The rise of the action woman

Recently I was listening to a podcast with Alicia Vikander, one where she talked about her role as the new Lara Croft and how the character has been rebooted as a more realistic heroine for modern women.

She mentioned how it seems there’s momentum these days, indeed appetite, towards high quality, well put together, action-driven films that feature a female lead. She mentioned Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and others, which got me thinking, is there momentum? Was there a specific moment that was the turning point?

Thinking back, Angelina Jolie has done the bulk of the heavy lifting since about 2000, with Charlize Theron playing her part too. But did they pave the way for the films we see now or has this been a longer time coming?

For me, I think the ’90s are a good place to start.
So below are the films and the various time periods that, for better or worse, I consider to have had a hand in where we are now. I’ve listed the actress, character, film, year, whether they were lead, co-lead or in a prominent supporting role, and the Rotten Tomatoes score, to give a rough indication of how the film was recieved by audiences.


THE 1990s

Yes we had Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien at the tail end of the ’70s, but the ’80s were dripping in macho testosterone. So, for me, the ’90s is where this movement started to gain traction, with actresses like Linda Hamilton and Geena Davis leading the way, putting in decent performances in exciting, entertaining movies.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) 92%
Sarah Connor (supporting) – Linda Hamilton

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) 68%
Samantha Caine (lead) – Geena Davis

G.I. Jane (1997) 55%
Jordan O’Neil (lead) – Demi Moore

The Matrix (1999) 87%
Trinity (supporting) – Carrie-Anne Moss

THE 2000s

The good work the ’90s women put in gets somewhat undone at the start of this decade, with a bunch of terrible films (Eon Flux the biggest offender) and, whilst it’s no fault of the various actresses involved, it took a one-two punch of Angelina Jolie (Mr and Mrs Smith) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) to set things right. So by the end of the decade we were getting better films – and characters – with greater frequency (Hanna, Salt).

Then, by 2012, we’d probably reached a turning point. Angelina Jolie (aged 35 in Salt) couldn’t fly the flag forever, so others had to step up. Enter women like Jennifer Lawrence (22 in Hunger Games) and Saoirse Ronan (17 in Hanna), actresses that appealed and inspired a younger generation and helped push things further forward.

Charlie’s Angels (2000) 68%
Natalie Cook (co-lead) – Cameron Diaz, Dylan Sanders (co-lead) – Drew Barrymore, Alex Munday (co-lead) – Lucy Lui

Tomb Raider (2001) 20%
Lara Croft (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Resident Evil (2002) 34%
Alice (lead) – Milla Jovovich

Eon Flux (2005) 9%
Eon Flux (lead) – Charlize Theron

Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) 59%
Jane Smith (co-lead) – Angelina Jolie

Kill Bill (2003) 85%
Beatrix Kiddo (lead) – Uma Thurman

Wanted (2008) 71%
Fox (supporting) – Angelina Jolie

Salt (2010) 62%
Evelyn Salt (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Iron Man 2 (2010) 73%
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (supporting) – Scarlet Johansson

Hanna (2011) 71%
Hanna (lead) – Saoirse Ronan

Hunger Games (2012) 84%
Katniss Everdeen (lead) – Jennifer Lawrence

2015 ONWARDS

In 2012 Disney acquired Star Wars as a property and set about making plans to expand the franchise with new films and characters, ones that would appeal to a modern audience. The majority of moviegoers want to see female characters better represented on screen, so franchises like Star Wars really need to lead the way.

Additionally, along with Marvel’s MCU and a smattering of female superheroes, even DC studios got in on the act, with a female-led action movie in Wonder Woman (something Marvel could only really match with supporting characters in films like Black Panther). Momentum and quality, though, had really shifted. If the below selection are anything to go by.

Mad Max (2015) 97%
Furiosa (supporting) – Charlize Theron

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) 93%
Isla Faust (supporting) – Rebecca Ferguson

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) 93%
Rey (co-lead) – Daisy Ridley

Rogue One: A Star Wars story (2016) 85%
Jyn Erso (lead) – Felicity Jones

Wonder Woman (2017) 92%
Diana Prince (lead) – Gal Gadot

Atomic Blonde (2017) 77%
Lorraine Broughton – Charlize Theron

Black Panther (2018) 97%
Shuri (supporting) – Letitia Wright and Okoye (supporting) – Danai Garira

Is ‘mother!’ Aranofsky and Lawrence’s best work?

