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Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Tramp Reviews: X-Men: Days of Future Past



It's tempting to begin this review with a recap of the previous films. However, I've already done that here, and even X-Men: Days of Future Past itself assumes that its audience will be reasonably familiar with the series' convoluted narrative, offering virtually no explanation of who the extensive cast of characters are and their relationships to each other. However, despite the wilfully stuffy confusion of some reviewers, only a cursory knowledge of previous X-Men titles is really necessary to follow the time-twisting plot, although it's true that long-term fans of the series are the most likely to enjoy this episode fully. As always, since I'm writing this review several days after the film has been released, expect major spoilers. If you haven't yet seen the film, stop reading now, but if you're looking for a recommendation, X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the best entries in the series and you should see it as soon as possible.

One of the most interesting elements of Days of Future Past is its numerous allusions to dystopian science fiction cinema, particularly during its futuristic first act. The earlier films clearly owed a debt to the genre, but here there are specific visual and narrative homages to its forbears. The captured mutants being marched down bleak corridors are reminiscent of the workers in Metropolis, and the bodies of the dead recall the imagery of both The Terminator and Soylent Green, all piled up in a hellish landscape that reminds us of Blade RunnerThe Matrix and Tron. Disturbingly, these scenes are suggestive also of the holocaust sections in some of the other X-Men films, and are undoubtedly some of the darkest and most challenging sequences of the entire series. In another director's hands, these scenes could very easily have felt derivative
and even tasteless, but with veteran Bryan Singer at the helm, they feel like the logical, nightmarish conclusion to the themes of the series.

Storm's onscreen time is limited but memorable.
Where the visual references of the future scenes are necessarily science-fiction, the scenes in the 1970s are more likely to recall the political thrillers of that decade; an approach which also worked extremely well in this year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's one which functions simultaneously as a visual contrast to the future sequences, and as an extension of the film's political and social themes. Singer and his production team deserve recognition both for combining two potentially disparate aesthetics into a coherent style, and for creating a visual design distinct from both the millenial blue of the original trilogy, and the technicolour 60s fantasy of X-Men: First Class.

Perhaps the most consistent criticism that has been levelled at Days of Future Past is its convoluted narrative, jumping, as it does, from future to past and back again. To paraphrase one review of another superhero film, there is indeed more plot here than story. Moreover, the future scenes very much feel like the action-packed finale of a different film - the last few minutes of a movie edited to punctuate the 70s-set narrative. As a result, most of the future characters get only a few lines each, if at all, and not really anything approaching characterisation. That said, the future cast succeed at making us care about characters who are, to be generous, sparsely written, and Singer's narrative economy here is admirable. Imagine if Peter Jackson, with his inability to cut the fat from a story, had directed Days of Future Past, and it's easy to see the sense behind Singer's decision to keep the future scenes to a minimum. The director shows us only what is absolutely necessary before moving us on to the real meat of the 70s-set story. And it's here that the real emotional development comes, primarily in a neat reversal of the student / mentor dynamic between Wolverine and Xavier. Predictably, the main cast are all on form: Jackman has for years been inextricably associated with Wolverine, and is at complete ease in the role, whereas Fassbender and Lawerence both bring welcome depth and pathos to Magneto and Mystique. Indeed, more so than any other instalment, this X-Men film blurs the lines between heroes and villains.

Despite the strong performances and impressive narrative plate-spinning, it is fair to say that Days of Future Past exists primarily to tidy up an increasingly complicated and frequently contradictory backstory. The events of the disappointing third instalment, The Last Stand, are conclusively and overtly written out in the film's final scene with the unexpected but welcome return of some of the series' missing characters. Similarly, the repeated appearances of a young William Stryker feel unnecessary and extraneous to Days of Future Past's story. However, somewhat forgivably, his inclusion conflicts with the timeline of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, effectively erasing the events of that film from the series canon.

Arguably the strongest set piece of the entire series.
Days of Future Past's greatest strength lies in its action, which offers the best set pieces of the series as well Inception-flavoured finale which combines past and future showdowns with the terrifying, mutant-hunting sentinels. Incidentally, the film contains some seriously grisly violence and really pushes the 12A rating; if The Last Stand was unafraid to dispassionately kill off major characters, Days of Future Past forces us to witness the suffering of a cast ripped apart by robotic drones indifferent to their roles as series favourites.
as several sequences that feel fresh and innovative in a genre bloated with epic spectacle. The best of these is newcomer Quicksilver's showpiece, in which he whizzes around security guards in one of the most preposterously enjoyable jailbreak scenes ever filmed. Honourable mention also goes to the

With spectacular flair, distinctive visuals, and a strong, if somewhat convoluted story, X-Men Days of Future Past offers what may be the best entry in the series. This is also the darkest episode in the ongoing saga, but balances that darkness with perfectly measured levity and humour, deriving from an extremely polished script and strong central performances. If, as with all X-Men films, some of the characters feel a little-short changed, and the plot bounces along a little too quickly, it is only because of Singer's insistence on keeping a tight focus on the type of story he wants to tell. Similarly, much of the dialogue functions as simple exposition, but with a narrative that keeps the thrills coming thick and fast, it hardly matters. With an unprecedented run of three good films, after fourteen years it seems that the X-Men have finally found their footing, and it really couldn't be stronger.

Monday, 12 May 2014

What is up with La Dolce Vita? A Rant.



