Eddie the Eagle (2016)

2017 #116
Dexter Fletcher | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Germany & USA / English, German & Norwegian | PG / PG-13

Eddie the Eagle

The unlikely hero of the 1988 Winter Olympics — ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards — gets the Cool Runnings treatment in this comedy-drama. I make the Cool Runnings connection because, firstly, they’re both about unlikely competitors in the Winter Olympics (from the same year, in fact — what was in the water in ’88?!); and, secondly, because in their transition to the big screen they were both heavily fictionalised.

The story, at least as it goes in the film, sees young Eddie (played as an adult by Kingsman‘s Taron Egerton) keen to participate in any Olympic sport, eventually settling on ski jumping because no Brit has participated in it for six decades. Disavowed by the British officials, he heads off to Germany to train himself. Trials and tribulations ensue that are by turns hilarious and heartwarming, but which eventually see him qualify for the 1988 Olympics — that’s not a spoiler, it’s why he’s famous!

Helping Eddie along his way is Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up former US ski jumper who begrudgingly becomes Eddie’s coach, transforming the Brit from a no-hoper to someone who’s… not entirely bad. This is probably the film’s biggest whopper, because Peary didn’t even exist. It’s kind of brazen to make your co-lead and major subplot 100% fictional in a ‘true story’ film, isn’t it?

The Eagle has landed

But, hey, this isn’t a documentary — it’s a feel-good underdog story, about having a can-do attitude and dedication to your dreams in the face of adversity. It’s also about how it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts, in a very literal sense. That probably makes the film sound more twee than it is, but it’s not a grittily realistic take either — it’s a colourful, light, entertainment-minded film. It’s a good pick for Egerton too, getting to stretch different performance muscles than in Kingsman as our naïvely optimistic hero. Jackman makes for an easygoing co-star, getting to mix his Wolverine loner gruffness with a dash of his chat-show charm.

Eddie the Eagle is a thoroughly charming little film. Even if its tone and overall narrative may be familiar, it navigates them with a light touch and consistent good humour that — much like the eponymous Olympian — wins you over, even if it’s in spite of yourself.

4 out of 5

The 2018 Winter Olympics officially commence tomorrow, though some events have already started — including, appropriately enough, ski jumping.

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Logan (2017)

2017 #30
James Mangold | 137 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

This review contains major spoilers.

Logan

Little Miss Sunshine meets Hell or High Water via Midnight Special, with more superpowers and (probably) fewer Oscar nominations, in the film some people are calling the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight.

In the not-so-distant future, the man once known as Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman), is living / hiding on the US-Mexico border, his once formidable powers diminished by age. He works as a limo driver to afford meds for an ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose psychic powers have become dangerous as his brain falters with age. When a woman recognises Logan and asks for his help, the disillusioned former X-Man fobs her off. But soon dark forces and a mysterious girl (Dafne Keen), not to mention his innate moral code, will force his claw-wielding hand…

While Marvel Studios harp on about how they mix other genres into their superhero movies, with such-and-such a film being superheroes-cum-political-thriller, or this-and-that film being superheroes-cum-heist-movie, and so on, everything they produce is really merely colouring within the lines of the superhero picture, they’re just using different crayons to do it. Logan not only uses different crayons, but it’s colouring a whole new picture, too. It’s not the first superhero movie to operate at a remove from the standard big-budget tropes of the genre, but it is perhaps the first from a major franchise to dare to step so far outside the norm. As I intimated at the start, the feel of the piece is more indie neo-Western road movie than CGI-driven superhero spectacular, though to imply it stints on expensive action thrills would be disingenuous. It still cost $97 million, after all, and so works at ways to retain the favour of a blockbuster-seeking crowd. Nonetheless, the overall impression is of a refreshing change for the subgenre, with a more distinctive feel than any of those aforementioned Marvel movies.

Wolverine vs Robotic Hand Man

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, sadly. Functionally speaking, Logan barely has a villain. There are some ill-intentioned and dangerous people after X-23, so our heroes have to run away from them — that’s all the role they have to play. Heading up the hunt is Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a henchman figure who’s de facto lead villain purely because he gets the most screen time. Unfortunately, he has more personality in his defining attribute, a CGI robotic arm, than in the rest of his characterisation combined. The theoretical Big Bad is Dr Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), an evil scientist who we’re told developed some kind of virus that all but wiped out mutantkind, but now seems incapable of tracking down a group of preteens. He’s not on screen enough to make any kind of meaningful impression. On the bright side, on my “how badly miscast is Richard E. Grant” scale (which ranges from “very badly” to “not that bad, I suppose”) this errs towards the positive end, precisely because of that lack of screen time. Lastly there’s younger, fitter Wolverine clone X-24 (also Jackman), who’s at least intentionally devoid of personality — he’s been bred without it so he’ll be the perfect biddable killing machine. Obviously he’s ripe for some sort of thematic commentary — on ageing; on morality; on heroism; on, frankly, anything — but it never comes.

