Split (2016)

2017 #62
M. Night Shyamalan | 117 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Japan / English | 15 / PG-13


Once-fêted writer-director M. Night Shyamalan surprised a lot of people in 2015 by finally beginning his long-awaited comeback (a day I think it’s safe to say many thought would never come) with low-budget high-concept horror The Visit. Then earlier this year he surprised people again by delivering another long-promised return. Well, he surprised people who didn’t find it out on the internet the day after the darn thing came out, anyway. For that reason (plus the newsworthy announcements that have followed in its wake), this review presumes you know Split’s last-minute twist.

And, like many a twist before it, once you know what’s coming it can’t help but colour the entire film. What’s unique about Split’s reveal is that, really, it shouldn’t — it’s a bonus extra-textual connection, not a traditional twist that forces you to reassess the narrative you’ve just seen. The problem, I suppose, is that it’s a distraction; or it was for me. I spent the entire movie with a background awareness that this was in the same universe as Unbreakable, which meant that (a) I was hyper-attentive for anything that suggested a link before the closing cameo (I didn’t see anything significant; I think the similar posters are probably the cheekiest thing), and (b) any tension about whether or not James McAvoy’s character will turn out to have (semi-)supernatural powers dissipates, because of course he will — that’s the world we’re in.

Oh, you!

This is why having twists spoiled is bad. I guess journalists felt that as it wasn’t a twist inherent to the film’s narrative — not like, say, The Sixth Sense or Fight Club — it was OK to shout about it online with uncommon speed. In fairness, the later news that the trilogy-completing Glass is in development means that, even if they had kept schtum, anyone waiting on Split’s digital/DVD/streaming/etc release was likely to have the connection blown anyway. But I didn’t want to be having a conversation about the point at which discussing spoilers is permissible. That’s a distraction from the film itself, which does it a disservice. But then, so’s knowing the ending before you start.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think I’ve fairly judged Split yet. I was too busy thinking “OMG, Unbreakable sequel, yay!” Still, it’s easy to spot several plus points. The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy makes for an engaging heroine, her character quiet but assured, more capable than the bolshy but kinda useless classmates she’s imprisoned with. Even as a twist-spoiled viewer is waiting for the inevitable reveal that, yep, McAvoy has powers that are going to manifest, there’s tension in when and how and who’ll make it out alive.

Making it out alive?

However, the really exceptional part of the movie is McAvoy’s performance. I don’t know how accurately or sympathetically the film handles the science of his character’s condition, but his embodiment of the role — of all the roles — is superb. The multiple distinct personalities aren’t created just by putting on a silly voice or funny costume; McAvoy changes the way he holds himself, the way he stands and moves, the way his face expresses. It’s the kind of performance that in a different kind of film would’ve been all over awards season.

I feel bad for not entirely assessing Split on its own merits, but equally I can’t help it — the thing that most excites me is where it promises to go next; the full-blown sequel to Unbreakable that many people (myself included) have been hoping would come for the best part of two decades. Maybe once that’s been and gone I’ll be able to revisit this and take it as a standalone piece.

4 out of 5

Split is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.


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.

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.

The Conspirator (2010)

2014 #54
Robert Redford | 117 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The ConspiratorAlthough John Wilkes Booth is famous as the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he was merely the person who pulled the trigger: eight people were tried for conspiracy to kill America’s 16th President; this is the story of what happened to the only woman among them.

Or, rather, it’s the story of the young lawyer who is forced to represent her. Rather than cave to pressure and more-or-less let the prosecution have their way, he fights her corner against a ludicrously biased system that would execute her without trial if only they could. The sheer weight of this bias — and the fact the story is from history, rather than a created-for-the-movies tale (with all the idealism that would bring) — means there’s a sort of crushing sense of inevitability about how it plays out. Some have criticised the film for lacking tension, a complaint that I think is to some degree misplaced — especially as, not knowing what happened, I felt it was fairly tense towards the end.

As the lawyer, James McAvoy has to lead the film against a few experienced names, but he can hold his own (which I suppose shouldn’t be a surprise at this point) and is easily the best thing in the movie. OK, so he’s saddled with a well-worn “lawyer so dedicated to the case he sacrifices his personal life” character arc, but that doesn’t mean he plays it so half-heartedly. The only acting weak link is Alexis Bledel, who somehow seems far too modern; Co-conspirators?or rather, like an actress versed in playing modern characters struggling gamely with a period one, and coming up short.

