V for Vendetta (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #96

Freedom! Forever!

Country: UK, USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 132 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd February 2006 (Finland)
UK Release: 17th March 2006
US Release: 17th March 2006
First Seen: cinema, 2006

Stars
Natalie Portman (Léon, Thor)
Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Captain America: The First Avenger)
Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Underworld Awakening)
Stephen Fry (Wilde, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
John Hurt (Alien, Hellboy)

Director
James McTeigue (Ninja Assassin, The Raven)

Screenwriters
The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix, Speed Racer)

Based on
V for Vendetta, a graphic novel by Alan Moore & David Lloyd.

The Story
In the near future, Britain is ruled by a tyrannical fascist government — considering the film was made in 2005, it’s probably set in about 2016 right? Anyway, masked freedom fighter V has his sights set on overthrowing the oppressive regime, partly in revenge for what they did to him…

Our Heroes
In lieu of the more commonplace sobriquet, permit me to suggest the character of this dramatis persona. Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. His visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish the venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that you may call him V. Also Evey, a young woman V rescues and subsequently takes under his wing as a kind of protégée.

Our Villains
The fascist regime ruling near-future England, led by Supreme Chancellor Donald Trump Adam Sutler and enforced by numerous toadies.

Best Supporting Character
Gordon Deitrich is a TV host who delivers government-sanctioned comedy to the masses, despite his distaste for the regime. Could something inspire him to stand up for what’s right? But at what cost?

Memorable Quote
“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” — V

Memorable Scene
Bit of a spoiler, this, but the film’s most memorable imagery comes at the end: after V successfully blows up the Houses of Parliament, there is a massive crowd of onlookers, all wearing V’s Guy Fawkes mask. Then they take the masks of, revealing hundreds of ordinary people — including deceased characters. It’s allegorical, see.

Technical Wizardry
The fight between V and a group of government agents in Victoria Station was shot at 60fps to play in slow motion, but the effect was emphasised further by having the stuntmen playing the agents actually move in slow motion, while stuntman David Leitch (later co-director of John Wick, fact fans) as V moved in real time, making it seem as if he was moving much faster than them.

Truly Special Effect
The scene where V is ‘born’ from fire isn’t CGI: stuntman Chad Stahelski (later co-director of John Wick, fact fans) actually walked through fire wearing nothing but fire-resistant gel and a g-string. His body temperature had to be lowered before the scene was shot. Fortunately, it was -3°C on the night of the shoot; then, 15 minutes before a take, Stahelski put on ice-cold flame-resistant clothing; when he took that off, he was covered with the fire-resistant gel, which had been on ice all day. Each to their own, eh?

Making of
James Purefoy was originally cast as V, but pulled out four weeks into filming and was replaced by Hugo Weaving. Because V wears his mask at all times, his dialogue is dubbed throughout (they tried attaching mics to the mask, but they didn’t work well), so the footage starring Purefoy was retained and Weaving’s voice was placed over it. Director James McTeigue later commented, “Can I tell the difference? Yeah. Can the audience tell? I doubt it.”

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Actress (Natalie Portman))
3 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Writing, Costume)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“Just when we were ready to give up mainstream movies as braindead, along comes the controversial and gleefully subversive V for Vendetta, a piece of corporate-sponsored art that will have audiences rooting for a bomb-throwing anarchist. […] Much to the film ‘s credit, and to the exasperation of its critics, the audience is left to decide for itself whether V is a terrorist, freedom fighter, vengeance-seeking psychotic, or maybe all three simultaneously – and whether his extreme actions are a justifiable response to government repression. This pretty heady stuff for a big-budget comic-book movie” — Lou Lumenick, New York Post

Score: 73%

What the Public Say
“Halfway through it occurred to me that ten years had passed since the film’s release. TEN YEARS. And yet the film’s overriding themes: the dangers of fascism, how fear can affect our actions, privacy versus the oft used term ‘national security,’ freedom of speech, intolerance of members of the LGBT community, and the manipulation and dissemination of information, are still very relevant today. Maybe even moreso. What separates good movies from great movies, often comes down to social relevance throughout the decades. Can it stand the test of time? Does it mean something similar in today’s society as it did when the film was first released? This is why films like Metropolis and Citizen Kane and In the Heat of the Night are still studied in film classes. Their themes are universal, something that can apply to most decades. V for Vendetta fits that category to a T.” — Darth Gandalf, Funk’s House of Geekery

Verdict

Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s dystopic graphic novel was a reflection of the 1980s England in which it was originally published; then the film adaptation became a reflection of the mid-’00s world in which it was produced; and then it began to influence that world, with V’s Guy Fawkes mask becoming widely recognised as a symbol for certain protest groups. Although dressed up as part of an entertaining action movie, the story’s real topic is the rights and wrongs of government, and our attitudes and responsibilities towards it as citizens. That message feels as relevant as ever after the events of this year. Perhaps it always will — like George Orwell’s 1984, an enduring warning against things going too far. Let’s pray it’s heeded.

#97 will be… an animation investigation.

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Road to Perdition (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #74

Pray for Michael Sullivan.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 117 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 12th July 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 20th September 2002
First Seen: DVD, March 2003

Stars
Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Bridge of Spies)
Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Daniel Craig (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Casino Royale)
Jude Law (Gattaca, Closer)
Tyler Hoechlin (Everybody Wants Some!!, Fifty Shades Darker)

Director
Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall)

Screenwriter
David Self (Thirteen Days, The Wolfman)

Based on
Road to Perdition, a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner.

The Story
1931: Michael Sullivan is an enforcer for mob boss John Rooney, who thinks of him like a son. When Sullivan escorts Rooney’s unstable real son, Connor, to a meeting, the guy snaps and the other side are murdered — an event witnessed by Sullivan’s own son, Michael Jr. In an attempt to cover it up, Connor kills Sullivan’s wife and other son, while Michaels Sr and Jr escape, and begin a journey to take revenge.

