X-Men: Apocalypse

Bryan Singer’s X-Men series is the longest line of superhero films by a single director, and while they’ve been consistently popular over the years they’ve been frequently criticised for not keeping up with the times, stuck in an early 2000’s mindset of being ashamed of their comic book origins and refusing to embrace their source material’s often campy nature. But I can happily confirm that this era is finally over, as Singer has managed to make a film perfectly in tune with the age we now live in, with a dour, joyless, extremely violent superhero tale to fit in right alongside Batman v Superman and Civil War.

This time our heroes are confronted by an ancient Egyptian mutant played by Oscar Isaac, looking uncannily like Ivan Ooze from Power Rangers, who is resurrected from the ruins of a destroyed pyramid and wants to take over and destroy the world because… I really don’t know, he’s just evil and rambles about false gods a lot like he was accidentally given Jessie Eisenberg’s script notes for BvS. After gathering a deeply silly looking group of followers, who join him in his genocidal quest for no discernible reason besides him being able to make them more powerful, he sets about razing the world’s cities to the ground to build a pyramid because… I have no fucking idea. He just does things because the script needs a villain.

Meanwhile Magneto watches his latest family being shot dead in front of him because he just can’t catch a break, and joins Oscar Isaac for the exact same reasons he was the villain in the last two films, while Mystique, played by an utterly not giving a shit Jennifer Lawrence, also has her character arc reset to the beginning of First Class because the writer can’t come up with a new plot for her besides ‘gets over not looking normal’. Meanwhile baby versions of the cast from the first three films get together at Xavier’s incredibly inconspicuous school for people with superpowers and go off on a quest to rescue him when he gets kidnapped by Apocalypse. Oh, and Wolverine’s in it for a minute, because of course he is.

To describe this movie as ‘going through the motions’ is extremely generous; it’s basically just a checklist of X-Men movie tropes: Magneto decides humans are worthless, Mystique gets over body image problems, vague allegories to real life persecution are made, Professor X gives humanist speeches, the cast is way too large for everyone to be developed properly etc. The whole affair is so mind-numbingly generic I found myself heavily referring to the Wikipedia plot summary to remind myself what happened the day after seeing it. It’s ostensibly set in the eighties, but it doesn’t matter and once Apocalypse starts getting demolishing cities like a bored Roland Emmerich you’ll have forgotten the few nods made to the period. I don’t know if Singer’s just given up trying, but his direction has regressed drastically since (the legitimately good) Days of Future Past. There are direct to video Seagal films with more compelling direction.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, this film is absurdly violent. People are crushed, impaled, decapitated, shot, stabbed, flayed in slow motion and in one case telekinetically folded up like human origami. None of it fits the film’s overall tone and it feels like the director just got bored and decided to see what he could get away with. All of it ends up building to a punishingly long and literally headache-inducing climax in which characters we don’t know very well hit other characters we don’t know very well repeatedly with dodgy CGI, and I found myself zoning out to the point where I can’t quite remember how it resolved.

This is quite possibly the worst X-Men film to date, even worse than the legendarily bad Origins: Wolverine. It’s an agonizing slog that only avoids being the worst superhero movie of the year because Batman v Superman exists, and I can only hope that another director is hastily brought in to right the series because otherwise it will soon go down in flames.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

“All of DC’s decisions are the result of fear,” Tim Burton once said in an interview about his pioneering comic book movies, and following the commercial underperformance of Man of Steel (making only 2/3 of the billion dollars they’d hoped for) their latest panicked flail is to throw Batman into the sequel in the hopes of riding the Dark Knight movies coattails to equal success. This has somehow lead us to Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, a bizarre mishmash of heroes and world-building for which I cannot discern the intended audience.

The basic plot of the film, which is remarkably difficult to follow due to the almost total lack of narrative connective tissue or introduction, is that Lex Luthor wants to destroy Superman for some reason, so he has a terrorist organisation in somewhere described as ‘Nairomi, Africa’ (not a typo) machine-gunned which people blame on Superman for some reason, but has them all killed with his own proprietary ammunition for some reason (you may be noticing a theme here) which Lois Lane starts tracking back to him while Superman goes on trial before the US Senate (a jar of Lex’s piss is also involved for some reason). Bruce Wayne wants Superman dead due to the whole complete destruction of Metropolis thing from the last film and spends his spare time building Kryptonite gadgets from a chunk of Zod’s ship, while Lex goads the two into fighting. Then Wonder Woman turns up and they fight a Cave Troll together. If I’m missing anything (and I’m cutting out a lot) it’s because this film manages to be both absurdly convoluted and largely nonsensical. And before you ask no, neither Batman with his detective skills nor Superman with his X-ray vision realise who the other one is, nor does anyone connect the alien superbeing with the Daily Planet reporter who looks uncannily similar to him.

