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Posts Tagged ‘James McAvoy’

‘One ticket for the new X-Men film, please.’

‘Certainly, sir. Somewhere in the middle?’

‘Well, from the beginning, ideally.’

Well, it’s not exactly first-rate cinema-queue badinage, but at least it had a bit more upbeat peppiness to it than the conversations I was hearing on the way out at the end of the film (at the risk of spoiling the rest of the review, ‘That was so bad’ was about the gist of it). I think there’s been a sense for a while now that this latest X-Men movie has been up against it – the anticipation for it has been nothing like that for either of the last two spin-offs, with most people looking ahead to the point at which the mutants get folded into the MCU. Perhaps the sheer longevity of the series has also begun to count against it, and there’s also the fact that it’s less than two months since Endgame came out, a movie which I expect will prove incredibly hard to equal, let alone top.

Certainly the advertising for Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix has tried hard to trade on the long pedigree of these films, as well as positioning it as some kind of Endgame-esque grand finale. ‘Twenty years ago, one movie showed us what makes us different makes us heroes,’ chuntered one of the trailers, accompanied by star-studded clips from well-received early instalments. Well, yes, but I feel obliged to point out that the original X-Men came out 18 and a bit years ago – 1999 is, in hindsight, notable for being one of the last years without a heavy superhero presence at the box office – the only superhero movie that came out that year was Mystery Men, which in hindsight looks rather ahead of its time. I’ve digressed again, haven’t I? Anyway: my point is that when a movie starts appealing to brand loyalty, rather than promising an exciting new experience, it is perhaps not the best sign.

Writer-director Kinberg has been knocking about the franchise since the 2000s, his first script being for X-Men: The Last Stand, generally regarded as one of the wobblier episodes. So the fact that the new film is essentially another pass at the same storyline (from Uncanny X-Men #101-138, of course) should really qualify as Ominous Sign Number One. It takes place in the 1990s, not that this influences the storyline in the slightest, nor does the film attempt to explain why most of the main characters have barely aged in thirty years. Things are looking pretty good for Professor X (James McAvoy), as good PR management and wise grooming choices mean his students are now superheroes, adored by the public, with the President having a special X-Phone on his desk so he can call them up in a crisis (yes, I know).

Well, the space shuttle gets into trouble due to a mysterious solar flare, and the X-Phone is duly used: the X-Men (a bunch of familiar characters this time around, but not including the chap with the claws, obviously) are rocketed off into space to carry out a rescue, somewhat against the better judgement of team leader Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The mission is essentially a success, but one of the team – a young girl played by Sophie Turner, whose comics codename is a bit problematic by modern standards so she just goes by ‘Jean’ – is exposed to the flare’s radiation and returns to Earth with her mutant powers of telepathy and telekinesis increasing at an exponential rate.

This would not in itself be terrible news, except for the fact that Jean had a traumatic childhood and was subject to a little discreet telepathic adjustment by the Professor. This is now unravelling as her powers develop, and she heads off in search of personal closure, despite the fact her behaviour is increasingly erratic. The team try to stop her and tragedy results (you can guess what this is if you’ve seen the trailer, it’s not exactly subtly handled); Xavier is forced to confront his own arrogance and hubris, while Jean seeks refuge in a mutant colony led by Magneto (Michael Fassbender). But it gets even worse! It turns out that the solar flare Jean absorbed is actually a primordial force of inconceivable cosmic power (funny, I thought all six of those had been accounted for), and a mob of evil aliens led by Jessica Chastain is also looking to take control of it…

This is, if you include the various spin-offs, X-Men 12, which is a very decent innings for any movie franchise.  What’s even more impressive is the fact that, for a long time at least, I found each new film to be at least as enjoyable as the one preceding it (I am part of the minority that actually thought The Last Stand was a fun romp). That changed with Apocalypse, which was all right but not up to the standard of Days of Future Past – and now, with Dark Phoenix, I fear we are confronted by the first no-two-ways-about-it genuinely poor main-sequence X-Men movie.

It’s not just that this movie revisits the same material as a previous episode, because there’s only one sequence which vaguely recalls the earlier film. The issues run deeper than that, and most of them stem from the script. One thing the advertising for this film does get right is that the previous films were so successful because they presented rounded characters with believable personalities, and credible relationships between them. There was potential here for more along those lines, and yet the script has a weirdly perfunctory quality, seldom pausing for reflection: the film has a slightly pedestrian, obvious quality completely at odds with the fantastical elements it depicts. Even worse, most of the characters are simply thin and forgettable – you hardly care about any of them.

Even normally reliable performers like James McAvoy struggle to make an impact, and the same is true of Jennifer Lawrence – J-Law seems to have negotiated herself a brilliant deal for this movie, by the way: she’s third billed, despite having limited screen-time, and only has to wear minimal prosthetics (none of that full-body make-up this time). The only person who brings any kind of presence to the movie is Michael Fassbender, who is as good as ever as Magneto. I suppose you could argue that one of the ways in which this film innovates is the fact that the bad guy is an actual alien – a new version of a character who first appeared in Avengers #4, in a fine historical irony – but, once again, Jessica Chastain really struggles to find anything to do with her.

There is plenty of well-staged crash-bang-wallop as the film goes on, and much use of swirly CGI, and it would be remiss of me not to mention that there is an impressive synth-heavy score from Hans Zimmer. But none of it feels like it means anything, most of the characters are flat and empty, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before in another X-Men film, where it was probably done better anyway.

