‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

X-Men: Apocalypse

IF YOU WOULD LIKE further proof that the incessant adaptation to film of tired comic book franchises has gone a tad too far, sit through the latest offering in Bryan Singer’s X-Men series.

It’s bigger, it’s bolder, it’s badder. It’s even called Apocalypse, for goodness’ sake. And, most of all, it’s really boring.

If you have forgotten the events of the second instalment in the prequel trilogy, Days of Future Past, I do not blame you. After all, it was instantly forgettable. Apocalypse begins in Ancient Egypt, where we are informed via voiceover by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) that the first mutants were revered as deities. Then, just in case you weren’t paying attention, we see the familiar figures of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon inside a pyramid, standing around a supine figure on a stone slab. The figure is En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), who is betrayed by his treacherous followers and enters a thousand-year-long sleep before being woken up in the modern day by a group of cultish idiots, at which point he promptly tries his very best to end the world.

Mercifully, Apocalypse saves us the tedious origin stories, instead introducing most of the major characters––Cyclops, Angel, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler among them––neatly in a five-minute, globe-trotting whip-around. There are familiar faces, too, notably Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who now has a young family and is living a happy, humble life in Poland. No prizes for guessing how that turns out for him.

Somehow, nobody in a modern Egyptian medina notices our eponymous villain, who looks like a Pleistocene Senator Palpatine moonlighting as backup for the Blue Man Group, as he taps up a mohawk-sporting Storm, who is using her weather-control superpower––badly––to steal from the vendors. Apocalypse subsequently goes on a recruitment drive, winning over young mutants by levelling up their existing powers and kitting them out in fetish gear.

It was about midway through, at the time that Pleistocene Palpatine begins making a fire-and-brimstone speech about humanity’s various shortcomings, that I started to wish for an actual apocalypse, and even a scene involving flying missiles and the sound of Beethoven’s glorious seventh symphony failed to capture my interest, let alone imbue the film with the drama it desperately needed.

For reasons I haven’t quite determined, Apocalypse is jam-packed with references to the original trilogy and to the pop culture of the Eighties period in which the film is set. Nightcrawler, who looks to be returning from a Bullet For My Valentine gig, wears Michael Jackson’s iconic red Thriller jacket on a trip to the mall suggested by Scott Summers, who channels Ferris Bueller in his thick quartz sunglasses. The film also alludes, rather heavy-handedly, to modern-day issues such as mass surveillance, hacking and nuclear proliferation. The CIA, Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) notes, would kill to get their hands on Charles Xavier’s mass-mind-reading machine, Cerebro. Listen carefully, and you can almost hear Edward Snowden bashing his head against the wall of his shack in the Russian wilderness.

Nevertheless, Apocalypse does have its moments. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steals the show for the second X-Men film on the trot––in one scene, he zips around at supersonic speed to the dulcet synth-pop tones of Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. There’s humour, too, which comes courtesy of James McAvoy’s hirsute young Xavier, still a welcome departure from Patrick Stewart’s kindly old Professor X. of the original trilogy, and one of the best things about the film. It is no spoiler to say that everyone’s favourite wisecracking Canadian mutant shows up to dish out a little violence. It isn’t quite on the level of his killing spree during the raid on the school in X2, but it is, nevertheless, one of the best action sequences of the film.

The great strength of the X-Men comics has always been to render concepts such as prejudice, racism, segregation and alienation understandable and relatable to young audiences (“everyone fears that which they do not understand,” Xavier tells Jean Grey) but Apocalypse devolves very early on into your camp, garden-variety, spandex-and-explosions superhero tedium, totally devoid of subtlety or self-awareness and overly preoccupied with blunt references to pop culture and the issues du jour. It’s a joyless struggle that makes a mid-season episode of Stargate look like high cinema and lets down a very strong cast of actors with a stilted, humourless script. Die-hard fans of the X-Men may well enjoy the film, but for the casual movie fan, I say save your shekels and your time.

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‘Captain America: Civil War’

'Captain America: Civil War'

I’M SURE YOU, like me, are beginning to feel as if a new comic-book film is released every week, and I’m sure you, like me, wouldn’t necessarily consider this is a problem if any of them were any good. I admit that I was briefly delivered of my cynicism towards superhero films by the bloody and brilliant Logan, which seemed to raise a middle, adamantium-augmented finger at all the lazily conceived and poorly executed Marvel and DC offerings that have choked up cinemas for longer than a decade. But the operative word in that sentence is briefly, because soon afterwards I sat through Captain America: Civil War.

The story begins in Russia, where, of course, it’s snowing. It’s 1991, and a government agent is reading a string of apparently unconnected words and phrases to the Winter Soldier, the brainwashed assassin of the second Captain America film. The Winter Soldier struggles against his shackles as his captor reads these random words with ever-greater assurity and intensity, and at the mention of one phrase, there’s a sudden change in the Winter Soldier’s bearing, and he breaks free of his chains. In Lagos, and in the modern day, the poundshop Avengers––Captain America (Chris Evans), Captain America’s unimpressive pseudo-superhero friend Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new arrival Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)––are on a mission that ostensibly ends successfully, only with disastrous consequences for the local populace.