Ok, so here’s a thing. Darren Aranofsky has made another movie, and it’s one that’ll divide people, that’s for sure. I mean, let’s be honest, this should come as no surprise to us. For anyone that’s seen his past work, he hardly pulls punches when it comes to provocative imagery, challenging subject matter and intensely troubled characters. Requiem for a Dream anyone? Black Swan? Noah? The utter mind-bender that was The Fountain? Hell, even The Wrestler wasn’t a walk in the park (although it’s his most accessible work to date.)

And with mother! it’s fair to say he’s upped his game – or at least let off the shackles. I mean, I can only imagine the discussion with the studio… ‘You want to do what Darren? Er, ok. Wait, hold on. And now you want to do that? And that?! C’mon! You DO realise that Jennifer Lawrence is one of the biggest stars in the world and you want to put her through the absolute wringer?’

Because he really does. And some people, understandably, just can’t handle it. Plus critics are split, with many having reacted strongly (both good and bad); which is probably to be expected with an auteur’s work, but you still want people to see your movie and mother!, at the moment, is just about breaking even.

We also have to remember that word of mouth is a powerful thing – and critics are probably putting some people off, which is a shame. One even said that this is the most ambitious film to come out of a major Hollywood studio since Kubrick died. Which may well be true, but it’s fuel to the fire really, as a lot of people would take that comment as bad rather than good. Moreover, this is a film that’s also now part of a very small list, having achieved Cinemascore’s famous F grade, which only gets given to a piece of work that ‘goes out of its way to artfully alienate or confuse audiences.’

And this all has me wondering… do we as moviegoers just want films that are too safe these days? With superhero fodder galore and juggernaut franchises like Fast and Furious and Transformers going from strength to strength, and mind-numbing comedies being churned out all too often, I half suspect we’ve all become excessively comfortable, safe in our cotton wool bubble of mediocre expectancy. Which means that filmmakers like Aranofsky are vital to cinema, as bubbles must be burst as often as possible. Break the wheel and be anarchic with your stories Hollywood. Confuse us and make us nervous. We need it now more than ever.

And with mother! half the reaction it’s gotten might be because of the themes Aranofsky explores: nature and the environment, religion, humanity, celebrity and so on – and the incendiary way in which he does it. I mean, his approach does err on the side of mad visionary. For example, it’s been said he wrote the screenplay in five days in a kind of fever dream, and that Lawrence threw it across the room in disgust after reading it. But then, after reflecting, called the director the next day to tell him he was a genius.

And this kind of makes sense, misunderstood in his time and all that. A type of story-teller people aren’t going to get first time, nor should they. Also, people are people. When we don’t understand something we invariably default to anger and confusion. Plus, anything to do with religion (in this case Christianity) is often a powder-keg for a lot of audiences.

So as you might expect, story wise, this kind of film is best experienced cold and with little background, so I won’t say much. Other than the basic set-up is mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) live alone in a house, which she’s busy decorating. He’s a writer, but with writer’s block. Then a man unexpectedly visits (Ed Harris), and he’s quickly followed by a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer); both of whom quickly become progressively more unwelcome house guests as the story unfolds. To the point where the final third of the film descends into utter insanity.

As for our way in, we follow events from mother’s point of view – and the camera sticks with Lawrence for most of the movie. Twisting and turning through the house, akin to the cinematography in Birdman. Often with the camera up as close as you can get, right in her face, picking up every little reaction and reminding the audience that not only is she beautiful, but also a pure soul, yet in pain and increasingly confused and angry with these house guests, frustrated at Him for not acknowledging her needs.

Bardem plays his part well too, allowing a lot of his natural charm to inhabit the character. But, lest we forget, he can do menace with the best of them, and this raises its head from time to time, leaving mother more confused than ever. She just wants his love and it never seems enough. And the interplay between the two of them in these type of moments is heartbreaking. Indeed, this could be the best performance of Lawrence’s career – more raw than Silver Linings Playbook (for which she won an Oscar) and more intense than Winter’s Bone (for which she was nominated).

