Monday, June 30, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

In which Bryan Singer returns to the fold, the promise of ‘First Class’ is delivered on, the fanboy’s God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world. All rise, please, for a vigorous rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus. 

Taking its cue from a brief scene embedded in the closing credits of ‘The Wolverine’ – Logan (Hugh Jackman), warned by Magneto (Ian McKellan) that “dark forces are at work”, responds antagonistically until a revivified Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) shows up, apparently now allied with Magneto again – ‘Days of Future Past’ wastes no time in establishing its irresistible narrative hook.

 The film opens in an apocalyptic future where mutants are hunted down by androids called Sentinels. A small group of survivors holed up in Russia are attacked and almost decimated, but Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) is able to send their leader’s consciousness back in time a couple of weeks; armed with knowledge from the future, he is able to warn them their security is compromised, whereupon they up sticks and move to a new hideout. Xavier and Magneto, attended by Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), make contact with them; Xavier doles out the necessary exposition: at a post-Vietnam treaty summit in 1973, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinates anti-mutant arms dealer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) but is captured by the military; as a result of his death, Trask’s Sentinel programme goes into overdrive and Mystique’s DNA provides a breakthrough by which the androids adapt to the mutants they’re targeting. 

Xavier asks Kitty’s help in sending him back to his younger self in 1973 so that he can stop Mystique. Kitty refuses on the basis that Xavier’s mind will not survive the transition. Step forward Wolverine who can pretty much survive anything and was never known as the cerebral addition to the team in the first place! Thus it is, with the Sentinels closing in and absolutely everything at stake, that Wolverine finds himself in 1973 entrusted with convincing the much younger and less reasonable Xavier (James McAvoy) to believe him, and the much younger and inconveniently incarcerated Magneto (Michael Fassebender) to help them. (The circumstances of Magneto’s imprisonment add up to one the film’s best jokes.)

Wolverine finds the Xavier of 1973 an embittered drunkard, trading his psychic powers for a temporary cure that allows him to walk again. His school for gifted youngsters is closed, his students having been drafted wholesale for ’Nam. Only Beast (Nicholas Hoult) remains, acting as a de facto minder, guardian and nurse. Magneto, meanwhile, is languishing in a specially constructed cell deep under the Pentagon. Persuading Xavier to snap out of his self-pity is the easy bit, and Wolverine achieves it through sheer bull-headedness and one little fight with Beast. Freeing Magneto takes a bit of help – cue Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who has the single best scene in the movie, a pure cartoon piece of non-reality that pays off in such glorious style that the auditorium rang with applause at the screening I attended.

‘Days of Future Past’ hits many high points, the best of which is finding a way to erase ‘The Last Stand’ from the franchise’s continuity. It’s not without its fair share of flubs, though: firstly, Wolverine is returned to the America of 1973 in which he’s working as a bodyguard whereas ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ has him conscripted into Stryker’s mutant black-ops outfit at this point in history. The discontinuity is pointed up by Stryker (Josh Helman – better than Danny Huston, still nowhere as good as Brian Cox) working privately for Trask in the ‘Days of Future Past’ timeline. There’s also the business of Wolverine still having adamantium claws in the future sequences when they were severed and replaced by the erstwhile bone claws at the end of ‘The Wolverine’. However, it’s clear that Singer’s priority was to clear out the rammel of ‘Last Stand’ and ‘Origins’ and give the fans the movie they wanted and deserved, and for that reason he gets a pass on the (admittedly very few) discontinuities and cheats that the film needs must indulge in in order to function. 

And how beautifully it functions! The opening sequence – Kitty desperately racing against time to cheat time itself while Blink (Fan Bingbing), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Bishop (Omar Sy) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) duke it out with the Sentinels – is breathless, inventive and brilliantly conceived, the perfect opener to a film that’s as smart as it is spectacular. Blink in particular is a character I’d love to see more of in future instalments. Magneto’s breakout is a lovely nod to ‘X-2’ and pays off with a gnarly reunion between him and Xavier which sets the tone for much of what follows. Whereas McAvoy never quite seemed to reverse engineer Stewart’s performance in ‘First Class’ as intuitively as Fassbender did McKellan’s, ‘Days of Future Past’ is where he nails it – and ironically Xavier has to regress as a character in order for the breakthrough to occur. A terrific (and almost logically convincing) moment where McAvoy and Stewart share the screen seals the deal.

Fassbender, meanwhile, marches Magneto further and further towards McKellan’s personification. The dude is authentically badass. Jackman is functioning here the way he did in ‘The Wolverine’, genuinely investing in the character and delivering a memorable performance. Dinklage brings an appropriate inscrutability to Trask, playing what could have been a pantomime villain as a buttoned-down combination of messianic obsessive and box-ticking bureaucrat; another intriguing characterisation from an actor who has been consistently interesting throughout his career. Only Lawrence falls short: whereas ‘First Class’ saw her take Raven to the cusp of becoming Mystique and doing so appealingly enough, ‘Days of Future Past’ requires her to complete the transformation – what we know of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’s Mystique should freight the finale with tension and unpredictability – but she never quite achieves Romijn-Stamos’s confident, mocking sexuality and dangerous athleticism.

