Slow West (2015)

Slow WestWhen an incident back home forces the girl of his adolescent dreams to flee to America, naive 16-year-old Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sets off in hot pursuit. Little does he realise that Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann) have a large price on their heads, and that in his youthful innocence-cum-ignorance he is inadvertently leading a parade of bounty hunters right to them. Interested parties include Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), an Irish immigrant who sells his services to Jay in the supposed spirit of camaraderie; Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a gang-leader and alpha-hunter who has a history with Silas; and Angus the Clergyman (Tony Croft), a lone mercenary who assumes the identity of a holy man to wrong-foot his prey. As they draw closer to their respective prizes, however, Silas begins to admire Jay’s courage and determination.

Of all cinema’s assorted genres and subgenres, it’s perhaps the Western that is the most divisive among cinephiles, at least behind horror. Either you can relate to the perennial nameless wanderer — a personification of tumbleweed both bow-legged and squinty-eyed — or you can’t; and if not then the Old West is invariably a barren and inhospitable place populated by characters that you find it next to impossible to engage with. Thankfully, as is often the case in the multiplex medium of film, there are exceptions, and John Maclean’s Slow West is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional of all. After all, this is a Western with a Scottish protagonist, a comedic undercurrent and strong female character — it’s about as far removed from the blanched American desert and staunch individualism that usually characterises this kind of movie as it is possible to get. There isn’t a single sheriff, deputy or Mexican in the entire movie.

Some have described the absurdist tonal elements as decidedly and distinctly Coen-esque, but while the brothers might well have been an influence Slow West goes well beyond the likes of No Country For Old Men and True Grit in reconciling its tragicomic sensibilities. These are complex, compelling and (most unusually) coherent characters who just happen to be companionable, too. Rather than get caught up in race-relations and other issues of American culture Maclean takes a refreshingly European view of the whole set-up, having Jay and Rose themselves take a more sympathetic stance towards the natives and other immigrants. This new perspective and fresh approach lends the film a novelty that precious few Westerns can lay claim to, particularly in its treatment of women and ethnic minorities. We have in recent years seen the genre transplanted to the American outback in films such as The Proposition and The Rover, but this really is our first exposure to a British or specifically Scottish Western (Maclean hails from Tayside).

To praise the film for possessing such wit, however, is not to suggest that it’s not without acuity or gravitas too, as a gut-wrenchingly unforgiving visit to a trading post during the film’s second act unmistakably proves. Whereas most Westerns glorify violence through prolongued shoot-outs and protracted death throes, the often ruthlessly unsentimental Slow West focuses instead on the immediacy and inglory of death. Lives are ended, potential is squandered and children are orphaned, while the killers themselves are rarely spared their just deserts. The film ends with a strikingly silent and senseless montage, revisiting the trail of dead bodies left by Jay and Silas as they lie motionless across 19th Century Colorado. Earlier in the film, Jay asks an apparently friendly anthropoligist if he minds sharing his fire with a murderer, to which the ethnographer replies that he wouldn’t have many visitors if he did. The film subtly but succinctly outlines the harsh and sometimes inhuman realities of colonialism, and arguably serves to criticise both contemporary American foreign policy and its questionable gun laws at the same time.

Throw in one of cinema’s more convincing Scottish accents (pronounced to perfection by the impeccable Smit-McPhee) and the spectacle of seeing two men in long-johns drying their laundry on a line strung between two horses (complete with comedy call-back) and you have one of the most accessible and pleasantly surprising Westerns to date. And to think, I was all too ready to derisively dub it Slowest.

4-Stars

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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.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)

Days Of Future Past

In 1973 the death of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and the subsequent capture of his killer Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) leads the United States government to pursue the late inventor’s sentinel programme. Fifty years later, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Logan (Hugh Jackman) are among the last mutants remaining after the shape-shifting robots have exterminated most of their kind. Using Kitty’s powers, Charles and Eric send Logan back in time to stop Mystique, save Trask and hopefully prevent the future as they know it from ever happening. In order to succeed he must seek out their younger selves (played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively), a task that is easier said than done given that they are no longer on speaking terms, with the former suppressing his abilities with the aid of a serum and the latter incarcerated miles beneath the Pentagon. Luckily, he has Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to help him.

