X-Men: Days of Future Past

We have reached the comic book movie singularity. Superhero books and movies are now practically interchangeable except for their mediums and a whole new world opens up before us of sweeping retcons and the sort of convolution found only in Nolan’s wet dreams and on the far horizon I can see Satan annulling marriages almost as we speak. Days of Future Past is Fox’s attempt to stand up to the unstoppable juggernaut that is Marvel and so far they’ve managed to avoid collapsing into a twitching mess while shitting themselves coughManofSteelcough. In fact I’d say they’ve managed to do pretty well with the best massively-interfranchise me-too crossover I’ve seen yet.

First, the plot. To make a long story short an army of genocidal giant robots were created to hunt down mutants after Mystique shot Peter Dinklage at a peace conference in the seventies (but didn’t get finished until after X-Men 3) in revenge for him vivisecting mutants, but the robots started targeting pretty much everyone and in the apocalyptic future the last mutants left (lead by Prof. X and Magneto) try a last ditch plan to send Wolverine into the past (kind of) to get the team back together and stop Mystique. And that’s just the set-up! This thing twists and turns like The Dark Knight doing a Chiana impression and it’s a credit to the screenwriter Simon Kinberg that this film’s as easy to follow as it is. The convolution never feels overdone however as every development feels like the result of character action rather than the will of an unseen overseer whose whims make no fucking sense coughIntoDarknesscough. The whole thing runs very much on superhero comic logic so a fair amount of suspension of disbelief is required for every attempt made to outdo Metal Gear Solid in the bastardisation of genetics department and you could make a fun drinking game out of the moments when the writer contrives a reason why the cast can’t just use their powers to solve the plot instantly.

Character-wise the film is good as well, although the sheer size of the cast practically requires an X-Men encyclopedia to know who they all are (my sister had to fill me in on Blink and the post-credits man). Ian Mckellen and Patrick Steward bring their required dignity and thespian poise to the role, although Steward is largely confined to speaking with gravitas from his hover-chair whenever the script calls for a big speech. Fassbender and McAvoy are once again great continuing their roles of vengeful mutant-supremacist and Mutant Luther King respectively and eloquently express their character’s respective demons (which given the convolution of the plot is rather necessary). Jennifer Lawrence gives a good turn as Mystique and sells the character’s rather simplistic vengeance arc well despite the makeup diminishing her expressiveness a tad (I found the rare scenes of her without it more effective) and an attempt at speaking Vietnamese that you can hear clunking out of her mouth. Hugh Jackman is exactly the same as he has been the past six films and Ellen Page is again pretty much entirely wasted as her main role is to give exposition and sit there concentrating at Wolfie’s head while doing her time-travel thing that appears completely pulled out of the writer’s arse here.

One of the standout parts of the film is new guy Quicksilver, a kleptomanic with superspeed and the ability to actually be pretty damn funny, particularly in an extended bullet-time sequence with a number of hapless security guards. Our villain for the evening is the creator of the previously mentioned giant robots Bolivar Trask, an anti-mutant scientist/engineer played by Peter Dinklage, who gives a fine turn as the character but who in my opinion could have used more scenes to flesh him out. As an avid Game of Thrones watcher I had a hard time rooting against him at times as when he walked onscreen my brain instictively went ‘Yay, it’s Peter Dinklage!’ and I had to perpetually remind myself that here he’s playing a genocidal fuckhead.

One of the things I do like about this film is that by the standards of superhero movies it’s fairly low-key. The action sequences are relatively small-scale, generally only involving ten or twenty people, and the main climax of the story involves no explosions and is about trying to stop someone from being killed by the heroes (although there is a robot fight in the future to give that half of the cast something to do). Bryan Singer’s direction is fairly good but not spectacular (the film feels longer than it is) and I’d say that this film is really more Simon Kinberg’s. Overall it’s a fun, fast-paced experience that manages to be alternately funny and serious when it means to be and I’d recommend checking it out.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was always going to be an interesting movie. After the success of its predecessor Sony’s eyes fixed on The Avengers and their own dreams of world domination and upon hearing of this movie’s cast everyone assumed that the sequel would be their attempt to catch up to a battle won so long ago I think I studied it at school. That will have to wait until next time though, as Sony are not quite as stupid as DC and have decided to play the waiting game with one of the most conflicted films I’ve ever seen.

