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Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Lawrence’

As a person who has been looking at and listening to things with my eyes and ears for quite a while now, I am no stranger to the concept of absurd hyperbole. That said, absurd hyperbole is not what it used to be – the revelation that Jonathan Ross’s review of Batman Forever described it as ‘one of the greatest films ever made’ solely in order to win a bet arguably debased the whole notion of saying something ridiculously overblown about a film simply to make yourself noticed. In other words, it takes a bit to get my attention these days.

But here comes the New York Observer (a reasonably well-established and respectable news source, even if it did used to be published by one of the Trump clan), proudly announcing that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is ‘the worst film of the century’. Crikey, now that’s a bold claim, even if you accept they’re not actually making predictions about the next 83 years. Let us not forget that this is the same century which has given the world Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Paul Anderson’s butchery of The Three Musketeers, A Good Day to Die Hard, After Earth, and many other really poor films. One might even say that it would take something quite unusual to beat Hampstead to the position of Worst Film of 2017, before even starting to look further afield.

Well, anyway, such a claim had to be investigated, and as a colleague is a confirmed Aronofsky fan (‘He is incapable of making a bad movie,’ he declared, which just prompted me to ask ‘Have you seen Noah?’), off we trotted to the very small cinema which was showing mother! (regular readers can have fun imagining the intonation I used on the title when asking for our tickets).

It’s not just the Observer, by the way: the reputable market-research firm CinemaScore has given mother! its rare and very (not) coveted F rating, indicating a film which audiences are likely to react violently against – other recipients include the remakes of Solaris, which isn’t that bad, and The Wicker Man, which most certainly is. So what’s going on with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!?

Hmmm. Well. Popular and critical darling Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman living in a beautiful house in the countryside, along with her husband (played by Javier Bardem). She is slowly renovating the house, he is a writer contending with a bout of the dreaded block, and all initially seems very nearly idyllic.

But then an older man (Ed Harris) turns up, claiming to have been sent there in the erroneous belief they run a hotel, and Lawrence is just a little irked when he invites the vaguely sinister Harris to spend the night without checking with her. Soon he is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfieffer), who is rather given to inappropriate behaviour. Is there something going on between Bardem and this couple? Or is Lawrence simply overreacting and being a bit paranoid?

While all this is unfolding, various other oddities and enigmas are floating around at the edge of the story – why does the structure of the house seem to dissolve when blood is spilled on it? (Don’t ask.) What is the obscurely disgusting object Lawrence finds clogging up the toilet? What is in the mysterious potion she finds herself compelled to glug when the stress all gets a bit too much for her? Will any of these things be explained before the closing credits finally roll?

Um, well, probably not. Watching mother! really brought it home to me that the two kinds of people with the greatest creative freedom in the movie industry are completely unknown directors, whose films are made on micro-budgets and so whom no-one really cares about, and those who have a strong track record of both popular and critical success, who as a result are granted a certain degree of latitude to do something a bit different on a lavish scale (though this only lasts as long as their films continue to turn a profit, as a quick look at the careers of M Night Shyamalan and the Wachowski siblings will attest to).

Darren Aronofsky currently seems to be in this state of grace, making distinctive, generally well-received films. I went to see Black Swan (‘unlike anything else I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time’) and Noah (‘engrossingly strange’), both films which ended up making over $300 million. A similar achievement for mother! does not appear to be on the cards, however, not that this is especially surprising when you consider that this is an example of the historically-unpopular ‘surreal bat’s-ass-insane psychological art-house horror’ genre.

I suspect this is why many people have taken against what is, by any standards, a superbly crafted film – it is unafraid to go rather a long way out there. In fact, just as a thought experiment, imagine yourself going really quite a long way out, to the very fringes of your comfort zone. Now imagine a faint speck on the horizon, even further out. This speck is a house equipped with a very strong telescope, and through this you would just about be able to make out mother!, hurling itself about and howling at the sky. This is how way-out-there Aronofsky’s film is, especially in its closing stages.

Luckily, I figured out very early on that we were not in the realm of a traditionally naturalistic narrative here, which probably helped – there’s almost a sense in which the fractured dream-logic of mother!, in which events pile up wildly on top of one another in a totally irrational way, reminded me of some of the weirder short stories of H.P. Lovecraft, although that would require Lovecraft to have been capable of writing for a female protagonist. There is certainly a touch of Terry Gilliam in the film’s various conjuring tricks, and perhaps also a little of Peter Greenaway in its more gleefully gory excesses.