The Conspirator takes a footnote from history and turns it into an engrossing legal drama. What it lacks in originality is made up for through compelling performances and the exposure of little-known facts and incidents surrounding one of American history’s most famous events.

4 out of 5

X-Men: First Class (2011)

2011 #60
Matthew Vaughn | 132 mins | cinema/Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Superhero films have been a significant regular part of the summer movie season for over a decade now, but this year really looks like it’s going to take the biscuit: The Avengers obliterated box office records Stateside last weekend, and has spent most of the week knocking down more worldwide; there’s a Batman sequel/finale to look forward to, which everyone has been expecting to do the same; and sandwiched somewhere between the two is a Spider-Man reboot that, provided it doesn’t get dwarfed by the other two and/or poor reviews, is likely to make a pretty penny. (If I recall correctly, the initial Raimi Spidey film was the first movie ever to make over $100m in its opening weekend; and now, 10 years later, The Avengers is the first to beat $200m — how neat.)

But that’s all still to come (I haven’t even seen The Avengers yet myself, and I won’t now until at least sometime next week, for various reasons. Grr.) Instead, here’s a review of my personal favourite from last year’s crop of comic book adaptations — indeed, I ranked it the second best film I saw all year.

I made sure to see First Class soon after its cinema release back in June 2011 — an increasingly-rare cinema trip for me (previous one before this was Inception in July 2010), and even rarer to go so quickly, but it earnt it as probably my most anticipated movie of the summer. I’ve been a fan of the X-Men since the ’90s animated series was a defining part of my childhood; Matthew Vaughn has become one of my favourite filmmakers thanks to Stardust and Kick-Ass, both of which earnt 5 stars and spots on my end-of-year top 10s (and Layer Cake was 4-star-ly entertaining too); and the idea of doing a superhero film that was definitively set in a specific point in the past (namely the early ’60s), rather than the perpetual Now of every other entry in the sub-genre, is the kind of thing creative fans long for but risk-averse studios rarely greenlight. Plus the trailers looked brilliant.

So my long-held high anticipation (unlike many whingy comic-continuity-obsessed inexplicably-Vaughn-dubious internet fanboys, who needed the trailer to even consider thinking the film might be good) led me to the cinema quickly. Why so long to post a review, then? Because I’ve been waiting for Blu-ray to see it properly.*

As “Film fans”, rather than “movie consumers”, we’re supposed to believe 35mm cinema projection is the best way to view a film, rather than the cold hard digital realm that’s taking over, or the home cinema that is increasingly the viewing location of choice as people seek to avoid inflated ticket prices and noisy crowds, and gain a huge degree of convenience in the process. Well, sod that. I saw X-Men on 35mm. It was blurry, the sound was muffly. I saw a clip in a summer movies trailer just a few days later when I saw Pirates 4 in 3D (i.e. digitally projected), and had a genuine moment of, “oh, that’s how it’s meant to look”. So thank God for Blu-ray — never mind prices, crowds or watching when I want, the real advantage is seeing it as sharp as a pin and being able to hear everything the characters are saying. I can enjoy the cinema experience, but at the end of the day it’s about the film, and if the only way to see, hear and appreciate it properly is to watch it 5+ months later on a much smaller screen from a digital source, so be it. The fact that it’s usually cheaper to buy the Blu-ray to own forever than take two people to see it just once doesn’t hurt either.

But I digress massively. X-Men: First Class takes us back to the origins of the X-Men (at least, the movie-universe X-Men): it’s the 1960s, mutants aren’t widely known about yet, Charles Xavier is uncovering some interesting ideas at Oxford, and Erik Lehnsherr is travelling the world taking revenge for Nazi atrocities. But when some Evil People are plotting to do Something Nasty, the US government winds up bringing them together, and the road to establishing the X-Men begins…

I should give up on plot summaries again, I never write good ones. There’s so much more to First Class than that might suggest. Firstly, it’s very much a prequel to the other X-Men films, rather than a reboot. So no Cyclops and co in the original team-up, which really annoys some fanboys, but pfft, it doesn’t matter. It’s fair to say the characters who make up the eventual first X-Men team aren’t as iconic or memorable, but that’s fine because here they’re just supporting characters. This is the story of two other young men, Xavier and Lehnsherr, aka Professor X and Magneto.

