The Lego Movie

2014 The Lego MovieWhereas 2013 boasted a relatively underwhelming slate of animated releases (although Frozen, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 and The Croods still managed to impress), 2014 is a different story altogether. First up is The Lego Movie, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who were behind the first Cloudy film) and starring the likes of Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell and rising star Chris Pratt. Everyman Emmet (Pratt) is mistaken for a Master Builder by Batman (Will Arnett), Superman (Channing Tatum) and Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders) in what promises to be the funniest film to have featured either.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2014 The Winter SoldierThe sequel to 2011’s Captain America is only one of two Marvel movies scheduled for release this year, but as intrigued as I undoubtedly am by James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, it is The Winter Soldier that has me most excited. A mini Avengers reunion, the film sees the return of Captain America, Black Widow and Nick Fury as they join forces to uncover corruption in Washington DC. Unlike Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, this promises to move the shared universe forward ahead of next year’s The Avengers: The Age Of Ultron.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

2014 The Amazing Spiderman 2There are no shortage of comic book movies due for release in 2014 (though still nowhere near as many as are slated for 2015), but arguably the most exciting is Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s predecessor divided audiences, by re-telling an origin story barely a decade old and making changes largely for the sake of it, but I still found it very entertaining nonetheless, primarily due to the inspired casting of Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker. The sequel promises to up the ante, address many of the first film’s faults and open the door to the wider mythology by setting up The Sinister Six for future instalments.

Godzilla

2014 GodzillaLast seen on the big screen in 1998, where it was bested — quite controversially — by Matthew Broderick, Godzilla is set to rampage anew in Gareth Edwards much hyped reboot. Having made his name in 2010 with Monsters, Edwards brings his independent sensibilities to Hollywood armed with an A-list cast and inflated budget. The trailer at least is very encouraging, hinting at a number of astonishing set-pieces, the best of which seems to be a military skydive straight into Godzilla’s path.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

2014 Days Of Future PastSince Bryan Singer infamously left the franchise to focus on Superman Returns, the X-Men series has rather lost its way, with sequels, prequels and spin-offs making a mess of the established mythology. Now that Singer’s back he’s hoping to re-establish some semblance of continuity with a time-travel story inspired by one of the comic book’s most renowned runs. Days Of Future Past will see postermutant Wolverine sent back in time to help the previous generation of X-Men prevent future catastrophe. With essentially two separate casts each vying for screen-time and fans of each sub-series to please, Singer certainly has his work cut out for him.

How To Train Your Dragon 2

2014 How To Train Your Dragon 2Here it is: the big one! In addition to being one of the best movies released in 2010, DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon is also one of my favourite movies of all time. The long-awaited sequel — the second film in a planned trilogy, loosely based on Cressida Cowell’s series of children’s books — is from the same creative team as the original, and will pick up the story five years after Hiccup and Toothless defeated the Red Death and helped to save his hometown of Berk. How To Train Your Dragon 2 sees the two embroiled in a larger conflict between humans and dragons.

Jupiter Ascending

2014 Jupiter AscendingCloud Atlas topped my list of the best films of 2013 thanks to its ambitious and intelligent retooling of David Mitchell’s source novel. The Wachowskis have a track record of producing groundbreaking science-fiction extravaganzas with profound and provocative philosophical underpinnings. Jupiter Ascending promises more of the same, with the siblings developing an original story about a Russian janitor and the genetically-engineered warrior tasked with convincing her that she’s the next Queen of the Universe.

The Boxtrolls

2014 The BoxtrollsThe third and final animated movie to make this list, Boxtrolls is the latest offering from LAIKA, the studio behind mini-masterpieces Coraline and ParaNorman. The film — which will be another stop-motion animation — is an adaptation of Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters!”, and centres on an orphan boy raised by trolls. The animation looks exquisite, though a large part of the appeal admittedly comes from the high quality of its predecessors. If it’s even half as good as its predecessors it could well be one of the films of the year.

