Moonlight: tough, tender and touching

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‘You say it best, when you say nothing at all.’ Now why am I quoting Ronan Keating? Well, it seemed apt for this review. Given that the (now Oscar-winning) film Moonlight, is a tale where words are used sparingly, so they stand out and have weight. And a lack of words have perhaps even more weight. Particularly these days, when so many films are crammed with endless dialogue, an in-your-face score and flashy editing.

So this film feels distinctly different. And it’s a worthy awards winner, not just because it’s a breath of fresh air in terms of showing not telling a story, but it’s beautifully shot and the score doesn’t hammer you over the head dictating what you’re supposed to feel every five seconds, too.

And subject wise, it’s vitally important. As it’s about a young black man growing up in a poor part of Miami and struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. So it’s something you might expect to win at the Oscars, or at least be in the conversation. But, following last year’s #oscarssowhite debacle, if this film hadn’t won, it would’ve lost to one that glorifies Hollywood’s heyday, La La Land. A film in which a white guy educates/mansplains to a white girl about the merits of jazz (historically black music). So Moonlight winning was big news. It really was. It’s the first ever film with an all-black cast, the first LGBT film and the second lowest-grossing one to win Best Picture at the Oscars. And the film’s editor became the first black woman to be nominated, too. So yeah, big news. 

Moreover, if we’re on the subject of talking about subjects on which we’re not an authority, then I’m a prime example. There’s nothing in this film to which I can directly relate. I’m not black or gay and I had a decent upbringing etc. That said, we don’t have to immediately identify with all stories that we see at the cinema, but they have to speak to us in some way and engage us emotionally. And if you’ve ever struggled with identity and loneliness, then this has something for you.

So in terms of the story of this film, plot wise, relative newcomer director Barry Jenkins serves it up in the form of a triptych, visiting the main character, Chiron, at three key points in his life; as a child (Alex Hibbert), teenager (Ashton Sanders), and a man (Trevante Rhodes).

And all are heart-breaking in their own way, filmed in a sort of dream-like, hazy quality, like a nostalgic memory. (I’ve heard someone describe this film as Terence Malick directs an episode of The Wire.) And there’s a grittiness and realism about the whole thing as well, and this extends to the score too, and my Ronan Keating point. Because it’s rare to hear music weaved through a film quite so beautifully and respectfully. In a way that’s not overbearing or intrusive, and in some cases there’s no music at all, which may make you feel uncomfortable, but that’s the point. Some scenes and character moments need that level of discomfort, and Jenkins doesn’t shy away when you might expect him to, letting the camera linger for longer than usual. Which is brave and effective.

He also draws impressive performances from the cast, in particular the three actors that play Chiron are outstanding. Black (Trevante Rhodes) who plays him as a man, really shone, capturing the mannerisms of the two preceding actors astonishingly well. Saying so much with so little. And Naomi Harris as Chiron’s mother also puts in a convincing performance across all three story chapters, squeezing more out of a drug addict role than most actors would manage.

And Mahershala Ali as a father figure to childhood Chiron, adds layers to your standard hardened drug dealer too, breaking down our expectations of masculinity and picking up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his troubles. (He’s also the first Muslim to win an Oscar.) He sets up the first third of the movie in terms of the feel and tone and his section, and the last, were, to me, the strongest. 

So you’ve really got no excuse. If you haven’t seen this yet. Go see it. It’s important, topical and a vital piece of cinema. It’s also a beautiful story. 

A Monster Calls: deeply sad and moving

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Quality over quantity. That seems to be how Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has approached his career thus far. His first feature length was The Orphanage (2007), then the immensely sad The Impossible (2012), which was a critical and commercial success. And now, at the start of the new year, he gives us likely Oscar contender A Monster Calls; a tale of a 12-year old boy who struggles to deal with his mum’s slow fight with cancer. Tough stuff. But then, cynics would say it’s awards season, so we should be prepared for some difficult subjects at the movies over the next month.