Aronofsky has gone on record and attempted to explain what mother! is actually supposed to be about – I won’t trouble you with that here, not least because it’s really a spoiler. I can’t help suspecting that this was a movie where the surreal, nightmarish style and tone came first, anyway, and it was just a question of coming up with a premise that would justify them.

Why, somebody asked me, would an actress like Jennifer Lawrence choose to appear in a film as strange as this one? The prosaic answer would have something to do with the (presumably significant) portion of the $30 million budget going home with her, but at the same time you can see why this film would appeal, if only as a technical challenge – it largely fails or succeeds by her performance, for she is on-screen virtually non-stop throughout, frequently in close-up. She is, needless to say, very good, but then so is everyone else – Bardem’s Iberian inscrutability is well-employed, and in addition to Harris and Pfieffer, there are somewhat unexpected cameos by the likes of the Gleeson brothers and Kristen Wiig.

Mainly, however, the film is a triumph of direction and editing, with the pace and mood of the film always expertly controlled. It is obviously the case that some of the subject matter will repel many people from this film – there are some nauseatingly nasty moments, none of them really suggested by the film’s (arguably misleading) advertising. Others will not be able to get on board with the peculiar stream-of-consciousness flow of the narrative, its lack of conventional story or characterisation. And this is fair enough – but I have to say I hugely enjoyed the film’s sheer audacity and willingness to do something unusual and different. This did mean I was laughing in some rather inappropriate places (my colleague feared I was laughing out of scorn rather than appreciation), but my enjoyment of the skill and innovation that clearly went into this movie was genuine.

The chances are that mother! is a movie which will not appeal to you. There’s quite a good chance its excesses will actively appal or disgust you. I suspect it may prove to be the cinematic equivalent of Marmite (a proverbially-divisive, rather foul yeast-based spread, in case you’re wondering). I can’t imagine anyone not having some kind of strong response to it, but the minority that get it, will probably really, really like it. Certainly not the worst film of the century, anyway, even if it’s highly unlikely to make much of a profit. Pretty much a dead cert to become a cult favourite for decades to come.

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It’s a reasonable working assumption that Disney and its stellar conflict franchise are going to own the Christmas cinema release schedule for the foreseeable future – at least until audience fatigue sets in, anyway. Until then, it will be a brave studio that puts out anything in the way of popular mainstream genre entertainment, especially in the SF or fantasy genres – although, on the other hand, there will be a lot of fruitful territory for counter-programmers to operate in.

Nevertheless, here is Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, Village Roadshow, the amusingly-named Original Film Company and a bunch of other entities, a mainstream SF genre movie which has the cojones to go pretty much directly head to head with Disney’s latest offering. The script has apparently been knocking about for nearly ten years, so this may just be a case of oh-I’m-sick-of-waiting-let’s-just-release-the-damn-thing, but I doubt it.

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I rather suspect the producers are relying on the cachet and star power of what is, on paper at least, something of a dream coupling of two of today’s most charismatic performers, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. One of my friends is fond of proclaiming that Lawrence and Pratt are, essentially, the same person, in terms of their appeal, but I tend to disagree: if this were so, there would be more pictures of Chris Pratt wearing a snake on my laptop’s hard drive. Besides, Lawrence has received more Oscar nominations at such a young age than anyone else in history, while Pratt is, um, the amiable leading man guy from a bunch of comic book movies, remakes, and sequels. (It’s telling that Lawrence is receiving a considerably bigger paycheque for this movie than her co-star.)

Despite all that, it’s Pratt who has by far the bigger presence in the first act of the movie. He plays Jim, a passenger on an interstellar flight to a remote colony world. As the trip takes 120 years even at 50% of the speed of light, the passengers and crew are spending most of the voyage in suspended animation – yet a series of unprecedented events results in system failures that leave mechanic Jim (Pratt) and journalist Aurora (Lawrence) wide awake with almost 90 years of flight time still to go and no-one else for company except an well-mannered android bartender (Michael Sheen).