I think it’s safe to say that for a while there thing’s weren’t looking very good for 20th Century Fox’s flagship superhero franchise. The X-Men had been in a bad way for some time; the saga had devolved into three separate sub-series, the continuity of which had become convoluted, often contradictory, and its biggest box office draw — the now ubiquitous Hugh Jackman — was openly considering an early retirement. Worse, the story behind the camera was often as difficult to follow as that which was unfolding before it: first, director Bryan Singer left the celebrated trilogy he had started in the ill-equipped hands of Brett Ratner, then Gavin Hood pursued a Wolverine prequel only for Matthew Vaughn to reboot the series with a largely new cast, while most recently James Mangold took on a second Wolverine spin-off, which — just to confuse matters further — acted not as a sequel to Hood’s film or a spin-off from Vaughn’s but as a continuation of the original trilogy. I did my best to make sense of it all here.

Some faith was restored when Singer announced that he would be returning to the series he started, and the revelation that he would this time be adapting the revered Days Of Future Past storyline from the X-Men comics was met with (admittedly wary) optimism. What Singer had planned was certainly ambitious: to use a time-travel plot device to not only knit together the now disparate threads — each with its own cast, often playing the same characters — but to unpick some of the narrative knots introduced into the series by Ratner, Hood, Vaughn and Mangold. It seemed from the outside as though Singer was plotting not just a movie but a rescue mission, and though he has ultimately succeeded in putting the franchise back on track his efforts go far beyond papering over the cracks supposedly left by others. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is not simply course correction — the film doesn’t tie itself in loops trying to plug every single hole (you may remember Wolverine had his adamantium claws severed in the last film, yet he retains them here) — but an attempt at something bigger and more exciting.

Considering just how much ground he has to cover Singer tackles the first act with an astonishing lightness of touch. We are reunited with Kitty Pride — complete with hitherto unseen time-travelling abilities — in a brief but brilliant opening salvo that also introduces four new characters and establishes the film’s dystopian future timeline. Patrick Stewart then explains the stakes, while also dispensing with fifty-odd years of history and laying out the various obstacles that Logan must overcome in his mission to save the future from the past. Before you know it you’re transported back to the 1970s, watching Wolverine struggle out of a waterbed and into a floral shirt — cracking wise once again after ten minutes of action-packed but sober exposition. After five movies and one gratuitous cameo you could be forgiven for expecting another glorified vehicle for Jackman; however, not only does Singer somehow manage to breathe new life into the character by putting him into a novel situation but he manages to keep Logan under strict control and just to the edge of the spotlight. X-Men: Days Of Future Past feels like the missing piece of the puzzle, and once in place it becomes clear that the series isn’t really about him after all.

Singer may give the likes of Storm, Shadowcat and Iceman one last chance to shine (not to mention Daniel Cudmore’s Colossus, who after three films of relative inactivity finally gets something to do), but his focus is ultimately on the newer cast of 1973. Despite fears of overcrowding born from seemingly endless casting announcements, Days Of Future Past is in fact a surprisingly intimate affair. This is the story of two feuding friends, and of the young woman caught in their crossfire; as McAvoy’s Charles and Fassbender’s Erik pursue their individual ends, Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique is left to strike out on her own — a path that will ultimately lead mutant-kind towards extinction. A supporting character in the original trilogy, and somewhat underserved by Vaugh’s First Class, Mystique finally comes into her own, growing to embody the struggle between revenge and redemption that has been at the franchise’s core ever since day one. It’s such a perfect fit that you wonder if it has in fact been Singer’s plan all along — when Stewart (and later McAvoy) insists that it’s never too late to bring someone back from the brink, he could almost be speaking of the franchise itself.