The cast all seem to be trying to see how far it’s possible to remove their characters from the audience’s conception of them while still retaining the name. Batman gets the furthest away, being a murderous psycho who brands criminals and kills at least fifteen people over the course of the movie, and not even in the Arkham games way of snapping their spine while the game insists they’re not dead, he just flat out shoots people. The only thing connecting him to other iterations of Batman I know of (besides the armoured fursuit) is the obligatory opening scene of his parents being shot in slow motion. Superman spends the entire film moping and outside of a poorly-shot montage sequence does very little that could be considered heroic. The entire film also seems to proceed as if his X-ray vision disappeared in between films, as multiple plot points would not be able to happen if Clark took even a cursory glance at his surroundings.

Lex Luthor spends the entire film either very, very high or in the middle of a manic episode, in what can be described as the 2016 version of Eddie Redmayne’s performance in Jupiter Ascending, and as such keeps wavering between entertainingly camp and jarringly annoying from line to line.

And as for Wonder Woman, despite barely five minutes of screentime she’s probably the best part of the movie. Her sudden entrance during the Cave Troll fight accompanied by a sweet guitar riff and subsequent dismembering of said troll is the most engaging the film’s action scenes get, even though I don’t think her and Superman exchange even a single line.

The movie Batman v Superman reminds of the most is probably Oz the Great and Powerful, another film that only exists as set-up for another story. BvS pays lip-service to greater themes of justice and fear and gods and stuff, but it all falls away by the final act leaving our heroes to fight a new enemy who has nothing really to do with anything, and several inconsequential dream sequences and a subplot of Lex tracking the future Justice League members tease future films without adding anything to the movie. I’m not really sure who this movie is for, the bizarrely grim elements are inappropriate for younger viewers (the traditional superhero audience) but unlike Nolan’s films they never coalesce into more thoughtful material that could appeal to adults. In the end I can only think to compare it to watching a twelve-year-old bashing their action figures together for 2 1/2 hours, by the end of which you’ll have long since ceased to care.

The Revenant or (the Expected Vice of Pretension)

So it’s Oscar season again and all the newspapers, blogs and news sites are banging on about the big awards films being thrown out around this time, whether it’s Jennifer Lawrence trying to pass for forty, Eddie Redmayne donning his latest outfit of exaggerated physical tics bearing the name of a real person, or Leonardo DiCaprio being raped by a bear. That last one’s not actually accurate but was what largely drew my attention to The Revenant, despite Alejandro Iñárritu’s name plastered all over it like a giant, wailing pretension alarm. In interviews the storied director said “I don’t consider [my] film a Western, Western is in a way a genre, and the problem with genres is that it comes from the word ‘generic’, and I feel that this film is very far from generic,” which is an interesting opinion since his finished product is about as generic and uninspired a revenge story as exists in cinema.

The Revenant is adapted from the novel of the same name, a loose retelling of the story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper who clawed his way through the American wilderness after being left for dead by his friends following a bear attack. The story as it’s told in the movie is that after the mauling Leonardo DiCaprio is left behind by his party, with only cartoon villain Tom Hardy (wielding an equally cartoonish accent) and his half-Indian son (who exists only so Hardy can kill him and run off) for company. After Hardy’s done the deed he throws DiCaprio in a shallow open grave, and much of the remaining runtime is spent watching DiCaprio crawl his way across the frozen Canadian tundra in a way not so much reminiscent of The Grey as of Homer Simpson’s attempt to jump Springfield Gorge.

A few subplots are thrown in, with an ongoing feud between a Native American tribe and some French soldiers crossing paths with our hero from time to time, but overall the film is shockingly dramatically inert. DiCaprio is the only character with any depth, and about eighty minutes worth of  plot, character and theme are stretched over twice that length, leading to a largely forgettable movie that drags interminably. It’s actually hard to find much of interest to talk about unless you find DiCaprio’s gritted teeth face inherently interesting. This lack of effective drama also leaves the violence largely bereft of weight, causing me to laugh at the bloodshed and dismemberment instead of being in any way horrified.