After a long time meaning to get around to it, I finally watched Federico Fellini's 1960 La Dolce Vita at the weekend, an iconic example of Italian neo-realist cinema, universally lauded by critics, nominated for four Academy Awards and winner of one, as well as being listed by the British Film Institute as the 39th greatest film ever made. I couldn't stand it. Actually, I lie - the first hour, give or take, was by turns beautiful, intriguing, sexy and harrowing. The film's most famous scene, in which Anita Ekberg frolics in a Roman fountain was deserving of its status as an enduring icon of cinema, and Marcello Mastroianni's almost unbearable desire for Ekberg in that scene, figured by an untouchable sensuality, singularly captures one of the central and most complex themes of the film, Namely, that of the way male audiences idolise and objectivity women, necessarily making of them either Madonnas or whores. It is a moment of pure cinema, without need of dialogue or exposition, and one which is effectively ruined by the film's insistence on driving the point home, repeatedly, with endless scenes of men dryly explaining to each other what and how women should be. 

Mastroianni plays a society journalist who is caught between the temptations of the 'dolce vita' of the title - the 'sweet life' of the rich and famous, and a revulsion at the decadence, self indulgence and pseudo-intellectual posing that naturally follows. At a running time of nearly three hours and virtually no central
The best bit of the film. Save yourself the trouble and don't bother with the rest.
narrative, I can sympathise. Not tied down to the need to tell a single story, the film is able to explore its themes and paint its pictures freely. Except that, for my money, exploration entails more than simply endlessly repeating the same point in different settings. The lifestyles of the rich are simultaneously irrestistable and repellent. Celebrity comes with some pretty horrible existential consequences. Women are desirable. Women are mothers. Women are deified by men. Women are not treated like human beings by men. 
La Dolce Vita, I get it. This does not require three hours of interminable navel-gazing to come to terms with. Over the course of the film, there is undeniably beauty, composed with the artistry and artifice only accessible to a master of cinematic imagery, but call me old fashioned, I need more than artful composition, more than Italian cars shot in black and white, more than moody men in sharp suits ogling gorgeous women. Three hours requires, in my humble opinion, story. It needs narrative pacing, the ebb and flow of incident and character development. Call me a populist, but I want my characters to be in a different place when I leave them than when I met them. More to the point, I want their changes to change me; I don't want to have figured out the 'horrible' truth of my central character's ennui a full hour before he gets there (that truth, incidentally, is that rich people are often self-indulgent and boring, and hanging around self-indulgent, boring people is probably a bad idea). And I don't consider a dead fish staring blankly on a beach a sufficiently sophisticated or even interesting metaphor to justify having sat through 164 minutes hours of nicely composed shots of the same basic two or three fucking ideas. Yes, I get that it's (supposedly) split into seven segments (seven, geddit? Like in the Bible and that). I get the Madonna / whore stuff. I get the Catholic iconography, and its relationship to the iconography cinema. I get the endless descent into meaninglessness. We've all read Baudrillard. We all know about the Carnival, and the male gaze and structralism and blah, blah, blah. Yes, La Dolce Vita, you're very clever. Yes, I understand. Yes, you're spectacles are very stylish. No, you can't have my number.

And while I'm at it, another disappointment I endured lately was Frances Ha, a turgid little hipster nothing, universally and inexplicably admired, with pretensions towards both Fellini and Woody Allen. I have a far-less well developed dislike of this film, and so since it doesn't justify its own post, I wish to publicly express my dislike for Frances Ha here. I can't even be bothered to think of a pun on its lame hipster title. I know this has nothing really to do with the rest of my post. Think of this paragraph as a delightful little intermezzo

It's all, like, signs and signifiers, innit?
Anyway, before I'm accused of having too short an attention span and only wanting to watch The Wolverine or whatever, let me just say that I bloody love boring pretentious arthouse cinema as much as the next Guardian-reading toe sniffer. Lawrence of Arabia is about 4 days long and every frame of that film is exhilarating. Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is one of my favourite films, easily as iconic and twice as complex as La Dolce Vita, and yet still manages to include incident along with its religious themes. Bergman's Persona is a masterpiece of minimalist story-tellling and performance, despite very little happening during the course of the film, but it still feels more developed than Fellini's endless shrugging. I'll be damned if I know what Tarkovsky's Mirror was all about but it sure as hell didn't bore the arse off me. Pretty much Akira Kurosawa's entire catalogue is obviously pure class, as are Bicycle Thieves and The Battle of Algiers. Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie isn't entirely to my taste, but at least it's got a bit of blood coursing through its veins, and finds time to include a few laughs. And, aye, I know I've name-checked more or less the most obvious post-war arthouse cinema in an attempt to legitimise my position. Stop being such a smart arse. To return to Felllini, initially I struggled with 8 1/2, until about half way through when everything seemed to click into place for me. Perhaps I'm just a bit slow on the uptake. But for me, La Dolce Vita was the exact opposite: initially brimming with intense, potentially rich and complex imagery, tiresomely repeated ad infinitum. And don't give me any of that "it's supposed to be like that, duh, it's like we're the journalist, getting bored and ground down by it all together" guff. I am not the journalist, and I don't need three hours to figure out that rich people are vacuous. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

"What Kind of Monster Are You? The Wolverine!" X-Men: Part Three




Few would dispute that since the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel's series of Avengers films has become, at least from a business and financial perspective, the most important modern blockbuster franchise in Hollywood. Moreover, Marvel's model of an expanded universe, with a potentially limitless web of interconnected films will undoubtedly define the mindset of major studios for the foreseeable future. However, I would argue that 20th Century Fox, owner of the X-Men series, has its own share of responsibility for the current state of Hollywood superhero franchises, not only because the original X-Men kick-started the prevalence of  modern comic adaptations, but also in its almost-accidental creation of a shared universe with a haphazard collection of sequels, prequels and spin-offs. In my final post on the X-Men series, I want to suggest that both the Marvel and Fox expanded universes, while ostensibly deriving inspiration from their comic-book roots, actually mirror much of what Universal achieved in the 1940s with their series of monster-mash up horror films. 

