Thursday, 19 May 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

Let's be honest: X-Men: Apocalypse is not a film without its problems. I would struggle to discuss it in any great detail without reeling off a catalogue of poor directorial choices, script nonsenses or examples of bad acting. It is certainly the least good of Bryan Singer's four X-Men films to date, and I actually spent some time deciding whether or not it was better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which - as we all know - is not nearly as terrible as you all say it is. What Apocalypse is, though, is knowingly camp, occasionally bold and - at the very least - well-intentioned, even if its intentions are frequently crushed to smithereens under the weight of its own hubris. And if you ask me, which I'm afraid you already have by virtue of reading this far, it's still better than First Class.

After a satisfyingly exhausting unpicking and rethreading of the X-Men universe's chronology in Days Of Future Past, Singer and writer Simon Kinberg have opted for the easy way here: big bad guy threatens human extinction, recruits bad mutants to his cause, good mutants fight back. It's not big and it's not clever, but it is a lot of fun: the pre-title scene alone features some spectacular Cairo-based carnage which sets the tone for the FX-heavy two and a bit hours that follow, and while some of it is kind of baffling, none of it is boring - and certainly not the opening titles, which play out like the complete history of mankind as recalled by a hyperactive child who was once shown a picture of the Mona Lisa.
Oscar Isaac is thanklessly tasked with the role of Mr Apocalypse (first name not given; possibly Alan), buried under enough blue prosthetics and daft armour to question the wisdom of hiring an actor this good to play what is essentially an angry smurf. Rudely awoken from a millennia-long snooze in 1983, Alan Apocalypse does what we'd all like to do when yanked out of a nice dream and sets off to enslave mankind, recruiting the three most useless mutants he can find along the way and giving them terrible haircuts for reasons best known to himself. Meanwhile, Erik Magneto (Michael Fassbender, still undecided on which accent to plump for) is living happily in Poland until shit goes down that tests his patience to the ruddy limit, rendering him an ideal candidate for the currently vacant position of Fourth Horseman Of Alan.

Meanwhile meanwhile, dozens of other mutants are doing stuff and saying things and noticeably failing to look twenty years older than they did five years ago when they were in the 1962-set First Class. At some point they all get together and have a superpower-off, and that's basically it. I can't defend Apocalypse on the grounds of intelligent, soul-searching, groundbreaking storytelling, but I can defend it on the grounds that a) it doesn't really claim to be any of those things - unlike, say, Batman v Superman - and b) it gleefully rewrites both the history we know (leaving us in a world with no nukes and no Auschwitz) and the series' own internal history, and expects you to keep up with it. It doesn't really take the time to ponder what any of that means, but never mind because OOH LOOK THERE'S WOLVERINE!
The social commentary that marked out Singer's previous X-films is a little thin on the ground here and struggles to make itself heard over all the explosions, but it is there, and even if it amounts to little more than "with great power comes great responsibility", that still seems more admirable to me than pitting heroes against each other for the sake of a lacklustre extended fight sequence. Also to its credit, Apocalypse is at least very funny; I mean sure, the climax is overlong, hideously misjudged in its bloodless slaying of innocents (the removal of a couple of shots of landmark-destruction could have helped) and ill-advisedly quotes Return Of The Jedi (for the second time in the film, in fact), but come on, Nightcrawler wears Michael Jackson's Thriller jacket! What's not to like? Apart from all the things I just said were bad.

Ultimately, whether or not you'll go for X-Men: Apocalypse can probably be ascertained by your reaction to two specific sequences within the film: the first shamelessly rehashes the best scene of Days Of Future Past; the second is a lengthy plot diversion which exists solely to insert an inevitable cameo. Both scenes betray a disappointing lack of originality, but they're also undeniably entertaining, delivering the kind of magic only the X-Men can provide. There are better and worse films, there are better and worse superhero films, there are better and worse X-Men films. In fact there are better and worse films in this current trilogy of X-Men films. But in a series sixteen years and eight movies old (nine if you must insist on including Deadpool), it seems to me you could do a lot worse than produce a new entry that slots somewhere in the middle.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Sing Street

Oh God, it's all coming flooding back. I was in the third year, she was in the sixth form. I was besotted. It was pathetic. She knew real men, seventeen years old with hair everywhere. What chance did I stand? I was fourteen and may as well have been made of air. So I became a rock star, and naturally she fell for me and we ran off together and lived happily ever after.