A small thing to carp about, though, when ‘Days of Future Past’ gets so much right. Unlike ‘X-2’, the previous franchise highpoint, which wrote its greatness upon what was pretty much a clean slate, ‘Days of Future Past’ had a very muddied slate and needed to erase the bad feeling of two crass instalments before it could even being staking its own claim; that it ends on its own terms and leaves an open door for the next film to continue the retro-timelines only emphasises its resounding success. ‘Days of Future Past’ reclaims the X-Men, heroes and villains alike, and lets us unabashedly love them as if everything since ‘X-2’ had never happened.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Wolverine

Not that it’s a particularly bad film – it pisses liquid adamantium all over ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ – but, damn, ‘The Wolverine’ could have been so much more. In the early stages it looked like it was set to be the franchise’s high point, with Darren Aronofsky was announced as director of ‘The Wolverine’ working from a script by Christopher McQuarrie. A marriage made in fan-boy heaven, right?

Not to be. Aronofsky left the production citing unwillingness to be out of the country, due to family commitments, for the length of time the Japan-set shoot would take. The internet rumour mill speculated on a falling out with the producers after Aronofsky demanded the kind of full creative control Christopher Nolan wielded on the Batman trilogy. Whatever the reason, what we’re left with is ‘The Wolverine’ written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank (from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s savagely minimalist graphic novel) and directed by James Mangold.

Set an unspecified period of time after the events of ‘The Last Stand’ (using that movie as both a narrative and emotional touchstone sounds the first warning bell), ‘The Wolverine’ reintroduces us to Logan (Hugh Jackman) as a vagrant bumming around the Yukon territory and haunted by memories of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). He’s approached by Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who summons him to Japan on behalf of dying industrialist Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). Logan first met Yashida at Nagasaki – the crassly staged mushroom-cloud prologue is easily worst part of the film – and Yashida feels he has a debt to repay.

The ulterior motive is soon revealed: he wants to extract Logan’s recuperative powers and basically become immortal. Logan understandably declines but before he can head back to the States, a power struggle for Yashida’s empire erupts and his granddaughter and heir apparent Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is kidnapped. Logan and Yukio form an instinctive alliance while more double-crossing goes on around them than an average week in British politics. Participants include: Mariko’s fiancé, the corrupt minister for justice Noburo (Brian Tee); her former inamorata, the bodyguard Harada (Will Yun Lee); and her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada). Weaving between them and spinning her own manipulative web is the sexy-but-deadly Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova, vamping it up in fine style).

To his credit, Mangold takes his time setting up these characters and their interrelationships. The first hour is notably low-key and light on action. Indeed, big action set-pieces are pretty sparse given that ‘The Wolverine’ was a major studio release with a $125million budget. A kinetic fight on top of a bullet train is mercifully brief, the whole thing over and done with in slambang fashion before it becomes too risible, and even the obligatory extended smackdown that concludes things doesn’t drag on as long as seems to be the norm in these kind of movies. It does, however, come across as something of a retread of the powersuit duel at the end of ‘Iron Man’.

Ultimately, Mangold allows Jackman to do more with Logan than in previous outings and he responds with his best performance yet in the role. It helps that, apart from Yukio’s precognition and Viper’s poison glands, the film has little to do with mutants. It’s basically a combination of Yakuza crime epic, family drama and morality tale, with Logan as a fish-out-of-water in a country whose rituals and heritage he doesn’t understand. A subplot wherein his recuperative powers are weakened allows for both an exploration of his vulnerability and a crowd-pleasing return to full-on Wolverine anti-heroics once he realises what’s been done and reverses the process.

But for all the good work, the film gets bogged down with excess baggage. Logan’s weight of guilt over Jean Grey’s demise in ‘Last Stand’ is handled clumsily. There are too many subsidiary characters are written in purely to overcomplicate an essential simplistic narrative. There’s an undertone of racism that is paradoxically more noticeable for the filmmakers’ attempts to disguise it. For all the talk about honour and duty, it’s just so much tommyrot when you stop and think about how the indigenous characters are portrayed.

Mostly, though, what prevents ‘The Wolverine’ from hitting the heights it could have reached is its lack of either a directorial signature or a specific visual aesthetic. A good 80% of the movie takes place in a country where the bustling vibrancy of its modern aesthetic exists, and indeed synergizes, with the stoic classicism of ancient tradition. It should be artistically impossible to shoot a movie in Japan and emerge with footage that’s anything less than eyeball-grabbing. Somehow Mangold manages it, and the possibilities of Aronofsky’s take on the material seem an even greater loss.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

X-Men: First Class

You know how they didn’t make ‘X-Men Origins: Magneto’? They did at least have the good grace to incorporate a chunk of it into ‘X-Men: First Class’. And with only a few caveats, they made one hell of a good job of it, reinvigorating the franchise and happily setting things up for the late-period shot at greatness that is ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’.