Where Days Of Future Past really distinguishes itself, however, is in its surprisingly unspoiled and understated second half. It’s amazing just how little of the story has been given away in the film’s apparently excessive promotional materials. There comes a point after Mystique has saved Havok (Lucas Till) from Saigon and Professor X, Wolverine and Quicksilver (who makes an impression far exceeding the time he is actually onscreen) have freed Magneto from prison that you realise you have no idea what’s going to happen next. X-Men has always been the full package — offering not only superhero spectacle but also compelling characters and real satirical edge — and Singer weaves a story that makes absolute sense, whether you look at it from a logistical, emotional or historical standpoint. This gives the third act stakes not often seen in the superhero genre; Mystique’s soul, Charles and Erik’s friendship and fifty years of history (not to mention the films audiences have grown up with) are all on the line. By the time the film ends you will have laughed, you will have cried and you will have left Wolverine-esque gashes in the arms of your chair.

With Marvel having set a precedent in The Avengers, it seems that every studio with a superhero series to its name is pursuing an integrated mega-franchise. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is really the first film to deliver on this particular promise; Singer’s latest is an emotional, intelligent and thrilling movie in its own right but it’s also a part of something much, much bigger. It’s at once a conclusion (and an astonishingly satisfying one at that), a bridge between instalments (we get flashbacks/forwards to every film in the series) and a springboard for future adventures (I for one can’t wait to see more of Blink). Singer somehow manages to have his cake and eat it; rather than dismiss the films that came before, Days Of Future Past actually validates them — as if somehow elevating them by mere association with this towering achievement. He hasn’t just re-written history, he’s made it.

5-Stars

 

Frank (2014)

FrankJon (Domhnall Gleeson), a prolific Tweeter who still lives with his parents, is trying to make it as a musician. After witnessing an unhinged keyboard player attempt to drown himself in the sea, Jon is asked by Soronprfbs manager Don (Scoot McNairy) to join the band. Led by Frank (Michael Fassbender), an enigmatic figure who wears a large papier-mâché head, obscuring his true identity, the band — which includes Baraque (François Civil) on guitar and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the theramin — travel to Ireland in order to record an album. While there, Jon — who has aspirations as a singer-songwriter — becomes increasingly frustrated by his own limited involvement in the creative process, and to expand his role within the group decides to record Frank’s recording sessions in order to build the band’s profile online. This leads to an invitation to appear at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, which Jon accepts despite the protests of Baraque and Clara.

Inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the comic persona of Chris Sievey which found fame in Manchester in the late 1980s, Frank is co-written by Jon Ronson, who used to be a member of the character’s Oh Blimey Big Band. Set in the present day, in the age of Twitter, YouTube and SXSW, the film reimagines Frank as an American urban legend. Lenny Abrahamson’s film is a strange one, occasionally reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Clara’s brand of dry humour is strikingly similar to that of Kim Pine) but probing much deeper than most films about aspiring musicians, even this year’s Inside Llewyn Davis. It is believed that Sievey signed off on the film prior to his death in 2010, but Frank has far less to do with Sidebottom as it does with fame in general. Not just fame either, but talent itself, and the effect that that talent has on other people.

Though his face is for the most part obscured by papier-mâché, Fassbender gives a terrifically physical performance as Frank, who seems to embody the famously fine line between genius and madness. Eccentric, manic and appreciably volatile, the character is a force to be reckoned with, though not by his bandmates, who without exception seem to follow him without question. There is still conflict — Clara clearly has feelings for Frank, while Don covets him for other reasons — but for the most part Soronprfbs (a gag not dissimilar to Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs‘ FLDSMDFR) seems to be a relatively harmonious team. Enter Jon, whose sense of entitlement seems to be greater than his actual talent, and who seems determined to worm his way into the band whether there is a place for him or not. Jon starts out as a sympathetic character, a little too relatable, but is soon revealed to be jealous and obsessive, verging finally on violent.

