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Posts Tagged ‘Bryan Singer’

As you may or may not know, I recently got back from a brief but pleasantly bracing trip around some of the sights of the Kyrgyz Republic. One of the things about this trip that will be burned into my memory for years to come, probably, was the fact that our driver, Bakyt, was – in addition to being a keen advocate of transcendental meditation and a lover of boiled eggs – a huge fan of Queen, despite speaking minimal English. Five days spent on the road listening to the collected greatest hits would have got very wearing with many other artists, I suspect, but it just served to remind me that Queen are possessors of a tremendous back catalogue of  endlessly listenable hits – and there probably aren’t many other European bands with the same kind of penetration into the central Asian market.

Then again, I may be biased. I am of that generation who were just about to go to university when Freddie Mercury passed away at the end of 1991, and Queen – a major band for the previous few years – suddenly became inescapably massive. The nature of Mercury’s illness and death, and all that followed it, is so inextricably bound up with the way the band is perceived that it’s impossible to know if they would be quite so famous today had things gone differently.

But famous they remain, and I suppose we should be somewhat surprised that it has taken over a quarter of a century for a movie about the band to appear (not to mention grateful that it’s not a big-screen version of the jukebox musical We Will Rock You). The travails of this movie are fairly well-known, with various changes of personnel and (allegedly) focus along the way. Here it is, entitled Bohemian Rhapsody and directed by Bryan Singer (with uncredited contributions from Dexter Fletcher after Singer was sacked late on in production).

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It is, if nothing else, a remarkable story: Rami Malek plays Farrokh Bulsara, a Zanzibar-born Asian immigrant living in London and working as a baggage-handler at Heathrow Airport in 1970. A keen songwriter and fan of the local rock band Smile, he has the bad fortune to offer his work to them ten minutes after their lead singer quits – but then manages to land the role of vocalist for himself anyway, alongside uniquely-tonsured axe hero Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Having recruited a bass player, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and changed the names of the band to Queen and their lead singer to Freddie Mercury, the quartet set sail for rock and roll stardom…

I have to confess I turned up to Bohemian Rhapsody feeling rather cynical and not expecting to be particularly impressed: this had the feel of a hagiography in the making, just another brand extension for the band. Then there’s that title – is there any particular reason why it’s named after a song which no-one really understands?  Why not call it A Kind of Magic, or Princes of the Universe, or I Want It All, all of which would arguably be at least as thematically appropriate? No, they’ve just gone for the Queen song title which everybody knows. Then there were the various rumours in circulation following the early attempts to mount this movie – Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to play Mercury at one point, and claimed that the plan was for the singer to die halfway through the film, which would then go on to depict May and Taylor’s subsequent successes (the band members have denied this).

However, this is an extremely difficult film not to warm to – always assuming you have any fondness for Queen’s music, anyway. Proceedings get underway with an earsplitting rendition of the Fox fanfare by May, and the film kicks off with a shameless attempt to win the audience over by playing Somebody to Love over the opening sequence.  How can you resist a song like that? The earnest charm of the actors playing the young band members is a plus, too, and the film engages in some of the rock biopic clichés with gusto.

On the other hand, it is a bit cheesy, and a bit corny, and some of the dialogue is duff – ‘No musical ghetto can contain us!’ cries Roger Taylor at one point, rather improbably. There is also an excruciatingly knowing gag about Wayne’s World at one point, which only becomes worse when you realise that an unrecognisable Mike Myers is actually in the same scene. It also becomes very clear that this is a Freddie Mercury bio-pic rather than a Queen movie per se; his is the fullest characterisation by far, with the others reduced to a sort of caricature of their public image – May is a clever technician, Taylor a slightly stroppy ladies’ man, and Deacon – well, Deacon is initially the comic relief, but to be fair the film’s portrayal of him becomes more balanced as it continues.

The initial vague resemblance to Reeves and Mortimer’s Slade on Holiday sketches, or perhaps This is Spinal Tap, does recede, especially when the film focuses on Mercury’s complex relationship with his long-term companion Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his attempts to come to terms with his sexuality. This is woven in with lots of the kind of moments you might expect – the band in the studio putting together some of their biggest hits, shooting iconic videos, and so on.

