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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Fassbender’

I’m aware that these little pieces which aspire to inform and educate about films can be a little on the long-winded side. It’s unusual for one of them to come in at less than eight hundred words, and most of them are over a thousand. Is all this verbiage strictly necessary to get my views across? Frankly, I’m not sure: I was at the pictures just today, and as the closing credits started to roll, my companion turned to look at me, and expressed his opinion eloquently and passionately using just one single monosyllabic word of Germanic derivation. Perhaps there is a happy medium to be struck; but on the other hand there’s also the fact that I have many empty hours to contend with and writing single-word film reviews wouldn’t do much to fill the time.

Anyway, the film which moved my friend to such a model of forthright concision was Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, which I think you’ll agree sounds jolly portentous. What dark deal has been struck, and how does it relate to H.R. Giger’s famous acid-blooded extraterrestrial killing machine? Well, um, er. The film has the portentous subtitle Covenant because it’s about a spaceship called the Covenant. Why is the spaceship called Covenant? Because the film needs a portentous subtitle and Alien: Saucy Sue or Alien: Spaceshippy McSpaceshipface just wouldn’t cut it. If this at all gives you the impression that the Alien franchise is showing signs of vanishing up one of its own glistening, biomechanical orifices, well, I commend you for your perspicacity, readers.

Scott’s last visit to this series, 2012’s Prometheus, enjoyed one of the most inescapable advertising campaigns I can remember and was generally hated by people expecting an Alien movie which had, you know, the actual alien in it. Things have been marginally more restrained publicity-wise this time around and it seems to me that a definite effort has been made to keep the fanbase on-side. Certainly the opening movements of the plot mimic those of the original 1979 film very closely: partway through a long-haul deep-space mission, the crew of the spaceship Covenant find themselves unexpectedly awakened, and detect a mysterious signal coming from a nearby planet. The captain (Billy Crudup) decides that they will go and take a look, much to the unease of his second in command (Katherine Waterston). The ship’s android (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion either way.

On arrival on the planet’s surface, the crew are presented with various mysteries, the primary one being a huge, horseshoe-shaped alien spacecraft. Unfortunately, one of the expedition is exposed to an alien life-form which uses his own flesh to gestate a vicious, lethal creature which puts everyone’s lives in danger…

Well, it’s not quite the play-by-play knock-off that I’m probably making it sound like – the relationships between the crew are different, not to mention their characters – Captain Oram is plagued by self-doubt and takes himself just a bit too seriously, for instance. But we are in rather familiar territory, and if you’ve seen the earlier movies you will certainly know the tune even if some of the words have been tweaked.

However, things go off in a new and slightly unexpected direction as the crew of the Covenant encounter David (Fassbender again), another android and apparently the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission, ten years earlier (in case you’re wondering, his body seems to have grown back since the last movie: this is handwaved away rather). The newcomers accept his offer of shelter against the perils of the planet’s ecosystem, but are startled when he takes them to an ancient ruined city built by alien humanoids. What happened to the planet’s original inhabitants? And exactly how has David been passing his time for the last ten years…?

One of the things we discussed while waiting for the movie to start were the similarities and differences between the Alien series and the stellar conflict franchise currently owned by the Disney corporation. Both started in the late 1970s, have dedicated fanbases, have provided many iconic screen moments, and have indulged in some dubious prequelising; you could argue that both ultimately owe an enormous debt to Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune movie. And, I would argue, both of them trade enormously on the reputation and quality of their initial couple of films: personally I didn’t find any of the stellar conflict movies completely satisfying between 1980 and last year (your mileage may differ, obviously), and while everyone seems to like Alien and Aliens, the other films in the franchise are much less loved (and a couple of them have apparently been stricken from the canon). The question in the case of the Alien series is quite simple: what new things can you find for this particular monster to do? Audiences, I suspect, just want more of the same experiences that they had during those two films.