It is an incredibly powerful film, which could be analysed in a number of ways. The easiest parallel to draw is between Jon and the music industry, or even music fans, not only exploiting but ultimately corrupting the abilities of others. Frank, meanwhile, could be seen as an analogue for the public persona adopted by all public figures — be they artists, celebrities or politicians — who are attempting to mask or protect their weaker private selves. There are shades of domestic abuse in Jon’s maltreatment of Frank, and an element of self-delusion in the way Jon lies to Twitter and bemoans his happy childhood in the belief that it has somehow robbed him of artistic validation. Frank is at its most touching when dealing with mental illness, however, and as both Frank and Jon continue to unravel their respective journeys become all the more heartfelt and heart-breaking.

That’s not to suggest that Frank is a miserable watch; as the references to Scott Pilgrim and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs were intended to suggest, there is a surreal absurdity to it that somewhat lightens the load. Jon’s hashtags are wonderfully inane, Frank is completely bonkers and the songs are a joy. The tone is wacky and ironic, never more so than when Frank performs his most likeable song to the rest of the group, to rapturous applause from everyone but Jon, who is the only one thinking about commercial viability. Mostly, however, the comedy comes from the matter-of-fact treatment of the papier-mâché head, as Frank is revealed to wear it whether he is eating, showering or travelling through customs. It’s for this reason that the film stays with you so long after the initial viewing, for there is so much to unpack that you perhaps don’t appreciate while watching.

Though not always an easy watch, Frank is certainly an interesting one. It powers through a variety of genres, from comic book movie through social satire to black comedy, and though the gear changes may occasionally grind it is one hell of a ride. You might not understand it, you might not even particularly like it, but come year’s end Frank will be one of the few movies that is still playing on your mind.

4-Stars

 

12 Years A Slave (2013)

12 Years A SlaveSoloman Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) is a free man. In 1841 that’s far from a given, and though he earns a healthy living as a skilled carpenter and revered fiddle player many other negroes across America are being whipped for minor misdemeanors and cotton-picking for pittance. When he is deceived by two businessmen into touring with a travelling circus, and plied with alcohol to the point of inebriation, Northup wakes to find himself chained to the floor of an anonymous basement. He is taken to New Orleans, given a new name and sold into slavery — first to sympathetic plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then to vindictive planter Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

What happened to Soloman Northup was heinous. To be abducted, assimilated and beaten into submission for any reason is inexcusable, and to do it for reasons of skin colour is equally unforgivable. It’s been one hundred and fifty years since slavery was abolished, and to modern eyes it is clear that slavery and racism are inherently wrong.  Unfortunately, and despite all of its good points, 12 Years A Slave doesn’t have much more to say on the matter than just that. Both have been recently dealt with in Lincoln, Django Unchained and Cloud Atlas, and next to them Steve McQueen’s latest feels strangely insubstantial; unambitious, even. While the esteemed director may provoke a response, he never promotes conversation, or does anything to invite his audience to actively engage.

That hasn’t stopped it from earning rave reviews and being tipped for just about every award going, and while it may become rather repetitive in its rhetoric there is no denying that the film is very well made indeed. There are a number of stand-out sequences, as striking and provocative as anything in the director’s previous film, Shame — the most memorable of which involves Soloman, hung from a tree but not quite hanging, struggling for breath while the rest of the plantation carries on with their duties. It’s an important scene, because it demonstrates race-free psychological internalisation, without pointing the finger in one, and only one direction. We also see Soloman, in flashback as a man of privileged standing, failing to assist a slave in need of help. While impassioned, the film never once places blame.

The performances, too, are worthy of mention. Ejiofor is outstanding as Northup, and the actor makes full use of what is possibly his most complex and conflicted character to date. He had previously impressed in supporting roles — from Serenity to Children Of Men — but here he makes the transition to leading man with charisma to spare. Fassbender is arguably even more electric as slave-driver Epps: he’s a nasty piece of work, and while the actor’s accent might once more slip as often as it sticks it is hardly worth mentioning when the character is guilty of so much more. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is mesmerising too, bringing almost crushing vulnerability to her role as a mother robbed of her children. It’s difficult not to like Brad Pitt most of all, however, as Bass, who is — aside from the sympathetic Northup — the film’s only likeable character, and — though largely by default — the film’s only outright hero.