Step Up: All In

(L-R) ADAM SEVANI, BRIANA EVIGAN and RYAN GUZMAN star in STEP UP: ALL INThe token wild-card, Step Up: All In almost didn’t make this list at all, though only because until yesterday I didn’t know it was even in production. The Step Up series has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, and the promise of a fifth film in the franchise is more than enough to get me excited, though the fact that it will see the return of assorted cast-members from the last three films (including Briana Evigan’s Andie and Adam Sevani’s Moose) of course helps too. Just think of it as Step Up: The Greatest Hits.

Films of the Year – 2013

2013 saw Marvel begin Phase Two of its cinematic universe, biopics of Abraham Lincoln, James Hunt and Princess Diana, and adaptations of many beloved books. London was destroyed, rebuilt, then destroyed again; Planet Earth was overrun by zombies, doppelganger robots from outer space and inter-dimensional Kaiju; and filmmakers took us to Oz, the stone age and Paris Hilton’s bedroom.

Overall, and with notable exceptions including Movie 43, Man Of Steel and The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, it was a pretty good year, and one that was as full of guilty pleasures as it was films worthy of recognition. Some were inevitable better than others, however, and of those released in 2013 here are the ten that I’d rate highest of all, along with 11-20 for good measure.

10. Elysium

Matt Damon (left) and Sharlto Copley in Columbia Pictures' ELYSIUM.Neill Blomkamp’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to District 9, Elysium is every bit as intelligent and innovative as its predecessor. It also benefits from a bigger budget, a larger cast and a protagonist that it is actually possible to sympathise with. This is once again sci-fi at its smartest and most spectacular, and Blomkamp’s film is as remarkable for its handling of themes of exploitation and overpopulation as it is for its stunning set pieces, of which there are many.

9. RED 2 

2013 RED 2It’s probably the most left-field entry on this list, but for me RED 2 was for my money (or Unlimited Card) the most entertaining action movie of the year. Based on Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s comic book series of the same name, and a sequel to the 2010 original, RED 2 reunites Bruce Willis, Mary Louise-Parker, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren, only this time giving them material worthy of their talents. Funny, action-packed and — thanks to new addition Byung Hun-Lee — very, very cool, the film is a joy from start to finish.

8. Frozen

2013 FrozenIt’s been a long time since Disney produced an animation worth shouting about; Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph were both fun, but neither could realistically be counted among the studio’s many classics. Frozen, on the other hand, is as good as any other, and manages to bring the fairytale formula into the 21st Century without resorting to Shrek-level parody. The animation is breathtaking, the characters are unusually complex and the songs are superb, and no other animation studio produced a film this year that came close to matching Frozen in terms of quality.

7. Philomena

2013 Philomena2013 was the year that Steve Coogan finally brought Alan Partridge to the big screen, but it was also the year that he proved himself as a serious and talented dramatic actor. He won praise for What Maisie Knew and The Look Of Love (in addition to TV’s The Trip), but it was his role as disgraced journalist Martin Sixsmith in Philomena that really showed what he could do. Starring opposite Dame Judi Dench, the film saw Coogan’s character travel to America in order to track down the lost child of Philomena Lee.

6. The Way, Way Back

2013 The Way Way BackAlthough many compared it to Adventureland upon its release, The Way, Way Back is a far more interesting proposition. Newcomer Liam James plays Duncan, a ‘four’ who is vacationing in Cape Cod with his mother and her boyfriend. It’s a difficult watch, at least until Duncan interns at Water Wizz and meets Sam Rockwell’s park owner, at which point the character — and film — begin to soften. Ultimately, The Way, Way Back is a feel-good coming-of-age movie, but one that earns its laughs with real emotional graft.

5. For Those In Peril

2013 For Those In PerilFor Those In Peril premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June, before opening theatrically in October. From first-time director Paul Wright, the film cuts between mediums in a fashion that is as poetic as it is hypnotic. Your reading of the film will determine whether you view George MacKay as protagonist or antagonist, but either way there is no denying the strength of his performance. What is most remarkable about For Those In Peril is its ending, however, and for that reason more than any other that the film ranks so highly on this list.

