Alien: Covenant (2017)

2017 #69
Ridley Scott | 122 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia, New Zealand & UK / English | 15 / R

Alien: Covenant

Following in the footsteps of half the other Alien movies (and “following in the footsteps” is definitely a theme when it comes to this movie), Alien: Covenant introduces us to a group of people who are the crew of a spaceship. This particular lot are on their way to establish a colony when a mid-flight disaster awakens them to deal with the damage. At the same time they detect a distress call from a nearby planet — a planet that looks even more suited to supporting human life than the one they were headed for. Changing course, they find suspiciously human vegetation growing on the planet, but are soon beset by terrible things. Well, it’s an Alien movie — I’m sure you can guess where most of this is going.

I say it’s an Alien movie, but really it’s a Prometheus movie. I don’t think that counts as a spoiler, does it? It’s no secret that Michael Fassbender is back. Sure, he starts the film playing a new robot, but did anyone really think that meant his old character wouldn’t be rocking up too? Sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone, but, c’mon. Besides, it’s clear that — despite the initial set dressing — Ridley Scott is far more interested in the concepts that launched Prometheus than he is in creating another Alien movie. The franchise-friendly stuff powers the slow-burn opening and the final act adrenaline rushes, but in between Scott reconnects to themes leftover from the apparently-aborted Prometheus trilogy.

Fit to burst

Now, I’ve already professed to be avoiding spoilers, but suffice to say that if you put Prometheus, Aliens (as opposed to Alien), Blade Runner (yep), and Frankenstein into a blender, then poured the resulting mixture into a novelty tie-in glass from the Star Wars prequels, you’d get Alien: Covenant. Weirdly, it’s the Prometheus stuff in that blend that tastes finer than the Aliens stuff. In fairness, that’s because it’s complemented by the notes of Blade Runner and Frankenstein.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. The scenes of characters chatting hold more interest than the action sequences, which feel a little perfunctory, remixing bits of previous movies with little impact, and are too dark to really appreciate (though I should withhold judgement on that last point, because they looked gloomier in the film than they did in the trailer, so perhaps it was just my cinema?) There’d be no shame in Covenant working as just an action and/or horror movie, if well made — that’s what the films that originated this franchise are, after all — but Scott is interested in exploring something more profound. The problem is that the attempted profundity comes from characters standing around and explaining the plot and/or themes to each other. It’s further undermined by slightly sloppy construction, one that places a key flashback at entirely the wrong moment (coming much earlier than it should, thereby spoiling a later reveal), and a last-minute twist that will be easily guessable to anyone who’s ever seen another movie.

In space, no one can see you look worried...

Worst of all, however, is that this film just didn’t need to be made. As with Prometheus before it, do we want to know where the eponymous beasties come from? It ruins some of their mystique, especially as the answers feel oddly mundane. This is not something further films are going to fix, either; though at this point they may as well keep going until things join up properly to the original Alien, because hey, why not?

Alien: Covenant is better than Prometheus because at least the character don’t act like total imbeciles who should know better. On the other hand, it’s worse than Prometheus because it scrubs out any ambiguity that film left about the Xenomorphs’ origins. Sometimes a mystery is better than an answer.

3 out of 5

Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from tomorrow.

Steve Jobs (2015)

2016 #109
Danny Boyle | 122 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Steve JobsWritten by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, with a name cast and plenty of awards buzz, this biopic of the eponymous tech genius was an inexplicable box office flop on its release last year — proof if proof were needed that box office does not equal quality, because I thought it was thoroughly excellent.

Rather than taking the usual route of telling a whole life story, Sorkin’s screenplay drops in on Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at three key product launches: the original Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. At each one he battles personal and professional issues while surrounded by the same group of people, including marketing exec and Jobs’ right-hand-woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); sidelined Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); Jobs’ mentor turned friend turned nemesis, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); and the mother of Jobs’ alleged child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

First off, I don’t know how historically accurate it is. Some say it demonises Jobs; some say it lets Sculley off for his crimes. Whatever the truth, this presentation makes for a damn good story. It’s both inherently cinematic and easy to imagine as a stageplay — quite some feat! In the latter camp, it takes place in a handful of locations with a limited, recurring cast. A few costume and make-up changes and you feel most of it could be reconfigured for the stage relatively easily. However, in favour of the former camp, the way Boyle has mounted the production is filmic to the hilt. This is especially discernible in the montages that help guide us from one time period to the next, or the cleverly-edited flashback-strewn confrontation between Jobs and Sculley at the end of act two. Sequences like that help define Steve Jobs’ greatness — it is a hair-raisingly good scene, with the writing, acting, directing, editing, score, everything, coming to a magnificent crescendo of sheer cinema.