You need some pretty fine talent to replace two of our greatest actors — Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, of course — and in Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy you certainly have that. Fassbender carries much of the emotional weight of the film, and certainly received much of the praise from critics, but it’s thanks to McAvoy’s support that the film is lifted to a higher level. He provides calm, humour and fundamental decency to balance Fassbender’s rage and emotion. What’s fascinating about them as characters is that they are half-formed people. That is to say, while they are Wise Old Men by the time of X-Men, here they are still flawed and finding their way; witness Charles’ insensitivity toward Raven, for instance. That’s quite aside from all the little character-building touches. It all builds to the fantastic, heartbreaking climax on the beach. I’d also say it adds weight to the relationship between McKellen and Stewart in the original X films. Not significantly, perhaps, because those films are about other things, but I think you can feel their shared history more keenly.

The rest of the cast is suitably well equipped. There’s 2011 Best Actress Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, aka Mystique. Little more than a henchman designed to bring sex appeal in the trilogy, here she’s given a significant degree of backstory that makes her an important piece of the overall series. Indeed, she comes across as woefully underused if you watch X-Men after this — the flipside to the Xavier-Lehnsherr relationship working better, if you will. There’s also Kevin Bacon, playing his second superhero villain in as many years, who does sterling work as a former Nazi seeking world domination — remember the ’60s, when world domination was a valid aim for a villain? There’s more than a little Bond in the mix here.

Rounding out, we have the likes of Vaughn regular and perpetual “I’m only doing it for the money”-er Jason Flemyng, in an almost dialogue-free part that, while visually striking, doesn’t fare much better than his Kick-Ass ‘cameo’ in terms of screen time. There’s also a very flat (in every way apart from her frequently highlighted chest) turn from January Jones as a villainous sidekick, feeling every bit like the last-minute casting she was (after various other actresses walked away — considering the small size of both the role and costume, I can see why). Plus Rose Byrne, who’s always worth mentioning.

Much was made in some circles of a rushed production schedule leading to some of the film’s flaws. I think that’s only an issue because people know it could be one, because (on second viewing especially) I noted no such problems. The earlier parts are probably the film’s best — with Lehnsherr and Moira being all Bond-y, and Kevin Bacon’s Shaw being very much a Bond villain, making it feel more like a big ’60s spy thriller than a superhero movie in many ways — and when it tries to introduce an X-Men team made up of second-string leftover characters it loses its way slightly. But balance is everything with ensemble casts like this, and watching the film again gives a better perspective on its pace and its actual balance. First time through these things are distorted because you don’t know how far through the story you are, how long’s left, how long each scene will last, and so on; a second time, with an idea of where it’s going and so forth, you can better appreciate how it’s all actually weighed up, and I think First Class achieves a balance better than most have given it credit for.

Also worthy of a mention is Henry Jackman’s score. He gives us brilliant driving, menacing action themes, alongside some evocative ’60s stuff too, especially when they’re on the hunt for mutants for instance. I love a good blockbuster movie score, and this is definitely one of those.

Perhaps the thing that most impressed me about First Class, however, was its genuine sense of spectacle. The climax features master-of-magnetism Magneto hoisting a submarine out of the ocean with his powers. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the trailers — so we’d all seen it going in. And we’re in an era of anything-goes CGI — nothing looks impressive any more because we know not only that it can be done, but how it was done too (greenscreen and pixels, essentially). But that’s not what happens, at least for me, especially on the big screen.

Between Vaughn’s direction, Jackman’s score, Fassbender and McAvoy’s performances, plus those of other supporting cast members, and sterling work by the visual effects team(s), the moment when that submarine floats dripping into the sky is hair-raising. It played to me as a moment of genuine cinematic spectacle; the kind of thing you used to get when big stunts had to be done for real somehow. It’s not a feeling I expected to get from a new film ever again.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times how it ties in to the earlier (set later) films in the series, and how some complained about it messing up X-Men comics lore. But this is an adaptation — it’s not beholden to what’s established in the comics. And it’s working around fitting into the world of the later films, so of course they’re not going to have Cyclops in a ’60s X-team, and so on. It’s a complete non-issue for non-fans, and the same for any open-minded fans who realise they’re not trying to faithfully bring the X-Men canon to the big screen. Earlier films should already have shattered that illusion anyway.

