The Pitch: Number 22… is alive! Your move, creeps.
The Review: The cinema of my childhood was defined by two very different film watching experiences. That’s if you can call it cinema, as the demise of picture palaces in my home town saw me watch most of my films on the technological wonder that was VHS. Some of that was made up of the typical family fare that was a staple of popular cinema in the Eighties, from The Karate Kid to Flight Of The Navigator and The Goonies to Short Circuit. As the decade drew to a close I was allowed by my very liberal mother to take in some of the action greats of the decade before I’d reached the 18 rating recommended, such as Aliens and Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Robocop. I suspect, although he’s half a decade younger than me and from the other end of the world, that Neill Blomkamp may have had a similarly formative childhood, given that his latest film appears to be an attempt to splice together those two genres by combining the family friendly robot education of Short Circuit with the corporate satire and blood-letting of Robocop.
Normally I’d suggest it’s fairly reductive and not particularly helpful to boil a film down to such obvious constituent components, but Blomkamp seems to be going out of his way to remind us of the heritage of his film. While it’s thrust into the same milieu as his breakout film District 9 with the South African slums providing a stark backdrop, there’s more than a little feeling of Old Detroit about the wasteland hideout of the gangsters who take in Chappie and try to give him an unsuitable education. Even the ED-209 style robots that form the bulkier competition in the security robot industry have the voice of old Tinhead himself, Peter Weller. On the flipslide, Chappie (Sharlton Copley) is a South African accent and a set of wheels away from being Johnny Five and while the film’s conceit of what would happen if you dropped a learning robot into the wrong environment feels original, the patchwork from which it’s been composed verges on over-familiar.
But you want original? How about making two of your lead characters a South African rap duo Die Antwoord who are friends and fans of the director with no real acting experience? As security droid Chappie falls under the influence of Yolandi and Ninja, he’s torn by the basic morality given to him by his creator (Dev Patel, yet another example of a single genius creating artificial intelligence in film making you wonder why we even bother to have corporations, but I digress). At the same time, the audience is torn by wondering if casting two non-actors as the two main human leads in your film is brave or foolish, and it’s probably a bit of both. Ninja and fellow cohort Yankie (actual actor Jose Pablo Cantillo) feel like stock villains, but Yolandi adds some maternal instinct and warmth and the gangster trio are certainly quirky for this kind of film, if not always particularly appealing. Adding to that off-kilter feeling is the fact that Die Antwood’s music is playing regularly in the background – although complemented well by the hard work that Hans Zimmer’s score does to integrate it – and what you’re left with is a whole bunch of oddness to offset the familiarity.
I wouldn’t say that there was much else original about Chappie – the other prominent humans (Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver) are stock characters and for a long stretch, the story doesn’t progress in any surprising directions. There’s a weak grasp of science, some of the dialogue – especially most of what Weaver is lumbered with for exposition and pretty much anything Patel says – is corny and unbelievable and Blomkamp applies many of District 9’s worst flaws, such as reality TV overlays that he promptly forgets about, without being able to capture its most redeeming features. The film makes a genuine attempt to combine the sweetness and naivety of Short Circuit with the satirical violence and grunge of Robocop, and not for one minute does it ever look like working. It’s only in the last half hour or so when the warmth begins to shine through that Chappie feels like a worthwhile exercise, and even then there’s as much to be at best bemused by as there is to love. Chappie is eccentric, oddly sweet and unlike the work of any other big-budget film maker you’ll see today, and for that we should be grateful, but District 9 is feeling more and more a one-off than the start of a solid career and Blomkamp will have to do more to convince that he’s not headed for a career residing at the bottom of the bargain DVD bin at your local supermarket.
Why see it at the cinema: Blomkamp does make good use of his frame and films his action well, even if there’s probably less of it than in either of his previous films. If South African rap-rave soundtracks are your thing, then hearing them on a top quality cinema sound set-up is also not to be sniffed at. (Based on this evidence, I can take them or leave them.)
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and bloody violence. There is one stand out moment of violence at the end which feels almost incongruous against some of what’s come before, although it would have felt right at home in Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop. I’d buy that for a dollar.
My cinema experience: Saw this at on a weekday evening at The Light cinema in Cambridge. The joys of the film playing on a large screen at The Light are that I get a seat in the middle of a row with enough legroom to sit comfortably: if you change anything as part of your takeover of the cinema, The Light owners, please keep that legroom, it’s invaluable for lanky so-and-sos such as myself.