With A Monster Calls we follow Conor (Lewis MacDougall) as he suffers a bully at school and a rapidly deteriorating mother (Felicity Jones) at home. Then one night a giant Yew tree in a nearby field comes alive, turning into a monster (Liam Neeson) and presenting him with an offer: hear three stories in exchange for one ‘truth’. Conor accepts and each night the monster serves up another tale which helps him deal – or fail to deal – with his family situation in some way. Right up until the inevitable conclusion that we know is coming.

My first thought was that this film shares a lot with Pan’s Labyrinth (and a fair helping of Where The Wild Things Are). It’s a fairytale, it has a young character seemingly having to tackle big problems on his or her own and grow up fast, it has magic and fantasy and, naturally, it has a big bad monster or two (some are human some are pure fantasy).

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That’s it though. Here, this story is different enough. Where the girl in Pan’s Labyrinth is faced with violence (in her fascist father) and how she deals with that in order to protect her baby brother, the boy in this tale is forced to confront – and deal with – the anger within himself in terms of how he copes with his mother’s illness and truly faces his own sense of conflict.

And you’d think a giant talking tree (voiced by Neeson) wouldn’t manage to put us in the right headspace to feel deeply, but somehow, between Bayona, Neeson and MacDougall, the filmmakers manage it, quite cleverly too. Before you realise it you’re right there with Conor, desparately wishing you could take away his pain and acutely aware of the despair and helplessness he must be feeling at the fact that he’s slowly losing his mother and is powerless to stop it.

Casting Felicity Jones was a clever move, too. In someone that beautiful it’s even more painful to watch her slowly waste away (not that attractiveness has much to do with it, but seeing beauty decay, to me, is somehow more heartbreaking). And, whilst her scenes are not lengthy, you get a true sense of the bond she has with her son, and the chemistry they have feels real and credible.

Perhaps in this, MacDougall is the real revelation. Often child actors get surrounded by older ones to prop them up, but here MacDougall is in almost every scene, and you get the feeling he needs very little propping. And it’s testament to his screen presence that his performance will tug at your heartstrings from the off, but you almost don’t notice it’s happening.

Even if you’ve never experienced loss in any significant way, this film will still resonate deeply. We all fear losing a loved one and this will put you right back to childhood and straight into the shoes of the main character, having you care passionately about his fate, all the way until the credits roll. And we can’t ask for any more from a film, other than that it speaks to – and moves us – in some way.

Rogue One: upping the game

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So how on earth do I review a Star Wars film without spoiling it? It’s tough but let’s try. To start with, it’s not called Star Wars colon something, so it already sets itself apart from the others. It’s linked, definitely. But it’s a little rebel of its own, which is kind of great.

Plot wise, I’ll keep it light. Scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has left the Empire behind, until they find him and recruit him to build the Death Star. His daughter witnesses this and then grows up to be Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a freedom fighter of sorts – who gets recruited by the rebels. They’ve learned of the Death Star and who Jyn is and want to use her to get close to Galen and perhaps kill him. Jyn learns that her father put a weakness in the Death Star and, if they can capture the plans for it, they’ll know how to take it down. Along the way she teams up with rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a force-believing monk (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Yen), and former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Trying to stop them is bad Empire chap, Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, doing his best impression of close to maximum crazy).

So we’ve got a story that slots relatively neatly into the middle of the saga – in that the events that led up to the creation of Vadar come first, then this, then the original films (blowing up the Death Star), then the quest to find Luke (the most recent one, The Force Awakens, with Daisy Ridley). Got it? Make sense? Let’s carry on.

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Sticking with story, it’s funny. In that you could argue it doesn’t actually offer up anything new if you put it under a spotlight. We get a gang trying to get one over on the Empire on a planet’s surface while a space battle rages above. This gang is made up of a main guy and girl, a robot, a guy who believes in the force, and a shaggy man-creature who doesn’t say much. Our main character has major issues reconnecting with her father, convinced of the good in him when others doubt there is any, sound familiar?

