X-Men:Apocalypse (2016), a Review

X-Men.jpg

Director – Bryan Singer

Writer – Simon Kinberg

Starring – James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac

It’s important to remember, in this new era of superhero franchises dominating the cinematic landscape, the franchise that seemingly started the new resurgence. Whilst we had Batman and Superman movies before, the X-Men franchise, alongside Sam Raimi’s Spiderman Trilogy, can be credited as the films marked the beginning of the ‘Superhero Era’. After The Last Stand failed miserably both commercially and critically, it seemed like the franchise had run out of steam, ergo it was to most people’s surprise when Singer returned to form with X-Men:First Class, and followed it up with the equally successful Days of Future Past. It was stated that Apocalypse would be the culmination of this interesting renaissance. Unfortunately, this feels more like The Last Stand Take Two, and is a horrific misfire.

En Sabah Nuh, a powerful mutant believed to be the first of his kind, rules ancient Egypt until he is betrayed by his worshippers, who entomb him alive. Awakening in 1983, after accidental interference from a CGI agent, he believes humanity has lost its way without his presence. Aiming to destroy the world and remake it, he recruits a Cairo pickpocket , who can control weather, and enhances her power. Eventually, he also picks up a Magneto who just lost his family, as well as two other mutants, before embarking on his attempt to reshape the planet. Of course, as per usual, it’s up to Xavier’s band of merry mutants to shut him down.

Apocalypse should have been, considering the quality of the two predecessors, a good movie. It should have followed the trend of quality, creating an upwards curve. Sadly, it absolutely nosedives said curve, and is, for a lack of a better term, extraordinarily silly, even by superhero standards.

This begins with a very rushed screenplay that absolutely tears through exposition in a desperate attempt to bring the audience up to speed with a film that, despite being two films in the making, had absolutely no build up, other than a post-credits sequence in Days Of Future Past, which hurriedly introduced the character of Apocalypse, and expected us to buy him as the ultimate threat, despite having seen him previously for approximately five seconds. When you label a character by name ‘Apocalypse’, he better be a terrifying force of nature. What we get is Oscar Isaac in terrible pantomime make-up, somehow looking worse than Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of Mr.Freeze in the terrible Batman and Robin.

He looks less like said force of nature, and more like a gimp, starring in an Egyptian based porno knockoff. In fact, you could make a solid argument that he resembles what you imagine Apocalypse would look like in an X-Men porno parody. It doesn’t help matters that his ‘birth’ that opens the movie looks like it was ripped out of an 80’s Z-Movie. Z-Movie, for those unfamiliar with the term, are films so God-awful they don’t even qualify for the term B-movie, which really, as a reference point, should tell you everything you need to know.

The problem is that, even with the awful dialogue and cheap, cheesy effects, Singer doesn’t play up to this. Rather than roll with it, and give us a self-aware movie, Singer insists on playing it straight, which sadly sets the tone for the rest of the film’s shenanigan.

That’s how the rest of the film goes. Silliness passed off as serious situations with serious stakes, even though the audience stop caring long before. It’s mundane, monotonous, by-the-numbers and redundant, which is a huge shame considering just how good Days of Future Past was. It’s like Singer was building the whole franchise just to hit this point, and then monumentally fucked it.

This isn’t helped by some unarguably awful CGI. I’ve said it before, a hundred times, and I’ll say it again: Any film with a budget over $100 million needs to nail the effects. With that much money, there is absolutely no excuse for atrocious visuals as it drags the viewer from the movie, and makes it impossible to care about. The Hobbit Trilogy suffered heavily from this issue, and, considering the over-saturation of computer generated effects in today’s cinema, it’s a problem that will linger for some time yet. Thankfully, most high-budget productions at least attempt to seamlessly blend the effects. Apocalypse doesn’t, not in the slightest.

It doesn’t help that the narrative itself is threadbare, and the stakes are artificially raised in an attempt to heighten drama, but in reality, the rushed nature of events means that this film exists within a drama vacuum. You just sort of passively observe effects without ever really giving a shit. I call it ‘The Transformers effect’, for reasons that should really be blindingly obvious. In a nutshell, Apocalypse wants mutant domination, and to destroy man’s world. The X-Men aren’t on board with this, and Magneto remains somewhere lost in the middle. It’s stuff we’ve all seen before with different villains.