In a mildly interesting role-reversal, it’s arch-libertarian Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) who supports the Sovokia Accords and the loyal and straight-laced Captain America who decides to defy the wishes of his government and refuse; the others pick sides until both teams are, by some strange coincidence, broadly equal.

This palaver, and the countless other missions that have ended with most of the locals dead and half the buildings destroyed, prompts the U.S. Secretary of State (William Hurt) to urge the Avengers to sign the Sokovia Accords, which will give the United Nations jurisdiction over their future activities. In a mildly interesting role-reversal, it’s arch-libertarian Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) who supports this move and the loyal and straight-laced Captain America who decides to defy the wishes of his government and refuse; the others pick sides until both teams are, by some strange coincidence, broadly equal. And while the Avengers bicker, a new villain (Daniel Bruhl) tries to track down the villain of the preamble for reasons of which we’re not yet certain.

To begin with, it’s amusing that the Avengers have only now realised that tearing apart the world’s cities tends to cause problems for people other than the villain du jour, and it’s surprising that after the awful Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Civil War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely didn’t think it necessary to come up with a different premise for having their heroes turn on each other. But putting the plot to one side for the moment––and the first hour of the film is almost in its entirety devoted to plot building––Civil War is one of the better Marvel films of recent years. The action sequences are creative and shot well, if frenetically. In the first sequence, in Lagos, for example, cinematographer Trent Opaloch (District 9, Elysium) seamlessly switches focus from character to character within the same, extended shot; in that and other fight scenes directors Joe and Anthony Russo take down the frame rate so that the action has the sort of crazy, chaotic quality that made Mad Max so thrilling. There’s a fight sequence on a staircase that calls to mind both Daniel Craig’s stairwell scrap at the Montenegro hotel in Casino Royale and David Belle’s electrifying escape from the tower block in Banlieu 13, and despite some unnecessary camera gimmickry the chase which ends with the unveiling of the Black Panther is good.

Captain America himself is still a dull character despite the efforts and charisma of Chris Evans, and fringe-characters such as War Machine, Falcon and Hawkeye are better left on the fringes. The addition of Black Panther to the lineup is a welcome one, however, and there are a couple of other cameos––to say who, exactly, would be to spoil the fun––which are gladly received.

When it comes to action Black Widow is still the most watchable Avenger: in her first fight sequence she dispatches half a dozen mooks with her fists and feet, uses another as a human shield to save herself from a hand grenade and then free-runs through a busy market. And always in a film that markets itself as a Captain America but is very much another Avengers instalment the giant presences of the Hulk and Thor are conspicuously missing. Captain America himself is still a dull character despite the efforts and charisma of Chris Evans, and fringe-characters such as War Machine, Falcon and Hawkeye are better left on the fringes. The addition of Black Panther to the lineup is a welcome one, however, and there are a couple of other cameos––to say who, exactly, would be to spoil the fun––which are gladly received.

Civil War isn’t a terrible film, then, but it isn’t a good one either, and it isn’t in any way original: at any point in the film you feel you could be watching an Iron Man or an Avengers or a Captain America instalment, because these sorts of films are too often formulaic and always far too long.

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‘The Jungle Book’

Review: 'The Jungle Book'

THERE ARE MANY people, myself included, for whom watching the classic Disney films––The Lion King, Bambi, and the original, animated The Jungle Book––represents some of the fondest memories of their childhood, which makes any attempt to do them over rather difficult, and sure to get a few people worked into a lather. First there’s the belief that some things are fine just as they are, but there is also a long list of remade or rebooted classics––Get Carter, Psycho, The Karate Kid––that failed to come anywhere close to the original in terms of quality. The Jungle Book has certain advantages: for instance, the huge technological developments that allow Bagheera, Baloo and the other inhabitants of the jungle to seem real in a way they never could be before.

Thanks to the enduring appeal of Rudyard Kipling’s collection and the continued popularity of the 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book, the story is familiar. A feral child, the ‘man-cub’ Mowgli, is raised in the Indian jungle in relative peace by a pack of wolves and with the occasional guidance of the wise panther Bagheera, until the return of the evil Bengal tiger Shere Khan threatens not only his safety, but the safety of all the creatures in the jungle.

The jungle is a real banquet for the eyes, and if you suspected that once you see the animals close-up and talking the illusion might be shattered, you’re dead-wrong.

You get the impression from the opening scene that the ability to combine live-action with CGI was made for films like these. Mowgli, impressively portrayed by the young Neel Sethi, runs with his pack of wolves through the jungle with barely even the slightest indication that most of what you see what created on a computer. The jungle is a real banquet for the eyes, and if you suspected that once you see the animals close-up and talking the illusion might be shattered, you’re dead-wrong.