Our Heroes
Michael Sullivan Sr is, on paper, not much of a hero: a mob hitman, his trade is death. But when half his family is murdered, he’ll do what’s necessary to protect his surviving son and get justice — his kind of justice, anyway. In the process, he bonds with Michael Jr, finally developing the relationship they never had before. Perpetual nice guy Tom Hanks tones that way down to give what I think must be one of his best performances, which brings out the heart in Sullivan without tipping over into regular Hanks territory, in the process allowing the viewer to empathise with a man who in lesser hands would just be a cold-blooded murderer.

Our Villains
Connor Rooney is a liability, a deranged coward and crook who wishes he was a hard man. But he’s no threat — his father, mob boss John Rooney, is the one with the power and means. At heart he’s no villain to Michael Sullivan — he’s essentially his father — but after Connor murders Sullivan’s family, Rooney feels he must protect his own blood, despite caring for him less than Sullivan. With an actor of Paul Newman’s quality in the role, every nuance of Rooney’s complex emotional position is subtly explored.

Best Supporting Character
To try to stop Sullivan, the mob set hitman Maguire on his trail. He’s a crime scene photographer who uses his job to cover his crimes, and is a nasty, rat-like creep. Jude Law rejects his frequent pretty-boy-ness to really inhabit that part. (Basically, everyone is fantastic in this film.)

Memorable Quote
John Rooney: “This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.”
Michael Sullivan: “Michael could.”

Memorable Scene
Heavy rain falls as Rooney and his men cross an empty street to his car. When they reach it, the driver inside is dead, the door locked. They spread out across the street, guns ready, but there’s no one to be seen… Then a muzzle flashes and the men are slowly cut down — leaving only Rooney standing. As the shooter emerges from the shadows, the camera tracks in on Paul Newman, his posture and expression saying it all: he knows who it is, he knows his time has come, and he’s resigned to it. All of this set to just the sound of Thomas Newman’s mournful piano-and-strings soundtrack. Only when Rooney turns around does the rain begin to bleed onto the soundtrack, and we see the man is (of course) Michael Sullivan. “I’m glad it’s you.” With tears in his eyes, Sullivan finishes his job.

Technical Wizardry
There are several reasons the above scene works so well — the pace of the editing, the sparse sound design, the music, the performances — but one of the biggest is the cinematography. The work of Conrad L. Hall, this is just one of the most obviously beautiful sequences in a film full of gorgeous imagery. He won a well-deserved posthumous Oscar for his work, his third from a career that garnered ten nominations.

Making of
One of the locations found was considered physically perfect but the wrong way round, with room only to shoot from right to left and not vice versa. Rather than, say, find somewhere else, production designer Dennis Gassner and his team dressed the location to be flipped, not only reversing street signs and car number plates, but even changing the side of the steering wheels on all the vehicles.

Awards
1 Oscar (Cinematography)
5 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (Paul Newman), Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Sound Editing)
2 BAFTAs (Cinematography, Production Design)
1 BAFTA nomination (Supporting Actor (Paul Newman))
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Performance by a Younger Actor (Tyler Hoechlin))

Despite some initial build-up, Road to Perdition wound up an awards season also-ran, losing out to that well-remembered classic Chicago and everyone’s desire to try to give Martin Scorsese an Oscar for Gangs of New York.

What the Critics Said
“The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.” — News of the World

“To call this the greatest gangster film since The Godfather would be an overstatement, though not by much. It is, however, the most brilliant work in this genre since the 1984 uncut version of Sergio Leone’s flawed but staggering Once Upon a Time in America. Road to Perdition, a less sprawlingly ambitious movie, is without major flaws.” — Eric Harrison, Las Vegas Sun

Score: 81%

What the Public Say
“In a film about the mob and hitmen, the violence is generally kept to a minimum. And when it is done, it’s either very quick, or it’s shown partially offscreen or via a reflection. […] Throughout the film, the violence is never glorified as something heroic. But instead, it’s something that’s done only when it is necessary, and the weight of it is always felt. During the first killing in the film, the first one that Michael sees through a crack in the wall, it’s done unexpectedly and the victim falls to the ground in slow motion. When Mike brings out his Tommy Gun, it’s not something he does with glee, it’s something very deliberate as he solemnly takes the pieces out of the briefcase to assemble it.” — Bubbawheat, Flights, Tights, & Movie Nights

Verdict

Road to Perdition feels like a film that didn’t get its due at the time, and has become almost something of a cult favourite since. Not “cult” in the traditional “gaudy fun B-movie” sense, but in that it has a dedicated following of people who realise its power. On the surface it’s a revenge thriller, replete with ’30s mob style and Tommy Gun massacres, but under that is a more emotive tale about masculinity as it pertains to the father/son dynamic. It’s all handled with sensitive artistry by director Sam Mendes, supported by first-rate technical merits across the board (the design and music are particularly noteworthy, in addition to the cinematography I already mentioned), and career-best-level performances from a strong cast. It lacks the sheer scale and scope to go toe-to-toe with The Godfathers as the definitive gangster movie, but as a smaller, personal tale, it’s exceptional.

#75 will be… Bayhem.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014)

2016 #93
Paul Goodwin | 105 mins | TV | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15

Future Shock! The Story of 2000ADTalking heads documentary about the galaxy’s greatest comic, 2000 AD, birthplace of Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, et al. Created to be somewhat subversive in a marketplace stuffed with safe children’s comics, it’s become a rare survivor of the medium on British newsstands.

Future Shock tells of the project’s birth, then the years when the US industry used the comic to scout talent, cherrypicking all its best creators. Today, it’s an influential institution that punches above its weight.