There is, of course, an abundance of potential material here, but it’s always very clear that we are getting the family-friendly, Hollywood version of the Mercury story here. History is rewritten throughout, sometimes subtly, sometimes definitely not, to simplify things and provide a satisfying narrative arc for the movie – Mercury and Deacon join the band at the same time, not a year apart, while the singer’s diagnosis with AIDS comes a number of years earlier than was actually the case. (There’s no dwarf with a bowl of cocaine on his head, either.)

Whatever you think of this, a more problematic area is the film’s depiction of Mercury’s sexuality and lifestyle. Would Freddie Mercury really have been on board with a movie that appears to suggest that his gayness was the defining tragedy of his life? Was he really the lonely, isolated, tragic figure portrayed in the movie, driven to excess as a result? Certainly his partner and manager Paul Prenter (played by Allen Leech) is presented as the villain of the piece. The movie only seems willing to address in passing the notion that Mercury’s sexuality, rather than being a regrettable aspect of his life, was in fact central to his personality, his performance style, and the music that he made. (One is slightly surprised that Bryan Singer was on board for a movie with this kind of subtext, to be honest.)

As long as you bear in mind that this is a tidied-up, fictionalised version of Freddie Mercury’s life, then there is a huge amount here to enjoy – mainly the music, but also the performances. The film is structured to conclude with Queen’s set at Live Aid in 1985 – impressively recreated, and depicted as possibly the greatest moment in rock history as well as (somewhat absurdly) the defining day of Mercury’s life – and it is an exceptional sequence, thrilling and also surprisingly moving.

Always assuming – and I know I’ve said this before – you like Queen. Some people don’t; there’s no particular reason why anyone should. But a lot of people do, and unless they are fanatical purists where the band are concerned, I rather suspect this film will be just what they’re looking for. Bohemian Rhapsody‘s lack of concern with the details may not be very characteristic of the musicians it depicts, but its determination to give the audience a terrific, memorable time is absolutely in the spirit of Queen.

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So, to the pressing question of the day: is Bryan Singer’s latest film (subtitled Apocalypse) actually X-Men 6 or X-Men 8? [Yes, I forgot about DeadpoolA] It all depends on your attitude to the two Wolverine movies, I suppose, but either way, this is now an impressively venerable series – certainly the elder statesman of the superhero franchise world. However, as any fule kno, you’re only ever as great as your latest movie, so X-Men: Apocalypse has a fair bit to live up to.

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This time around the movie is set in 1983 (so how the characters can be selling broadband in an irksomely ubiquitous set of advertisements I really have no idea, mutter grumble) and the academy for mutants run by Professor X (James McAvoy) is a going concern. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has dropped out of sight to become a legendary activist in the mutant underground. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is living quietly with his family in Europe. The population of the world seems to be getting used to the idea of mutants living amongst them.

All this changes when the Professor’s old friend Moira (Rose Byrne, sigh) inadvertantly resurrects En Sabah Nur (a not especially recognisable Oscar Isaacs) , a mutant tyrant of the ancient world, who possesses a usefully vague set of superpowers and likes to be known as Apocalypse. Having speedily got himself up to speed on the world of 1983 (he appears to do this primarily by watching a 1967 episode of Star Trek, which should leave him with a somewhat skewed world-view, to say the least), he sets about gathering a new group of followers and sweeping away the existing world order…

Would you like to know how Apocalypse fits into the existing chronology of the X-movies? Well, I really wouldn’t worry too much, as the series’ continuity got hopelessly mangled two or three sequels ago, and the rebooting of history in the last one only lets them handwave away so much. It is, I suppose, just about possible for two characters in their teens and their late thirties respectively to be brothers, but that doesn’t explain why none of the regular characters seem to have aged since the early 1960s – not just the mutant characters (who could conceivably have some weird metabolic or clockspeed issues), either. The film is forced to acknowledge the awkwardness of this, before hoping to make you forget it simply by throwing bits of plot at you.

The problem is that many of those chunks of plot look decidedly familiar as they whizz past: Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) comes into his powers again, there’s a scene with cage-fighting mutants, flashbacks to Auschwitz, a special-forces assault on the X-Mansion, a trip to a secret military installation under Alkali Lake, someone kidnapping the Professor to exploit his telepathic powers. In the end everyone hops into a plane and flies off to take down the main villain and his lackeys. Cumulatively it all feels like the X-Men movies’ greatest hits, repackaged, and whether that’s the series honouring its past or just showing signs of creative exhaustion is a good question. It does seem like a conscious choice: dialogue from the first film gets repeated, a certain Australian song-and-dance man makes an inevitable cameo (setting up a coming attraction, naturally), and Singer makes a slightly bitchy comment (obliquely, via his characters) about one of the sequels directed by somebody else, which is funny but still asking for trouble given this film is not without issues either.