The film has undoubted visual style, then, but it is palpably lacking in substance. The overwhelming impression you get of the film once it finishes is of Neel Sethi––who is excellent, by the way––charging through the jungle doing a sort of parkour. Most of the animal characters that are so lively and vivid in the books and the ’67 film never really appear to be more than cameos or extras because their scenes are so rushed. Scarlett Johansson and the character she voices, the hypnotic snake Kaa, is criminally underused after an excellent introduction. Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley), who also narrates the film, is convincing enough, but comedy takes the place of character development for the much-loved Baloo, played by Bill Murray. One of the best sequences of the film comes when Mowgli encounters King Louie––voiced with clear relish by Christopher Walken––and his small army of monkeys and apes, but ends frustratingly fast.

The biggest shame in The Jungle Book comes in the form of Shere Khan. What made Shere Khan so sinister in the ’67 version was his elegance and charm, conveyed so beautifully and so effectively through the animation and the cut-glass tones of George Sanders. (It is not a surprise, incidentally, that half a century later, Google’s first suggestion if you type ‘Shere Khan’ is ‘Shere Khan voice’.) In fact, Favreau and Marks’s take on Shere Khan is so overtly ‘bad’ that he becomes just another thuggish movie villain lacking any nuance or complexity and, therefore, any real menace. He only truly seems threatening when he’s telling stories to the young wolf clubs, and even then, it’s only due to a type of appeal to adult fear that has been done many, many times––and so much more menacingly––before. (Watch, for instance, the scene in Gladiator when Commodus tells a very similar story to Lucius while his mother, Lucilla, watches.)

Favreau and Marks’s take on Shere Khan is so overtly ‘bad’ that he becomes just another thuggish movie villain lacking any nuance or complexity and, therefore, any real menace.

Then there’s the music, which was such a key part of the ’67 film. Only two songs from the original appear, and both are wedged awkwardly and cynically into the film like crowd-pleasers. Both are sung badly.

Favreau, who also voices the the pygmy pig Fred, said he wished to strike a balance between the ’67 film that he himself used to watch and the underwhelming ’94 film, which had nothing in common with Kipling’s book anyway. The result is a film that, though visually breathtaking, occasionally funny and featuring an excellent acting performance at its centre, has neither the charm and joie-de-vivre of the animated classic nor the threat of the ’94 film or of Rudyard Kipling’s original tale. It’s worth seeing The Jungle Book just for the visuals, but it isn’t nearly as good Wolfgang Reitherman’s classic.

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‘Midnight Special’

'Midnight Special'

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL IS an unsettling film. It isn’t that something specifically unsettling is happening––much of the film takes place in various cars––it’s more that while watching the film you feel a constant sense of unease, as though something bad is about to happen. The opening shot of the film is of a piece of duct tape laid across a hole in the wall. It calls to mind things unknown or covered up or otherwise hidden from view, and it’s the uncertainty that those things bring about that pervades the film.

Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are on the run. It’s what they have with them that their pursuers want: Roy’s son, eight-year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who at the start of the film is wearing a pair of goggles and a set of headphones and is sitting under a sheet. The goggles make young Alton look quite inhuman, which is appropriate, really, because there’s something very unusual about him. Exactly what that is is hard to say with any precision; all we can determine is that he has special powers, but neither Roy nor Lucas can articulate what they are. Alton’s powers are no secret. He is the central figure of worship for a cult, whose members in place of ‘amen’ recite a string of numbers that Alton once said aloud. They want Alton back, and their high priest Calvin Meyer (Sam Shephard) has dispatched Doak (Bill Camp) to get him. The second group hunting Alton are, of course, agents of the U.S. Government, led by FBI Agent Miller (Paul Sparks) and including geeky NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

Part of the reason that Midnight Special is so disquieting is the fact that no one can explain what Alton can do, nor why. Vague details of his extraordinary abilities trickle out slowly in the frightened and awestruck dialogue of multiple characters. 

Part of the reason that Midnight Special is so disquieting is the fact that no one can explain what Alton can do, nor why. Vague details of his extraordinary abilities trickle out slowly in the frightened and awestruck dialogue of multiple characters. What is more revealing are the emotions painted across the faces of Lucas and Roy, neither of whom can conceal their confusion and wonder. In two superb central performances, both Edgerton and Shannon manage to convey clearly and without speaking the belief that they are woefully under-equipped for the situation in which they find themselves, and yet, equally, believe they must continue on the course they’ve chosen, even if the task at hand seems impossible. When Roy and Lucas speak about Alton, they objectify him with their language, and it underscores the fact that Alton is, in some way, “other”.