12 Years A Slave is a difficult, challenging watch, and though its intentions — and indeed much of its execution — may well be worthy of recognition, the film just doesn’t hold up to the same scrutiny as McQueen’s other films. Northup’s story is an astonishing one, and undoubtedly deserves to be told, but McQueen’s attempts to adapt Northup’s own memoir haven’t produced a film as remarkable as the real-life events it is based on; despite its source material, it’s episodic, plodding and strangely undramatic. This is 2 Hours A Slave, though to be fair to those involved it feels more like three.

3.5-Stars

The Counsellor (2013)

The CouncelorTold by local kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem) that he is not benefiting as much as he might from his position of influence and power, The Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) meets with middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) to inquire about maybe making a little extra drug money on the side. Tasked with trafficking cocaine, The Counsellor’s greed soon gets the better of him as the payload is intercepted and the cartel are left millions of dollars out of pocket. It’s every man for himself, and as The Counsellor plots to flee with fiance Laura (Penélope Cruz), Reiner and girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) each try to prepare themselves for the coming storm.

Even from the opening scene, in which “The Counsellor” and Laura enjoy a morning tryst between crisp white sheets, there is the sense that we as the audience are already one step behind. Who are these people? Who are they to each other? And why is she not calling “The Counsellor” by name? It is a feeling of disconnect that is difficult to shake, as though you have missed the beginning of the story, overlooked some salient piece of information or failed to catch some indispensable moment of characterisation. Sadly, and as the plot slowly kicks in, the confusion and frustration only get worse.

Before you know where you are the action has skipped from America to Amsterdam, Mexico to London. There are scenes devoted to the discussion of diamonds, only for the subject to be immediately dropped in favour of drugs or decapitation. The script, written by author-turned-screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, fails to hit just about every mark it sets itself, talking the audience through its plot when it should be letting them get there on their own. The Counsellor is in fact an original screenplay, but it often feels more like a poorly adapted novel than a movie in its own right (and not even a very good one at that): it’s dialogue-heavy, meandering in the extreme and so complicated you feel as though you should be re-reading whole pages.

You can’t even distract yourself by concentrating instead on the all-star cast. Fassbender is incredibly unsympathetic as the unnamed lawyer at the film’s centre, and once again distractingly Irish in his intonation. Despite the fact that it takes approximately half of the film for his soulless existence to finally crumble around him, there have been precious few attempts at actually making the audience care about his predicament; Cruz cannot be kidnapped soon enough, while Bardem phones in a performance too reminiscent of Skyfall‘s Raoul Silva for Reiner to qualify as a character in his own right. The only interesting support comes from Pitt and Diaz, though outside of directionless conversations McCarthy can find little to do with either.

The Counsellor at least looks the part, and like Prometheus before it Ridley Scott manages to save another cold, confused and disappointing film with some attractive visuals. “The Green Hornet” gets a nice introduction, and in his handful of scenes proves eminently more interesting than Seth Rogen’s superhero of the same name, only for the character to be offed with little care or occasion. Malkina, too, seems to have have strolled in from a comic book movie, with her feline fetishes making her markedly more memorable than any of the other main characters. But then she was the only member of the principle cast to have sex with a car windscreen.

For all its globe-trotting, drug-smuggling action, The Counsellor is a remarkably tedious and unengaging film. It has the air of a book that has been badly adapted for the big screen, not least because the first few chapters appear to be missing. The name certainly doesn’t help; who wants a movie about “The Counsellor” when the credits also include the considerably more appealing likes of “The Wireman”, “The Third Man Killer” and “The Teen Playing Frisbee”.