4. Blackfish

2013 BlackfishIt’s been another incredibly strong year for documentaries, with both Fire In The Night and We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks proving worthy of mention. Undoubtedly the most powerful piece of all was Blackfish, which told the story of Tilikum, the infamous orca in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando that is believed to be responsible for a number of fatalities — allegations flatly denied by the park itself. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film is heartbreaking and horrifying, but is nevertheless essential viewing.

3. Les Miserables

2013 Les MisAn adaptation of one of the most esteemed and enduring musicals ever written, Les Miserables was always going to struggle to do justice to its source material. Luckily, The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper was on hand to take the helm. The actors, singing live on set, bring an almost overwhelming potency of emotion to their performances, and the songs gain an immediacy and import that they might otherwise have lacked. It’s not all about the soundtrack, however, as the story’s scope allows it to impress in just about every other department as well.

2. Gravity

2013 GravityA pared back narrative that follows two unfortunate astronauts as they drift helplessly through space in real-time, Gravity is one of the most ambitious and audacious movies of this year or any other. With long takes, a tiny cast and a subtle score, the latest film from Alfonso Cuaron is beautiful in its simplicity. As profound as it is thrilling, as beautiful as it is disorientating, Gravity really is something very special indeed, and deserved to be seen on the biggest screen possible, preferably in IMAX 3D.

1. Cloud Atlas

2013 Cloud AtlasThere was only one film this year that topped Gravity, and it couldn’t have been more different if it tried. At just under three hours in length, Cloud Atlas juggled six loosely connected narratives, starring the same core group of actors in a variety of roles (across age, race and gender), by cutting between them at irregular intervals — each edit chosen to maximise its dramatic as well as thematic potential. An independent movie with three directors (one of whom also helped to score it), Cloud Atlas not only adapts one of the most challenging novels of recent years, but does so in a way that is intelligent and incredibly cinematic.

11. Captain Phillips 12. Nebraska 13. The Kings Of Summer 14. The Impossible 15. Robot & Frank 16. Thor: The Dark World 17. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug 18. Don Jon 19. The Wolverine 20. Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 

INTERVIEW: James Baxter Talks The Croods

The Croods PosterAhead of his latest film’s December 9th home entertainment release, British head of character animation James Baxter was kind enough to discuss with me the work he did on DreamWorks Animation’s caveman comedy The Croods.

For the uninitiated, the film centres on Eep (Emma Stone) and her family of troglodytes as they are forced to leave the safety of their cave and venture out into the weird and wonderful world around them. While father Grug (Nicolas Cage) errs on the side of caution, Eep yearns for adventure, befriending a self-proclaimed modern man (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) as she endeavours to evolve — or die trying.

Though the character designs and behavioural observations suggest relatively more than just a basic understanding of human evolution, at least when compared to other children’s movies (I’m looking at you, Ice Age), Baxter admits that his team only researched the film up to a point.

“I’m a big fan of evolutionary biology and I always have been, it’s one of the things I’m interested in, but all of that just kind of gets thrown out of the window when you’re doing a movie like this. It’s such a fantasy that if you actually had to defend it on scientific grounds you’d be in trouble.”

Although not as hands on as he’d perhaps like to have been, instead working with a team of up to thirty animators on the busiest days, Baxter did manage to animate Douglas the ‘crocodog’ on a number of occasions. While the human characters bear at least some resemblance to the historical records, however, the flora and fauna that they encounter are often a little more difficult to identify.

“It was fun to play with the idea that some of these creatures are these evolutionary dead-ends. We had certain things that we ended up not doing because they were really kind of contrary to presenting a world which felt like planet earth. We had to do this sort of slight rationalisation, just so that we could figure out how these animals would move or how they would behave.”

Although a sequel has since been announced, Baxter and his team never took the possibility of another film for granted. The animators would often joke that characters or environments could be put in The Croods 2, but as he points out, to count on it would have been presumptuous. “But I’m glad they’re making one”, he adds, “I think there’s a lot of unexplored territory”.

Unlike DreamWorks Animation’s previous film, Rise of the Guardians, The Croods has evidently proven lucrative enough to warrant another adventure. The film didn’t just follow a box office disappointment (though Rise of the Guardians is now in the green), however, it was also the first film to be distributed by 20th Century Fox rather than Paramount, yet he assures me that there was almost no additional pressure behind the scenes to get it right.