For all that’s been made of the film’s technical achievements they don’t feel in service of much. It’s superficially pretty but many shots serve no purpose besides trying to ape Terrence Malick, and the much-publicised filming with natural light is undercut by the constant fisheye photography making it feel remarkably artificial. Iñárritu also tries to return to the long takes he used in Birdman, but while he clearly wants to be Alfonso Cuaron he lacks one of Cuaron’s most important talents in that field, that of knowing when to end a long take for dramatic effect. Whereas the famous tour of the warzone in Children of Men and Gravity’s eighteen-minute opening shot end in a way that propels the central drama of the moment to the forefront, Iñárritu’s takes keep going until they just kind of stop, creating a film full of weirdly inconsistent editing.

Heaven’s Gate is the obvious comparison here, another prestige Western by a prima donna director whose ever more ridiculous demands lead it way over budget. But while The Revenant shares that film’s visual spendor and distension of a thin plot and central theme that’s nowhere near as deep as it thinks it is, in the end Heaven’s Gate is just a very, deeply okay, if pretty, film while The Revenant is outright terrible, an interminable, pretentious slog only tolerable if you can laugh at brutal violence (and the brief moment where the bear appears to have sodomised DiCaprio). So it’s an almost certain shoe-in for Best Picture in a month or so.

Game of Thrones, Heart of Trash

“Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour, and it can never be used to hurt you.” – Tyrion Lannister

Game of Thrones has become something of a cause célèbre in recent months, in large part due to its depictions of sexual assault. I personally gave up on the series with the Sansa incident (a line I drew in the sand several series back in an attempt to convince myself to keep watching), but what’s really began to irk me over the past few years is this series’ complete and total denial of its own identity.

At its core Game of Thrones is an exploitation soap opera, Dallas with dragons and softcore porn, but it’s so determined to be high art it can’t admit this to itself. The endless random prostitutes and rape victims used as window dressing clash violently with the show’s prestige aspirations, all of which get phenomenally boring very quickly as the show has no idea how to use them any more artistically than a cheap porno.

The real problem though is that as the show has become more and more obsessed with being taken seriously it’s proven it has no idea how to do that beside becoming more violent and miserable. It visits horror upon horror onto its cast without having any idea why besides ‘we got good reviews for Baelor and the Red Wedding, so misery’s artistic right?’, but all this does is sharply contrast with the unceasing softcore porn and make the violence unbelievably dull (I almost fell asleep during the umpteenth Theon torture scene). Whatever point the story originally had has been lost beneath the piles of tragedy it thinks makes a point in and of itself.

Part of this problem is inherited from the source material. A Song of Ice and Fire labours under the delusion that it is the great American novel or that it bears much resemblance to medieval European life*, and George RR Martin has a terrible habit of confusing randomness and misery for realism. This tends to kick the legs out from under his drama but the show takes it to a whole new level.

I think the best example of this problem with the show is its depiction of Ramsay Bolton. Villains who are completely and irredeemably horrible can work brilliantly in fiction (I hold that Amon Goeth is cinema’s greatest bad guy) but they need depth beyond their desire to cause misery. Joffrey may not have been the most complex character but he had the depth of being an entitled little shit given a position of power and influence far beyond his comprehension (like an evil Justin Bieber). Ramsay in the show however is just Joffrey 2.0, an attempt to recapture past success by creating someone even nastier, but the result is a one-note caricature who might just work in an exploitation piece but who falls completely flat in serious drama, and becomes incredibly boring.

Were Game of Thrones to embrace its nature and become full-on exploitation it would probably be quite fun. The first series’ sex scenes were so ridiculous and out of nowhere they had a certain charm the way good exploitation does, and that whole series’ embrace of its pulpy origins fitted the source material far better than the current deathly serious approach.

So in conclusion I implore Benioff and Weiss to just accept their show for what it is. Drop the pretensions to high artistry, let their twelve-year-old ids run rampant and let Game of Thrones flourish into the wilfully sleazy splatterfest it was always meant to be.

 

*http://www.livescience.com/44599-medieval-reality-game-of-thrones.html

Spectre – Sam Mendes is the Author of All My Pain

It’s easy to forget but James Bond is one of our weirdest enduring cultural phenomenons. Each structurally and dramatically near-identical outing is a unique snapshot of the trends of its time and their concepts of traditional masculinity, which in the end are all that make up Bond as a character. Over the past few years though the series seems to have gotten stuck in a rut, in what appears to be some sort of existential crisis.