With the villainous side of the equation so unbalanced, we’re left primarily with our heroes. Fortunately, they do take up the slack, mainly through a pair of fantastic performances from Jackman and Stewart. Wolverine is undoubtedly the defining role of Jackman’s career, a part he’s played on and off for 17 years across seven movies (as a lead, plus a couple more cameos). Here he’s the most human he’s ever been. In many ways Logan was always one of the most relatable X-Men, one of our points of entry into their world and taking the piss out of them and the situation when it was called for. He was still primarily a likeable character in a fantastical world though, whereas here he feels more like a real person, struggling with the physical detriments of ageing and (less explicitly) the metaphysical quandaries of what it was all for. As he puts his time with the character to bed, Jackman gets to deliver his most nuanced and affecting turn in the role. Neatly, it mirrors where it all began for this version of the character: protecting a young mutant girl struggling to come to terms with her dangerous powers in a world that’s out to get her.

Professor X-piring

Stewart is every bit as good as a man defined by his mental prowess whose mind is failing. Originally cast to play a statesman-like role in the series, here Stewart gets to have a bit more fun, to be a bit more cheeky, but also to tap into a bit more depth of emotion, as Charles struggles with whatever it was he did to land him in hiding in Mexico (I think there was some dialogue that explained it but, frankly, I missed it in the mumbly sound mix. I’ll catch that on Blu-ray, then).

Of course, they both die. Normally that’d be shocking in a major studio blockbuster, but it’s quite clear Logan is playing by different rules, and in those rules the old good guys die. Heck, nearly everyone dies, but the only deaths that matter are Charles’ and Logan’s. What’s at least a bit interesting is how they die. For Professor X, it’s almost ignominious, — in a bed, not even his own, stabbed by X-24 for virtually no reason, then later fading away in the back of a truck. It’s not a grand heroic self-sacrifice while trying to save the world, the kind of death you’d expect for a character of his stature (and more or less the kind he got in The Last Stand, the first time they killed him off). It’s a great life come to a meaningless end. Well, Logan’s that kind of movie — it has no reverence for such things, just as life itself does not. Conversely, the death of Wolverine / Logan / James Howlett (who is he, in the end?) is a sacrifice, the selfish man of the movie’s opening giving himself up to save some kids; or, in grander terms, to save the future. Ah, but he was never really selfish, was he? It was an act. An affection brought by the hard years. He was always a good guy at heart. Always an X-Man, as the neat final shot emphasises.

Wolverine: The Last Stand

So there is some thematic meat to tuck into here, even with the apparent dead-end (pun not intended) of the X-24 subplot. Couple that with the many uncommon-to-the-genre plot and tonal points and you have a movie that does merit consideration as one of the finer superhero films. However, the perception some espouse of this being brave or bold moviemaking is not inherent to the film. If this were an original story starring new characters, especially if they didn’t have superpowers, it wouldn’t make it a bad film, but nor would it be perceived as being so original or revolutionary. What is uncommon or remarkable is making that kind of movie with a well-known character, and in particular one who’s familiar from leading CGI-fuelled PG-13 summer spectacles.

Is that alone enough to confer greatness? Logan’s consistency of style and tone render it easily the best Wolvie solo movie (as much as I liked The Wolverine on the whole, its climax was horrible), but for this X-fan it’s not enough to usurp the top-draw traditional superheroics to be found in the three or four genre classics produced by the main series. Perhaps time and re-viewing will increase Logan in my estimation, however, because it is a very strong film indeed.

4 out of 5

X-Men (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #98

Trust a few.
Fear the rest.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 104 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 13th July 2000 (Australia)
US Release: 14th July 2000
UK Release: 18th August 2000
First Seen: cinema, 2000

Stars
Hugh Jackman (Oklahoma!, Les Misérables)
Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: First Contact, Green Room)
Ian McKellen (Richard III, The Lord of the Rings)
Anna Paquin (The Piano, Margaret)
Famke Janssen (GoldenEye, Taken 2)
James Marsden (Gossip, The Box)
Halle Berry (B*A*P*S*, Catwoman)

Director
Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns)

Screenwriter
David Hayter (The Scorpion King, Watchmen)

Story by
Tom DeSanto (producer of Apt Pupil & Transformers)
Bryan Singer (Public Access, Superman Returns)

Based on
The X-Men, Marvel comic book superheroes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; and in particular Wolverine, a comic book superhero created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, and John Romita, Sr.

The Story
In a near future where some humans have mutated to have extraordinary powers, and consequently are hated and feared by the general population, a runaway teen comes under the protection of a mysterious stranger. As a radical leader hunts them for his world-changing scheme, they encounter a school for mutants — and the superpowered team who teach there.

Our Heroes
The X-Men, a team of mutants — humans who have evolved superpowers — organised by Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath. There’s team leader Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, who shoots force beams from his eyes; Dr. Jean Grey, potentially an even more powerful telepath than Professor X, who can also move things with her mind; Ororo Monroe, aka Storm, who can control the weather. We’re led into their world by teen runaway Marie, aka Rogue, who can absorb people’s energy, and her reluctant protector, Logan, aka Wolverine, who has metal claws in his hands, can heal really fast, and can’t remember most of his past.

Our Villain
Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, who can manipulate metal. A one-time friend of Xavier’s, they parted ways over his beliefs that mutants and humans couldn’t coexist, which leads him to violently oppose mutant oppression.

Best Supporting Character
Mystique, one of Magneto’s gang, who runs around naked — but that’s because her skin’s blue and bumpy and stuff, so it’s OK. She can shape shift into the form of anyone she’s made contact with, which is very useful for her and very tricky for our heroes.

Memorable Quote
Magneto: “Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night, the feeling that one day they will pass that foolish law, or one just like it, and come for you and your children?”
Xavier: “It does indeed.”
Magneto: “What do you do, when you wake up to that?”
Xavier: “I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school looking for trouble.”