“I’m sure there was [pressure], amongst the financial people [laughs]. Strangely enough, we were already deep into doing Croods by the time Guardians came out, and you have so much momentum by that  point on a movie that it doesn’t really change what you’re doing so much. I guess you just have to keep your fingers crossed for it, every time you do this, just to see if people are going to respond to it.”

It seems that, for Baxter at least, people have been responding to his work for years. He started out at Disney around the time of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and one of his first jobs — at just 23 years of age — was to animate Belle for a little film called Beauty and the Beast. At the time, however, there was little indication that it would go on to become such a classic, widely considered to be one of Disney’s finest features.

“I just remember being scared, trying to live up to things like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, you know — and as an animator knowing how good that work is.  I do remember making some conscious decisions about the brown hair and brown eyes; we’d never really done a brunette since Snow White, really. It was a really amazing experience for me, as young as I was, and it’s one of those moments that I almost wish I could revisit, because I know now that I’m a little better at spotting what’s going to work and what’s going to become something big. I think that if I’d known [how well it would be received] at the time I probably would have done some things differently.”

Although Baxter has been at DreamWorks since The Prince Of Egypt, he took a few years out to set up his own studio, called James Baxter Animation. It was at a time when next to no traditional hand-drawn animation was being produced, at least in Hollywood, and it was this more than anything else that motivated him to become his own boss. Oddly, it was while working independently that he was asked to develop the opening and closing credits sequences for Kung Fu Panda. And then something lured him back.

“I enjoy working for DreamWorks, they’ve always been a nice company to work for. I had a good time at Disney too; I learnt a lot. You know, my time at Disney, it was a great place to be to learn how to be an animator, to do feature film animation. They have so many resources, and they have this rich legacy. And you can go and explore their libraries. That’s a great place to go to learn to be a character animator. But I enjoy the culture here at DreamWorks very much; I think they’re an interesting company.”

It’s certainly true that in recent years DreamWorks Animation has emerged as one of the leading animation houses in America. Though much of their output has succeeded financially, it wasn’t until Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon (“I think it’s my favourite film that I’ve ever worked on”) that the critical consensus matched the commercial one. Over the last few years, the studio has brought in the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Roger Deakins as consultants, though Baxter is quick to reveal that they aren’t the whole story behind DreamWorks’ growing success.

“I’ve met Roger a few times. I don’t think I would credit…as fantastic and brilliant as those two men are, I think there was a larger thing going on at DreamWorks over the last ten years. I think the success of Dragon [in particular] really comes down to [the film’s director] Dean DeBlois more than anyone else, and I think DreamWorks’ efforts to cultivate directors like that is starting to pay off.”

As for the future, James Baxter sees much to be excited about in the current state of animation. With the likes of Laika, Aardman Animations and Studio Ghibli bringing some much needed diversity to a genre that had become somewhat lost in a homogeneous sea of pixels — and even DreamWorks planning a blend of styles in the form of upcoming film Me and my Shadow — it seems that the stage is set for something special. Even more so when you look beyond the multiplex.

“Animation, ever since really I got into it, has been a pretty exciting place to be. I’m really enjoying working on the sequel to How To Train Your Dragon — I’m finishing that up in January/February. So there’s that sort of animation where you’re really pushing what you can do in terms of performance and subtlety — dramatic animation — but I also really enjoy a lot of the things that are going on in television right now: Adventure Time, The Regular Show and Gravity Falls on Disney.”

Failing that, of course, you need only watch The Croods to feel excited. As I said in my review, early scenes of Eep scaling a cliff face induce actual vertigo, while the environments and creatures are among the most creative to grace the screen in years, and all this is yours to own on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday. Eep indeed.

Many thanks to James Baxter for speaking with me, and to Premier for making it all possible.

Films Of Future Past: Putting The X-Men Movies In Order

With The Wolverine currently in theatres, X-Men: Days Of Future Past on its way, and perhaps even an X-Force adaptation in the works, 20th Century Fox’s X-Men series doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Comprising an original trilogy, a prequel and two Wolverine-centric spin-offs, however, it’s perhaps easy to forget where we currently stand.