Boyle’s decision to use different film formats for each section — 16mm, then 35mm, then digital HD — helps delineate the eras and, in a way, reflect the products being launched (though I’ll instantly concede that last point may be a bit of a stretch). I imagine it’s too technical a concern to be noticed by your average filmgoer, but I’m sure it must have a subtle effect; and for those of us who are so minded to spot the change, it’s kinda fun and effective. Shot by Alwin H. Küchler, each section has its own charm, from the warm fuzziness of 16mm, to the gloss of 35mm, to the precision of digital. This is a mighty fine looking film, and while modern tech meant the 1080p Amazon Video stream I was watching looked darn near Blu-ray quality, I’m still miffed I didn’t just go straight for the disc, because now I’m going to have to pay for it again at some point.

Throughout, Sorkin’s writing is awe-inducing, especially to anyone who’s ever dabbled in or dreamed of being a writer. The construction of it all, at every level — from line to line, from scene to scene, from act to act, across the whole piece… And this is a particularly magnificent construction, so precisely structured, rife with mirroring and repetition, and yet done so well that it doesn’t feel locked in to or constrained by an unwavering structure. I’d wager some viewers might not even notice how precise it is — I’m thinking, for example, of the order Steve has his primary meeting with each major supporting character in each of the three acts. There is an order, but it doesn’t feel like the film is bending over backwards to slavishly adhere to it — as I said, I’d wager many wouldn’t even notice.

The dialogue they’re delivering is so Sorkin. Rearrange character names and you could drop this into The West Wing or The Newsroom without batting an eyelid. That’s not to say Sorkin’s writing is samey, but he has a very specific style. I guess if you don’t like it then it must make his works a chore, but if you do, it can help elevate things that are in other ways wobbly (by which I mean swathes of The Newsroom, not Steve Jobs). It requires a cast that are up to the task, too, and he certainly has that here. Fassbender is the obvious stand-out, and Winslet is too often overshadowed by her variable accent, but even Rogen holds his own against the heavyweights around him. Daniels and Waterston may seem to have comparatively small roles, but they help carry much of the true dramatic weight opposite Fassbender.

It did cross my mind that perhaps I liked the film more than average because I’m a little bit of an Apple fan. I mean, I’m not a proper hardcore Apple fanboy, although my household does have in regular usage an iMac, a Macbook Air, an iPhone, two iPads, and two iPods… but the iPads are hand-me-downs, and I discarded a similarly-acquired Apple TV in favour of an Amazon Fire stick, and I certainly don’t upgrade that iPhone every year (in the device’s entire lifespan I’ve owned two). My point is: yes, I like Apple stuff, but I concluded that had no bearing on my opinion of the film. It’s not good because it’s about The God Of Apple or something; it’s good because the people who made it made a good film. It could be about Jeeve Sobs, co-founder of Banana and inventor of the Banana Wellington and the iWelly, and it would be… well, it would be silly if it used those names, but hopefully you get my point.

In a similar vein, I suspect it would make a great companion piece to The Social Network. I guess that’s an obvious point — they’re both biographical dramas written by Aaron Sorkin about tech geniuses with social problems who end up in legal disputes with former friends about their companies — but sometimes obvious companion pieces are obvious for a reason. What deeper things do they say about each other, or the wider world, especially our modern tech-obsessed age, when paired up? I don’t know; watch them back to back and find out.

Steve Jobs may fit the Sorkin template of “people stood in rooms and walking down corridors talking to each other very quickly and cleverly”, but when he’s firing on all cylinders it doesn’t matter that you can pigeonhole it if you must. Besides, with Danny Boyle’s hand on the directorial tiller and a quality cast to bring out the dramatic arcs between the posturing, the whole may not have added up to box office gold, but it is worth even more than the considerable sum of its parts.