Memorable Scene
As Magneto, Sabretooth and Toad exit a train station with a kidnapped Rogue, they’re greeted by a sea of policemen. With his powers, Magneto takes all their guns and turns them on their owners. Then Sabretooth grabs Magneto’s throat — he’s being mind-controlled by Xavier. Magneto fires all the weaponry in his control, but stops the bullets just short of their targets — unless Xavier lets him go…

Truly Special Effect
Superheroes really needed the modern era of CGI to make them possible — and, as with everything else, X-Men led the way. Probably the most memorable are Mystique’s skin-changing transformations, which involved 8,000 scales animated in different directions.

Making of
Stanley Kubrick is responsible for the casting of Wolverine. No, really. Well, sort of. Here’s how it goes: Kubrick’s famous perfectionism meant the filming of Eyes Wide Shut overran; that meant star Tom Cruise had to delay his next project, Mission: Impossible II; that sequel finishing later than scheduled meant Dougray Scott — who played the lead villain in M:I-2 and was originally cast as Wolverine — had to drop out of X-Men, which was already on an insanely tight schedule to make its release date. Hugh Jackman was cast on the recommendation of his friend Russell Crowe, who had been sought for the role, and only joined the production several weeks into filming. Apparently if you look closely you can see Jackman’s physique change in various scenes because he was working out extensively while filming continued.

Previously on…
Although this is the first X-movie, I’m sure the enduring popularity of the 1992-1997 animated series can’t’ve hurt the film’s success.

Next time…
In an immediate sense, X2. After that, multiple direct sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. Plus the entire current multitude of comic book movies owe their existence to this film being (a) good, and (b) a hit. Whether that’s a mark for or against X-Men is up to you.

Awards
6 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actor (Hugh Jackman), Supporting Actress (Rebecca Romijn), Director, Writing, Costumes)
4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Patrick Stewart), Younger Actor (Anna Paquin), Make-Up, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
1 World Stunt Award nomination (Best Speciality Stunt for “Wolverine blown out of truck”)

What the Critics Said
“After trying for decades, Marvel Comics finally may gain the kind of pop-cultural cachet that only comes from a major leap into movies. That movie is X-Men, a fully realized translation of comics’ adolescent power fantasies to adult-level, big-screen entertainment. It’s a film X-Men fans can embrace and action fans in general can appreciate. It has emotion and a solid story to go with its mayhem, and the comics’ central themes aren’t betrayed. Director Bryan Singer gets bang for his buck. At $75 million, X-Men was a modest and rushed shoot for an action showcase, yet its computer generated imaging effects are handsome, and it gleams with polished production design.” — Bruce Westbrook, Houston Chronicle

Score: 81%

What the Public Say
“this is a superhero movie with ideas, fully aware of the potential social commentary inherent in its source material. It paints simplistically, in broad strokes, but elegantly. It feels small-scale but full-bodied, and it takes storytelling risks. I mean, the damn thing opens on a concentration camp. The main characters being mutants, discriminated against by ‘normal’ people, gives the screenplay the opportunity to use this as a catchall allegory. Any feared or shunned group of people can find familiar themes at work in the world of the film. […] reflecting on the first X-Men solidifies its status as not just a prelude of better things to come, but as quite a strong movie in its own right. After seeing the franchise move the Golden Gate Bridge, travel decades in time, and resurrect an Egyptian god, it’s refreshing to rewind to this one humble tale of ‘the not too distant future’. The 2000 film has a great lo-fi charm to it, while at the same time being lent gravitas by McKellen and Stewart’s war of wills. It holds up not just as a curiosity, but also as a well-told story of mutants and morals.” — Paul Stanis, A Voyage through Film

Verdict

I’ve written before (several times) of my near-lifelong fandom of the X-Men. This isn’t where it started (that’d be the classic ’90s animated series), but it certainly helped cement it. Its significance to the current movie landscape is hard to underestimate: it took the superhero subgenre, which hadn’t actually produced that many major movies and had nonetheless reached a comedic nadir with Batman & Robin, and made it respectable blockbuster fodder, which leads directly to where we are today. And the reason it sparked all that is because it’s a quality entertainment in its own right, mixing superpowered action with weighty themes and top-drawer performances from a cast who are almost all better than this, elevating the material rather than besmirching themselves with it. I mean, even without the witty lines and tightly choreographed fisticuffs, anything that has Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen verbally sparring over a game of chess is bound to bring satisfaction.

#99 will be… X-Men united.

Pan (2015)

2016 #115
Joe Wright | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | PG / PG

Pan12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller) lives in an orphanage in World War 2 London… until the night pirates bungee in through the ceiling and kidnap a bunch of boys onto their flying galleon. Yes, really. From there it’s second star to the right and straight on ’til morning as the pirates take their new charges to Neverland, where they’re forced into the Mad Max-esque mining operator of Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). When it turns out Peter can fly, a friendly chap by the name of Hook (Garrett Hedlund) helps him escape, and they head off to find Peter’s destiny, etc — he’s some kind of prophesied Chosen One, because of course he is.