What I find particularly interesting about the X-Men series in general is the way it plays with concepts of otherness and monstrosity, refiguring the monsters as heroes. It’s well documented that the X-Men, both in film and comic form, with their freakish abilities and position as marginalised and often feared outsiders, are effectively thinly-veiled monsters reconstructed as superheroes. In fact, I argue that in paying homage in one scene to the 1931 version of Frankenstein, James Mangold not only makes a passing reference to this reading of the X-Men, but more importantly, draws an intriguing comparison to the production of modern superhero franchises, and that of the Universal horror cycle of the 1930s and 40s. In a cinematic landscape awash with conservative vigilante fantasies (Batman) and government backed, super-secret strike forces (Avengers Assemble), the X-Men films are unique in their continuing story of the fight for mere acceptance. Furthermore, The Wolverine is particularly interesting with regard to monstrosity in the way that at one point it makes overt reference to the Frankenstein monster, perhaps the greatest example in pop cinema of the misunderstood and feared 'other'. For example, during the scene where Wolverine tries to extract the robotic device in his chest, the laboratory setting and his position on an operating table alludes to the creation of the monster in Frankenstein. In contrast to the Frankenstein monster lying unconscious as the mad scientist operates on him,Wolverine operates on himself, asserting an autonomy and self-direction usually denied the monster in cinema. Shingen's question to Wolverine in the same scene, 'What kind of monster are you?', and Wolverine's furious answer, 'The Wolverine!' hammers the point home. Unlike Frankenstein's creation, however, this monster has a name, as he unambiguously asserts as 'The Wolverine!', before dispatching Shingen in a characteristically brutal fashion. Wolverine's answer here acts both as the reassertion of his lost identity, as well as a play on the trope of the monster without a name. In a series that, at its best, is about the discovery and assertion of identity, this is a great, if rather unsubtle, moment of pop bildungsroman

Compare and contrast: Frankenstein Meets The Wolverine

The Wolverine's allusion to Frankenstein in this scene reminds us that even though the Avengers series feels fresh and innovative in its approach to story-telling (having itself been influenced by the early X-Men films), universe building across connected franchises is nothing new in Hollywood.  We’re encouraged to think that Marvel and Fox’s current shared-universe approach to their franchises is experimental and innovative, and to an extent that’s true, but it isn’t the first time that this has been attempted. Universal studios performed an almost-identical trick over seventy years ago, when they began to combine their horror series together, most notably with FrankensteinDracula and The Wolf Man. Beginning with silent films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, the so-called Universal Horror Cycle moved into the sound era with Dracula in 1931, the success of which meant it was quickly followed by James Whale's Frankenstein in the same year. Both of these received their own sequels with Dracula's Daughter (1936), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). 1941 saw the release of The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr., who would then play the monster in the fourth Frankenstein picture, the abysmal Ghost of Frankenstein, released the following year in 1942, as well as the ubiquitous Count (or is that his son? There seems to be no consensus) in the second (sort of) sequel to Dracula, entitled - of course - Son of Dracula, released in 1943. With Chaney starring in Universal's three major monster franchises, it seemed to make sense to mash them together and see what happened. So, 1943 also saw Chaney return to his werewolf role with the release of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, an enjoyable slice of trash that simultaneously served as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man and the fifth Frankenstein film.

Similarly, just as The Wolverine is the second Wolverine film, it is also a sequel of sorts to the third X-Men film, and yet is somehow the sixth X-Men film overall. Following Frankenstein Meets the Wolf ManHouse of Frankenstein was released in 1944. This one features Dracula as well, this time played by a delightfully hammy John Carradine, making it the third Wolf Man film, fourth Dracula film and sixth Frankenstein. 1945 saw the release of House of Dracula, featuring all three monsters in a confused mess of a mash-up, that serves as part-sequel and part-reboot to the previous film: no mention is made of the deaths of either Dracula or the Wolf Man from House of Frankenstein, but the film goes to lengths to explain the resurrection of the Frankenstein monster, who also met his end at the end of the last one. Similarly confusingly, X Men: Days of Future Past will serve as a direct sequel to not only The Wolverine and The Last Stand, but also to First Class, making it a direct sequel to three (!) different films, the second direct sequel to The Last Stand, and the seventh installment in the series overall. This means that if we were numbering the films, Days of Future Past could be legitimately called X-Men: First Class 2, X-Men 4X-Men 5X-Men 6 or X-Men 7. And that's before we consider that X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the First Class era, and another Wolverine film, almost certainly set before the events of Days of Future Past are both in production, which if we're numbering the films based on their internal chronology (and after all of this, why the hell not?), it means that Days of Future Past, the seventh in the series, might as well be called X-Men: First Class 3X-Men 8 or X-Men 9. This beats even the Universal series for sheer convolutedness, and I know of no other film series whose sequels, like the tendrils of some Lovecraftian monstrosity, knot and tangle over each other so excessively, and yet so beautifully.

Sequels such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of Dracula are little more than cheaply produced cash-ins, made to ride on the coattails of their successful forbears, but they do demonstrate that the concept of successful (financially at least) shared filmic universes is nothing new. It's fascinating to me that a film like The Wolverine, which in many ways is an average comic book action film, existing only to keep a variable franchise afloat until the arrival of its next 'proper' installment, can unlock many of the relationships its parent series has with the past and ongoing history of cinema, even if those relationships mainly lie in the confusing and artistically dubious nature of sequels. I hope that it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that that the release of Days of Future Past, a film about returning to the past for the survival of the future, foreshadows what lies ahead for the superhero genre as a whole: looking to the past, whether by paying homage to James Bond and gothic monsters, or by unconsciously mirroring the insane mash-up-sequel-logic of the Universal Horror Cycle, has reaped rewards for the X-Men franchise, a series which, if nothing else, seems to excel at reinvention and rejuvenation. Perhaps, then, if the superhero genre is to find its place in the future history of cinema, then it must look backwards, to its forbears, to do so.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A Glimpse into The Past: X-Men Part 2

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Last week, we looked at the original X-Men trilogy, and so to begin this week's post we'll be recapping the spin off trilogy: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine.