About two thirds of the way into the film, I became distracted when someone in the row in front had seemingly become bored of the film and took his phone out to check Facebook. In my book if you’re that unengaged by what you’re watching there’s just one think you need to do: leave. On politely asking the gentleman if he would turn off his phone, I got sworn at for my trouble. I’m sorry, whoever you are, that you felt personally affronted by me asking you to turn off a four inch square torch that you were shining in the middle of a darkened room which immediately took me out of my own viewing experience, but if you believe it’s OK to sit and check your social media during a film then can I politely ask you don’t watch the same films as me in future?
The Score: 6/10
The Pitch: X-Men: Days Of Sideburns And Flares.
The Review: I was never much of a comic book reader as a child, other than traditional British fare like The Beano and The Dandy. It wasn’t that the concept of comic books didn’t appeal; far from it, as I spent large chunks of my adolescence in comic book stores, I was just there for the latest TV and film merchandise from my favourite franchises. Comic books always felt somewhat alienating for their complex universes, and I never felt comfortable attempting to pick up in a franchise that had sixty years of back story. Slowly but surely, the film franchises are heading the same way, and the Avengers and X-Men series are both at a point where coming in fresh to the franchise will prove alienating and frustrating.
For those keeping score in the XMCU (X-Men cinematic universe, as probably no-one apart from me is yet calling it), the tally is so far one decent, one amazing and one muddled film in the original trilogy; one dire and one passable Wolverine spin-off; and one fun, fresh and revisionist take on the younger versions of the characters that seemed almost impossible to reconcile with what we knew was to come. Undaunted, many of the key players in both the franchise’s high and low points behind the scenes have returned to attempt to draw these plot threads and characters together in a single film. In theory it’s a simple premise: Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) has been using her powers to send someone’s consciousness back a few hours and use the future knowledge to help win otherwise impossible battles with highly advanced, adaptive robots called Sentinels in an era when both humans and mutants are all but extinct. Deciding the only way to win the war is to stop it before it starts, the franchise’s own odd couple Professor X and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) decide to send someone back using Kitty’s power, but only Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) can survive the trip. Once back in the Seventies, he must stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Sentinel designer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), but will need to get younger Charles and Erik talking first (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender).
If that paragraph didn’t make a lick of sense to you, I suggest you give up now and turn back. Those also expecting detailed explanations at how the future mutants have either regained powers or survived should also lower expectations now. While many of the film’s set-pieces can be enjoyed on their own – especially the opening future battle showcasing a host of new mutants with exciting powers and no time to get into their character traits, and the standout scene with new super-speedy mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and a Pentagon break-in – whether or not the character arcs stand up on their own is more debatable. In terms of development, there are only three characters who get any serious work: once again, the focus is on young Magneto, Xavier and Mystique. Fassbender continues to exhibit the same directness as McKellen did, while Lawrence is a mass of whirling limbs and is in blue more often than not. The standout this time is McAvoy, who gets to explore his own evolution more thoroughly and his struggle on whether or not to use a drug created by Nicholas Hoult’s Beast to enable him to walk at the cost of his powers carries the most dramatic weight.
Pretty much everyone else is a cypher, even Jackman as Wolverine who here is little more than a plot device who gets to react to the latest dramatic development. The biggest waste has to be Peter Dinklage, effective but woefully underused in the rush to give everyone a line of dialogue or two. With even minor mutants from the original trilogy and First Class populating the background, some of whom I didn’t even remember on first watch, there is an occasional feeling of the plot straining at the seams under the sheer weight of mutants. You may be too entertained to care, as Days Of Future Past rattles past at a fair old lick, and Singer directs with the same flair he brought to the series high of the first sequel. I also hope you’re not too attached to the original trilogy, as by the time the dust settles it’s unclear how much of them even happened in this new timeline, but in this case if you’re thrilled by this instalment, it’s probably enough. The USP, and strength, of the X-men series has been their service as an analogy for any groups suffering segregation, abuse and injustice, and while these themes are still at play, they’re slightly more to the background here and DOFP is more action movie, first and foremost; that’s no bad thing, as there are only so many times you can wheel out the same moral or message before it feels stale. Where many other comic book franchise episodes feel like they’re biding time before the next chapter, this X-Men movement has substance and feels pivotal while still leaving you wanting to watch the next in the series. It’s to the credit of all involved that there still feels plenty of life in this franchise, but let’s hope the coming Apocalypse can thin out the X-roster a little and keep the series relatable.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s another big Hollywood mash-up, and with a decent supply of humour and some epic visuals – as anyone who’s seen the trailer will testify – the cinema is the sensible choice to get the most out of this one.