I could go on, but I don’t want to criticise too much. It’s still, in some ways, more original than The Force Awakens. It might not have the same heft of character; in that you’re missing Adam Driver’s Ben Solo – possibly the most interesting thing to come out of the new films so far. But what you do have is a real sense of spectacle and weight. The battle scenes in Rogue One are visceral and impactful and put me in mind of Saving Private Ryan‘s Normandy beach landings, and the city battles in Jedha conjured up images of Blood Diamond‘s street skirmishes and Children of Men‘s firefights, all of which are high praise indeed. So hats off to director Gareth Edwards (a normal director, not an evil Imperial one) for the sense of immediacy and danger he gets across.

And in general, the film looks gorgeous too (helps I saw it at the BFI IMAX) and Edwards has gone all out in terms of location and scale. You get a real sense of the different worlds that make up this universe. In particular, the Jedi’s homeworld of Jedha (now fallen into ruin) looks epic and suggests an ancient culture now largely gone from the universe. And the film’s finale on tropical planet Scarif – with all surf, palm trees and beaches, feels fresh and different.

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Cast wise, the film more or less belongs to Felicity Jones and Diego Luna – both of whom put in convincing performances. And there are numerous scenes where they exchange looks or moments that, if left for a second longer, could be seen as romantic. But the filmmakers resisted this, which is great. It isn’t that kind of story. This is war and it’s encouraging they didn’t waver and bow to audience expectation. It’s also perhaps testament to the direction, script and cast that, in a stand-alone film (that’s part of an epic saga), Edwards gets us caring about the main characters pretty quickly. There isn’t a huge amount of time to build their stories, but just enough so that their plight means something. There are high stakes.

So all in all, this is a highly enjoyable entry in the saga. It’s got humour, thrills, spectacle and a certain level of inventiveness. It nods to canon without being overwhelmed, and it puts a twist on a number of things we’ve come to expect to see, making them feel a little fresher, but still familiar. Which is no easy task. So it’s a bit like Russian roulette, in that Edwards has pulled the trigger, the chamber has revolved and he’s gotten away with it. Next up to try his luck: Rian Johnson for Episode VIII. Still, after Looper and his past work, I’m pretty optimistic.

 

 

Doctor Strange: Marvel continue to mix it up

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From the opening third of this movie I thought, here we go, Inception on acid with a large helping of Batman Begins. No bad thing, but still… everything draws from something else, so the studio had to make this movie stand out; but also give it that Marvel flavour. Which, happily, they did; with mystic monks bending matter and reality and turning cities into living kaleidoscopes, it’s definitely no cookie cutter approach. Nor should it be, because Marvel – the juggernaut it is now – need to keep pushing the envelope to stay fresh.

Heroes cannot just punch people to solve their problems.

And after all, our hero here is Doctor Strange, so strange is what you want from this character, right? So what follows after the initial sugar rush of monks and warped cityscapes is the introduction of neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); brilliant but arrogant and living the playboy lifestyle. Then a horrific car crash leaves him with severe nerve damage in both hands. So no more surgery and no more perfect career for our hero. His life is effectively over and he’s broken and angry.

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So he seeks alternative therapies, which eventually lead him to Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, the ultimate mystical monk. She sees potential so takes him on, but gives him an LSD style crash course trip before he gets to his training proper. And during this time one of the Ancient One’s former pupils (Mads Mikkelsen) has gone to the dark side and is tearing around the place trying to unleash a being from the dark dimension (as we all are wont to do when we’ve had a bad day).

Amidst this we have Strange desperately trying to stop him; whilst awkwardly learning how to be a hero at the same time. It’s from this that most of the humour is drawn. Because, as he’s no fully formed Avenger, the mishaps work a treat; he’s reckless but inquisitive, arrogant but intelligent, a fast learner but a bit of an idiot. So we have an odd hero, offbeat. More the mould of Ant-Man or early Tony Stark than Thor or Captain America. He definitely doesn’t have all the answers. 