She’s since said that this role took a lot out of her, and she doesn’t expect she’d take a similar part for a long time. Which is more than understandable. Ultimately, this is an Aranofsky film, so if you’ve seen any of his past work you’ll have an idea of what to expect. If you haven’t, go in with an open mind and interpret from the story what you will. Just know it won’t be an easy watch.

 

 

 

X-Men: Apocalypse – review

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.

X-Men-Apocalypse-preview

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.

Joy: Lawrence adds strings to her bow

Let’s say, in some other reality, Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t met David O. Russell and her career had (thus far) just been built upon an impressively gritty debut (Winter’s Bone) and a teen action franchise (Hunger Games), would we hold her in such high regard?

I rather doubt it. And this really isn’t a dig, but it’s fair to say her collaboration with writer-director David O. Russell over three films now (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and now Joy) have hugely elevated her career – in terms of dramatic credentials – and evolved her talent as one of Hollywood’s top actresses.

One thing it’s worth noting is that she’s always been able to hold the screen well and could carry a film right from the start of her career but, each time she works with O. Russell, he pushes her further. She evolves and matures.

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Now it’s arguable that Silver Linings Playbook may be a more satisfying film for audiences, but in Joy she perhaps gives a more complete and complex performance. Oscar material some say it may be, but first and foremost we as the audience must connect with her character and journey. Which we do, of course.

When we meet Joy she’s a young girl with hopes and dreams who likes to make things. Flash forward and she’s a young mother looking after a demented father (Robert de Niro) who’s been booted out of his latest relationship and a cabaret singer ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who both end up living in her basement. Oh, and a mother (Virginia Madsen) who spends her time in bed endlessly watching soaps and no one appears to be doing much to hold the family together, except Joy. And so she’s lost her lust and vitality for life, scraping a living trying to make ends meet.

Then she has a dream and invents a mop. And we go from there.

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On paper you might say this has quirky Wes Anderson written all over it. But David O. Russell tends to do things his own way and it’s almost always substance over style and character drives everything. And Joy is a character, that’s evident. She evolves in clear and distinct ways. From the moment she invents her Miracle Mop she’s focused and more driven. There’s an edge to her and she becomes more hardened and glassy-eyed each time she faces a new challenge, whether it’s from those closest to her putting her down in well-meaning but ultimately rather tactless ways, or those she meets in business who try and get one over on her and more often than not, emphatically fail.

And Lawrence gives her a wonderful texture and believability.

She’s always been good at delivering lines with gravitas for one so young, but she does make it look rather effortless at times, completely drawing us into her performance. The rest of the cast ain’t half bad too. If only De Niro stuck to these kinds of films from now we’d all be happier. For every Joy he does a Dirty Grandpa or some other type of drivel not worth his talent. But hey, he’s Robert de Niro, he can do what he likes.

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Another David O. Russell alumni present is Bradley Cooper; more front and centre in Silver Linings Playbook here he has a smaller part, but makes an impact sharing a few rather touching scenes with Lawrence as the man who gives Joy her first big break on the QVC channel.

What’s notable about this film (in that it’s absent) is the complete lack of a romantic subplot or character with whom she ‘has to have’ steamy moments to keep the audience interested. As the film starts with the fact she’s divorced we get a flashback to their time together, but purely for character development as the story doesn’t linger there long. And rightly so, that’s not what’s being told and it would be distracting. Kudos to O. Russell for staying the course.

So what we have, at the end of it all, is quite an inspiring tale to keep pushing tenaciously for your dreams and to believe in yourself – held together masterfully by Jennifer Lawrence, who probably gets better every time I see her in a film (always a good sign).

Incidentally, not a bad way to see in gloomy January I’d say.

Joy-Film-Jennifer-Lawrence

Hunger Games: Mockingjay – part 2 review

There’s an anecdote Elijah Wood tells about how Jack Nicholson walked out of The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King because he thought it had ended – and that there were too many endings. In some ways it feels like Mockingjay – Part 2 has taken a leaf out of LOTR’s playbook, either in terms of stretching something into two when it really should have remained as one, or by attempting to milk the ending of Part 2 for all it’s worth. Either way, I didn’t buy it.