No-one would deny the significance of the X-Men movies when it comes to the development of the fantasy genre, and the superhero film in particular. This series genuinely did change the way these films are made. But things move on, and while the genre has continued to develop, it’s starting to look like the X-Men have not evolved along with it (ironically enough). We are promised one more spin-off, then a break before new versions of these characters join the main Marvel Studios continuity. (I suspect it’s worth a flutter that Avengers Vs X-Men will make $3 billion before the end of the 2020s.) Well, that’s fair enough. Have a good long rest, X-Men: you’ve certainly earned it, and more importantly, it looks like you desperately need it.

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Is there a dodgier proposition in the whole of movie-dom than the double-duty sequel? I speak of when film-makers, usually to prop up flagging franchises, decide to continue the ongoing story from two or more previous films in a single new movie, often with ‘Meets’ or ‘Vs’ in the title. As far as I can work out, this sort of thing got started with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the genre (if that’s the right word) has gone on to include such dubious recent pleasures as Freddy Vs Jason and Alien Vs Predator.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that the double-duty concept is synonymous with worthless film-making, for interesting and entertaining films can result – many of the better Godzilla films certainly qualify, if you bear in mind that some of the Toho monsters started off by headlining their own movies and then meeting Godzilla in a later instalment. And you could certainly argue that Marvel Studios’ whole success has been built on the principle of this kind of shared fictional world.

Whether M Night Shyamalan’s Glass is more inspired by the old-school horror mash-ups or the Marvel project is not immediately clear, but this is certainly one of the more intriguing double-duty sequels of recent years. Shyamalan’s 2016 film Split seemed like a perfectly competent horror-fantasy movie until an electrifying final twist revealed it took place in the same world as his 2000 movie Unbreakable. The implication – that a confrontation between the main characters of the two films was inevitable – was an undeniably exciting one, certainly enough to make most people overlook just how spotty Shyamalan’s record has been as a writer-director.

Well, anyway, here we are: things are more or less how they stood at the end of Split, with a serial killer known as the Horde (James McAvoy) on the loose – so known because of his multiple personality disorder, one of those personalities being the superhuman Beast – and terrorising cheerleaders like it’s going out of style. However, on the lookout for him is David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the near-invulnerable hero of Unbreakable, who has apparently spent the last 19 years working as a vigilante with his now-grown son (Spencer Treat Clark). (Even after all this time Dunn has yet to land himself a proper superhero code-name, usually being referred to as the Overseer – which hardly pops – or the Green Guard, which is just rubbish.)

Sure enough, Dunn manages to track the Horde down, but the confrontation between them remains unresolved as the authorities, led by psychiatrist Dr Staple (Sarah Paulson), swoop in and rush them both off to the local laughing academy, where they are held in conditions designed to neutralise their so-called super-powers. Staple announces that her mission is to convince them that they are not superhuman but simply disturbed – and her patients include not just Dunn and the Horde, but also Dunn’s former friend Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson), better known as the brittle-boned mass murderer Mister Glass…

There’s obviously a certain amount of fun to had with a premise like this and to begin with Shyamalan mines the potential well, setting up the encounter between Willis and McAvoy and reintroducing various characters from both the previous films (perhaps the first warning sign in the movie is when it becomes obvious that the director has yet to break his habit of giving himself pointless and ostentatious cameo parts). At least you know what’s at stake here and how the movie seems likely to play out.

Once everybody is in the mental hospital, however, the movie collapses into a saggy and self-regarding mess in the classic manner familiar to anyone who’s sat through the collected works of M Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan seems to assume that everyone else will find his characters as intrinsically fascinating as he does, and the result is many windy scenes that don’t go anywhere as the director meditates on the situation he has created. Scenes outside the hospital with Dunn’s son and the last girl from Split (Anya Taylor-Joy) don’t add much, and basically the story loses most of its momentum. Sarah Paulson has the thankless task of playing a character who initially seems to be stupid, as she keeps declaring that superhuman beings don’t exist (we as the audience obviously know otherwise, or this film would not have been made), and the fact that Samuel L Jackson barely appears in the first half of the film is also an issue given it’s supposedly about him. The actor certainly carves himself a thick slice of ham when he does eventually show up in earnest, while James McAvoy turns in another bravura performance as the Horde’s various identities – but, again, the result of this is that Bruce Willis (never the most demonstrative of actors) kind of vanishes into the background as a result. (The film also has the issue that Jackson is visibly and distractingly older than Charlayne Woodard, the actress supposedly playing his mother.)

The whole film is stricken with this awkwardness and lack of balance, suggesting one thing and then actually delivering another. And the tone of it is odd: by most metrics it certainly qualifies as some sort of superhero fantasy – Jackson’s character is obsessed by the tropes of the genre and ends up trying to orchestrate a return engagement between Willis and McAvoy – but it is filmed and directed like a horror film. For all the film’s lofty ideas about human potential and gods walking amongst us, it’s the grittier, more downbeat style that wins out – we are teased with the prospect of a cinematic superhero battle, but what we end up with is a clumsily-choreographed wrestling match between two men in a car park. The substance is weirdly at odds with the portentous way in which it is presented.

So, very much a return to form for M Night Shyamalan, by which I mean it is wildly and frustratingly uneven. Just to confirm he’s sticking to his usual playbook, Shyamalan wraps the film up with not one, not two, but three half-assed plot twists. In theory that should equate to a satisfactory one-and-a-half-assed plot twist, but apparently these things are not cumulative. (If nothing else, at least the director appears to have discovered an interesting new field of mathematical enquiry.)

