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Review – X-Men: Apocalypse (12a) [2016]

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Star Rating: 2.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • John Ottman – X-Men IIHouse of WaxFantastic 4 I-IIValkyrie, X-Men: Days of Future PastNon-Stop, 20,000 Leagues Under Sea

The Godfather Syndrome is a common problem for film trilogies. When the first film is a good and the second is better, the third film has a hard act to follow. So often, it cannot raise the bar to the required level and, consequently, the film is unsatisfactory. The Godfather trilogy is the most high profile to fall victim to this syndrome (hence the name), but the third film in the Alien franchise and in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy suffered from the syndrome as well. Sadly, so too does the third film in the X-Men prequel trilogy, Apocalypse.

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) has awakened and keen to inflict punishment, using his incredible powers, upon the 'decadent, corrupt' world of the 1980s.

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) has awakened and keen to inflict punishment, using his incredible powers, upon the ‘decadent, corrupt’ world of the 1980s.

X-Men: Apocalypse begins in Ancient Egypt with the creation of the most powerful mutant of all time (played by Oscar Isaac). This mutant is not given a name, but his enemies nickname him Apocalypse. No sooner is Apocalypse created when he is entombed and falls into a coma.

Fast forward to the 1980s and Apocalypse is awoken. He sees the world is full of decadence and corruption. So he decides that he must destroy it in order to make a new and better world. He recruits four (angry) mutants to his cause: Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), in order to carry out his master plan. Only the X-Men can stop this plan from coming to fruition. But only if they unite.

Apocalypse’s plot is quite dull, unoriginal and unfaithful to what the X-Men prequel trilogy has been about. First Class and Days of Future Past were original and interesting because they were not about good vs evil. Rather, they were about the polar-opposite approaches of Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto to tackle the problems mutants faced in the world (mirroring the stances of Martin Luthar King and Malcolm X during the American Civil Rights movements of the 1960s). Neither Professor X’s nor Magneto’s approaches were completely right or completely wrong, which was what made First Class and Days of Future Past so fascinating and realistic (for the X-Men world that is). However, Apocalypse goes back on this theme and focusses more on stopping an all-powerful, under-developed and poorly written (and so obviously evil) villain. This is a real shame as director Bryan Singer should have done more to continue the theme of the previous two installments.

Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) using his machine to find mutants around the world... and being mentally invaded by Apocalypse.

Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) using his machine to find mutants around the world… and being mentally invaded by Apocalypse.

Yet, the near abandonment of the theme running through the first two movies of this trilogy is not the only major problem with Apocalypse’s plot. The storyline is bitty at best and incoherent at worst. As is so often the case in X-Men films, there are many characters with competing storylines. To condense so many storylines into a TV series is a struggle (just look at Game of Thrones). But to do it in a 144-minute film, and to develop the characters as well, is nigh on impossible. As a result, so much in Apocalypse is left under-explained or simply not explained at all: for example why Magneto begins the film in a metal-works factory in Poland (yes, just go with it)? Why, also, does Apocalypse need four assistants to help him execute his grand plan? (One would think these questions are profound enough to warrant answers. But, no, instead Singer spends the time explaining how Professor X went bald and how Storm’s hair turned blonde.)

It is safe to say that Apocalypse’s plot has enough holes to rival Swiss Cheese. However, to some extent one can ignore its many problems and enjoy watching some of our favourite mutants once more. Like in First Class and Days of Future Past, the acting and the dialogue is good. Again, both are a little bit down on the other two movies. But that may be due to viewers becoming accustomed to the high standard of acting set by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence in particular.

No, the only real surprise in Apocalypse is how much screen time is given to the new members of the cast; notably, Sophie Turner as the young Jean Gray. Turner’s American accent vacillates across the Atlantic during the course of the film and she does not have the screen presence or the charisma (as yet) of the more senior members of the cast. But Turner does a good job with what she is given nevertheless.

The new mutants: young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, left), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, centre) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, right) in the thick of the action, trying to stop Apocalypse from carrying his plan to destroy the world.

The new mutants: young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, left), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, centre) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, right) in the thick of the action, trying to stop Apocalypse from carrying his plan to destroy the world.

And like with the acting and the dialogue, the action scenes and the special effects are good without being spectacular. Similarly though, audiences have seen what Apocalypse has to offer before (not only in previous X-Men films, but also in other sci-fi and comic-book movies). This, therefore, leaves viewers feeling underwhelmed and yearning for something more interesting to watch.