For me, that overripe “Chosen One” arc is the weakest element of Pan. Even then, it’s by no means the worst example in fiction, and it’s executed with a degree of fun and commitment that keeps it entertaining. Otherwise, this is an exciting and enjoyable fantasy adventure, best commended for its inventive, well-realised visuals and colourful design, which when it really clicks can be quite incredible. I suppose that might not be enough to overcome a familiar plot for some viewers, but it eases the way in this particular example. And even if the general arc is a bit rote, there are some quite clever spots of construction and/or references to the original. For instance, Peter can’t read (because Wendy will later teach him), but that also pays off within the film when it turns out he can read the fairy language. On the downside, it doesn’t actually directly connect up to Peter Pan, suggesting someone hoped there’d be sequels — because centring a live-action franchise around a boy who doesn’t age is a great idea.

As said boy, Levi Miller manages to make Peter not intensely irritating, which is an achievement compared to other adaptations. Some of that is surely inherited from the writing and directing, but Miller gives a strong performance too. Hugh Jackman hams it up magnificently as Blackbeard, clearly having a riot. Rooney Mara may be miscast due to the colour of her skin (for all the complaints about whitewashing, her tribe is shown to be mixed race… which doesn’t necessarily excuse it), but her actual performance is very good. I felt like Garrett Hedlund was doing an impersonation of someone but I never quite got a handle on who (the character’s definitely written to be Han Solo, but the actor’s not copying Harrison Ford). Adele Akhtar brings comedy as Hook’s chum, Sam ‘Smee’ Smiegel, there are cameos of varying purpose from Amanda Seyfried and Kathy Burke, and Nonso Anozie is always a welcome presence, here playing Blackbeard’s henchman. Cara Delevingne doesn’t act so much as provide a human reference for the CGI.

I also really liked the score, by John Powell of How to Train Your Dragon. It’s probably not groundbreaking or anything, but it’s suitably adventurous and epic-y. That said, there have been some very odd choices in the music department, like the massive Smells Like Teen Spirit sing-along. Because it’s entirely out of context (as noted, the film is set during World War 2) it plays like a Moulin Rouge rip-off. It’s also not a consistently-executed notion: there are nods at other songs, but they’re not as famous (the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop, for instance, which I only know thanks to the end credits) so they don’t stick out quite as incongruously.

Having found Pan to be a very likeable fantasy adventure, I confess to being slightly confused by the response that saw it soundly trounced by most critics and viewers. The review on Blu-ray.com makes the assertion that “today’s movie audience has become so instinctively sophisticated when it comes to CGI-enhanced action sequences that no one can predict what they’ll like”, which I thought was pretty insightful — when does “amazing spectacle” tip over into “oh my God it’s just more CGI”? I think there’s a definite bias based on what people expect of a film. Indeed, a commenter on Letterboxd asserted that most of Pan “consists of the sort of spectacle-as-sleep-inducer set-pieces you find tacked onto the end of Marvel superhero movies”, which at least criticises the sainted Marvel movies for once, but I didn’t think it made up “most of the movie”, nor did I find it sleep-inducing. In fact, I thought Pan had some of the better CGI-driven-spectacle action sequences I’ve seen in our modern overloaded-with-CGI-driven-spectacle era. It is, however, one of those films that must have been genuinely made with its 3D release in mind — as is often the case with those, it’s not the stuff poking out at you that gives it away, but the in-focus backgrounds, which can be especially awkward to navigate in fast-moving action scenes. As Blu-ray.com’s review of the 3D disc notes, “the chaos of the final battle is easier to follow when the action occurs in recognizably separate planes in space.”

Perhaps another aspect of Pan’s reception is some audience members’ devotion to the original story, which may influence how much you can buy into all the changes and adjustments made here. In many aspects it’s not terribly faithful, and if you love the original — especially a particular version, like, say, the Disney one — this might seem like sacrilege. I have no such attachment (though I’ve nothing against Barrie’s work, or Disney’s, aside from my aforementioned aversion to the eponymous hero), so I was perhaps more open to this Epic Fantasy reimagining. (In that last respect, it definitely falls into the same bracket as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I wrote about in my review: classics of children’s fantasy adapted and reconfigured with a post-Potter/Rings mindset.)

So boo to the trouncers: with a bit of an open mind to its changes, and a bit of allowance for some of the ideas that don’t actually work, Pan is a colourful, inventive, fun, family-friendly adventure movie. And I’d definitely have watched a sequel.

4 out of 5

Pan is available on Sky Cinema from today, including on Now TV.

Chappie (2015)

2016 #45
Neill Blomkamp | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & South Africa / English | 15 / R

ChappieNeill Blomkamp seems to be on M. Night Shyamalan’s career path: a massively-praised Oscar-nominated breakthrough genre movie, followed by a series of increasingly maligned follow-ups.

His latest is the story of a police robot that gets inducted into South African rap/gang culture. It’s incredibly idiosyncratic, and actually kind of interesting in its oddness and the way it exposes a different culture. So there’s something to be got out of it, but it feels like a failed experiment rather than a successful realisation of a bold idea.

Still, in the homogenised landscape of big-budget sci-fi movies, at least it’s something different.

3 out of 5

Prisoners (2013)

2016 #22
Denis Villeneuve | 153 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Yesterday I wrote about Predestination, a twisty sci-fi thriller in which I guessed all the twists long before the end, but it didn’t matter because the film had more to offer. Today I find myself in the same situation: Prisoners is a thriller (though not of the sci-fi variety) centred around some mysteries that lead to big twists, all of which I guessed with complete accuracy about one-third of the way through.* I don’t say this to boast — well, I do a little — but my other point is this: while it proved a bit of a distraction, occasionally feeling like I was sitting through aimless red herrings as I waited to be proved right, there’s more to Prisoners than just OMG moments.