A minimalist, electronic score by David Wingo intensifies this atmosphere of gravity and uneasiness; so too does the blackness of the night in which the three are forced to travel. For a film in which the main characters are constantly being chased, Midnight Special moves slowly: the characters speak very little during the first act, and few details are divulged. Writer and-director Jeff Nichols paces the film very well. That we know little is frustrating but also a source of the tension that is constant for the better part of the film.

Michael Shannon’s hard-to-read features seem to communicate a wealth of conflicting emotions, and when he contorts his often-expressionless face into a smile or a frown or a look of alarm, the impression is far more powerful than if it were done by a more animated actor.

The casting of Michael Shannon is something of a masterstroke. He’s at once an awkward an intimidating presence more familiar playing the villain than a desperate father, but in Midnight Special his hard-to-read features seem to communicate a wealth of conflicting emotions, and when he contorts his often-expressionless face into a smile or a frown or a look of alarm, the impression is far more powerful than if it were done by a more animated actor. Joel Edgerton is almost as captivating as a state trooper who personifies the tough and humble character of the rural Texan. And both Shannon and Edgerton’s performances are supported by an exceptionally mature and largely physical performance by Jaeden Lieberher.

The main fault of Midnight Special is that the tension rarely rises. Instead, it is sustained throughout the film and then explodes into a climax which, though cathartic, might have come half an hour earlier or half an hour later. But that said, the film is incredibly gripping throughout. It’s dark and heavy and almost completely lacking in humour but it has an emotional depth and thoughtfulness too often missing from films of the same genre, and carried by a wealth of excellent performances.

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THE COMEDIAN STEWART LEE dedicated the entirety of a half-hour episode of his television show, Comedy Vehicle, to satire, which he defined, jokingly, as “like here… but there’s animals in it.”

Lee was, of course, satirising satire itself, but the success of fiction in which the creator uses the animal world to hold a mirror to our human selves, from Animal Farm to Planet of the Apes, is, in part, down to its intrinsic capacity to express difficult or complex ideas in an entertaining and accessible way.

Such is the case with Disney’s lively new animated film, Zootopia, a part buddy-cop movie, part social satire, set in a bright and vibrant mammalian city where animals are anthropomorphised enough to permit directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore to riff on mankind’s various foibles with clear relish.

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), the daughter of carrot farmers from the town of Bunnyburrow (population to 81.5million-odd and rapidly rising, for obvious reasons) is the first rabbit to become a police officer in the glorious multi-species city of Zootopia, where predators and prey, having evolved beyond their savage instincts, live in harmony.

But Jesse finds upon graduating from the police academy that the ZPD is not all that she expected, and is dismayed to be assigned to parking-ticket duty by Idris Elba’s chief of police, Bogo, a Cape buffalo. The ever-optimistic Jesse shrugs off her disappointment and soon finds herself a worthy mission–to track down a missing otter–for which she requires the services of a wily con-artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

The city of Zootopia is wonderfully inventive, comprising zoogeographical districts like the freezing “Tundratown” and the scaled-down “Little Rodentia”, all of them connected by bullet train. Suited hippos arrive to work via water-slide as chipmunks prepare freshly squeezed acacia juice for giraffes. Rodents, hilariously, stream out of a building bearing the sign “Lemming Brothers Bank” and there isn’t a human in sight to ruin everything. The city’s motto is, “Anyone can be anything.”

But can anyone be anything? The conflict between ideals and reality lends the satire to this fantasy buddy-cop flick, in which multiculturalism, inclusiveness and prejudice–both accidental and deliberate–are not spared the good-natured examination of the seven-person story team. Officer Hopps is herself victim to a sort of everyday “bunnyism” while her wise-cracking sidekick Nick is refused service at an elephant-run ice cream café. Though Zootopia has a utopian image to the outside world, received ideas about the members of the animal kingdom influence which positions they come to hold–hence a lion is the city mayor and an intimidating buffalo is the chief of police. Zootopia is politically and socially apposite, but inventive and funny enough to keep it from wandering too far into the realms of moralism or sentimentality.

Naturally the trailer does away with some of the best gags (“We need to address the elephant in the room. Francine? Happy birthday.”) but there is no shortage of first-rate verbal and physical comic flourishes. There is a scene involving a pocket-sized rodent crime boss, Mr. Big, during which I laughed so hard my sides began to hurt, and Judy and Nick’s visit to the vehicle-registration bureau, which is manned, of course, by sloths, is pitch-perfect, and a demonstration that with good comic timing even the very predictable may be riotously funny.

There is a diligence that goes into the balancing of the human attributes of Zootopia’s residents with the animalistic ones –a stamping foot here, a twitching nose there–that is to the credit of a confident and imaginative animating team. The energetic vocal performances of Goodwin and Bateman complement beautifully the liveliness of their characters and the world around them.

The film is as much an exhortation to individuality and a celebration of eclecticism as it is a riff on society’s shortfalls, all of it wrapped up in a fun buddy-cop caper and expressed in a way that the film’s predominantly young audience can understand. This is a first-rate film, and a must-watch.