Well, as you might expect, there is soon a degree of chemical engineering in progress between our two stars, but not quite enough to take their minds off the looming prospect of living out the rest of their lives in total isolation on the giant ship. Plus, the ship’s systems are growing increasingly glitchy, which may also cause them some problems in a rather nearer future…

If you’ve just seen the trailers and so forth for Passengers, you may have come away with the impression that this is a fairly disposable piece of mainstream Hollywood entertainment, a vehicle for the two stars with some cute relationship stuff, a little light physical jeopardy round about the climactic regions, and as many shots of Jennifer Lawrence in something clingy and/or skimpy as they can reasonably get away with. And much of this is indeed the case.

However, those trailers (along with all the other promotional material I’ve come across) have been quite carefully fashioned to obscure one fairly major plot element. Fair play to them for trying to give the audience a proper surprise, for once, if this is indeed the thinking here – but I rather doubt that’s the case. It’s quite tricky to write about this without blowing the gaff on the stuff the trailer’s keeping quiet about, but basically it gives the film a whole new angle, and one which is not unproblematic. Without going into too much detail, it makes the film rather uncomfortable and creepy to watch.

One consequence of this is that Chris Pratt gets rather better material than Jennifer Lawrence. As I mentioned, I’ve always found Pratt to be a very amiable screen presence, but I would have said the jury was definitely still out on his ability as an actor of significant range. Well, he’s okay here, he doesn’t embarrass himself, but on the other hand it’s not a revelatory performance either. Lawrence is as immaculate as you might expect, but I doubt her award-nominations tally will be going up this year.

In both cases this is largely the result of the script just not being quite there. The main driver of the first two acts is the issue of loneliness and isolation and how people react to it, but you can’t base an action-packed finale on something like that, so there’s a rather inelegant shifting of the gears, with the appearance of a new character played by Laurence Fishburne, and a sudden onset of peril and excitement. Now, the film does work quite hard to ensure this doesn’t appear completely out of nowhere, and indeed it’s also trying its best to smooth over some of the issues with the awkward material mentioned earlier. But in the end just a bit too much is discounted just a little too easily.

(It’s a minor issue, but the film’s world-building seems a little suspect to me, too: quite apart from the horrible corporate future depicted here – this is almost the colonisation of the galaxy as envisioned by Donald Trump – the ship looks more like a cruise liner than a colony vessel. We are told there have been ‘thousands’ of trips in the past. Assuming 120 years is standard for each voyage, who is crewing these vessels? Who would want to work on a ship where every round trip propels you the best part of 250 years into the future? It’s like The Forever War with nicer decor.)

The film is visually lavish and Morten Tyldum does his best with it, but I don’t think it’s up to the standards of either The Imitation Game (his last film) or Headhunters (the one before that). Pratt and Lawrence keep things watchable, naturally, but I came away with a strong sense of a film shying away from properly engaging with all the issues it was raising. It’s not just that the film brings up some awkward questions – it’s that it seems fully aware of these questions and is actively trying to pretend they don’t exist. I wouldn’t call this a bad film, quite – but I couldn’t call it a good one, either.

 

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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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Is it my imagination, or are there still not that many new films being released at the moment? Films for grown-ups, I mean; if you’re after CGI animations aimed squarely at the family audience, you don’t have anything to worry about – but Disney’s heavy investment in the stellar conflict industry seems to have frightened nearly everyone else off.

Still, there are some people at least attempting to stick to How Things Are Usually Done, and how things are usually done is that January is when the films hoping for a big awards season tally start to make their presence felt. And, lo, this is beginning to happen, and one of these films is David O Russell’s Joy.

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This is one of those films which is theoretically based on a true story, but which casts loose from the anchor of historical accuracy so energetically that the movie-makers haven’t really bothered emphasising its basis in reality. Certainly I hadn’t heard of the person whose life-story it purports to tell, one Joy Mangano, played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence.

The film seems to be set in an intentionally non-specific past (I would have said early 80s, probably, but it turns out the events portrayed actually happened in in the late 80s and early 90s), with Joy working for an airline and contending with all manner of disasters at home: her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a virtual recluse, obsessed with absurdly glossy TV soap operas, her father (Robert De Niro) has just been thrown out by his third wife and is living in the basement with her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez, who it must be said looks a bit like Bradley Cooper – this is confusing, as Cooper is in the movie too). All this and looking after her children too has taken its toll on Joy, who has had most of the creativity and promise she showed as a child ground out of her. The only person who remembers and believes in her is her grandmother (Diane Ladd, who looks a bit like Meryl Streep – this is less confusing, as Streep is not in the movie).

