Green Room (2015)

2017 #1
Jeremy Saulnier | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | English / English | 18 / R

Green Room

In my review of 2016, I asserted that Denis Villeneuve was “one of the most exciting directors working right now.” Here we have, if not the other end of the spectrum, then certainly a different angle on it: Jeremy Saulnier, perhaps the most overrated director working right now.

This, his third film, follows a struggling rock band who, in desperation for any work, take a gig at a remote club frequented and owned by extremist fascists. When the band see something they shouldn’t, the club’s violent owner and his gang try to kill them.

The main point everyone seems to make about Green Room is how unbearably tense it is. Well, I can imagine it might’ve been pretty tense if I hadn’t spent the whole time struggling to work out what was going on from all the mumbled dialogue. It’s not helped by much of the early chatter being music scene gobbledegook. Is this what watching sci-fi feels like to normal people? On one hand it doesn’t matter — the film is about the tension of the situation, not the vibrant wordplay. On the other, I was so distracted trying to decipher what was happening from the semi-unintelligible speech that I never really felt that fêted suspense.

Neither rock nor roll

The one time I did feel any real tension was right near the end. The form of the movie dictates that most of the cast are gonna get it, so it’s only in the closing stages that the final survivors (who are, naturally enough, the top-billed cast) may either win or finally be killed. The film has its indie-ness in its favour here, because you think that maybe the heroes will lose. Perhaps such a line of thought is me being too logical, not entering into the spirit of the fiction, but clearly the movie didn’t grip me enough before that point to feel anything sooner.

On the bright side, Patrick Stewart oozes class as the calmly in control villain, but I can see why he seemed to get pissed off at all the reviews/interviews going “OMG, this is such a departure for you!” Yeah, if your experience of his abilities extends no further than Star Trek: The Next Generation and the X-Men movies then this turn must be a revelation, but the guy’s got a long and exalted career playing all sorts of roles, on stage and screen. I’m not saying he’s bad here — he’s Patrick frickin’ Stewart, of course it’s a good performance — but I think some of the unreserved praise he’s received comes from a place of surprise at this role being a ‘departure’ for him.

These are the voyages of the starship Fascism

Labelling Saulnier the most overrated director currently working may be a bit harsh. It’s not that he’s a bad filmmaker, or even that he makes bad movies per se, but neither Blue Ruin nor Green Room have done very much for me, despite the adulation they’ve received elsewhere. Maybe if he continues this titular trend and next makes, I dunno, Red Mansion, which sounds like it might be a Gothic chiller, maybe then I’ll like him.

That said, I think Green Room is definitely more effective at its goals than Blue Ruin was. Even if I still think Saulnier is overrated, this is a step in the right direction.

3 out of 5

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Logan (2017)

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

This review contains major spoilers.

Logan

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

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

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

Wolverine vs Robotic Hand Man

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

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

Professor X-piring

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

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

Wolverine: The Last Stand

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

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

4 out of 5

X-Men (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #98

Trust a few.
Fear the rest.

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

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

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

Director
Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns)

Screenwriter
David Hayter (The Scorpion King, Watchmen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 81%

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

Verdict

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

#99 will be… X-Men united.

TMNT (2007)

2015 #99
Kevin Munroe | 87 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | PG / PG

The kids’ phenomenon of the ’80s/’90s has never quite gone away, and this film is one thing that kept it ticking over in the ’00s. I watched out of nostalgia, which may’ve been a mistake.

Eschewing an origin story, it dives in as a sequel rather than reboot; consequently, you constantly feel you’ve missed something, particularly given the focus on the heroes’ fractured relationships. The plot’s alright, though it’s an odd choice to not use any of the franchise’s major villains. Some action sequences are moderately entertaining, but other animations have provided better.

I expected little and was still disappointed.

2 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.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

2010 #107
Stuart Baird | 112 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

After the widespread disappointment with Insurrection, the ninth big screen outing for Star Trek, fans hoped the tenth, Nemesis, would mark a return to their old adage “even ones good, odd ones bad.” They had reasons to be hopeful: a new director, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and (potentially) the final outing for the beloved Next Generation crew. Surely they’d be given a fitting send-off?

Sadly, it wasn’t to be: Nemesis was a critical and commercial flop, the only Trek not to open at #1 in the US, the lowest-grossing of the entire franchise. And quite rightly, because it isn’t very good.

While Insurrection was accused of being dull because it was largely about a dispute over who got to live on a planet, the political side of that kept it engaging. Nemesis’s plot, on the other hand, just doesn’t go anywhere fast. Attempts to liven it up with some action sequences often come off as tacked-on asides, while discussions about just who Picard’s clone is and what he wants feel hollow — of course he’s a nasty piece of work, otherwise your film is completely villain-free!