That’s not to say the actors didn’t sell it. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss remains as watchable as ever (I’ve been a huge fan since Winter’s Bone days), it’s just, structurally, it didn’t grab me. Is this a case of sticking too slavishly to the books? (I can’t say as I haven’t read them.) Or is it a case – as is the way with a lot of Hollywood blockbusters – in that you have a great idea and characters, you set them up nicely then have no idea how to finish it in a satisfying way?

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That’s the hard part. Endings.

Beginnings are easy, that’s like a honeymoon, an affair, or even a steamy fling. It’s all lusty and shiny and new and exciting. But once you’ve had a chance to live with these characters a bit and get to know them, do you then stick around? Do you care enough to want to stick around?

The other issue is, if you build up a big franchise with global appeal (as Hunger Games has done) you set yourself a huge benchmark. People expect big, dramatic, heartbreaking things. If you don’t give them that they feel short-changed. And it’s not overly critical to say Mockingjay – Part 2 does pinch on pennies in certain places when it comes to evoking our emotions.

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Let’s take the general plot. Leader of the rebels President Coin (Julianne Moore) wants Katniss to hang back during the final battle with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to wheel her out for a victory lap and as you’d expect, she doesn’t follow orders. Her team – complete with Finnick (Sam Claflin), Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – infiltrate Snow’s district in a sort of drawn out surgical strike. To hold them back Snow gets the gamemakers to set traps, turning the Capitol into its own Hunger Games.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.

Turning the Capitol into a booby-trapped minefield sounds great on paper. Plenty of ways for the characters to interact with the cityscape, perhaps with Snow taunting them on monitors and screens and finding ever more inventive ways for the rebels to wish him dead. Instead, what we get is a rather lethargic series of set pieces (with the exception of a sequence underground) where Katniss and the gang evade the traps and sleep quite a lot (honestly, count the number of naps they take, it kills the film’s pace).

Perhaps it’s the difficult (and uneccessary) second album syndrome kicking in? Here’s an idea, take all the best bits of Mockingjay parts 1 and 2 and put them into a tight final story and it probably would have had a lot of emotional impact and been a roller-coaster of a finish to the franchise. But here it feels more a case of characters fading away than burning out.

And when Coin finally does seize power from Snow, even the most wooden-headed viewer can tell what’s going to happen to her. Then, coming full circle, there’s the end. Seriously, how many times do you need to end a film? It probably should have finished on an emotionally harrowing note (let’s face it, the franchise has gotten more serious and po-faced as it’s gone on) but instead director Francis Lawrence opts for lashings of cheese come the finish. Which really wasn’t needed. And, if anything, further served to put me off.

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So as a result, for me, if I take the franchise as a whole, it started well enough but petered out as it went on, which is a shame to have to say. And whilst I’m not saying one man could have saved it, I think it suffered a lot from the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman – an actor who could do more with a wry smile and a nod than most of the rest of the cast put together.

There’s talk of the studio doing a prequel. I hope they don’t bother with the young cast and instead just focus of President Snow: The Early Years. His rise to power could be something. And who doesn’t love a bad guy with snowy white beard and a little chuckle? Perhaps he started life good and slowly became corrupted by the world around him? I’d watch that.

Trailer park: Victor Frankenstein, Joy, The Revenant

Good tidings we bring to you and your, er, fellow cinema fans. Here’s my latest ‘trailer park’ entry, highlighting a few that have caught my eye for films coming up soon.

Victor Frankenstein
Seemingly stealing the style straight from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock films, here we have James McAvoy’s Dr Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor in a sort of irreverent buddy movie – with monsters. And Andrew Scott, naturally.

Joy
David O. Russell reunites the dream team of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert de Niro (after Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) once again for this hugely obvious Oscar grab. That said, it looks really good, and Lawrence looks to be on fine form.

The Revenant
In this film DiCaprio plays a fur trapper left for dead by his hunting party and then hunts them down seeking revenge. With credible Oscar talk this could be DiCaprio’s time to win one. And with Tom Hardy as the bad guy and Alejandro G. Iñárritu directing this promises to be an epic Western survival yarn.