All-in-all, X-Men: Apocalypse is a disappointing film. The storyline is a muddle, undercooked and a betrayal from what made the previous two films in the trilogy so engaging. With a plot so problematic, it is no surprise that neither the quality of its cast nor the numerous (inconsequential) action sequences can save this third film from being a let-down. Thus, The Godfather Syndrome has struck again and means that the X-Men prequel trilogy has not got the conclusive third chapter that it richly deserved.

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Review – X-Men: Days of Future Past (12a) [2014]

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Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • John Ottman – X-Men II, House of Wax, Fantastic 4 I-II, Valkyrie, Non-Stop, X-Men: Apocalypse

The Batman and X-Men franchises have undergone similar arcs and reboots in relatively recent times. 1997’s Batman & Robin and 2006’s X-Men 3: The Last Stand were so bad that the franchises were torn up and magnificently re-started in the form of 2005’s Batman Begins and 2011’s X-Men: First Class. And just as 2008’s The Dark Knight was a great sequel to Batman Begins, so Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men franchise with X-Men: Days of Future is a great continuation of First Class.

Storm (Halle Berry), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Blink (Blingbling Fan), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) decide upon their plan of action, whilst watching in horror as the Sentinels attack.

Storm (Halle Berry), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Blink (Blingbling Fan), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) decide upon their plan of action, whilst watching in horror as the Sentinels attack.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is loosely based on the comic-book with the same title. The movie starts in the apocalyptic, present day or the near future. Led by the reunited Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen), the last handful of mutants are trying desperately to hold out against the invincible, changeable Sentinels.

With the situation hopeless, Professor X, via Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), sends Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to 1973. Professor X’s hope is that Wolverine can persuade a younger, mentally-broken Charles (James McAvoy) to re-establish his friendship with Erik (Michael Fassbender) and stop Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) from creating the Sentinels.

X-Men: Days of Future Past has an engaging storyline that interlinks the two time-periods within the film nicely, if not without problems for some of the other X-Men films. Indeed, Days of Future Past may come at the expense of some elements of the three original X-Men movies and may even black-out the existence of the two Wolverine spin-offs (but that is probably for the best).

Moreover, Days of Future Past involves itself in crucial events in history, in the same way that First Class did with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights movement in America in the 1960s. Like with its prequel, Days of Future Past does this in a smart and hilarious way. This, combined many in-jokes and phenomenal special effects, makes Days of Future Past very enjoyable to watch.

Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) finds Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who finds out that she is still furious with him about something that happened off-screen in the past.

Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) finds Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who finds out that she is still furious with him about something that happened off-screen in the past.

Nevertheless, what makes (First Class and) Days of Future Past so interesting is that it is not about a showdown between Good and Evil; it is about the friendship/rivalry of Professor X and Magneto. These two characters may not have the depth or the darkness of Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but their personalities and differing ideologies make for a refreshing change to the crash, bang, boom nature of other superhero movies like all five Spiderman films, Iron Man III and Captain America II among countless others.

Additionally, the dialogue and acting in the latter two X-Men films is significantly better than in those above-mentioned superhero movies, with the exception of The Dark Knight Trilogy. All the actors in Days of Future Past (old and new) are brilliant without fail. Whether it is Sir Ian McKellen or Michael Fassbender, Magneto is played with the same vigour and damaged personality as in First Class; Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful as the vulnerable Mysterique, whose unhappiness in her own skin has led her to take vengeance against anyone who takes a dislike to mutants; Hugh Jackman once again shows that he owns the Wolverine character; Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy play magnificently as Charles Xavier, although McAvoy undoubtedly has the more demanding parts of the role; and Peter Dinklage is great as Dr. Trask, even if his accent switches from his normal New Jersey accent to Tyrion Lannister’s English accent for no obvious reason.

The above-mentioned characters may dominate Days of Future Past, but they are only a minority of the swollen cast. Consequently, a great many characters are not given much screen time, including new mutants like Blink (Bingbing Fan), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart). These mutants have a back-story and it would have been good to hear it.

Otherwise, in the eleven years between the end of First Class and the beginning of Days of Future Past (1962-73), viewers are told of many interesting developments that have occurred off-screen. It would have been nice to have been shown these. (Then again, another film in between these two movies would have been needed for that.)

Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) explaining why he needs to create the Sentinels.

Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) explaining why he needs to create the Sentinels (which come to look remarkably like the machine-monster Thor fights in Thor I).