I couldn’t help feeling that Glass was a huge missed opportunity, but Olinka – who came to see it despite not having seen either of the prior films – found it to have some interesting ideas about the tyranny of normalcy. I still think she is being too generous about it. It does seem to lend weight to the idea that it’s M Night Shyamalan’s good films which are the anomalies, not the ropey fare he usually seems to produce. This film, certainly, is a waste of talent and potential.

 

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I was commenting to a colleague just the other day that, when it comes to the great Gothic horror novels of the 19th century, the ones which came to dominate large swathes of popular culture, we are talking about books which are largely unread (and, in the opinion of some people, largely unreadable). And yet we still know the stories, or think we do. To be fair, film-makers have been diligently trying to smuggle elements of the original novels back into films, in defiance of audience expectations, with honestly quite variable results. It’s getting to the point where you have to think quite hard about which elements of (for example) Frankenstein are original to Mary Shelley, and which were inserted into the story by James Whale, Terence Fisher, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Smight, et al.

So how do you approach a new version of Frankenstein these days? Do you go for the ultra purist approach and try to stay completely faithful to the novel, risking audience ennui and having to contend with the fact that it’s hardly structured like a modern screenplay? Or do you decide to be a bit more adventurous, running the risk of losing any trace of what makes this story distinctive in the first place?

On reflection, I would say the former is a much safer bet, but then I did watch Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein quite recently and it may have had an effect on me. Responsible for the script was Max Landis, who rose to prominence with the rather good Chronicle but has only really had his name on dud films ever since. (Am I giving away the end of this review too early? Hey ho.)

First indications that this is a slightly different take on Frankenstein come right at the start, when the film decides to eschew the traditional setting of central Europe in favour of a circus in Victorian London. Here we meet a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe), employed as a clown by the circus proprietor. Despite having no formal education or proper materials, the hunchback grows to become an awesomely talented self-taught doctor, anatomist and surgeon. No, honestly he does. The whole film is kind of predicated on this. (I did warn you.)

Well, anyway, the hunchback is in love with the circus trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay), and as a result is quite upset when she falls off one night and nearly dies. However, the hunchback is able to save her with the help of a brilliant medical student who happens to be in the crowd, who goes by the name of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).

Frankenstein instantly spots his new friend’s potential and recruits him as an assistant, freeing him from the circus, fixing his hunch, and employing him to do various fiddly bits of stitching to help his private medical research. To make life a bit easier, Frankenstein gives him the name of his suspiciously elusive flatmate, Igor, and the duo embark on a quest to uncover the deeper mysteries of life and death…

It’s a bit difficult to know where to start with Victor Frankenstein, except to say that you have to be somewhat amused by a film which opens with the voiceover line ‘You know this story’ before going on to depart almost entirely from Mary Shelley’s actual plot. Or, to put it another way, any Frankenstein movie in which the actual animation of the creature doesn’t take place until ten minutes before the end has obviously got serious issues.

What on Earth is it about for the first hour and a half, then? Well, this being a modern movie, it doesn’t really want to saddle itself with a lot of baggage about sin and hubris and the arrogance of man trying to supplant God in the cosmos, even though this is to a large extent what Frankenstein is actually about. Instead, we get a never-knowingly-underwrought tale of the friendship between Frankenstein and Igor. It’s true that this is an aspect of the Frankenstein story which has never before been explored in detail. On the other hand, this may just be because doing a Frankenstein movie where Igor is the hero is a bafflingly stupid idea.

If nothing else it does suggest a certain familiarity with the James Whale version of Frankenstein from 1931 – although, if we’re going to be strictly accurate about this, the first time a character called Igor appears as Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant is in Mel Brooks’ spoof version of the story from 1974. The script seems to treat the whole Frankenstein canon as fair game, anyway, stealing bits from many different versions: Frankenstein needing someone to do the fiddly work for him comes from a couple of the Hammer movies, for example, while the fact that Victor had a brother named Henry Frankenstein is another nod to the 1931 film (in which Frankenstein’s name was changed).

When it starts trying to be its own thing, though, the film generally becomes exasperatingly odd very quickly. Landis seems to be under the impression that the key difference between Victorian London – the exact period is obscure – and the present day is that people wore big hats and cravats and long frocks. Uneducated circus folk are able to pass in high society with no difficulty at all, for instance. There’s also frequent tonal uncertainty – Frankenstein’s initial project is a homuncular beast largely made from bits of chimpanzee, and to be fair it’s an unsettling creation – until you’re reminded that Frankenstein has christened it ‘Gordon’ for no very obvious reason.

One of the main influences on this film is nothing to do with Frankenstein, anyway: Paul McGuigan was the initial director on Sherlock and this is really reminiscent of that show at its most self-consciously stylish. McAvoy’s performance is very much like Cumberbatch at his most shoutily eccentric, while possibly the best thing in the film is Andrew Scott’s performance as a police detective in pursuit of Frankenstein for his own reasons. Even Mark Gatiss turns up, although he only gets one line (you can’t help thinking that Gatiss must have a great Frankenstein adaptation in him somewhere).

I suppose I shouldn’t be too unpleasant about McAvoy, as he’s only playing the character as it was written. You can tell that, in a ‘straight’ adaptation of Frankenstein, he would probably be brilliant. The thing is that I suspect the makers of this film would argue that it is really is a ‘straight’ Frankenstein, and sincerely mean it. But it isn’t. It’s the kind of film where there’s an outbreak of slo-mo or CGI every five minutes, just to stop the audience getting bored, where all of the original ideas have been purged in favour of ‘character-based personal drama’ (i.e. soapy nonsense). The movie’s big idea is that Frankenstein created Igor every bit as much as the more famous creature – well, in this film he does, but then (as we’ve discussed) Igor is hardly a core element of the Frankenstein story, especially not as he’s presented here. So what is the point of this film? What is it actually about? Apart from a few scenes here and there, what has it honestly got to do with Mary Shelley’s story? I can see very little connection, and it’s not even imaginative or competent enough to be as much fun as some of the wackier Hammer Frankenstein sequels. A waste of talent, potential, and time.