He even has a levitating cloak which, in a genius bit of screenwriting, gets its own rather brilliant introduction and, after a few scenes and no dialogue (being a cloak) half steals the film from Cumberbatch. But every hero needs a sidekick, so it works.

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And Cumberbatch is fantastic in this role.

Did I mention that? Half Sherlock but more of an outright hero with more swagger. With bits of John Harrison (a la Khan) in there, but here much more appealing to root for than a tortured bad guy taunting Kirk.

And for the fanboys (and girls) I can no doubt imagine their excitement to have Cumberbatch now part of the MCU, with his version of Strange interacting with the Avengers in future films an enticing prospect. Picture it: even just him, The Vision and Tony Stark sitting down for a cup of tea could be standout scene in any Marvel movie you care to name.

Then there’s the other fact that, with this film including Strange’s use of an Infinity stone, Marvel have drawn much closer links between Earth’s heroes and the Guardians of the Galaxy gang. And Strange could be the glue that holds them all together. With, er, five Infinity stones now in play, we’re moving closer to the end game.

A slight bum note is that, yet again, the baddies are not that fleshed out. Mads gets one proper scene where he explains why he’s doing what he’s doing, but it’s kind of hard to feel much for him after that. Especially as the rest of the time he’s just scowling and running around after Strange. 

But whatever, it’s nitpicking. And with Cumberbatch, Marvel have struck casting gold again, so the future looks rosy. Not that it was ever in doubt.

I guess it’s just a case of saying… Infinity War here we come!

My favourite movies that deal with… Time

Film

Here’s a thing. I recently watched Midnight In Paris and noticed that time travel drove the story along at a gentle pace. Which got me thinking; filmmakers use time as a plot device like, a lot. And why not? It shapes our existence, it may as well shape our storytelling mediums too.

This made me wonder, which time-based movies are ones that have struck a chord with me over the years?

Obviously there’s loads not included in the list below, like Groundhog Day and Time Bandits. Because whilst they’re great films, I don’t really remember them well. So I’ve got to go with what’s shaped me and made me, well, me.

So here they mine. What are yours?

Back To The Future (1985)
The daddy of time travel films. With tracks by Huey Lewis, score by Alan Silvestri, leading pair in Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd and Bob Zemeckis at the helm, it was bottled movie magic.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Let’s not forget, before Keanu got serious he started his career with stuff like this. It’s such a quotable film and spawned a trilogy which wasn’t half bad either. Remember, be excellent to each other.

Looper (2012)
Bruce Willis, an older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Not likely. But they made it work in this underrated modern sci-fi directed by Rian Johnson. In Emily Blunt, Paul Dano and others it had a great supporting cast too.

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Time travel and comedy. The best combination, right? And whilst the sequel was below par, the original came with added John Cusack, so it was a bit of a treat. Sleeper hit too. One no one saw coming.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Funny choice for this list? In that there’s pretty much no time travel until the end. Well it’s such an odd and sweet film I feel it’s earned its place. Go see it. It’s also probably Aubrey Plaza’s best performance to date.

Source Code (2011)
You wake up on a train set to explode. You’re meant to save it. You fail and go back to the start. Duncan Jones’ execution of this story was masterful and had me gripped throughout. Strong Jake Gyllenhaal performance too.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Like Tom Cruise? Well he’s in this. Don’t like him? No problem, he gets killed over and over again. Bit like Source Code in a way. Our hero keeps reliving the same loop until he can figure a way not to die and save mankind from aliens at the same time.

Interstellar (2014)
Got your thinking caps on? Because this one gets heavy. Maybe in space no one can hear you scream but at the cinema many probably did. Because Chris Nolan’s sci-fi tale got rather ‘out there’ in the final third.

Flight Of The Navigator (1986)
I would have been roughly the same age as the lead character when it came out so had that connection. It was a fun buddy movie too, in that the ship had its own zany personality and learnt about humanity from the boy. So like Terminator, but sweeter.

Magnificent Seven: all glory no guts

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Ok, I fess up. I’ve not seen the original. There, I’ve said it. Yet another classic Western that’s passed me by. And yes, maybe one day I’ll get round to it, but for now at least, I have to make do with the modern version.