Singer was apparently determined , while working on the first two X-movies, to make them as non-comic-booky as possible. This was primarily because, back in the late 90s, superhero movies had a toxic reputation amongst the wise men of Hollywood (the past is indeed another world), largely because of the spectacular failure of the neon-hued and ridiculously cartoony Batman and Robin. Well, in some ways X-Men: Apocalypse is the most comic-booky X-film yet – no sooner has Apocalypse recruited someone to his team than he sticks them in a decidedly Joel Schumacher-esque costume, for instance. There are battles and effects sequences aplenty, but none of them really feel grounded in reality and there is no sense of anything really being at stake. (The 1980s setting feels largely cosmetic this time around, too.)

And yet, despite all this, X-Men: Apocalypse still has many of the things you really want from a film in this franchise. The producers are not stupid and do realise that with actors like McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence on board, you want to give them some decent material to work with, so they all get some good scenes – Fassbender is particularly good as a haunted and bitter Magneto. (Evan Peters makes an impression again as a slightly more angsty Quicksilver – then again, it must be hard when you and your sister end up appearing in different movie franchises – but most of the younger cast members aren’t really able to impose themselves on the film.) And the plot does mostly hang together, and there are many good bits, but…

I honestly think that if they’d released a film like X-Men: Apocalypse ten years ago it would have seemed rather more impressive than it does now: it has scale and spectacle, humour and a little depth, some impressive performances and very competent special effects. But the bar has been raised on the superhero movie since then: Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Matthew Vaughn and others have all played their part in making this a genre for which people have high expectations.

In the end, all I can really say is that Apocalypse is by no means bad, but it’s the first main-sequence X-film I’ve enjoyed less than its predecessor. Maybe I’ve just been spoilt. Maybe the X-Men films really are showing signs of franchise fatigue. Or maybe the much whispered-of point of actual superhero movie overkill has finally arrived. Time will tell, I suppose.

 

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Seven films in fourteen years is a pretty impressive workrate, and one thing you can’t accuse the makers of the X-Men movies of is laziness. There has been an X-Men film out more often than not in recent summers, which suggests that this is a franchise with a solid audience. Not bad given the original X-Men was, by blockbuster standards, a cautiously low-budget offering (largely because the studio had taken a massive bath on Fight Club the previous year).

The director of the first two X-movies, Bryan Singer, returns for the latest instalment, the evocatively-titled X-Men: Days of Future Past (well, evocatively-titled if you’re familiar with the classic storylines from the comic series). If you’ve ever seen and enjoyed an X-Men film in the past, then there’s a very good chance you’ll enjoy this one – not least because it’s bound to have your favourite character in it somewhere.

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Days of Future Past opens in a nightmarish near-future – two parts Terminator to one part Matrix – with the remnants of humanity and mutantkind oppressed by robotic enforcers called Sentinels. The last few outposts of resistance are gradually being crushed, despite the best efforts of the defenders. The war has been lost, and all hope with it.

Well, perhaps not quite. A faint glimmer remains, as Professor X (Patrick Stewart) has a cunning plan to prevent the whole crisis from happening in the first place. He intends to project the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back through time to the early 70s. The Sentinels began as a US government mutant control project, and if the project can be shut down at an early enough stage the future can be saved.

Key to this is averting the assassination of military boffin Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), but to do so Wolverine is going to need the help of the 70s versions of both Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), each of whom has troubles of their own – Xavier having lost his self-belief following the events of X-Men: First Class, and Magneto being in a maximum security cell under the Pentagon following his arrest for a slightly surprising crime. Still, when you’ve got to get the band back together, you’ve got to get the band back together…

First things first. Post-credit scene? Yes. (It seems to gradually be becoming the norm for all the Marvel comics movies, not just the Marvel Studios ones.) This one sets up X-Men: Apocalypse, due in 2016, but how much you are stirred by it will depend on your familiarity with the comics in the late 80s and after.