This is a pretty niche documentary, ultimately, but well-made and informative for those interested in comic book history and/or British culture.

4 out of 5

Mystery Men (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #65

They’re not your average superheroes.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: PG (uncut, 1999) | PG (cut on video, 2000)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 6th August 1999
UK Release: 26th December 1999
First Seen: DVD, c.2000

Stars
Ben Stiller (There’s Something About Mary, Night at the Museum)
Hank Azaria (Grosse Pointe Blank, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian)
William H. Macy (Fargo, Magnolia)
Geoffrey Rush (Shine, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Director
Kinka Usher

Screenwriter
Neil Cuthbert (Hocus Pocus, The Adventures of Pluto Nash)

Based on
The Mysterymen, a superhero team originally appearing in Flaming Carrot Comics, a comic book by Bob Burden.

The Story
When supervillain Casanova Frankenstein is released from prison, wannabe superhero Mr Furious overhears his plan to destroy reality. With the city’s genuine protector out of action, Mr Furious and his chums the Shoveler and the Blue Raja recruit a gang of other wannabes to defeat Frankenstein.

Our Heroes
They’re not your classic heroes, they’re the other guys: a ragtag gaggle of people with “powers”, like the Shoveler, who fights with a shovel, or Mr. Furious, who gets really angry, or the Blue Raja, who throws cutlery with great accuracy. These founding three are joined by Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), the Spleen (Paul Reubens), and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), and recruit the mysterious Sphinx (Wes Studi) to train them.

Our Villain
Criminally insane genius Casanova Frankenstein. Released from prison so that genuine superhero Captain Amazing had someone to fight, Frankenstein manages to capture his nemesis and plots to unleash the reality-bending Psycho-frakulator on the world — with only our inept heroes to stand in his way.

Best Supporting Character
Captain Amazing! Played by Greg Kinnear, the resident superhero of Champion City is too darn good at his job. With no crime left to fight, his corporate sponsors are pulling their funding — unless he can use his alter ego, influential billionaire Lance Hunt, to get one of his adversaries released…

Memorable Quote
The Shoveler: “If we had a billionaire like Lance Hunt as our benefactor…”
Mr. Furious: “That’s because Lance Hunt is Captain Amazing!”
The Shoveler: “Oh, here we go… Don’t start that again. Lance Hunt wears glasses, Captain Amazing doesn’t wear glasses.”
Mr. Furious: “He takes them off when he transforms.”
The Shoveler: “That doesn’t make any sense, he wouldn’t be able to see!”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“We are number one. All others are number two, or lower.” — The Sphinx

Memorable Scene
Mr Furious, the Blue Raja, and the Shoveler gather at the latter’s house (despite his wife’s protestations) to audition potential team members. Cue a stream of daft and/or outrageous ideas for superheroes, including the Reverse Psychologist, Squeegeeman, and PMS Avenger.

Making of
For some reason a rumour has persistently done the rounds that Mystery Men was actually directed by Tim Burton, and Kinka Usher was just an alias. Goodness knows why. Usher is in fact a commercials director, and went back to that world after his miserable experience here.

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Costumes)
1 Teen Choice Awards nomination (Choice Hissy Fit — it lost to Hanging Up. If you have any idea what Hanging Up is, your memory’s better than mine.)

What the Critics Said
“This slapstick and effects vehicle depends on poker-faced performances, production design that enhances the story partly because it doesn’t have to compensate for it, and a premise that provides seemingly inexhaustible opportunities for pratfalls and clever lines. The characters have been designed to make fun of themselves, disguising the craft of writer Neil Cuthbert and director Kinka Usher in getting us to laugh at them.” — Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader

Score: 60%

What the Public Say
“this movie is incredibly underrated because it parodies other Superhero movies unbelievably well, and no one had the chance to see that 15 years ago. […] It does what any good parody does, by taking the expected and turning it on its head. How do other Superhero groups form? The government decides it’s a good idea to have a Supergroup. Or they all meet in some intergalactic prison. Or they form to protect the world from the Legion of Doom. None of them hold a barbecue. None of them have a female team member who kicks ass, speaks her mind, angers everyone, and wears real clothing. The movie takes every expected and turns it on its ass […] I believe if it came out this summer, or even in the fall, it would have a much bigger and better reaction. People would watch it and instinctively compare it to the other Superhero super groups they’re familiar with. It would resonate better now, and fans would have a chance to really laugh at the ridiculousness of Superheroes.” — Maria Spiridigliozzi

Verdict

Was Mystery Men ahead of its time? Coming out in 1999, it was a year ahead of the superhero revival that X-Men kickstarted. Or maybe it was behind its time? Visually, it’s on a par with other ’90s superhero efforts like Batman Forever (and I don’t mean that derogatorily). Either way, it’s an undervalued comedy. The ensemble cast are all perfect — I didn’t even have room above to mention Tom Waits as mad inventor Dr A. Heller, Eddie Izzard as henchman Tony P., or Claire Forlani as the love interest. The material they have to deliver is both witty and suitably silly, and it incorporates superhero tropes and references without relying on them. In the sub-subgenre of superhero comedies, all others are number two, or lower.

#66 never happened… to the other fella.

The Past Month on TV #6

The other half’s love of tennis preempted a fair bit of TV watching this past month — but with an incredible Game of Thrones finale, and some stuff we’ve had time for since Wimbledon ended, there’s still plenty to talk about.

Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 9-10)
Game of Thrones - Battle of the BastardsGoT produced two of its greatest-ever episodes to conclude this season. Actually, that’s arguably an understatement: based on IMDb votes, if nothing else, Thrones produced two of the best episodes of TV ever made. But what do IMDb voters know? Well, more than some people give them credit for. Obviously everyone has different tastes, but for the genres Thrones operates in — and, in some instances, even transcending those — these are incredible hours of TV. Episode 9, Battle of the Bastards, is surely one of the most thoroughly-realised medieval-style battles ever depicted on screen: the scale is epic, the strategy is clear, the feeling of what it’s like to be in the thick of that environment is palpable. How it turns out may have been predictable, but something being predictable is not the same as it being bad — not everything needs to be a twist.

Then that finale, The Winds of Winter, was full of long-awaited decisions and reveals, and stunning for different reasons. Perhaps the biggest star across both episodes was director Miguel Sapochnik (who also helmed last year’s remarkable Hardhome) and the variety of directorial inventiveness he displayed — not only bringing all that realism to the aforementioned battle, but the classically-scored opening sequence/montage of the finale is incredible moviemaking. Presumably the only reason he’s not one of the directors for season seven is because he’s been tapped for bigger things.

Game of Thrones - The Winds of WinterAs for the forthcoming seventh season, it’s pretty clear we’re now entering the show’s endgame — though we’re going to have to wait even longer for it, with the next season set to have a later-than-normal premiere and the final end not coming until the season after that. It’s going to be an excruciating wait, but if they can maintain the form displayed throughout season six, it’ll be worth it.

Person of Interest (Season 5 Episodes 1-4)
Person of Interest season 5This is done and dusted Stateside now, but goodness knows when Channel 5 will choose to ‘officially’ air it over here, so I’m just getting on with it. I used to despise most of PoI’s arc plots and often wished it would stick to being just a pretty cool vigilante procedural; but at this point, it’s so invested in the epic Super-AI vs. Super-AI sci-fi storyline that any attempts at case-of-the-week episodes feel like a waste of time — especially when this truncated season is fast approaching the show’s final end. I really hope it comes to a proper conclusion, because there’s too much going on here to let it end forever on a cliffhanger. (Obviously that answer’s now out there, but naturally I’m avoiding spoilers.)

Preacher (Season 1 Episodes 4-5)
PreacherI’m a bit behind on this at the minute (the latest episode was the eighth), but, as of the halfway point, it’s definitely settled into its own skin — or maybe it was always settled there, but it’s taken time for viewers (or this viewer) to get past the expectations brought as a reader of the comic books. It’s still far from being a literally faithful adaptation, carving out its own path from some of the comic’s building blocks, which makes it an odd and hard-to-judge work if you have read any of the original. Still, it’s an entertaining series, and people involved keep talking about this season being something of a prequel to what we saw in the comic, so maybe the already-commissioned season two will feel more recognisable.

Also watched…
  • Cowboy Bebop Episodes 17-18 — as regular readers will know, I’m unconscionably bad at getting round to watching things, and here is a case in point: I started this anime series way back in 2013 and have been slowly making my way through it ever since. It’s really good, though.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 7 Episodes 15-20 — nearly done! I guess they heard the fan complaints by this point, because things definitely pick up towards the end.
  • Poldark Series 1 Episodes 5-8 — for a Sunday night BBC One drama, this is surprisingly, consistently glum — the heroes never seem to win. Still, looking forward to series two!

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Living and the DeadThis month, I have mostly been missing stuff I don’t even know I’m missing. By which I mean, I haven’t been paying enough attention to the TV schedules to know what I’ve missed. The BBC’s supernatural drama The Living and the Dead sounds kind of interesting; I know Mr Robot is back, not that I ever got round to season one; plus The Musketeers continues (though I hear it’s gone off the rails this season); and I keep hearing vaguely good things about Netflix’s new series, Stranger Things, like that it’s a cross between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, or The Goonies mixed with The X Files… which just reminds me that I need to get round to seeing The Goonies someday.

    Next month… it’s about time to get started on season four of The Most Underrated Show On Television™, The Americans. So. Excited.

  • Superman Returns (2006)

    2016 #117
    Bryan Singer | 154 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The same summer that Christopher Nolan revitalised the Dark Knight with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Batman Begins, one of the men who’d helped kickstart the current superhero resurgence, X-Men director Bryan Singer, attempted the same with DC Comics’ other major hero, Superman, only to be met with critical derision and commercial failure.

    Except that’s not actually what happened, despite what many have come to believe since. Superman Returns was actually pretty popular with critics: 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, enough to gain a Certified Fresh classification; and if you hone that to just top critics, it scores 68% versus Batman Begins’ 65%. Returns also outgrossed Begins that summer, taking $391 million worldwide to the Bat’s $374 million. These are all small margins, but even just being on the same level as each other demonstrates something about how perception and accepted narratives can distort what actually happened.

    Of course, even this is a slight distortion, because while Batman Begins cost $150 million, Superman Returns’ budget was $204 million — at the time, one of the most expensive movies ever made. Lump in the development costs of previous aborted Superman films (which Hollywood accounting does) and you get closer to $270 million — a figure that, even today, would put it in the top five most expensive movies ever made.

    All of that was ten years ago now, since when plans for a sequel have been abandoned, the character has had a reboot, and kicked off a shared universe with a Batman co-starring sequel, too. With all that behind us, is Superman Returns’ poor reputation actually deserved? I’ve never got round to seeing it, so had no horse in the “it’s misunderstood” / “it’s deservedly derided” race; but today is the 10th anniversary of the film’s UK release, so what better time to finally join the debate?