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There’s a conversation that comes around every few years, concerning the long-term prospects of the big studio blockbuster and whether in fact it is a viable form of entertainment. (As most major studios base their business plans on the assumption they will have at least one blockbuster hit every year – this is why they are sometimes called ‘tentpole’ releases – this is far from an idle discussion.) The last time I recall it properly doing the rounds was in 2005, when Stealth (it is perfectly acceptable to have forgotten or never heard of this movie) lost $60 million, A Sound of Thunder (ditto) lost $70 million, and Sahara (ditto again) lost at least $100 million.

Astute readers may have noticed that all of the above movies were not very good, but the big studios seem to have trouble grasping the fact that the failure of a bad movie may simply be down to its badness; they are so frequently successful in pushing dross on audiences that these occasional moments of rebellion from cinemagoers must be quite confusing for them. Nevertheless, here we are again, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers movies (relatively) underperforming and the latest version of The Mummy not exactly setting the box office on fire either. Deja vu beckons, as the people responsible cheerfully ignore the fact that some films have done exceedingly well this year (Wonder Woman for one; Fast and Furious 8 for another) and suggest the whole system is flawed, not their dud product.

Having said that, some films seem to be struggling for no apparent reason – for example, well-reviewed, mid-budget genre films like David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which you might expect to be well-positioned to do okay. Perhaps it’s just not quite big or accessible enough to be a real summer movie nowadays. Comparisons have been made with Keanu Reeves’ ultra-stylish, ultra-ridiculous John Wick movies, not least because Leitch worked on those, too.

The movie is set in November 1989, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the movie takes great pains to point out this film has only the noddingest acquaintance with actual historical fact. As the communist grip on the city begins to falter, chaos begins to envelop the intelligence community there, and an MI6 plan to retrieve a highly important McGuffin goes bad, with the lead agent being killed by a Soviet assassin and the McGuffin being lost.

Not content to leave it at that, the top brass at British Intelligence send in Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), quite possibly the most preposterous MI6 agent in cinema history, and that includes Roger Moore in A View to a Kill. Broughton is packed off to Berlin to liaise with semi-rogue agent Perceval (James McAvoy) and recover the lost information – but quite apart from the competition from other agencies (the CIA, KGB, and French Intelligence are all on the scene), the situation is complicated by the suspicion that a double-agent may be involved and trying to prevent their identity from being revealed…

Or, to put it another way, Charlize Theron swanks her way around Berlin in a succession of chic thigh-flashing outfits for the best part of two hours, pausing only to beat the living daylights out of the local cops, occasionally drawl a profanity, disrupt a revival of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and engage in some eye-catchingly hot girl-on-girl action. Hrrmm.

Theron does kind of have form as an action movie heroine, especially following her recent successes in the last Mad Max and Fast and Furious 8, but I have to say the movie that leapt to mind was Karyn Kusama’s AEon Flux, the main virtue of which was its sheer oddness. Atomic Blonde is a slightly more conventional proposition, in that it doesn’t feature killer topiary or people with an extra pair of hands in an unexpected place, but it’s still very much a vehicle for Theron (not surprisingly, given she produced it). Not that there isn’t a strong supporting cast – John Goodman plays a senior CIA dude, Eddie Marsan a Stasi officer looking to defect, and Sofia Boutella is Theron’s love interest (appearing without prosthetic makeup or limbs, for once).

As a thriller it is only marginally successful, I would say, as the plot becomes quite startlingly and bafflingly convoluted in fairly short order, the fact that most of it is told in flashback not really helping much. But you could certainly argue that the plot is the most dispensable part of Atomic Blonde, which trades heavily on its ass-kicking supermodel aesthetic, stylish direction, and retro vibe.

(To be honest, for a film supposedly set in 1989, most of the well-known songs on the soundtrack hail from rather earlier, and the film has a touch of punk rock attitude which is arguably more 1970s than 80s. You could also argue that the movie overdoes it when it comes to establishing its historical credentials: at one point a breakdancer is savagely beaten with a skateboard, while in the background ’99 Red Balloons’ is played on a ghetto blaster. All right, all right! It’s the 1980s! We get the idea!)

On the other hand, it does work rather well as a ridiculous, very stylish action movie, provided you’re happy to buy the conceit of a leggy supermodel repeatedly beating up gangs of big strong men without her hair getting overly mussed by her exertions. The movie is crunchingly violent, I should say, and even though Theron generally emerges victorious, I found some of the male-on-female violence a bit uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, there are some highly impressive sequences, the highlight being one which incorporates two separate fist fights, a gun battle, and a car chase, all in (apparently) a single travelling shot. I’m practically certain they cheated, but it’s still a bravura piece of film-making.

Yet I have to say that for all the film’s supposed aspirations towards feminine empowerment, I couldn’t help but detect a slightly leery whiff about it, because Theron is depicted in a way that almost certainly wouldn’t be the case if she were, you know, a male action hero. There is copious nudity from the lead of a kind you will look for in vain in your typical Jason Statham or Tom Cruise (or even Roger Moore) film, and there’s also the girl-on-girl stuff, which feels just a bit salacious. Can you imagine a Hollywood studio releasing a mainstream action movie with a gay protagonist? Me neither, but a bit of lipstick lesbianism is a different prospect, of course.