When I eventually prevailed upon my companion to unpack his thoughts on the film a little, he complained that the new film wasn’t ever actually scary or particularly thrilling, and that all the most memorable and interesting bits should have gone into the Blade Runner sequel instead. He couldn’t understand why Ridley Scott had bothered to return to the Alien franchise if (as seemed the case) he had nothing new to bring to it, and even muttered darkly about the director going senile (note to Mr Scott’s lawyers: please don’t sue).

Well, my expectations were lower, I expect, because while I wasn’t tremendously impressed with Covenant, I found it fairly enjoyable for most of its running time. In many ways it’s much more of a direct sequel to Prometheus than I expected. One of the little commented-upon consequences of Prometheus’ release was Guillermo del Toro abandoning his long-cherished desire to film Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, on the grounds that the plot and atmosphere would be just too similar – and the Lovecraftian overtones carry on into Covenant to some extent, with the action taking place in and around cyclopean alien citadels, with terrible secrets of a hostile, impersonal universe coming to light.

That said, they are careful to put some proper aliens into this one, including at least one interesting new variation on the classic beastie. The notion of a whole alien-influenced ecosystem is a fascinating one, but unfortunately not much gone into. The same can really be said for some of the film’s ideas about human teleology and ontology: there are scenes which set up this film as having some grand philosophical ground to cover, but in the end it just devolves into highly familiar running and screaming and shouting. It looks fabulous throughout, and Fassbender gives a brilliant double performance – through the magic of digital effects he gets to do all manner of things to and with himself, and the realisation of this is flawless.

However, this kind of leads us to the stuff about Covenant which I didn’t like, and this is a not inconsiderable matter. If the film-makers want to rewrite the ‘rules’ of the series, that’s their prerogative – the alien life cycle, which used to operate over a period of hours, if not days, is here compressed to a matter of minutes or seconds – but no amount of authorial wriggling can remove the problem that the plot of this movie is built around a reversal that simply doesn’t make sense, in terms of how it’s presented on screen at least. You can also argue that a key plot twist is extremely guessable. I liked much of Alien: Covenant enough to indulge it for most of its running time, but together these things conspired to kick me out of the movie for its final segment.

The film concludes with a relatively short concluding section which seems, again, designed to resonate and chime with fans of the first couple of movies. I suppose it works on some level, but it – along with much of the ‘traditional’ Alien-themed material – almost feels like a contractual obligation in a film which is perhaps at its best tackling the same kind of grand philosophical concepts as Prometheus.

The problem is that Prometheus arguably failed, as an Alien sequel at least. The job of this kind of sequel is essentially to remind you of what a good time you had watching the original film, by restaging it in a slightly modified form. Innovation in a sequel is always a risky proposition and one best done very sparingly. Alien: Covenant works hard to include all the key scenes, concepts, and tropes you might expect from a film in this series, and if the result is something that feels like a karaoke version of one of the original films, with a slightly odd new arrangement of the melody, then I expect that will do the producers very nicely and allow the franchise to trundle on for a good while yet. But the fact remains that, although good-looking and often well-acted, Alien: Covenant is just too incoherent and slavishly derivative a movie to give the audience the same delighted sense of intertwined novelty and familiarity provided by the last stellar conflict prequel. In space, no-one can hear you scream – but in a movie theatre, you can certainly hear the person next to you grumble, and with pretty good reason in this case.

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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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The era of non-stop counter-programming seems to be coming to an end, as the stream of low-budget biographical movies is finally replaced by… oh, a big-budget biographical movie. And, a movie which may itself arguably be considered counter-programming, given that it has apparently tanked massively in the States, and presumably no-one at Universal has very great hopes for it doing any better over here. The film in question is Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which concerns… oh, you guessed it.

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Yes, you might think there was something slightly ironic about the fact that a movie about the famously successful entrepreneur is struggling to make its money back at the box office, but one of the things the film highlights is the fact that Jobs was not quite the Midas figure popular legend has him being. Not entirely unpredictably, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin eschew anything resembling a traditional bio-pic and opt for a hugely theatrical structure, where the film finds Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at his most intense, in the moments leading up to three key product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube (no, me neither) in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. (Prior to all this, the scene is set with some archive footage of another visionary, as Arthur C Clarke – speaking, it would appear, in the late 60s or early 70s – predicts how the PC revolution was going to change many lives.)