    The film begins in media res, with Clark Kent / Superman (Brandon Routh) returning home after five years away. The world has moved on: hot-shot reporter and Supes love interest Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a fiancé (James Marsden) and a young son, and worst of all has penned an award-winning article called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has escaped a jail sentence and is secretly setting about a nefarious plan…

    Sitting down to Superman Returns cold, it feels like you’re watching a sequel — and in many respects, that’s what it is. Singer loves the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, quite rightly, and when offered the chance to make a new movie with the character essentially set out to make Superman III. Yes, Superman III already exists — and Superman IV, too — but no one likes them, so Singer’s decision to just completely ignore them wasn’t so daft. What was daft was making a sequel to a 26-year-old movie and assuming that the audience would be instantly familiar with the whole setup. Most cinemagoers won’t have done their homework and re-watched the older films before heading to the movies (because why would they?), so no wonder people felt confused and disappointed by what they were seeing. People nowadays complain about too many reboots and retellings of origin stories, often for good reason, but (a) sometimes a new telling is the right way to go, and (b) if you’re going to pick up a character mid-life, you still need to treat it as a new and standalone story if its immediate predecessor was released decades ago.

    Really, Returns is one massive tribute to those ’70s and ’80s Superman films. Brandon Routh is essentially stuck doing a Christopher Reeve impression, both as bumbling Clark Kent and the Big Blue Boy Scout. Kevin Spacey is similarly in Gene Hackman mode, though as the film goes on he seems to increasingly relish the absurdity of what they’re doing. Old footage of Marlon Brando is resurrected to play Supes’ dad; the aesthetic is nostalgic, with a bright red-and-blue costume, classically-inspired sets, and sepia-tinged cinematography; there’s a focus on drama, with a sparing use of action sequences (at least until the climax); even the opening titles emulate the iconic whooshing blue names of the 1978 film. Maybe watched as part of a series with the earlier films it works as an homage or addendum, but as a work in its own right, viewed in isolation, it feels… misjudged.

    That’s not helped by some aspects simply not working. I have nothing against Kate Bosworth, but she’s horribly miscast as Lois; so wrong it’s even hard to pin down exactly why it doesn’t work. The pace is wonky, with a long, slow start before a surfeit of action sequences blow in, at least one of them a complete aside from anything that’s going on, presumably just to gather some cool shots for the trailer (the bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye, for example). If the movie had begun with the airplane rescue scene — which is actually a great sequence, quite possibly the best Superman-related action scene ever filmed — perhaps it would’ve earnt the time to indulge in the Reeve-related posturing that actually takes up the first half-hour-or-so. I can imagine an edit of the movie that begins on that plane: just a bunch of journalists observing the press demonstration of the new shuttle technology, when suddenly, inexplicably, it fails — they’re all going to die — then Superman turns up completely out of nowhere and saves them. Then you have the credits, which are immediately followed by Lex’s whole journey to the Fortress of Solitude, and only then do you get in to the stuff with Superman only having just returned, wondering what his places is now, and so on. Maybe lose the scene of him basically stalking Lois’ new family, though.

    You can see what Singer was going for with Superman Returns — a respectful, lightly modernised homage to some classic, beloved movies — but the benefit of hindsight makes it clear that really wasn’t a good idea. That said, it could’ve worked. If they’d put a little more effort into making it work as a semi-reboot rather than as a straight-up continuation, which is how it comes across, then maybe it would’ve been friendlier to newcomers. There are some excellent things in here — the tone mixes drama, humour, and life-or-death stakes in a way some blockbusters are losing sight of; Lex’s scheme is unusual and therefore interesting; the action scenes are thrilling; attempting to bring some character to the characters, rather than merely using them as pawns in those action sequences, almost lends the film additional depth — and I think it would’ve been a lot better liked if people felt they could get on board with it; if it wasn’t trying so hard to be something it’s not, which is a Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve made in 1983. For all Man of Steel’s faults, at least it tried to reintroduce the character, rather than pick up where it left off.

    The final thing this all makes me think of is the forthcoming Marvel Spidey movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming. One wonders if Sony were inspired by Superman Returns’ perceived failure when they chose to reboot Spidey in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, rather than make Spider-Man 4 with a new cast and crew. That reboot decision was not popular, to say the least, with audiences thinking ten years (since the ‘first’ Spider-Man movie) was too little time to warrant retelling a familiar story. With that universe abandoned after an even-less-popular sequel, the next Spider-Man movie has to start again — but they’ve learnt their lesson and aren’t retelling the origin, instead diving in with Spider-Man already established as a hero. In media res again, then, but also (one hopes) with an awareness that this is to be the first movie in a series, not pretend to be the third or fourth. Another, better lesson learnt from Superman Returns, perhaps? Wouldn’t it be nice if Hollywood could learn from its mistakes more often…

    3 out of 5

    Hercules: Extended Cut (2014)

    2016 #10
    Brett Ratner | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

    The answer to the question, “Hey, remember Brett Ratner? Whatever happened to him?”,* Hercules stars Dwayne Johnson in full The Rock mode as the eponymous demigod. In this comic book adaptation, we’re introduced to Hercules at a point in his life after the famous labours but before he’d passed into legend, when he’s just a mercenary… or maybe he’s always just been a mercenary, and the legends are a tall tale to help him and his band of warriors sell their wares. Their latest mission is to defend a kingdom from a vicious warlord, but all may not be as it seems…

    A belated entry into the swords-and-sandals-and-epic-CG-action subgenre that Gladiator started, and which begot the likes of Troy and 300 a decade or more ago, Hercules is much closer to the latter than the former pair. It’s cheesy as heck, but passably exciting when the action kicks in, and also frequently funny (intentionally so, I should add), making it decently entertaining in a brain-off lazy-weekend-evening kind of way.

    Johnson has the physique for Hercules, obviously, but the role as written doesn’t play to his real talents, which lie at the more comedic or knowing end of the action spectrum. It’s not his fault the part is the boring heroic lead and everyone else gets to have all the fun, though. Quality Brits like John Hurt, Ian McShane, Peter Mullan, and Rufus Sewell add not so much class as skill, knowing just how much to ham it up to sell their characters while maintaining the light-ish tone. Elsewhere, warrioress Ingrid Bolsø Berdal is the spitting image of (a younger) Nicole Kidman.