The first purpose of any X-Men film is, obviously, to make truckfuls of money for 20th Century Fox, and I suspect this one will do so. Beyond this, one of the main things Singer seems to be looking to do is stitch together the disparate elements of the X-Men franchise – hence, actors from what I suppose we can call the original trilogy (Stewart, Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore) appear alongside the ones who appeared – sometimes in the same roles – in First Class (McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult). If you’re really obsessive about the detail, the film doesn’t quite manage to square this particular circle: the major beats of continuity are okay, but there are just too many little details that don’t match up, too many inexplicable resurrections and duplications of characters. Nevertheless, the time-travel storyline is very engaging (one shouldn’t criticise it for ripping off The Terminator too much, given the original comic came out in 1981) and allows the movie to include the best elements from all the previous films.

The results are supremely entertaining. I’ve always been ever-so-slightly lukewarm about most of the X-Men films in past, particularly the two Singer directed, not liking them as much as I wanted to and always feeling that Singer was actively shying away from the more colourful comic book elements of the stories. But this time he really gets it right, drawing on specific comic-book plotlines to conjure up a story that’s about as comic-booky as you can get (superheroes, time-travel, giant robots) with seemingly no reservations at all.

This is one of those rare blockbusters which seems to get virtually everything right – the action is spectacular and superbly staged, but the plot (on its own terms) hangs together almost seamlessly, and the script finds appropriately dramatic material for the many fine actors appearing in those increasingly outlandish (and in Lawrence’s case, unforgiving) costumes and prosthetics. There are a lot of familiar faces and big names in Days of Future Past, and – a few people who just turn up to cameo excepted – all of them get their moment to shine. (That said, it’s somewhat confounding that Anna Paquin, who’s on-screen for literally about two seconds, is sixth-billed in the credits.)

Of the returning stars, it’s again Michael Fassbender who really dominates the film as the younger Magneto – he manages to put Ian McKellen in the shade, which is no mean feat – and there’s something very exciting about seeing him square off against Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, as happens at a couple of points. The film’s big innovation, character-wise, is Quicksilver, played here by Evan Peters. The level of wit and invention in his sequences raises the bar for how this kind of character should be presented, and with another version of Quicksilver due to appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron (basically, for obscure reasons he is covered by both the X-Men and Avengers rights licences), it will be interesting to see how Marvel Studios respond.

Days of Future Past may not succeed in unifying the X-Men continuity, but that’s a moot point, not least because said continuity is substantially rewritten in the course of the film anyway (the joys of time travel plotting). In every other respect, though, this is a film which succeeds magnificently – it’s thrilling, funny, witty, and occasionally moving, with great performances and visuals. Not only is this the best blockbuster of the year so far, but – and I should probably stop saying this – it’s the best X-Men film yet, as well.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 8th 2003: 

Well, it looks like summer is nearly upon us, bringing with it a virtual cavalcade of sequels and superheroes (many with the letter X in their titles). The first of these is, of course, Bryan Singer’s X2 – the sequel to 2000’s X-Men. Superhero sequels actually have a pretty good strike rate (I’m thinking here of the second installments of Superman, Batman and Blade, for starters [I don’t know what the hell I was thinking of vis-a-vis Batman Returns. Sorry – A]), so surely this one isn’t going to be a let down… Certainly they’ve retained the same impressive cast: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is still the one with the adamantium claws, skeleton, and quiff, Magneto (Gandalf) is still the mutant master of magnetism, Professor X (Patrick Stewart, taking the weight off) is the one whose superpowers are the least drain on the budget, and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is still the one with the X-Man codename that the scriptwriters are too embarrassed to use…

Following on reasonably closely from the events of the first film, X2 opens with an attempt on the US President’s life by the imp-like teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a sequence which plays rather like The West Wing on acid. Army scientist Stryker (Brian Cox) uses this as an excuse to crack down on mutant activity, particularly the Xavier School – an institution he has a special and sinister interest in. Meanwhile, still on the scene are Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who have an agenda of their own…

Possibly due to the bigger budget, this is a slightly different film to the first one: where that essentially had a political subtext, this one is more personally and emotionally based. And, for most of the film, the results are spectacularly impressive, as the story alternates between impressive effects sequences and involving personal revelations to utterly engrossing effect.

I have never hidden the fact that I’m a comics fan, and so my approach to a film like this is inevitably slightly different to that of a purely cinematic feature like, ooh, Terminator 3. Most of the niggling gripes I had with the first film are answered, one way or another – this time round there’s a lot more action and many more X-Men on display, as Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) get beefed-up roles and characters like Colossus, Jubilee, Beast, Shadowcat, and Karma all get cameos or namechecks of various significance. Having said that, Cyclops (James Marsden) is – very nearly unforgivably, given he’s a lynchpin of the comic – reduced to not much more than a supporting character, and there’s still no sign of the Danger Room.