There are four plots in this film (not at all reminiscent of Spider-Man 3), which are:

  1. Jamie Foxx, a walking nerd stereotype who becomes obsessed with Spider-Man after he says Hi to him once, is the victim of improper health and safety procedures and after a soak in an electric eel tank with a power cable (which will in no way inspire kids to take a bath with Mr Toaster) becomes a being with the power of spontaneously growing underwear to ruin his Dr Manhattan references. He seeks revenge on Spidey as he thinks he set him up for a police ambush.
  2. Harry Osborn, Peter’s never-before-mentioned childhood friend, returns to New York as his dad passes away from MacGregor’s Syndrome to find that he has inherited it and doesn’t have long to live. Despite his dad taking forty-five years to die from the condition Harry appears to start rotting the second he enters New York and becomes convinced that Spider-Man’s blood will cure him. Peter refuses (because he thinks Harry will just drink the stuff for some reason) and so Harry swears vengeance.
  3. Gwen Stacey’s relationship with Peter becomes strained when she gets a scholarship to Oxford University.
  4. Mephisto appears and offers to save Aunt May in exchange for Peter and Gwen’s- nah, just kidding.
  5. The film occasionally cuts to Peter looking for his late dad’s research. This doesn’t really go anywhere.

To the film’s credit there is a overarching theme of abandonment to all this: John Hinckley Jr feels like Spider-Man abandoned him, Harry was sent away by his father and feels that Peter betrayed him by not getting Spidey to donate his blood, Gwen and Peter are moving away from each other and Peter’s dad died when he was young. It really is a credit to Mark Webb (insert joke here) that this film is even comprehensible, but the tone swings wildly from scene to scene. One moment you’ll have serious drama in the vein of the previous film and then the kind of camp that hasn’t been seen in this genre since Schumacher broke the bat. The ending is particularly jarring, as you go from genuinely moving drama to sequel set up back to drama again and then to comedy in the space of five minutes. There isn’t much of a defined structure here either, the film cuts between the four of them arbitrarily and the climax feels rushed to cram in both villains.

Individually most of this film’s scenes work. The campy fun parts are fun and campy and the drama well-played, with the cast remaining this series’ greatest asset. Garfield and lasagne Stone have great chemistry and Dane Dehaan makes an intriguing Harry Osborn who I wish had gotten more screen time to develop properly. When the scenes fail however, they quickly becomes hysterical. Peter’s repeated hallucinations of Gwen’s father glaring at him are ham-fisted to the point where every joke I come up with is just too easy, Foxx’s ‘what have I become’ face is like a cross between Jon Osterman and a guppy fish and when the Green Goblin finally turns up in all his splendour he resembles a deformed Tinker-Bell riding the finest in Mattel transportation.

When put together, the plot of this film is an utter mess with holes wide enough to fit Manhattan through, my favourite being when terminally ill rich kid Harry suddenly turns into Solid Snake for five minutes. The biggest problem is that it is vastly overstuffed and the screenplay is in dire need of pruning, starting with Electro, who is neither very interesting nor all that vital to the plot. Although I suppose this is what you get from a rewrite by the people behind Into Darkness. Upon watching the finished film it is also very clear that Mary Jane’s cameo was cut for time, rather than animosity toward the actress as at 142 minutes this film barely covers everything that made the final cut. Action-wise the film is decent, bar the opening plane fight which is the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises if you stole Wally Pfister’s epilepsy medication, as well as the stubborn insistence of the electricity to obey the speed limit. Overall, I don’t think I’d call this movie bad but it’s too jumbled and uneven to rise about just being okay, and there are definitely worse things to spend your money on right now coughTranscendencecough.