1.5-Stars

Prometheus (2012)

Having discovered a recurring motif in works from ancient, unrelated civilisations spread all over the planet (Egyptian, Mesopotamian and, in a sound-bite present in the trailer but absent from the film, cave paintings from France), Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) interprets her findings as an interplanetary invitation and, with funding from the Wayland Corporation, charts a course for the corresponding star system in search for answers. Along with fellow crew members Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), Janek (Idris Elba), Milburn (Rafe Spall), David (Michael Fassbender) and corporate representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Shaw finds herself fighting to protect – rather than enlighten – the rest of the human race. Read more of this post

A Dangerous Method (2012)

Zurich, 1904, and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is at work founding the field of analytic psychology when Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) finds herself in his care. A young woman suffering from hysteria, Jung finds her an awkward fit for mentor Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) psychosexual framework, posing his own theory of neurosis to the man in person on a later trip to Vienna. What starts out as an intellectually stimulating friendship based on an understanding of mutual respect, however, soon deteriorates into a heated rivalry as the two pillars of pychoanalysis find themselves disagreeing on everything from the importance of sex to the psyche to the relevance of religion in their work. Spurred on by one Otto Gross’ (Vincent Cassel) teachings of sexual liberation, Jung embarks on an ill-advised affair that threatens not only his reputation but his role as Freud’s successor.

There was a lot I didn’t like about the study of psychology, or at the least my six-year experience of it: the endless statistics, the obsession with relatively trivial phenomenon and the self-defeating pursuit of scientific acceptance to name but a few. One thing that kept my head in the books was an insatiable fascination with the subject’s colourful past. Indeed, repetitive seminars on the particulars of facial attractiveness, the miraculous case of Phineas Gage and an over-reliance on pharmacology are almost excusable when at its heart, or in the deepest recesses of its mind, psychology is really just a sex-crazed dream gone mad.

In a way, psychology’s inferiority complex is at the heart of A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s latest, with Jung’s dalliances in parapsychology and “catalytic exteriorization phenomena” driving the wedge deeper into his relationship with self-confessed father figure Freud, who sees the discipline as above such hocus pocus. Between them, Jung and Freud are as conflicted as their theories of a conscious and unconscious, or an id and an ego, with myriad divergences in opinion threatening to end their thirteen hour discussions once and for all.

From addict to therapist in just a matter of months, Michael Fassbender delivers arguably his most interesting and accomplished performance to date. Whether masquerading as a picture of repression, spanking Keira Knightly to within an inch of her bodice or teasing his theory of a collective unconscious, Fassbender cultivates a depth of personality truly worthy of one of the fathers of modern psychology. Considering that his few audiences with Viggo Mortensen’s Freud are limited to a mere handfull of static locations and an intermittent correspondence, it is all the more impressive just how compelling their relationship is, a testament to the talents of both actors.

It is Knightly, however, who gives the film its edge, providing as she does the most easily identifiable link to the director’s past in body horror. While madness in the movies is usually confined to axe wielding maniacs and the numerous kooks played by Helena Bonham Carter, Knightly treats her illness as a debilitating compulsion, a possession, with results that are nothing less than hypnotising – and, on occasion, a little nauseating too. Combining a vocabulary of facial and full-body ticks with a deep seated lust for humiliation and sexual submission, her persona is somehow never defined by its symptoms, Knightly overcoming a dubious Russian accent to steal scenes and chew scenery with thunderous aplomb, even when she’s eventually certified sane.

Adapted from a stage play (which was in turn adapted from a non-fiction book: A Most Dangerous Method: the story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein), Cronenberg’s film is perhaps naturally strongest in the script department. While the decades-spanning narrative may slightly dull the story’s impact, the dramatic death-blow to this once-mighty friendship suppressed as if it were some base level desire, its individual scenes crackle with wit, intellect and authority. From Freud to Spielrein, Jung to Gross, each vantage point is explored, both critiquing and celebrating the creativity and credibility of a long-derided psychological approach, while never losing sight of the human drama at its centre.

Charged, provocative and surprisingly insightful, A Dangerous Method is intellectual intercourse at its most unashamedly manic. Whether you are seeking food for thought, an engaging period drama or simply a Keira Knightly movie that’s actually worth watching, Cronenberg’s is a dream come true – phallic symbolism and all.