And I say make do because it’s OK.

Not bad, just not that great either. Which, let’s face it, is a darn tootin’ shame given the cast and director. I mean you’ve got Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Antoine Fuqua – the dream team, reunited after their success on Training Day. Plus Chris Pratt, everyone’s favourite leading man these days. And Peter Sarsgaard as the bad guy, complete with suitably evil moustache.

Slam dunk, surely? Sadly not. I’ll explain why, but first, the story.

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Should you be unfamiliar with the plot, it centres on sauve man in black, a bounty hunter called Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington); who gets recruited by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and other townsfolk as they’re being bullied and oppressed by evil industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), because he wants their gold mine all for his greedy self. So Chisolm – initially after the bounty but his motivation evolves as things go on – recruits six sharp shooters/brave idiots to help protect the town and the whole thing builds to one almighty dust-up come the finish.

Simple right? As we know, simple stories are the best. Now all the filmmakers need to do is add character and they’ll be on to a winner. Make us care about the whole gang, make us see things from the bad guy’s point of view, and perhaps even sympathise with him. Surprise us. Do something unexpected. Take risks.

Unfortunately we don’t really get any of this. Granted, the film treads the path you expect it to, ticking the Western boxes, it looks good enough and is shot well. And yes, people like Denzel can do charismatic with his eyes closed. Yet you need more.

Ensemble films are tough when it comes to building character and, whilst I feel like a broken record here (after saying much the same thing for Suicide Squad), it can be done. Marvel, for example, are great at it. And so are Disney, with J.J. Abrams having a crack at Star Wars. Oh, and the modern Star Trek franchise (Abrams again)

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My point is you can make audiences care about numerous characters in a short space of time, but you can’t rely on gunfights and beautifully framed shots to achieve it alone. Or if you do take that route, you’ve got to pepper the action with character beats. Otherwise it’s just a Western we’ve seen a hundred times before… or a battle scene from Gladiator or Braveheart or Lord of the Rings. Take your pick.

The problem I had is that I kept thinking of relatively modern Westerns I’ve preferred (Tombstone, Open Range and 3:10 to Yuma all sprang to mind), ones where I was hooked on the fate of the characters almost from the off, which is never a good sign in this case, because it just didn’t grab me the same way. I suppose there’s one thing going for this film, in that it’ll never be a franchise as (spoiler!) not all the seven make it through to the end. It is what it is, but it’s a stand-alone story.

Maybe I’m being harsh.

Maybe there was a lot of subtle character development buried deep within scenes that I simply missed. Stuff that really made you care about their fate, you know? Maybe it gets better on repeat viewings. Some films do. Or maybe Antoine Fuqua will just have to chalk this down as a swing and a miss. Or a misfire, wahey.

Either way, it’s worth a watch if you spot it on TV, or fancy a fairly mindless night at the cinema where thinking caps are not required. But no more than that. Sorry Antoine, the wait for you, Denzel and Ethan to strike gold again continues.

Suicide Squad: The Harley Quinn show

Film

We all knew it would work, didn’t we? Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Arguably, there’s never been a better match of actor and character in a superhero movie (except maybe Jack Nicholson as The Joker, but that was decades ago).

And with the addition of Will Smith – reuniting them after their pairing in con film Focus – you know the lion’s share of scenes will have gone to those two. Not that that’s a bad thing. But when watching David Ayer’s Suicide Squad I did wonder – more than once – what the rest of the cast were actually doing there, other than to make up the numbers.

It’s a bit like the XMen films. You have so many characters that giving them all something interesting to do is a tall order. Although maybe that’s just an excuse and the filmmakers should really just try that bit harder. (After all, we’ve had a few great XMen films in the past.)

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But to backtrack, in case you’ve not seen the trailer or know anything about superhero films or have any idea what the Suicide Squad is, let’s recap.

