Tuesday, 31 May 2011

X-Men: First Class review

X-Men: First Class (12A/PG-13, 131 mins)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Now over a decade old, the ongoing movie-mutant saga of the X-Men has provided us with a range of comic book adaptations of varying degrees of quality.

Bryan Singer kick-started the franchise in solid fashion before going on to the high-water mark of X2 and stepping aside for the somewhat anti-climactic Last Stand and the thudding futility of Wolverine, a failure because it existed only to cover already well-trodden ground.

There’s also the lingering whiff of Episodes I-III of Star Wars to provide a warning note that prequelising a beloved franchise is fraught with peril and can be, at best, pointless, and at worst guilty of tainting the memory of the very thing it’s trying to revive.

Praise the summer movie gods though, because X-Men: First Class manages, near as dammit, to avoid the obvious pitfalls inherent in trying to shoehorn a reverse engineered mythology to emerge as an immensely satisfying movie event that’s both rollicking fantasy blockbuster and deeply compelling character drama.

This prequel begins, as the very first film did, in a concentration camp in Poland in 1944. This is where young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) discovers that he has the power to move and control metal objects, which brings him to the attention of a Nazi scientist (Kevin Bacon) intent on harnessing this ability.

Zipping forward to 1962, the adult Erik (now played by Michael Fassbender) is still on the hunt for Bacon, who has reinvented himself as an arms dealer named Sebastian Shaw. Meanwhile, telepathic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just graduated as a professor of genetics at Oxford and is recruited to help CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), with the existence of mutants having only just come to the attention of the authorities.

This is a lot to get chucked at us in the early stages, but it’s done in a controlled manner that’s all about getting us to the first meeting of Charles and Erik, two of the most powerful mutants around, but with diametrically opposed philosophies.

The beating heart of the film is the relationship between Charles and Erik, referenced to noteworthy effect in the first film, where Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as avowed enemies Professor X and Magneto shared poignant scenes that hinted at the tragedy of their fractured friendship.

It needed a pair of tremendous actors following in the footsteps of Stewart and McKellen to make this work, and McAvoy and Fassbender prove themselves unerringly capable. McAvoy begins as smooth and charming but grows in gravitas as the film progress while Fassbender is simply mesmerising, seemingly getting better with each role and once again demonstrating that he was born to play James Bond.

With Charles driven by his belief in the goodness of mankind and his longing to help Erik, who is fuelled by anger and hatred from the start, it’s a powerful underpinning to several scenes of astonishing emotional impact.

So rich is the characterisation that it’s almost a shame to point out that probably the only thing preventing the movie soaring to a five star triumph is the feeling that just one key scene cementing Charles and Erik’s relationship is missing, that their eventual schism would be all the more heartbreaking if we were more fully able to believe in their friendship.

But that’s a minor niggle, and though Charles is recruiting young mutants in the fight against Shaw, it’s far more than just a teen spin on the X-Men world, which it only occasionally slips into when we’re with the youngsters for slightly too long a spell in the middle.

Setting it during the Cuban missile crisis yields fertile ground, with Shaw intent on starting World War III so that humanity destroys itself and mutants can become the dominant species. The analogous possibilities of this are endless; the rise of fascism, ethnic cleansing and homophobia - it’s all in there without being sledgehammered.

There’s a sensational cameo that shouldn’t be spoiled for you, a few nice in-jokes, and while it’s not all action there’s very little down-time. When the action does come it’s colossal and the result may well be the finest visit yet to the X-Men universe.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Blu-ray Prizes to be Won

Win Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray


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Monday, 23 May 2011

The Hangover Part II review

The Hangover Part II (15/R, 101 mins)
Director: Todd Phillips
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The problem with a sleeper hit becoming an unexpected smash is one of expectation. When The Hangover was released in the summer of 2009, hopes were high that it would achieve a decent level of box office success and audience approval.

But its stunning worldwide haul of over $450m surprised everyone and made a sequel inevitable, one which now has to match or better its predecessor’s takings and, more or less importantly, depending if you’re the audience or the money men, be just as funny.

With the level of anticipation and inbuilt audience awareness, the former is probably a given. Sadly, if the film is to be judged solely on the number of chuckles it provides, The Hangover Part II falls some way short of its forebear.

With the template of the first film followed rigorously, it seemed a fairly safe bet on paper. This time it’s Stu (Ed Helms) who’s getting married in Thailand and we begin with the same morning after phone call made by Phil (Bradley Cooper), telling the wedding party that things have gone very badly wrong.

