Logan: sad, beautiful and final

Film

James Mangold is a compelling director; in that a lot of his work has real emotional depth and nuance, and often benefits from repeat viewing. And he’s kind of underappreciated. I mean, Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 To Yuma and Walk The Line all had him at the helm.

And yes, granted, he’s also got The Wolverine on his filmography, but we’re all allowed a little stumble now and then, right?

And I have to say, with Logan – almost certainly Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s last portrayal of the characters – Mangold has finished with superheroes on a high (assuming he’s not coming back to direct again). Because, simply put, this film is poles apart from almost ALL superhero movies (even Deadpool), in that it’s a melancholy love letter to Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), as the two that are heart and soul – and indeed spine – of the X-Men franchise.

Theirs is the father-son dynamic that’s touched on consistently throughout prior films, but is really brought front and centre here. And, structure wise, we’re in somewhat different territory. Because whilst superhero films (these days) are often Westerns half in disguise, Logan wears this badge proudly, with Mangold really playing to his strengths as a director.

In that it’s a muscular, visceral, downtrodden and wistful story. One that’s gritty, painfully real, and lacks any semblance of a Hollywood shine. (I mean, within one scene more F bombs get dropped than the rest of the franchise put together.)

Indeed, Mangold has previously stated his touchpoints were Shane, The Cowboys, Paper Moon, Little Miss Sunshine and The Wrestler. And, for me, the latter two cited really shine through. Whether it’s the road trip structure or the fact Logan shares a lot of common ground with Mickey Rourke’s wrestler, in that he’s a ‘broken down old piece of meat’, you sense these influences keenly.

And, story wise, it also takes its cues from the Old Man Logan series of graphic novels. So within the opening scenes where we meet Logan, he’s a grey-haired, shabby limo driver. He drinks, he’s bleary-eyed, bent, broken and walks with a limp. So he’s oceans away from his body being the temple of earlier films. Now it’s more a urinal. In short, he’s a right mess and borderline suicidal.

Plus the fact he’s got a half-senile Charles to look after; shacked up in a metal bunker in Mexico (described in one scene as a man with the world’s most dangerous brain and a degenerative brain disorder to match. A lethal combination). So gone are the days of the mansion and gone are the days of mutants and the X-Men. Logan and Charles are practically all that’s left. And they’re barely clinging to life as it is.

But… they’re given purpose by the arrival of a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), who has certain familiar abilities. And so Logan is tasked – with Charles in tow – to attempt to evade bad guys and get her to the safety of Canada. So we end up with a sort of mismatched family road movie – with Logan as the cantankerous yet caring father, Charles as the doddering yet insightful grandfather, and Laura as the wild, precocious daughter looking for a family and sense of belonging.

And, whilst the whole film has many sweet notes, it’s also immensely sad and surprisingly violent (every Wolverine kill is far bloodier and more gory than ever before).

This is also, without a shadow of a doubt, both Jackman and Stewart’s best performances as these characters. The studio has clearly given Mangold license to do things a bit differently, and it’s really paid off.

The world feels more real. It’s the most emotional ‘superhero’ film yet (in any franchise) and it’s focused in its use of a handful of characters tops, which is really refreshing (the swollen cast of recent X-Men outings was beginning to bore me a bit).

So ultimately, this is a strong contender for the best X-Men movie to date, or at least a firm second place. And you could argue that without all the prior films the weight of emotion wouldn’t ring true here, and that this movie needs to stand fully alone to be considered the best. And that’s valid.

But it’s also worth noting that this movie does FAR more right than it does wrong. Coupled with the fact that more than a handful of scenes are truly heartbreaking.

Now how many X-Men films could you say that about?

Chappie: Short Circuit gets a reboot?

Film

Johnny Five is very much alive. Apologies to kids of the ’90s, this reference to the 1986 film Short Circuit will be lost on you.

What I’m trying to say is that Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie doesn’t feel like it’s hugely treading new ground when it comes to exploring artificial intelligence, but it’s quite a fun experience nonetheless.

We start with genius programmer Dion (Dev Patel) working for a South African company called Tetravaal who produce robotic police officers known as scouts. They’ve been instrumental in helping keep the crime rate down in Johannesburg, a city on the edge of slipping into chaos.

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Through a series of events Dion acquires a robot due for scrap and manages to install his newly developed artificial intelligence system into him. Around the same time he’s thrown together with some local gangsters who want to use the robot for their own ends.

Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

Put forward by Descartes in the Principles of Philosophy in 1644 and, in recent years, has been tackled and toyed with by filmmakers, particularly in terms of humanity’s uneasy relationship with artificial intelligence. As we develop things designed to make our lives easier we’re becoming increasingly attached to the very things that are meant to help set us free. Who’s to say we won’t become even more dependent on technology like advanced AI, when it develops?

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And specifically with the case of Chappie, learn to love robots like they’re children and part of our family. A large part of the film’s first half deals with this notion and it’s probably where it comes across strongest, as there’s a lot of warmth and humour there.