When I originally reviewed ‘X-Men: First Class’ for on this blog in June 2011, I couldn’t make up my mind if it was a piss-take, a prequel or director Matthew Vaughan’s showreel for the Broccolis. I also speculated that he’d make a darned good Bond director and that if Daniel Craig decided to hang up the mantle, Michael Fassbender would make a damned good 007.

Watching the film again, for the first time in three years, I’m still of the opinion that it’s a bit of all three, but leaning very heavily towards the Bond-film-with-mutants aesthetic, referencing ‘Thunderball’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’ specifically. The opening sequence, however, takes us back to Bryan Singer’s first X-Men flick as the young Erik Lehnsherr is pried away from his mother by Nazi guards in 1944 and responds with a metal-bending display of power until a rifle butt to the head knocks him out. Next we’re in some Ivy League part of America where the privileged young Charles Xavier meets the young Raven. They’re all kids, and they all realize they’re not exactly normal. But whereas Xavier subjugates his power (or, as he calls it, mutation) and impresses on Raven to do the same, Lehnsherr doesn’t have the same luxury. He’s delivered into the hands of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who quickly discovers that the key to unleashing Lehnsherr’s power is his anger. He discovers this by shooting Lehnsherr’s mother.

The juxtaposition of Xavier and Lehnsherr’s formative years continues apace as Xavier (James McAvoy), now in his twenties and a graduate of “Oxford University, England” (‘First Class’ boasts some howlingly obvious establishing credits, the next best one being “Moscow, Russia”) is steered away from the groves of academe by CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) who recruits him into an unofficial intelligence branch headed up by The Man in the Black Suit (Oliver Platt); while Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbinder) – all growed up and pretty freakin’ mean with it – is on a globe-trotting mission of revenge against Shaw.

It’s 1962 by this point in the narrative, as evidenced by more of those idiot-proof establishing credits and enough stock footage of John F Kennedy that I’m surprised the family’s lawyer didn’t write to Vaughan and co. demanding a percentage point of the box office gross. Anyway: it’s 1962, all groovy tunes and Cold War shenanigans, and the world’s attention is focused on Cuba. Shaw is intent on playing the superpowers off against each other a la Blofeld, assisted by sexy but deadly right-hand-woman Emma Frost (January Jones) and their entourage of seemingly invincible goons. In addition to the Bond-isms – a globe-trotting narrative, entire swathes of funky 60s décor, a determinedly unPC attitude to female characters (Rose Byrne’s intro has her sashaying around a go-go bar in her underwear; January Jones’s cleavage puts the fucking missiles to shame); more gadgets than Q Department could shake a standard issue stick with modifications at (allowing, of course, for the fact that the mutants are pretty much gadgets in their own right) – there’s also a touch of the ‘Dr Strangelove’ in the politicking and the pseudo-tense council-of-war scenes. There were whole tranches of the movies where I was praying for someone to pop up and say, aghast, “Gentlemen, you can’t mutate in here. This is the war room.”

In between all of this business, Vaughan economically establishes the (albeit brief) friendship between Xavier and Lehnsherr, and has fun staging a “rounding up the team” kind of sequence with Xavier using a prototype Cerebro to identify fellow mutants. Cue a Hugh Jackman cameo where he delivers a gruff three-word line of dialogue and pretty much walks off with the whole film.

‘First Class’ is fun and frothy for much of its two hour plus running time, and it’s perhaps because of the sheer entertainment value that the continuity flubs don’t bother me here as much as they do elsewhere in the franchise. Flubs like Emma Frost being a twenty-something hottie consort of Shaw in 1962 while ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ has her as twenty-something hottie incarcerated by Stryker in the mid-1980s. Flubs like Xavier losing the use of his legs in the big finale whereas he’s fully ambulatory at the end of ‘Wolverine’. Flubs like Mystique seeming only to age about a decade between ‘First Class’ and the original trilogy (or maybe the gal just found a way to halt the ageing process, in which case good for her!)

It’s also very well acted for the most part. Fassbender takes the honours, capturing every bit of Ian McKellan’s ruthless charm and steely intelligence as Magneto. McAvoy doesn’t do quite as well at reverse-engineering Patrick Stewart, but he plays it utterly straight and that’s what counts. Lawrence is very good as Raven, but on less confident ground as she becomes Mystique towards the end (a problem that carries over into ‘Days of Future Past’. Bacon has huge fun as Shaw, every bit as suave, cruel and egomaniacal as any Bond villain you can imagine. Byrne and Platt acquit themselves well, if not memorably, and the only let-down is January Jones: instead of imbuing Frost with ice-maiden seductiveness, she comes across as simply disinterested.

