Rating: The Good – 74.9 Genre: Action, Fantasy Duration: 132 mins Director: Bryan Singer Stars: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
Director Bryan Singer brings an assured and classy touch back to the franchise he helped forge in this surprisingly gripping fantasy sci-fi in which two versions of the same X-Men are united across time in an epic showdown to save the Earth against a future army of robot “Sentinels”. Superbly balancing the multiple threads to the story so that the main plot pulses steadily and clearly from start to finish, X-Men: Days of Future Past counts as a rather impressive feat of story-telling. With Patrick Stewart’s “Prof. X” and Ian McKellen’s “Magneto” on one side of the temporal divide, their successors (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively) on the other, and Hugh Jackman’s “Wolverine” straddling the two, we move between a nicely realised 1970’s and a desolate future as the older X-Men attempt to alter their own history and preclude the invincible Sentinels from ever coming into being. On the technical front, this movie is pillared by some genuinely striking action set pieces opening with an elegantly edited showdown between mutant and robot and peaking with an acutely impressive prison-break in the bowls of The Pentagon. This latter sequence, wryly soundtracked to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”, involves Evan Peters’ delightfully impish “Quicksilver” making a high speed mockery of the famous building’s security in a whirlwind of smile-inducing not to mention brilliantly conceived mischief-making. Alongside this brief cameo of what very well might prove to be the franchise’s most lovable character, what really sets Days of Future Past apart from the myriad of modern superhero movies is the sophistication of its construction. Though most of the future mutants offer mere cameos, Singer makes the most of their personalities and powers, deftly interweaving their trials and tribulations with those of their past counterparts and culminating in a suitably rousing finale. Given how uninspired and formulaic the genre has become, it’s genuinely refreshing to come across a simply well made movie.
Rating: The Good – 94.5 Genre: War, Satire Duration: 153 mins Director: Quentin Tarantino Stars: Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Christoph Waltz
Brad Pitt’s priceless Lt. Aldo Raine leads a group of Jewish soldiers into occupied France to do what they do best: “kill Nazis” and in doing so, leave a trail of terror that will give every soldier of the Third Reich nightmares of moral retribution. Only one man seems smart enough to stop him: the dastardly Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz in an Oscar winning performance). Wrapped up in this wider tale is the story of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent in a barnstorming performance), a young Jewish woman whose family was slaughtered by Landa’s men years earlier and who has escaped to Paris where she now runs a modest cinema. When a dashing young war hero (Daniel Brühl) and protege of Herr Goebbels fails to impress her with his charm, he persuades the propaganda minister and self-proclaimed father of the new wave of German cinema to hold the premier of his new film at her establishment. The scene is thus set for an emotionally charged retribution wherein the Basterds and a vengeful Shosanna converge on the Nazi elite in “cinematically epic” fashion.
With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino does for WWII films what Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West did for westerns. That is to say, the film is a daring meta-analysis of the genre, a war film about war films, making an audacious and powerful statement on the interaction between film and history which plays on a multitude of levels. Being a tongue-in-cheek examination of propaganda films, the majority of characters are all necessarily caricatures from Michael Fassbender’s wonderful portrayal of the quintessential British officer, to the master of cliche exploitation Mike Myers’ hilarious performance wherein he embodies the distilled comic essence of every British general we’ve ever come across on screen.
Tellingly, the only two well rounded characters in the film are those whose lives the “two films within the film” are about: Shosanna and the German war hero who is enamoured of her. Only in their respective “films” do their characters become cliched. Rounding off the colourful cast are of course Pitt and Waltz. The latter got all the praise and it’s a rousting performance. Full of dangerous charm, hypocrisy, false smiles, and a dark sociopathic streak, it must be one of the best satirical turns from an actor in decades. But Pitt should not be overlooked for he is simply brilliant. How an actor can do so much by doing so little is always a mystery but Pitt’s eccentric Aldo makes it look easy. There’s not an eye-movement, squint, word, or half smile that doesn’t drive home with subtext and, for all the humour, there’s a compelling strength at the core of the character that the film’s plot quite simply hangs on.
On top of all this, Inglourious Basterds is a visually stunning film with an immaculate attention to detail. There are sequences and shots littered throughout this film that are as brilliantly constructed as anything Welles, Ford, Wilder, Leone, or Scorsese has done. From the breathless static shots of the opening farmhouse scene to the crane and tracking shots of the climactic “Revenge of the Giant Face” sequence, this film is an awesome spectacle and one that makes gorgeously subtle reference to its influences along the way.
There are a couple of rare but minor missteps by Tarantino. Specifically, his mate Eli Roth was totally miscast as the Bear Jew (a Basterd? – yes, the Bear Jew? – no) and that Stiglitz intro which was totally out of sync with the rest of the film. Those minor quibbles aside, Inglourious Basterds is as clever a war film and as well pitched a satire as you’ll find. And with that ending, it becomes downright halting and a profoundly important piece of cinema. In fact, you know something? It might just be QT’s masterpiece!