I suspect I wasn't alone in this experience (even the entirely fictional last sentence); certainly writer/director John Carney knows what I'm talking about, which is why he's very kindly made a film about our joint obsessions. Sing Street is that film: a nostalgic glance back at the glorious mid-1980s, its life-shaping music and the heartbreak of being catastrophically incapable of getting off with a fit sixth-former.

Improbably-named newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays our surrogate, Cosmo, dumped into a new school with no friends and immediately bullied by a potato-shaped moron. Into this bleakness - which is somehow still funny, because John Carney doesn't do realistic bleakness - shines Raphina (these names, man), a stunning, untouchable older girl sculpted from equal parts starlight and hairspray. Carney's fantasy begins the moment Cosmo approaches Raphina and asks her to be in a video for his band's new song: the first fantasy being that there is no song yet, nor even a band; the second that any boy in Cosmo's position would surely have sooner spent the rest of his school days peering over a book at Raphina in the distance than actually attempting to talk to her.
Still, that fantasy is Sing Street's biggest pull - it's the story you wish could have happened to you (OK, me), and that wish-fulfilment drives it through a series of genuinely hilarious scenes, fuelled by some of the 1980s' great standards of carefree pop. More enjoyable, though, are the original songs Cosmo's band toss off with suspicious ease (Carney's fantasy extends to the kids becoming slick musicians and songwriters after spinning a few Cure LPs): the Duranesque 'The Riddle Of The Model' slots into the era as if it's always been there, while the infectious Hall-&-Oates-meets-Busted pop of 'Drive It Like You Stole It' accompanies the greatest dream sequence I've seen for yonks.

That sequence is also notable because, despite coming across like a rousing climax to the band's story, there's a whole other act left to unfold in which Cosmo and Raphina determine their fate. It's to John Carney's credit that he purposefully structures his film so as not to focus on the relationships between the band members but to celebrate the naive optimism of young, stupid love. The cruel side of the music business belongs in a more downbeat sequel, just as the hinted-at darkness of life in a catholic school is drowned out by the unstoppable power of a heart-stopping bass riff or synth line.
Like last week's Everybody Wants Some!!, Sing Street also concerns itself with a young man's search for identity, and one of its best running gags sees Cosmo turning up to school each week with a fresh hairstyle and makeup regime based on whoever he saw on Top Of The Pops last night. Freedom of expression and rebellion against authority also figure strongly, as you'd expect, and while these themes court accusations of cliché, Carney brushes them aside with a delightful cast, a soaring soundtrack and a succession of pop videos that recall the madcap antics of Flight Of The Conchords.

Carney dedicates his film to brotherhood, and Cosmo's relationship with his big bro (Jack Reynor) is undeniably heartfelt and endearing. But to me - poor, brotherless me - Sing Street is more powerful in its offer to let me spend a couple of hours in an alternate universe where that third-year kid plucked up the courage to chat up the hot sixth-former and became a rock star in the process. I can only hope that in that universe, the other me is equally enjoying a film about a short-sighted, balding film blogger and thinking how great it would be to be him. Well sorry pal, only one of us can live this dream.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

Richard Linklater describes his new, somewhat over-punctuated movie Everybody Wants Some!! as a "spiritual sequel" to Dazed And Confused, his semi-autobiographical, 1976-set meander through a day in the lives of a dozen Texan teens, and that seems a fair assessment. It's now 1980, and while the characters, clothes and music are different, the song remains the same: the bucking bronco ride between boyhood (yep, it's a "spiritual sequel" to that too) and manhood doesn't last long, so grab it by the horns and enjoy it before it flings you off into a world of mortgages, taxes and a lifetime spent trying to recapture the good old days by repeatedly making films about them.