I’ve attempted to put the existing X-Men films in order, highlighting the key elements of each and working out exactly how they tie into the other movies. As such, this article contains spoilers for the extant franchise, and potential spoilers for the upcoming Days Of Future Past.

Without further ado: here’s the story so far.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

In Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to the original X-Men trilogy, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr meet for the first time while trying to stop Sebastian Shaw from starting World War III. The film is set in 1962, and introduces Mystique, Dr. Hank McCoy and Moira MacTaggert. The film also features Xavier’s first contact with Logan, though it is so brief that it doesn’t register with either of them.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins Wolverine movie image Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber

This film actually begins in 1845, with the activation of Logan’s mutation. It tracks him through the American Civil War, both World Wars and the Vietnam War before starting with the story proper in 1981. Logan is betrayed by his closest friend, Victor “Sabretooth” Creed, and is approached by William Stryker, a shady figure who offers to help Logan exact revenge. Indestructible adamantiam is bonded with Logan’s skeleton, but the newly christened Wolverine winds up fighting Stryder’s Weapon X instead. The film also features Gambit and a young Scott Summers, while the closing scene sees Wolverine meet Professor Xavier once more. In a mid-credits sting, it is suggested that he has travelled to Japan.

X-Men

X-Men

Opening with a young Lehnsherr activating his mutant abilities in a concentration camp somewhere in Nazi-occupied Poland (essentially the same shot that introduces the character in First Class) , Bryan Singer’s X-Men skirts the events of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and sees an amnesic Logan looking for answers. He meets Rogue  in Canada, and together they become affiliated with the X-Men. While trying to stop Lehnsherr’s Magneto from artificially mutating various world leaders, Wolverine develops feelings for Jean Grey and is told that Alkali Lake may hold the answers he seeks. At this point the team includes Logan, Grey, Summers and Ororo “Storm” Monroe.

X2

X2

Having found little of use at Alkali Lake, Logan returns to the school to look after the students while the X-Men try to locate a teleporter who tried and failed to assassinate the President. Jean Grey and Storm travel to Boston to apprehend Nightcrawler, while Scott and Professor X visit Magneto in prison to see if he had any part in the plot. Wolverine’s old enemy William Stryker attacks the school while they’re away, forcing Logan to flee with the remaining students. They rendezvous with Jean and Storm, along with an escaped Magneto and his accomplice Mystique, and lead an assault on Alkali Lake where Stryker has imprisoned Scott and the Professor. Wolverine gets his answers, flashing back to the events of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but loses Jean, who sacrifices herself to save her friends.

X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men The Last Stand

Having left the franchise to make Superman Returns, Singer was replaced first by Matthew Vaughn and then by Brett Ratner. Picking up where the previous film left off, Logan and Scott are mourning the loss of  Jean Grey. In her place Rogue, Iceman , Shadowcat and Colossus have become fully fledged members of the X-Men, training in the Danger Room against Sentinels, and Dr. Hank McCoy has (re)joined the team. Grey, however, returns from the dead as The Phoenix, an all-powerful alternate personality that Xavier has been suppressing since they met. She kills Scott and Xavier, before joining sides with Magneto, leaving Logan with no choice but to kill her. The government, meanwhile, has been working on a mutant cure, and by the end of the film Rogue, Mystique and Magneto have been de-powered, though a post credits scene suggests that the cure’s effects are only temporary. Another scene sees Xavier awake in the body of another, nursed by Moira MacTaggert.