What the fuck, Game of Thrones?

(Massive, ruinous fucking spoilers to come for the show and Once Upon A Time In America)

This show has always been dark. It comes from the source material. Murder, torture, incest and events offscreen that would only seem fun to the Imperial Japanese Army. But they generally have been able to handle it, until tonight. This episode went off the deep end.

Jaime is fucked now as a character. It is impossible to sympathise with him after this. It is impossible for his up until this point impressive redemptive character arc to continue. It is impossible to want to continue watching what he’ll do. For the first time, an episode of this show was unpleasant. I should probably explain what I mean by that. I don’t mean that there has never been uncomfortable subject matter on this show, nor do I mean that I am jaded to the point where the slaughter of babies does not phase me. I mean that at no point did I want to stop watching. Anything subject matter can be shown onscreen in a compelling way, be it rape, torture or child molestation, but it has to fit with the work as a whole. This does not. It can not. The entirety of the last series had Jaime starting to redeem himself and us coming around to him despite everything we’d seen him do and that is the only way his arc can attempt to continue. But it won’t work.

The books are the most obvious comparison point so let’s start there. In the books this scene happens right after Jaime returns to King’s Landing. He arrives maimed to find his son dead and his sister/lover inconsolable by his corpse. In all this he starts coming onto her and after some initial protestations over the possibility of being caught next to their son’s body she gives in and they energetically fuck each other’s brains out. This is fucked up to an impressive degree, yes, but it does not make either character completely irredeemable. That’s the thing with rape in fiction: it cannot be justified. Murder, sure. Even the killing of innocent children can be carried out by a sympathetic character (usually as the lesser of two evils) but there is not a single sound justification that can be found for rape. We all hated Joffrey, we wanted him to die in a painful way and eventually we got it, but no-one ever wanted to see Joffrey being violated. Because that would have been unpleasant.

I think a good example of what I mean is one of my favourite films: Once Upon a Time In America, Sergio Leone’s lifetime-spanning gangster epic. Roughly two-thirds of the way through this film the protagonist Noodles is attempting to woo a childhood friend of his who reveals that she is leaving New York to pursue her dreams of acting. Noodles, who up to this point has been an interesting and morally complex character, responds by raping her in a drawn-out, very uncomfortable scene which destroys any sympathy you may have had left for him. But that it the point. Noodles is meant to become irredeemable. We still watch him because we want to see how his story ends but we are not meant to sympathise with him as it comes to a close. Unlike Jaime.

The rest of the episode wasn’t a whole lot better. The new wildling tribe are so cartoonishly villainous that they are impossible to take seriously, Aiden Gillen appears to be taking the piss by this point, the Hound mugging people was just unpleasant to watch and Benioff and Weiss prove once more that they have absolutely no idea how to write a gay character, as yet again we have the point of Oberyn’s bisexuality hammered into our skulls with a fucking piledriver. This isn’t even the show’s infamous sexposition as there is no sex, apparently our writers are just too insecure to have two men actually fuck onscreen. After Loras and Renly, whose may as well have been renamed Slutty McFucksaround and Wimp respectively we also have Oberyn’s girlfriend Ellaria Sand, whose literally only character trait is ‘fucks women’. This episode isn’t dark. It’s stupid. Unpleasant. Written by people who have no fucking clue what they are doing with this material and subject matter and if this course continues I will start burning my bridges with this show like a glowing child just turned up and told me to pick a colour.


This review contains some spoilers.

Really, I should have seen this coming. A first-time director with a hundred million dollar budget; when has that ever worked out? Catwoman? Eragon? 47 Ronin? And now Wally Pfister, a man who rose to fame as Nolan’s cinematographer (whose name is certainly why this thing got greenlit), has decided to step into the directors chair. I had high hopes for this film based purely on the director’s long-time collaboration with my lord and saviour but the finished product just goes to prove that Pfister is no Zhang Yimou.