In the end I had a pretty good time watching Atomic Blonde. I couldn’t really find it in me to take it seriously at all, but then that’s hardly the point, is it? The plot may be a blithering tangle, but it’s plenty stylish and the fisticuffs, gunfights, and car chases all pass muster with the greatest of ease. I’m not sure this is the stuff of which successful franchises are spun, but as a one-off piece of slightly disposable entertainment, it does the trick rather nicely.

 

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You’ve been there, I’ve been there, we’ve all been there: you wake up in the morning, head throbbing, vision blurred, tongue like a cinema carpet, and you stagger over to the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I’m never watching another M Night Shyamalan movie ever again.’ For me, the last straw was 2013’s After Earth, in which Will Smith and his son encounter a stupid alien monster which can only be defeated if they stop even attempting to act. Or so I thought. I was lured back by the assurances of a friend that Shyamalan’s new movie Split really was worth paying attention to. (The identity of the Professor-of-Mathematics-at-a-prominent-university-in-the-centre-of-South-Carolina in question must remain secret in order to protect his identity.)

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After Earth seems to have marked the end of Shyamalan’s association with the major studios, and these days he seems to be ploughing a lower-profile furrow as a maker of mini-budget horror films. I have to say that this appears to be doing the chap no end of good, as Split is the most thoroughly enjoyable film I’ve seen from him in well over a decade.

Things get underway with the kidnapping of a trio of young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) as they leave a party. They find themselves in, well, a dungeon, at the not especially tender mercies of a rather peculiar man (James McAvoy), who has the habit of talking to himself in different voices, occasionally cross-dressing, and confiscating various items of their clothing.

Running alongside this is a series of scenes concerned with Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a psychologist specialising in dealing with people suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple-personality syndrome to the likes of you and me), and the kidnapper is one of her patients. Or, to be more precise, some of the 23 different personalities of one of her patients have conspired to carry out this kidnapping. But why are they doing this? And is there any truth to their talk of a terrifying new 24th persona…?

Split starts off looking like a rather suspect piece of fem jeop horror, not a million miles away from films I would usually run a mile rather than actually pay to watch (I still shudder at the memory of Captivity, a Larry Cohen/Rowan Joffe movie I unwisely saw nearly ten years ago – in my defence, I was in Osaka and it was the only English-language movie showing that I hadn’t already seen). And not even a particularly distinguished example of a genre where the bar is traditionally depressingly low – the three girls are not especially well-written characters and two of them end up as more actively irritating than sympathetic.

However, the scenes with Buckley’s character are much more interesting and do intrigue, even if the film’s approach to multiple-personality disorder rather tends towards being portentous cobblers. (Or is it? Insert your own joke about being in two minds on the subject at this point, should you wish.) There’s also a series of flashbacks, the relevance of which to proceedings do not become clear until very late on.

There’s a very decent performance from Taylor-Joy as the Final Girl, and the same is true of Buckley, also. I note that Shyamalan hasn’t lost his habit of casting himself in minor roles in his own movies, despite his having no particular screen presence – doesn’t the man realise that actors have to eat too? However, the plum job in any movie about multiple-personality disorder is that of the sufferer, of course, as it offers a magnificent opportunity to indulge in some ostentatious actorliness as the performer involved shows their full range (or not, as the case may be). James McAvoy grabs his opportunity and has a full-blooded go at it, and is very good – is his performance alone worth the price of admission, though? Well, hmmm…

Luckily it doesn’t quite come down to that, for the rest of the movie is enjoyable and well-made too, in a modestly-budgeted sort of way, though not without all sorts of incidental implausibilities. It never quite becomes as awkwardly sleazy as it seems to be threatening near the start (I think this is an impressively subtle bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of the director), nor does it quite turn into an outright gore-fest (still, I would say this is neither a movie for granny nor your infant god-daughter to enjoy). It’s also, for what it’s worth, the first 15-rated movie I’ve seen in an absolute age which doesn’t drop a single F-bomb, as far as I can recall.

That said, what starts off looking like a straightforward psychological horror movie slowly develops into something rather different, as it slowly becomes apparent that the condition which McAvoy is suffering from is the variant best-known to students of unlikely fictional health problems as Banner-Blonsky syndrome, albeit in a relatively mild form. This wasn’t an issue for me at all, but I can see how it might lead to some people throwing their arms in the air and making annoyed sounds.

Shyamalan initially rose to prominence as the master of the twist ending, then quite rapidly became known as the guy whose movies tended to be over-reliant on half-baked examples of the same storytelling trick: everyone started expecting the twist and even looking for it, which is the last thing any decent twist ending needs if it’s going to work properly.

So – what about the end of Split, then? Well, all I will say is that there is a gag/revelation at the very end of this film that meant I left the theatre amused and surprised in a way I wouldn’t have been, had it not been there. It works on a number of levels, acting as a bit of a treat for long-term followers of the director, providing a context for some of the film’s more improbable elements, and – perhaps most excitingly – setting up an irresistibly gonzo follow-up movie, the chances for which are surely good. Split still has elements that strike me as a bit suspect and improbable, but on the whole it operates somewhere on the border between Good Movie and Very Good Bad Movie, and that’s no bad place to be if you’re a genre director, I would say. Fingers crossed that M Night Shyamalan can continue his trek out of the wilderness with his next project.

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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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As readers of the collected reviews will probably have surmised, I am late to the party when it comes to feting Danny Boyle as a film-maker – I can’t remember seeing a film of his that I actually thought was bad, per se, but certainly many of the early ones just strike me as a little bit too smug and glossy. Having said that, I love 28 Days Later, thought Slumdog Millionaire was terrific, and had a lot of time for 127 Hours as well. So I suppose I’ve come around to the view that – certainly of late – Boyle has become a genuine national treasure as a director of real class.