The iteration of the plot this time around is that following a personal mission-gone-wrong left to him by the late Judi Dench and opening credits featuring softcore tentacle porn (I’m not kidding), Bond and friends are introduced to Jim Moriarty from Sherlock, mugging like a jackass having clearly been told to ‘do that thing you do on TV’ and cackling about how the double-O section is outdated and he’s firing all our heroes to replace them with a worldwide surveillance system M describes as “Orwell’s worst nightmare”, just in case we missed that he’s the villain. As this plan largely sits on the backburner for most of the film it forms a sort of B-plot, whilst Bond traipses across the globe in pursuit of a mysterious man in a Nehru jacket running a global supervillain network called Spectre. An attempt is made at giving the pair a childhood backstory, but like any character whose appeal relies on being portrayed as ceaselessly cool (see also Batman) any attempt to explicitly define Bond’s childhood feels like it undercuts him as a character.

Half of this film is pointless, but I’m not sure which half. Both villains function identically running their scheme to consolidate multiple country’s intelligence services into a single world-spanning organisation, neither really depends on the other for anything and Moriarty barely has any motivation for any of this. He seems to exist solely so Moneypenny, Q and a very bored Ralph Fiennes have something to do for the climax while Bond is elsewhere. Surprisingly Spectre doesn’t feel overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but at least a third of the script could be cut without effect.

Mendes appears to have either given up or royally screwed his second go at Bond, as almost none of his splendid direction from Skyfall returns here. After a fantastic opening chase through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival the rest is weirdly flat and lifeless, beginning with a fight in a helicopter that largely cuts back and forth between near-identical interior punch shots and repetitive takes of the chopper steady over the parade, before frequently cutting away from dramatic helicopter stunts you’d think you’d want to show off. It only really comes to life again a couple of times during later action sequences, with a particularly fun train punch-up, but even a night-time high-speed pursuit through the streets of Rome feels lethargic. Tonally the film is shaky as well, repeatedly undercutting its general target of a lighter, jokier vibe than its predecessor with jarring death-obsessed moments that would make Katniss Everdeen flinch.

The biggest problem I alluded to earlier though, is that I don’t think this franchise knows what to do with itself. Both Spectre and Skyfall are weirdly defensive movies, seemingly made under the assumption there is some massive cultural backlash against the franchise against which it must assert itself. Skyfall went so far as to have M literally defend the franchise in court with terrorists bursting in at the opportune moment to prove her point, along with a running theme of Bond using low-tech means to save everyone from the new guard’s fuck-ups but Spectre takes it even further. Every five minutes for its first half it has M and Moriarty pop up to say first “The double-O section is outdated, I’m closing it down muhahahaha” and then “No, we totally need the double-O section” over and over again. The public distaste for Quantum of Solace seems to have sapped all this franchise’s confidence and while Skyfall had some Oedipal thing going on and Spectre makes an effort to be The Bourne Ultimatum both these films are essentially thematic tautologies: they exist to explain why they exist.

It’s also emblematic of the way Mendes is going about storytelling here. Whereas films like Goldeneye, Casino Royale and even Quantum of Solace created worlds from which the familiar Bond tropes naturally grew Skyfall and Spectre start with those tropes and work backwards to try and justify them. The bad guy has a secret desert villain headquarters with a private torture room not because he’s someone who would do that, but just because that’s what Bond villains do (apparently), just like Bond’s new car having exhaust flamethrowers and an ejector seat, and him and the female lead falling for each other for no discernible reason. The result is that Mendes’ Bond films are just made from bits of other movies without much identity of their own; the villain and scarred baddie from You Only Live Twice, the giant mute henchman from The Spy Who Loved Me (minus anything to make him distinctive) and even the climax feels like a riff on Craig’s first entry.

Spectre is ultimately little more than a hollow shell the Bond franchise has constructed around its own insecurities, and all its insistence about how relevant and vital it is in the modern age just causes me to wonder the opposite. Casino Royale deconstructed the Bond movie almost a decade ago to great acclaim, but you can only play that card once as deconstruction only examines what’s already there without adding anything new. In this new world where the series seems to primarily exist to explain why it exists, do we really need James Bond?