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) as a character seems somewhere between a pet and a child, constantly learning and enthusiastic. His performance (and dialogue) largely set to ‘dog mode’. Chappie do this, Chappie go there, Chappie has been a good boy, yes! It’s fairly charming and endearing, but we’re still firmly in Johnny Five territory.

Sticking the moral (but childlike) Chappie in with a bunch of gangsters is a nice idea, and the comedic situations work well. The problems occur when the film moves into more traditional action territory. And this is where you feel that so much time has been spent on Chappie and the characters immediately around him, that supporting characters get rather short shrift.

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Particularly Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman’s characters. They do their best but they’re lumbered with thinly drawn parts, clunky dialogue and – at times – rather ludicrous scenarios where their decisions are as baffling as the situation (particularly Jackman, who seems to be kitted out to look like Aussie crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, complete with bush outfit and a fearsome mullet).

As films go Neil Blomkamp set his own bar almost unsettlingly high with his debut District 9. Each of his films that followed this primarily explored similar themes, but with diminishing returns.

However, that said, there’s really nothing wrong with Chappie. It’s fun and entertaining, but given the subject matter it could have been so much more. You get the sense Blomkamp was more interested in exploring a situation where a childlike robot with a moral compass gets raised by gangsters (like some sort of ghetto Mowgli), than really mining the depths of consciousness, artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.

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This is evident in the film’s final third, which rushes through key sections almost like an afterthought. The same sort of thing happened in Luc Besson’s Lucy with Scarlet Johansson. Although, if we’re talking a more sophisticated handling of AI, you’re probably better off watching the film she did with Joaquin Phoenix, Her. Or more recently Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Hell, even I, Robot.

But before this descends into a Chappie bashing (which he gets enough of in the film), this movie is warm, its heart is in the right place and it’s engaging for the most part. And despite other characters not getting the love they deserve in the script, Copley keeps us hooked in, making us care about Chappie’s fate.

All in all, though, this isn’t a classic take on the genre, or even classic Blomkamp, but it’s entertaining enough and worth your time… for Copley’s plucky performance if nothing else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past review

Film

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Mystique-with-water-pistol-680x425So… How do you discuss the new X-Men film without giving too much away? Well that’s easy, throw in time travel. Always guaranteed to confuse all but the most hardened of moviegoers. And indeed confuse was the case in the cinema I went to; a full house with the audience all sitting quietly, leaning forward focusing.

The reason being is that this is one densely plotted film, by X-Men standards at least. Dense and tense. Most of this plotting is a good thing but requires you – in the words of Sister Mary Clarence a la Sister Act 2 – to sit up and pay attention. Those devilish trousers of time. If you go back you’ll affect the present, or create a new future, or something. Either way, it must have made for a right headache when planning the plot.

To recap: the events of this film happen around a decade after First Class but we’re brought up to speed with a serious voiceover in an apocalyptic future,xmen-dofp-review-02-600x399 one where sentinels were created which could adapt to any mutant talent, making them perfect killing machines. Facing extinction the last remaining mutants send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time (into his younger self) to the 1970s to stop the scientist behind the sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), from creating them in the first place.

So far so very Terminator right?

Except here we have Wolverine playing the confused ‘come with me if you want to live’ role, one where he needs to bring together James McAvoy’s Charles (wallowing in a pit of self loathing following events in First Class) and Michael Fassbender’s Erik (incarcerated in a maximum security prison having become a man who doesn’t compromise when it comes to safeguarding the mutant race).

This is clever writing. Instead of Wolverine in beserker animal mode he has to play peacekeeper, mediator between two men who, in future Magneto’s words, ‘couldn’t be further apart’.X_Men_Days_Future_Past_13838031567965 So Wolverine is scaled back and used sparingly – present in most scenes, but this is not quite his story.

So it’s not all introspective soul searching, we also have Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique, also hellbent on stopping Trask, but having to choose which path to take to do it: Charles’s compassion on the one side or Magneto’s uncompromising nature on the other.

Bryan Singer, the man who kicked this franchise off in 2000 is back directing (following his departure after X2 in 2003) and it’s clear his love for the characters hasn’t diminished. If anything, absence makes the heart grow fonder and this is an impressive end (if that’s what it is) to this chapter of the franchise. And he’s savvy enough to give us what we need in terms of action, but also realise his vision by keeping the focus on the story and relationships above all else, particularly the triumvirate of Raven, Charles and Erik.???????????? It’s a brave move and – hopefully if the public respond and go see it – a clever one.

Despite the usual gargantuan line-up of characters, this is ultimately McAvoy and Lawrence’s movie in terms of performances: him all brooding and wounded, her confused and misguided anger. Throw in Fassbender’s intensity and you’ve got the perfect blockbuster pressure cooker.

Most (ok, a lot) of modern blockbusters have an engaging opening act, a compelling and thrilling middle, then sort of trail off in the final third or, more annoyingly sometimes, have a weak, infuriating and unsatisfying ending. Refreshingly Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg deliver a rather quite touching scene to bring the overall story full circle, leaving it in the best possible place for the future.

And, with almost a clean slate from here on out, where will they take these characters next? It’s an exciting prospect to ponder.