Ah yes, X-Men Origins. Let's get this one out of the way.

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Ugh.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Following the disappointment of The Last Stand, things were looking shaky for the X-Men franchise, but few could have predicted just how bad things could get. In hindsight, however, the signs were all there. 20th Century Fox announced that they would be taking the series down the prequel route, beginning with a film about Wolverine before moving on to origin stories of Professor X and Magneto, as well as a Deadpool film that mercifully never materialised. The potential (from the studio's standpoint) looked great - a respectable director in Gavin Hood, and an almost endless roster of characters on which to base stand-alone films, not to mention sequels and cross-overs. At the centre of the hype machine was Hugh Jackman himself, promising audiences that this would be the film where Wolverine would finally be let loose, relentlessly tearing up bad guys and answering those questions left tantalisingly unanswered by the original trilogy. But alas, in a post-Phantom Menace world, audiences were only too familiar with the empty promises of ambitious prequels, with the empty rhetoric of 'returning to the spirit of the original' falling on skeptical ears. Critics' and audiences' reticence was borne out when, after a rough cut of the film was leaked online, Origins was hurriedly released to cinemas. When it arrived, anyone who hadn't already seen it was greeted with one of the worst superhero films ever released. Far worse than The Last Stand. Worse than Daredevil. Worse even, dare I say it, than Batman and Robin. Unfinished special effects, juvenile, boring action sequences, wasted characters, and an appalling screenplay were but a handful of the sins of which Origins was guilty. Beyond laboriously listing the film's many, many problems (not least the shoddy, unnecessary  use of CGI claws and the stunt casting of Will. I. Am), there isn't a great deal more to say on Origins, but it is important to at least acknowledge this film, because its critical and commercial failure marks a crucial change not only in the fortunes of the X-Men franchise, but more importantly, in 20th Century Fox's approach to their series. The original idea following the release of Origins was to produce similar stories based on Xavier and Magneto. Unsurprisingly, these films were shelved following the train wreck of Origins, and it looked like the franchise was dead in the water. Only two years later, however, those Magneto / Xavier origins plans were dusted off and retooled into X-Men: First Class, a quasi-reboot-prequel, and somewhat astonishingly, one of the best films of the series.

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X-Men: First Class

Nobody suspected that a follow-up to Origins could have been anything other than a further descent into schlock. Indeed, a tacky, cheap-looking early promotional poster suggested as much to the few people who were still paying the series any attention. But then, this atmospheric trailer arrived, suggesting a character-driven story and a renewed focus on the friendship between Magneto and Xavier. And of course, Matthew Vaughan, responsible for Layer Cake, Stardust and the previous year's terrific Kick Ass (not to mention second choice to make The Last Stand - if only!) was directing. Maybe, just maybe, this one might be alright.

And boy, is it ever: rather than suffering from prequel-itis, First Class' sixties setting injects a sense of fun and colour arguably missing from even the first two good X-Men films. Michael Fassbender stands out as the young Erik Lensherr / Magneto, particularly in a brilliant Euro-hopping sequence where he tracks down his former Nazi tormentors, which plays out not only as an exhilarating action segment in its own right, but also as the best James Bond audition tape never filmed. Elsewhere, James McAvoy is brilliantly cast as a young Charles Xavier, playing him against expectations as a cocky ladies man thoroughly enjoying the swinging sixties. Rather than undermining Patrick Stewart's interpretation of the character as a calm scholar, McAvoy adds new dimension and depth to him. Its subtle yet consistent subversion of our expectations is perhaps First Class' greatest strength. On paper, for example, writing Xavier and Mystique as adoptive siblings sounds bizarre, but McAvoy, Vaughn, and the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence make it work. Their dynamic creates new perspectives on the groundwork laid by Bryan Singer, especially with regard to Mystique's dedication to Magneto. More importantly, in casting Magneto in a sympathetic light, and grounding his world view in his experiences of the holocaust, Fassbender enriches McKellan's older version of the character, leaving us in real ambivalence over just how far we can read Magneto as a simple villain. Of course, First Class has its share of flaws: for one thing it's littered with continuity errors with all the previous films, especially The Last Stand and Origins, although any X-Men film that disregards the events of those two is fine with me. Additionally, Fassbender's weird English-American-Irish accent becomes pretty distracting, there are a few visual effects that look unfinished, and Beast's blue make up, replete with nerdy spectacles, raised audible titters of derision in the cinema audience when I first saw the film. More importantly, the ending feels a little too neat and tidy, with Erik donning the Magneto helmet, Mystique joining him, and Charles being paralysed all happening within minutes of each other. The nadir of the film comes, however, in an embarrassing contrivance that has Rose Byrne strip to her lingerie underwear to infiltrate a nightclub, as well as January Jones' ridiculous wardrobe as Emma Frost. It's a shame, because the few female characters in the film are otherwise treated sensitively as actual human beings with their own motivations and agendas, but here Byrne and Jones are used to pander to a perceived adolescent male viewership. With those exceptions, the rest are minor complaints in a film that performs a near miracle in reviving a moribund franchise, so much so that First Class feels at times like a lesson to George Lucas in how to tell an origin story of friends-turned-enemies. Alongside X 2, this is not only one of the best films of the series, but one of the best comic book movies ever made.

