Posts Tagged ‘Michael Fassbender’

Neil Marshall’s must-have list prior to making Centurion:

  • 1 copy of the Annals of Tacitus (for research purposes)
  • 1 DVD of Lord of the Rings (ditto)
  • 1 DVD of The Warriors (ditto again)
  • four dozen assorted javelins, swords, axes, spears, and other sharp implements
  • various assorted trained horses and wolves
  • twenty Roman legionary costumes
  • six jars face paint (blue)
  • two dozen severed heads, hands, legs, etc (rubber)
  • 500 gallons of blood (fake)
  • Olga Kurylenko’s phone number

Hmmm. By 2010 the scorecard for Neil Marshall’s directorial career stood as follows – Dog Soldiers: small-cast, small-budget horror – modest popular and critical success. The Descent: small-cast, not-quite-so-small-budget horror – significant popular and critical success. Doomsday: big-cast, big-budget SF horror – bit of a cock-up. So it’s fair to say Centurion was a movie with a lot riding on it in terms of the director’s reputation and future prospects. It may therefore be telling that Marshall chose to make a film which didn’t go mad splicing different genres together, was stuffed with the cream of British acting talent, and – perhaps most crucially – only cost about two thirds of what the previous movie did (our old friends at the UK Film Council were involved in the financing, too).

Set in Britain in 117AD, this is the story of gladiator’s son turned Roman centurion Quintus Dias (homme du jour Michael Fassbender), serving on the hazardous northern frontier of the Empire. The story is… hmm, there’s quite a lot of business in this film before we get to the actual story, most of it insanely macho and violent, so I suppose it counts as establishing the tone for the rest of the movie. Basically, Quintus gets captured by the local Pict tribe, escapes, and meets up with a Roman legion commanded by Dominic West, who’s been sent by the Governor to kill the Pict king. West is being assisted by Olga Kurylenko, who’s playing a native huntress (Kurylenko’s character is mute, partly as a character point, but also – I suspect – to avoid awkward questions about her Russian accent). However things do not go to plan when the legion is lured into a trap and massacred, with the general being captured. Left in command of a tiny group of survivors, Quintus is faced with a stark choice – should he lead the men towards safety – something far from assured, with the Picts still hunting them – or attempt to rescue the general from the clutches of the barbaric Celts?

Well, no prizes for guessing which he plumps for. My expert and informed reading of this film – well, the credits, anyway – leads to me to infer that this is, in fact, a homage to The Warriors, a 1979 movie about gang warfare in New York City, which was in turn based on a story from Xenophon (whatever props Centurion earns for crediting its inspirations are instantly lost when it spells Xenophon’s name wrong). However, the obvious plot similarities – small band of brothers have to battle their way home from deep within enemy territory – are sort of obscured by the fact that in many superficial ways Centurion much more closely resembles The Eagle from 2011.

The parallels with The Eagle are almost – ha, ha, you’ll like this one – eyrie. Not only do the films share a very similar setting and tone, but they’re based on the same historical event – the apparent annihilation of the Ninth Legion somewhere in Scotland in the early second century. You could even view The Eagle as an unofficial sequel to this film, as they don’t substantially contradict each other. Even beyond this, the structure and style of the films are very similar – although Centurion is a bit less soggy and authentic, for good or ill.

However, where The Eagle is thoughtful and does its best to be atmospheric, Centurion is a much more straightforward action movie. There’s a bit near the beginning which seems to be implicitly comparing the Roman presence in Britain with the present-day British presence in Afghanistan, but the film doesn’t pursue this in any meaningful way. Instead we get lots of Lord of the Rings-inflected helicopter shots of figures in a rugged landscape, and the odd bit pinched from elsewhere (believe it or not, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a notable donor).

But mostly what you get is violence. Lots and lots of it. On the strength of this film I get the impression that Neil Marshall can’t walk past a throat without slitting it or sticking an axe in it (note to libel lawyers reading this: I mean in a creative context). I thought Doomsday had some heavy violence in it, but this is possibly even stronger stuff. In the opening ten minutes you get a gory massacre, someone’s arm being skewered to a table with a knife, a bar brawl, and a prisoner being carved up by his captors. And it doesn’t really let up for most of the rest of the film – there’s a battle scene at one point which feels like it consists of dozens of quick shots of people being impaled on spears, shot in the eye with burning arrows, having their heads smashed with axes, chopped to bits by swords, etc, etc. I had thought that exposure to the collected works of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, the Hammer guys, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez had left me almost completely desensitized to this sort of thing – but no, there were a few bits in this film which made me go ‘Ooh,’ and grimace.

Now I’m not saying this in itself makes Centurion a bad film. But at the end I came away with the impression that there’s not much else to it except the violence: the story is so basic – dare I say it, perfunctory – that nothing else really lingers in the memory. This is a real shame as there is some top acting talent in this film. Fassbender is, of course, probably too classy an act to really be in this kind of film, but does his best regardless. Also appearing are the likes of David Morrissey, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke and Riz Ahmed, but those that make an impression do so by sheer force of charisma rather than as a result of the parts they have to play. Imogen Poots pops up as the love interest, and is as charming as usual, but once again she gets little to work with and the story demands she appears too late to really make an impact.

Centurion seems to have been an attempt at a serious historical action movie with an appropriately dour tone – indeed, at one point it looks as if the ending to this movie is going to be as dark as that of The Descent. It looks good and the actors are talented, but the problem is that the script can’t find anything really interesting for anyone to do for long stretches at a time, and the relentless gore makes this look like much more of an exploitation movie than is probably the case. I missed the SF and fantasy elements of Marshall’s other movies, too: isn’t there room in the world for a Roman soldiers vs. zombies film?