The basic plot, as you may have gathered from the excellent trailer (but not the fucking awful posters), is that Johnny Depp (appearing slightly drugged here given the slurred, undefinable accent and slightly vacant facial expressions throughout) is an AI researcher who is assassinated by an neo-luddite group controlled by Kate Mara, but before his untimely death his wife (Rebecca Hall) uploads his brain to their AI supercomputer and then the internet, where he starts going a bit HAL. This is not a bad premise to be honest and raises a number of interesting issues regarding the nature of consciousness, what makes us human and transhumanism. Too bad the movie has no idea what it wants to say about them. It pays lip-service to the question of whether iDepp is actually him or just a simulacrum but it never wrings anything satisfactory from it, or any of its other potentially interesting moral quandaries which it does not seem to have any idea what to do with.

Character-wise the film is remarkably thin. Depp starts off alright while human (although the accent is distracting as all hell) but Depp.exe is remarkably more one-note and the film can’t decide whether it wants him to be the villain or not, laying on the creepy cult imagery as he builds himself an army of followers (also, what is it about supervillains making armies out of disabled people they cure? Iron Man 3 did this as well and it made it hard for me to want Stark to kill them there) but then attempting some kind of tragic monster thing in the Universal movies vein closer to the end, which by that point does not fit in the slightest.

Rebecca Hall is a bit better, although she seems to only have two modes in this film, anxious and crying, and for most of the second half of the film she, like the rest of the cast just get to sit there looking increasingly worried by whatever Will is doing at that point. Paul Bettany, as their long time friend, is pretty much the same, only really serving to invent the macguffin  for the climax. He is also the most easily convinced man in the world, as after voicing a token objection to Hall’s plan to upload a sapient AI who’s stated first goal is Wall Street to the internet just leaves when she tells him to so she can get on with it. Shortly after he gets kidnapped by Jenny McCarthy and friends and joins their side without much persuasion either.

Cillian Murphy turns up as an FBI agent for a bit but does bugger-all beside call the soldiers in for the climax (are we noticing a pattern here?) and Morgan Freeman does literally nothing but stand around. Neither does Kate Mara (besides convincing Paul Bettany that Depp is evil) who only gets to say that she hates AIs occasionally before pretty much disappearing from the story.

For a plot that is meant to be about creating intelligence this film tends to lack it. After being uploaded to the cloud, Depp makes a fortune on the stock market using a company in his wife’s name which they then spend on building a massive underground laboratory complex next to a small desert town complete with a field of solar panels visible by even the most outdated surveillance satellite. This is noticed by absolutely no-one for two years besides Kate Mara; not the FBI (who are probably wondering why the AI researcher whose partner was just assassinated for their work disappeared), the taxman (who will always track you down) or health and safety, who generally take a dim view of involuntary human experimentation.

This is also very plainly a script about science and technology written by someone who is neither a scientist nor works with computers. Depp apparently manages to infiltrate every computer in the world via the internet, meaning that the soldiers at the end come armed with hummers and old-fashioned artillery as apparently every piece of military technology made during the last twenty years is capable of accessing facebook and is not manually controlled (or were tanks and planes just beyond this film’s hundred million dollar budget?). Depp also has plot convenience wi-fi, as one of his cyborg minions is captured underground by putting him in a makeshift Faraday cage (because the soldiers have never heard of signal jammers or chaff), which disconnects him from Depp but also prevents him from re-connecting once he has left it and stops the regenerative nano-machines Depp has imbued him with for reasons which are never explained.

