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FILM REVIEWS: X, Y, Z

Contents
  • "Xanadu"
  • "X-Men"
  • "X-Men 2"
  • "X-Men: The Last Stand"
  • "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"
  • "X-Men: First Class"
  • "X-Men: Days Of Future Past""
  • "X-Men: Apocalypse"
  • "xXx"
  • "Your Sister's Sister"
  • "The Young Victoria"
  • "You've Got Mail"
  • "Zero Dark Thirty"
  • "Zootropolis"

  • "Xanadu"

    In the summer of 1980, I was in the blistering heat of New York City and took refuge in an air-conditioned Times Square theatre to see this musical. I loved it. Some three decades later, I endeavoured to recapture the magic by renting the DVD. I had to admit that the acting and dialogue are both dire and it is terribly corny, but the music, singing, dancing and roller-skating are so exuberant and the treatment so colourful and inventive that I went with the flow and enjoyed the movie all over again. It's a starring vehicle for the lovely Olivia Newton-John but it's a delight to see Gene Kelly back in action as well and the Electric Light Orchestra provide some lively songs. Someone should revive it as a stage musical.

    "X-Men"

    I love science fiction and fantasy films because they are the most escapist of movies and best differentiate the cinema from other art forms like the theatre. So I really looked forward to the 'X-Men" and hoped that it would come close to the brilliance of "The Matrix", but sadly, while there are some excellent special effects and a few thrills, it is not in the same class.

    Certainly it is a visual treat with no less than ten superb looking mutant characters with a variety of spectacular powers. Newcomer Australian Hugh Jackman is particularly convincing as the metallicly-enhanced Wolverine, but overall the casting is fascinating and includes once child star Anna Pacquin from "The Piano", the British Shakespearean actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and three former models, Halle Berry ("The Flintstones"), Famke Janssen ("GoldenEye"), and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.

    However, the film lacks effective pacing and compelling narrative, with the damsel in distress ending being particularly weak. At least the message is more meaningful and liberal than most SF movies: mutants - like ethnic minorities, or all groups who are perceived as different - can be good or bad and we should not be too quick to judge.

    "X-Men 2"

    Rule One of successful sequels: reprise the main characters. The noble Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his friend Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the sinister Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his aide Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and most of the other mutants from the original movie are back with their varied gifts. Rule Two: introduce some new characters. So this time we have Colonel Stryker (Brian Cox), a human who is as nefarious as any mutant, and some new mutants, including blue-skinned, German-speaking (really!) Kurt Wagner (Alan Cumming) and metal-taloned Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu). Rule Three: better the effects. While some of the scenery looks obviously artificial, generally the effects are extremely well-done with some great form-changing sequences.

    Rule Four: develop the narrative. Ah, there's the rub .. The pacing of the sequel is better than the original, because we don't have all that scene-setting, but instead more sustained action. But the storyline is weak, when it isn't confused. And the script - with the rare good line ("You are a god among insects") - is banal. Where the X-men franchise scores over super-heroes such as Spiderman or Daredevil is that there are so many special powers to display. The down-side though is that the multitude of players allows no space for character exploration or development. So, the film is fun, furious but ultimately froth. I expected a lot of the original and was a rather disappointed but, this time, I knew what to expect and it delivered on that limited level.

    "X-Men: The Last Stand"

    Bryan Singer directed two passable X-Men tales, but left this third outing for the mutants to Brett Ratner (three "Rush Hour" trips), while he went off to direct "Superman Returns". The other distinguishing feature of this sequel is that there is a strong narrative idea - the discovery of a 'cure' for mutancy - so that the plot is easier to follow, although the full political potency of such an interesting concept is not explored. As with the two earlier films, there are some superb special effects and entertaining action sequences.

    The great appeal of the X-Men franchise is the multiple variations in the extraordinary powers possessed by them and how these work with and against each other. So many of the old favourites are back, including the noble Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his colleagues Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and - in a more developed role - Storm (Halle Berry), the maniacal Magneto (Ian McKellan) and the wonderfully exotic Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and crucially the super-powerful Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), although this time it's unclear where she stands among these opposing forces. Then, as always, we have some new characters to entertain us, such as hairy and blue-skinned Beast (Kelsey Grammer), huge-winged Angel (Ben Foster) and the unstoppable Juggernaut (a typecast Vinnie Foster).

    Cleverly the whole thing comes in at half an hour shorter than "X-Men 2" so that, at 104 minutes, it doesn't outstay its welcome. It all comes together in a climactic (and climatic) battle set on Alcatraz Island with Golden Gate Bridge playing a spectacular role (although the whole thing is actually shot in Vancouver). Of course, the good guys win but there are some losses and the final seconds of the movie creates the opening for a further sequel ...

    "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

    After the original three "Star Wars" movies, there was a long interval and then we had another three providing the back story to the initial trilogy. After the original three "X-Men" films (2000, 2003 & 2006), it looks as if - after a mere three-year wait - we're going to have another series explaining how the various mutants acquired their special powers, starting with the steel-clawed Wolverine (the Australian Hugh Jackman). The idea makes some sort of commercial sense, but one of the great strengths of the franchise was the variety of exotic powers on display and the interaction between their use by benevolent and evil mutants and an "Origins" series is always going to be weak on this dimension.