The first day of college - again, remember the end of Boyhood? - is just over three days away, and freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) rocks up on campus, The Knack's My Sharona thumping from his car's speakers like a fanfare announcing not just a new wave of music, but a new decade and a new chapter in Jake's life. It was at this point, seconds into the film, that I suspected I would fall for it; my suspicions were confirmed shortly thereafter when Jake and his crew of new housemates executed a flawless drive-by rapalong to The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight. A mile-wide smile slapped itself across my chops and hardly budged until the end credits, when it only got wider. (Trust me on this one: Marvel can only dream of a post-credits sting as fantastic as this film's.)

You don't have to be a fan of '80s music to love Everybody Wants Some!!, but it helps. You do have to be a fan of Richard Linklater's style of filmmaking though; don't go looking for convoluted plotting or far-reaching character arcs here. You're spending a few days following the adventures of a group of young men whose principal interests are babes, booze, bongs and baseball, and the pursuit of all these forms what can loosely be called the plot. But there's much more going on beneath the surface: Jake's new digs are in one of two houses containing other baseball-playing freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, and his navigation of the shifting social structures at work in this animal kingdom form his journey through the film.
The guys we're asked to care about here are, for the most part, complete dicks. They're cruel, shallow and ruthlessly competitive; it would come as little surprise if one of the background characters turned out to be a young Donald Trump. But Linklater's skill is to make us care about these jocks - cinema's unloved children - by refusing to box them up in familiar teen movie stereotypes. Each is allowed to gradually reveal himself organically as the story unfolds, and Linklater takes two leisurely hours to do what his film's dirty old uncle Porky's did with basic movie shorthand in its first reel. Admittedly, Linklater isn't in a rush to get to a scene where a fat lady pulls a student's penis through a hole in a shower room wall, so he can afford to take his time.

And so, in a world with only about two actual adults (a baseball coach and a history professor, neither of which are treated with much respect), it's up to the students to determine the men from the boys. Many of the seniors look about 35 thanks to some enviable facial hair, but it's Tyler Hoechlin's McReynolds who's ostensibly the alpha male - although Linklater gleefully turns the concept on its head by dressing him in crop-tops, tight shorts and knee-high socks. In fact most of these pussy-hungry menchildren strut about in outfits offering the least room for manoeuvre while playfully slapping each other on the bottom; the thematic seam of discovering who you really are runs through Everybody Wants Some!! at multiple strata, and one of its many pleasures is only realising some of them days - if not weeks - after viewing.
A love letter to carefree fraternity and formative male bonding set in a pre-AIDS landscape, this is very much a film about #lads being #lads. Girls are temporary distractions for the most part, save Zoey Deutch's Beverly, who - after a promising introduction - doesn't get much more to do than gaze adoringly into Jake's eyes. It's a minor disappointment in an otherwise genuine and heartfelt endeavour, but Linklater is pitching a specifically androcentric (occasionally to the point of homoerotic) experience here, and he successfully buries it firmly in the, uh... wicket keeper's... big glove thing? Yeah, pretty confident that baseball metaphor works.

As that final treat over the end credits sends you home with a doofus grin, you wonder what might become of Everybody Wants Some!!'s semi-bright young things. They've tried everything from disco to country to punk, and it's hard to tell if any of them are any closer to finding themselves than they were when My Sharona pointedly announced a new dawn at the film's opening. But Linklater's intention is not to drone on about tedious lesson-learning or the acquisition of crucial life skills; instead he deliberately leaves his characters suspended in that magic hour when actions had no consequences and anything was possible. That's obviously just the way he prefers to remember his college days, and it's the way you'll want to remember them too.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Following my complaints that the last two Captain America films were a bit dull because, as we all know, Captain America himself is a bit dull, Marvel have finally seen sense and buried him in a helicarrierful of other characters in his new movie, Colon Civil War. This is good, because some of those characters are Iron Man, Black Widow and Ant-Man, who are fun, but also bad because some of those characters are Arrow Man, Condorman and Fucking Weird Robot Man-Thing Man, who are rubbish.
Memorising the placement of these characters will be very helpful during the film