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The Wolverine

How does a studio follow the critical success of First Class? By returning to the concept that almost derailed the franchise, of course! Yes, The Wolverine is the second-attempt to bring audiences a stand-alone Wolverine movie. In what seems to be an X-Men tradition, the film was originally set to be directed by Darren Aronosfky, before changing hands to James Mangold. Hugh Jackman assured audiences that this one really would be 'true to the character', repeatedly, but as we know, promises like these had been made and broken in the past. And so it came as somewhat of a surprise that The Wolverine is actually rather good. Let's not get ahead of ourselves: it can't touch First Class or X 2, and isn't even quite as good as Singer's original, but as a standalone film it's entertaining, well paced and at times very nicely shot. Compared to the other Wolverine film it's a masterpiece. Although it's set up as a quasi-sequel to The Last Stand (creating yet more continuity problems with First Class), The Wolverine more or less distances itself from the other films, giving the sense that this is a chapter in an ongoing saga of Wolverine adventures, connected to but independent of the wider X-Men story. In many respects, it feels like a lot like James Bond film, perhaps not up to the Connery-esque standard of Magneto's European sequence in First Class, but as least as good as your average Dalton or Brosnan outing. This is especially true of the bullet-train scene, which stands out as one of the best and most imaginative action sequences of the series. True, there are significant problems with the film - it sags heavily in the middle, the motivations of many of the characters often feel needlessly obfuscated or overly complex, and the climax somehow succeeds at feeling both underwhelming and ludicrously over the top. Not to mention, the film has the dubious honour of giving us the series' worst female character to date in the Viper. In her every appearance she dresses in increasingly fetishistic outfits, before declaring in her final scene that she is immune to all poison, including the worst of all: 'men'. It's the most embarrassing moment of the film, which is not an insignificant achievement given it's in the same scene as an enormous samurai robot piloted by an aging World War II veteran.

Despite its standing as the least good of the good X-Men films, I'd argue that The Wolverine holds the key to the structure of the series as a cohesive story, and to the future of expanded universe action franchises. Although I have an uncommon regard for the film, undoubtedly the most satisfying part of the film is the post-credits sting, wherein Magneto and an inexplicably-resurrected Xavier jointly recruit Wolverine for an all-important-but-mysterious mission as a blatant teaser for the next proper X-Men instalment. The Last Stand and Origins also had post-credits teasers, which inevitably went nowhere. In contrast, The Wolverine's teaser is setting up a film already in production, and is clearly influenced by a practice established by the ubiquitous Avengers films. This is why The Wolverine is the key to uniting the X-Men franchise into a coherent story. Until this film, the series was produced in an almost admirably haphazard way, lurching from one film to the next, with plans for spin offs, origin stories and prequels fulfilled or forgotten on the whims of fortune. Although the upcoming Days of Future Past will tie together the First Class and Original Trilogy stories, The Wolverine is really the first film in the series to openly suggest a long-term plan for the franchise. Moreover, unlike the Marvel studios films, which all invariably lead toward the next Avengers instalment, The Wolverine succeeds at both joining the dots between the existing X-Men films, and laying the foundations of future spinoffs not directly connected to the main story. Marvel's Avengers is clearly the inspiration for Fox's renewed dedication to their franchise, and there's no doubt that Marvel's approach to interconnected franchises will inform the mindset of major studios to their properties for the forseeable future. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the X-Men series as a poor-man's Avengers. In fact, I argue that Fox's scatter-gun approach to story telling, and their admirable disregard for a slavish adherence to continuity is actually closer to the tradition of comic-book story telling than the Avengers. And like universe-resetting comics such as DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, Fox's Days of Future Past promises to correct some of the continuity problems between its prior films.

Next week will see the conclusion to this series of X-Men posts, in which I will look at the odd but illuminating relationship between the X-Men films and the Universal Horror cylce.

Monday, 24 March 2014

What Would You Prefer, Yellow Spandex? A Look Back at The X-Men Trilogy

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This is something that I've been brewing for a while, and with a new trailer out today for X-Men: Days of Future Past and its already-announced follow up, Apocalypse, I think now is as good a time as any to do this post. Released in May this year, Days of Future Past will be the seventh film set in the X-Men universe, following last year's The Wolverine, which was itself the second attempt at a standalone Wolverine film. Overshadowed initially by Sam Raimi's Spiderman films, and more recently by the superfluous Avengers series and the Dark Knight Trilogy, the X Men franchise has quietly trundled along, releasing installments every two or three years since the first film came out in 2000. Not only does this make it the longest-running comic book film series ever made, but it also has become one of the most variable, interesting and important film franchises of the last fifteen years.  At the risk of becoming as unwieldy as the X series itself, over three posts I'm going to do summaries of both the original trilogy and what I'll call the 'spin off' trilogy, which consists of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, and The Wolverine. Secondly, I'll look at the extent to which Days of Future Past is an attempt to tie all the films together, but more importantly, the production of the newer X-Men films bear an increasing resemblance to not only the Avengers franchise model, with interconnected continuities across different storylines, but also, to Universal Studios' commercial strategy in the 1940s of combining its Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolf Man properties into a single monster-mash up franchise.

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X-Men (2000)
There are only three years between the first X-Men film and 1997's abominable Batman and Robin, and yet they are worlds apart in almost every respect. Indeed, where Joel Schumacher's bat-nipples and neon overload represent the bloated, self-parodic death knells of the 90s superhero, Bryan Singer's slick, smart and engaging X-Men very much signals the rebirth, Phoenix-like, of the superhero genre as the new dominant form of action cinema. X-Men has been superseded by recent, more assured entries into the genre, including Avengers Assemble, The Dark Knight, and even the 2011 X-Men: First Class, and as a Marvel comics adaptation was preceded by Stephen Norrington's 1998 Blade. However, much like the 1931 Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, we shouldn't underestimate the importance of Singer's first entry in the series, especially as the birth of the modern superhero action film. And much like Dracula, as well as being rather talky and a little lacking in spectacular set-pieces, this first entry establishes some important tropes for the series, and the genre as a whole: the gruff, gritty hero in the shape of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, the tense friendship / enemy dynamic of Magneto and Xavier, and the looming threat of civil war between humans and mutants. It's interesting to remember that we're introduced to Wolverine through Rogue; indeed, for the first act or so she acts as the film's protagonist, the fish-out-of-water Luke Skywalker to Wolverine's Han Solo. Even as Wolverine takes centre stage, the film plays with audience expectations by misdirecting our attention away from Rogue and the fact that it is in fact she who Magneto wants.