As coincidence and the script would have it, Jobs ends up talking with the same handful of people on all three occasions – Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), company CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his initially-unacknowledged daughter (various actresses), and so on. Overseeing it all is marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who often seems to be the closest thing Jobs has to an actual friend. The same themes recur: Jobs as an obsessive control-freak on a monumental scale, as a prophet of a digitally-enhanced world, as a colossal ego, and as a man highly unlikely to win the Parent of the Year award.

It does boil down to the same few actors talking to each other about roughly the same things on a handful of different sets (there are cutaway sequences to Jobs and Wozniak in the garage where Apple was founded, and to the board meeting which saw Jobs ejected from the company in 1985), but Sorkin’s flair for dialogue and Boyle’s deftness with a camera mean that the film is anything but flat and dull. There are thrilling, electrifying moments of drama scattered through the movie, delivered by a group of actors making the most of an extremely good script.

Even though I am not the world’s biggest Apple fan (I believe I still have an iPod somewhere, but I haven’t listened to it in at least five years), I have of course heard of Steve Jobs and knew a little (a very little, if we’re honest) about him – the man has, after all, become something of a present-day icon. (This is the second Jobs bio-pic in three years.) Steve Jobs the movie does a first-rate job of turning Steve Jobs the icon into Steve Jobs a man – the objection that many who knew Jobs have been making, of course, is that the man on the screen is a grotesque caricature of the person who they knew, and that Boyle and Sorkin have other fish to fry than doing Jobs justice. Certainly the character played by Fassbender is breathtakingly callous and brutally manipulative for much of the movie – but, to be fair, the film makes no attempt to hide what an influential thinker he was, or how many of his ideas now underpin the fabric of everyday life (and by the end of the film it’s fairly plain that, underneath it all, he does at least aspire to be a decent father).

Whatever else, Michael Fassbender is certainly very impressive in the central role. Some quite excitable things have been said about Fassbender of late, declaring him the new Brando and so on, but he is one of those actors who does seem capable of anything, and is furthermore quite untroubled (it would appear) by ego. He even seems quite capable of that most difficult balancing act, where he spends some of his time in unashamedly populist entertainment (one more X-Men film is still to appear) and some of it in less mainstream fare (Macbeth, for instance) while remaining in demand for both.

Quite which category Steve Jobs falls into is the question of the moment, as the movie apparently cost a total of $60m to produce and market and has so far recouped less than half that. The obvious comparison, for all sorts of reasons, is with The Social Network, which ended up making about $225m – not exactly Marvel or Bond money, but still pretty impressive. But why did that film connect with audiences in a way this one apparently hasn’t? Well, friends, I frankly have no idea: I doubt very much that it’s just because Facebook was at its height of coolness back in 2010, while right now we’re all sick to death of hearing about Apple/Jobs, nor do I think the ostentatious theatricality of Steve Jobs is what’s been frightening the horses. Is there something to the claim that Fassbender just isn’t a big enough star to open a movie on this scale? Hmm, maybe, but are people claiming that Jesse Eisenberg is?

It may simply be the case that this is an anomaly, a fluke of release dates and zeitgeist conspiring to make a genuinely good movie tank. For Steve Jobs is a very impressive piece of film-making, as you might expect of the talents involved. Is it a fair portrait of its subject? I doubt anyone is qualified to say for sure, but script, performances and direction are all first class, and you do emerge from the theatre excited and moved and with some thoughts newly-provoked. In the end, I suspect history will prove to be as kind to Steve Jobs as it almost certainly will to Steve Jobs.

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Yet another sign that winter is on the way comes in the form of someone having a crack at the Bard. On this occasion it is Justin Kurzel setting his sights on Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays yet one not much explored by film-makers since the Polanski version well over 40 years ago. Unlike many a modern go at Shakespeare, and indeed Kurosawa’s feudal Japan-set take on the story, Kurzel sticks to the original mise-en-scene, more or less.