The Wolverine

Wolverine

Following the death of Jean Grey, Logan has taken a vow of pacifism and exiled himself in an uninhabited part of the Yukon. Flashbacks to the Second World War show him saving the life of a Japanese soldier (a period of history also shown in X-Men Origins) who offers up his sword as thank you. His penance is cut short when an employee of the aged soldier invites him out to Japan, where he attempts to steal Wolverine’s healing abilities. Logan survives, falling in love with the soldier’s granddaughter and finally making peace with Jean’s death, but loses his adamantium claws (although the bones regenerate) in a battle with the Silver Samurai. Two years after his return to America, he is accosted by a revived Professor X and a re-powered Magneto, who warn him of a lurking danger and invite him to join their cause.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Days Of Future Past

Although not due for release until May of next year, there are a number of things that can be gleaned about the upcoming movie. Based on one of the most popular story arcs in the X-Men comic book series, Days Of Future Past is envisioned as the perfect opportunity to unite the two timelines as represented by X-Men: First Class and original trilogy; as such it will essentially be a continuation of both. The film will pick up from The Wolverine, with the X-Men facing the aforementioned threat, and will incorporate both the Sentinels and Ellen Page’s Shadowcat from X-Men: The Last Stand. With the odds stacked against them, The X-Men must send Wolverine back in time to the 1970s to try and alter the timeline.

While for the most part the films in the series fit together nicely (at least, they can be put in something roughly resembling chronological order), there are a number of inconsistencies that have sprung up along the way. Nicolas Hoult’s Hank McCoy becomes Beast in First Class, is shown in human form in X2, and then appears again as Beast (this time played by Kelsey Grammar) in The Last Stand. Similarly, Emma Frost is shown as younger in X-Men Origins than she is in First Class, and — as you’ve seen — Wolverine has met Professor X for the first time on at least three occasions.

It is believed that as well as unite the disparate elements of the X-Men franchise, Singer is looking to undo a number of the contradictory threads as introduced by Ratner and Gavin Hood. The question is, however, can he right the canon without also retconning the more successful movies. X-Men and X2 are two of the finest superhero movies yet released, while The Wolverine was far stronger than anyone had any right to expect. Heck, even X-Men: First Class had its moments. It would be real a shame if Days Of Future Past undermined those too.

For now at least, that’s how the X-Men movie franchise stands.

Obstruction One – The Dark Knight

Presented by My Film Views, The Five Obstructions Blogathon aims to challenge bloggers with monthly assignments. The first Obstruction, for June 2o13, involves writing either a negative review of a film you like, or a positive review of a film you do not.

The Dark Knight

The second film in visionary director Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece “The Dark Knight” trilogy, The Dark Knight picks up where Batman Begins left off, with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) on the trail of The Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychopathic agent of chaos with a very literal calling card. There is a bigger game at play, however, and Gotham’s fate becomes inexplicably tied to that of district attourney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and by extension his girlfriend and assistant Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Having brought a new sensibility to The Batman in 2005, by disassociating the character from his childishly superhero roots and re-envisaging him as a hardened vigilante, Nolan continues to establish his more realistic interpretation of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight. Replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal and focusing on a part of Gotham untouched by monorails, fear toxins and stolen Microwave Emitters, Nolan here pushes this grittiness and realism to the next level.

In a market saturated with fun, entertaining superhero movies, The Dark Knight distinguishes itself as a serious film for serious adults. Nolan does this by pursuing weighty themes of morality and terrorism instead of wasting time on such immature things as wit and humour — even going so far as to paint such frivolity as the villain of the piece (The Joker repeatedly mocks Bruce Wayne’s severity, asking “Why so serious?”). We all know that superheroes are wasted on children, and here Nolan finally delivers the film that all intelligent men deserve.

While in Batman Begins Christian Bale had occasionally let identifiable words slip through his unintelligible growl, The Dark Knight gives us a vigilante that can never once be understood. It’s an incredible cameo, so much so that Bale reproduces it to brilliant effect in McG’s Terminator Salvation. Obviously, the real star of the show is Heath Ledger’s Joker, a beautifully realised and genuinely scary villain for the 21st Century. In fact, it was indesputably the best performance of 2008, rightly beating Josh Brolin and Phillip Seymore Hoffman at the 81st Academy Awards. Hans Zimmer impresses too, in his astonishing role as Background Noise.

A Christopher Nolan film, The Dark Knight is a definitive take on The Batman character and quite simply the best movie ever made. A perfect, flawless and intrinsically infallible film, it is up there with other masterpieces such as Inception, The Prestige and Memento.