Apart from Jones’s performance, the only problem with ‘First Class’ is that it’s so busy being an origin story, an espionage epic, a revenge thriller and a production designer’s wet dream that it barely has time to draw a breath. The scenes of Xavier and Lehnsherr working together – which are, let’s face it, the absolute heart of the film – feel rushed and Vaughan never quite finds that one defining moment that explains why, half a century later and with all manner of perfidy between them in the meantime, Xavier still refers to Magneto as “my friend”.

Monday, June 23, 2014

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Spin off movies under the ‘X-Men Origins’ brand were being mooted even before ‘The Last Stand’. The three characters being talked up for their own movie were Wolverine, Magneto and Deadpool. Deadpool hadn’t played a part in the previous films, so there was a creative clean slate to be worked from.

I would have been happy with a Deadpool origins movie. I would have been, pardon my language, fucking ecstatic with a Magneto origins movie, particularly as a script was announced as early as 2004, with writer Sheldon Turner describing it as “ ‘The Pianist’ meets ‘X-Men’.” It was rumoured that a younger actor would play the role, with McKellan returning for a sequence that would bookend the film.

‘X-Men Origins: Magneto’ never happened. They made ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ instead. And to be fair, it has one thing in its favour: it’s not ‘The Last Fucking Stand’. Although, to be accurate, it does have a hell of a lot working against it. Not least a muddled pre-credits sequence set in 1845 that has James Logan and Victor Creed (later Sabretooth) as half-brothers, family secrets brought to light, the first appearance of Logan’s claws (here animalistic bone-like things), and the antagonistic quasi-siblings on the run. All good dramatic stuff, or it would be if the script gave the sequence time to breathe. As it is, it’s rushed, melodramatic and unconvincing, setting the tone for much of what’s to follow.

What immediately follows it’s a truly horrible montage of the now adult Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Creed (Liev Schreiber) battling their way through the Civil War, the First World War (terrible terrible CGI), World War II (an Omaha beach vignette that’s about as far removed from ‘Saving Private Ryan’ as possible) and Vietnam. Throughout, Creed seems to enjoy fighting and killing a little too much. The Vietnam episode details Creed’s attempted rape of a village girl, Logan’s reluctant defence of him and their joint execution by firing squad. When it’s discovered that they’re completely impervious to a fusillade of bullets, they’re turned over to Major William Stryker (Danny Huston), who’s leading a black ops consisting of mutants: sniper Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), Chris Bradley (Dominic Monaghan) who can manipulate electrical systems, human battering ram Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), swordsman Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), and John Wraith ( whose ability is teleportation. After a mission during which Stryker goes to increasingly violent lengths to recover an object of extraterrestrial origin, Wolverine quits in disgust and tries to settle into a normal lifestyle. Six years later he’s working as a lumberjack and – … but what’s that you say?

American troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975? Yup, that’s right. And Stryker’s already a major at this point looks about 40? Uh-huh. And he’s already heading up an off-the-books research facility instead of “flying black ops in the jungle of North Vietnam” as per his iconic line in ‘X-2’? Well, yes. And doesn’t ‘X-2’ mark a more-or-less linear continuation from ‘X-Men’, which was released in 2000 and described as being set in “the not-too-distant future”? Umm, yeah. So, if we’re generous and assume that ‘X-2’ is set in, oh 2005, and Styker’s in his mid-fifties in that film, shouldn’t he have been about 19 or 20 when he was in ’Nam?

Or I am just being a pedant?

Let’s call it on the pedantry front and move on. But mark this down, folks, as but the first of many continuity fuck-ups that franchise will now insist on doling out. Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, it’s six years later and Logan’s working as a lumberjack and playing house with too-good-to-be-true school teacher Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins, cast after Michelle Monaghan dropped out and presumably cast because she looks a bit like Michelle Monaghan; God knows it wasn’t for the acting talent), when all of a sudden Stryker turns up at the logging camp and warns him that someone’s targeting the old team. Logan dismisses him, only for Creed to come crashing back into his life and suddenly Kayla’s in danger.

Long story short, Logan reluctantly allows himself to be experimented on by Stryker as a result of which his bone like claws are replaced by sword-like blades of Sheffield steel adamantium, the properties of which – Stryker assures him – will give him the edge over Creed. When Logan, now fully transformed into Wolverine, goes beserk after the procedure, Stryker panics and orders Agent Zero and a strike team to neutralise him. This, needless to say, ends badly for Stryker’s men, and Wolverine sets out to track down the remaining members of the team in order to find first Creed then Stryker and settle both scores.

While Wolverine braces Wraith and Dukes, Stryker and Creed track down a teenage Scott Summers (Tim Pocock) – i.e. Cyclops – and haul him off to a top secret research facility in order to – … but what’s that you say?