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Quite how close to Shakespeare Kurzel keeps his movie overall is an interesting question, though. The story is the one you may already know – a witches’ prophecy lures fearless warrior Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) into contemplating the death of the liege (David Thewlis) he has always been loyal to and usurping his position, although not without some definite encouragement from his ambitious wife (Marion Cotillard), culminating in some radical new ideas in landscape gardening and a damn big fight. However, the director sets out his store for his vision of the play with the uncompromising decision to open the film with an establishing shot of a dead baby.

This initially seems a bit shocking and possibly tasteless, but it’s so much in tune with everything else going on in the film that you sort of forget about it (and it is in line with a fairly common reading of the play, that either Lady M has post-natal depression or has actually lost a child). Dead parents, dead children, death, blood, and madness: this might well be a very good place to make a joke about just why this is called the Scottish play, but I have the preservation of the Union to consider.

This is not a film which makes much effort to step lightly around such matters, nor indeed leave much to the imagination. Unlike, say, the Kurosawa version, in which most of the bloodletting occurs discreetly off-camera, here Macbeth’s assorted victims are gorily carved up on camera – when they’re not being burnt at the stake, anyway. As well as Thewlis, said victims include a not especially-recognisable Paddy Considine as Banquo and Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff, with Sean Harris as Macduff, also going through the wringer somewhat before events are concluded.

So you can’t fault the casting of the supporting roles – nor is there much wrong with the two leads, which almost goes without saying where Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are concerned. For once Cotillard does not quite dominate the screen – one can almost sense the colossal struggle she is engaged in to keep her natural accent under control – but she does very good work in bringing the necessary vulnerability and pathos to a character who it’s too easy to just treat as evil incarnate.

Fassbender, however, doesn’t just give a proper movie star performance as Macbeth, but does a proper acting job as well. Macbeth isn’t just a crazed tyrant in this film: he’s a man who can’t quite bring himself to accept the consequences of his actions, and as a result has to treat everything going on around him as a bit of a joke. Fassbender makes his bonkers joviality rather disturbing to watch, but also offers flashes of the man in torment within. He’s not what you’d call sympathetic, exactly, but neither is he a complete monster.

Neither of these are exactly radical interpretations of the main characters, but then on one level this is not the boldest or most innovative take on Macbeth, either. The film offers a few interesting choices of staging – the witches are so utterly down-to-earth, almost mundane in their presentation, that one is almost surprised when Macbeth and Banquo give them a second look, while to its credit the film does find a new and unusual way for Birnham Forest to come to Dunsinane at the climax. But on the whole it’s a very orthodox presentation of the play, for all its savagery and darkness.

However, as a piece of film, Macbeth manages to be extremely distinctive – in many ways this looks pretty much like you’d expect a lowish-budget art house adaptation of Shakespeare to, with dour, naturalistic cinematography, what look suspiciously like non-professional actors in some of the minor roles, and strange wild stabs of what I can only call visual pretension – battle scenes keep slipping into slo-mo, vivid filters make it look as though the air itself is turning to blood, and so on. Overall, though, the thing comes together to be a singular and coherent vision that feels entirely appropriate for his particular play.

But is it a completely successful one? The generally-positive reviews Macbeth has received suggests so, but I found it to be a tough film to engage with – it’s just so relentlessly bleak and doom-laden, with most of the directorial and dramatic pyrotechnics held back for the final act. A little less fidelity to Shakespeare earlier on might have a resulted in a more balanced offering. As it is, the film becomes increasingly more impressive as it goes on, and it’s certainly well-worth watching, but it never consistently feels like a movie in its own right, just an extremely accomplished adaptation of a well-staged play.

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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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A little-known revelation from the annals of archaeology is the fact that an American tobacco beetle has been discovered buried in volcanic ash on a Bronze Age site in Crete. The implications of this are startling, and for a long time I could only begin to imagine the impact this must have had on professionals and historians – everything they understood about how early civilisation functioned must have been shaken to the core. It must have been shocking and unsettling, almost impossible to believe. Now, though, I can empathise with them much more easily, for I had a similar reaction to the news that they were making a movie about Frank Sidebottom.