    This extended cut wasn’t included on the UK Blu-ray, so no BBFC rating (it’s about a 15), but it is available on Netflix over here (it’s not listed as the extended cut, but it is). It’s no great shakes, though, adding only a couple of minutes. That’s made up of three short scenes, another half-a-dozen additional lines of dialogue, a couple of extra seconds of action, and some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it CG blood (full details here). An entire subplot about a traitorous scout was excised from the theatrical cut with the deletion of just three lines — a wise cut because, as the simplicity of its removal might suggest, it’s not so much half-arsed as sixteenth-arsed.

    Hercules is not quite good enough to earn 4 stars, but if you’re in the mood for a fantasy-ish swords-and-sandals adventure which doesn’t offer anything challenging but is moderately entertaining and doesn’t outstay its welcome, you could do much worse.

    3 out of 5

    * You may recall that there were two competing Hercules movies released in 2014. The other, even-more-forgotten one is the answer to the question, “Hey, remember Renny Harlin? Whatever happened to him?” ^

    The Past Month on TV #5

    Geek-friendly adaptations aplenty in this month’s (still spoiler-free) small-screen overview.

    Arrow (Season 4 Episodes 19-23)
    The Flash (Season 2 Episodes 20-23)
    DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (Season 1 Episodes 10-14)

    Legends of TomorrowFinally done with most of these (still need to find time for the last two Legends of Tomorrows). One shouldn’t have that attitude to something one is choosing to watch, should one? I have a certain loyalty to Arrow, because they did a good job for seasons one and two, even if it’s waxed and waned since; but I’ve never really got on board with the adulation The Flash has received, and Legends of Tomorrow is mediocre to poor with regularity… though now and then they all exhibit flashes of worthwhileness. I rarely make the conscious choice to give up on a series (do it all the time by accident, though), but I’d consider abandoning a couple of these before the start of their next seasons… were it not for the ‘promise’ that they’re all about to be completely interconnected, at least for one almighty four-way crossover (with moving-to-the-same-network Supergirl).

    Y’know, I suspect this is why the interconnectedness and big crossovers in comic books works to boost sales, until it doesn’t and things crash and burn: because people who are invested feel compelled to buy the whole damn lot, but when they’ve had enough and want out, you can’t just reduce what you buy — it’s become all or nothing. So crossovers give you the short-term effects of everyone buying more than normal, but in the long run it just drives sales down. I don’t know what the current state of comic book sales figures is, but that certainly seemed to be the road they were on last time I looked. Maybe that’s where these TV series will end up, too — heck, maybe even the Marvel movies will end up there eventually — but those screen universes may still just be getting started, if you take the long-term view, so the resultant fall in popularity could be a ways off yet…

    Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 5-8)
    Game of Thrones - The DoorFirst up: The Door, surely one of Thrones’ best-ever episodes. That ending rather overshadows everything else (because wow, in so many ways), but before that there was Sansa being badass, proper development of Arya’s storyline, the hilarious play-within-a-play, a marvellous scene between Dany and Jorah, and a great moment for Varys, too. The week after’s Blood of My Blood was more about setting things up the second half of the season, which is an important role to fulfil but less dramatic in itself. A couple of surprise returns, though, including a big reveal for book readers (maybe).

    There was definitely a confirmation for book readers in The Broken Man, amid the return of several well-liked characters (three, by my count). Game of Thrones - The Broken ManSometimes it’s hard to separate what one might count as story development versus mere place-setting in Thrones, but at its best they can be one and the same, and episode seven managed that. Finally for now, No One did actually bring some storylines to a head, including some very long-awaited developments, particularly in Braavos. Throw in an equally-long-awaited reunion and a couple more unexpected returns, and you have a pretty satisfying episode.

    Next time: fiiiiight!

    Preacher (Season 1 Episodes 1-3)
    PreacherSam Catlin of Breaking Bad and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg of… all those films Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg have made (you know the ones) are the lucky group to finally bring this perpetual Development Hell resident to a screen, after multiple aborted attempts at movies or HBO TV series (it’s finally wound up being made by AMC, carried by Amazon Prime on this side of the pond). For thems that don’t know, it’s based on an irreverent and/or blasphemous comic book from the ’90s by Brits Steve Dillon and Garth Ennis, concerning the adventures of Texas preacher Jesse Custer who (trying not to spoil too much) acquires the power to order people to do things, with which they have no choice but to comply. This is a very loose adaptation, throwing out most of the comic’s actual plotting in favour of the broad strokes of the concept, including the budget-saving decision to base the characters in a single small town, and shaving out some of the equally-expensive otherworldly concepts. At least for now — I wonder if they’re hoping for a Game of Thrones trajectory, whereby increasing popularity leads to increasing budgets. I guess we’ll see. On the bright side, the show has also inherited some of the books’ batshit insanity, lending it an air of unpredictable craziness. It’s certainly not the best thing on TV right now, but it may just be the wildest, and there’s promise of room to grow.

    Also watched…
  • Gilmore Girls Season 7 Episodes 8-14 — 8 to go. Still no (confirmed) date for Netflix’s revival, though it does now have a name.
  • Upstart Crow Series 1 Episodes 3-5 — glad to hear this has been recommissioned for a second run.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The MusketeersThis month, I have mostly been missing anything I watch with my other half. It’s prime tennis season — eight weeks that starts with Geneva and flows through the French Open, Stuttgart, Nottingham, Birmingham, Queen’s, Eastbourne, and ends with the crowning jewel of all tennisdom, Wimbledon; all with near wall-to-wall coverage thanks to Eurosport, ITV4, and the BBC. It largely takes over the time we normally spend watching stuff together, so no room yet for the final seasons of Wallander or The Musketeers (not that we’ve watched season two yet, actually — oops), nor the just-finished fourth season of The Most Underrated Show On Television™, The Americans. Apparently it ended with “the Best Episode of TV So Far This Year”, according to one review’s headline (which obviously I can’t read because spoilers). Maybe in July.