Well, anyway, life goes chaotically along until one day some wine gets spilled in a place it shouldn’t, and the ensuing trauma inspires Joy to design a new kind of mop to help with this kind of crisis. This is a mop like no other. This is a mop that could change the world. Or so Joy thinks, and so she sets off to make her dreams a reality (her dreams being of her new mop).

But the path to success is a hard one, and Joy finds herself sinking deeper and deeper into debt as she struggles to give her mop the success it deserves. Finally there is a glimmer of hope, when her ex-husband manages to help her get a foot in the door at the revolutionary new shopping channel QVC, where she meets thrusting young visionary Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper – told you he’d turn up). Is this the chance she has been waiting for?

Well, given it’s fairly rare for Hollywood to spend $60m on a biopic of a bankrupt inventor, you can probably guess the answer to that one yourself, but there are several more twists in the tale before the closing credits start to roll. It is an undeniably engaging and curious story, very much in tune with the mythology of America (unemployed single mother becomes multi-millionaire due to enterprise and hard work), although some of the subject matter is slightly less, er, heroic, than one might expect in this kind of film. Or, to put it another way, this is probably the most significant film ever made concerned with mops and the shopping channel.

I feel like I now know more about Joy Mangano’s mop than I do about many significant human beings in recent world history. People go on about the mop at great length, as well as several associated topics, such as injection-moulded plastic and the intricacies of patent protection law. It’s a sign of the cachet that David O Russell clearly has around Hollywood, following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, that he was permitted to make a film about such unpromising subject matter.

It probably helps that, firstly, Joy is primarily the kind of relationship-based comedy drama the director has previously shown such facility for – there’s an undeniable warmth and humour to the satellite characters whirling around Joy that makes the film quite pleasant to watch. And, secondly, the appearance of Russell’s rep company of actors (Lawrence, De Niro, Cooper), all of whom the Academy have a marked fondness for, probably helped the suits at the studio decide to greenlight this movie.

That said, this time round Cooper has a decidedly supporting role (he is as solid as ever), and the focus is definitely on Lawrence. She is turning into one of those performers who the Academy seems to feel obliged to nominate for something every year, almost on principle, and this film feels very much like a vehicle for her, almost precision-tooled to permit her to show off her always-impressive range as an actor – she gets to be emotional, show strength, and so on. The various scenes of her building her mop, pitching for funding for her business, and then finally fly-pitching the thing in mall car parks do sort of summon up the spectres of The A-Team, Dragon’s Den, and Only Fools And Horses, but the fact that it never quite becomes absurd is probably largely due to the strength of Lawrence’s performance.

In the end this isn’t the subtlest of movies: the message about empowerment and self-realisation may as well flash up on a caption at key moments, and the contrast between Joy and her in-retreat-from-reality mum is handled with a broad brush, too. But it’s never actually tedious to watch, and the performances and writing are strong throughout. I’m not sure the topics of mopping and shopping are quite deserving of the skill and talent that have gone into this movie (I thought there was frequently a distinct whiff of bathos pervading the whole thing), but I can think of many worse things people could be making films about. I don’t really believe in portents, but if Joy is pointing the way for the rest of 2016’s films, they’re going to be impressively made, quite enjoyable, but also just a little bit weird.

 

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Well, it’s a cold and rainy afternoon in November, and the threat of references to Battle Royale and The Year of the Sex Olympics hangs heavy in the air, so I suppose it must be time for this year’s Hunger Games movie. I must confess to having gone along to the latest instalment, Mockingjay Part Two (directed, like the last couple, by Francis Lawrence), more out of habit than any sense of genuine excitement or anticipation. This should be something of an anomaly, given I have usually been impressed by the previous offerings in the series.

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I must also confess to a certain relief that this is the last movie in the series. Standard operation procedure for any series of book adaptations, these days – especially a genre or YA series – is to chop the final volume in half in order to maximise revenue. The result is often rather choppily paced films with arbitrary-feeling start and finish points. The fact that they’re largely aimed at a pre-existing, fanatically-dedicated audience also often means that the film-makers skip on things like recaps and other things to refresh one’s memory of the previous episode.

Mockingjay Part Two is a bit like that, opening with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from the attempt on her life by her long-term is-he-or-isn’t-he-love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been conditioned to want to kill her by nasty President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In case you are wondering, we are in the midst of a full-blown civil war, but to be perfectly honest, if you haven’t seen the previous episodes, you probably shouldn’t bother with this one at all.