Picard’s clone is played not by Patrick Stewart, but by a shaved Tom Hardy. Yes, that Tom Hardy. We should be glad Nemesis didn’t kill off his career, which at the time consisted of small roles in Band of Brothers and Black Hawk Down but has gone on to acclaimed leads (or other significant parts) in TV such as Stuart: A Life Backwards, Oliver Twist and Wuthering Heights, and on the big screen in Bronson, Inception and (soon) The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max 4. He’s not got much to work with here, Only the clonelythough the knowledge of better things to come means his presence somehow lifts his scenes a notch.

The film ends with the most pointless heroic sacrifice I’ve seen for a while. OK, the well-loved character’s dead, but that identical clone — you know, the one they downloaded all the character’s memories into — is still hanging around. Give me strength.

It’s a shame the Next Generation lot had to go out on such a duff note, their series of movies conforming more to the usual sequel pattern of diminishing returns (their first, First Contact, is highly praised, with the next two increasingly slated) than the original series crew’s good/bad alternation. Still, at least it cleared the way for what Trek probably needed more than anything: a good, clean, rebooting.

2 out of 5

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

2010 #81
Jonathan Frakes | 99 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

Star Trek: InsurrectionMany years ago, back when both the shows I’m about to mention were still on the air, someone drew a comparison that I felt summed up the whole of ’90s/’00s Star Trek. The two series in question were Farscape and Star Trek: Voyager, both of which concern humans trapped far away from Earth with no feasible way home, and the comparison went something like this: if the crew were offered a way to jump straight to Earth in exchange for a crewmember’s limb, in Farscape they’d discuss it briefly, then hack the limb off, hand it over, and be betrayed, all before the opening titles; in Star Trek: Voyager, they’d sit around discussing it for the whole episode before deciding “better not” and going on their way. Hopefully the point makes itself.

Insurrection seemed, apparently, the very personification of this idea. Rather than the broadly action-adventure style of First Contact, or other big contemporary sci-fi movies like Independence Day, The Fifth Element, Lost in Space, Armageddon, or even Star Wars Episode I — itself lamented (in part) for featuring too much discussion of trade blockades and whatnot — Insurrection concerns a minor dispute over a survey mission to a single planet. Yawn, right?

Picard had accidentally added a 0 to his iPad orderActually, this is when Insurrection is at its best. Action-adventure undoubtedly has a place in science-fiction, but so do wordier stories — when they’re done right, and when they’re where you expect them to be. You shouldn’t expect them from Star Wars; you should from Star Trek. (That doesn’t make Voyager’s attitude better than Farscape’s, incidentally; not if it was boring or implausibly honourable considering their situation. But that isn’t the matter at hand.) And so the first 45 minutes or so are mostly enjoyable. Critics say even this isn’t as deep as The Next Generation on TV got in its prime, but having not seen much of that I can’t compare; as a film by itself, the disputes and political wrangling kept me engaged. But then it begins an attempt to be all Exciting, at which point it begins to get dull, degenerating into a stock runaround and shoot-out, only with some disappointingly cheap CGI here and there.

Mad eyes; moodyThere’s a greater array of fan-pleasing nods and winks this time out. As with First Contact, they have to find an excuse to get Worf back on board (at the time, in universe continuity, he was on Deep Space 9 in Deep Space 9). Luckily little time is spent on this, but there are myriad references to DS9, the Dominion, the Borg, the Romulans — all of it irrelevant to the story at hand, all of it suggesting stuff was happening in the concurrent TV series that the filmmakers wanted fans to be sure they were aware of. Removed from that context by over a decade, and to a viewer not submersed in the Trek universe, it’s safe to say we don’t care. Elsewhere, Data gets a significant subplot — as per usual, then — and Picard gets a sort-of love interest. Perhaps it’s actually these bits the critics latched on to…

Die PicardMost negative reviews — so, most reviews — accused the film of being essentially a TV episode (or two, of course), not earning itself a spot on the big screen. They may have a point. The subject matter isn’t at fault — a planet with the ability to make everyone live forever has suitably large potential — but the execution of it is frequently low-key. This isn’t too bad in the first half, which maintains the interest as it unfurls the story, but when it degenerates into action in the second half it falls apart. It’s no longer interesting and, ironically, looks made-for-TV, lacking inspired direction or suitable scope. Perhaps it would’ve been better served as a TV episode; or, as a film, better served by a writer and/or director and/or producer with greater vision.

3 out of 5

Film4 and Film4 HD are showing the first ten Star Trek films across Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th October. Insurrection is on at 9pm on Sunday.
Star Trek: Insurrection is on Channel 4 today, Sunday 21st September 2014, at 3:30pm.

Hamlet (2009)

aka The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

2009 #90
Gregory Doran | 183 mins | TV | 12

Hamlet (2009)It doesn’t seem like 18 months since the RSC brought Hamlet to the stage with British TV’s biggest star actor (probably) as the titular Dane, but it is (more or less). Thanks to sold-out performances and largely positive reviews (theatre critics seem even less keen to agree on anything than film ones), we’re now treated to this film adaptation, shown on BBC Two on Boxing Day and released on DVD (but not Blu-ray, boo*) earlier this week.