Rating: The Good – 74.7 Genre: Action Duration: 93 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Gina Carano, Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas
Steven Soderbergh turns his hand to the action genre and combines the staples of that genre (fights, chases, guns, and lots of colourful bad guys) with his arty style of desynchronised dialogue, angled shots, delayed cuts, and general polished production. Think Oceans Eleven with knuckledusters! The good news is it works like a charm and given this entire project is a critique of the brainless modern action movie template, it’s all the more satisfying to hear the popcorn brigade deride it for having the temerity to interrupt action sequences with something a little more pensive.
Muay Thai champ Gina Carano headlines as an elite black ops mercenary fighting, kicking, and running for her life through Europe and the US while trying to piece together the clues to who in her agency has set her up. The plot is well developed and populated with terrific characters, each one tougher than the next. Furthermore, shot as it was on location in Dublin and Barcelona where the actual backstreets of those cities are used to splendid effect, Haywire counts as a hugely authentic and grittier action bonanza than anything we’ve seen since the Bourne trilogy (purposefully not counting the fourth film). The plot is explicated with a technocratic dialogue even more opaque than in those films but this gives it a Kuleshov-like functionality allowing the audience to project all sorts of intrigue onto it and the wider plot. There are also some genuinely funny and unique moments of physical comedy lightly sprinkled throughout the film and acting as well timed breathers from the ass-kicking roller coaster.
Of course, set up as an alternative to your more typical 21st century mind numbing actioneer, Haywire was always going to stand or fall on its action sequences. To simply say it does the former would be to vastly understate the case because the action choreography and execution is jaw dropping. Carano is outstanding with the physical stuff but it’s the design, pretext, and shooting of those sequences that’s so special. Soderbergh intrigues the audience with a disciplined and ultra composed build up to each fight with the various spies sent to work with and/or kill Carano and the actors who play them, enriching the drama no end. These amount to a series of tasty cameos with Michael Fassbender’s blistering appearance as Carano’s Dublin contact being the show stopper. Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Aragano do very well given their even more limited time though Channing Tatum’s endless muttering makes hard work of his speaking scenes. Ewen McGregor returns to form as Carano’s slimy boss and counts as the only other cast member with a significant amount of screen time.
Haywire isn’t perfect. Soderbergh tends to over-edit some of the Barcelona and New Mexico segments so as to unnecessarily truncate them. This ironically makes them feel longer, dragging as they do in a similar fashion to the director’s earlier feature The Limey. These annoyances are brief in the context of the overall film though and that same directorial patience when channeled in less ponderous ways during the Dublin and New York segments gives us some thrilling set-pieces including one of the most inspired chase sequences we’ve seen in years.
Rating: The Good – 64.9 Genre: Action, Fantasy Duration: 132mins Director: Matthew Vaughn Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
As tedious as origin stories are at the moment, this one had potential primarily because of an interesting and talented cast but also because its director Matthew Vaughan has shown some promise that he’s going to be more than just another journey man or studio lap-dog like the host of directors who are normally hired to shoot these popcorn movies. Set in the 1960’s, First Class stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as the two heavyweight mutants of the future, Professor X and Magneto, with the story centring on their battle with an even nastier mutant (Kevin Bacon) as he attempts to manipulate both the US and the Soviet Union into World War III. However, the moral differences between both Professor X and Magneto regarding where relations with the human race fit into the new emerging mutant order constantly threaten to break their uneasy alliance.
The two leads are superb together and their charisma alone makes this movie enjoyable to watch. The visual effects are excellent too and the action sequences are handled competently by Vaughan even if they are a little uninspired in places. The biggest let down however is the script which at times reaches the level of mindlessness. Lines such as “A ‘war’ suggests both sides have an equal chance of winning” are uttered without a hint of irony (or even an awareness of how stupid they are) while the more dramatic moments are rife with flat cliche. The plot at times isn’t much better and who knows what they were thinking of when it came to choosing the mutants who would take part in this movie (Angel Salvadore and Banshee were just ridiculously lacking in the intimidation factor). Ultimately, First Class counts as an opportunity missed but the quality of the actors playing the three main mutants plus a decent and well shot climax does make it worth a look.
Rating: The Bad – 54.4 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 124 mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender
There is a scene in Prometheus where two scientists are examining a fossilised alien head. One of them suggests about 10 seconds into the examination that they administer an electrical charge in order to reanimate the head. The other agrees this is a good idea. They do so. The head grimaces and explodes. This stupefying and idiotic scene encapsulates everything that is wrong with this film. Prometheus is arguably the worst case of lazy and ill thought out writing in recent Hollywood history. But worse still, is the inescapable feeling one gets when watching it, that the “minds” behind it clearly thought what they were doing was smart – or at least that they could convince their audience it was.