Why see it in 3D? The two main issues for any 3D film are both related to seeing what’s going on clearly. In terms of editing, Singer favours long takes and steers away from choppy editing, and in this sense the third dimension works well. Much of the future setting, though, is very dark and although I could always work out what was going on, sometimes I was straining hard to see everything.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate fantasy action and infrequent strong language. I’d hate to be a director of a major studio tentpole knowing that the best you can aim for is “moderate”, but as moderate films go, no complaints here.
My cinema experience: A Tuesday night at my local Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds, another person to show my ancient Cineworld card to and to convince them it still works, and a sizeable audience taking advantage of cheap Tuesday prices which meant
The Score: 8/10
The X-Men Movies From Best To Worst (because these things matter to some people):
1. X2: X-Men United
2. X-Men: First Class
3. X-Men: Days Of Future Past
5. The Wolverine
6. X-Men: The Last Stand
7. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
The Review: Comic book movies are now starting to explore previously uncharted territory for the genre. While the Star Treks and the Bonds of this world have proven that franchises and characters can have unending longevity – as long as they are not afraid to regularly reinvent themselves – no franchise ripped from the pages of coloured panels has so far managed to put on an extended run. The success of the various Marvel cinematic universes has seen Tony Stark get his run up to five, with a sixth in the pipeline. He still has some catching up to do with the pack leader, who’s already onto his sixth entry in the competing X-Men universe. Logan to his very few friends, Wolverine to just about everyone else, Hugh Jackman wasn’t even first choice for the role but has been every bit as successful as Robert Downey Jr. at making the character his own. While the X-Men movies themselves have produced entries varying from outstanding to desperately average, the first attempt at an origin story for Wolverine was just plain desperate. Now James Mangold has been given the task of making a more successful standalone Wolverine movie, and to that end he’s produced a long-awaited adaptation of Logan’s earliest Japanese adventures.
Many lesser summer movies would feel the need to layer on the exposition or the captions when dropping viewers into an unfamiliar milieu; the 1945 Nagasaki prologue thankfully avoids the need for both, although viewers might need to know their X-Men chronology well or be confused as to why Logan starts out with bone claws rather than his normal adamantium-covered set. There’s a case that a little more exposition might have been handy, or at least a refresher for those (like me) who’ve not seen X-Men: The Last Stand in seven years, as The Wolverine acts as a pseudo-sequel to that film, with Wolverine not the only character to be carried over. Either way, The Wolverine has few established characters to base its story on, so eventually has to do some narrative heavy lifting to get Logan out of his seclusion and into Japan to meet the dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whose life Logan saved in the prologue. Wolverine quickly finds himself acting as protector to Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) as the relatives of the soon-to-be-deceased struggle for power, and also finds himself compromised when his powers of healing seemingly disappear.
There’s a lot going in The Wolverine’s favour, not least the variety that the Japanese setting brings to the franchise with its pagodas and ninjas and James Mangold’s ability to stage a decent action sequence. While this is on the middle of the scale-o-meter for summer blockbuster franchises, a couple of hefty fights – including one with the aforementioned ninjas – and a scuffle in, around and on a speeding bullet train more than make up for it in invention. Logan also picks up a sidekick of sorts, Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who’s one of the few others on display to possess a mutant ability, and there’s very little other than the weight of initial backstory to connect this to previous adventures; once the story’s in motion this becomes very much a standalone adventure. Fukushima gives Jackman an effective foil and he appears as settled as ever in the role, having bulked up to a very buff level and he makes the most of both his physical presence and his established character traits. Mangold and Jackman do a great job of balancing the darker elements with the sense of fun, and for about two thirds of the film The Wolverine is a great piece of summer entertainment.