5 out of 5

Steve Jobs premieres on Sky Cinema tonight and is available on demand now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

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.

Macbeth (2015)

2016 #23
Justin Kurzel | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play. Not that I’m a great scholar of the Bard, but I’ve seen and/or read enough to have a favourite. I also think it’s one of his most accessible works: its story and characters are relatively straightforward without being devoid of complexity; it’s got some immensely effective imagery and dialogue, including a solid compliment of famous lines; and it’s not excessively long either (it’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, in fact). I also studied it twice over in secondary school, so I know it fairly well. Now, this doesn’t mean I have exacting standards when it comes to film adaptations (Shakespeare is plenty open to interpretation), but it does mean I have my expectations up, especially as there isn’t a film version of Macbeth that could reasonably be described as “definitive” (though I know Polanski’s has its fans). After this latest effort, that’s still the case — but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. Far from it.

For thems that don’t know, Macbeth is set in 11th Century Scotland, where the eponymous character (Michael Fassbender) is a lord and general in the army of King Duncan (David Thewlis). After winning a decisive battle, Macbeth and his BFF Banquo (Paddy Considine) bump into a coven of witches, who forecast Macbeth will receive a new title and eventually become king. Although the men are naturally dubious, they soon learn that Macbeth has indeed been granted the prophesied thaneship. With the prospect of being king too tantalising to ignore, Macbeth’s ambitious spouse (Marion Cotillard) eggs him on to plot regicide…

Although director Justin Kurzel (of Snowtown, a film I have no intention of watching thanks to ghost of 82’s review) wasn’t hired until after the film was in development and Fassbender had been cast, the final film has been very much guided by his vision. The text is heavily cut (a copy & paste & delete-bits job that somehow took three screenwriters), to the displeasure of some critics, though this is primarily because Kurzel chose to supplant some of the dialogue with Filmmaking. In a film?! How very dare he! What I mean, more specifically, is that he’s visualised parts of the text; applied the old rule of “show don’t tell”. So rather than a messenger giving the King a full account of Macbeth being awesome in battle, we see some of the combat; Banquo has hardly any lines early on, but we still understand his friendship with Macbeth just from the way they look at one another and go into battle together.

Throughout, it’s the imagery that Kurzel and DoP Adam Arkapaw have crafted that’s the real standout of this particular adaptation (however good the cast are, and I’ll come to them). The compositions, the unusual use of almost tableaux-like blocking, the lighting, the colour palettes, the rhythm of the editing and the use of slow-mo… This is a highly filmic film, in a good way. At times, it manages to turn Shakespeare into an action movie, a feat rarely (if ever) accomplished previously. At others, it’s just mighty purdy. The pictures are well complemented by the score, composed by the director’s younger brother, Jed Kurzel (he’s also scored the likes of The Babadook and Slow West, so it’s not just nepotism). His work here is appropriately haunting and folksy.

To say the text has been cut and the film is strongest in its visuals does not mean this is an empty-headed version of Shakespeare, however. The director and his cast have some interesting variations on the usual depictions of the characters, in particular Lady Macbeth’s motivations. Normally shown as greedy and power-mad, here she is grief-stricken — there’s a single line in the play that’s interpretable as the Macbeths having lost a child, which here is both made explicit and highlighted in an opening funeral scene. These characters are acting out of some kind of desperation or emptiness rather than pure greed. When, later, she (spoiler!) goes mad, it’s subtle and sad, rather than frantic and delirious. Cotillard is fantastic in all of this, and certainly worked hard for it: the way the French language applies emphasis is not suited to delivering iambic pentameter, apparently, so she worked hard with a dialect coach to nail her delivery. Her accent clearly marks Lady Macbeth as the only non-Scottish character here, which becomes another layer added to this interpretation.

As Macbeth, Fassbender negotiates well the accomplished general who is also dominated by his wife. Here the guiding concept was Macbeth The Warrior; to portray him both as someone looking to replace what he’s lost by the battle being over, and as suffering from PTSD after what he’s witnessed, hence repeated hallucinations of a boy killed in battle. This isn’t out of place with the text, of course — “is this a dagger I see before me” and all that. Fassbender is on furious form, particularly as Macbeth gives in to his paranoia later on. A word too for the supporting cast, in particular Sean Harris as Macduff, who makes the character feel more essential to the story (as he should, considering the climax) than I remember him being in previous versions.