Oh well. Centurion is probably a better and more coherent film than Doomsday, but at the same time not quite as interesting. No word yet as to what Marshall’s next project is going to be, but the list of ‘planned films’ in his Wikipedia entry suggests he will not be going too far out of his comfort zone (suppliers of Kensington Gore up and down the land rejoice). The jury is still surely out as to whether The Descent was the one really great film Neil Marshall had in him: I hope not.

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It was with some dismay that I learned of the plans to disband the collective of film-makers who operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (it surely being impossible for any single individual to direct so many films as diverse and accomplished as the ones with Soderbergh’s name on them). More than in most cases, the presence of the Soderbergh name on a production is as close to a guarantee of quality as one can realistically expect, regardless of the tone or subject matter involved. The new Soderbergh movie, Haywire, continues this tradition – although, having effortlessly reinvented genres as disparate as the caper movie (Ocean’s Eleven), the true-life drama (Erin Brockovitch), the arty SF movie (Solaris), and the all-star disaster movie (Contagion), the Soderberghs have now effectively invented a unique genre of their own: the pro-celebrity cage-fighting movie.

Gina Carano (a former mixed martial arts fighter, ex-American Gladiator, and pretty much the textbook definition of a strapping lass) plays Mallory, a delicate young flower of womanhood who we first meet going into a diner in upstate New York. Here she meets Aaron (Channing Tatum), a young man of her acquaintance. After Aaron is ungallant enough to smash a cup of coffee over her head and pull a gun on her, Mallory wastes no time in beating him half to death and leaving in the car of another patron, to whom she explains The Story So Far.

Mallory is, of course, an ex-marine specialising in high-risk covert operations – a mercenary, on the books of Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), her ex-lover. After returning from a mission in Barcelona, and on the verge of quitting the company, Kenneth persuades Mallory to take on – oh ho ho! – one last job. She is to masquerade as the wife of MI6 agent Paul (Michael Fassbender) while he investigates a dubious chap in Dublin. However, it becomes apparent that Mallory has been told a pack of lies, and somebody wants her dead…

When I first saw the trailer for Haywire – tough but comely female lead, heavy action and martial arts content, dubiously twisty-looking plot, lashings of style – my reaction was ‘Crikey, Luc Besson’s really rushed his new movie out,’ so similar to the likes of Nikita, Leon, and Colombiana did it appear. The appearance of Steven Soderbergh’s name at the end rather discombobulated me. But why shouldn’t Soderbergh give us his take on an action movie? He’s done practically everything else.

And yet, there’s a sense in which the highest compliment I can pay Haywire is that it’s exactly like a Besson movie, stylish and exciting, but stripped of all the usual excess and with a startling infusion of taste and restraint added to the mix. Not to mention a very distinguished cast – in addition to McGregor, Tatum, and Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton also show up and do their usual reliable work.

One gets the sense that this gallimaufrey of talent may have been recruited to make up for a perceived weakness in Carano as a leading lady. Given that she was allegedly recruited after one of the Soderberghs saw her fighting on TV, this would not come as a surprise – I’m reminded of the bet one Hollywood producer made his golf partner that he could make the world’s least likely person a major star, with the result being the career of Steven Seagal – but to be fair to her Gina Carano acquits herself perfectly acceptably.

That said, the script is carefully written so that Carano has the minimum to do acting-wise – Mallory’s not the most demonstrative of individuals – and gets the maximum chance to let rip in the action sequences. Just running down the street Carano looks unstoppable, but in the fight scenes she is simply astounding. Haywire almost completely avoids the martial arts movie cliches – hero takes on twelve people in a garage, hero fights giant, hero fights lead henchman – in favour of a series of one-on-one fights between its lead and proper Hollywood A-listers. In terms of realistic action, these are exemplary in every way: the sequence in which Carano and Fassbender kick the living crap out of each other at some length in a Dublin hotel room is one of the most visceral, exciting movie fights I’ve ever seen.

I suppose one could make the criticism that Mallory Kane falls victim to the usual problem afflicting action heroines, in that her characterisation doesn’t extend much beyond ‘man with breasts’ in any positive sense. Certainly, working with a less talented director, Carano as a screen presence could become as clunky a cipher as Van Damme or Seagal, which may be an issue if her career has any longevity.

To be honest the film does a good job of walking the tightrope between working on a cinematic level and simply staying realistic. One friend of mine didn’t like it, saying it was boring, for this reason. And the action is a little thinner on the ground than in some movies of this ilk. You really have to stay with the plot and trust that everything will be explained come the end, which it is – but on the other hand, just when most action movies would start building to a riotously implausible climax, Haywire resolves its story in a much simpler and unexpectedly low-key (but still satisfying) way.

This really didn’t bother me – Haywire is an immaculately made and pleasingly bare-boned action movie. It’s the kind of thing Soderbergh knocks out on a lazy afternoon, managing to surpass genre specialists in the process. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although this was largely due to the Gina Carano-beats-up-famous-actors schtick. My literary advisor and I thought this was a brilliant idea and within five minutes of leaving the theatre had drawn up our own list of people we wanted to see her pound into the earth in the sequel: Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Orlando Bloom, Ryan Reynolds… There’s a lot of potential here. Notable careers have been built on considerably less, and I’ll be very interested to see if Gina Carano can live up to the promise she shows so devastatingly here.

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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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