Considering how much hand-wringing went into worrying about whether four superheroes plus two little helpers could successfully share the screen in 2012's Marvel Avengers Assemble, the balls on writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely - as well as directors Anthony and Joe Russo - must have to be carted around in wheelbarrows after attempting to bring a dozen or so of the fuckers together here. That they've done it with a fair degree of success is an impressive feat of writing and direction which is unlikely to attract the kind of attention Joss Whedon did four years ago, and that's a shame.

But it's not applause and blowjobs all round just yet: despite a thoughtful and meaty first act that sets up the film's core antagonism in a way that makes Batman v Superman look like it was thrown together by shit-flinging monkeys, Civil War eventually decides that working out how to choreograph supermassive superhero smackdowns is more important than keeping focus on why they're all up in each other's grills, and eventually all that running around, jumping and fighting... well, it's exhausting.

To ReCap: as in BvS, people have begun to notice that superheroes are a destructive, dangerous lot. The Avengers' apparent indifference to their own city-smashing habits has resulted in a motion to bring them under the supervision of the UN, and while Tony Stark is all for that, Steve Rogers is more suspicious of political agendas, preferring his own judgement to the chance of becoming a government-sponsored weapon of mass destruction. It's an intelligent, well-laid-out argument which believably sets our heroes against each other, but it's not quite enough to trigger an all-out-war of the hashtags between #TeamIronMan and #TeamCap, so an additional wrinkle is added in the shape of Daniel Brühl's mysterious mischief maker, and this is where it all gets a bit murky.

Brühl makes fleeting, infrequent appearances throughout the story, and while it's refreshing that the villain isn't a showboating blowhard for once, it is a bit tricky to get a grip on exactly what he's up to. It's a pity, because his impact on the rest of the characters is crucial, and his plan requires the same amount of thought as - if not more than - the logistics of Civil War's numerous, enormous fight scenes, which we as an audience have been led to believe is what we really want to see from this film. When the repercussions of Brühl's somewhat underexplained actions are so far-reaching, it feels like they should have been given as much time and space to breathe as all the chin-stroking moral dilemmas are.
The centrepiece of Civil War is a gargantuan multiple face-off between the forces of good and, uh, also good, and while it's kind of fun, it's also crippled by its own ambition. Having painted itself into a corner where such a rumble can't be seen to cause injury to any innocent bystanders, the film instead sets the scene in a conveniently deserted airport, and the result is an amped-up but somewhat sterile version of Anchorman's news team fight. Every hero gets their moment - Ant-Man's is the best of the scene and, arguably, the whole film - and although it's shot and cut with welcome clarity it's hard to remember who's meant to be on whose side. And if I'm being honest, I do find strong people fighting each other a bit boring now. Only one character seems to get hurt in the entire scrap, so what's the point? Why not just have a nice sit down and a chat about it?

It's a shame, because there's some great work elsewhere. The banter between the leads is as on-point as ever, the humour is perfectly pitched and a couple of new supers are introduced organically and interestingly. One in particular gets a simple, beautifully-written and played introductory scene that does in minutes what other films spend entire acts on. But then, in the same film, Martin Freeman appears maybe three times for no apparent reason, as if most of his scenes were cut to allow more time for punching, and Vision - whose very existence and purpose is still a mystery to me - pads about an apartment looking bored in a range of comfortable slacks and polo shirts. He purports to be some kind of all-powerful, perfect synthetic being with infallible A.I., so why he's moping about like a Man At C&A catwalk model is baffling.
In fairness he descends from a proud line of androids in casual wear

By and large none of this matters; Captain America: Civil War is a perfectly serviceable summer blockbuster that reminds you how good Marvel are at this superhero malarkey. Where Batman v Superman was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, Civil War at least has the common decency to give you a good time in return for your hard-earned cash. I just wish it had extended the intelligence of its setup to the rest of the plot, because while the Marvel Cinematic Universe has the power to become one of the defining legends of our time, it's in danger of becoming overwhelmed by all the pixel-on-pixel argy-bargy. And if that happens you may as well just hire Zack Snyder and be done with it.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Guy Hamilton