Cyclops was late 20s, tops, in ‘X-Men’? Yep. And even allowing that Logan worked with Stryker’s team for three or four years before he quit (although the film makes it look like he quits after just one mission), the events of ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ can’t really take place any later than the mid-1980s? Sure: can’t argue with the maths. So Cyclops would be pushing forty in ‘X-Men’?

Again, let’s chalk this one up to pedantry and move on.

(SPOILER alert) Where were we? Oh yes: Logan braces Wraith and Dukes. Wraith spills that after Wolverine left the outfit, Stryker had them hunting their “own kind”; Dukes confirms that captured mutants were taken to “the island” and experimented on, specifically that Stryker was trying to combine their powers. Dukes puts Logan onto a mutant called Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), notable for being the only incarcerated mutant to escape from the island. After some initial antagonism, Wolverine persuades Gambit to take him to the island, but not before another attack from Creed during which Wraith is killed. Reaching the facility, Wolverine learns the full extent of Stryker’s treachery – Wolverine was simply a prototype to see if a mutant could withstand the adamantium injection – and finds himself up against Wade, now reborn as Deadpool. Deadpool’s combined powers are the adamantium blades Wolverine has, Cyclops’s ability to shoot fire from his eyes, and Wraith’s ability to teleport. Only Wraith was never at the island, so fuck the audience, fuck continuity, and sit quietly while director Gavin Hood and writers David Benioff and Skip Woods slap you in the face with plotholes, inconsistencies and downright laziness. Oh by the way, he’s Hugh Jackman’s walnut-crackingly firm arse to keep you distracted while they fob you off and take your money. (SPOILERS end. Ditto rant.)

‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ has very little to recommend it. Schreiber doesn’t so much over-egg it as make the world’s biggest omelette. Huston is trade-down of epic proportions following Brian Cox’s characterisation of Stryker in ‘X-2’. Collins grins self-consciously at the camera and delivers utilitarian line readings. Tahyna Tozzi, as Kayla’s sister, awkwardly sets up the Emma Frost character (cue discontinuity in the next instalment). Patrick Stewart has a last-minute cameo (Xavier still has the use of his legs; cue more discontinuity in the next instalment); he was digitally manipulated to look younger, but the process was done badly and he looks like the Mekon in those on Dan Dare comics. Even Hugh Jackman’s performance is little more than scenery-chewing; it’s certainly a far cry from the cynical, temperamental yet always human Wolverine of the previous outings.

There are, however, a couple of halfway decent action scenes. The action is shot and edited a lot more clearly than in ‘Last Stand’. The hour and three quarter running time is acceptable. Durand and have a lot of fun with their characters. Like I said, not much to recommend it. But enough to edge away from the rank stench of its predecessor and jingle the requisite amount of tills at the box office to make the next episode viable.

Friday, June 20, 2014

X-Men: The Last Stand

Two immediate observations:

1. ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ is a pile of shite.

2. ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ was directed by Brett Ratner.

But wait, you say, aren’t those statements synonymous? And you’d have good reason for mounting an argument to that effect. But while Ratner’s filmography gives us nothing to which any description kinder than “mere hack work” can be applied, I’m not sure that the poisoned chalice he ended up with could have been salvaged by anyone at the point at which it was entrusted to his stewardship.

A brief history of the film’s production development goes something like this: Bryan Singer really wanted to make the third X-Men film but he didn’t have a fully formed concept for the film, whereas he was ready to go with ‘Superman Returns’. Meanwhile, the studio wanted ‘Last Stand’ in production ASAP and Singer reluctantly left the X-Men for the man of steel. In his wake, names like Alex Proyas, Zack Snyder and Darren Aronofsky were bandied about (I can only imagine the divine madness of an Aronofsky ‘X-Men’ film), but the closest ‘Last Stand’ came to getting a director who had potential to shape the material into something interesting was when Matthew Vaughn was approached. However, with a locked-in release date, Vaughan was concerned that there wasn’t enough time for the script development and pre-production necessary to accomplish the film he wanted to craft (i.e. a worthy successor to ‘X-2’), so he left the project. It would be another six years until Vaughan contributed to the franchise.

In came Brett Ratner, who by this point had helmed a handful of bland comedies and the redundant Hannibal Lecter instalment ‘Red Dragon’ (already filmed by Michael Mann in the mid-80s as ‘Manhunter’). Nothing about him seemed to scream ‘X-Men’, and it would be a cheap and easy shot to add that the finished product bears this out. In his defence, he came to a production rife with scheduling conflicts, producer interference (Ratner and the writers had to fight tooth and nail to retain the Jean Grey resurrection plot strand), a script that was basically a mash-up of two much-loved storylines from the graphic novels, and a surfeit of new characters, including the unspeakably awful sight of Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut.

