Monday 13 June 2016

Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Year: 2016
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till.

Synopsis is here:

Note: Contains Mild Spoilers (kinda)

It’s quite clear that I’ve not been prolific with my blog in recent weeks. Life can get in the way of things of course, as can my other hobbies and writings. However, one of the main reasons for my blogging neglect is the simple reason that I’ve not been interested in what has been released at the cinema. As I sat down to watch X-Men and found myself subjected to the high octane eye candy with its intent to melt my eyeballs with its explosions, I found myself thinking…”none of this is for me.”
I’m still (just) in the age range of the demographic that these films are trying to ensnare. I still have decent working knowledge of a lot of the movie universes which the studios are desperately trying to get me to re-enter. The reason I sat in my chair unimpressed with the twirling visuals that came to claim my pupils was quite simply the fact that X-Men Apocalypse, the way it uses film language and story structure, is simply for someone else.

From the views of my peers X-Men: Apocalypse falls into two camps: Terrible or Excellent. I’m not surprised that critics seemed to land on the former while fans leaned towards the latter. In fact much like Batman vs Superman, X-Men Apocalypse is less about being coherent or creating interesting stakes. As long as the films acknowledge fans with laborious pandering, then it’s fine. This is movies for some people now. Having the film recognise that it exists “for the fans” means it can disregard elements that are usually needed for those who haven’t been awaiting the next entry of the long running saga. Like Dawn of Justice, Apocalypse never feels like it’s telling the full story. But that’s unimportant because fans know everything anyway, so they can enjoy the “beta” version at the cinema, fill in the cracks and enjoy an “ultimate cut” or a “rouge cut” at a later date.
It looks like the X-Men, like the other comic book entries of this year (Deadpool aside), have now settled in. Settled down. The stakes are massive in that these heroes have to save the world. But don’t all these films do this now? Looking back at Ant-Man (2015), or even Iron Man (2008), these films were self-contained enough to keep the stakes interesting. Now. All these characters. These supposed grand stories feel more like lip service than anything else.

X-Men: Apocalypse has the same crowded character issue that has hobbled the likes of Age of Ultron (2015). We never learn much about the newcomers, while the old hands once again have their origins exploited as opposed to having their characters (or any new characters) grow or develop. The film spends most of its first act re-establishing Magneto as a villain, only for Micheal Fassbender to be wasted during the film’s climax. This doesn’t seem to matter. As long as he’s there. Hovering. Doing little else other than operating as the mutant version of the terraforming platform in Man of Steel (2013). The same goes for the film’s namesake. Apocalypse is considered a mutant of almost unmeasurable power, yet at no point do these powers ever feel as impressive or as dominant as they’re made out to be. Poor Oscar Isaac is little more than a heavily made up, yet utterly generic villain, who’s far from intimidating. The worst thing I found was just how little he differed from the Marvel’s cinematic universe’s Ultron. Although at least James Spader’s vocal performance had more cadence.

Like many recent franchises, X-Men has now reached a point in which, the films now bluster through to each plot point with little rhyme or reason. There’s no delicacy to the storytelling. Only an incessant charge towards another faux ending. In an age in which people go mad about spoilers, it’s unfortunate that the films that are given the larger market share have become even more predictable. Apocalypse nabs the villain’s aspirations of Age of Ultron and utilises a plan which is actioned in a similar way to Man of Steel. The heroes look to dispatch him in a way that isn’t too dissimilar from Tim Story’s version of Fantastic Four (2005). Everything feels too similar from something that was already seen before. The only real difference is that we have different heroes and villains. All that matters is that these heroes hit the same beats. An example of the film’s staleness? Look at the part Cerebro plays yet again.

Singer’s earlier X-Men works were praised for their simple but effective subtexts and relationships. Both X-men (2000) and X-2 (2003), enjoyed playing with allegories towards race, gender and identity politics. Such elements have fallen to the wayside. Why? To compete with the other comic book movies? Or is it just the fact that it quite simply doesn’t matter anymore. This film is so niche in who it caters for, that further X-Men features may not bother too much with any broader appeal. A shame, because it was this aspect which made the X-Men such an interesting choice for a mainstream blockbuster.