Anyway, the conflict seems to be tipping the rebels’ way, and as the assault on the Capitol gets underway, Katniss embarks on a personal mission to assassinate the author of all her woes (I’m talking about Snow, by the way, not Suzanne Collins), along with – but of course! – a squad of equally photogenic cohorts, along with a few adults who are mainly there to frown a lot. Some people are looking ahead to whatever will follow the conclusion of the war, and realising that the inspirational qualities that have made Katniss such a useful media asset during the conflict could make her an equally dangerous enemy once it is over – so perhaps putting her in harm’s way isn’t such a bad idea…

‘Harm’s way’ is a bit of an understatement, for the path to Snow, as well as being blocked by vast legions of Stig lookalikes, has also been extravagantly booby-trapped by the twisted minds of the Capitol’s light entertainment division. Will anyone survive the mission to take out the President? And even if they survive the war, surviving the peace is another question…

Regular viewers may recall that I was generally impressed by the first film, somewhat disappointed by the second one, and rather surprised by the sheer sophistication and astuteness of number three – not to mention a little concerned that this concluding exploit was going to cop out in some manner. Well, I am pleased and not a little startled to say, it does not; it absolutely does not.

I suppose I am so impressed by the Hunger Games films simply because on paper they resemble a bunch of other movies based on popular YA series (Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, that sort of thing) and I automatically manage my expectations sharply downwards as a result. That said, if all YA film adaptations are anywhere close to these ones in quality, then this subgenre comprises the best-kept secret in modern cinema, for the Hunger Games films are genuinely impressive on so many levels.

It’s not just in their technical proficiency, which is of course commendable, but in the way they manage to be so consistently sharp and cynical. This one is no exception: it doesn’t romanticise or glamourise combat in any way, and while it’s theoretically an SF movie, it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war (or politics) in the slightest. Glib heroics and easy solutions are utterly rejected at every turn. I think I said once that this is the most thoroughly horrible dystopian vision ever to make it into a blockbuster, and I stand by that: the film is relentless in the way it deconstructs the mechanisms of power and politics, and finds the people at the top of both sides to be virtually indistinguishable.

This is one of the things that makes the Hunger Games films distinctive: for all that they are set in a futuristic otherworld, and occasionally feature genetic mutations and the like, they are always firmly grounded in reality, almost painfully so (for all the absurdly OTT death traps involved, there are also some shockingly bleak moments in this film). For all their huge SFX budgets, they also shy away from the big action set-pieces you expect from this kind of movie – they are almost always character-driven, when it comes down to it. Perhaps this is at the root of my inability to completely engage with them, despite their quality: they may look and get advertised like huge action blockbusters, but they’re not. (That said, half-way through this film is a stunningly effective Aliens and Blade 2-influenced action sequence which seems to have wandered in from a different film entirely – and like a lot of the movie, it stretches the limits of the 12A certificate to breaking point and beyond. This is not a film for anyone yet to reach their teens.)

And this is why the films have been so lucky to get an actress like Jennifer Lawrence to lead them – such a character-driven series needs a performer of her quality, even if she perhaps isn’t required to use all of her range. She receives customarily good support from all the usual suspects this time, with Sutherland on especially good form. (Julianne Moore looks rather like Theresa May this time around.) I feel compelled to mention that this is the last film to feature Philip Seymour Hoffman, although his contribution this time is sadly limited.

It’s really a small miracle that Mockingjay Part Two sticks to its guns and stays so downbeat and dourly realistic almost to the end, although I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised that a degree of idyllic rustification pops up before all is said and done – the underlying politics of these films has always been fairly traditional, perhaps even reactionary, when you really think about it. Nevertheless, this is a worthy and impressive conclusion to a series which maintained a startlingly high level of consistency throughout. In years to come I suspect these four films will come to be regarded as classics, of a sort – and there’ll be no injustice to that.

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So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; here we are again for the third of our annual visits to the Hunger Games franchise. I just had an interesting discussion with a somewhat like-minded friend down the pub, who expressed surprise that I was even going to see this film, revealing that he hadn’t thought it to be my cup of tea. ‘What, you think I don’t like big-budget Hollywood SF movie?’ I said, my face probably assuming a fairly distinctive expression.

‘You think it’s SF?’