Interestingly, the film starts three years after the climax (which involves one of the most contrived dilemmas I have seen in some time), with a post-computer world being completely fucked following the loss of the internet. There’s no power and food shortages and the place rather resembles the world of The Last of Us minus the zombies, so apparently it is impossible to generate electricity or use a computer without the internet. Jack Palgen, the writer on this thing, does appear to be old enough to remember a time before social networking but apparently his pretensions to tragedy overcame his common sense here. He’s also the screenwriter for Prometheus 2, so it may still turn out better than the first one.

As far as Pfister himself goes, his direction isn’t awful or incompetent (unlike Carl Rinsch), just not very good. As with all cinematographers-turned-directors he delivers a pretty film, although as many critics have pointed out there is not a single memorable image in it. One of his biggest problems (which appears to be common with first-time directors on a huge budget) is that he has no sense of scale. This is meant to be a global story affecting the whole world, but it feels extremely constrained, which I think in part may be due to a preference for close-up shots in scenes which would be far better served with wider angles (a montage of neo-luddite’s being arrested feels like it’s all happening within a hundred metre radius). It really feels like a high-budgeted TV production along the lines of Game of Thrones, where it’s clear they don’t have the budget to show everything so they fill their time with smaller scenes and use the occasional CG wide-shot of a city or army to imply a larger world outside the frame. Pacing is another problem here as well, as the story just kind of lurches along without much of a defined structure (despite seeming to have three distinct acts). Pfister also is not very skilled at action, with what little there is in this film feeling very static and without the sense of wonder he is clearly aiming for.

In conclusion, Transcendence is a superficial, muddled and thematically incoherent attempt at intelligent science fiction without a whole lot to offer except for the knowledge that we will soon be seeing Pfister’s camerawork again in Nolan’s next movie after Interstellar and I look forward to that at least.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

[This review contains spoilers]

I have to admit, when I heard four years ago that Marvel were doing a Captain America movie, I immediately wrote it off like an expensive car merely due to the name (my Marvel knowledge at the time was just the Iron Man films and the Ed Norton Hulk movie), but my mate Jordan pretty much dragged me down to the pictures to see it and I was pleasantly surprised by the result. It was a fun, engaging movie with enough action and humour to keep you involved throughout and when the sequel was announced to be in the hands of two guys I’d never heard of I remained optimistic, especially after the delightful spectacle that was Thor 2.

The Winter Soldier was described in the press releases as Marvel’s attempt to mix seventies political thrillers a la All The President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor with modern superheroics, and the result is somewhat impressive to say the least. Cap gets caught up in a massive conspiracy when Nick Fury is killed by a mysterious seasonal commando and uncovers a web of scheming and treachery that threatens to lead back to SHIELD itself! It essentially sets itself up to be a political action movie for the age of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, with questions of privacy and freedom vs security and order, with the plot centred around a SHIELD program to launch helicarrier gunships with the ability to rain explosive death down on anyone they deem a potential threat. And then the Nazis show up.

This is my biggest gripe with the otherwise good conspiracy tale woven here as the film stops just shy of really interesting political commentary. A tale of flawed human beings deciding that mass murder is the path to happiness and kittens and the Cap’n having a problem with that would be far more interesting, but it just turns out that Robert Redford is a closet Nazi (or rather Marvel’s I-Can’t-Believe-They’re-Not-Nazis). He is given some chance to defend himself but the Nazi angle just kind of undermines it as by nature we start tuning people out the second they mention their dreams of invading Poland. This doesn’t prevent the political aspects of the film from working well enough though, and in the end I’d say that this is really the sort of film that Elysium and the Robocop remake wanted to be, and like those it is also executed with that special kind of subtlety reminiscent of being smacked around the head with a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick, which is not necessarily a bad thing. This desire to play it safe also manifests itself in my second biggest gripe with this film, which while I won’t spoil was rather disappointing as it kicked the legs out from under the stakes the movie had been working hard to lift up so far.