That’s the major issue, I think. In the comic book universe, Apocalypse was, apart from perhaps Galactus, THE definitive X-Men villain. The one they genuinely feared. Here, he’s relegated to the role of ‘villain of the week’, and is – SPOILER ALERT – conclusively dealt with by the time the credits role. Apocalypse? More like a shitty day. Hell, his plan doesn’t even make sense, really, when you think about it. You’re never entirely sure what he’s trying to do, as if Singer/Kinberg themselves weren’t sure.

There are also some straight up stupid moments; a good example being that Magneto’s entire motivation for joining Apocalypse is that the only family he ever had were brutally murdered by men, causing him to hate them once more. Understandable. Now, Quicksilver, who plays a pivotal part in events, is Magneto’s son. He has the opportunity to tell him, which I imagine would stop him in his tracks, considering it’s a loss of family that sent him down this particular path of vengeance. Instead, for reasons known only to him, he decides not to. It makes, quite literally, zero sense. Even more so when Magneto changes sides anyhow with nothing more than a few words from Mystique, when the ‘I’m your son’ plot thread would have achieved the same outcome, but not hurt one’s brain quite as much.

The saddest fact is that a lot of the acting performances are solid, if unspectacular, and it really is a shame to see so much talent wasted. Now, I firmly believe Jennifer Lawrence to be over-rated, and here she highlights this by half-assing the entire thing. But, Jen-Law aside, everybody else tries against hope to get something good out of this material, which is arguably more tragic than them not bothering at all. Isaac, in his urge to save his role, ends up hamming things up to incredible levels of scenery-chewing, but it’s not enough to breath life into a dead script.

McAvoy and Fassbender do however give good accounts for themselves, primarily because the two actors are so talented it would be hard for them not to. Fassbender in particular manages to turn chicken shit into chicken salad, and puts in the best performance he can with what he has to work with. He is, truly, a mercurial talent, deserved of all the praise he gets.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Wolverine cameo is the most obvious fan-bait you’ll ever see in a film, as the entire segment is completely pointless. Removed, it wouldn’t affect the film in the slightest. It is the most obviously cynical use of the gratuitous cameo I’ve ever seen in my life. It actually disgusted me, as it took us away from the film just as it finally became interesting, and then when we return to action, we’re firmly back to not giving a fuck.

Now, the film isn’t a complete trainwreck, and there are some good points. As alluded to, Fassbender is great. His Magneto is, by far, the most complete and complex character in the franchise. The Quicksilver sequence, while less impressive than Days of Future Past, is still very good, but perhaps could have done with less horrible CGI. I did like the fact he couldn’t save Havok though, as it finally presents at least some minor weakness in his character. He’s super fast, but sometimes, not quite fast enough, an interesting caveat about his character that makes him significantly more relatable. Also, young Jean and young Cyclops aren’t terrible, and watching them develop would be interesting if we ever get a sequel, which in all honesty, should be up in the air right now.

In a nuthshell, a terrifically flat ending to a franchise that just seemed to finally be finding it’s feet again. It derails the good work done in the two predecessors, and sets the franchise back to where it was around 2003. The CGI is atrocious, the narrative is nonsense, and the whole thing stinks of a missed opportunity. Ironically, it seems Apocalypse will achieve his plan of ending the world…..it just might be that the world he ended was the franchise in which he existed.

 

Final Rating – 2.9/5

 

Joshua A. Moulinie

 

The Handmaiden (2016), a Review

The Handmaiden.jpg

Director – Park Chan-Wook

Written by – Park Chan-Wook, Chung Seo-kyung

Starring  – Kim Min-Hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo

Throughout the course of cinematic history, there have been several movements that innovated and changed the dynamics of cinematc conventions forever. From the groundbreaking French New-Wave of the late 1950’s, to the rulebook tearing of the Danish Dogme movement of the mid-90’s. I think we can say now, with the gift of certainty and hindsight, that the Korean New-Wave movement of the noughties can be added to that illustrious list.

Of this new breed of incredible filmmakers hailing from the Far-East, inarguably the most critically lauded and respected is Park Chan-Wook. Primarily known for his masterpiece Oldboy, as well as the beautiful I’m a Cyborg…but That’s OK, and his English-language debut, during which nothing was lost in translation, Stoker. Here, he returns to his native Korea for his latest endeavour, and, yet again produces an incredible piece of cinema.

Korea, 1930s. Con man Count Fujiwara hires a pickpocket named Sook-hee to become the maid of the mysterious and fragile heiress Lady Hideko, in an attempt to seize her wealth. But the story takes a twist when the lady falls in love with her maid. Cue several plot twists and an unpredictable tale of jealousy, manipulation and delusion unfolds.