And, lastly, the film deviates quite significantly from the same-named comic-book; for example, in the comics, it is Kitty Pryde who goes back in time, not Wolverine. But if comic-book geeks are honest, even they would accept that Kitty Pryde cannot dominate the screen (or hold viewer’s attention) in the same way that Wolverine can. And besides, these alterations should not knock down a film that achieves so much by way of its ambition and is so entertaining.

Over-all, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a really good film. It has its flaws and it would have been nice to learn more about the non-central characters, and to see some of the events that happened off-screen. But, on the whole, Days of Future Past is amusing; it deals well with its two competing time-periods; continues the conflict maturely between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr; and is a credible sequel to X-Men: First Class. Now all the franchise needs, like with The Dark Knight Trilogy, is a satisfying conclusion in its third instalment, X-Men: Apocalypse.

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Review – Trance (15) [2013]

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Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Rick Smith – Breaking and Entering

Psychological thrillers, by their nature, are puzzling and mess with one’s mind. Inception, Shutter Island and Black Swan all did this with varying levels of charm, appeal and success. Danny Boyle’s impressive and sexy Trance adds something new to this testing sub-genre.

Simon (James McAvoy), unconscious after being bashed on the head by a batton. As a result, he cannot remember what he did with the painting.

Simon (James McAvoy), unconscious after being bashed on the head by a batton. As a result, he cannot remember what he did with the painting.

  Trance centres round Simon (James McAvoy), who works for a London-based company that auctions expensive paintings. The company has a security system in place to prevent the paintings from getting stolen, and Simon is part of the system.

However, when Franck (Vincent Cassel) leads a gang to steal a precious painting during an auction, the painting disappears. Simon, the last person to have handled the painting before its disappearance, was smacked on the head while he removed the painting. Since then, he has developed amnesia and so he can’t remember where he put the painting. In a desperate bid to find the painting, Franck decides that Simon must go to Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist. Elizabeth believes that by hypnotising Simon, she can get him to recollect the location of the painting.

Trance’s plot is clever and innovative. The film is fast-paced from the off, intense, violent and engaging. It is complex and confusing too, since it constantly does back and forth in time, unravelling what happened to the painting as well as explaining the various (and sinister) motivations of the characters. Moreover, and similar to Black Swan, one is never sure in Trance when one is watching reality or a dream (or a memory or a possible memory). All of this keeps viewers firmly on their toes because no-one can be sure as to where the film is going.

Simon undergoing hypnotherapy with Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) in an attempt to regain his memory regarding the painting.

Simon undergoing hypnotherapy with Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) in an attempt to regain his memory regarding the painting.

Although, it is dubious as to whether Trance’s storyline actually makes sense. Again, this is not novel to the sub-genre: it is uncertain whether the plots for The Machinist or Shutter Island added up (but no-one would argue that those were atrocities to cinema, like Sucker Punch or The Lady In the Water); while Fight Club and Inception demanded that one see them twice (at least) before being able to appreciate (or understand) those movies, and few had reason to complain about those excellent films either. Perhaps, the latter is true for Trance. However, there are some quite significant plot issues that could undermine the film and its realism (if one believes in the effectiveness of hypnotism/hypnotherapy, of course), but these are not going to be discussed here as they would spoil the thrill for those who haven’t seen the movie.

The force of Trance’s storyline is matched by the three main (and more or less only) cast members; James McAvoy in particular. Far from his relaxed demeanour as Charles Xavier/Professor X in X-Men: First-Class, his performance as Simon resembles that of his (brilliant but crazed) stage performance as MacBeth. Nothing illustrates this similitude more than the intensity in Simon’s bombardier blue eyes, as the hypnotherapy, combined with his own problems take effect on him.

Similarly, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson play well, but not with the same power as McAvoy. As Franck, Cassel does a decent job as a shady, amoral character. Yet, it is hard to classify him as the villain here since there is no-one who is particularly good in Trance (some people are just much worse than others). But if one does view Franck as the main antagonist, then one may not feel entirely satisfied with Cassel’s performance because he does not possess the look or the flair to make himself a dangerous villain on screen, unlike the cunning Liam Neeson in Batman Begins/The Dark Knight Rises, or the terrifying Michal Zurawski in In Darkness, or the flamboyant Javier Bardem in Skyfall.

Franck (Vincent Cassel), furtherst right, keeping a worryingly close eye on Simon's treatement, with his group of thugs alongside him to illustrate the consequences for Simon if he fails to shake off his amnesia.