We set our scene on Thanksgiving in the small, slightly rundown Pennsylvania city of Conyers, where the Dover and Birch families gather for the traditional lunch at the latter’s house. As things transpire, they can’t find their two little girls, and a suspicious RV parked down the street has disappeared. Fearing the worst, they call the police, who track down the RV and its driver, an adult with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. The girls are nowhere to be found. He’s the obvious suspect, but he couldn’t’ve taken them… could he? As Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues an increasingly complex investigation, unsatisfied Dover patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman) thinks he might need to take matters into his own hands…

There’s a lot going on in Prisoners. While the basic format is straightforward, it’s realised in the form of a multi-stranded narrative full of well-drawn characters with complications of their own. Jackman and Gyllenhaal may be top billed and on the poster (well, an air-brushed waxwork vague approximation of Jackman was on the poster), but there’s actually a powerful ensemble cast here, and it’s their performances that help the film to stand out from the thriller crowd — as well as to overcome the fact I guessed all the twists.

So we have: Maria Bello as Grace Dover, who begins to crack under the mental pressure of her daughter’s disappearance. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch, who, based on their houses, is clearly in a better financial situation than Keller, but is he man enough to help Keller do what he feels needs doing? His wife, Nancy, played by Viola Davis, may at first suggest a fragility to match Grace’s, but it soon becomes clear she wears the trousers in this marriage. As mentally stunted suspect Alex Jones, Paul Dano gives a well-managed dialogue-light performance, not straying into caricature. The aunt who raised him, Holly, played by Melissa Leo, is protective, but also doesn’t seem all that shocked by the accusations levelled against him.

Then we do have our two leads. I think Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki may be supposed to come across as a first-rate cop — he’s certainly so good that he can tear his Captain a new one about not doing stuff properly and not get a dressing-down for it — but he struck me as a little less than ideal. I mean, he’s effectively a small-town cop suddenly stuck in a child-kidnapping (and possibly murder) case — of course he should be out of his depth. He’s not a bad detective, just not the usual genius-level investigator you normally find in thrillers, and at times you feel he’s muddling his way through the investigation as best he can. Aside from giving Loki the slightly-affected tic of blinking too much, Gyllenhaal offers a reasonably restrained performance. (I’d love to know what the blinking was in aid of, but the film is woefully understocked with special features.)

Jackman gets a showier turn as Keller Dover, the dad who prides himself on being a strong, capable, prepared-for-anything kinda guy. This is partly a value his father instilled in him, he tells his son, but you have to think there’s an element of it being a response to the emasculation of not being able to fully provide for his family — there’s not much work around, he mentions, and their home environment clearly isn’t as well-appointed as the Birches’. He does have a basement full of survivalist gear, though, and we first meet him coaxing his son into shooting his first deer. This is a man ready to do what he feels is necessary, and what he feels is necessary takes him — and, by association, several of the other characters, and indeed the whole film — to some dark places.

Not that the film needs any help accessing dark places. The truth behind what’s happened to the girls is very dark indeed… though that would be spoiler territory. I thought it was a good solution, even if I did guess it so early on, but I’ve seen others suggest it’s too neat. I dunno, but I think it’s come to something when a film answering all its questions and explaining all its threads is seen as a bad thing.

Denis Villeneuve’s direction gives the sense of a non-Hollywood background with the occasional arty shot choice or composition, though not to a distracting extent. He’s aided by serial Oscar loser Roger Deakins on DP duty, who once again demonstrates why he shouldn’t have a golden man already, he should have a cupboard full. The photography here doesn’t flaunt itself with hyper-grading or endless visual trickery, but is consistently rich and varied. Deakins may also be the best action cinematographer working — pair what he brought to Skyfall with a climactic car dash here and you have a more impressive action demo reel than you’d expect from the kind of guy who has multiple Oscar nominations to his name.

In the end, I find it a little hard to succinctly assess Prisoners. We have a film of complex characters brought to life with vivid performances, though the latter are not adverse to an element of grandstanding, and some of their actions slip into genre familiarity. So too the narrative, which for all its twists and turns isn’t a world away from any number of airport-bookstore doorstop thrillers — and that length is certainly mirrored in the two-and-a-half-hour running time. The fact that I was waiting for my predictions to be confirmed also colours my perception somewhat, because while I don’t think the film completely leans on its twists, it was a bit of a distraction. Nonetheless, you can’t deny the quality of the moviemaking, particularly Villeneuve’s sweeping direction and Deakins’ rich cinematography.

As a thriller that is also a drama about people caught up in those events, and the lengths to which some of them may be prepared to go, Prisoners is a must-see for anyone with the stomach for some dark material (though don’t let me overemphasise that point — it’s not as bleak as, say, Se7en). Is it a classic in its own right, though? Not sure. But it is very, very good.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Prisoners is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

* For those playing along at home: the precise moment I got it (explained in non-spoilery terms) was when Det. Loki visits an old lady and watches a VHS. ^

X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut (2014/2015)

2015 #96a
Bryan Singer | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA & UK / English | 12

X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue CutOne of the big stories in the run-up to this fifth X-Men film’s release last year (my previous review is here) was that returning cast member Anna Paquin, one of the leads in the original trilogy — certainly, she’s the audience PoV character in the first one — had been virtually excised from the final cut, her subplot deemed extraneous by director Bryan Singer, as well as screenwriter Simon Kinberg, who all but admitted he’d shoehorned her into the screenplay in the first place. Instantly, a director’s cut was mooted by journalists/fans, and almost as quickly Singer and co were on board. So that’s how we end up with The Rogue Cut, which probably has all kinds of bizarre connotations if you’re not aware Rogue is a character in the series.