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Legalise It

YOU REALLY WOULD THINK that in 2016 we’d be long past weed legalisation opinion pieces. The financial, social and medical benefits of cannabis legalisation have been exhaustively documented, and a host of other liberal democracies are either legalising or decriminalising weed or at the very least discussing its legalisation or decriminalisation.

And yet, the marijuana legalisation argument really gets scant attention here in Britain. Why so? It as if the public have lost the will to stamp their feet.

The now largely impotent Liberal Democrats have become the first political party to officially state their support for the legalisation of weed, but I doubt that is enough to effect real change. What would be far more productive is for the ordinary people in favour of legalisation––and there are many, many of them––to take just a short relief of their British notions surrounding fuss-making and make their displeasure at the status quo clear as crystal so those with real power sit up and listen.

The whole weed legalisation thing can be a tedious back-and-forth, principally because so many of the arguments against the legalisation of marijuana are so mind-numbingly stupid that they make you want to smash your head against a very, very solid wall. There are many of them, almost all of which are riddled with holes, ranging from “weed is a gateway drug” to something along the lines of “weed turns you into Gollum”.

I could spend all day writing rebuttals to all these arguments, but that’s beyond the scope of this article, and in any case, there are people with strings of letters after their names that can refute those points with far more precision than I can, like Professor David Nutt, or Dr. Sanjay Gupta. I would rather frame, in simple terms, the argument for why weed should be legal.

The Financial

A recent report commissioned by the Liberal Democrats found that the U.K. could potentially raise in excess of £1billion a year from the taxation of weed sold in specialist dispensaries, and if we take a look across the pond we see that the American states which have legalised marijuana are booming. Colorado, for instance, is now the fastest-growing economy in the U.S. and unemployment is at a six-year low. Do you remember that scene from Duck Tales in which Scrooge McDuck dives into a pool of gold coins? That’s Colorado, and the authorities have invested much of this cash in the hiring of mental health and social workers to treat anyone who does turn out to like the herb just a little too much, and to educate children on drug use. Moreover, they’re saving boatloads by not having America’s Finest drive around the state arresting college kids and artists for having a henry in their jeans.

The Social

It is almost impossible to maintain a black market for a good once it becomes legal, so it is no surprise that the crime in those that have recently legalised weed is falling fast. What is more interesting is that it isn’t just marijuana-related crime which is plummeting: violent crime of all stripes, as well as burglaries and relatively minor criminal acts are down too. And there’s another pleasant surprise for Colorado: traffic fatalities are down and continuing to fall, which contradicts directly the predictions made by the killjoys before legalisation.

The anti-legalisation brigade pointed to the presence of marijuana in the blood of some drivers involved in fatalities, but failed to appreciate that the marijuana metabolites these drivers were tested for at the roadside stay in the system for a long time after actual use of the drug. THC in the blood, a more reliable test of sobriety, is tested for too after the incident, but prohibitionists have tended to combine both sets of data when forming their argument.

It has also been suggested that now people in American states where weed is legal substitute weed for alcohol when driving. Driving under the influence of either is obviously not advisable (and illegal) but the suggestion is that weed causes less impairment than booze.

The Medical

Various reputable studies have shown that weed could be used to treat a range of conditions including glaucoma, epilepsy, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, IBS, arthritis, Lupus, Parkinson’s and P.T.S.D. to name just a few. The argument that weed causes schizophrenia is a weak one at best, and it can only be said even by the most pessimistic of people that if you are genetically prone to schizophrenia or are prone to other schizotypal symptoms then weed can exacerbate those symptoms, and this is true of any number of substances.

So to recap, this is what could (and probably would) happen if we legalised marijuana in the United Kingdom: (1) the Government would make a killing in taxes, (2) crime would drop, and swathes of society needlessly criminalised for doing something that makes you feel relaxed, creative and really, really hungry wouldn’t have to shiver by the side of the road in the middle of the night so they can hand their pay cheques to hooded strangers through the window of a sound-system banger.

Everyone, in other words, wins.

In the frankly ridiculous Britain of today, it is socially acceptable for a toddler to choose their gender but not acceptable for an adult to choose whether to smoke a plant that makes them feel a bit silly. I’m not the only one who recognises a shortcoming here.

I’ve never really got to grips with the idea that a collection of people in Westminster can dictate what you, or I, or kindly Mrs. So-and-So down the street, do when that action does not harm anyone else. It bridles me, yet we’ve become accustomed to accepting all sorts of gross impositions on our civil liberties.

But we must start small. The advantages of the legalisation of weed are underpinned by such a hefty weight of evidence, and the downsides supported by such penetrable idiocies, that change must come soon.

So if you’re reading this Mr. Cameron and co. (which of course you won’t be), we’d rather like our freedom back now, please. Or at the very least, why not light yourself a joint and mull it over?