‘Well, yes, of course – what do you think it is?’

‘Young Adult.’

‘Yes, but Young Adult SF.’

Oh, how the evenings fly by when we get together, especially when I start going on about The Hunger Games’ place in a long lineage of things like (say it together with me) Battle Royale, Rollerball, and The Year of the Sex Olympics. Anyway, my point was ultimately that if all Young Adult movies (is that even a proper genre?) are as sophisticated and cynical as the Hunger Games series, then there’s no call to be snotty about them.

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This time around we are treated to the fairly unwieldy title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -Part One, for the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ final book has been chopped in two. (Rather mysteriously, Collins is credited for ‘Adaptation’, while two other bods have their names on the script. Hmmm.) This isn’t the only unwieldy thing about the film, which has most of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors, but at least it’s reasonably short.

One problem is that the film seems to be made with the dedicated fanbase in mind (is there much of a fanbase? The coffeeshop was running a marathon showing of all three films this week, but I’ve no idea how many turned up for it). As before, there’s no recap or reprise from the previous film, we’re just dumped into the action, and it took me quite a while to remember exactly who everyone was and what they were up to. This was irksome, and if you haven’t seen the other two I suspect you will never work out what the hell is going on.

Anyway, stubborn bow-wielding knitwear-lover Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is still ensconced in the separatist enclave of District 13, her home region having been devastated in the uprising that broke out at the end of the second film. The rebel leadership (various genuine luminaries like Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, and the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman) have the plan to use her as a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She signs on, in the understanding that her sometime love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is sprung from Snow’s clutches. Naturally, Snow is using Peeta to issue various statements undermining Katniss and the rebel cause.

As you may have surmised, there aren’t actually any Hunger Games in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One, but to my mind this was rather to the film’s benefit, as the games were by far the least interesting bit of the second film. This one builds on the strengths of the second, especially in its bleakness and the sophistication of its politics.

Once upon a time this sort of ‘heroic rebels versus evil empire’ kind of film would have been about just that – plucky underdogs triumphing due to their own essential virtue and the rightness of their cause. The Hunger Games is savvy enough to recognise that things do not work this way: this film is all about the media management of the rebellion, which is presented as being absolutely crucial to both sides. We first see President Snow objecting to having to call the rebels ‘rebels’, and a word with more satisfactory connotations is soon found. Katniss’ allies are not interested in her as a person, but as a symbol to the masses they are trying to bring into the conflict.

She is, in short, much more useful as a propaganda aid than as a warrior, and when she is sent to the barricades of the rebellion she is accompanied not by a team of soldiers but a camera crew. In a fiendishly clever bit of scripting, no sooner does she meet the people she is supposed to inspire than she finds herself having to lie to them: the subtext is clear. She is, in short, being manipulated by her superiors just as Peeta has become a mouthpiece for the regime.

This is all surprisingly sharp and impressively cynical for a major release aimed at teenagers: the film is all the more timely, given how much it recalls the high premium placed on media-management in recent conflicts in the Middle East. The bombed-out, shattered landscapes of Mockingjay are horribly reminiscent of any number of news reports from Iraq, Libya, or Syria, and Snow’s doleful threats that civil war can only end in unimaginable slaughter and suffering sound depressingly plausible. I can’t quite see where the happy ending at the end of the next film is coming from; I hope the writers don’t completely cop out on all this good work.

This is all so engaging that you really don’t notice the slightly soapy teen romance angle of the story, nor a few somewhat improbable plot developments. The fact that this is really just the first half of the story means that there isn’t actually that much action in it, and hardly any of that features Jennifer Lawrence herself. Lawrence’s ability to maintain a career as both a bona fide box office star and an acclaimed actress is impressive, and it’s a shame that here she has a largely passive role, spending a lot of her time staggering about looking appalled at whatever atrocity the bad guys have committed most recently. Other senior members of the cast are much luckier: Moore, Hoffman, and Sutherland are all clearly having a ball scheming away at each other.

The Hunger Games is one of those series which rather impresses me while I’m watching it, but doesn’t exactly linger in the mind once I’ve finished. Maybe it’s just expectations management – the level of intelligence and grit in most SF franchises is somewhat lamentable – but it seems to me that these films are always much smarter and more surprising than they have any right to be. I just hope the concluding episode doesn’t let the side down; there are grounds here to be hopeful, I would say.

 

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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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