It remains a bit of a misnomer even if you do, because it’s not like Rogue has a huge part to play. Her subplot is actually more of a showcase for Ian McKellen’s Magneto and Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman, as they rescue her (with a little help from Patrick Stewart’s Professor X) from an enemy-occupied X Mansion. From there, she takes over from Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) maintaining Wolverine’s presence in the past. In the cut released in cinemas, Kitty kept doing what Kitty was already doing, which is certainly a smoother way of handling things. Kinberg was right: this subplot feels like it’s been half-forced in, mainly to give the future-time cast extra things to do.

This sequence is not the only addition, however; I’m sure this release would’ve been perfectly adequately dubbed an Extended Cut or Director’s Cut were it not for the fan/media focus on the Rogue portions, which earnt it “The Rogue Cut” as a nickname before it was adopted as the official name. In total, the new cut is 17 minutes and 10 seconds longer, though I believe Singer said there were some deletions too, so it may be there’s slightly more than that. Either way, it’s tough to spot everything that’s been added. There are extensions littered throughout — according to the Blu-ray’s scene select menu, of the extended cut’s 44 chapters, 20 include alternate material (including the end crawl, thanks to a mid-credits scene) and two are all-newRogue being Kitty (though the theatrical cut only has 40 chapters, so I’m not entirely sure how that pans out). Most must be teeny extensions, however, and I look forward to Movie-Censorship.com doing a report so I can know all I didn’t spy. Apparently Singer and editor John Ottman discuss the changes quite a lot in their commentary track, but I haven’t taken the time to listen to that yet.

The bulk do come in the aforementioned “Rogue rescue” sequence that has given this cut its name. However, it’s intercut with some new material in the 1973 segments: Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) also visits the X Mansion, for a little tête-à-tête with Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Both have a knock-on effect later in the movie: having taken over from Kitty, Rogue is now present throughout the climax (not that it makes much difference, besides changing Magneto’s method of entry after he barricades them in), and a brief moment — a look, no more — between Raven and Hank in the past.

Oh, and Nixon says “fuck”. That must be new, because you’re only allowed one “fuck” in a PG-13 and I distinctly remember James McAvoy saying it.

So is this cut better? Well, no. Is it worse? Well, not really. It’s just different. On the one hand, here we have some extra fleshing out of Raven and Hank’s characters, more action for future-Magneto and Iceman, and a more decent role for Rogue — though her part still isn’t much cop, all things considered. On the other hand, it makes for a slightly less streamlined film, and the intercutting between past-Magneto retrieving his helmet and future-Magneto rescuing Rogue is built like it should have some kind of juxtapositional weight but, unless I’m missing something, it doesn’t.

Magneto and IcemanThe Rogue Cut is worth seeing for anyone who enjoyed the theatrical version — and, in terms of a copy to own, the Blu-ray comes with both cuts and more special features (though it loses all the extras from the first release, including a few more deleted scenes) — but, unless you’re a huge fan of Rogue or Iceman, it’s not essential.

As it’s fundamentally the same film, my original score stands.

5 out of 5

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

2014 #113
Bryan Singer | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

X-Men: Days of Future PastI think I’ve previously discussed my life-long love of the X-Men franchise, so I shan’t go into detail again, but suffice to say Days of Future Past has been one of my most-anticipated movies ever since the title (which is that of a classic and influential story from the comics) was announced. Thank goodness, then, that the final result doesn’t disappoint.

After two Wolverine-focused spin-offs and a ’60s-set prequel, Days of Future Past returns us to the world of the original X-Men movie cast — Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and all the rest. Only now it’s a future dystopia, where mutants are killed or imprisoned by giant robots called Sentinels. A gang of former X-Men led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) think they’ve worked out a way to send someone back in time to before the incident that incited this terrible future, so that they can stop it. The man chosen is — of course — Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Transported back into his 1970s body, Wolverine must find the younger Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), reunite him with an imprisoned younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and stop younger Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the inventor of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Throw in almost every other mutant who’s ever appeared in the extensive ensemble casts of the four previous X-Men movies, and you’ve got yourself an epic — reportedly the second-most-expensive film ever made by 20th Century Fox (after Avatar).

There’s an awful lot going on in Days of Future Past, which, if you want to dig into it, makes for quite a rich film. There’s the obvious need to balance major storylines taking place in both the past and the future, though the latter has been sacrificed to focus on the former — quite literally, in the sense that a subplot centred around Anna Paquin’s Rogue was famously deleted (leaving Paquin with high billing for a three-second cameo). There’s also the inevitable complexity of time travel stories — how do changes in the past impact on the future, etc. Men of Future PastBeyond that, there’s the characters: the younger versions are having to deal with the fall-out from First Class, which tore apart friendships and families; meanwhile, Wolverine is having to deal with a new level of responsibility and maturity — he is, almost literally, having to do for Charles what the professor did for him back in the first X-Men movie.