‘They’re bad guys. The worst of the worst’, says Viola Davis’ shady Government official Amanda Waller. For it is she that pulls the strings of the squad, getting them to do her evil bidding. And she’s as cold as ice with it, sending them into situations where you wouldn’t want to risk your precious heroes like Batman and The Flash.

Essentially, they’re canaries down the coal mine and very much on the expendable side. Bad guys forced to do good. For example there’s a Hispanic gangster fire guy (Jay Hernandez), a crocodile (Addiwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an Aussie boomerang-throwing burglar (Jai Courtney), a master assassin with funky dress sense (Will Smith) and everyone’s favourite deranged-by-the-Joker psychiatrist (Margot Robbie). Plus some other walking clichés but I’ve given up listing them, you’ll just have to check IMDb.

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They’re tasked with rescuing someone from the remnants of a city that an ancient – and rather pissed off – witch called Enchantress (Cara Delivigne) has torn to shreds in a sort of Viggo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters kind of way. Plot wise, that’s kind of it. So somehow we have a film in which lots happens, but also, bafflingly, very little at all.

Furthermore, there’s been talk online of how the film starts about three times. Or that it takes maybe 20 minutes to get into the actual story. Either way, you could argue that – if you’re going to be tough to please like me – it never really does get going. Robbie does her best to lighten things up but it often feels like she’s in a different movie to everyone else.

Particularly Joel Kinnaman’s dour Colonel Rick Flag; who leads the group in such a gruff manner it’s as if he sucks the life out of scenes simply by turning up; like some sort of Dementor in army fatigues.

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Then there’s the Joker. One of the best comic book villians ever to grace the screen and first made famous by Jack Nicolson, then updated for the modern age by the genius of Heath Ledger (the latter gaining a posthumous Oscar in the wake of his death).

So now we have Jared Leto giving us his take, going all method during the shoot; with stories of him sending dead rats to cast members there’s no doubt he got into character for the role. And really, this just added fuel to the fire getting us all revved up. His Joker would be something special. Even perhaps, whisper it, the best yet?

And then… what did we get? A couple of scenes here and there but largely diddly squat. Nada. Zip. Zilch. David Ayer took this great character and frittered him away on some meaningless encounters, giving Leto precious little to work with. But perhaps I am missing the point? Was this not a Joker movie? Is he not the biggest bad guy in the film? If not, then why bother to hype him up at all?

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If you’re going to focus on Smith and Robbie’s characters then why not give them some sort of combined backstory and shared history the actors can sink their teeth into? Play up to their chemistry. Or if you’re going to do a Joker and Harley Quinn film, do that. With the rest of the squad as peripheral characters. Maybe Deadshot could have taken it upon himself to free Harley from the Joker’s influence?

I get that screenwriting is a monumentally challenging thing to get into any semblance of something coherent that’ll engage audiences. But surely if in doubt, KISS right? Keep it simple, stupid.

So structurally this film is somewhat all over the place and feels thrown together in a way which slightly vexes me. And it gives the audience very little with which to identify in terms of characters. Granted, ensemble movies are a tricky beast at the best of times and, whilst I’m loathe to use Marvel as a blueprint, they just do it so much better.

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Whether bringing together established characters (Avengers) or introducing entirely new ones (Guardians of the Galaxy) they make it seem much more seamless and, crucially, make us care about the characters involved.

So, anywho. Before it seems like I’m too down on this whole movie, let’s put things in perspective. There were some good performances to be had (Robbie, Smith, Davis, Leto) and David Ayer did a passable job of setting up the squad and it’s a reasonable enough Friday night popcorn type of watch. So there’s that. And it also seems to have done well enough to suggest a sequel isn’t going to be a big ask of the studio.

So for the second one I really hope they come up with a better structure and more credible story for the squad. Stick Smith and Robbie front and centre and, for God’s sake, keep the tone as far away from dark and gritty as possible. DC has more than enough of that going around and superhero films are supposed to be fun. Aren’t they?