Haywire (2012)

Having arranged to meet her employer at a lonely diner in Upstate New York, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is instead attacked by Aaron (Channing Tatum), a fellow contract operative with whom she worked on an assignment in Barcelona. Escaping with a young civilian named Scott (Michael Angarano) Mallory seeks revenge on Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), the man who set her up. Along the way, Mallory explains the circumstances that led to her situation, detailing the job in Barcelona and the repercussions it had on a later trip to Dublin, during which she was betrayed by British agent Paul (Michael Fassbender).

Steven Soderbergh’s latest step towards retirement, Haywire, is not an easy film to like. Opening with loaded glances galore and vague references to various European capital cities, an almighty slab of backstory is then dropped on Angarano’s Scott as the audience tries desperately to catch up. Many have attributed the film’s failings to newcomer Carano, a mixed martial artist plucked from the ring and tasked with carrying her own movie, but in my eyes it is Soderbergh’s direction that is the film’s biggest weakness. A convoluted and confused plot, a series of pencil sketched antagonists and a poorly integrated non-linear structure results in a film which ticks along with no real tension or pace.

Considering her lack of experience, Carano actually fares rather well. While she mightn’t offer a particularly emotional performance, you’d be misremembering if you were to claim that other genre stalwarts such as Boure or Bond were particularly prone to public displays of affection themselves. Kane carries herself with confidence and authority, holding her own against the likes of Fassbender’s man behind the donkey punch, government agent Michael Douglas and Puss In Beards himself, while also managing to compel the narrative on her own terms. Where she might pass admirably through the film’s quieter moments, she truly excels during the film’s numerous action beats. The walls shake with every punch, you feel every fall and when a deer jumps out in front of Kane’s speeding car, you may as well be behind the wheel.

Despite the best efforts of all involved, then, Haywire is plagued by a slapdash attitude towards plot, a strangely incongruous soundtrack and a beach-set denoument which seems desperately low on the air-punching glee of similar revenge-driven movies. Next time you decide to have tumble-weed blow across the runway during a third-act scene-setter, Soderbergh, try at least to make it ironic.

Shame (2011)

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is an affluent, attractive thirty-something living on his own in New York. He is also a sex addict. Having customised a lifestyle which allows him to work around his compulsions, Brandon has found ways to sate his sexual appetite whether at work, at home or on a night out with his unsuspecting workmates and adulterer boss (James Badge Dale). Into this meticulously rehearsed charade walks sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the yin to Brandon’s yang, whose arrival marks the beginning of a downfall which will impact both of them equally.

A film centring on sex addiction was never going to be an easy sell. Their second collaboration since 2008’s Hunger, Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender refuse to shy away from their chosen subject matter, wearing their NC-17 certificate as a badge of honour as they broach this enduring taboo head on, decreeing nothing off limits in their endeavour to do justice to something others might exploit. From a set of artfully crumpled bedsheets rises a naked Fassbender, baiting audiences to compose themselves, allowing the the filmmakers to press on in the knowledge that audiences are over any initial embarrassment.

McQueen’s visuals are striking in their subtlety, the camera allowed to linger on the minutea of Brandon’s life as he waits for his next hit, score, conquest. The character sleepwalks through life, enlivened only when finally introduced to a woman as interested in intellectual intercourse as she is sex. Their interactions are effortless, charming, as Fassbender is allowed to breathe some life into his troubled soul, a fleeting moment of banter with a sullied waiter hinting at a personality we are suddenly reluctant to see go to waste.

Mulligan’s Sissy, meanwhile, externalises where her brother internalises, ending his practices calm with a whirlwind of emotion and idiosyncrasies. Introduced as an incessant presence on Brandon’s answering machine, it’s not long until Sissy runs out of patience and arrives not so much on his doorstep as in his shower. While Mulligan’s performance might be every bit as naked as Fassbender’s, a second act Blues rendition of New York, New York belies a vulnerability and inner emptiness that no amount of gratuitous nudity could ever hope to truly express.

Beautifully ugly, passively provocative and quietly confident, Shame is a movie which approaches a difficult subject matter with respect and sobriety. More a film about addiction in general, it is an achingly honest portrayal of a man struggling to control potentially insurmountable compulsions, a few last minute contrivances doing little to detract from one of the most powerful movies released last year.