"Your time in the cutting room is much too short,
but basically that’s as good as it gets"
- Guy Hamilton, director of Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever,
Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun

Monday, 4 April 2016

Midnight Special

It must be the season for movies about people with potentially catastrophic superpowers being seen as either a saviour or a weapon depending on your point of view; fortunately for Midnight Special, it's directed by Jeff Nichols instead of Zack Snyder, thereby rendering it several million percent more watchable than Batman v Superman. It doesn't have Hans Zimmer's Wonder Woman theme in it though, so I guess you can't have everything.

Despite those superficial similarities, Midnight Special is nothing like a superhero film. It's a fairly self-contained and muted affair about Alton, a boy with initially unspecified but frankly alarming issues, who's been held captive by a mad religious sect until his pop Roy (Michael Shannon) breaks him out. The clock's ticking though: for reasons best not divulged here, there are just four days for the cult to snatch Alton back, and the same amount of time for Roy to get him to safety, before... well. Before something.

Nichols' film is a low-key mood piece, in a similar vein to the bits of Looper set at Emily Blunt's farm. In fact if Looper had been told entirely from that scary little brat's POV, the result wouldn't be far from Midnight Special. But it's not Rian Johnson that Nichols is channeling the most here: there's another huge presence looming over proceedings, and that presence has a beard and wears a baseball cap and is married to Kate Capshaw. OK fine, it's Spielberg. I'm talking about Steven Spielberg.
Specifically, though quite possibly coincidentally, Nichols appears to be homaging The Berg's early career: the cross-country chase evokes The Sugarland Express, there's an otherworldly Close Encounters vibe going on, and E.T.'s military pursuit of that which they do not fully understand also figures strongly. It's a darker shade of Amblinism for the most part, unshowy and stripped of its trademark sentimentality, although Nichols can't resist throwing in dazzling shafts of white light and dysfunctional parents just to be sure of a full house in his game of Spielbingo.

The danger of evoking these kind of touchstones, as was also apparent in JJ Abrams' Super 8, is that if the end product doesn't turn out to be one for the ages then you probably shouldn't have made the tributes so obvious. And while Midnight Special is definitely worth your while, it never quite fulfils the promise of its best scenes, in which Alton's troubling powers are revealed. The otherworldly elements here play second fiddle to a road movie which takes in Kirsten Dunst (in a fairly thankless and inconsequential role as Alton's mother) and Adam Driver as The One Good Government Guy, and while I'm all for character-based sci-fi I prefer it when the characters aren't quite as thin as they are here.

All credit to Jeff Nichols, whose output is consistently varied (if you don't count the ubiquitous Michael Shannon) and interesting; he's a director well worth watching and almost certainly has a masterpiece in him somewhere. Midnight Special isn't it, but it'll do for now.

Friday, 1 April 2016

That's Rogertainment! Rogisode 9:

It may have been over a year since Rogisode 8 of this ill-fated venture, but that's because I needed time to build up to this entry. Bullseye! is not a film that should be approached lightly or without training, for it is unforgiving and takes no prisoners. It's the Mount Everest of Rogertainment if Mount Everest were made almost entirely of poo, and many have fallen negotiating its shitty slopes. Those brave, hardy fools who have reached the summit, though, know that there is more to it than painfully inept comedy and incoherent action; not much more, I grant you, but now that I have accomplished my mission I am prepared to share my findings with you so that your hiking boots may remain faeces-free.
"Ow now Rog, we've been bladdy rambled!"
"A woman?"
"Wrong film Rog"

Bullseye! sees Greatest Living Englishman Roger Moore teaming up with his chum Michael Caine, who just four years earlier won an Oscar for his role in Woody Allen's Hannah And Her Sisters. Caine, sadly, would not win an Oscar for Bullseye!, despite at one point flawlessly conveying the innermost emotions of a man in a kilt who has stepped over a tug-o'-war rope, only for sixteen burly Scotsmen to suddenly propel that rope swiftly and decisively upwards and into the Caine scrotum. If proof of the Academy Awards' insanity were further required, you will find it in that baffling injustice.