Frank Sidebottom? A movie about Frank Sidebottom? Even now I can barely assimilate the words, and this is after having seen Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, the film in question. For anyone not familiar with Frank Sidebottom – which I suspect is a sizable majority in any sane gathering – he was a cult figure on the music and comedy scenes, primarily in the Greater Manchester area, and mainly in the 1980s and 1990s. He was instantly identifiable, due to making all his public appearances wearing an oversized fibreglass head: one of those people you instantly recognise as either a one-off comedic genius, or as a slightly creepy and annoying pest.

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Given this, you could have probably have cast virtually anyone as Frank in this movie: but they have managed the surprising (not to mention baffling) coup of luring Michael Fassbender into occupying the fake cranium in question. For all that, Fassbender gets the ‘and’ credit in this film; top billing goes to Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Domhnall Gleeson (enjoying one last flush of indie credibility now he’s been cast in Star Wars: Episode JJ).

Gleeson plays Jon, an earnest young English singer-songwriter who does not let a little thing like lack of talent impede his pursuit of his dreams. Then, a chance encounter with a touring American band gives him a remarkable opportunity: when their keyboard player is sectioned, he is invited, first to fill in on a gig, and then to assist them in recording their firsr album. On the team are manager Don (McNairy), psychotically aggressive theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and, at the heart of it all, the charismatic, enigmatic, inspirational figure of Frank himself…

Well, as you can perhaps see, this is not really a biography of Frank Sidebottom (nor indeed the man behind the head, Chris Sievey): all the characters are fictional, there’s no mention of Timperley, the name ‘Sidebottom’ is never used, and Fassbender opts to play Frank with a midwestern drawl rather than a nasal Mancunian whine (on reflection we should perhaps be grateful for this last). So in a sense this is not the movie it first appears to be, for all that Sievey gave his blessing to the project prior to his death in 2010.

This is perhaps a little surprising, as the script has been co-written by Jon Ronson, best known as a journalist and screenwriter these days, but a one-time member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band. On the other hand, as I believe I have intimated, the potential audience for an actual Sidebottom movie would be very limited. This is something more accessible and thematic, about wanting to unlock your creativity and really communicate with other people: it just happens to use the idea of a man in a Frank Sidebottom head as its central image.

And for the most part it is very successful. In some ways this slightly resembles This Must Be The Place, being an off-beat globetrotting comedy-drama with a vague musical theme, but the comedy here is broader and the tone less consistent. The story is, let’s be honest, not remotely plausible, but the deadpan absurdity of the whole enterprise is actually rather winning. Gleeson is convincing and likeable as a character who could easily have been slightly annoying, while Fassbender reveals an unexpected talent for physical comedy (as well as for acting inside a big fake head). For the first two acts this is a funny, if somewhat ridiculous deadpan black comedy.

Not sure about the third act, however, in which the band head to the SXSW festival in Texas, only to be confronted by their own frailties and personal problems. The tone here abruptly turns much darker and more serious, and I’m not sure it’s a switch the film successfully achieves. The conclusion is also not entirely satisfying.

But, on the whole, this is not enough to spoil the movie, which is well-made and engaging throughout. It has useful things to say, weirdly enough, about the nature of the creative process and the various coping mechanisms people use to deal with life. It also reminds us that, for some people, madness can be the thing that keeps them sane. In the end it abstracts the idea of Frank Sidebottom and uses him as a metaphor for the figurative masks many people wear when facing the world – also, perhaps, that it is sometimes easier to be an icon than a human being. I’m not sure what dedicated Sidebottom fans will make of Frank – no doubt cries of ‘Heresy!’ will be echoing around Altrincham – but for everyone else this is a likeable and entertaining, if somewhat flawed movie.