I must admit the film still holds are some highlights. Despite some distractingly grisly body horror, the film’s action hold a decent amount of scale. The Quicksilver sequence is yet again the film’s stand out moment. I’ll also say that both McAvoy and Fassbender are still quite watchable in their roles. Whereas Jennifer Lawrence seems quite bored with the whole affair, while some of the new blood are excruciatingly weak. Other performances (poor Olivia Munn) don’t even get a chance to show what they can really do with the material. Again, the film isn’t about any interesting insight, so some character merely stand around and look pretty.

My problem with X-Men Apocalypse is that it feels like just a set of dull set of individual sequences. A series of moments that never feel like a complete whole. The film has little need to implicate further meaning like in earlier entries. Now it has rehashed dialogue and tired gags to communicate to its audience. I will stress that this may only be me who thinks this. I don't say this as a defence to my negative view of the film. You as a reader can take or leave what I say. I mention this because the film sits with a 7.5 on IMDb. Not an easy feat. It's clear that it connects with people. But I'm not sure it's the film. I feel it's the source.

Note: Screenwriter Andrew Ellard deconstructs the film's weakneses in little more than a few tweets:

Review: The Nice Guys

Year: 2016
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice

Synopsis is here:

There were times in The Other Guys were I laughed so hard that I embarrassed myself. Guffawed with such force, that I almost fell off my chair. This is not hyperbole. There were witnesses. I really enjoyed myself.

This is the Shane Black that I know and dig. Free from the restraints of franchise fare like Iron Man 3(2012). Yes, The Nice Guys doesn’t fall far from the hard boiled buddy comedy tree which Black himself has tendered for so long. But it’s absurd and convoluted noir plot, pitch black comedy and engaging performances is invigorating to watch.

If Inherent Vice (2014) was the modern riff of Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), then The Other Guys is Black’s darkly comic take on the likes of L.A. Confidential (1997). Here it’s the seedy L.A. Porn underworld taking over from the grubby mitts of mainstream Hollywood. It’s a perfect setting. If not just for pornography’s wish to be considered legitimate in the 70’s, but for the dubious amount of sleaze which unfortunately came with the territory. The film’s villains do obviously hark back to the same corrupt tribe which infiltrated Chinatown (1974), yet by setting it in the era of 70’s smut, the film feels like a fictional precursor to John Holmes involvement and demise with The Wonderland Murders.

The /Film Podcast’s Jeff Cannata was quick to aim a critical eye on the film’s apparent sexism. We see women used not only as sex objects but as furniture for obnoxious sex parties as well as MacGuffins. No doubt this is nasty work, but it also sneakily highlights the disposable nature we install onto so many sex workers. Despite this, it’s no surprise that the sharpest knife of the pack is neither Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy (an updated Bud White) nor Ryan Gosling’s Holland March (a sly deconstruction of Gosling’s cool customer persona). The film’s smart cookie is March’s 13-year-old daughter; Holly (Angourie Rice), who acts as the film’s actual crime solver and the cohesive gel between both the central relationship between Healy and March and the very loose narrative. Black’s film doesn’t hold neat and tidy, inoffensive gender politics. However, Black gives his female characters a certain agency which larger films couldn’t even be bothered to define with any real clarity.

The Nice Guys isn’t particularly interested in being serious, in spite of its inherent cynicism. The film’s farcical set pieces, riotous reaction shots and playful deconstruction of its dirty detectives take the forefront over anything else. Gosling and Crowe have a great chemistry together and are both hilarious in their roles, with Gosling in particular shows a particular flair for visual comedy. The strength Black’s screenplays is often the comradery which grows between the main duo. Much like Black’s debut Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005). Here is no exception. Gosling’s scruffy loser trades off remarkably well with Crowe’s gruff, no-nonsense demeanour. These scuzzy deadbeats aren’t “Nice Guys” but it’s hard not to enjoy hanging around with them.

The films main mystery doesn’t hold up to any real scrutiny and the films plan to uncover the larger truth is beyond silly. Black keeps it together with film plays off at a great pace and seems to suggest that it’s within this inherent silliness that serious secrets may be hidden. If not, then unconventional partnerships could be effective.  Much like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some (2016), The Nice Guys plays by its own set of rules, and does so with pulpy flair, sharp, knowing dialogue, and a dirty smile across its face. I’ll definitely see films this year which dictate their convolutions better, but I doubt I’ll have any that will make me laugh as hard as some of the “body disposal” I witness in The Nice Guys. That’s the thing, it’s a film which can make you laugh out loud at its grimness. A hard thing to do, but when executed well, it will have you pick yourself up from a dirty cinema floor.