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 Pitch: Games of the mind.
The Review: Danny Boyle, hero of the Olympic Games and now almost a socialist icon for apparently turning down a knighthood. You could be forgiven for forgetting he also makes films, being responsible for some of the most iconic British films of the last two decades. He’s certainly a contemporary film maker, and from his pioneering work with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle in pushing digital films to the soundtracks laced with the likes of Underworld, Boyle’s never been afraid to push boundaries or to keep pace with the times. He could almost be accused of retreating into his comfort zone with Trance, for not only are Mantle and Underworld’s Rick Smith on board once more, but screenwriter John Hodge – responsible for Boyle’s first two films, and two of his greatest triumphs, in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting – is also back on scripting duties. But Boyle’s often been left at the mercy of his screenwriters, heavily dependent on the quality of the writing, so it’s understandable he’d want to try to replicate the success of those early collaborations.
There are clear parallels with Shallow Grave in the central trio of characters, Hodge once again exploring themes of power and control between three central characters, two male and one female. In Trance’s case, we’re first introduced to Simon (James McAvoy), who’s caught up in a robbery at the auction house where he works. When he confronts the gang leader Franck (Vincent Cassel), Franck lashes out and a blow to the head causes Simon to forget details of the robbery, crucially including where the painting’s disappeared to when Franck ends up with just the empty frame post-robbery. Running out of ideas when attempts to intimidate and torture the info out of him fail, Franck sends Simon to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in the hope of unlocking the secrets in Simon’s fractured mind, but Elizabeth begins to find more than any of them bargained for.
Shallow Grave was concerned with the moral implications of simple greed, and that sense of greed is also heavily prevalent in Trance. Hodge’s script (based on an original TV movie by Joe Ahearne, who also collaborated with Hodge here) is more keen than Shallow Grave was to misdirect and obfuscate, and the clean lines of Boyle and Hodge’s first team-up are replaced with something altogether more brittle and hazy. The clearest parallels are not in the roles of the three central characters – although McAvoy’s cocksure young auctioneer reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s journalist Alex in Grave and Rosario Dawson exhibits a similar strength to Kerry Fox’s doctor Juliet – or even in the sense of identity born out of the city location (London here, Edinburgh there) but in the sense of shifting loyalties and absence of trust. The big difference lies with the former film’s ability to empathise with any of the three characters at various points, no matter whether they were charming, obnoxious or just plain deceitful, but sadly Simon, Franck and Elizabeth are all cold, heartless ciphers who make it impossible to connect with any of them.
While the characterisation is a let-down, the plot does take a number of satisfying twists and turns, but for once Boyle compounds the errors of his screenwriter rather than compensating for them by falling into a number of genre conventions of both psychological and body horror. It’s as if Boyle can’t help but put up giant neon signs, fond of both the literal neon gaudiness of his post-Olympian London and allowing that to seep into his plotting with metaphorical signposts indicating “Rug about to be pulled here” and “This isn’t what you think it is.” Sadly it leaves Trance crucially lacking in surprises most of the time and the details of the denouement are more easily pieced together. Some might find the occasional horror imagery difficult to stomach; having no such difficulties myself I was more troubled by such difficulties as the amount of screen time the no-dimensional hoods backing up Franck are given. The plot might be the only thing that makes Trance worth seeing, but once you’ve worked out where its headed you won’t need a hypnotherapist, as Trance is eminently forgettable all on its own. Better luck next time, Sir Danny.
Why see it at the cinema: Anthony Dod Mantle’s crisp cinematography remains at the forefront of the digital artform and Boyle can still compose an image, even if he has gone slightly over the top with the Dutch angles.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong bloody violence, gore, sex, nudity and strong language. Or, as the teenage boy inside me would call it, the Grand Slam. While everything here is typical Boyle, it’s never quite pushed as far as his early career and 15 feels right, if just a shade disappointing and commercial.