Some of this analysis is thanks to the short handful of featurettes found on the UK Blu-ray (the US release, out tomorrow, has different special features, so I’ve no idea what the overlap will be, if any). There’s no commentary track, which is a real shame. I don’t often get round to listening to them, but I’d be interested to hear Kurzel talk through his and his cast’s decisions on a scene-by-scene basis. The special features that there are give some insight into how thoroughly they thought through their adaptation and prepared for it, but that only means the lack of further insight is even more pronounced. And Kurzel, Fassbender, Cotillard, and Arkapaw are all now working on the film of Assassin’s Creed, out this December, which is an intriguing prospect — is it going to be an arthouse video game adaptation? I suspect not, but maybe it will be the rarest thing in cinematic history: a good film based on a computer game.

I was initially on the fence about whether this Macbeth was a 4-star or a 5-star achievement, especially as I maintain it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of Macbeth on screen. But it’s one of those films that, whatever the experience of actually sitting and watching it is like (at times: odd), its imagery and feel really stay with you.

5 out of 5

Macbeth is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the US tomorrow, and is out in the UK already.
Next month, Polanski’s
Macbeth is one of the initial releases in Criterion’s new UK range (yay!)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

2016 #3
Steve McQueen | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
9 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design.



As we know, the Oscars are racist and always have been, especially recently. Like two years ago, when they didn’t give a load of nominations and several awards to a film about slavery from a black director and black screenwriter.

Oh, wait…

That film was, obviously, 12 Years a Slave, the true account of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was kidnapped from his New York home and sold into slavery in the South. His story provides an overview, of sorts, of the experience of working as a plantation slave, both for a relatively decent master (Benedict Cumberbatch) and an evil SOB (Michael Fassbender).

One person who didn’t win an Oscar was Ejiofor (he lost to Matthew McConaughey, but he did win the BAFTA). His nomination was certainly deserved, though, because it’s an incredible lead performance — restrained most of the time, evoking Solomon’s internal life subtly rather than showily, but with carefully executed break-outs of emotion. Indeed, I’m slightly baffled by online commenters who felt the film was cold and lacking emotion or character. At the risk of getting on a high horse, I wonder if it was just too subtle for some? Ejiofor isn’t sat there tearing his heart out, but I thought there was considerably more to his performance than “looks happy in flashbacks, looks miserable in slavery”.

Nonetheless, the supporting performances are uniformly excellent, too. Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt may be mere cameos, the presence of such actors highlighting their roles more than their function within the narrative does, but there are very strong turns from Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, and in particular Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o, who will break your heart, and Michael Fassbender, who is overdue the gong for his many varied and accomplished performances. (I doubt his forthcoming triple of X-Men 6, video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed, and prequel-sequel Alien: Covenant will do anything for him in that regard, but he’s not yet 40, and that’s the prime part of a man’s life for Oscar winning, apparently.)

Steve McQueen’s direction is classical but effective, rarely drawing attention to itself when it has more important things to convey. That’s not to sell it short, though. A scene in which Fassbender’s plantation owner forces Solomon to do something unthinkable is achieved in a single roaming take that lasts nearly five minutes; a tour de force of camerawork, performance, and behind-the-scenes choreography, which only serves to heighten the tension and horror of the experience by never cutting.

Unsurprisingly, 12 Years a Slave is not an easily digestible film — it’s about a disgusting part of human history, and doesn’t shy away from some of its horrors. That said, it’s watchable thanks to the top tier performances, consummate direction, and moving storytelling.

5 out of 5

12 Years a Slave was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Slow West (2015)

2015 #199
John Maclean | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.66:1 | UK & New Zealand / English & French | 15 / R

The Coens and Wes Anderson are common reference points in reviews of this slightly quirky Western, which sees Michael Fassbender’s experienced outlaw-type help wet-behind-the-ears Scotsman Kodi Smit-McPhee track the girl he loves, who emigrated for mysterious reasons, also known by the bounty hunters on their trail.

