Mutant Equality?

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SPOILER WARNINGMarvel’s X-Men was one of the first of the recent big-screen superhero franchise movies. X-Men and X2 were very good, but The Last Stand was pretty weak. So the decision was made to reboot it and X-Men: First Class in 2011 made a pretty good fist of things, recasting James McAvoy and the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender respectively as Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. Now it’s 2014 and we have X-Men: Days of Future Past. Original X-Men director Bryan Singer has returned, directing the characters for the first time since 2003. Days of Future Past is loosely based on the Claremont/ Paul Smith story published back in 1981 and it is set in a dystopian future where the surviving X-Men are forced to hide out and in the 1970s, where a young Professor X and Magneto have the opportunity to prevent that nightmarish future from ever happening. Basically, it all hinges on Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and his robotic creations, the Sentinels. So where First Class tried to mimic James Bond and that iconic Sixties feel, here we have jumped head to the Seventies with Singer going for that decade’s atmosphere and ambience. Thanks to the split time periods, for the first time, we are able to see Stewart and McKellen and McAvoy and Fassbender in the same film. Singer also does some very clever things with the visuals, and a scene with Quicksilver (Evan Peters) that turns the whole bullet time thing on its head. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) holds both periods together as they decide he is the only X-Men physically strong enough to survive being sent back to the 1970s. The film does manage to channel that classic comic feel without coming across as patronising and remaining faithful to the source without feeling slavish. Fassbender is very good again as Magneto as is McAvoy as Professor X but Stewart and McKellen feel a little bit like bit players in their own story and Dinklage feels wasted here, as Trask is just a plot device at the end of the day. Jennifer Lawrence reprising her role as Mystique has an onscreen magnetism that is hard to argue with. It has been released in 3D but apart from the Quicksilver scene, it doesn’t lend a great deal to the overall experience. The post-credits stinger, pointing to what’s next in the rebooted X-Men franchise, is short and feels a little bit pointless. X-Men: Days of Future Past isn’t perfect by any means (its end feels a little rushed and counter to the film’s own internal logic) but it is an ambitious summer superhero film with some nice flourishes. It is good to see Singer back on X-Men. It will be dominating the box office on both sides of the Atlantic as you read this…

Swinging Low

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SPOILER WARNING

When Marvel decided to reboot the Spider-man films after the disastrous Spider-man 3 back in 2007, the choice of Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-man was met with some skepticism. The 2012 film wasn’t perfect by any means: its running time was too long and some of the CGI looked decidedly ropey. But Emma Stone was an inspired choice as Gwen Stacy and there was an interesting vulnerability to Garfield’s Peter Parker. Fast-forward to 2014 and we have Amazing Spider-man 2. Webb’s second Spider-man outing suffers from many of the same problems as the first film (it outstays its welcome by about forty minutes and Jamie Foxx’s Electro has a very poorly designed costume) but it is actually a far weaker film than its predecessor. Garfield’s Peter Parker has become cocky and rather arrogant and the inclusion of a second villain with a conclusion that foreshadows the inevitable introduction of the Sinister Six in a second sequel means that the film feels cluttered and dramatically all over the place. There are some nice touches when it comes to exploring Peter’s father’s scientist past but overall you are left shrugging your shoulders. Marvel’s decision to press the restart button on Spider-man was criticised as a pointless exercise and Amazing Spider-man 2 really makes you miss Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire. The sad thing is that with another sequel packed full of even more villains than you have here, the omens aren’t looking good that they’ll be able to reverse the drop in quality. In fact, it is becoming reminiscent of what Warners did with Batman when Joel Schumacher came on board. Amazing Spider-man 2 is bloated, uneven and mostly unengaging…

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SCIENCE FRICTION
Four years ago, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 showed that you could make an intelligent modern sci fi film outside of America. Fast forward four years and we have Elyisum, Blomkamp’s second effort. Matt Damon plays Max, an orphan who lives on a future Earth which is overcrowded and polluted. The macguffin here is that all of the planet’s wealthiest citizens scarpered when the Earth got too dirty and now live in palatial luxury on an orbiting round space station which is filled with houses that look like they’ve been lifted straight from Beverly Hills. Max ekes out a living but he finds himself taking on a mission for dodgy facilitator Spider (Wagner Moura) which would take him up to Elysium and could change the balance of power forever. Of course, nothing is ever simple and deputy president of Elysium Delacourt (Jodie Foster) retains mercenary Kruger (Sharlo Copley) to hinder Max’s mission and gain control of Elysium for herself. After the bloated infantilised drivel we have been made to suffer this summer, Elysium comes as a little bit of a breath of fresh air. Damon has carved out a niche for himself as one of the most likeable contemporary modern leading men and he brings a lot to the film and Copley as the psychotic Kruger is good value. Visually, it is also spectacular: Blomkamp and kiwi production designer Philip Ivey (Lord of The Rings) do a fantastic job of bringing this world to life. We are also spared the tedium of 3D here. It’s not all perfect: Jodie Foster as the manipulative Delacourt is pretty weak and there are moments when the script does feel overly familiar. But Elysium feels like an adaptation of a 2000AD strip, mostly offering a slice of hard science fiction that carries the viewer along. It has a suitably downbeat ending as well, while offering a kernel of hope. It does feel more like a mainstream Hollywood film than District 9 but it still offers enough to stay with you after the credits have rolled that there is still the sense that Blomkamp comes to things from a different perspective to your Emmerichs and Bays. It will be interesting to see where the director goes next but Elysium is worth checking out…