X-Men pioneers not only the high-concept, pseudo-realistic take on comic-book mythos that would later inform The Dark Knight Trilogy, but also the ensemble casting of Avengers Assemble, and the affectionate nods towards the source material that define most contemporary superhero films. What X-Men lacks is the confidence of the later installments, and after the compelling first act, struggles in search for a strong plot with high stakes. In addition, the climax, despite being set atop the Statue of Liberty, is lacklustre, feeling flat and somewhat restrained. That said, X-Men's focus is on character, and it's here where it shines, with James Marsden's bland Cyclops and Halle Berry's questionable turn as Storm proving exceptions to the rule. Ian McKellen's Magneto, in particular, gifts us with one of the genre's most charismatic villains, and arguably the film's strongest suit is the friend / enemy relationship played out between Magneto and Patrick Stewart's Xavier: a dynamic played with throughout the series, and forming the central plot in 2011's First Class. Moreover, the score, composed by Michael Kamen, is a fantastic mix of strange textures and arrangments, fitting perfectly with the feel of the film, while the main theme is bold and exciting, comparing favourably alongside the likes of Danny Elfman's Spiderman score. Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography and John Myhre's production design date the film, situating it unmistakably in that early-millenial, post-Matrix era of early-noughties science fiction cinema, but on its own terms the film looks terrific, presenting the mutant characters with a cold, inhospitable world with which to contend. What this first film lacks in confidence and bravura action sequences, it more than makes up for in great characters, charm, and personality, not to mention laying much of the groundwork that Chrisopher Nolan, Matthew Vaughn and Marvel studios would later build on.

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X 2: X-Men United
X 2 is where the series really takes off; Singer finds the directorial confidence lacking in the previous film with some fantastic set pieces, the broad cast of characters all get a fair shout, with the main mutants' relationships deepening and the auxillary characters getting satisfying satisfying arcs, and even Storm is less annoying this time around. With the possible exception of First Class, X 2 is undoubtedly the series highlight, which sadly compounds the later disappointments of The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine. By introducing Colonel William Stryker as the main baddie, X 2 manages to further explore the fraught relationship between Xavier and Magneto, building on the previous film's suggestion that the two are separated by only a very thin line, and despite their conflicting agendas, still consider each other friends. The opening scene, a thrilling sequence in which a drugged Nightcrawler teleports through the corridors of the White House, effortlessly neutralising security before almost assassinating the President, hands-down beats any of the previous film's set-pieces. Berry's Storm is significantly less irritating this time round, though neither the writers nor director can figure out what to do with James Marsden's Cyclops. Ice Man gets a slightly beefed up role this time, with a neat sub-plot about coming out as a mutant to his parents, and the entire production just feels bigger, better, and more polished. Additionally, Stryker's brutalisation of the mutants under his duress, and the White House's tacit approval of his methods not only lend credence to Magneto's deep-seated suspicion of humanity and advocacy of pre-emptive action, but also situate X 2 as a post-9/11 film five years before Nolan presented super villains as terrorists in The Dark Knight.

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X Men: The Last Stand
Having re-watched The Last Stand for this post, I would suggest that it isn't quite as bad as we all remember. Like that other infuriating Marvel trilogy misfire, Spiderman 3, it is more of a great opportunity squandered, rather than an unmitigated and irredeemable disaster. Undoubtedly, X 3 is by far the weakest of the original three films, suffering from an overabundance of new characters, the abrupt deaths of others, and the departure of Singer as director, who left The Last Stand to make the cooly-received but underrated Superman Returns. However, it could have been a lot worse; the plot about a mutant 'cure', while handled with none of the subtlety of X 1 and 2, is a natural extension of the themes of the series, while feeling sufficiently scaled-up for a trilogy-closer. Indeed, the deaths of Cyclops, Professor X and Jean Grey suggest that The Last Stand really does mean business, and the scenes with shady government agencies, the army and Secretary Trask create the sense that tensions between humans and mutants have finally come to a head. The proof, however, is in the pudding, and this is where we come to that squandered potential. Cyclops, always underused in the other films, is given even shorter shrift here, finding himself a grumpy wastrel after Jean's death in X 2, before being summarily dispatched in the first fifteen minutes by a newly-resurrected Jean. Cyclops' death, I think, neatly summarises director Brett Ratner's misguided and impatient approach to character in this film. Ratner expects an emotional gut-punch by killing off one of the main characters so early on, but instead he merely creates frustration. The focus of the scene should be on Jean's return - if she's going to kill someone it should be an extra or minor character - not a character with whom she's had a two-film relationship. That's not to say that she couldn't have killed Cyclops at all - indeed, that could have been really effective in the second act - perhaps around the point where Jean kills Professor X. Moreover, Jean as The Phoenix, exhilaratingly teased at the end of the last film, is a real disappointment, wasted as Magneto's stand-in after he inexplicably leaves a 'cured' Mystique after she sacrifices herself for him. And that moment is itself is another of Ratner's missteps; the Magneto of Singer's films would never abandon his loyal friend so callously and needlessly - especially given the intelligence she has on Magneto, which she ultimately uses against him in an act of revenge. Ratner's vision is far too binary for the murky ethics of the mutants, and mistakes the principled, angry Magneto for a simplistic bad guy. And even the action suffers: The Last Stand offers nothing of the quality of the Whitehouse-Nightcrawler or Magneto jail-break sequences of X 2, nor even the small-scale yet satisfying Statue of Liberty showdown of X 1. Sure, there's plenty of action to go round, but Ratner proves that he just hasn't got the chops to make it worth it. There are two exceptions to this: Magneto's attack on the convoy carrying Mystique and Juggernaut is nicely paced and sufficiently tense, and the Golden-Gate bridge is a satisfying spectacle. Ultimately, however, it all feels like so much nothing: spectacle created to mask a lack of depth or real engagement with the audience, and the underwhelming climax succeeds only on the basis that Ratner finally unearths some actual emotion from Wolverine and Jean's final confrontation. To return to my original point, what perhaps is most frustrating about The Last Stand is that it is not irredeemable, but that the errors in judgement on Ratner's part cripple what should have been a nuanced and emotionally mature film, giving us what is instead a serviceable, but ultimately disappointing and shallow action film.