    Next month… Game of Thrones reaches the ⅘-way point (if reports/rumours about its future are to be believed), as season six concludes.

  • X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

    2016 #98
    Bryan Singer | 144 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English, German, Arabic, Polish & Ancient Egyptian | 12A / PG-13

    This review contains major spoilers.

    Despite fathering the modern superhero movie genre, the X-Men series always seems to punch under its weight at the box office (a point the recent Deadpool Honest Trailer makes succinctly, if blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-ly). They’re always movies of massive anticipation for me, though, because it’s a franchise I have particular fondness for. The ’90s animated series was a ‘key text’ of my childhood, and the tie-in magazine was the first comic book I consciously bought (as opposed to all the Ghostbusters / ThunderCats / Thunderbirds / etc ones I had when I was wee). The first X-Men movie was the first movie I bothered to see twice at the cinema, and remains one of only a handful to have provoked that added expense from me. So even in a summer full to bursting with ensemble superhero (and supervillain) dramatics, a new X-Men movie is easily one of my most anticipated.

    Following on from the excellent double bill of First Class and Days of Future Past, Age of Apocalypse picks up in the 1980s. It’s a decade on from Magneto (Michael Fassbender) almost killing the President — and, in the process, revealing the existence of mutants to the world. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is hailed as a hero for stopping him, so travels the world incognito, helping other mutants. Xavier (James McAvoy) has properly established his School for Gifted Youngsters (aka Mutants), with Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) as a teacher. And Magneto is living under an assumed name in Poland, a quiet domestic life complete with wife and daughter. When CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, returning after sitting out Days of Future Past) accidentally helps a cult resurrect the centuries-dead mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who believes he’s a god, it sets in motion a chain of events that will bring our disparate compatriots back together — and possibly bring about the end of the world.

    That’s only the half of it, though. This is an X-Men movie, which not only means there’s an ensemble cast, but that it’s dedicated to constantly adding new members to it. This time around, we’re re-introduced to the ‘original’ team as teenagers: Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) is the viewer’s “way in” to Xavier’s school after he suddenly starts shooting laser beams from his eyes; there he meets Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a powerful telepath the other students are scared of because sometimes her dreams shake the school at night; Mystique rescues blue-skinned German teleporter Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a cage fight in Berlin, where he was up against Angel (Ben Hardy), who becomes one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen, alongside weather controlling street kid Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who can create blades of energy with her hands. And there’s also Jubilee (Lana Condor), who has bugger all to do. Jubilee was a major character in the animated series, and the filmmakers seem obsessed with getting her into the movies (she had cameos in the first trilogy) without ever actually giving her anything to do.

    With so many characters to deal with, the film becomes a little overburdened with subplots. It’s trying to be a trilogy-former for the remnants of the First Class cast, resolving the fractured relationship between Charles, Erik, and Raven before those three actors fulfil their contracts and decide they don’t want to do a fourth movie; but it’s also trying to introduce the new-old gang of X-Men, and establish their characters to head-up future movies; and it also has to deal with establishing its villain and his plans. It’s a big ask, and while director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg do manage to keep all the plates spinning and achieve something with most of them — helped no end by actors of McAvoy and Fassbender’s quality being able to flesh out their underwritten parts — some plot threads do feel perfunctory, their events and resolutions a bit skin-deep.

    It doesn’t help that they feel the need to shoehorn a Wolverine cameo in there, an underwhelming action sequence that becomes a massive aside from the main storyline. It feels like setup for something more next time, but Hugh Jackman has stated the next Wolverine solo film will be his last outing as the character, so presumably it isn’t. That said, the post-credits scene, showing some Essex Corp suits collecting Weapon X blood, suggests a possibility for how they’ll recast Jackman without Logan magically getting a new face. For those not in the know, Essex Corp is the company of villain Nathaniel Essex, aka Mr Sinister, a cloner who created female Wolverine clone X-23. Naturally commenters are predicting she might turn up in the next X-film, which is not illogical, but I wonder if Sinister might instead use Wolverine’s blood to create a new, younger Wolverine — played by a new, younger actor, of course. We’ll see.

    The one thing the Wolverine sequence does do is place him broadly in the right place (i.e. freed from the Weapon X programme) to link back up with the first X-Men movie. That’s a connection Singer also attempts to make elsewhere (Charles and Erik’s final dialogue is very similar to their final exchange in the first X-Men), even though we’re now in a new timeline that doesn’t perfectly marry up to the first three movies. Indeed, depending how you cut it, Apocalypse can be seen as a second, third, fourth, sixth, or ninth X-Men movie. Yes, really. It’s the second for director Bryan Singer since he took back the reins with Days of Future Past; it’s the third in a prequel trilogy that can began with First Class; it’s Singer’s fourth X-film overall; overall, it’s the the sixth in the X-Men series; and it’s the ninth movie in the X-Men universe (which also encompasses two Wolverine spin-offs and this year’s primary comic book movie success story, Deadpool). Some of these have greater relevance than others, but they all inform the film in one way or another. For example, it’s the second second-Singer movie to introduce Nightcrawler and not know quite what to do with him outside of action sequences.