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RIM SHOT
Today sees the release of Pacific Rim. The trailers didn’t fill me with hope as they looked like a larger scale Transformers. Before I start my review, I just want to say that I am a huge admirer of director Guillermo Del Toro. Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone are great films and both Hellboy movies are a lot of fun. Even Mimic, his mainstream monster movie, acquits itself very well. But the trailer for Pacific Rim is sadly very accurate. We are introduced to a world where monsters (Kaiju) from another dimension find themselves in our world, wreaking havoc and destruction and it takes a group of manmade machines (Jaegers) operated by two human pilots to go up against them. Charlie Hunnam (Sons Of Anarchy) plays Raleigh Becket, a Jaeger pilot who goes into hiding after the death of his brother and it takes Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) to get him to jump back into a Jaeger when the last few machines are all that stands between a Kaiju victory against the humans. For me, the big problem with Pacific Rim is just how infantile and empty it all is. The script is excruciatingly corny, the characters are nonexistent (only Del Toro’s regular contributor Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau manages to lift the scenes he is in) and the plot, such as it is, is flimsy and filled with holes. Idris Elba, often good value in things like Luther and obviously The Wire, is wooden and awful here. I enjoy fun, intelligent action films as much as the next man, but Pacific Rim looks and feels like an expensive toy movie, with all the depth of a child filming his toys in his bedroom. The best action films (Aliens, Predator, Die Hard) have a level of intelligence to their scripts that lift them up from being more than just impressive special effects bonanzas. Del Toro is a huge fan of monster films and Japanese robot movies but nowhere here does this really feel like one of his films. I will also admit that I was never into Japanese monster movies and giant robot films when I was a kid so there is no nostalgia for me here. I am fully aware that this is a very deliberate series of choices from Guillermo Del Toro and this is a love letter from him to all the films he’s loved but it just didn’t connect with me. I would rather if Del Toro was to make a mainstream Hollywood movie, that it would have been more like Mimic than like Pacific Rim. Audiences have such poor taste these days for mainstream films that I’m sure it will do well at the box office but I feel this is such a waste of a true cinematic maverick’s talents…

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A NEW SPIN?
It’s been five years since the disaster that was Spider-man 3 and so much has changed in the cinematic landscape that it was inevitable that Marvel would want to offer the world a different Spider-man to the one that Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire created in the three films last decade. It has been ten years since Raimi’s first Spider-man film and we’ve seen the successful big-screen transfer of Marvel creations like Thor, The Avengers and Captain America. The Amazing Spider-man, directed by Marc (500 Days of Summer) Webb has a different approach to Raimi: this film has a lighter and younger feel than Raimi’s efforts. Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker feels younger than Maguire’s portrayal and he even looks a little younger, even though in reality the actor is actually 28 years old. The story is the familiar one: Parker, losing his parents at a young age, he goes to live with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen, respectively). Parker is a science geek and finds himself in the offices of Oscorp, whose chief scientist Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is searching for a way to regrow his lost arm via experiments with other species. Parker finds himself in one of their secret labs and unwittingly ends up being bitten by a radioactive spider. When his Uncle is cruelly murdered in a street robbery, Parker makes it his mission to use his newfound powers for good. Meanwhile, the desperate Connors turns his own experiments on himself with disastrous consequences. Director Webb has a lightness of touch here and Garfield plays the gawky Parker with style and panache. The supporting cast are also pretty decent including the gorgeous Emma Stone as police captain Stacy’s daughter Gwen and Dennis Leary as her father. Ifans was an intriguing choice to play Connors and he mostly carries it off. The action sequences are well-handled but the running time is about forty minutes too long and shaving a chunk off would have made it a stronger film and occasionally some of the swinging scenes look a little too artificial but these are minor quibbles. Feeling like a Saturday morning cartoon, The Amazing Spider-man has mostly removed the bad taste that Spider-man 3 left and set things up nicely for future cinema adventures with Parker. The 3D is pretty pointless however and cinemagoers should see it in 2D as the 3D lends nothing to the experience. It is slightly less sophisticated than Thor and Avengers (Assemble) but still worth seeing. Marvel have done what they needed to do to make Spider-man a viable Hollywood franchise again…

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HOUSE OF LIMITED IDEAS?