You wouldn’t think of an X-Men feature being an actors’ movie, and at the end of the day it’s not really, but there’s enough material for a quality actor like McAvoy to sink his teeth into. When we meet him Charles is a disillusioned drug addict, entirely different to the man we know from First Class and his future as Patrick Stewart. He’s forced to face his demons in every way possible: stopping his drugs, accepting his mutant superpowers, facing up to the man who did this to him, and the woman he raised as a sister but who turned on him… None of this is necessary to serve the blockbuster spectacle that the film also excels in, but it makes for deeper viewing than your average 2010s tentpole.

If McAvoy is the star, many of the rest of the cast do alright. As mentioned, Jackman has a bit on his plate as a one-time loner trying to become a teacher. Jennifer Lawrence is best served, the depth of her role no doubt bolstered by her Oscar-winning success elsewhere in the acting world. Although the original story also features Mystique as the antagonist, she’s far less conflicted: it’s a straight-up assassination attempt. The dilemmas that leave her torn between Xavier and Magneto are entirely an invention of the film franchise, but they make for a much more interesting story — it’s genuinely unpredictable what she’ll do and who she’ll side with.

Villain of Future PastNot everyone gets to shine in a cast this big, although pretty much everyone gets a moment. The future-set cast have the least to do, people like Halle Berry turning up to do little more than show their face, though Stewart and McKellen get a moment or two worthy of their talents. After he was the focus of the last film, Fassbender is slightly shortchanged here; but after McAvoy gave him essential support in First Class, Fassbender plays the same service here, informing Charles’ journey. Of the new additions, Evan Peters as Quicksilver (that’s the one who’ll also be played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets both laughs and the film’s stand-out action sequence, as he races around a room, literally faster than a speeding bullet, to save our heroes. Dinklage, on the other hand, is underused. As with Stewart and McKellen, the fact he’s an excellent actor brings extra layers to the little he does have to do, but if you want to see what he can really do you’ll need to get your Game of Thrones box sets back out.

For those that like their blockbusters explosive and adrenaline-pumping rather than character-driven, Days of Future Past doesn’t drop the ball. It kicks off with a mutant vs. Sentinel sequence that innovates with an X-Woman who can create portals. I’m sure this looked grand in 3D, with all that depth disappearing through the other side of the aforementioned gateways. The side effect for us 2D viewers is that Singer is a skilled filmmaker: he does the sensible thing and holds his shots longer, reigning in the fast cutting style of most modern action sequences. That’s essential in 3D, for viewers’ brains to get their bearings, but is a nice change of pace in 2D too.

Quick as a flash...Later, there’s the aforementioned ‘slow-mo’ sequence, and the grand climax, which offers more “fly something big around” antics a la First Class’ submarine, only considerably grander. Yet for all the spectacle, the final moments once again come down to character: what is Magneto prepared to do? What is Mystique prepared to do? Will anyone listen to Charles? And so on. Even the much-vaunted Marvel Studios movies tend to base their climaxes in slabs of ‘epic’ CGI crashing into each other; Days of Future Past does that for a bit, then brings the characters back into focus for the real final beats.

By all rights, Days of Future Past should be a mess. There’s too many characters, too many storylines, too many time periods, too much inconsistency in the continuity of the previous films to allow for a time travel-focused story. Actually, in the case of the latter, it’s used to straighten things out a bit: events we saw in The Last Stand are barely acknowledged and, by the end, are completely eradicated. As for the rest, well, turns out everyone involved actually knew what they were doing, in spite of the fears of some fanboys. Those who number certain characters among their favourites may feel ill-served by some cameo-level appearances, but for less wedded viewers, all the roles are well balanced.

Despite the all-franchise team-up, this is First Class 2 as much as it’s X-Men 5, and that’s only right — although it leaves the door open for more adventures featuring the future X-Men, their stories are probably all told. It’s already been confirmed that the next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, will be First Class 3, taking the younger cast into the ’80s and centred on MystiqueWoman of Future Past (Jennifer Lawrence being the third pillar of the past triumvirate, as they’ve already focused on Xavier and Magneto). While Days of Future Past does wrap up the majority of its threads (the open-ended ones are answered by previous films, if you want them to be), there’s plenty there to play with in the next film (and, perhaps, ones beyond that) if they want to… which they do.

But that’s for the future. For now, debate can rage over which is the best X-Men film. Personally, I’m just glad that we’re in a situation where there are three or four X-Men movies that are contenders for the crown of, not only the best in the series, but to be among the best comic book movies ever made. And as that’s the genre du jour, it’s an important title to hold. Whether Days of Future Past’s all-eras team-up can best X2 or First Class, I don’t know, but it stands alongside them.

5 out of 5

X-Men: Days of Future Past placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Real Steel (2011)

2013 #78
Shawn Levy | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & India / English | 12 / PG-13

Real SteelOnce upon a time, Real Steel would have been rated PG, been aimed at 7- to 10-year-old boys, and would probably have been quite the success. In the current Hollywood moviemaking climate, however, it’s rated PG-13, consequently aimed at teenage boys and grown men who still have the tastes of teenage boys, and seems to be regularly slated in online comment sections.