X-Men: Apocalypse – review

Film

The thing about superhero movies (as some geeky pub conversations may go), is that they have to get bigger and more spectacular each time. To the point where there’s nowhere left to take the story. And, whilst previous X-Men films have destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge and football stadiums and such, the only logical way to head, if we’re honest, is up. All the way to an apocalypse, total annihilation. (Something of a theme this summer, I thought, having sat through the new Independence Day trailer before this film began.)

Luckily for Marvel they have a character called Apocalypse aka En Sabah Nur – the first mutant; one who absorbs other mutant’s powers and who we first encounter in the film’s opening sequence in ancient Egypt (although he may be much older). During the scene he gets betrayed by his followers – who claim he’s a false God (one of the movie’s recurring themes) – and so he ends up trapped underground, in stasis and dormant. Until… thanks to some fortune (for him, more than the rest of the world) he awakes and decides that humanity needs an Etch A Sketch style reboot.

Enter our (slightly reluctant) heroes.

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They’re all back, for the most part. We’ve got Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), now a freedom fighter, roaming the world setting fellow mutants free; Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), rocking the bespectacled Professor look, helping out Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) in his house for the gifted. Then there’s Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), holed up in Poland pretending to be normal, until events cause him to somewhat snap and return to the fold in a fury.

There’s also a load of newbies. Some younger versions of characters we’ve seen before and some are entirely new. We have: Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Archangel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Kurt/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). Plus a few more. It’s X-Men remember, character overload aplenty.

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That said, Bryan Singer really is some sort of genius when it comes to making these characters zing. Having seen three superhero films in a row recently (Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, and this) I’d say this X-Men – the ninth in the series – is, to me, not only the most complicated in terms of character juggling, but also the funniest and the most emotionally resonant.

There I’ve said it. In your face Avengers.

For those of you that keep up to date with film reviews I may sound out of step at this point. At least with critics, who have largely laid into the movie saying it’s repetitive and downbeat – and Rotten Tomatoes seems to back this up, rating it at 52%, which isn’t great. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t put this too far above Captain America: Civil War (quite possibly the best Avengers film so far), I just think this X-Men entry takes it by a nose.

I felt I cared for these characters more than Steve Rodgers and Tony Stark. I felt invested in their fates.

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Maybe it’s just that I prefer Fassbender, Lawrence and McAvoy as leads compared to Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. Maybe I bought into the emotional beats more readily? Maybe it’s the comedy? Maybe this just seems more ‘Marvel’ in tone than the last Cap film. I genuinely think this X-Men is funnier than Captain America; not only for successful jokes throughout, which all land well, but in particular for another outstanding Quicksilver sequence; one which beats the last one hands down for its complexity, comedy, inventiveness and sense of danger… in that the stakes are upped from the last time he did his thing.

Whatever connected with me with this film, it remains a mystery. Maybe it’s just it had more of a sense of fun? Anyway, it was time well spent at the cinema.

And, as you’d expect with new blood coming in, it is, of course, left open for a tenth film. Which is quite some achievement for a franchise that’s been going so long. Although in terms of where we go next, that’s rather up in the air. Singer has spoken about taking the X-Men into space or exploring more of Jean Grey’s story. Now the space plot sounds like mad genius, so maybe that’s the best play. But… Jean Grey is insanely powerful as a character, so that could be good route too. Either way, with the young cast all bedding in nicely the future remains bright.

Captain America: Civil War – review

Film

Let’s make something perfectly clear – or at least less muddy. This film is not an Avengers movie, it’s a Captain America one… inasmuch as he’s the focus and both antagonist and protagonist. But then, so is Tony Stark. So maybe it’s a Captain America versus Iron Man movie, with their respective teams in tow?

In any case, it’s all gotten a bit more serious…. more DC maybe, less Marvel. Perhaps this is right in this instance, for here the plot picks up strands from Steve Rodgers’ prior outings, as well as further mining the depths of Tony Stark’s inner torment, following everything he’s been through; including accidently creating Ultron as force for bad rather than good.