My cinema experience: Just over half full at the Cineworld in Cambridge for an Unlimited preview showing, with a nice if somewhat half-hearted intro from Danny Boyle himself. Still, it’s nice he made the effort. Tucked away in one of the smaller screens, but one apparently with decent sound and projection.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Thanks to it being an Unlimited preview showing, just trailers and the latest Kevin Bacon EE advert, it was just a minimalist thirteen minutes before the Danny Boyle intro. If only all films were like that…
The Score: 6/10
The Review: You’d be forgiven for having lost patience with the X-Men saga by now, after the complete mess that The Last Stand and the Wolverine spin-off turned out to be. Blame for that could feasibly be put at the door of two particular individuals: Bryan Singer, who ran away from the franchise to make a bloated, overly reverential Superman movie, and Matthew Vaughn, who stepped in to direct but then got cold feet over the resources he had to work with and disappeared off to make Stardust and then Kick-Ass instead. But obviously the call of the mutant still remained strong for both men, as Singer returns to produce and Vaughn to direct what was described in some quarters as a reboot but is actually positioned as a fairly direct prequel to the original trilogy. Given how poorly treated many of the mutants on both sides were treated by the original trilogy’s final chapter, it’s also a chance to redress the balance for many of the characters.
But if you’re going to go back forty years, then your most immediate challenge is to find someone to fill the younger shoes, and eventually wheelchair, of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Vaughn has turned to two of the hottest up and coming actors, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Avoiding the trap of direct impersonations that so dogged Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, McAvoy and Fassbender instead bring the same ethos and conflict to their pairing, but both with a twist; McAvoy’s Charles Xavier starts out by using his mind control powers to pick up women in the pubs around Oxford, but eventually his sense of responsibility takes over from his more lecherous tendencies, and Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr is almost the anti-James Bond, globetrotting in a mission of revenge that has its roots very much in the character’s origins right back at the start of the original movie. Both of the youngsters are up to the challenge, Fassbender very much with the more interesting and shaded role but McAvoy his equal in the more tense moments. Their relationship is the core of the movie, possibly even more so than in the originals, and they both keep you interested and invested every time they’re on screen.
So First Class is the origin story, and in this case it’s the origin of the differing viewpoints of Professor X and Magneto. Given their ages and the timeframe, the rest of the cast is mainly new mutants, although Mystique is slow enough in her ageing to have been around in the Sixties, here portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, and Hank “Beast” McCoy old enough, so Nicholas Hoult picks up the role. While neither rise to the heights of the two leads, both have some great moments and are absolutely right for their characters. Outside of these four leads the other new mutants get very little to do on the good side, but they do at least fare better than the baddies, where only half of them even get speaking roles, with mixed success. Kevin Bacon is deliciously evil as the head of the Hellfire Club, but January Jones appears to be in a competition of her own making to see how badly she can act and get away with it, as she looks diamond some of the time but acts plastic for the rest of it. The other main role is handed to CIA stooge Rose Byrne, who takes her clothes off to get into the Hellfire Club and then spends most of the rest of the movie earning back her dignity.
Vaughn has also taken the opportunity to populate the rest of the cast with a fantastic array of familiar faces to fans of sci-fi and action genres, with the likes of Oliver Platt, Glenn Morshower, Matt Craven, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise and even Michael Ironside popping up, and giving the whole film a feeling of consistent quality – Jones is pretty much the only weak link in the whole film. There’s also some fantastic connections to earlier films, both in terms of visuals and personnel, but the depth of the acting quality and the reasonable structure would mean little if the story wasn’t up to much. The concept is great, putting the action in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, although you’d be advised not to have your brain fully engaged, otherwise some of the silliness of the concepts may become too apparent. But Vaughn keeps the movie going at a cracking lick, with montages and split-screens used sparingly and effectively, and some set-pieces which have a scale which doesn’t feel out of place in the company of the other summer blockbusters. Singer’s hand as producer has achieved something on the fifth film of this franchise which he didn’t achieve on his Superman gig, which is to make a fifth film that can sit comfortably in the company of the first two. It falls short of the outstanding quality of X2, but there’s enough here to make you want to see what Singer, Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman can make of another trip round this universe.
Why see it at the cinema: Vaughn brings a scope and a scale to the whole enterprise that deserves to be seen on the big screen, and after the damage done to the franchise by the last two sloppy instalments, this will reward you if you’re willing to make the trip out.
The Score: 8/10