That’s a shame because, despite some corny and cheesy bits, it generally works. It begins by setting out some apparently predictable plots, but then several didn’t play out entirely as I expected (I mean, it’s hardly revolutionary, but it wasn’t quite as blatant as I was expecting it to be when it came to certain resolutions). The fights aren’t the most exciting robot action sequences ever put on film (or digital file), but are suitably punchy for their purpose. The final duel is perhaps not as triumphant as the filmmakers think it is, but I’ve seen worse.

Other bits falter more obviously: there’s some horrendously clunky exposition, and it’s so desperate to be set in the near future that its future-history is practically our present already, which undermines it to an extent. OK, it’s not high on realism, but when someone says, “ah, that’s a Generation 2 robot from 2014,” you just think, “well, this isn’t going to really happen, is it?”

Really steelySome things are also distinctly unresolved: just why was Evil Lady prepared to pay $200,000 for a no-hope junkyard robot? I figured there was going to be some Nasty Secret to come out, especially as there’d been hints of the robot having extra abilities… but no. And what was up with the kid being 11 but Jackman always thinking he was 9? Figured that was going somewhere too. There’s talk now of a sequel — I hope such random bits weren’t intended as elaborate seeding for a follow-up, because that’s just irritating. That said, it would be nice if whoever’s in charge spotted those things and built on them in the sequel’s story.

For all that online moaning I mentioned, to my surprise I haven’t seen anyone complaining about that oft-cited bugbear, product placement. It’s glaringly obvious at frequent intervals… but it’s also pretty well integrated into the world — no “mm, Converse All Stars, vintage 2004!” moments here. (Funnily enough, Dr. Pepper — which is fairly prominent, though not so much as other things — was used with permission, but wasn’t paid for by… whoever makes it. So it’s not product placement. So if you do ever see someone moaning about the product placement of Dr Pepper in Real Steel, you can tell them they’re a moron, or something.)

Feel the steelReal Steel is a good family movie, masquerading as a teenage-focused robot action blockbuster thanks to its 12 and PG-13 certificates. The true best audience for it will be those around the same age as the central kid: they won’t find him as annoying as older viewers will, and the whole robot fighting thing will just seem exciting.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.

Flushed Away (2006)

2008 #57
David Bowers & Sam Fell | 81 mins | DVD | U / PG

Flushed AwayAardman Animations, the Bristol-based company most famous for Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comforts, branch out into CGI for the first time with this tale of rats trying to save the sewers of London. CGI rats? Yes, thoughts of Ratatouille are inevitable. Can Aardman beat Pixar at their own game? You might be surprised…

The primary reason for comparison here, as mentioned, are the rats. Despite Pixar’s stated intention to redeem rats in the eyes of viewers — to turn them from vermin into loveable little fluffy things, essentially — I felt the same about bloody rodents at the end of Ratatouille as I did at the start. Here, however, they’re Disneyfied (oh the irony) — where Pixar had cartooned versions of the real thing, Aardman have given them a human shape. It’s surely this disjunction from reality that makes them more likeable, but it does mean there’s never that distracting “but they’re vermin” impulse. They’re humanisation is helped by the performances of a star-studded cast, including Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet amongst the ratty voices. Ian McKellen is a fabulously dastardly villain, ably supported by a pair of comedy henchman… and Jean Reno as a French frog. Yep, the humour is that British.

One thing Pixar unquestionably still excel at is the actual animation, however. Ratatouille is gorgeous to watch and will take some effort to beat; Flushed Away, on the other hand, doesn’t really come close to Pixar’s earlier efforts, never mind Ratatouille’s artistry. It’s mostly passable, especially once the action migrates to the mini-London in the sewers, but at other times it looks little better than a computer game. The second biggest mistake (I’ll get to the worst in a minute) is opening the film in a pristine up-market house — presumably it was an artistic choice to have it so tidy and clean, but this has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting the animation’s plainness right from the start. Once the story moves underground the level of detail improves, but it takes a little while to get there.

A bigger error was made with the lip-synching, however, and obviously this dogs the film throughout. Aardman consciously designed the characters’ mouth movements to imitate the clay animation the company usually employs (Flushed Away is CG because of the volume of water featured, an element too complex to achieve in stop motion). Instead of invoking that stop motion feel it just looks cheap and underdone — such jerkiness is easily ignored as part of the technique when viewing clay animation, but there’s no need or excuse for it in CGI. Ultimately it looks like the animators were lazy or the rendering has skipped frames, and is frequently distracting.

It’s possible to put the disappointing quality of the animation aside though, because the script’s a good’un. Like the animation it doesn’t really get going until we’re flushed into the sewers, but once there it’s pleasantly witty, full of good one-liners and clever visual gags. The latter includes a good line in intertextuality, with entertaining and easily-noticed references to Finding Nemo, X-Men and others, including numerous nods to Wallace & Gromit. They don’t dominate, but their variety makes for a nice bit of I-spy for both kids and adults of varying degrees of film-buffery.

Despite the inevitable comparisons, Flushed Away is really a very different beast to Ratatouille. Pixar’s effort is, for want of a better word, artistic; Flushed Away is simply a family-orientated slice of adventure-comedy… rather of the kind you might expect Pixar to produce. Aardman’s initial CG effort is not better or worse than ‘the other CG rat flick’, but it is perhaps more like what you — or, at least, kids — would expect. With a starry cast, strong script and good sense of visual comedy, Flushed Away manages to overcome its lower production values to create an above-average piece of entertainment. And that’s, as Wallace would say, cracking.

4 out of 5