Franck (Vincent Cassel), furtherst right, keeping a worryingly close eye on Simon’s treatment, with his group of thugs at his side to illustrate the consequences for Simon if he fails to shake off his amnesia.

While as Elizabeth the hypnotherapist, the stunning Dawson wonderfully holds her patients (as well as the audience) under her spell, as if ravishingly embodying the psychological thrill of the movie and the sub-genre in one attempt.

Over-all, Trance is a mind-bending and gripping film that is a worthy addition to the sub-genre of psychological thrillers. The movie has its flaws, but to a limited extent these should be disregarded because Boyle’s film is original, appealing and stylish. Furthermore, like all noteworthy psychological thrillers, Trance takes one out of one’s comfort zone and, to its credit, keeps one in thought long after the film has ended.

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Review – X-Men: First Class (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

There is a theme currently in Hollywood not only to remake films, but also to make prequels of blockbusters, such as Batman and Hannibal. (Although, whether one would call Planet of the Apes a blockbuster is questionable.) X-Men: First Class is part of the wider X-Men Origins series that began with Wolverine two years ago. First Class is not as dark and gothic as Batman Begins; yet, it is an entertaining movie with strong moral messages.

Erik, Sean/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Charles, Moira, Raven/Mystique and Cyclops’ younger brother, Alex/Havoc (Lucas Till) all making observations during their time in CIA Headquarters.

Set mainly in early-1960s America, the film centres on the mutants Charles Xavier (James McAvoy – Atonement, Wanted, Trance), the future wheelchair-bound Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart in X-Men I, II & III), and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender – 300, Inglorious Basterds, Shame), the future renegade Magneto (played by Ian McKellen in later films).

Whilst the storyline is about how the US and Soviet governments need their respective mutants for espionage and to avoid going to war over Cuba in the run up to the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962), the mutants spend much time discussing how they just want to fit into mainstream society, despite being different: ‘mutant and proud’ they say (sounds similar to ‘gay and proud’ if you ask me). Oh how such slogans must make Lady Gaga happy! Nevertheless, one cannot help but note the political message here in First Class. The movie takes place at the same time as black people in America were starting to demonstrate and riot for equal rights. That mutants would want the same rights is understandable.

Yet, despite the civil rights aspect and the revising of history with a fantastic conspiracy theory about how the Cuban Missile Crisis played itself out, First Class is more about the contrast in mentalities between Charles and Erik: two friends who would become adversaries.

The mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), formerly the Nazi, Mengele-like doctor who experimented on Erik when he was a boy, casually chatting with the beautiful Emma Frost/White Queen.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender both play well, without being brilliant. As a wise professor with little baggage, McAvoy has the easier of the two roles. Fassbender, without being crude or cliché, illustrates well Erik’s transformation into Magneto. (Arguably, more time could have been given to this, and it could have made for some fascinating psychological viewing. This is just a personal opinion though.) Alas, much of what Erik says is true; yet, undoubtedly, the crucial message of the film – ‘that killing will not bring you peace’ – is put across emphatically by Charles, who fears for his friend. If one thinks about an angry group of hate-filled people against the West in our own age, we might get a true understanding for who that message is really aimed at.

Charles and Erik are not, though, the only mutants seen in First Class. Although many of the bigger names of the later films do not feature, there are still some mutants that audiences may recognise. However, with exception of the beautiful, but insecure Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone, The Beaver, The Hunger Games), none of the lesser characters are given much screen-time. Note though that all the women in the movie are gorgeous and sexy: Dr. Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne – 28 Weeks Later, Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids), Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz – The Brave One, Californication) and, especially, Emma Frost/The White Queen (January Jones – Mad Men, Unknown, American Pie: The Wedding).

Two good friends happily playing chess. It is here that Charles voices his grave concern to Erik, regarding the latter’s desire for vengeance.

If the women and the differences between Charles and Erik are not enough to keep one entertained, the action scenes and the mutants’ supernatural powers should do the trick. The training sessions, wherein Charles teaches his mutant pupils how to control their abilities, are very funny. The special effects are not bad either. They may not always be great, but they adequately enhance the scenes.

All-in-all, First Class gives the viewers what they would want from this sort of film. It may not be as dark as other prequels; nonetheless, the movie has action, a good-looking cast, and poignant moral messages. Most importantly, the director, Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake) shows us how Charles and Erik became enemies and sets up the context for X-Men I, even if some of the major characters have yet to join.

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