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.

Masks in movies: the weird, wacky and horrific

‘No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.’
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Masks are fascinating. We all wear masks – of a sort – every day. It’s rare to meet a completely open person. And in film, a mask is intriguing. It can serve a number of purposes. For example, they can be used to heighten or accentuate your personality, or give you a different one altogether. They can be used to hide or reveal, to confuse or mislead, and as armour in defence or offense (to coin an American phrase).

They come in many different shapes and sizes, some functional, some more flamboyant (as we’ll see from my list below). Here are some of my favourite masks, characters, and the actors who wore them.

Michael-Fassbender-as-Frank-p002Frank (2014) – Michael Fassbender
More a giant head but still a mask of sorts. Fassbender plays the enigmatic leading man of a band struggling to find their sound in this quirky yet tragic tale.

V for Vendetta (2005) – Hugo Weaving
Never once removing his mask, Weaving plays this anarchist crime fighter to the letter in this adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel.

The Mask (1994) – Jim Carrey
Transforming from sad sack Stanley Ipkiss into the God of Mischief each time he donned the mask, Carrey firmly put himself on Hollywood’s A-list with this exuberant performance.

The Skin I Live In (2011) – Elena Anaya
The-Skin-I-Live-In-Review-The-Film-Pilgrim-Anaya-BanderasWhilst the actress named above wears the mask, this film is undoubtedly Antonio Banderas’s in terms of performance, teaming up with Pedro Almodovar in this creepy tale.

Vanilla Sky (2001) – Tom Cruise
Disfigured after a car accident Cruise’s character spends a large part of the film hiding behind a weirdly androgynous mask designed to heal his scars. Or does he?

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – Tom Cruise
Hands up, who’s in a troubled marriage and wants to attend a high society sex party? Tom Cruise’s character does that’s who. Sneaking his way in with a black robe and handy mask.

Batman Begins (2005) – Cillian Murphy
Intelligent and intense yet wildly unhinged, Murphy’s portrayal of the Scarecrow in Nolan’s first Batman outing was mightily impressive and firmly ticked the creepy box.point-break-mask

Point Break (1991) – Patrick Swayze
Charismatic surfer cum bank robber Bodhi’s modus operandi when on a heist involved him and his team donning masks of ex-Presidents.

Watchmen (2009) – Jackie Earle Haley
Rorschach’s mask was unlike most others, in that it reflected his personality, the inky lines shifting and swirling with his mood.

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.

Frank: what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger

A man wearing a giant fake head. A band full of oddballs, real oddballs. Is this a film about those characters we meet in life – if we’re lucky enough – that exist at the edges of normal?

Based on the real life experiences of writer Jon Ronson, Frank starts with Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a talentless wannabe musician who, through a chance encounter with a band manager, gets to play keyboard in the supremely odd band with an unpronounceable name, headed by front-man Frank (Michael Fassbender). Job interview: ‘Can you play C, F and G? You’re in.’

Jon plays one gig then gets offered another and jumps at it, only to discover the band are heading off to the woods and will leave once the album is recorded.frank

Gleeson is a great fit for Jon. He needs to be likeable, but also a little offbeat. And, whilst Fassbender’s Frank is the enigmatic and mercurial figure that steals scenes – waving his arms dancing wildly, finding musical inspiration in everyday objects, addressing a German family in their native tongue – it’s Jon that drives the story.

This is his tale and experience of trying to fit into a group that themselves don’t fit into the world. And there’s the rub. Jon wants to be one of them but wants notoriety, which puts him at odds with the band, particularly the volatile Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

His efforts lead them to a festival in the US and it’s here where the film comes somewhat undone, losing the focus it had in the early half. Screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan (the chaps behind The Men Who Stare At Goats) perhaps lost their way.

Or maybe it’s just the case that these characters work better in a tighter, simpler setting. Maybe that’s the point the filmmakers were trying to make – one echoed by Gyllenhaal’s Clara – but it didn’t entirely hold together leading up to the film’s final scene.

Tonally though, this movie is interesting and puts me in mind of Little Miss Sunshine or The Life Aquatic. It’s been described as a musical comedy which, in some instances, is accurate (it has music and comedy), but it’s perhaps more tragic in tone. Frank is the sort of role you might expect Johnny Depp to have played, so it’s refreshing to see someone like Fassbender take it on and add another string to his mighty acting bow.

Ultimately there’s a fair amount to love about this film and feels like you’d get more out of it on repeat viewings. It’s a little slow in places (some of the middle and most of the final third), but it’s highly original and quirky, albeit not hugely cinematic. And Fassbender can definitely do quirky, who knew. Now, if only someone could cast him in a Wes Anderson movie.

And the award goes to… Michael!

the-dark-knight-rises-michael-caineBit narcissistic to trumpet one’s own name in a blog isn’t it? Well tough, I’m doing it anyway. Reason being, there’s so many brilliant Michaels in the world that it’s high time someone gathered them together and sung their praises.

Obviously the below is only a snippet of the great work Team Michael has accomplished, but it’s a strong list. From drama to comedy, superheroes to period pieces these guys have got all your entertainment needs covered.

In terms of a favourite, I’m torn between the mighty Fassbender, whose career shows no signs of letting up and hasn’t produced anything particularly close to a turkey yet, and the legend of cinema that is Michael Caine – a man who’s only one of two actors to be nominated for an Academy Award in every decade from the ’60s to the present day (the other being Jack Nicholson).

So… if your name is Michael and you’re starting out in the acting profession you’re not only in good company, but have reason to be upbeat that your career too, may follow a similar path.

Or maybe you’ll just crash and burn like Michael J. Fox. After all, it’s only a name.