‘American’… what?!

I blame American Sniper. (Damn you Bradley Cooper.) Maybe this film was the final straw. To explain: over the last few years (or even the last few decades) there’s been a regular slew of films that start with the word ‘American’. Is it a sure fire way to gets bums (at least, American ones) on seats? Or does it simply sound cooler to have that word at the start of a film’s title? I mean, c’mon… French Sniper, British Sniper, German Sniper – they just don’t inspire, do they?

Maybe it’s just simpler.

American Sniper. You know what you’re going to get. Job done. Whatever the reason, here are my top 5 (in order) that proudly wear that word loud and proud for all to see.

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Photo courtest of http://gabrielttoroart.com

1. American Beauty (1999)
The debut of Sam Mendes as a director and the introduction (largely) of Kevin Spacey to the moviegoing public. Getting close to two decades old, the film still stands up perfectly today and is immensely watchable. No scene is wasted, every line loaded with meaning. A modern classic which reminds us of all the beauty in the world.

2. American Psycho (2000)
Upon hearing the part of Patrick Bateman had gone to Ewan Mcgregor, Christian Bale allegedly called him and argued (convincingly) that he’d be better for the part. And he really was. Played as a dark comedy, the world was finally introduced to the twisted, mad intensity of the man that would be responsible (along with Nolan) for reinventing Batman.

3. American History X (1998)
Yet another introduction (in a way) to a manly, pumped up and thoroughly volatile Ed Norton. As a modern-day Lieutenant in a right wing neo-Nazi gang, the arc Norton’s character goes through is hugely affecting. A riveting and towering performance that commands your attention in a film which deals with some big and complex issues.

4. American Pie (1999)
I remember explaining this film to my parents. ‘Well, there’s a guy that has sex with an apple pie, it’s full of crude humour yet…. you have to watch it.’ They were skeptical, but watched anyway. My poor description failed to explain that it was a warm, incredibly well-observed, coming-of-age tale about four very likeable lads. Sadly, the magic was never captured again with the franchise that followed.

5. American Hustle (2013)
Bit of a guilty pleasure this one, featuring both Bale and Cooper (again). It will be interesting to see if this movie stands up over time. Ultimately it’s a fairly shallow tale, but a fabulously looking one with an impressive cast. Worth your time for Bale’s combover and beer belly and all the huge hair and power dresses. As well as Bale, both Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were also on fine form.

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Hunger Games: Mockingjay, part 1 – review

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Following events in the last Hunger Games where (spoiler, but I’ll assume, for the purposes of this blog, that you’re up to speed on the story so far) Katniss basically broke the arena in a giant explosion and was whisked away by the rebels, which included Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Quite an epic finale to the first two films you might say. What this meant, in terms of story, is that, for Mockingjay, part 1 you have to explain a lot of the world, as it’s changed so much. Almost a reset of the story.

As ever, we follow things from Katniss’s (Jennifer Lawrence) point of view. At the film’s start we find that she’s in an underground military stronghold which commands the rebel base of operations. They’re led by President Coin (a rather cold and clinical Julianne Moore).

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On the other side of the fence in the evil Capitol, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is tightening the screws on the downtrodden masses in each of the districts still standing (many have been bombed to rubble).

The rebels are desperate to use Katniss as their symbol – their Mockingjay – to fan the flames of the revolution. She is initially reluctant as she remains traumatised from the events of the games and, most crucially, from having left Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) behind. As a result poor old Peeta has become a propaganda pawn for Snow throughout this Part 1, and Katniss suffers greatly from the way in which Snow toys with her through his manipulation of Peeta.

As a leading lady Lawrence continues to prove why Katniss was – and still is – a character for which she will forever be remembered. She goes through a whole gamut of emotions in this film; granted, mostly anguish and despair as things go from bad to worse, but also righteous anger and white hot fury, as she sends Snow a message or two of her own.

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In terms of good versus bad, lines begin to blur a little, with the rebels employing similar tactics to that of the Capitol. With Plutarch advising President Coin, they discuss Katniss’s image and the message she must deliver to rouse the people. She ends up with a camera crew – led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) filming her most emotional moments, trying to orchestrate the perfect soundbite. A little unsettling, as far as media parallels go.