As to the former, it largely fits well with the earlier films. There might be some questions about ages and events not lining up precisely (especially with the flashbacks in The Last Stand), but these are minor points that I think we can overlook for the overall quality of the film. Largely, a use of certain effects, call-forwards, cameos and little touches here and there really tie it in to the existing films. You don’t need to have seen them to get this — indeed, I imagine the ultimate way to experience it would be with no foreknowledge whatsoever of where Charles & Erik’s relationship is going — but for all those of us who have, it works very nicely.

Yet despite these links, and the 40(-ish)-year gap between the end of this story and the start of X-Men, if First Class never received a follow-up it would work perfectly as a standalone ’60s X-Men film. But I’m ever so glad we’re getting more, because I want to see this crew and this cast tell us more stories of the X-Men.

After seeing First Class in the cinema I thought to myself that, while I would dearly love to give it a full five stars, in all good conscience I couldn’t; for whatever reason, it didn’t quite come together enough. Watching it again on Blu-ray, however, I’ve completely changed my mind: I wouldn’t change a thing. All my anticipation is more than paid off — I love this movie.

5 out of 5

X-Men: First Class placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

* That was released back in October 2011, I know. The rest is general tardiness. ^

Becoming Jane (2007)

2008 #91
Julian Jarrold | 115 mins | DVD | PG / PG

Becoming JaneDirector Julian Jarrold seems to have found his cinematic niche in “coming a bit late”. His Kinky Boots, while entertaining, was reminiscent of films like The Full Monty… except 8 years later; Becoming Jane rides the Pride & Prejudice bandwagon… except 18 months later; and his latest, the new Brideshead Revisited, had something of the Atonements about it… except 6 months later. At least his lead times have got shorter.

Perhaps Jarrold’s other inspiration here was Batman Begins. No, bear with me, for this is Austen Begins: Jane’s literary career has yet to start, but as the film progresses we see something of her personality taking shape — and plenty of the inspiration for her novels. Lord alone knows how factual any of it is, but I’m sure it must be a lot of fun for certain Austenites. On the other hand, purists might be less pleased with their idol being constantly lovelorn and indulging in (whisper it, children) snogging. For those with only the most cursory knowledge of Austen’s work, these might be the only things that stop them believing this is an adaptation of one of her novels; though, in truth, they’re probably not even that intrusive.

The big advantage to this being a somewhat Hollywoodised version of the story is the slew of English acting talent on display. Julie Walters, Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson are all present, in roles of varying sizes, plus the younger Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) and Laurence Fox (son of Edward); not to mention James McAvoy, busy appearing in everything under the sun at the time. In the lead role, Anne Hathaway does a fine job, though there’s the inevitable question of “why not cast a Brit?” (to which one must assume the answer is, “for the sake of the US box office”). At least her accent is good.

Becoming Jane is a Jane Austen biopic treated as if it were a Jane Austen novel. In fact, so much is it embedded in the writing of Pride & Prejudice — and the notion that most of that was inspired by her own life — that it occasionally feels like another adaptation of it. This approach is a little uncomfortable in places, though probably makes sense considering the target market; and, by being so relatively lightweight, the resultant films seems to have faced less criticism from some Austenites than the similarly-timed TV biopic, Miss Austen Regrets. It’s for precisely this reason that the latter was a superior product, however: it may be darker and less uplifting — it ends with Austen’s death, rather than the start of her literary career — but it has a level of reflection that makes it more than Austen-Lite. Unlike this.

3 out of 5

Becoming Jane is on BBC Two today, Wednesday 31st December 2014, at 1:20pm.

(Originally posted on 27th January 2009.)

Starter for Ten (2006)

2007 #99
Tom Vaughan | 92 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Starter for TenA predictable British rom-com, enlivened only by a few good moments and performances, as well as the excellent ’80s soundtrack.

You’d assume the plot would focus on the characters’ aim to win University Challenge, coupled with a woefully predictable romantic subplot; sadly, it turns out the woefully predictable romance is the main plot and the quiz only turns up now and then to lend some structure. The final contest is almost entirely devoid of tension thanks to this and the other conclusions hold no surprises.

McAvoy is likeable, though held back by Brian’s near-unbearable ignorance about life. The best performances come from Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, both actors worth watching.

2 out of 5

Starter for Ten is on BBC Two tonight, Sunday 31st August 2014, at 10:30pm.