It must be prefaced before I continue with the statement that The Handmaiden, like all of Chan-Wook’s works, transcends the medium of cinema, and becomes a work of true art. This is less entertainment, more visual poetry, as every single frame is immaculately composed, and not a single frame could be bettered. Chan-Wook almost always works with the same director of photography, Chung-Chung-hoon, and, while one by now knows exactly what to expect, it still amazes one every single time. It is, at times, mesmeric in the sheer beauty, and nobody in cinema can make a tree look as beautiful.

East-Asian cinema is usually beautiful in terms of depicting nature, yet,  Chan-Wook and Chung-Chung take it to the next level, making even the most simple shot look absolutely delicious to the eye. It is truly a visual feast, and instantly elevates the film beyond most contemporaries before one discusses narrative, characters or dialogue.

Of course, if those aforementioned elements didn’t match up, we’d be left with a beautiful yet pointless endeavour. Fortunately, they do, and the results are a joyous triumph. The narrative is at first glance very, very simplistic, your classic honeytrap, designed to rob a naive heiress of her inherited fortune. The only difference here, of course, is that the honeytrap was never intended to be sexual, yet quickly heads down the alley, and what unfolds can best be described as an homoerotic psychological thriller.

However, what appears to be a pretty basic set-up, has the rug dramatically pulled out from under it’s feet around the half-way mark, as everything we thought we knew about the story is tipped upside down. After this, we’re then treated to a lot of what we’d already seen, but from a different perspective, and what is traditionally quite a difficult writing task to accomplish, Chan-Wook pulls it off with consumate ease.

This twisting and turning narrative and the multiple aspects idea draws strong comparisons with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. We, the audience, are forced to re-evaluate everything we’d seen before and are, literally, forced to see things from a different perspective. What seems like a con, almost becomes a tragedy, and the film heads down a very dark path of deception and manipulation. It’s a tangled-web of dishonesty, but out of this deceptive darkness shines a bright beacon of hope; genuine emotional love. It’s clear the two leads, despite their ulterior motives, fall for one another in a sincere manner despite their reservations.

Seeing two characters who, having began trying both to manipulate the other, despite all of this, eventually falling into genuine love, will, I assure you, melt even the iciest of hearts. This is, primarily, down to the fantastic writing that steers away from any potential cheese, and also down to the absolutely electric chemistry between the two leads, Min-Hee, and Tae-Ri. Their affections, even down to the minutest body movement, are utterly convincing. What I particularly loved about the writing, was that neither character ever, at any point, explicitly stated they were homosexual. In fact, it was almost as if neither character knew, and only discovered it via their attraction to one another. It’s the most beautiful depiction of spontaneous romance I’ve seen since, funnily enough, Chan-Wook’s own  I’m a Cyborg…but That’s OK.

Because of the nature of the twisting and deceptive narrative, and the fact that both are effectively playing con-women and victim simultaneously, Tae-Ri and Min-Hee have a chance to show a very layered and complex performance, playing both hunter and prey. While the chemistry between the two as mentioned is electric, the individual performances are equally so. One fascinating note about East-Asian cinema, is the convincing nature of the subtle, yet powerful, line-delivery. At times, they often whisper, but in a hypnotic manner that causes you to keep constant attention.

Something that certainly keeps attention is the elongated yet powerful sex scenes. They are, for a lack of a better word, borderline pornographic, extremely explicit and yet never tasteless. The Handmaiden is everything Fifty Shades of Grey Wished it could be, without ever even trying to be, as we have a grand total of two full on sex sequences in the film, but both are incredibly powerful, stimulating and convincing. They will almost certainly turn you on, but the actresses never feel exploited. In fact, this is arguably a celebration of female sexual independence, and for that it should be commended.

If I have any tiny gripes, it’s that this is, while still good, probably the weakest score of a Chan-Wook movie yet. It’s still extremely good, but never quite reaches the heights of Oldboy or Stoker, two of his finest. The film will also potentially alienate the less mature, who may giggle at the sex scenes. Other than that, there’s nothing I would change.

Once again, the iconic Chan-Wook has laid down his marker as, arguably, the finest filmmaker of the contemporary age. Breathtaking in its visual execution, this visual poetry is a work of true indisputable art. In a landscape of tentpole Blockbusters and reboots, we need works like this, as they remind us of what film can be when it’s not interested in figures and spreadsheets, but rather in moving us. It also manages to be, in my humble opinion, a feminist’s dream; as it explores sexuality via the female eye, as men are cast in a less than desirable light, yet, sadly, a light that is all too accurate. This is a film that we need to see, to remind us of what true cinema should be. Chan-Wook continues to chisel his face into cinema’s mount-rushmore, one masterwork at a time.