Michael Keaton
Beetlejuice, Batman, Jackie Brown


Michael Douglas

Wall Street, Falling Down, Traffic, Behind The Candelabra


Michael Shannon

Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter, Man of Steel


Michael Fassbender

Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds, Shame, 12 Years A Slave


Michael Sheen

Frost/Nixon, The Damned United, Masters of Sex


Mickey Rourke

Rumblefish, The Wrestler, Sin City


Michael Clarke Duncan

The Green Mile, Sin City


Michael Caine

The Italian Job, Get Carter, Children of Men, Harry Brown, The Dark Knight Rises

Take your ass back to the trailer park

jennifer lawrence american hustleBun pun intended, as the title in this case refers to a little vignette of trailers for upcoming films that, to me, look amazing. So I’d like to share them with you. Looks like the rest of the year promises much in terms of movies that stir our soul and entertain. Will they deliver?

American Hustle (2013)

David O. Russell is going from strength to strength. What with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, this almost feels like a reunion: bringing together Christian Bale and Amy Adams from the former and Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro from the latter; plus the excellent Jeremy Renner, in this ’70s set tale based on the FBI Abscam operation.


The Counselor
(2013)

Reuniting Penelope Cruz with Cameron Diaz (from their time on Vanilla Sky) and Javier Bardem (Vicky Christina Barcelona), along with Brad Pitt and the mighty Michael Fassbender, this film has a killer cast. Ridley Scott takes the helm as director, with an original screenplay from Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), delving into the world of greedy lawyers and drug trafficking.


The Dirties
(2013)

Described by filmmaker Kevin Smith as ‘the most important film you will see all year’, a fresh, compelling, semi-comic take on bullying. Largely improvised in terms of script by the two leads, one of which (Matthew Johnson) is a recent graduate from York University film school. Impressive stuff and worth your time. Although likely to only be available in a limited number of screens across the country. Seek it out.


The Wolf Of Wall Street
(2013)

Martin Scorsese is cinema. Indeed, he’s one of its greatest living directors. That’s a fact. This film marks the latest in an ever-growing list of outstanding collaborations he’s had with Leonardo DiCaprio in recent years. It tells the tale of corrupt New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort and, along with DiCaprio, features the talented Jonah Hill as well as a man in the midst of a renaissance, Matthew McConaughey.


Anchorman 2
(2013)
So…the legend of Ron Burgandy lives on. Big question is, was the first film lightning in a bottle? Steve Carrell is a much bigger star now, will he unbalance the group dynamic? And more importantly, will this film give us more of the same or take Ron and the team to places new? Ideally we’d want both. Pleasingly the trailer looks to provide just that, with Ron and team now in the ’80s, looking to re-form the team with a 24-hour news channel.


There’s obviously a lot more films with great trailers I’d like to talk about, but I’ll stop here. Ok, maybe just a quick mention of some. Hunger Games: Catching Fire looks really good and gives us yet more of the beautiful Jennifer Lawrence this year, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug looks epic and intense and sees Peter Jackson really get into his stride. Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass looks to be a thoroughly engrossing tale, and finally, How to Train Your Dragon 2 sees Hiccup and Toothless return in what could potentially be another sweet and uplifting tale. There’s loads more but, as Shrek says, ‘That’ll do donkey, that’ll do.’

Michael Fassbender: The shame of Hollywood

ridley scott cormac mccarthy

What is it with Michael Fassbender? Until a few years ago most of us had never heard of him. Now he seems to be in practically everything. Let’s get this straight, this post isn’t a rant in his general direction, I think he’s a phenomenal actor. It’s just we’re all liable to suffer Fassbender burnout if his output of films continues at the current rate.

michael fassbender in fish tankCast your minds back to 2008, his breakout came playing Bobby Sands in Steve Mcqueen’s, Hunger. This put him on the map. In 2009 he appeared in Fish Tank, a gritty drama set in an English council estate, highly recommended.

He then pretty much stole the show as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds. Whilst Tarantino does write damn good dialogue and create a seriously tense, yet darkly comic scene – it’s Fassbender that makes this truly special. Watch the flicker of his eyes when he knows his time is up, then switching from German to the King’s English. Classic stuff.

Then in 2010 he appeared in Jonah Hex and Centurion, neither particularly memorable, critically or commercially. However, this didn’t stop the mighty Fassbender. The following year he really began to get into his stride, playing lead roles in Jane Eyre, X Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, Shame, Haywire and Prometheus.

Let’s just take a step back for a second. All these films in 2011 were both critical and commercial successes. He’s not exactly limited himself in the type of roles he plays either: a Lord in a period drama, a superhero who can manipulate metal with his mind, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, a sex addicted ad executive, an MI6 agent who gets beaten to hell by a real life mixed martial artist, and an android.

fassbender shameHe’s clearly a highly accomplished, versatile and chameleonic actor, who can convince in a number of roles. Indeed, Director Steve McQueen compared him to Marlon Brando in an interview. High praise, yet justified.

I think he must have realised this avalanche had to stop at some point. IMDb shows us he hasn’t had any films out this year, but has some in the pipeline. He could do with a break as far as I’m concerned. That said, I’m excited to see what he does next. I recently saw Shame, talk about stripping yourself bare as an actor and I don’t mean physically, although I imagine that took a bit of bravery too. An intense performance.

What’s next?
ridley scott cormac mccarthyI must admit, I’m excited about The Counselor. Written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, it’s got a cracking cast. As well as Fassbender in the lead role, it also includes: Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and – my personal favourite – the legend that is John Leguizamo! Check out more info here. Looks promising, it’ll be good to have him back.