Review – X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Marvel’s most well-worn franchise is back to the future and back to its best in this exhilarating time travelling romp that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year

It’s been 14 years since X-Men arrived like a juggernaut into cinemas and ushered in a new paradigm in Hollywood that shows no signs of abating.

The franchise’s high water mark X2 (2003) still remains one of the most fully realised comic book movies. The same, however, could not be said of its sequel The Last Stand (2006) and the two standalone films featuring the evergreen Wolverine – all of which validated the law of diminishing returns.

1970s era Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) re-enters cerebro with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

1970s era Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) re-enters cerebro with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

As seems to happen with most money-spinning comic book series these days, the clocks were turned back and the reboot switch was flipped with X-Men: First Class (2011), an effective superhero flick that used recent history (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) to posit an alternative reality in which mutants played a significant part.

The golden thread that linked First Class and X-Men 1.0 was Hugh Jackman’s pithy cameo as Wolverine and the character inevitably plays a crucial role in bridging the two time periods for Days Of Future Past.

Military scientist and businessman Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Military scientist and businessman Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The other golden thread is director Bryan Singer, who has come home after a patchy recent run that included Superman Returns (2006), Valkyrie (2008) and Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) and in the process delivered the best film in the franchise since his last turn in the big chair with X2.

Wolverine is zapped back in time to 1973 by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to avert a future wherein seemingly invincible man-made robots called Sentinels are within a hair’s breadth of wiping out mutant kind. The situation is so grim that friends-turned-enemies Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have joined forces to make a last stand (not that one) against the metallic beasts.

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sets her sights in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sets her sights in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Meanwhile, back in ’73, Wolverine must convince a younger, more disillusioned Xavier (James McAvoy) to break Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of the Pentagon in order for him to help them stop the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing military scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), whose murder convinces President Nixon’s government to implement Trask’s Sentinel programme.

Using time travel to change an event in the past in order to alter the future invariably brings to mind the likes of The Terminator and Days Of Future Past doesn’t try particularly hard in hiding its obvious debt to that film as the Sentinels turn the planet into a mass graveyard in its dystopian opening reel.

1970s era Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to stop traffic in X-Men: Days of Future Past

1970s era Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to stop traffic in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The film also owes a debt to Star Trek, specifically First Contact and The Voyage Home in its ambition to strike a tone between serious and light-hearted. It’s a tough balance to strike, but one the film carries off with aplomb.

The scenes involving a young Peter Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, are great fun and Evan Peters has a blast in the part of the mutant who’s faster than a speeding bullet. The slo-mo Pentagon kitchen sequence involving a gleeful Quicksilver concocting an elaborate way of getting past the gun-toting guards is an ingenious fusion of special effects, balletic choreography and music (Jim Croce’s Time In A Bottle) that pays off to highly satisfying effect.

A future Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

A future Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Singer just about manages to avoid things slipping into Village People ridiculousness, although Simon Kinberg’s script slips into over-exposition and needless anachronisms, to the extent you half expect Jackman to break the fourth wall and ask ‘are you keeping up?’.

A strength of the film, aside from John Ottman’s nicely judged score, is its ability to juggle a sizeable cast. With the exception of Halle Berry’s increasingly redundant Storm and Anna Paquin’s much-discussed reduction in screen time, pretty much everyone gets their moment to shine, in particular Nicholas Hoult, who continues the good work he put in during First Class as Hank McCoy, aka Beast.

Future Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Future Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Jackman, Stewart and McKellen slip into their respective roles as they would an old pair of shoes, while Lawrence gives Mystique a very human dimension and McAvoy expands greatly on what he did in First Class.

The biggest plaudits must go to the excellent Dinklage, who offers up a different sort of villain from the ones we’re used to seeing. Even the very worst of humanity think they’re doing the right thing and Trask is no different. Singer wisely cast Dinklage, whose diminutive size suggests a harmless industrialist, but whose character exbibits ambitions that are world-changing indeed.

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year.

Advertisements

Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There may be plenty of hunger before we finally get to the games, but it’s more than worth the wait in this bigger, bolder and – yes – better sequel.

Even in spite of Lawrence's knockout performance The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you'll be hungry for the next serving

Even in spite of Lawrence’s knockout performance The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you’ll be hungry for the next serving

Despite being an international bestseller, nothing was written in stone to suggest Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult sci-fi adventure novels would make a convincing leap to the big screen.

However, paydirt was well and truly hit with the casting of star-in-waiting Jennifer Lawrence in the central role of Katniss Everdeen who, along with strong direction from Gary Ross and striking production design, turned 2012’s The Hunger Games into a mature and effective first chapter in the franchise.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) must jump through President Snow's hoops in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) must jump through President Snow’s hoops in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

With almost double the budget under his belt, new director Francis Lawrence (no relation) has turned in a follow-up that manages to avoid many of the symptoms of sequel-itis and builds on the foundations of the first movie to impressive effect.

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, with Katniss and fellow 74th Hunger Games tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) reluctantly embarking on a victor’s tour of the impoverished districts of Panem out of fear for their families’ safety. Anxious to stamp out the unrest that’s been brewing following Katniss’ show of defiance in the last Games, despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) announces that the 75th anniversary Quarter Quell will see former champions – Katniss and Peeta included – fight to the death in the most twisted and sickening Games yet.

Talk show host from hell Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Talk show host from hell Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Just as in the first installment, Catching Fire spends a great deal of time building up to the gladiatorial spectacle of the Games themselves. However, unlike The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for example, you never get the sense the film is treading water and indulging itself. The slow, gradual wind up towards the horror of the Quarter Quell feels neccessary, as if the characters are pieces on a chessboard being carefully positioned.