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THE ANTIDOTE TO A string of truly awful superhero films is the hilarious, ridiculous Deadpool, and if you, like me, have been left frustrated by X Men: Apocalypse, Batman v Superman and other recent efforts, I suggest you uncork the bottle and take a good swig.

The film opens on a busy motorway flyover after a credit sequence which uses its titles (“Produced by Asshats… Written by the Real Heroes Here”) to lampoon superhero-film stereotypes while, at the same time, conceding the film will include these stereotypes anyway. Deadpool‘s eponymous fast-talking antihero, played with glee by Ryan Reynolds, gets out of a taxi and begins to get to work with violent abandon on a group of armed goons.

How Deadpool–Wade Wilson–came to be in this situation is told through a series of flashbacks. Wilson was a Special Forces operative-turned-mercenary (“I’m a bad guy who is paid to fuck up worse guys,” he says) who met the equally self-destructive Vanessa (Morena Baccarin)—their opening dialogue is one of the best exchanges of the film—in the sort of bad-guy dive bar Marv liked to skulk around in in Sin City, and they begin a love affair. Everything is going swimmingly until Wade contracts inoperable late-stage cancer, but he is offered survival–and superhuman abilities–at the hands of Ajax (Ed Skrein). His superhero makeover comes at the expense of his all-American good looks, and, fearing that his beloved will reject him, he sets out to find Ajax (who also goes, comically, by “Francis”) and put things right.

Reynolds is well-fitted for the role of the motormouth Wade/Deadpool, who is just the right balance of likeable and annoying, and dispenses bloody violence with the same speed and facility that he dispenses off-colour one-liners. When he isn’t quipping in-story or breaking bones he’s breaking the fourth wall—or rather, smashing it to bits with a wrecking ball—to make in-jokes about the bloated Marvel universe or production costs.

Deadpool is refreshingly irreverent towards its heritage, but equally self-referential. In the spirit of its bad-boy antihero, it extends a middle finger to the films which made it possible, yet satirises itself as much as it does the other films of its genre. It is to the credit of writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick that Deadpool never strays into the territory of parody or cynicism, and the plot is interesting enough, if not particularly inventive or complex. Though it is a smirking deconstruction of all the excesses and tropes of the genre, it is also in its own right an ultra-violent, sweary romp, buoyed by ironic upbeat pop music and excellent visual effects (director Tim Miller is a visual effects artist with a background in video games.)

The film is most effective when the plot zips along at the speed of Wade’s dialogue. The scenes involving Ajax and his sidekick, Angel Dust––played by MMA royalty Gina Carano––are alternately hammy and boring, and the less said about CGI X-Man Colossus, who is so jarringly fake it is hard to tell whether the creators intended him to appear that way on purpose, the better.

The final act descends into the usual scenery-smashing mayhem required by the genre, which shows that even Deadpool can’t out-manoeuvre certain comic-book tropes. Therein lies the irony of Deadpool: it is still very much a superhero flick, if an unconventional one. And its success is unlikely to change the genre significantly. The studios will always put commercial success before artistic success, and superhero films are still written to appeal to a young audience. In other words, studios won’t do away with PG-13 films simply because the R-rated Deadpool was a success.

Deadpool achieves indisputably what it sets out to achieve. It’s riotously funny and it’s well-put-together. On the one level, it’s a superhero film for people who don’t really like superhero films, but on the other, it’s a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to dedicated fans of the genre.

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‘Hail, Caesar!’

Hail, Caesar!

WHEN YOUR GLASS OF red wine fails to lull you to sleep after a long day, boot up the latest effort from the Coen Brothers, a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood and a tiresome slog of a film. Take the directors of No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski, add a fine ensemble cast that includes Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson, and royally balls it all up.

A typically shambolic plot begins in a church, where Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer, reveals in the confessional that he has sneaked three cigarettes (cue the ominous sound of thunder) despite telling his wife he has given up. At three o’clock in the morning, Mannix turns up at the house of a young Hollywood starlet to save her from a “possible French postcard situation” before heading over to Capitol Pictures, where filming of the biblical epic Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ is underway.

The narrative then jumps, chaotically, between Mannix, who liaises with religious leaders to make sure the titular film-within-a-film, Hail, Caesar! doesn’t offend anyone, leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is drugged and kidnapped during filming by a group calling themselves “The Future”, and British director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who tries out cowboy newcomer Holbie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as the leading man for his sophisticated drama, Merrily We Dance. Meanwhile Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran needs to find a husband, and fast.

The directors interweave scenes of synchronised swimming with tap-dancing sailors and toga-wearing actors against a backdrop of Soviet sympathising and jaded screenwriters, bomb tests and celebrity scandal. Clearly, Ethan and Joel Coen have lavished heaps of affection on their homage to the Hollywood of the 1950s, but that fails to make Hail, Caesar! anything resembling a good film.