I went to see Avengers Assemble, as it is called in the UK because the Sixties TV series called The Avengers trumps Lee and Kirby’s creations. Before I begin, I just want to say that Avengers Assemble isn’t a bad film: it rolls along at a decent pace and there are moments that make you smile. But one of the big problems with gathering together half a dozen or so characters on screen means that it is nigh on impossible for any character development or much characterisation. Every review so far has been falling over themselves to declare Avengers Assemble as a movie classic, up there with the best films ever made. Now, Whedon has made a decent fist of bringing Marvel’s franchise movie creations into a single film but there are occasions when Avengers Assemble feels like The Transformers it’s okay to like. Action sequences descend into Michael Bay-style video game artifice very quickly and the mcguffin of the film, Loki bringing alien invaders to Earth to rule it, is a plot so slight that it disappears if you look at it sideways. For anyone reading this review who thinks that I am damning it because I don’t enjoy films of this kind, that is not the case. Branagh’s Thor was a fun superhero movie that offered intelligence and some well-orchestrated action and Favreau’s first Iron Man was a mainstream delight. Downey Jr’s Stark has a few zingers here, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has a few moments that match the best that Thor had to offer and Jeremy Renner looks the part as Hawkeye. But Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow couldn’t be much less wooden if she tried and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/ The Hulk really doesn’t have a great deal to do. Plus, Samuel Jackson’s Fury almost makes you forget that there was a time that he was an actor to contend with. There is no sign of director Joss Whedon’s smarts here and Avengers Assemble really does feel like a toy movie with some decent scenes in it, created by committee. As of writing this, it has had the third biggest opening weekend in UK cinema history so it will clean up at the box office. So Disney/ Marvel must be pleased as must its shareholders but Avengers Assemble is a likeable piece of fluff that goes out of your head almost as soon as you’ve seen it…

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A FUN RIDE

Summer movies can be disappointing and 2011’s batch has been a mixed bag. However, Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau, passes a very pleasant couple of hours. Director Favreau is a very steady hand when it comes to big screen spectacle and from the start, when we see amnesiac cowboy Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) end up in the middle of nowhere in Arizona, he commands the viewers’ attention. Dispatching a group of mercenaries, the cowboy heads into town where he encounters the antagonistic Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano). So far, it feels like a classic western with Craig on great form as the Man With No Name. Then everything gets turned on its head with the appearance of the aliens of the title. So it then falls to Lonergan with the aid of crusty landowner Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford playing against type as an unpleasant figure), saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell) and mysterious woman Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) with the assistance of a group of Native Americans to fight the aliens, who are intent on plundering the Earth for its gold. Craig makes for a very credible leading man and Ford shows why he has endured for all these decades in Hollywood. It does make you think sometimes whether Favreau would be great helming a traditional Western. As a popcorn movie, Cowboys & Aliens is a very entertaining piece of fluff…

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BACK TO THE FUTURE
Summer 2011 has been an odd summer with some of the tentpole movies disappointing. So it’s heartening to watch a film like Super 8 from director JJ Abrams. A pastiche of/ tribute to Spielberg and Dante’s output from the 1980s, Super 8 is set in small-town Ohio in 1979. It deals with a group of kids, led by Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) determined to make a horror film using their super 8 camera. But the twist is that something strange has happened to the town, with a real monster living there. Abrams has made no secret of his love for 1980s films and this comes out in Super 8, which is shot like a Spielberg film with direction that feels like anathema to 2011 cinema. Spielberg is even producer on Super 8 and it has a very anachronistic feel. And I mean that in a positive way as editing is more measured than you get these days and directing is very deliberate. The kids are all very good actors especially Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) and Courtney, managing to be sympathetic to the audience and avoiding the sort of maudlin schmaltz that could make Super 8 unwatchable. Abrams shows that he is probably one of the best mainstream Hollywood directors currently working and a spiritual successor to Spielberg. It’s not perfect by any means as the last act falls a little bit flat and the monster looks like nearly all of Abrams’ on-screen horrors. But its flaws are not enough to prevent me from recommending it as perhaps the most fun you’ll have all summer at the cinema. Super 8 is highly recommended…


LOGAN’S RUN
X-Men: The Last Stand, released in 2006 was a mixed success. Director Brett Ratner was never going to replicate the acclaim that Bryan Singer received with the first two and so it came and went with a rather lukewarm response. Hollywood has been threatening X-Men spinoffs for a number of years and, with Jackman’s hairy Canadian hero one of the most popular turns in the movies, it made sense that this would be the first one out of the gate. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not without its problems as a snazzy title sequence that sees Wolverine, Sabretooth and other special forces associates fight in a succession of wars from the First World War through to Vietnam sets up proceedings smoothly. But the problem is that, once the set-up is out of the way, the plot which deals with a killer bumping off superheroes, specifically those who were with Wolverine, feels a little bit mundane and lacking in originality. Jackman is entertaining on screen in the title role as is Liev Schreiber, the murderous Victor Creed or Sabretooth, who has a real intensity as a performer but some of the other figures are little more than action turns with Australian Danny Huston as William Stryker wasted here. The action setpieces are fun to watch and the fights between Sabretooth and Wolverine are well-managed but Wolverine suffers from occasionally dodgy CGI and a fairly empty plot. The first two X-Men films had a lot to recommend them and the law of diminishing returns holds true here with a lot revealed about Wolverine already. But if you’re looking for a brainless summer movie, you won’t be disappointed with X-Men Origins: Wolverine however if you’re after a popcorn blockbuster with more heart and a little more in the way of brains, then Star Trek should be your choice…