But on its own terms as a film, X2 is highly impressive in nearly every respect. There’s a hugely charismatic performance from Jackman, a funny and sympathetic one from Cumming, and another world-class display of scene-stealing from Ian McKellen – he’s helped a lot by the fact that he gets, in his jail-break, arguably the best set-piece of the film. However, what keeps this from transcending X-Men in every single department is the climax. Where, the first time round, it was concise and simple and pacy, this time round it seems to take up about a quarter of the film’s running time, with half-a-dozen different plot threads and a succession of fights, crises, reversals and revelations. One of these is not only unnecessary and half-baked, but also a wholly underwhelming appropriation of the Dark Phoenix storyline (one of the most famous and best-loved stories from the comic), and thus promises to irk both the hard-core fans and normal people. The result is that the film loses momentum towards the end, which is a real disappointment – but at least it does provide genuine closure in place of a cliffhanger.

Given some of the groundbreaking pyrotechnics we’re promised later this summer (most obviously by the Wachowskis and Ang Lee) it would have been easy for X2 to slip back to being a blockbuster of the second rank. For all that it has its flaws and disappointments, this is an extremely impressive example of the genre, and entertaining from start to finish. Perhaps not the masterpiece that some people were anticipating, but by no means a disappointment: not a truly great movie, but great fun to watch.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 27th July 2006:

Hello again everyone, and with the fifth anniversary of this column’s first appearance soon upon us, not to mention another (hopefully temporary) cessation of service not far behind, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly look at the state of cinemas today. Yes, that’s cinemas the buildings, not cinema the art form. I remember the rush of disbelief, verging on awe, when the first multiplex opened in my hometown back in 1989. Ten screens! Ten of them! Five times as many as the existing cinema! Imagine the surprise! Imagine the possibilities! No film would ever struggle to get shown again! In this giant temple to the art of film, there would surely be a place for all styles, all genres – something for everyone! All tastes could be catered to at once!

Well, sort of. Last week my local ten-screen cinema was, on a Saturday afternoon, showing a grand total of four different films. It was just that Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean were each on four screens simultaneously, with Over the Hedge and Just My Luck just about scraping a screen each. It’s almost as if the company was putting profit ahead of catering to varied tastes… oh, hush my cynical mouth!

I have actually been to see Superman and Pirates, cos they’re both my sort of film. The thing is that there are lots of other things which are my sort of film too, but they’re just not profitable enough to warrant multiplex-space these days. Anyway, less whinging and more reviewing: starting with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Oddly enough for a man these days best-known for superhero adaptations (this film and the first two X-pictures), Bryan Singer has cheerfully admitted he didn’t read comics as a boy and isn’t really that familiar with the characters. However he is a big fan of the classic Richard Donner Superman movie. This is very, very obvious to anyone who’s seen both Donner’s movie and Singer’s, because Superman Returns is much more interested in Superman the movie than Superman the character.

The plot is, to put it mildly, straightforward: Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after a five-year pilgrimage to the remains of his homeworld Krypton. But things have moved on in his absence. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a fiancée (James Marsden) and a toddler. The world has learned to cope without him. It’s enough to give the Man of Steel insecurity issues. But he need not fear, for his baldy nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey enjoying himself) has somewhat implausibly got out of jail and has embarked upon another deranged and cataclysmic real estate scam, which is bound to keep him occupied.

Well, there are many good things that can be said about Superman Returns. It’s a classy production which has clearly been a labour of love for many of those involved in its creation. The new Superman is cleverly cast and likeable, the new Luthor gives a witty performance, the special effects are eyecatching and it has a wonderful score. Unfortunately all these things could just as accurately have been said about the 1978 movie (and most of them probably were). It’s not just that this film doesn’t escape from the shadow of its predecessor, it doesn’t even want to.

This is a shame for all sorts of reasons. Brandon Routh does well in a very, very tough job, but any possibility of his performance not being endlessly compared to that of the late Christopher Reeve is removed by a script which even goes so far as to reprise some of the dialogue of the original film. There’s barely a gag, a beat or a plot twist that isn’t revisited here in some form or other and the tone and style is slavishly reproduced. This is quite a slow film with a lot of special effects sequences but very little action. Back in the 70s, the technology simply wasn’t there to put some of Superman’s more spectacular opponents up on the screen, but the recent Marvel movies have proven this is no longer the case. Bryan Singer’s choice to make this a more mature and stately movie isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does drain the film of a lot of the energy and fun of the comic books.