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This is a consensus unlikely to be much damaged by his new film, Trance, unless I miss my guess very badly. In retrospect, this looks and feels very much like a Boyle film from beginning to end, and the story itself contains a few old friends from past projects – violent gangs as antagonists, scene-setting voice-overs, a few other tropes, whistles and bells with the narrative voice – and yet it still manages the neat trick of feeling completely fresh and surprising, thanks to a ferociously clever and convoluted story originated by the less generally well-known writer-director Joe Ahearne (who earned the respect of some of us for his work in Ancient Times on This Life and Ultraviolet). All in all this is a very smart and attractive package.

The film opens by introducing us to junior auctioneer Simon Newton (James McAvoy), who cheerfully explains to us the package of measures in place to stop people nicking expensive paintings when they come up for sale. This, of course, goes hand in hand with the depiction of a well-organised attempt to circumvent these precautions when a famous Goya picture is sold for £25 million. Simon is briefly in charge of taking the threatened picture to safety, but is cornered by lead thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) who relieves him of it and gives him a nasty crack on the head for his trouble. However, when Franck pauses to admire his ill-gotten gains, the picture seems to have vanished into thin air…

When Simon gets out of hospital, he is less than pleased to find his flat and car have both been ransacked, and even less delighted when Franck’s henchmen whisk him off to a secluded location for a fairly intense chat. Simon, it transpires, was in on the robbery from the start, but the disappearing picture was not part of the plan. If he wishes to retain all his body parts in working order, Franck suggests he hands it over right away. But of course, there is a problem – Simon’s bang on the head seems to have left him with amnesia concerning exactly what happened in the aftermath of the robbery, and he’s no clue what happened to the painting. Trimming down the ends of Simon’s fingers does not improve his memory and so the gang resort to different approach – Simon is packed off to a comely hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson), with instructions to get his memory restored so everyone can go their separate ways with smiles on their faces . However, Franck and Simon have reckoned without the therapist, who brings a new and unexpected agenda of her own to this already tangled situation.

Trance kicks off like a slick and glossy caper thriller somewhat in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven – the opening sequence, detailing the robbery itself, is brilliantly put together and hugely enjoyable. But as well as showcasing Boyle’s mastery of the medium, this part of the film is surely there to settle the audience, engage them with the film, and – perhaps most importantly – win their trust. This is because there is a moment, not very far into the film, where I sat back and suddenly realised I had absolutely no idea which way this story was going to go next. It’s hellishly difficult to fly off the beacon like this and take the audience with you, but Boyle manages it almost effortlessly.

Almost imperceptibly the focus of the film shifts from the problem of finding the missing painting, and it becomes a much darker, more twisted thriller about the relationship between the three lead characters. Not everything is as it has first been presented to us, and the story becomes a matter of digging down through complex layers of deception and confusion to reach the truth. As they do so, the roles of mastermind, manipulatee, and victim shuffle back and forth between the trio: it’s a hell of a conjuring trick, and almost flawlessly executed (I can only think of one possible moment where the film appears to be cheating, and I’d have to see it again to be sure). But you have to keep your wits about you and pay attention if you want to keep up – this is a supremely confident film and not one that make compromises for the sake of the audience.

This extends to some of the elements of violence and gore which punctuate the film – in terms of these alone, Trance must be at the absolute top end of the 15 certificate, and this is before we even get to the sex and nudity. This is the only part of the film about which I have some misgivings, because its sexual politics seem to me to be a little skewed. You could certainly argue that this is, on some level, a story about feminine empowerment, but this does not sit especially easily with a couple of sequences requiring some remarkably graphic nudity from the leading lady (especially considering that nothing really comparable is expected of the two men). These scenes felt to me to have a nasty, leering quality quite at odds with the rest of the film, and while they illustrate both character and plot points, the points in question are hardly essential to the story.

This stuff certainly brings a vaguely ugly quality to a film which otherwise seems intended to be as attractive and bright as possible, even at the expense of some credibility – Trance shows London as a glossy, beautiful playground, where everyone has a giant-sized wall TV, state-of-the-art fitted kitchen, and private pool, and people can routinely afford to send each other iPads in the post rather than one of your actual letters. It is slightly absurd, but at the same time very appealing – and much the same could be said of the convolutions of the plot. Danny Boyle orchestrates the whole thing with seemingly effortless skill, helped by very solid performances from the three stars, all of whom make the most of the ambiguities inherent in the script. Not a film for kids, nor one to be taken too seriously – but as a piece of hugely stylish and highly intelligent entertainment, Trance is almost wholly successful.

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If you’re anything like me – which is admittedly highly unlikely, but anyway – there are two things to bear in mind about X-Men: First Class. Firstly… well actually, we’ll come to that, as it’s kind of central to the concept of the film… and secondly, there isn’t a post-credits sequence, so you can clear off home at the end without seeing the names of all the carpenters safe in the knowledge you won’t miss anything. Public service blogging, that’s what this is.

Matthew Vaughn’s relentlessly entertaining movie is mostly set in 1962, with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, sigh) discovering playboy millionaire Sebastian Shaw (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon) is manipulating both the US military and the Russians for his own nefarious ends. Even more startlingly, it seems that Shaw is backed up by a covey of genetically divergent scallywags (amongst them January Jones and Jason Flemyng) with uncanny superhuman powers.