Join me next week, when we'll be looking at the Spin-Off Trilogy, namely X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Why the World Doesn't Need Zach Snyder: Man of Steel Review




In 2006, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns was released in cinemas. Halfway between a franchise reboot and sequel to Richards Donner and Lester's Superman: The Movie and Superman II, Returns garnered largely positive reviews yet failed to find popularity amongst audiences, and fared poorly at the box office. A sequel was said to be in the works, and if the law of superhero sequels, exemplified by X-Men 2, Spiderman 2, and The Dark Knight holds any water, Singer's sequel could have been something special. Sadly, Superman Returns' failure at the box-office ultimately led to its follow up being axed. One rumoured title for that film was Man of Steel: now, seven years on, a new film directed by Zach Snyder, unconnected to both Superman Returns and its predecessors, but bearing that title, is released. And, oh, won't it make you yearn for what could have been, as 2013's Man of Steel is not only one of the most bloated, muddled and boring superhero films in recent memory, but also one of the worst films of the year. Yes, Zach Snyder has once again demonstrated that character, dialogue and tension are secondary concerns in favour of empty spectacle, dreary cinematography and obnoxious stylisation.

Coming from the director of the risible Sucker Punch, it comes as little surprise that Man of Steel fails to match the verisimilitude and the emotional nuance of either Richard Donner and Bryan Singer's iterations of the character. However, what disappoints the most is the broken promise of the excellent marketing campaign. Man of Steel's trailers were suggestive of a reflective, toned-down character piece: an examination of what it means to be a man of steel, a companion, if you will, to Christopher Nolan's analysis of Batman in The Dark Knight. Snyder's title invites comparisons to Nolan's film, and indeed, much of the reticence over Snyder's hiring as director was assuaged by Nolan's dual role as producer and story supervisor. Because of this, Man of Steel's abject failure as a weighty, grown-up comic adaptation is felt all the more acutely.

Steel-jawed: Cavill is undoubtedly the right fit for Kal-El.
Snyder's heavy stylisation of his films, his insistent use of slow motion, over-use of pop music, washed-out colour schemes and odd (to be generous) sense of framing are often laid out as his failings as a director. With the exceptions of slow-motion and pop music, Man of Steel finds all of these idiosyncrasies present and correct. However, Snyder's fundamental inadequacy as a storyteller does not come from his overwrought style, but rather, his complete lack of a sense of character depth and narrative pacing. Let me give an example: the first act of Man of Steel broadly mirrors that of the 1978 Superman: The Movie - the Kryptonian General Zod attempts to lead a military coup and is imprisoned in the Phantom Zone; Jor-El sends his infant son, Kal, to Earth to survive Krypton's imminent destruction. Kal, raised as Clark Kent, grows up, struggling to come to terms with his emerging powers in a world that will not accept them. Clark travels to the Arctic to discover his Fortress of Solitude where he learns about Krypton. Clark puts on the suit, becomes Superman, and hey presto, journeys back to civilisation to save the world. The difference between the 1978 and 2013 versions of this story is that one is invested with depth, clarity and wonderful moments of characterisation, and the other shows Superman crashing into a mountain. Let's focus on the sequence where Clark finally puts on the suit. This is one of the most important moments in the story, the turning point where Clark finally accepts his destiny, reconciling his dual identities of Clark Kent and Kal-El into that of Superman. In the Donner version, we travel north with Clark, discover the Fortress of Solitude, and witness him learn about his Kryptonian heritage. In a sequence that lasts no more than a few minutes, we feel the years that Clark spends in the fortress, learning about Krypton and coming to terms with his identity. Spending almost a decade alone, Clark grows from a boy into a man, and when he finally emerges, clothed in the suit that he has carried with him his entire life, he stands in the distance, barely visible, motionless. The famous John Williams score begins, and, almost imperceptibly, Superman lifts off the ground. He flies towards the camera, swoops off frame to the right, and in a mere second is gone. It's our first glimpse of what is to come. It's tense, controlled and thrilling: the perfect mixture of character and narrative development. In the 2013 version, through almost sheer coincidence Clark travels to the Arctic and meets Jor-El as a hologram, who shows him the suit rotating in a glass box. Jor-El tells him he has to be a symbol of hope (or something), and in the very next scene, with zero sense of time passing (does Clark put on the suit immediately, or some time after?), Clark emerges wearing the suit. Illuminated from behind, Clark walks slowly as his cape billows majestically in the arctic wind. In many ways it is a beautiful shot, but for the fact that it is completely lacking in any tension or sense of payoff. Even though both sequences last roughly the same amount of time, and both appear at roughly the same point in their respective films, Snyder's version comes of as hollow, anticlimactic and devoid of purpose. The suit reveal at this point, and in this way, tells us nothing of the character, or the reasons why Clark has so readily accepted the mantle of Superman. The audience reaction should be of exhilaration, eliciting a sense of catharsis, but here, at best, it is closer to leaning over to the person next to you and whispering, 'oooh, that looks cool'.