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And so we have a bit of playing against type – or role reversal – in that rebellious playboy Stark supports legislation to make our heroes accountable to the U. N., but Rodgers – a man who you’d safely bet would be on the side of the establishment – is firmly in the opposite camp. Mostly because he wants to protect his friend Bucky – the Winter Soldier who keeps getting into trouble – but also because he feels legislation clips the wings of the Avengers, stopping them from doing what they do best without the need for red tape.

So we have some nice, meaty motivation for our two main dudes, pitting them against each other. Each a titan with his own loyal followers, and so with Civil War we get some old names (Black Widow, Hawkeye), some newer but fairly established ones (War Machine, Falcon, Ant-Man, The Vision, Scarlett Witch) and some fresh blood (Spider-Man, Black Panther).

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They fly, they swoop, they shrink, they grow and they scrap their little heart’s out.

And it’s a blast.

Then, on the periphery of all the infighting we have an actual bad guy (Daniel Bruhl) who goes rather unnoticed for the most part. But he’s not the main focus, so it’s ok. He does the job he needs to do at the times upon which he’s called, but it’s Cap v Iron Man we’ve come to see really… that and the interplay between almost all of Marvel’s superheroes (except Thor and Hulk who’ve gone AWOL and the Guardians of the Galaxy lot) in one giant dust-up, plus a few other skirmishes along the way.

To do this and not give the audience a headache is really quite masterful on the part of the Russo brothers; who are really getting into their stride directing these days.

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That said, there’s a point where the movie is in danger of becoming too po-faced and serious for its own good. Thank God that, at that point, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man turn up to take the edge off most pleasingly.

Lest we forget that Marvel’s strength tends to be in light-hearted banter amid the mayhem, so it’s good that they didn’t go too far down the DC path, past the point of no return at least.

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At the end of the day we all know people in costumes are somewhat ridiculous, so it’s important to burst the bubble at regular intervals – and the final third of the movie moves into much more welcome territory. Overall, it may actually be the best Marvel film yet (I’ve yet to see Ant-Man, but from the scenes in this film it has to be on my ‘to watch’ list in the near future).

And as a final thought, props to the filmmakers for how they’ve portrayed Black Panther. With his cat-like reflexes, sharp claws and black suit he’s got to be up there as one of the coolest superheroes we’ve seen in a while. A solo film following this character would be a pretty savvy choice bet I’d say.

Roll on the next one…

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The Jungle Book: safe and sweet

Film

Jon Favreau is a funny old chap. He started out with his buddy Vince Vaughn in Swingers (1996) then leapt up to the big time directing Iron Man (2008). He now gets the big gigs, inasmuch as The Jungle Book is a beloved children’s story by Rudyard Kipling – and also a 1967 film by Disney – so he’d better not mess it up.

Happily he doesn’t, but nor does he take any huge risks. What we get is The Lion King (sort of) done Life of Pi style. In case you’ve never heard of the story it centres on young man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi), found in the forest as a toddler by panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by a pack of wolves. Then pissed off tiger Shere Khan (Iris Elba) learns of his existence and vows to kill him; as man is not meant to belong in the forest.

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So, to protect his animal friends from the wrath of Khan (when did this turn into Star Trek?), Mowgli goes on a little adventure to find the man village and be with his own kind. On the way he meets seductive snake Kaa (Scarlet Johansson) and Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) then gets captured by monkeys and meets King of the Apes Louie (Christopher Walken); the latter who wants to learn the secret of man’s fire by way of catchy song.

He then has a big showdown with the cockney tiger and it’s all very exciting. You could say what I’ve described – basically the film – is a huge spoiler but c’mon, it’s The Jungle Book. For most of us we’ve known the story for decades and Favreau doesn’t do a huge amount to play with the formula.

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Granted, he’s cast the actors well enough – Elba is menacing as Khan and Murray as Baloo is a treat and helps lightens things up – but the story is fairly straightforward and doesn’t hit you with many surprises. But maybe that’s what people want from something so nostalgic and beloved? Just don’t mess it up, it’s our childhoods.