There is a scene, for instance, in which Laurentz has Doyle try to say–repeatedly–“would it that it were so” that was so inane that I could not believe that there was anyone over the age of three that could find it amusing–and the comedy doesn’t get much better from there. The best scene of the film–a dance routine involving Channing Tatum and a group of sailors filmed in a single, long take–fails to save the film from sinking into its own excess. Jonah Hill, who was given top billing but whose character, Joseph Silverton, appears in just one scene and Tilda Swinton, who plays the twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, may as well not have appeared in the film at all.

Hail, Caesar! is the sort of movie that plenty of film fans will pretend to like (think of those who refer to Quentin Tarantino simply as “Quentin”) because they think that it implies a degree of cinematic sophistication. For the contemporary poseurs, to like Hail, Caesar! suggests to anyone bothered enough to listen that they have an in-depth knowledge of the showbiz scene of a bygone screen age. But simply because dedicated film-lovers have that knowledge, or pick up on the references to Singing’ in the Rain and Ben-Hur, or recognise the homages to Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston, Carmen Miranda and Esther Williams, isn’t to make this overindulgent nostalgia-fest remotely entertaining, and it is a condescending sneer to suggest that those who didn’t enjoy the film “didn’t get it”.

Hail, Caesar!, then, is, at best, a gentle and affectionate parody of the golden age of Hollywood by a pair of directors who, after a string of more serious screenwriting credits–UnbrokenBridge of Spies–may have felt entitled to a little recreational filmmaking. But it’s nevertheless intolerably boring, and a waste of a very fine cast.

What is most disappointing is that the Coen Brothers have been behind some of the most entertaining comedies of the past decade, and might, in Hail, Caesar!, have passed on a few of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, knowing-chuckle sort of gags in favour of something broader, and less ramshackle. That, and not introduced a promising cast of characters only to let them languish, half-used.

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‘The Big Short’

The Big Short

IT SEEMS CURIOUS THAT there are not more films concerning the events leading up to the financial crash of ’07, given that it was, well, one of the most cataclysmic events of modern history. But then, does economics ever make good cinema? That’s where the The Big Short comes in.

Anchorman director Adam McKay’s film, which is based on the hugely successful Michael Lewis book of the same name, concerns the build-up of the housing bubble in the United States during the 2000s and the people who predicted it (and made a fortune doing so.) Not, you might think, a likely source of comedy, and yet The Big Short is funny almost all the way through, thanks to an excellent script and an ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carrell. What is refreshing about the film’s subjects is that they are not the Jordan-Belfort, Gordon-Gekko, Master-of-the-Universe-types, but slightly odd mathematical whizzes and assorted brainiacs, all with their own lengthy list of peculiarities. Even Ryan Gosling’s slick, confident Jared Vennett is no Wall Street walk-on, but a vaguely ridiculous figure: in one exchange at a securities conference he boasts to Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) that “I’ve already been to the gym, I had two poached eggs, and I played Blackjack with Harry Dean Stanton,” to which Baum deadpans, “Thank you for your diary.” The few on-screen characters who are fully aware of the immorality of their actions, notably the two mortgage brokers who boast of giving “NINJA (no income, no job) loans” to desperate wannabe homeowners are slimy and crass, which disgusts Baum and his colleagues.

A review I read of The Big Short shortly after its release argued that the film “squeezes comedy from tragedy”, which is true enough, but simplistic. The Big Short is such a strange mélange of genres it is quite difficult to define. It is certainly part-comedy, part-tragedy, but a large part of the film––the investigation of Mark Baum and his colleagues into whether The Bubble exists, for instance––is reminiscent of a police procedural. What’s more, the impending crash of the housing market and subsequent economic crisis looms over the horizon with as much menace as any Cloverfield-style monster, and when the market does collapse, the comedy vanishes. But The Big Short is a morality tale, too, the principal medium for which is Baum but also the t-shirt-and-shorts-wearing Dr. Michael Burry (Bale). The effect of the crash and the role of the characters in it is made clear in the actions of the characters in the wake of the economic crisis, which is displayed on screen at the end of the film. And then there’s the reveal at the end of the film that the banks were greedy because they knew that the government would bail them out. This is, to the characters and, I suspect, some of the audience, a thriller-level twist.

Though the film is nominally about the events leading up to the bursting of the housing bubble, it is equally––if not more––about the characters who displayed extraordinary intellectual confidence to go against the prevailing industry view and bet against the market, eventually taking home hundreds of millions of dollars in profit as the financial sector collapsed around them. The film makes excellent work of conveying just how impossible it seemed to financial experts that the housing market would collapse. When Burry does the rounds of the banks in an effort to buy insurance on sub-prime mortgage bonds, they cannot believe their luck. Later, when he tells investors that he has suspended their ability to withdraw their money, he is flooded with phone calls and emails, one of which reads, “I’m suing”. The audience may find it hard to have any sympathy for The Big Short‘s protagonists, who employed their financial know-how to make eye-watering sums of money for themselves but, with the exception of investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), not to warn the government or the public that they were about to lose all their savings (if they did indeed do this, it is not shown in the film). However it stills bears noting that they risked an awful lot themselves and angered a great deal of people counting on them during their endeavour.