It’s just such a shame that there’s a big black hole in the centre of the film, centred somewhere around the two romantic leads. Famke Janssen is back as Jean Grey, literally haunting Logan and acting as a plot motivator. It’s nice to see Janssen again, but there’s never any doubt where that thread is heading. And then there’s Mariko. She has a difficult relationship with Logan once they are forced together by circumstance, as well as an arranged marriage and a former lover who’s in league with the ninjas (and I keep mentioning them, but what film ever couldn’t have been improved by the addition of ninjas?), but none of it ever feels substantial or affecting. She’s a character from the Chris Claremont comic book run that inspired the Japanese setting, but sad to say it may have been better if she’s been left on the sidelines. Certain other characters are split or invented for the film, and the last act becomes a little convoluted as various loose ends need to get tied up. The ending is faintly preposterous, but leaves things in an interesting place for next year’s Days Of Future Past to pick up, although if this had backstory baggage then the prologue for DOFP will need to be about an hour and a half just to get the pieces in place. That’s for next year, and for this there’s a lot of fun to be had with The Wolverine if you can overlook the saggy middle, and no reason why Jackman can’t extend that run a few films further.
Why see it at the cinema: From the action of the bullet train sequence to the well-constructed imagery of the latter stretches, this visually justifies its cinematic release. Wolverine’s on decent form and will generate a few laughs, and there’s plenty of buzz from the post-credits scene to feed off as well (more on that below).
Why see it in 3D: Middling from a 3D perspective. Some effort has been made to adjust the brightness for 3D viewing, and Mangold has noticeably extended the length of his shots in a few places in an attempt to make them just long enough for your eyes to focus. But there’s still not much to justify the extra depth and some shots feel resolutely flat. Not worth it if you have to pay extra, but tolerable if you don’t.
Should I stay through the credits? Oh yes. If you’re a fan of the series, then you might actually find what’s in the end credits more exciting than anything in the film itself.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate action violence and one use of strong language. That use of strong language will evoke a sense of deja vu for anyone familiar with the franchise; the action itself won’t worry parents used to taking children to 12A films, but it definitely fits well into the 12A category.
My cinema experience: An early evening showing last Saturday at the CIneworld in Cambridge. A reasonably packed crowd that seemed generally entertained, with no noticeable sound or projection issues. In the row behind me there was one person who felt the need to give an occasional running commentary; maybe tolerance for this has increased, as I detected no noticeable “sssh!”ing from anyone around him. When the post-credits scene played out, he exclaimed, rather loudly, “Shit just got real!”. Shit indeed, sir, did just get real.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: A movie musical revolution. With a capital R.
The Review: A sweeping musical, with original music complementing classic material, a historical epic with the fate of a nation at stake through a complex love story and a seminal tale of revenge and retribution, but enough about South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut, we’re here to discuss Les Misérables. (Thank you very much, I’m here all week.) It might seem like an odd reference, but if you’ve actually seen the South Park movie you’ll know that it’s not only a musical, but it’s one that pays rather significant homage musically and also a little structurally to the musical now known simply as Les Mis. (Don’t believe me? Listen to this not-exactly-PG song about La Resistance from South Park and you’ll be convinced.) I can recall seeing the South Park movie once with a group of friends and acquaintances, one of whom wasn’t aware that it was a musical; thoroughly engaged by the jokes, but mildly entertained by the songs, by the time the aforementioned Resistance Song rolls around as the tenth song in less than an hour I felt he was on the verge of ripping his ears off in frustration. So let me make this clear right now: Les Misérables is a musical with a capital M, a capital USICAL and a large selection of other capitals, most involving anguish or suffering. The original stage musical, based on a French concept album, contains forty-nine songs, and those not counting themselves of lovers of musical theatre will be thrilled to hear that the film version adds rather than subtracting.
Since its debut in 1985, Les Mis has been dismissed by the critics but lapped up by audiences worldwide, and what you get for your money is pretty much what’s been generating that divide ever since: two and a half hours of an almost slavish similarity to the theatre production in terms of theme, structure and content, but added dimensionality in the staging without the need for 3D glasses. Tom Hooper has done what he can to expand the play for the cinema by a combination of sweeping long shots to provide a sense of grandeur and extreme close-ups to put the singers right in your face at moments of high emotion (which is effectively the entire film). It’s unfortunate, then, that the whole production looks so staged for most of its extended running time, with the barricade sequences in particular looking obviously fake but even the outdoor sequences in some major landmarks feeling too much like people in costume running around on sets than genuine nineteenth century Parisians bemoaning their fate. The other notable comparison to the South Park movie is in terms of that story structure; by paying gentle homage, but working to its own plot and structure, South Park’s movie weaves a sensible and compelling tale that places and moves key plot tools just as it needs to. Les Mis makes no attempt to address any deficiencies in its source, other than adding more music (of which there clearly wasn’t enough), and hopes to sing loud enough to distract you from the plot, based on the most fundamental contrivances and absurd coincidences imaginable.