The penultimate film in any franchise is always a tough one. You’ve got to have some good stuff in there, but save a lot of the best bits for the final instalment. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) does admirably in this respect. The story is well paced, given the running time, and is suitably sombre overall, apt considering what’s taken place.

In terms of tone it has that sense of calm before the storm, which is welcoming if you take the arc of the franchise into account. And despite the words ‘Hunger Games’ in the title, we’ve moved way past actual games taking place.

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The fight for survival is now much larger in scope. Once the world expands we’re left – in no uncertain terms – in entirely new territory. The stakes are higher, as is the death count (although it’s rare you actually ever see any deaths, considering the 12a rating).

So as far as penultimate franchise sci-fi action goes, it’s a great experience. Many may bemoan the lack of big action set pieces, yet it allows the whole story to take a breather and build the characters on a deeper level. It’ll also sit nicely alongside the final Mockingjay film, of which I expect big, big things in terms of action, spectacle, and Katniss kicking Capitol ass.

X-Men: Days of Future Past review

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.

American Hustle: another stone cold zinger from David O. Russell?

Big hair, big actors, big performances and small dresses. That’s what you get from this latest offering by writer-director David O. Russell – the man behind award winning films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.american-hustle

Set in the ’70s and loosely following the FBI Abscam operation, we start with our main character, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), sporting a hairy paunch and possibly the best combover since Bill Murray in Kingpin.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and the pair fall for each other, becoming a successful con artist couple until getting busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI man trying to make a name for himself.PDC - Best Films - American Hustle DiMaso convinces the pair to set up various politicians, including Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), which then leads his operation onto bigger fish, namely mobsters.

There’s the setup. There’s a lot more but suffice to say that films featuring con artists often have numerous double crosses, shady backhanders and ambiguous motives galore. It’s essentially the director playing the three cups game with the audience. Just when you think you know which cup hides the plot twist, boom, deception!

That said, the con part of this film isn’t hugely tough to follow, the plot ticks along nicely. The whole Abscam thing almost more of a backdrop to allow O. Russell to showcase a host of interesting characters. In short, this is a character study.

Indeed, it’s a character driven movie with Irving front and centre as the driving force. Plaudits already seem to be going to Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence – the former Irving’s mistress the latter his unhinged wife, Rosalyn – yet it’s Bale who anchors the whole thingAmy-Adams -American-Hustle--02 with a commanding yet vulnerable performance; as a man who recognises his place in the criminal world and feels control gradually slipping from his grasp.

Amy Adams’ Sydney is partly responsible for Irving’s loss of control. Blaming him for getting her busted in the first place, she puts herself in the centre of a love triangle between Irving and Bradley Cooper’s DiMaso. Is she conning them both? Does she have genuine feelings for DiMaso? Huge credit to Adams for leading us down this sexy garden path with a fiercely seductive performance yet… she’s similar to Irving. The deeper she goes the more she feels things are spinning out of control.

Enter DiMaso. Cooper’s portrayal of an ambitious – and possibly quite naive – FBI man is yet another feather in O. Russell’s cap – and Cooper’s too. He charges about the place, manipulating Irving and Sydney, intimidating his boss (brilliantly played by Louis C.K.) yet he’s the same… never quite in control, mentally or emotionally.

And if we’re on the subject of emotional control, Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn gives a masterclass in how to be an unmanageable wife. Jennifer-Lawrence -American-Hustle--04Furiously demanding Irving’s attention and love, setting fire to the science oven (microwaves were just coming out), getting him in trouble with the mob. Perhaps this is all summed up in one beautiful scene where she sings ‘Live and let die’ whilst furiously cleaning.

So… coming back to my title, is this a zinger? Well, mostly. It’s a great film, lots of fun. It doesn’t have the emotional wallop of The Fighter or the intricate nuances of Silver Linings Playbook, but there’s no doubt it will pick up a stack of awards. And it shows that, with O.Russell we’ve got a director who’s found his ’70s flair and shared the secret with his mad, bad cast. Groovy baby.