    Another element lost in the mix is the real-world resonance contained in the best X-films. There’s a lot of to be said for the spectacle that’s present in all the movies, but Days of Future Past (for the most recent example) anchored it in the human conflicts between the heroes, and in their relation to the rest of the world. Apocalypse nods in that direction, with Mystique invoking Magneto’s metaphorical family to get him to stop destroying the world, but it’s not as well integrated, not as effective as previous outings. Said destruction is on a massive scale, but it’s too massive — the film doesn’t sell it; it’s just another city being destroyed somehow, emotionless computer-generated effects that are overfamiliar in these megablockbusters now (and not helped when you’ve seen similar sights two or three times right before the film in trailers for the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 and Independence Day 2).

    Elsewhere, sacrificial character deaths have little weight — one of the main ones is Havok (Lucas Till), whose presence in the movie I haven’t even felt the need to mention up to this point. There’s a new Quicksilver sequence, but it feels like an attempt to recreate the last film’s magic. It’s a fun scene, no doubt, and it does have some new ideas within it, but it’s primarily a variation on a theme and feels shoehorned in to the movie, rather than an organic or wholly original element. Immediately before this, a trip to the mall for a single joke (the Return of the Jedi one you’ll have heard about if you’ve read any other review) screams “deleted scenes!”, even without having seen Sophie Turner tweet a Dazzler-referencing photo. Will we be seeing X-Men: Apocalypse – The Dazzler Cut on Blu-ray this time next year? Well, I doubt it’ll actually be named that (more’s the pity), but maybe we will. I’d certainly expect a chunky selection of deleted scenes (some of which have already been teased).

    In fact, the film as a whole feels a draft or two away from being truly ready. Some of the dialogue clunks hard, especially when characters speak in exposition to one another. The plot needs streamlining and focusing, especially early on, and some events need appropriate weight added to them. Other things just need smoothing out — that trip to the mall happens Just Because, with no real sense of why the characters are doing it (other than some handwaving dialogue about needing to get out of the school for a change), and, as I said, in the final cut only leads to one single joke. Yet for all that, some things do work beautifully: Storm’s hero-worship of Mystique comes up almost in passing early in the film, establishing/emphasising Mystique’s place in the mutant world now; but then it becomes a key point in the climax without the need for any explanatory dialogue, as Storm wordlessly realises that her hero is fighting on the other side. It is, in a way, the best bit of the movie.

    The other very best bit is a great title sequence, which almost makes me wish I’d seen the film in 3D. It’s best seen rather than described, but do pay attention because it swirls a lot of detail into a very short space of time. It also uses the title theme that Singer’s regular composer John Ottman wrote for X2, which Singer revived for Days of Future Past (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t used in The Last Stand or First Class, to their shame), and seems intent on making the series’ regular main theme. He’ll hear no objection from me, because I think it’s a fantastic piece, almost as good as the classic one from the ’90s animated series (see: the animated series’ Honest Trailer).

    Despite being a negative nelly for much of this review (like so many others, which has given it a lowly 47% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is ridiculous), I actually enjoyed Apocalypse a great deal; it’s just that these critical observations flow forth when you think about and analyse it afterwards. In spite of them, I think the film does enough right to be an entertaining action-adventure sci-fi blockbuster. It’s not the epitome of the X-franchise — there are at least four movies in the franchise better than it, in my estimation — but I’d still argue it’s closer to those better films (all of which I’d number among my favourite movies, incidentally) than it is to the doldrums of The Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The X-Men movies will continue (a brand-new young cast and a post-credits tease confirm that much), and a minor blip in quality should do nothing to derail that train.

    4 out of 5

    X-Men: Apocalypse is released in the US and Canada today, and is still playing everywhere else that it’s still playing.

    300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

    2016 #78
    Noam Murro | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Taking place before, during, and after the events of Zack Snyder’s surprise-hit graphic novel adaptation 300, belated follow-up Rise of an Empire tells the wider story of what was going on in the war between Greece and Persia. In particular, it follows Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he commands a series of sea battles against the Persian navy, led by Artemisia (Eva Green).

    300 was known from the off as a case of style over substance, both in terms of its visuals (the ultra-heightened colour palette at a time when extreme digital grading still felt new; the slow-mo/fast-mo/etc editing) and its storytelling (taking an historical event and ramping it up to the level of legend; dialogue more concerned with being readily quotable than sounding plausible). But it committed so thoroughly to that methodology that it kind of worked, in its own ridiculous way. It helped that, as I said, it was all quite new — 300 was a visual revelation back in 2007, and that was enough. Now, plenty of films look like that, leaving 300 2 in search of a hook. It doesn’t find one.

    It doesn’t help that the CGI this time is terrible, making the whole thing look like a computer game with real people occasionally dropped in. It’s not just the low quality of the graphics (calling them “effects” or “visuals” seems generous), but the way the camera moves and frames things. And the gore is gorno-level outrageous. In one shot early in the film, we see a horse rise up in fright, slow motion emphasising how its whole body is lifting into the air on its hind legs, its front hoof flailing, its eyes wild… before it comes crashing down, its hoof smashing into a grounded man’s head, the not-even-vaguely-plausible CGI blood exploding everywhere — in slow motion, of course.

    It’s also terribly obvious that it was shot for 3D. I’m not normally one to criticise a film for that — I think when some critics know a film is being released in 3D they see that in its shot choices, even if they’re perfectly valid choices for 2D. But Rise of an Empire screams that it was made for 3D from the start, with all manner of things thrust towards the camera, usually in slow motion, and the constant explosions of blood (to call them squirts or sprays implies a more liquid-like quality than they actually possess) which go nowhere else but camerawards. Presumably the only reason it’s not an 18 for violence is because it’s all so bloody silly.

    There is no point discussing or analysing any other aspects of the film. In every respect — from the clunky structure, to the leaden dialogue, to the poor performances, to the cheap visuals, to the fake CGI — this doesn’t feel like the $110 million blockbuster it is, but like a direct-to-Syfy TV movie.

    1 out of 5

    300: Rise of an Empire is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK as of yesterday.

    It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.