What’s actually new about Superman Returns is a bit of a mixed bag. For most of its duration, this is a light and almost whimsical movie, which makes the inclusion of some quite brutal violence all the more jarring. James Marsden gets more to do here as the sidekick of a sidekick than he did as leader of the X-Men in three movies combined (but that’s not really much to do with this film). The only central performance that falls down is Kate Bosworth’s, who doesn’t make much impression at all (Jonathan Ross memorably described an appearance by her on his chat show as being like trying to interview a piece of furniture). There is a major and rather startling plot twist which if nothing else strongly implies that either this movie must be in continuity with Superman II or that the writers haven’t read Larry Niven’s classic article Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. There’s a brief bit near the end that seems inspired by one of the most famous Superman stories of the 1990s, but once again it doesn’t really go anywhere.

Superman has lasted nearly 70 years because the character can be reimagined and reinvented by every new generation of writers, artists and fans. Since the first Donner picture the mythos has effectively been reconstituted as a romantic comedy and a teenage rites-of-passage story, and that’s just on TV. A new Superman for the 21st century has a lot of potential themes to deal with, especially given the character’s status both as global policeman and American icon, and modern effects technology is capable of putting any comic panel up on screen. To make a movie so determinedly backwards-looking strikes me as a massive missed opportunity. This is well-made and entertaining, but it’s not a movie in its own right so much as the longest cover version in history.

Moving on, some good news: Captain Jack is back! But that’s enough about Torchwood. Sticking with the cinema, the unlikely alliance of Walt Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer brings us the appropriately bizarre spectacle of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, directed by Gore Verbinski. The startlingly humungous box-office this little flick has already racked up makes my opinion of it rather surplus to requirements, but looking back I see that’s never stopped me in the past. So…

It must be said this movie presumes heavily upon the viewer either having recently seen the original or possessing a detailed knowledge of it from a large number of not-so-recent viewings (this is a roundabout way of saying there isn’t a recap at the start). The titular receptacle is the possession of mollusc-headed sea-demon Davy Jones (no, not the guy from The Monkees), portrayed by Bill Nighy and a bucketload of CGI effects, and the rather complicated plot revolves around everyone wanting to get their hands on it for various reasons. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, giving what we can probably now safely describe as an iconic performance) wants it because he’s sort of sold his soul to Davy Jones and needs it to bargain with. Will Turner (Landy Bloom) wants it for reasons involving his undead father, whose fate was never quite explained in the first movie. Disgraced toff Norrington (Jack Davenport) wants it to help him regain his station in life. Keira Knightly wanders about the movie as Elizabeth Swann (presumably so named because she’s a bird with a long neck), being almost (but not quite) entirely decorative.

Yeah, I’m not doing a very good job with the synopsis, but then it is terribly complex and takes a long time to get going. (It’s nearly two hours into the movie before the three leads meet up.) Do not let this put you off, should you not have seen this movie, because this is a movie that can definitely be described as a rollicking adventure, with copious amounts of entertainment value. As before, its success is due to a combination of outrageous stunts and effects sequences, eye-catching fantasy and horror, and unexpectedly offbeat humour. Johnny Depp acts Bloom and Knightly off the screen as you’d expect – that’s if ‘acts’ is quite the right word for it — but Nighy is also good value, as usual, and the junior members of the cast do justice to the jokes. Practically everyone from the first movie comes back and gets something interesting to do, which is neat trick, while there is good work from newcomers Stellan Skarsgard, Naomie Harris, and Tom Hollander.

The success of the first film seems to have emboldened its creators because this one ups the ante in virtually every department. Bigger fights and effects! More grotesque fantasy-horror! Even zanier jokes! Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this is that the movie has bloated to a frankly unnecessary two-and-a-half hours in length. It’s never actually slow or dull throughout that time, but one gets a definite feeling that this is still too much of a good thing. It doesn’t help that this film doesn’t actually have a proper ending, stopping instead in mid-plot on a cliffhanger (okay, a pretty good one), setting up next year’s World’s End (which apparently has Chow Yun-Fat in it, Hong Kong fans). Also less than fully satisfying are the writers’ attempts to set the heroic trio at odds with each other — while they effectively underline what an unreliably amoral character Sparrow is, the attempt to create some emotional darkness and genuine character conflict feels a bit of an afterthought, surely to be resolved in the next movie. I would also have commented on how, for a franchise called Pirates of the Caribbean, very little in the way of actual piracy goes on — but very wisely, the writers have beaten me to it by putting a complaint to that effect in the mouth of bandana-loving thespian Kevin McNally. Hey ho…