Heading back to one week earlier in the States, the final wedding plans are being put in place. Stu is adamant that he’s not going to have a bachelor party, given what happened in Vegas first time round. He also doesn’t want Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to come, given that he was largely responsible for what happened when he spiked their drinks.

In one of the first signs that all is not quite right with this follow up, Alan has gone from eccentric to actively obnoxious, taking an instant dislike to Stu’s brother-in-law to be, Teddy, as they travel to Thailand. As for the bachelor party, Stu agrees to one beer, from a sealed bottle that couldn’t have been tampered with. What’s the worst that could happen?

But clearly, when they wake up in a filthy hotel room in Bangkok the next morning, the worst has happened. Alan’s head has been shaved, Stu has a massive tattoo on his face and the only sign they have of Teddy is his finger in an ice bucket.

It’s a lot of manoeuvring to get the same three guys into the same situation, and while the sense of familiarity is comforting, it also smacks of a lack of imagination on the part of the filmmakers. As before, Phil, Alan and Stu can’t remember anything about the night before, so they head out on a tour of the city, trying to piece together the clues of a night that involved an old monk, police riots and a drug dealing monkey.

Conspicuously missing are the comic set pieces that so enlivened the first outing, replaced by action and frenetic car chases through the streets of Bangkok. Instead of being funny, it’s actually rather dark and dangerous, ending up more like an international crime thriller than a comedy by the time we get to Paul Giamatti’s gangster, who might have some information regarding Teddy’s whereabouts.

The few proper laughs that are to be found come from crudity, a sure sign that the writers aren’t especially interested in coming up with strong character based situations to provide the comedy. There’s copious ladyboy action and a possibly unhealthy obsession with having the monkey touch human genitals, although Galifianakis snags what might be the movie's best line with "When a monkey nibbles on a penis, it's funny in any language."

He does turn in another impressively oblivious performance and many of Helms’ increasingly distraught reactions are amusing, though Cooper’s role as the level-headed one doesn’t offer him a single opportunity to do something funny.

But for all that it’s well constructed, nicely played and never dull, The Hangover Part II has to be measured on laughs and they truly are few and far between. In fact the end-credit photos showing what really happened over the course of the wild night might actually be the funniest thing the movie has to offer, and that isn’t really good enough.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides review

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (12A/PG-13, 137 mins)
Director: Rob Marshall
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

It’s been eight years since the unexpected triumph of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie based on a theme park ride that made Johnny Depp bankable at the box office for the first time in his career.

In that time we’ve seen the series go from fresh and surprising to bloated and incomprehensible. The good news is, On Stranger Tides is better than At World’s End, the threequel from four years ago that seemed to bring the trilogy to its natural conclusion. But that film raked in just shy of $1bn at the worldwide box office, so its makers were unlikely to stay away forever.

It’s the Depp factor that’s undoubtedly the biggest draw. His flamboyant turn as Captain Jack Sparrow earned him his first Oscar nomination and transformed him from quirky indie darling to blockbusting superstar.

When we reunite with Jack here, he’s in London and facing piracy charges. Spanish fishermen meanwhile have dredged up a half-drowned man talking of Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth.

King George is also keen on finding the fountain and has hired Jack’s long-time nemesis Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to find it in his name. Jack has no ship, but someone pretending to be him is putting a crew together, which results in Jack reteaming with old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz) on board a ship run by the fearsome Blackbeard (Ian McShane).

With the race on to find the fountain, it doesn’t make for an especially scintillating first hour as the pieces are put in place. Conversations are expositional and much of the action is limited to rather repetitive swordfights, though Jack getting chased around Greenwich by guards is sprightly enough.

For the most part it’s just one thing on to the next without much flow, no longer particularly interested in constructing a character based story. It’s all about the exoticism and production detail, which is certainly of a very high standard.

It’s the addition of the supernatural elements that give it a boost, as the search for the fountain takes them on to encounters with mermaids, whose tears they need to make its rejuvenation powers work.

But this stretch threatens to outstay its welcome and introduces, in a preacher and the mermaid he takes a shine to, a couple of characters so dull that you long for the relative pizzazz of the now-ditched Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

Depp is just fine, but strange as it may sound, there’s actually too much of him here. His sheer number of lines means not all of them can be as pithy as they ought to be and, as a result, the movie just isn’t very funny. Cruz isn’t much of a character and McShane is reasonable value though cameos from Keith Richards and Judi Dench smack of indulgence rather than necessity.

It gets by on little more than the occasional flash of brilliance from Depp and one or two fun scenes, but it’s a sad state of affairs when being a marginal improvement on an utter shambles is worthy of scraping a third star by dint of not being terrible. And unlike the first instalment, you’re unlikely to come out clamouring for more of the same.