Opening with half an hour or so of precisely the kind of soap opera storytelling that ‘X-2’ managed to avoid, ‘The Last Stand’ sets up: Jean Grey’s backstory, paving the way for her resurrection as the unstable Phoenix; Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) as Rogue (Anna Paquin)’s rival for Iceman (Shawn Ashmore)’s affections, a complication that exacerbates her feelings of loneliness and isolation; the development of a “cure” for the mutant gene and the divided feelings it inspires in the mutant community; and Magneto (Ian McKellan)’s denigration of same as he builds an army of disenfranchised mutants and plans to strike against a government he is convinced will force the cure on his kind.

Bear in mind that our first glimpse of Magneto was as a child in the Nazi death camps. His swift ascension from tub-thumping voice of the underdog at ad hoc meetings to charismatic leader of a private army infers a parallel with the rise of Hitler in the early thirties, and it seems – briefly, tantalisingly – as if the film might actually have the balls to do something with this subtext. Unfortunately not, and we’re treated instead to an increasingly cack-handed sequence of effects-driven set pieces whose narrative misconceptions are matched only by their shoddy execution.

(SPOILER ALERT) Interesting characters are written off almost dismissively. Mystique is shot by a tranq dart containing the “cure” after just one scene while, by contrast, the fuck-awful Juggernaut gets scene after tedious scene (note to Brett Ratner: ditching Rebecca Romijn-Stamos for Vinnie Jones is NOT a trade-up). Worse, Xavier not only buys the farm but has the indignity of doing so in what is far and away the worst scene in a movie full of scenes that frankly aren’t very good. Sure, a post-credits scene hints at his return by means of a cheat so blatantly insulting to the audience’s intelligence that it’s possible to imagine the warm splash of the script-writers’ urine coursing over your shoes as you watch, but this was in 2006, for fuck’s sake, and it wasn’t till ‘Iron Man’ two years later that staying around till the credits were over became de rigueur. (SPOILERS END)

And while I’m ranting, let’s talk about Rogue. What was Rogue’s special power again? Oh yes, the ability to absorb the strength, memories, powers and lifeforce of anyone she touches. And while the Rogue of the graphic novels certainly considered her abilities a curse, it didn’t stop her from kicking ass in industrial quantities. Moreover, her comic book backstory is considerably darker and more intriguing than anything the movies offered up, not least in her mentorship, at an impressionable age, by Mystique. This a Rogue who’s elegant southern belle demeanour belies a psychologically disturbed and tough-as-nails persona. The Rogue of the films, however, is a mopey emo with a perpetually quivering lower lip. And the script for ‘Last Stand’ renders her at her wettest and least interesting yet. It’s bad enough, through the arc of three films, reducing Rogue to this; but wasting the striking and appealingly quirky presence of Anna Paquin just makes it worse. 

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect, though, is watching ‘The Last Stand’ trying to plaster over all its narrative and aesthetic flaws with ever noisier and more chaotic action scenes. Where Singer shot action in a clean unfussy style, always aware of the spatial relation of character and setting during fights or chases, Ratner’s approach has more in common with an early 90s MTV video edited by a cocaine freak on an espresso bender. Flying bridges! Explosions! Massive chunks of rubble! It’s tedious, unengaging and a massive anti-climax after the carefully crafted movies that preceded it.

Clearly, a new approach to the saga was required. Which brings us to ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’. It says something about the quality control deficiency of ‘The Last Stand’ that I can bring myself to revisit ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ in such a carefree manner.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


‘X-Men’ left much unresolved, not least the Cyclops-Jean-Wolvervine triangle, the enigma of Wolverine’s background, and matters concerning the mutant-bashing Senator Kelly, last seen being impersonated by Mystique. ‘X-2’ picks up the political thread of the narrative with an opening sequence which automatically establishes it as a classic of its kind. In a kinetic display of both editing and CGI that still looks the biz 13 years on, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a mutant seemingly acting alone, infiltrates the White House, gives any number of Secret Service guys the run-around, breaches the Oval Office and comes damn close to filleting the President.

This, needless to say, puts the government in a bit of tizzy and paves the way for Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) – a man who might as well have “military-industrial complex” tattooed on his forehead – to influence policy and target the mutant community to his own ends. Stryker’s hatred of all things X has a provenance closer to home than he’d probably care to admit.

Meanwhile, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has done some digging into his amnesiac past but come up with nothing and returns to Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart)’s academy still champing at the bit that Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) remains committed to her relationship with Cyclops (James Marsden) when he’d prefer to be playing hide the mutant salami with her. Meanwhile, Rogue (Anna Paquin) is trying to kickstart a romance with Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) a.k.a. Iceman, though Ice-moody-teenager would be an arguably better name. 

‘X-2’ skirts the pitfall marked “soap opera” but expertly avoids it (unlike, as we shall see, ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’). In fact, the handful of twee character interactions that returning director Bryan Singer sprinkles the first twenty minutes with only serve to emphasise what’s at stake when the plot kicks into high gear, Stryker’s men launch an assault on the academy, and the all-powerful Cerebro – the machine by which the already telepathic Xavier can locate and track all mutants – falls into the wrong hands.