 

Final Rating – 5

 

Joshua Moulinie

 

Pandaemonium (2000), a Retrospective Review

pandaemonium

Director – Julien Temple

Writer – Frank Cottrell Boyce

Starring – Linus Roache, John Hannah

A friend and I were recently discussing the power of art: its ability to expand the mind, and widen the purviews of one’s imagination. He was lamenting the current passive approach to art – that a person can watch a film, be entertained by it, and then dully walk away from it without it leaving any real effects upon their person.

My response to this observation was to say that we get out of art what we put into it. When confronted with any work of art – whether it be a film, a poem, a book, or a painting – we can either espy it in bland disengagement – or we can see that work for what it is: a portal into another world.

The question then is – are you brave enough throw yourself through that portal?

Or will you just look through its window, passively, for a few moments . . . then dawdle off to do something else?

This little introductory discourse is all by way of illustrating why I loved Julien Temple’s Pandaemonium so much. I am a poet, and so the opportunity of watching the lives of two of Britain’s greatest poets, simply could not be missed.

The film episodically traces the volatile friendship of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, predominantly whilst they were working on the collaborative book that made them famous – the Lyrical Ballads. For those of you who are not familiar with these men, Coleridge was the genius who penned ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner;’ whilst Wordsworth is best known for his two epic poems ‘The Excursion’ and ‘The Prelude,’ and his ‘lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.’

They were completely different poets – Coleridge dark, gothic, fantastical, strange – Wordsworth, a sombre and nature-loving transcendentalist.

Temple and the actors portray this divergency – and rivalry – beautifully.

Linus Roache as Coleridge is the undeniable hero of the film: with absolute conviction and commitment, he depicts Coleridge as an incredibly charismatic, yet tormented character – a man whose passion and vision has the power to both uplift and upset those around him. However, as the film progresses, and the genius poet becomes more dependent upon laudanum and opium for his poetic inspiration, he is tortured by the difficulty of living in two worlds – the corruption of reality – and the nightmarish brilliance of his fevered imagination.

In contrast, is John Hannah as William Wordsworth, who readily dramatizes all that I have read about the man – dour, taciturn; an egoist, who, in one critic’s words ‘was unwilling to tolerate any genius but his own.’ Initially his friend, the director gradually transforms him into the film’s extreme antagonist as he manipulates the psychologically vulnerable Coleridge, and tries his best to quash the genius he so fears will outshine his own.

But, as these poets would have been nothing without the women who inspired them, so the film would have been nothing without the actresses who portray them. The film is lit up and electrified by the astonishing Emily Woof, who portrays Dorothy Wordsworth – (William’s Sister) – with such vibrancy and vivacity, I struggle to understand how she isn’t one of the most vaunted actresses of our age.

The romance of words and poetry that exists between Coleridge and Dorothy is one of the most agonizingly inspirited I’ve ever seen. The frisson and passion between them when they’re onscreen together is almost unbearable – the romantic tension vamped all the more by the knowledge that this great dalliance of geniuses could never be consummated. Samantha Morton, as ever, does a great performance as Coleridge’s wife – but no one can compete with the chemistry and tragedy of these two powerful leads, who hiss and ferment like an alchemical collision of worlds in an alembical torrent of fate.

Because the film is of famous men who lived strange and dangerous lives, the episodic narrative heightens the drama of the film – it means there is never a dull moment. There is so much variety of emotion and urgency packed into every scene that is almost kills you, and it would take a book to praise and extol them all.

And the script! Ah the script! How delightful to hear a script that flows naturally with the cadence and inspiritorial brio of the poets who are to speak it! Dorothy and Coleridge both get the best passages to speak; and, needless to say, plenty of poems are recited and referenced, which can’t help but light a fire in the heart and minds of those that love them.

And I do love them. I was completely in the thrall of this movie, bent forward on the sofa, almost crippled, emotionally and physically, by its brilliance – crying tears of sadness and empathy that I don’t think will ever leave me.

And this is what I mean about putting yourself in a film. As I watch the dramatized lives of my poetic ancestors, they live on and are reborn within me. Their blood beats around my veins with a ferocity, so present, its collapses all the illusory walls that keep us from the past, revivifying them with a pulse and breath that pants here and now.

Will somebody who loves these men and women as I do, love this film as well?

I don’t know.

All I can say is: have the bravery to put yourself completely into a film, and you might find your spirit changed.

 

Final Rating – 5/5

Reuben F. Tourettes