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.

Advertisements

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.

American Hustle

The first movie I saw this year was David O Russell’s latest bid for Oscars American Hustle. The fictionalised account of the ABSCAM FBI operation (the opening title says ‘some of this actually happened’) into political corruption has Christian Bale and Amy Adams as two con-artists employed (under threat of arrest) by Bradley Cooper to help him take down more and more important people. I was expecting a lot from this film based on the critical buzz prior to its release but I was left underwhelmed by the final product.

The film is very well-made, with good directing by Russell and excellent performances by the entire cast (although Jennifer Lawrence looks far too young for her part). The characters are well-rounded and the moments of humour work well (particularly a bit involving a microwave). But about two-thirds of the way through I suddenly noticed that I was starting to stop caring about what was happening in front of me, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. It wasn’t that the story was uninteresting or too hard to keep up with (even if it does seem to be trying to out-tangle Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). I think the thing with American Hustle is that beneath at the gloss and performances the really isn’t much at the core of the film, and it feels like it doesn’t have much of a particular focus. It has all the superficial elements of a great film, but not the substance.