Meanwhile, Magneto (Ian McKellan) – last since incarcerated in all an-plastic prison – finds an ingenuous (if slightly cheat-y) means of escape, and reunites with Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). That Stryker, who has by this point captured Xavier, also has designs on Mystique finds himself the enemy of both the suddenly leaderless X-Men and the already antagonistic Magneto. The stage, to use an old expression, is set.

‘X-2’ is a mammoth leap forward from the admittedly accomplished first instalment. There’s much more action – the Oval Office opener; the attack on the academy; Pyro (Aaron Stanford) cutting loose on a SWAT team (his temperamental nature is something Magneto soon plays on); and an extended finale in Stryker’s secret base – but the characters remain the focus. Speaking of which, the new characters are by and large interesting (again, something that ‘Last Stand’ doesn’t always manager) and the arcs of most of the existing characters are at least slightly extended.

Wolverine remains the focus, certainly for the action set pieces, while Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey get a bit more to do this time round. Berry seems more comfortable with the character. The interplay between Stewart and McKellan remains a joy to watch, while Romijn-Stamos once again bags a (wo)man of the match award for the sheer glee with which her sinuous and deadly Mystique walks away with the film everytime she sashays onscreen. Brian Cox is also awesome as all hell but – hey! – that should be obvious: he’s Brian Cox, motherfuckers, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else delivering a line lik “I was piloting black ops in the jungles of North Vietnam while you were sucking on your mamma’s titty at Woodstock” with such spine-crawling relish. Kudos, too, to Alan Cumming, who makes Nightcrawler creepy, dangerous and somehow dignified pretty much all at the same time.

The backgrounding of Rogue, however, becomes more problematic. She’s given one thing to do in the big finale – land a plane – and she does so with such deer-in-the-headlights panic that it’s difficult to reconcile the Rogue of the movies with the Rogue of the graphic novels. (The worst is yet to come, however, so I’ll save my big Rogue-wuz-robbed rant for the next review.)

The franchise’s touchstone of alienation is given a good workout in this instalment. The idea of mutants as outcasts – social pariahs – is there in Rogue’s inability to engender a “normal” relationship; in the pieces of Wolverine’s backstory that begin to edge into place; in Pyro’s acceptance of Magneto as a father figure; and in Iceman’s betrayal by his own brother. A scene where Iceman’s parents first assure him that “you’re still our son” and then wonder “have you tried not being a mutant” establishes an analogue so self-explanatory that I don’t need to belabour it here.

‘X-2’ is what a superhero film should be: exciting, engaging, possessed of visual panache and a sharp wit; but a film, between all the effects and smackdowns, that grounds itself in who its characters are and what is truly at stake for them. It’s the film in which all the promise of ‘X-Men’ coheres. The ending – in which the shaky alliance of its protagonists with their arch-nemesis Magneto splinters under the latter’s megalomania, and which points to the emergence of Jean Grey’s Phoenix persona – seems to set up a third instalment with the potential to up the ante even further.

Then it all went wrong …

Saturday, June 14, 2014


Assuming you’ve been conscious and paid even the remotest attention to popular culture during the last decade, you might have come to the conclusion that your local multiplex exists solely as a delivery system for Marvel films, that there has been an overwhelming glut of superhero movies. But the superhero movie has been with us a lot longer than that; and when Bryan Singer gifted the world with ‘X-Men’ fourteen years ago, the genre was on pretty shaky ground.

Tim Burton’s gloriously stylised ‘Batman’ (1989) and ‘Batman Returns’ (1992) had, under the less-than-guiding hand of Joel Schumacher, devolved into the by-the-numbers tiredness of ‘Batman Forever’ (1995) and the flat-out awfulness of ‘Batman & Robin’ (1997). Superman spent the 90s mired on the small screen and it wouldn’t be till 2006, in the bloated ‘Superman Returns’ that he’d see the inside of a movie theatre again. Meanwhile, ‘The Shadow’ (1994) peddled a nice 30s vibe but failed to engage audiences, and ‘The Phantom’ (1996) gave us Billy Zane in purple and a poster with smeared with the useless tag line “slam evil”.

Then came ‘X-Men’ (2000) and the superhero genre got its shot in the arm. Singer had already made a name for himself with ‘The Usual Suspects’, the outright best of the half-decade long slew of post-‘Reservoir Dogs’ cooler-than-thou crime capers. His follow up, an adaptation of Stephen King’s psychologically chilling novella ‘Apt Pupil’, was perhaps too aloof in its execution, but it saw Singer working with Ian McKellen for the first time, and if there was a better actor he could have cast as Magneto in ‘X-Men’ … but what the hell am I talking about? McKellen is Magneto.

‘X-Men’ starts off in grim, muddy fashion – you can tell the director of ‘Apt Pupil’ is at work here – as a seemingly endless line of bedraggled prisoners are shepherded into one of the Nazi death camps. A young boy is separated from his family. He fights as much as his strength will allow as a cluster of guards drag him away. Then another kind of strength erupts from him: as he flings out his hand, almost like a demented conductor, the huge iron gates twist and buckle. A rifle butt lays him out, but the damage is extraordinary. And unnatural.