Set in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi classic Alien, Prometheus counts as a “prequel of sorts”. That said, the premise, story, and characters couldn’t be further from that film. In place of the contained and small scale of Alien’s story, Prometheus plays out on as broad a scale as the writers’ imagination could muster as with their realisation that they just couldn’t replicate the majesty of Alien with traditional story telling (small story – massive effect), they tried an alternative route and went for a “big” story which they assumed would produce as big an effect and nobody would realise the difference. Talk about falling flat on your face on both counts. Firstly, the big story they chose was as hack and unoriginal as you get in the genre of science fiction. The idea of humans discovering evidence on Earth that the human race has been engineered by aliens is one that has been done to literary exhaustion by everyone from Star Trek: The Next Generation to the X-Files and even Erich von Däniken. Worse still, its use in the context of the Alien universe had two related and unforgivable results in that it went ahead and explained one of most fascinatingly unexplained features of the original (the identity of the ‘space jockey’) and did it in far too uninspired a fashion as the mystery deserved.
If the premise to Prometheus leaves a lot to be desired, then the plot it throws up and the characters who populate it are flabbergastingly worse. Characters whose motivations are rewritten scene by scene to suit whatever special effect laden sequence the guys in charge had in mind for those corresponding parts of the film. Or characters who are left completely undeveloped until such time that similar moments require them to be and always in the most contrived fashions. This leads to rushed moments of trite exposition being peppered throughout the film leaving the whole project an utterly incoherent fiasco. This lack of focus spills over into the dialogue too. Simply put, there isn’t a single line of substantial dialogue in the film and each conversation feels like it was written with no broader story in mind. And of course, all of this is borne out in how little we care about every last one of the characters.
Hence, one of the cornerstones of Alien‘s success – character construction – appears to be the last thing on the minds of the writers as the tool to realising their big bombastic story – the use of gargantuan special effects – became the only thing driving this movie. This is a common flaw in directors who excel early in their career but struggle to maintain that edge. Lacking the inspiration of their youth, they cling onto the more technical facets of the production which they can control. And so, special effects become the focus of the film while the real task of a director – tying them into a coherent story where they serve it instead of taking precedence over it – is forgotten.
Thus, despite the spectacular visual effects, Prometheus boils down to a series of alien-related sequences utterly disconnected from each other in both plot and pacing. Different species of aliens emerge, knock ten bells out of random crew members (some of whom we hadn’t even seen before!) only to disappear just as quickly and contribute no further to the story line. It is complete mayhem. The random collision of half baked ideas in the minds of writers who were too confused, uninspired, or deluded to realise how stupid they were.
But wait! Scott has one last trick that might fool his fans into thinking Prometheus isn’t such a dumb film – or at least into willfully ignoring that it is. A series of subtle connections between Prometheus and Alien tied up in a remedial philosophy about humanity, creation, and our need for God/s. Both of these tricks amount to an exercise in flattery which differ only in who they are aimed at. Linking Prometheus with Alien through a series of subtle events or utterances is intended to flatter the fans of the earlier masterpiece. Give the fans an opportunity to show off their knowledge of the original and they may feel positively towards Prometheus because it should make them feel like an expert at something. The question is whether or not these ‘knowing nods’ amount to good film making. Of course not! Each of those clues could’ve just as easily been incorporated into the Prometheus video game in the exact same manner but that wouldn’t have made the video game enjoyable to watch as a movie. They are mere flourishes. The second form of flattery comes with the crowbarring of a remedial understanding of trite philosophical pondering (the kind teenagers start to engage in when they first develop the capacity for abstract thought) into the train wreck of their story. This is essentially intended to flatter young adolescents because it should give them the sense they’ve figured out something complex. Of course, they won’t have but hey, they won’t realise that for a couple of years and in the meantime they may mistake that flattery for cinematic resonance.
To say Prometheus is a disappointment is a massive understatement. The thoughts of Scott going back to a genre he helped forge was immense in its capacity to excite – even if he had blown hot and cold since Blade Runner. The set design, visual effects (perhaps some of the best ever), cinematography (wow!), and performance of Michael Fassbender as the android David were all sensational and they could’ve been sewn into a triumphant film if the writers and director knew what story they wanted to tell and were inspired enough to craft it well. Overall, Prometheus is a perfect demonstration of how Alien was itself down to the calibre of people working around Scott and the inspiration he received from them and in turn fed back to them. It seems an apt moment to remember that in Alien, he had Dan O’Bannon working on the script, H.R. Giger designing his creatures (and in his own way shaping the mythology), and Jerry Goldsmith composing the score (could his minimalist, low-key, and creepy music be any more different to the ‘big’ soppy Prometheus score of Marc Streitenfeld?). That’s no ordinary crew and a far cry from Lindelhof, Streitenfeld, and company. That’s not an exoneration however. As a director with as much clout as he has, Scott should’ve ensured he was surrounded by the right people. Alas, Scott is not the same director he was thirty years ago and if we’re being honest with ourselves, we should’ve realised that the first moment we heard that he was seriously considering releasing a PG13 cut of Prometheus.