Rog 'n' Mike play dual roles in Bullseye!: Moore simultaneously essays the parts of untrustworthy conman Gerald Bradley-Smith and nuclear physicist (lol) Sir John Bavistock, while Caine tackles both of those characters' partners, crook Sidney Lipton and scientist Daniel Hicklar. It is, of course, a staggering coincidence that two friends and colleagues should have exact doubles who are also friends and colleagues, but you should probably get used to that kind of plot improbability early on because there's quite a lot of it. In fact without it, Bullseye! wouldn't exist, and what kind of a world would that be? Just you think about that.

Gerald and Sidney, along with fellow con artist Willie (Sally Kirkland, who replaced a mysteriously unavailable Shirley Maclaine), use their convenient likeness to the science boffins to steal a pile of diamonds from them in a first act heist which is actually quite fun, despite being scripted and acted as if it were a school play produced by hormone-addled teenagers. Rog gets to dress up as a blind Austrian piano tuner for some reason, while both men execute a sophisticated plan to remove a key from a vicious dog's collar by forcing it into a canine orgy with a harem of six unsuspecting lady dogs, thereby tiring it out so they can steal the key safely. In a tender moment, this allows the two lead actors (both of whom would later become Commanders of the Order of the British Empire) to reflect on the tragedy of their own waning masculinity and sexual prowess while watching a Staffordhire Bull Terrier vigorously fucking a Poodle.
"Nothing in the world is single; All things by a law divine
in one spirit meet and mingle. Why not I with thine?"
- Shelley, 1820

From this romantic interlude on, sadly, Bullseye! becomes less refined. In the grubby hands of restaurant critic (and, according to the credits, director) Michael Winner, the dual-identity thread of the narrative is allowed to tie itself into such chaotic knots that it's frequently impossible to tell which of the Caines and Moores we're watching. The plot, such as it is, makes almost no sense; comedic scenes that have no bearing on anything are wedged in with the unfulfilled promise that a punchline may one day arrive to justify their presence; important information seems to have been left on the cutting room floor - or, more likely, never shot or even written - and in its undignified dying moments there's a cameo from John Cleese which is absolutely baffling in its execution, as if it were only shot because he happened to be in Barbados at the time of filming. Which, of course, is exactly the case.

But Rogertainment is a celebration of His Rogerness, rather than a chance to berate some of the worst films ever made; it just happens that the two are often easily dealt with simultaneously. And while Bullseye! is undoubtedly an unedifying piece of cinematic wreckage, it allows Sir Rog to have what is obviously the time of his life dicking about with his chums, and that results in an unexpectedly and improbably enjoyable experience for the Rogerwatchers among us. His attempt at a cockney accent is laughably terrible (although not as bad as Caine's American accent), he plays twice as many borderline sex pests as usual, and he is - let's not mince words here - an atrocious actor in this film. But none of that matters: for once he hasn't been miscast, because the film is as juvenile as he is, and neither make any attempts to be otherwise.
It is under 24 hours since I watched this scene, 
yet I cannot recall how or why it comes about

So while this may not be the film for which Roger Moore should be remembered in years to come (even the press release for the DVD reissue quotes the 2014 Radio Times Guide to Films' review: "this appallingly unfunny comedy is a career low for all concerned"), it does at least capture a genuine national treasure (two, arguably) making an absolute berk of himself and point blank refusing to give a shit. And for that I salute Bullseye!, but only very quietly and at the end of this unjustifiably long blog post that nobody will read.

If you've only joined us in the past twelve months you may be wondering why I am wanging on with comical infrequency about Roger Moore films. You won't find the answer here, but it's as good a place to start as any.

Bullseye! is re-released on DVD by Fabulous Films on April 4th 2016. Use this information as you see fit.