The film slows for periods, notably during the scenes involving Cornwall Capital investors Geller and Shipley, who team up with retired investor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to try and get their hands on a slice of the credit default swap pie. That said, Rickert is incredibly funny in his eccentricity, and slams home a major moral point when he expresses his disgust at Geller and Shipley’s wild celebrations at the impending economic collapse: for every 1% rise in unemployment, Rickert says, 40,000 lives are lost.

The film is notable for the unconventional technique of using celebrities (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and others) and a fourth-wall-breaking Ryan Gosling to explain financial instruments to the audience, but one that, despite being very funny, works only some of the time. Even for those who easily grasp these concepts their interconnectivity in the context of the wider financial industry and the economic crisis might leave viewers scratching their heads. It’s for this reason that The Big Short makes a good follow-up film to Charles H. Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, which explains the relationship between collateralised debt obligations, credit default swaps and other financial instruments highly effectively.

The Big Short is a smart and fun film let down only by a handful of sluggish scenes and its failure to articulate more clearly the financial concepts which are integral to its full enjoying. Most of all it’s an excellent character-driven story about the people who dared to go against the grain and take a wild risk, knowing that to win was for everyone else to lose.

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‘The Revenant’

The Revenant

IT IS DIFFICULT TO leave a showing of Alejandro Iñárritu’s savage film, The Revenant, without having the feeling that you’ve personally undergone some sort of violent assault.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to the battering frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) endures as he tries to find civilisation in the 800s9th century American wilderness. Man is pitched against nature in this epic revenge tale based on Michael Punke’s embellished take on the legend of the American explorer, in which Glass survives a bloody mauling by a mother grizzly bear only to see his son (Forest Goodluck) murdered and then be left for dead himself by Tom Hardy’s racist, sociopathic trapper John Fitzgerald.

What follows is a ceaseless, 180-minute macho art film in which the ironically-named Glass risks scalping and shooting and starvation in the name of white-hot revenge against the backdrop of an unspoiled Great Plains and a haunting orchestral score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

It is, in effect, a double-chase: a roaming group of Native Americans hunt the white man who kidnapped a woman, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), and because Glass is travelling alone in the wild, he is the most likely to be found; Glass, grieving and angry, hunts Fitzgerald. The wounded Glass, both hunter and hunted, reliant on nature, yet in constant danger from it, moving awkwardly in bear skin, tearing greedily at raw fish and flesh, regresses to an animal state, driven by the very basest of emotions: revenge and the instinct to survive.

The brutality of Glass’s world is juxtaposed with the gorgeous, glorious, snow-covered Great Plains, courtesy of three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki: the landscape, filmed in Alberta, Canada and Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, is as arresting as any gory shot of Glass stuffing gunpowder into a wound in his neck. But to call The Revenant a purely cinematographic triumph, or to reduce it to a standard revenge tale, is to do it a gross injustice: it is equally a suffocating story of the physical difficulties of mere survival at the dawn of the Wild West, in which frostbite or hypothermia may end your life long before a human or animal gets the chance, and a symbolic story about man and nature, civilisation and savagery, death and rebirth.

Iñárritu’s brutal odyssey is riddled with allegory and reference to the spiritual, at times clumsily expressed, which betray his sympathy for the myriad indigenous tribes who struggled to survive French and American occupation in the 1800s. If The Revenant fails at times, it is in this area. The hunter-gatherers of the Pawnee and Ree tribes take on an otherworldly character which borders on the noble savage cliché; the imagery is, at times, almost laughably opaque––memorably during the dream sequence in which Glass sees his murdered son.

DiCaprio remarked following the release of the film that it had included thirty or forty of the toughest sequences of his career. It shows: it is an imperious performance by DiCaprio, whose bloodied Glass looks perpetually to be on the very brink of death as he tries to survive the beautiful and savage landscape of Montana and South Dakota. Meanwhile the impressive Will Poulter, as the young and naive trapper Jim Bridger, quietly steals the scenes he shares with Tom Hardy.

The symbology in The Revenant is at times heavy-handed, and the ideological hand of director Iñárritu oscillates between elevating the narrative and overwhelming it. But in spite of this it is truly a thrilling film, beautifully told, beautifully shot and beautifully acted––in  relation to the latter it is no surprise that the real-life suffering of DiCaprio for the artistic vision of his director was rewarded with an Academy Award.

What’s more, and put simply, The Revenant is the best film I have seen in quite some time.

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