Character-wise, the film does pretty well. Captain Pugwash himself has always had the problem of being the Marvel hero with the least distinct personality (at least of those who have gotten their own films) and this movie doesn’t do a lot to buck that trend. He does get some good moments centred around his culture shock in the 21st century (including a few good jokes and an Oldboy reference in the Korean version) and some decent character development but he’s not exactly a standout personality in the Marvel universe and if it wasn’t for the supporting cast I think the 21st century setting could have stranded him in a film without a memorable identity of its own.

Thankfully everyone else is up to the challenge. Black Widow turns up again (this time with an actual personality!) and Johansson pulls off her role well as more of a secondary protagonist this time than a sidekick, getting a lot of good moments particularly in the action scenes. She also gets to actually act like a spy at some points (though more Mission Impossible than Tinker, Tailor) instead of a gymnast in an outfit whose function remains baffling to me. I am hoping she finally gets her own movie after Age of Ultron (which still sounds like a reject Transformer) and if this film was meant to call back to All the President’s Men then her’s should probably be more Mission Impossible or Bourne. I should also note that she is by no means the only action girl on the heroes side, as we have both Sharon Carter (possible future love interest for Picard) and Nick Fury’s right hand girl from the Avenger’s helicarrier scenes shooting people in the face so the whole exercise feels like a more egalitarian flick than Marvel’s other offerings to date.

As far as the other heroes go we have Anthony Mackie as Falcon, an ex-paratrooper wearing a jet-powered wing suit (as in actual mechanical wings) who joins up with our protagonists when the world is out to get them. Admittedly when we met his character for the first time and his past came up I did start dreading a potential two hours of Michael Bay demanding that I start fellating American soldiers but it all plays into his character in a compelling way. The next time we see him he’s leading a support group for traumatised war veterans and while his character isn’t brilliantly developed it does give him enough depth and sympathy to make you want to follow him, despite the fact that, in the end, he doesn’t have that much of a role in the plot.

For Villains we have not only Watchmen’s future president as a compelling and charismatic enough bad guy who thankfully does seem as smart as the movie makes him out to be and of course the sub-titular character himself, and if I haven’t said anything about him yet it’s because he doesn’t actually have much of a role in the plot. He does do some things (mainly killing people) and proves himself more than a match for Ahab here, but his entire arc (while decent) is superfluous to the overall conspiracy. If anything it’s really a symptom of a film with a few too many good ideas it wants to include in its runtime (Falcon being another one) so that it can’t quite make them all coalesce as intricately as it would like, to the point where midway through the action climax it cut back to Falcon fighting a Nazi commando and I suddenly realised I’d completely forgotten about him in amongst the four other fights going on at the same time.

But of course, an action movie would not be much without the action and this movie more than delivers on that front. The action in this movie is honestly some of the best I’ve seen in a while. When people hit each other here you really feel the impact to the point where the fight scenes feel pretty brutal (at least for a 12A movie) and when Nemo kicked people into metal walls at the beginning I was starting to question whether they would get up again. While promoting the film the directors kept stressing that they were doing as many stunts practically as they could and it shows. Car chases and shoot-outs through the streets of New York have a weight and impact that the CGI climax of the Avengers never did and when it does get CG-heavy towards the end it never feels any less impressive. One thing that really struck me about the action scenes here was just how well they flowed in and out of the rest of the film. Watching most films, there is a conscious feeling of ‘we’re in an action scene now’ whenever people start to get hurt, but here it moves so naturally between the two that they just feel like extensions of each other.

If I had one other hesitation here, it’s that at times I didn’t find myself connecting with what was happening in front of me. Everything going on was still very well-made, acted and put together but at points I almost felt like I was observing the movie from a distance and more admiring it than being actively involved. We also of course get the credits scenes (mandated by the new Superhero Movie Act), which as expected exist purely to tease us with characters we will only be seeing once Joss Whedon finally gets off his arse (and I do hope they use the Ultimate versions here). Overall, though, this is a very good action film, and one I would heartily recommend for all families and anyone else wanting to see a good knife-fight.