And boy, does it sing loud. There’s a wide array of vocal talent on display, and most of the acclaim has been so far heaped on the beaten down shoulders of Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, who gets to reinvent the SuBo standard I Dreamed A Dream for cinema audiences. SuBo Who, frankly, as Hathaway’s wrenching, defiant but ultimately broken performance deserves every last bit of attention likely to be lavished on it at awards time. Freed up by the production conceit of recording singing live on set, Hathaway makes the most of her fifteen minutes of fame in the movie (putting the supporting very much into supporting actress), Hathaway’s performance is also the best vocally of the cast. The singing from the two male leads is more contrasting, with Jackman’s stage training showing through in his whispered tones on quiet passages, his vibrato underpinning his impassioned pleas of every high note, hit pretty much bang on. His Jean Valjean is the emotional core of the movie, in almost direct opposition to Russell Crowe’s inflexible, robust policeman Javert; Crowe’s rock band training gives him a voice that slides up to higher notes and is rock solid on every note without a hint of wobble. Despite the differences in approach, both singing styles fit well with their characters – although if you take that to its logical conclusion, then Amanda Seyfried is just an irritating sparrow with no character whatsoever – but Crowe’s performance will feel odd to the ears when almost everyone else in the cast is singing in a theatrical style, and from Eddie Redmayne to Samantha Barks the rest of the cast deliver valiant work. The one pair of bright notes to keep you interested through the rest of the angst are Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, able to give brighter and more subtle performances than would be possible on stage thanks to having a camera almost in their face.
So if you’re a fan of the stage show, and can overcome Russell Crowe’s grandstanding, I’d expect you to be entirely satisfied by what Tom Hooper and his cast have served up. If you’re coming to this knowing the book but not the musical, then good luck, as most of the third part is hacked out and later sequences shortened, character motivations changing occasionally to move the plot forward whenever anyone’s not standing, singing to camera. If you’re coming to this completely fresh, then prepare yourself for the equivalent of a cinematic emoticon: if you look at it head on, it seems rough, ready and somewhat incomplete, just a series of random punctuation that doesn’t even give up its full effect unless you look at it in the right way. But if you accept what it’s trying to convey and go with it, then you’ll instantly get the full effect. This is no simple smiley, but a defiant, emotional face of anger and misery with just the occasional bout of cheer, a thundering steam train that’s on track to run straight over your soul, and if you give yourself to it, I defy even the hardest of hearts not to be forcing back a tear by the end. To call it a musical seems almost to undersell it; this is a rampaging behemoth of the most emotive acting possible which just happens to be set to music, to which your resistance just might be futile.
Why see it at the cinema: If the sound of large groups of women bawling their eyes out (and a few men as well, I fancy) doesn’t put you off, then there’s a decent collective experience to be had. There are a few impressive long shots, but actually it’s the vein-popping close ups that will draw you into the experience. The main benefit, as with most films in the genre, is the ability to hear the full detail of the soundtrack on a better sound system than you’ll ever own at home.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and sex, and infrequent moderate language. Mature, sensible children in the 9 – 11 should probably be able to cope with the more extreme scenes, which amount more to implication than anything actually seen onscreen.
My cinema experience: Arrived nice and early at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds in expectations of the Sunday evening showing being packed out, and it turned out to be about a third full. Picked up the tickets and our snacks (ice cream, bag of sweets and a large drink for a reasonable £7 with the Unlimited Premium discount) and no problems getting a decent seat. Mrs Evangelist felt the sound a little loud (an observation she also made after Pitch Perfect at the same venue), but no other issues projection wise. (She also had to make not one, but two, trips to the little girls’ room after that large diet Coke, bemoaning the lack of interval in such a long film. I’m sure she won’t be along in suffering that problem.) A well behaved audience in general; one person did attempt to start a round of applause at the end which quickly petered out when they realised no-one was going with them. Didn’t hear anyone singing along; for shame, Bury, for shame.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Five trailers, including those for all the Best Picture nominees not yet released, plus adverts and trailers resulted in the film starting 27 minutes after the advertised time.
The Score: 8/10