Set on stopping Shaw, Moira recruits genetics expert Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his shifty friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) for assistance, unaware that both possess startling abilities of their own. And what nobody is aware of is that Shaw is also being stalked by Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a man who originally encountered him in a Nazi death camp, but who was saved when Shaw recognised his own special gift: the power to control magnetic fields…

With Shaw’s plan to force a crisis between the global superpowers nearing completion, Xavier and Lehnsherr realise they will need assistance of their own, and so they set about recruiting a team of young mutants to assist them. Taking their name from the initial of one of their founders, a new faction is born, fighting for peace and understanding – the L-Men! Oh, hang on a minute…

If X-Men: First Class brings anything genuinely new to the superhero genre, it’s the idea of taking the story out of the present day and presenting it almost as a period piece. Vaughn grabs this ball and runs enthusiastically with it, with the resulting film in places looking more like a Bond or even Austin Powers pastiche than anything else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, introducing big special effects sequences into a spy thriller works extremely well and the sixties detail adds a lot of charm to the movie. (There’s one sequence at a slightly debauched party where Rose Byrne has to walk around in her underwear that felt a little bit leery and lubricious, but… it’s Rose Byrne in her underwear… I can only genuinely object so much.)

Despite the fact that this movie is set around the time that the comic originally appeared, precious few of the original characters actually make an appearance – a consequence of having to maintain nominal continuity with the other movies. Some of the X-Men this time around made their comics debut well after the movie series got going, if we’re going to be particular about this. Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, in addition to those already mentioned, your X-Men for this picture are a new version of Angel, the Beast, Havok, Banshee, and Darwin. Nicholas Hoult is rather good as Beast, but the others are really only there to fill out the numbers and perk up the climax – most of the time the film is preoccupied with other people.

It certainly seems to be the case that bad guys have more fun, because while McAvoy gives a great performance as Professor X – although his tic of putting a finger to his temple and frowning whenever he does anything psychic is perhaps a little overused – he doesn’t command the film to anything like the same extent as Fassbender, whose performance as Magneto is appropriately – er – compelling. He’s got the looks, the moves, and the intensity for the part, and after a while you stop even thinking about Ian McKellen. He does pick up a slightly startling Irish accent at a couple of points, however, and – as seems common with this kind of film – his transformation from avenger to terrorist seems a little too abrupt to convince entirely. It’s still Fassbender’s movie though.

Also good, I should say, is Jennifer Lawrence, who manages to bring real depth and feeling and reality to a character who previously hasn’t been much more than a striking visual gimmick. Watching the older movies again you won’t look at the character Lawrence plays here in quite the same way.

All this is possible, of course, because X-Men: First Class is a prequel and gives the film-makers a chance to explore the roots and personalities of characters we already know and care about. That said, this kind of film can have problems of its own – there can either be the sense that all that’s happening is pieces being shuffled about, preparatory to being left where they were at the start of the original series (case in point: the climax of Revenge of the Sith, which revolves around fights between four characters all of whom we know will survive), or the problem that all this is really just prep work for a future (or past) movie which is where all the fun happens (great though it is, I caught a whiff of that off Batman Begins).

Impressively, First Class doesn’t really suffer from either of these issues. Where it does fall down is in its affliction with what I term Star Trek Reboot syndrome, after the last movie in that series. This kind of prequel is largely sold on the promise that ‘this is the story of how the characters came to be the people you already know and care about.’ The thing about the last Star Trek movie is that it was nothing of the sort – it was actually the story of how the characters came to be subtly different people from the ones we know and care about, living in an alternate universe. The thread connecting the original series and the prequel was not intact.

X-Men: First Class doesn’t go out of its way to obliterate the original continuity with a massive time paradox like Star Trek did, but it’s still very clear to anyone paying close attention that this movie is not set in the same history as the others – the chronology of certain key events alluded to in the original series has been altered. (This breaking-of-continuity is the thing I referred to at the beginning of the review.) You may dismiss this as just geekish pedantry, but surely the whole point of this kind of movie is to respect the original story? Part of the power of this film comes from seeing the characters and knowing how they’re going to end up – but given that the film seems to regard the history depicted elsewhere as being mutable, we don’t know for sure that this is really what’s going to happen – in which case, isn’t it just cashing in on our investment?

Let me be clear: this in no way spoils the movie, and most people probably won’t care about it one iota. But for some of the series’ biggest fans – and I wouldn’t even necessarily include myself in that number – this may well colour their perceptions and enjoyment of the film.

I’m also half-minded to say something about the way the film turns the Cuban missile crisis, one of the key events of recent history, into not much more than the backdrop to a superhero fight. All right, I have seen much more tasteless things on screen, but even so. It’s not even as if there’s some subtextual link between the crisis and the story on screen – the film doesn’t really use being a mutant as a metaphor for anything, except in the most general and woolly of ways. Magneto alludes darkly to the Holocaust at one point, but the film sensibly backs away from exploring this angle (so they’re not completely insensitive to the weight of history).

Anyway, after a while the groovy sixties detail and other historical stuff falls by the wayside and it starts operating in the same kind of territory as the other films, with a climax that surely goes on a little too long. On the other hand, this is a smart and stylish movie that isn’t afraid to be openly and enthusiastically comic-booky (which was where Bryan Singer’s contributions really fell short for me).

I’m not really sure what the comic-book fan constituency is going to make of this movie, nor people who know the X-Men solely from their screen incarnations. It seems to be reaching out to both groups, with costumes that much more closely resemble the comic versions, various allusions to McAvoy losing his hair, and even… no, it’s a terrific moment, the best gag in the movie, and I can’t spoil it… but on the other hand – well, look, the movie version of Moira MacTaggert is an in-name-only reference to the one in the books. The same is very nearly the same of the movie’s take on Riptide. Is it really so easy to tickle the happy buttons of comic book fans? Perhaps it is; I wouldn’t really know (though ask me again when Green Lantern comes out…) .