Put simply, this was about as far from George Clooney’s Batman and Chris O’Donnell’s Robin skating through Mr Freeze’s hideout as it was possible to get.

The next scene is an exercise in contrast: a leafy, privileged surburban home, an all-American girl – Marie (Anna Paquin), later to take the name Rogue – flirting with her boyfriend. They kiss; she almost drains the life from him. Disconsolate, outcast, Marie hits the road. She finds herself in a bar at the arse-end of nowhere. A bar where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is picking up some ready cash cage-fighting. The fight over, the cash pocketed, Wolverine hits the road in his pick-up truck. (Rootlessness and marginalisation are strong themes throughout much of the franchise.) Rogue hitches a lift. En route to nowhere in particular, they’re attacked by Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), who turns out to be in the pay of Magneto (Ian McKellen).

Magneto and his blue-skinned henchwoman Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) have a plan to strike back at a government initiative – spearheaded by the oleaginous Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) – to further disenfranchise a mutant population already regarded with fear and suspicion by the general populace. Magneto’s plan involves Rogue’s particular “talent”.

Long story short – and ‘X-Men’ packs a lot of characters and exposition into its slender (100 minute) running time – Wolverine and Rogue end up at an academy run by wheelchair-bound Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), former comrade of Magneto. From the off, they’re opposite sides of the same coin: Xavier the idealist and Magneto the reactionary. Singer’s genius was in casting Stewart and McKellan – their chemistry is palpable, the way they play off each delightful to watch. The script (by Singer, Tom DeSanto and David Hayter) is literate and wryly funny. The pace is brisk even as great chunks of information are lobbed out.

And yet … and yet …

For all that I love ‘X-Men’, it’s never seemed entirely complete. In some respects, it feels like it ought to be an origins story (the concentration camp scene certain piques that expectation), bringing the team together and establishing the Xavier/Magneto conflict, yet only Magneto is given any real backstory. That Xavier is basically thrust onscreen as a fully-formed character is something that only works because of Stewart’s gravitas as an actor. Elsewhere Wolverine and Rogue seem to be the principle focus by which the viewer is guided through the groves of Xavier’s academy, with the likes of Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) given only the briefest of introductions before they’re thrown together to combat Magneto.

It’s worth mentioning that the franchise’s increasing focus on Wolverine can be plotted against how little it does with Rogue (she becomes less and less interesting as a character throughout the arc of the initial trilogy), which seems an absolute waste of Paquin’s talents. It’s also worth mentioning how tin-pot Magneto’s operation seems to be – far fewer resources than Xavier has at his fingertips, and even less manpower – and it says everything about McKellan’s performance that he makes Magneto a genuinely dangerous character despite only having a nude polymorph, a brainless thug and a couple of abandoned buildings to work with. 

Nor does the film particularly trade in big action set-pieces: sure there’s Magneto flipping police cars with a dismissive gesture of the hand (I love the way McKellan orchestrates scenes of chaos and destruction as if he were conducting a delicate piece of chamber music), and some hand-to-hand in and around the Statue of Liberty, but on the whole ‘X-Men’ is more interested in character. Which, ironically, emphasises the inadequacies in characterisation that render Storm, Jean Grey and any number of others as ciphers rather than integral members of the team. Janssen does well with virtually no material, already establishing the dynamic between her relationship with Cyclops and the immediate attraction to Wolverine which will inform the next instalment; but Berry looks lost much of the time. The unlikeliest candidate for a good performance – former model Romijn-Stamos – ends up walking away with every scene she’s in: her Mystique is serpentine, calculating, seductive and sexually mocking in a way that Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t yet been able to capture in the franchise’s new timeline.

It’s not often you can say of a tent-pole superhero movie that it could have done with being longer; such is the case with ‘X-Men’. It’s entertaining, stylish and freighted with a cast who, for the most part, gel very effectively given how much of an odd mix they present. But it still seems like three-quarters of a movie: a curtain-raiser that kept back its final act for development as a sequel.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

X marks the blog

I’ve been cheating on this blog again, running around with poetry behind its back. I’ve recently completed, in a spate of productivity – 20 poems in one calendar week – a sequence of exploring the traditions and clichés of the private eye genre. Ideal length for a pamphlet. Just need a publisher for it.

Last night, I was at the launch of Butcher’s Dog magazine in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. An atmospheric city (even though it rained virtually all day), and some lovely people at the event. Now back in Nottingham and mulling over the total lack of content on Agitation for the past week.

Well, that’s about to change. I saw ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ recently and enjoyed the hell it a lot, so I figured why not spend June revisiting the entire X-Men/Wolverine franchise? I will probably regret this decision somewhere around ‘The Last Stand’, and for at least one film after that, but what the hell?