Hamlet hangs primarily on its central performance — so we’re constantly told, anyway; this being only the second production I’ve seen I can’t confidently assert so for myself, but I can certainly see where the consensus comes from. Equally, I can’t accurately compare David Tennant’s performance to any other, which often seems to be a central consideration in any review of the play. In near-isolation, however, it’s a thoroughly convincing performance. He glides seamlessly from withdrawn and grief-stricken in his first appearance, to intrigued and excited by the ghost of his father, to clever and wily as he plots, and finally to an alternation between assumed madness and serious introspection as he enacts his plans.

Any number of scenes show off Tennant’s abilities, particularly the way he treats other characters. He resolutely takes the piss out of both Polonius and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, but plays each in subtly different ways: the former is like someone intelligent teasing with someone who doesn’t get it, which sounds distasteful but is enjoyable because of Polonius’ plotting and influence; while the latter is like a cat toying with a pair of treacherous mice, who are aware they’ve been caught out but struggle on regardless. Hamlet’s pair of ‘friends’ can be seen as insignificant characters by some — it’s part of what led Tom Stoppard to pen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, after all — but with a few silent additions around Shakespeare’s dialogue and the way Tennant, Sam Alexander and Tom Davey choose to play the original lines, their roles seem to have increased importance.

The other notable facet of Tennant’s interpretation of the character is humour. Hamlet’s madness here is almost unrelentingly funny — even in deadly serious situations, like capture following a murder, Tennant’s Hamlet can’t resist taunting the other characters, keeping the viewer onside by keeping his apparent insanity entertaining rather than scary or darkly intense. If anything, however, this screen version fails to capture just how funny Tennant was on stage. Perhaps it’s the loss of a bigger audience, or the energy of performing on stage, or perhaps Tennant has reined in, switching from Stage Acting to Screen Acting. He’s still funny, certainly, but its not as striking as it was live. In fact, more laughs are earnt by Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. As his lines dither on like many a real forgetful old man, it’s difficult to imagine the part played any other way.

The other stand-out is an award-winning Patrick Stewart in the dual role of Claudius and the Ghost, though the fact he plays both feels relatively insignificant. His cool politician of a King makes a perfect contrast to the crazed energy of the Prince, the latter constantly bounding around while the former remains still and collected. In my view it’s a shame Stewart has a beard in the filmed version (a necessity forced by his concurrent appearance in Waiting for Godot, I believe) — on stage he was clean-shaven and therefore somehow more reminiscent of numerous other political villains, both real and fictional, whereas his bearded visage is more reminiscent of a traditional Kingly role. Still, it’s a minor aesthetic point that doesn’t hamper his wonderful performance.

Director of the original stage production, Greg Doran, also helms this version. It’s a convincing adaptation too, making good use of sets, locations and, vitally, camerawork, rather than employing static shots of the original theatrical blocking. A quick shoot (18 days for an over-three-hours film) and single location combine to reduce the number of on-screen locations, unfortunately, though the main set is fairly well rearranged to stand in for a number of rooms. It does branch out occasionally, but it’s a shame this couldn’t have been done more often, as consecutive scenes on the same slightly-redressed main set occasionally confuse whether we’ve changed location or not.

Doran’s main screen gimmick, however, is security cameras. Every so often our viewpoint switches to a grainy black & white high angle as we survey the scene via CCTV. It’s a neat idea to convey the concept of Elsinore as a place where everyone is under constant scrutiny, and it’s occasionally used very well indeed — during the Ghost’s appearance to Hamlet, for example, or when he rips a camera down to declare “now I am alone”. Unfortunately, it’s not as consistently thought-out as one might like. When Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, they do so from behind a two-way mirror (as in Branagh’s film, incidentally) rather than, say, from a control room with a bank of security monitors, an idea which seems to naturally flow from the presence of CCTV. Following this, when Polonius talks to Hamlet he delivers several asides to camera — not the security camera, mind, just to the audience. It would have been more effective to have him offer them to a security camera, knowing Claudius to be viewing in another room. It’s moments like these that turn the omnipresent video surveillance from a clever idea to little more than a gimmick. And by the time it’s cut to during the climactic sword fight, you just want it to go away.

It’s almost certain that this production will be remembered as “The Doctor Who Hamlet” thanks to its leading man. Whether that’s unfair or not is another debate, though it shouldn’t mean this version goes ignored. Tennant’s excellent performance reminds us that he was an accomplished performer with the RSC long before he gained televisual fame, and a strong supporting cast ensure this can’t just be dismissed as a popularity-seeking vanity venture by the RSC. Indeed, if there’s one good thing about the “Doctor Who Hamlet” label, it’s that the potential viewership is increased massively, bringing some to Shakespeare who never would have bothered otherwise. Surely no true theatre aficionado could argue with that.

4 out of 5

* A Blu-ray was eventually released in April 2010. ^