If you have any sort of tolerance for big, colourful, spectacular summer movies, then X-Men: First Class should be able to give your own happy buttons at least a minor caress. It takes itself seriously as a drama, with proper performances and characterisations, but couples them with a great sense of fun and an eye for big cinematic moments. It’s a very satisfying confection, in a way that Thor, to be perfectly honest, wasn’t quite. The first X-Men essentially opened the door for Marvel characters to dominate summer cinema in the way they have for a decade or so now, and with First Class the trend shows no sign of running out of steam. A great summer movie and quite possibly the best X-Men movie yet.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 31st 2008:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. We have a bit of a good news/bad news situation to begin with this week – the good news is that we’re not looking at yet another superhero movie! On the other hand, however, it is another comic-book adaptation.

The opus in question is Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted, which boldly takes the summer action movie to places it has never been before: and indeed to places which may not have actually existed before. Whether or not this is a good thing I will leave to you to decide.

It opens promisingly enough with a solemn caption describing the foundation of a cult of assassins by some medieval weavers. I briefly wondered what weavers needed assassins on the payroll for, deciding that a) the woollen goods trade was a bit more rock ‘n’ roll back then and b) this was just a bit of background colour and not that relevant to the plot. Happily, I have seldom been more wrong.

After the caption we spend a lot of time in the company of hamster-like nobody Wesley (James McAvoy) who has a rubbish job where he’s victimised by his boss, a trampy girlfriend who’s seeing his traitorous best mate, no money, low self-esteem, etc etc. All this changes when he’s accosted in the supermarket by Fox (Angelina Jolie) – it’s not clear if this is actually her name or just a placeholder description they forgot to get back to. Ol’ Air-bag Mouth is there to protect him from an attack by master assassin Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) and does about eight million dollars worth of property damage in the process. After this she wheels him off to a textile mill where a bloke called Sloan (Morgan Freeman, having some fun) basically re-does the red pill/blue pill scene from The Matrix with him, except this time it involves more cruelty to animals. (Wanted sort of revolves around cruelty to animals, on an epic scale. And cruelty to people, come to think of it. It’s sort of comprehensively vicious. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

It turns out Wesley is the son of the world’s greatest assassin, who belonged to the previously-established cadre of weaver-backed hitmen (‘Do you guys kill people or make sweaters?!?’ wails our hero, confused). Wesley’s dad has apparently been taken out by Cross, and Sloan and Fox want him to join the business and exact revenge…

Wanted would like to be The Matrix so badly it hurts, and to be fair it gets much of the way there: the action sequences are extraordinary, although for the most part they’re so ludicrously over-the-top that they’re funny rather than thrilling. However, what really makes this movie distinctive, if that’s the right word, is the whole weaver-hitman angle. You see, Sloan and the gang aren’t your standard mercenary hired guns. They are the Assassins of Destiny, operating on some sort of utilitarian principle – it’s okay to kill one innocent person if that saves a thousand others down the line somewhere. (This moral justification is somewhat undermined by a sequence where Wesley cheerfully offs virtually an entire train full of innocent people in order to get his man.) This would be quite a cool idea were it not for the somewhat unexpected mechanism by which Destiny communicates with them. The mechanism in question is a loom.

No, really. Morgan Freeman keeps the loom in his bit of the factory and by looking at all the little bobbles in the fabric it produces and doing some sort of kabbalah he can decipher who Destiny would like to have shot in the head. This is very probably the most demented and risible idea in the entire history of cinema, but at least it has originality on its side (I was going to put in a name-drop/joke here about once having my palm read by Mark Millar (writer of Wanted), the spectacular inaccuracy of his predictions, and my hopes he has better luck with the loom – but it turns out this bit isn’t in the original comic. Bugger).

Wesley, indeed, has justifiable qualms about this basis for his activities to begin with, but comes around to the company line fairly rapidly. One gets the impression that this is because if he buys the story about the predictive linen he gets to hang out with Fox, shoot guns at people, do car stunts, and basically look cool, and if he doesn’t then, well, it’s back to his old job for him. (The fact that the Loom of Doom keeps fingering rich fat guys for the chop rather than homeless teenage mothers may help – it certainly helps him hang on to the audience’s sympathies.) This lack of any kind of coherent moral underpinning is fundamental to Wanted. In many ways it seems to be an inadvertent illustration of that old saw about power corrupting. No sooner does Wesley learn of his true heritage than he’s telling his boss where to stick it and half-braining his treacherous pal, but one strongly senses that this isn’t because he’s suddenly and triumphantly in touch with his true self, but because Morgan Freeman has just stuck $3 million in his bank account which means he can act like a prong all he likes now without worrying about getting the sack.

This is not, however, one of those movies which rewards too much excavation. It is the purest kind of popcorn nonsense, one of the most thoroughly excessive movies of recent years (though it doesn’t quite reach the astounding level of Crank), and for the most part highly – if guiltily – entertaining. The levels of sadistic violence to man and beast, the quantity of cranial splatter, the cheerful immorality and the borderline misogyny (the female characters are all cyphers, horrible, or both) may leave a bad taste in the mouth for some, though. In general, though, this is a very silly action movie whose only real message is that if you’re going to base your assassination agency around looking at bits of cloth, no good will come of it. And I think we can all learn something from that.

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