Readers of long standing may recall that I wasn’t that impressed by Curse of the Black Pearl and I must confess that I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this latest installment. However, despite its faults, I thought this was a hugely entertaining movie, practically perfect popcorn fodder. Its obvious desire to match Lord of the Rings in scale and impact is a bit overambitious, but this is still a remarkably accomplished and witty movie, considering its origins as a theme park ride. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this one, but I am the next.

Well, this week both the man from Krypton and the buccaneers slumped back to a mere three screens apiece, allowing some lesser productions a look-in, and one of these was Geoffrey Sax’s Stormbreaker, a jolly romp of a kids’ film with an all-star cast of talented and much-loved actors and Jimmy Carr.

If James Bond and Harry Potter got together and had a baby… no, hang on, that’s just eurgh. If Ian Fleming and JK Rowling got together and… mmm, that’s nearly as bad. I suspect you’re getting the drift, anyway. Alex Pettyfer plays Alex Rider, an average London schoolboy (average if you’re willing to overlook the fact that he’s clearly about three years older than everyone else in his class). As an orphan, he lives with his uncle (Ewan MacGregor, briefly appearing) and au pair-stroke-housekeeper (Alicia Silverstone, not appearing briefly enough), but this fairly happy existence is shattered when his uncle dies. Alex learns the incredible truth – not only was his uncle a top British spy, but all those adventure holidays and other activities they did together were actually his uncle’s attempts to train him as his replacement!

(Since seeing this film I have wondered if all the things my uncle encouraged me to do when I was younger might have been for a similar reason. But as they mainly revolved around my drinking vast amounts of falling-down water and then lying to his girlfriend when she asked me where he was, I doubt it, unless he had me in mind for a job in the Royal household.)

This is actually quite good news for Alex, as previously he looked more likely to get an ASBO than a licence to kill. Anyway his new bosses (Sophie Okonedo and Bill Nighy, again) pack him off to Wales for survival training (insert your own joke here) and then send him to poke about in the business dealings of peculiar computer tycoon Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke, who appears to have had himself varnished and actually wears eyeshadow in most of his scenes). Needless to say Sayle is up to no good and intends to commit a ghastly revenge upon the British people for… well, that’d be telling.

I had vague misgivings about Stormbreaker on the way in, as it’s based on a book by Anthony Horowitz (the brain behind wretched 90s TV sci-fi cock-up Crime Traveller), directed by Geoffrey Sax (who also helmed the shocking American Doctor Who telemovie) and part-funded by the UK Film Council (responsible for a roll-call of terrible movies too grim and lengthy to recount here). Remarkably, however, the collaboration here is a very fruitful and enjoyable one. Unlike the other two films also covered this week, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and zips along very cheerfully with some impressive stunts and action throughout — though while Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen gets a credit as fight choreographer, the actual martial arts stuff isn’t particularly special. (Alicia Silverstone gets a hugely entertaining kung fu fight with Missi Pyle though.)

This is quite cleverly pitched so that, while the kids are enjoying all the teenage wish-fulfillment stuff, the adults can play spot the star cameo (choose from the likes of Andy Serkis, Stephen Fry, and Robbie Coltrane) or, more challengingly, spot the rip-off from the Bond franchise. (Some of these are quite obscure.) The adult cast join in with this sort of thing and the British contingent largely give entertainingly tongue-in-cheek performances. Bill Nighy’s twitchingly neurotic spymaster is particularly good fun. The Americans, on the other hand, just go roaringly over-the-top at all times. The tone of the film is a bit uneven as a result — at first it looks like this is going to have a bit of emotional darkness and reality to it, but in the end it’s not that far removed from a Spy Kids movie. I suppose that’s what you get for including a sequence with an animatronic jellyfish…

All in all, though, this is good fun throughout, provided you don’t pause to consider how insanely implausible it all is. With the proper Bond franchise apparently making one of its regular detours into more gritty and naturalistic territory, there’s a definite gap in the market for this sort of thing and Stormbreaker deserves to find a place amongst the bigger beasts of the summer.

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