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) defies the authorities in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) defies the authorities in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

That this build up is as engaging as it is is largely down to the captivating performance of Lawrence, who commands the screen. Since her breakout turn in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence’s stature has grown with every film and here it’s as if the camera is magnetised to her. What makes Katniss so appealing – and so human – is that she remains a reluctant hero, someone who would much rather be out hunting with her friend/love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) than be the face of the rebellion or a thorn in Snow’s side.

Catching Fire‘s supporting cast is an engaging mix of young and established talent, from Sutherland’s oily turn as the banally evil Snow, to Woody Harrelson’s colourful performance as Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks’ nuanced portrayal of the garishly dressed Team Katniss cheerleader Effie Trinket, whose blind obidience to the Capitol gradually erodes as the veil is lifted.

The banally evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The banally evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Special mention must go to Stanley Tucci, who’s even more over-the-top this time around as Caesar Flickerman, the Hunger Games talk show host with the impossibly white teeth and insincere laugh who peddles bread and circuses to the masses and stands alongside Snow as the face of Panem’s totalitarian regime. It’s the film’s creepiest character and Tucci’s performance is skin-crawlingly effective.

Just as in the first film, Catching Fire, well, catches fire when the Hunger Games finally commence. Although essentially the same set-up as the previous film (last person standing wins), this time around we get poisonous gas, electrified force fields, psychological warfare and, most disturbingly, flesh-eating monkeys thrown in. Each mini-set piece is striking in its own way and follow each other so quickly you’ll be left as exhausted as the tributes.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark are the girl, and boy, on fire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark are the girl, and boy, on fire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As is the way of modern day franchises, this second installment is darker than its predecessor and is much better for it. The social commentary and political subtext alluded to in the first film is more pronounced this time around (both visually and in the dialogue, most notably between Snow and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Games Designer Plutarch Heavensbee) and the violence more reactionary and brutal. It’s pretty strong stuff for what’s supposed to be a film aimed at young adults.

Even in spite of Lawrence’s knockout performance Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you’ll be hungry for the next serving.

Review – Silver Linings Playbook

A quick glance at the plot for Silver Linings Playbook and you’d be forgiven for expecting yet another excruciating Hollywood romantic comedy, the kind that Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston seem to find themselves in.

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook – “smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age”

What should make this film even worse is that its central figure Pat Jr (Bradley Cooper) has bipolar disorder, which normally results in the sort of turned-up-to-11  manic performance that cries out for an Academy Award.

The fact that Silver Linings Playbook manages to avoid the trap doors and skirts around the clichés is largely down to the mercurial David O. Russell, who adapts and directs this smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age from Matthew Quick’s short story.

Pat is diagnosed after attacking his wife’s lover in the shower and, after eight months in a psychiatric institution is released into the care of his OCD-afflicted, Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) and long-suffering mother Dolores (Australian actress Jacki Weaver). Without a job or a wife, Pat is determined to rebuild his life, believing that if he gets fit and stays positive he can save his marriage.

At a friend’s dinner party he meets the self-destructive Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has tried to overcome her grief at the death of her husband by sleeping around. Tiffany offers Pat a deal – she’ll help him reconnect with his wife as long as he becomes his dance partner for an upcoming ballroom competition.

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Russell knows the rom-com tropes – Pat and Tiffany are clearly made for each other – but in the best tradition of those classic screwball comedies, all the fun comes in how these two broken souls finally realise what the audience have known all along.

Crucially, the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is fantastic. They fizz off each other like a pair of firecrackers, from the amusing dinner party when they swap anti-depressant stories like Christmas cards to the sultry dance sequences.

The two are equally tactless, whether it be Pat asking Tiffany how many people she slept with in her office before being fired, or Tiffany saving Pat the bother of reading Lord of the Flies by summarising it for him and throwing the book away, annoyed he’s only reading it because it’s on the high school syllabus his estranged wife is teaching (reflecting an earlier scene when Pat throws a copy of A Farewell to Arms through the window because he’s disgusted with the pessimistic ending).

"Go Eagles!" Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

“Go Eagles!” Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

This is no smooth ride to love of course; Tiffany attacks Pat for being “afraid to be alive” and feels increasingly used by her dance partner as nothing more than a tool in which to win back his spouse. Pat feels guilty for getting closer to Tiffany and suffers a number of violent bipolar episodes, including one in the reception of his therapist Dr Patel (Bollywood favourite Anupam Kher).

Pat Snr, meanwhile, faces his own struggles. In one moving scene, beautifully played by De Niro, he has a moment of guilty realisation that father and son are perhaps more alike than he thought and tries to find some common ground over their shared love of the Eagles.

Cooper has never been better, which admittedly isn’t saying a lot as his output, until now, has hardly been stellar. He isn’t afraid to make Pat unlikeable and restrains himself from falling back on the pretty-boy mugging he’s been guilty of in the past.

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

After years of picking up the pay cheque, it’s great to see De Niro back on form. For once, he looks fully engaged and appears to enjoy playing opposite Cooper again (following the patchy Limitless).

In lesser hands, the role of Tiffany could have become unbearably kooky or flaky. Apparently Russell originally had Zooey Deschanel in mind for the part, so one can only imagine how painful that would have been to watch.

Instead, Lawrence forgoes the crazy and brings a vulnerability to the role that’s refreshing to see. Instead of relying on a pout or a flailing of the limbs, she does a lot of her work with her eyes, expressing confidence, defensiveness or pain in a single look.

The exaggerated family dynamic and pent up emotions bring to mind Russell’s previous film The Fighter, but while that film somewhat lost its way, here he maintains a sharp focus and sweeps you along so persuasively that come the final dance contest you’ll be willing them on along with the rest.