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.