The aforementioned comparisons aren’t wildly inaccurate, but are perhaps reductive. Writer-director Maclean has his own variation on that voice, bringing an occasional comically askew perspective to underscore tense confrontations and well-crafted shootouts. Vibrant photography by DP Robbie Ryan and a pleasantly brisk running time further the enjoyment.

A promising calling card and distinctive treat.

4 out of 5

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.

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. ^

Centurion (2010)

2011 #82
Neil Marshall | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last week, as I’m sure you’re aware, I posted the top ten films I’d watched in 2011. Among them were three I’ve yet to post a review for… so what better way to begin finishing off my 2011 reviews than with those. So here’s the lowest, #9…

CenturionThe fourth feature from writer/director Neil Marshall (despite owning his first three on DVD, this BD rental is the first I’ve actually watched — story of my life) is a bit of a departure: where the first three were horror (or at least horror-leaning) flicks, Centurion is an action-adventure crossed with something a little more artsy. Only a little, mind. Think Seraphim Falls.

The story involves a Roman legion (a real one, in fact — the story is based in historical fact) venturing into Scotland to take on the natives. They get massacred, the survivors try to get home alive. The story moves quickly, keeping the momentum up. Indeed, at times it moves so fast that some characters seem to be given short shrift. There’s a “who will survive?” element to the plot — Marshall’s horror roots showing through, perhaps — but you can largely guess which order they’ll be shuffled off in based on, a) how much screen time the character has, and b) the good old deciding factor of “which actors are most recognisable”. Predictability doesn’t really matter though, because there are (perhaps) a couple of surprises in store, and it’s only one element of the story.

Run, Fassbender, runRegular readers may know that I have an ever-growing dislike for films that begin at or near the end for no good reason (and most of those that do have no good reason to do so). Centurion’s opening line notes that “this is neither the beginning nor the end” of the lead character’s story. Oh dear, thought I; though perhaps “nor the end” signifies we might reach this point suitably distant from the credits, maybe. Not meaning to spoil it, but we’re there just 10 minutes later. Nice work Mr Marshall.

And with the mention of credits, allow me to note that both the opening and closing credits are wonderful, reminiscent of Panic Room’s much-exalted titles without being a clone.

The characters who do get screen time are well built. Most of them conform to regular men-on-a-mission types, but in the hands of actors like Michael Fassbender and David Morrissey that doesn’t matter. This seems like an appropriate enough point to note that Fassbender is fast becoming, if he isn’t already, an actor where it’s worth watching something with him in even if it doesn’t otherwise appeal. His mixed choices of blockbusters/mainstream-skewing movies and acclaimed artier fare suggest pretty impeccable taste. (Or, at least, tastes that match my own.) Olga the ScotThe cast is packed with people who, even if you don’t know their names, there’s a fair chance you’ll know the faces (assuming you watch your share of British drama): in addition to Fassbender and Morrissey there’s Dominic West, JJ Field, Lee Ross, Paul Freeman, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots, Rachael Stirling, Peter Guinness… not to mention Film Star Olga Kurylenko. Recognisability doesn’t guarantee quality, of course, but that’s a pretty good list.

On the action side, there’s a selection of excellently choreographed fights. Lots of blood and gore, but surprisingly not gratuitous considering we have all manner of limbs being lopped off, decapitations, heads being shorn in two, and so on. It’s unquestionably graphic, but it doesn’t linger — the battles are hectic, fast, a blur… but in a good way: you can see what’s going on, but it feels appropriately chaotic.

On the artsy side, the Scottish scenery is extraordinarily stunning. Helicopter shots are put to marvellous use. Think Lord of the Rings, only this was shot on our own fair island. The filmmakers went to extremes to achieve this — it’s entirely real location work, beyond the back of beyond in the depths of a snow-covered Scottish winter; no green screen, no CG enhancement — and their effort has paid off. It looks thoroughly gorgeous. I fear I’m overemphasising the point, but… nah.

Stunning sceneryI really enjoyed Centurion, appreciating its mix between brutally real action and stunning scenery, with a slightly more thoughtful side emerging in the final act. It’s also always pleasant to see a film that runs the length it wants to at a reasonable speed, rather than padding itself to reach two or even two-and-a-half hours. Splendid.

4 out of 5

Centurion placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.