That mentality, of 'it's good because it looks cool', is at the heart of everything that is wrong with Man of Steel, and more broadly, Snyder's approach as a director. As Mark Kermode rightly pointed out in his review of Watchmen, Snyder is clearly in thrall with the source material, approaching Superman with reverence and passion. He understands that when Superman dons the suit it must feel momentous, and that when he meets Lois Lane it must lead to romance. But he fundamentally does not understand why Superman wears the suit, or why he and Lois can and do fall in love. For all Man of Steel's navel-gazing ponderous tone, Snyder is incapable of exploring the reasons behind character motivation or narrative theme. This works when you are making a visceral exploitation film like his remake of Dawn of the Dead, but it does not work here, especially when the film constantly tells us how important this story is. Superman is arguably the most iconic character in Western pop culture, and indeed, Snyder recognises that iconography, but he categorically does not understand it. He sees Superman's 'S', but he cannot see the man behind it.

One of Adams' few scenes with Cavill.
Richard Donner knew that his Superman had to feel relatable: heroic yes, but also flawed: when Superman reverses time and saves Lois, he does so at the expense of his promise not to interfere with Earth's history, as well as being motivated by his past failure to save his father's life. Bryan Singer, too, knew that drama is more than smashing into buildings and melting things with heat-vision: his Superman suffered the consequences of leaving Lois behind for 6 years to get on with her life without him. Singer and Donner are directors that understand that the essentials of storytelling - drama, tension, character - come from internal conflict, and that action, however spectacular, is merely the external manifestation of that conflict. Zach Snyder simply does not understand this, seeing only the surface and mistaking that for the story. His response to a scene not working on an emotional level is to drain the colour, turn up the bass and crudely zoom in the camera, as if to force us to look harder for that elusive drama. You can look as hard as you like: in Snyder's cinema there are images but no imagery; things happen but there is no story. The result of this profound shallowness is that in this vision of Superman, every box that we expect to be ticked is done so blankly and without interrogation - the suit, Jonathan Kent, Jor-El, Lois, the Daily Planet are all here - but none of them have the slightest depth or meaning beyond the audience cooing over their presence on the screen.

This lack of depth could (maybe) be forgiven if, as with last year's marvelous Avengers, Man of Steel contained any sense of levity, humour or fun. Even the brooding Dark Knight trilogy had moments of all three, ably offered by supporting characters Alfred and Lucius Fox. Man of Steel, however, has none of this balance, seemingly worried that any injection of lightness may detract from its ponderous tone. Snyder is apparently unaware that it is the flashes of light that make the darkness that much more effective: it's devastating when Lois dies in Donner's Superman, but in Man of Steel, when literally tens of thousands of Metropolis' citizens are killed in a spectacular yet vacuous showdown between Superman and Zod, we barely bat an eyelid.

It is the climactic action sequences that have drawn the film's biggest approbations, with Devin Faraci of Badass Digest claiming that Man of Steel has 'the best superhero action ever put to film'. With respect, it seems 'best' has become confused with 'loudest'. The scale of destruction in the film's final act has a bizarre disconnect between a body count (people caught between the Kryptonian smackdown are obliterated with a giddy abandon yet unseen in a Superman movie), and any sense of consequence whatsoever. How do you make a fight between two indestructible beings exciting? It's a difficult trick to pull off, but Snyder's answer is to smash buildings, and if that doesn't work, smash some more. Then smash more, and more and more. The sheer scale and length of these scenes is so extreme that they very quickly become boring, with no sense of peril or tension, despite the scores of innocent people supposedly perishing in the chaos. Most odd, however, is how difficult it is to tell what is going on, with crash zooms, shaky cameras and irritating close-ups proving just as obnoxious as Snyder's usual propensity for slow motion.
Michael Shannon is reliably intense as General Zod.
You may be somewhat surprised to hear, then, that there were things I liked about the film: the casting was perfect, with Henry Cavill proving a great choice for the eponymous hero, and Michael Shannon a perfect fit for the maniacal and passionate Zod. Moreover, the performances were uniformly good, hampered only by a dreadful script by David Goyer, who, without Christopher Nolan's directorial talent for turning clunky exposition into compelling dialogue, delivers line after line that would embarrass a fourteen year old. I liked that Lois Lane knows who Superman is from the start - it sets up a nice future dynamic between Lois and Clark at The Daily Planet, and elegantly sidesteps the inherent silliness of Clark wearing glasses as a disguise. It's a shame then, that Amy Adams and Cavill have absolutely zero chemistry, hampered by a plot that only gives them a handful of scenes together. Moreover, in those few scenes, they are laden with passionless exposition. Kevin Costner invests his Jonathan Kent with a degree of depth, conflicted by the desire to protect his son from an ignorant world, and the understanding that Clark will one day have to confront his place in the world, but this is undermined by the senseless and frustrating manner of his untimely death.

There are potentially many things to like about Man of Steel, but almost all of them are buried by the film's numerous and inescapable flaws. Lacking depth, subtlety, real tension or even peril, Snyder's re-imagining of Superman is profoundly shallow. But more than that, as I watched Man of Steel, it occured to me that I was watching the death of the superhero film as a major genre. This year we've had Superman, Iron Man, and we are due another Wolverine film (did anyone even want one?). Next year we get to team up with the X-Men again, Spiderman has another crack at amazing us, and in 2015 the Avengers will assemble once more. This is not to mention the host of auxillary features, such as Thor 2 and Captain America 2 that will support these tentpoles. But with production problems on Thor, rumours that Robert Downey Jr. may be recast for Avengers 2, and the endless false-starts for the Justice League movie, I can't help but think that Man of Steel is signalling the superhero cycle's decline: I mean, how many more variations on this story can be written for the big screen? At their best, I love superhero films, and talented writers and directors will always find new stories to tell, and new ways to tell them. But if the superhero genre must go the way of the Western, the Hammer Horror and the Film Noir, I just hope that we can end on something better than this.