 

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Okay, so it’s January, and that means a certain class of film occupying all the theatres. It’s part of the turning of the year, and I really shouldn’t be surprised, but the current succession of ostentatiously awards-hunting factually-based dramas is starting to get to me a bit. Sorry about that, but it’s true.

Making the latest pitch for Oscar glory, and an admittedly strong one, is 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (the other one). McQueen (the other one)’s first film was a searing account of a man on hunger strike. His second film was a searing account of a man suffering as a martyr to sex addiction. It should probably come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that this latest offering is not a searing account of a lovely little old lady who raises fluffy bunny rabbits, but – and I hope I am not overstating the case here – an extended travelogue through a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery.

slave

The ever-reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, an affluent professional violinist living in New York in the early 1840s. Solomon’s happy life with his wife and children is torn to shreds when he takes an engagement to perform in a series of cities further south in the United States. All initially goes well, but then he is plied with drink and awakens to find himself in irons, in a slave pen.

Yes, someone has realised there is a tidy profit to be made in kidnapping free-born black men from the north, shipping them to the slave states of the south, and then selling them at auction. And this is the fate that befalls Solomon, a fate which the film depicts in some detail.

This is Ejiofor’s film, for he appears in practically every scene and delivers the kind of performance which has Oscar-winner written all over it, but he is supported by a succession of big-name white actors who turn up to play his various persecutors and tormentors – Paul Giamatti (who, funnily enough, played another slave trader in the first film I ever reviewed online), Cumbersome Bandersnatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender; all of them turn up and none of their characters is wholly sympathetic – indeed, almost all of them are complete monsters. The only decent white man with any real presence in the film is played by Brad Pitt, who – to be fair – gives a very creditable performance.

However, neither the quality of the performances, nor the measured direction of McQueen (the other one), nor John Ridley’s thoughtful script, nor Hans Zimmer’s powerful score (much of which admittedly sounds like bits of the Inception soundtrack, reused) can disguise the fact that watching 12 Years a Slave is a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish. There are numerous beatings, stabbings, lynchings, and rapes, most of them pretty graphically depicted. The ending of the film is not entirely downbeat, but the fact remains that this film is almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value.

In this respect it reminded me of the similarly-depressing Grave of the Fireflies, which I finally saw last year. I concluded that this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point. In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the point that Steve McQueen (the other one) is making is that slavery was an awful thing. But does this really need saying? Does anyone sane still seriously deny this fact?

I mean, you could make a film about one of the great plagues which  devastated Europe in the middle ages, and meticulously portray the entire cast dying in bubo-encrusted agony after lives of squalid misery, and it would be a faithful depiction of an actual historical happening, but why would any audience pay to watch something like that? What would be the value to it?

I suppose McQueen would argue that so many of the injustices and social problems which beset modern western culture are a consequence of its former complicity in the slave trade that a film like this is still of immediate contemporary relevance, but I’m not sure – nor do I think that 12 Years a Slave‘s unflinching succession of horrors is the most accessible way of handling this subject.

I might even go further and suggest that there’s something slightly skewiff about the very focus of the film. It clearly aspires to be an uncompromising account of total authenticity – but the fact that the central character comes from the northern US and lives a lifestyle recognisable to a modern audience, rather than being someone captured from another culture or born into the condition, seems to me to be indicative. It’s as if the director is aware of the need to keep the story accessible to a non-black audience, even if this results in it appearing to suggest that being enslaved is somehow more noteworthy and abhorrent when it happens to someone from a western cultural background.

(Personally I was struck by the (admittedly broad) parallels between Ejiofor’s tribulations in the first act of this film and those visited upon Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes: provocative though I know this suggestion is going to be, I think you could profitably interpret Planet of the Apes as a post-slavery allegory.)

But anyway. This is a well-made, serious, and not entirely unaffecting movie, but it’s still bloody depressing for the vast majority of its running time. You can obviously argue that this necessarily goes with the territory, but I’m not completely sure that I’d agree. I can’t quite shake the impression that McQueen is more interested in cursing the darkness than in lighting candles. I’ve had it with the January detox: give me something first and foremost intended to entertain, please.

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