    "Wolverine" opens promisingly with a series of short scenes set in 1845, the American Civil War, the two World Wars and Vietnam war when Wolverine's brother-in-arms is the increasingly mean-minded Victor (an able Liev Schreiber). Government agent Stryker (Danny Huston) is the chief protaganist as he develops various embryonic mutant powers, but we are missing impressive female characters this time with a weak Lynn Collins as Kayla the only offering. There are some fun action sequences but, if you've seen the trailer, you've seen the very best bits. So, in short, entertaining enough but well short of its potential to exhibit some real characterisation and originality.

    By the way, if you sit all the way through the credits (as I always do), you'll see a tiny clip which acts as bridge to the first "X-Men" movie.

    "X-Men: First Class"

    Having seen the previous four X-Men movies and in varying degrees enjoyed them all, I wasn't going to miss this fifth outing and by and large I was not disappointed. Like the last three episodes of "Star Wars" and the J J Abrams version of "Star Trek", this is prequel (as well as something of a reboot) which explains how familiar characters became the ones we know so well. Above all, we meet young versions of Charles Xaxier/Professor X (a chippy James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (an impressive Michael Fassbender) and learn how the former finished up in a wheelchair, how the latter acquired his helmet, and how the two became mortal enemies.

    British director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn - who first burst on the scene with "Layer Cake" - sets most of the narrative in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War (although I don't remember skirts being that short or the stealth aircraft being available then), so we are presented with an alternative vision of the causation and conclusion of the Cuban missile crisis. Lots of mutant powers and special effects are on display which keeps the action moving and the entertainment levels high. Call me weird, but I'm a sucker for a blue-skinned, shape-shifting woman and Jennifer Lawrence is especially appealing as Raven/Mystique.

    "X-Men: Days Of Future Past"

    Including "The Wolverine", this is the seventh outing for the X-Men of the Marvel Comics franchise and Bryan Singer who helmed the first two, is back as director. He's not the only one who's back. Thanks to a time travel plot, we have both the old (Patrick Stewart) and the new (James McAvoy) Charles Xavier/Professor X and the old (Ian McKellen) and the new (Michael Fassbender) Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Fassbender is my favourite of this talented quartet). Lots of others return too: Wolverine, Mystique, Storm, Beast, Iceman, and more beside. So there are a plenitude of characters and powers on display here.

    That's not all. a complicated narrative means that we have good mutants, bad mutants, past mutants, future mutants, one who manages to be in both the future and the past, and another who contrives to have a conversation between his past and future selves. Are you still following me? Do pay attention at the back.

    So it's not always clear exactly what's going on in this complex choreography, but it is loads of fun with some terrific scenes even in the 2D format in which I (deliberately) chose to watch it. I especially enjoyed a freeze-time scene where a mutant called Quicksilver gets to do his stuff and a sequence in which Magneto raises an entire game stadium before putting it to original use. Now it's three years since Jennifer Lawrence took over the role of Raven/Mystique from Rebecca Romijn and, in that time, Lawrence has become a major star, so it's not surprising that in this movie she is given a bigger role and it is a delight to see her in action.

    "X-Men: Apocalypse"

    It's interesting how from time to time we have two or even three films released close to one another which have essentially the same plot. Think, for instance, of "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" in 1998 or "White House Down" and "Olympus Has Fallen" in 2013. So, in the first half of 2016, we have three movies that fundamentally tell the same story: in order of release "Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice", "Captain America: Civil War" and now "X-Men: Apocalypse". In each, we have a superhero production in which superheroes knock the hell out of each other rather than concentrate on an independent bad guy.

    Which of the three is the best? For me, it is "Captain America". "Batman v Superman" had too few characters to fill two and a half hours, while "X-Men" had too many characters with insufficient back story on most of them. "Captain America" just about managed its large cast list and was helped by our knowledge of most of the characters from previous movies.

    Including "The Wolverine", "Apocalypse" is the eighth outing for the X-Men of the Marvel Comics franchise and Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two and the last one, is back as director for the fourth time, so the work is in good hands. It looks splendid with yet more destruction of iconic world landmarks - although the apparent death of millions of innocents is totally overlooked in a work that references the Holocaust - but the problem is with the mutants themselves.

    The eponymous Apocalypse (an unrecognisable Oscar Isaacs) wants to destroy everything and everybody for no good reason and manages to recruit four aides or horsemen with ridiculous ease and again for no clear reason. The female actors are especially badly served: Jennifer Lawrence, back as Raven/Mystique, has too few decent lines, while newcomers to the franchise Alexandra Shipp (as Storm) and Olivia Munn (as Psylocke) are terribly underwritten. Best not to think too much about the plot or script and just enjoy the visuals.

    "xXx"

    The James Bond films are the longest running and most profitable franchise in the history of the cinema, so it's not surprising that there are regular interpretations of the genre. On the 40th anniversary of 007's movie début comes a new kind of action hero, an extreme sports fanatic who is reluctantly pressed into state espionage in a film with many references to both the characters and situations of the Bond movies.

    Vin Diesel (born plain Mark Vincent) has the physicality and boyish charm that enable him to pull off this variation as the muscle-bound and heavily-tattooed Xander Cage who - thanks to a vast cast of stunt men and expensive computer graphics - performs some spectacular escapades. The whole thing is utterly mindless but enormous fun - just leave your brain at the door, enjoy the ride, and look forward to the sequel.

    By the way, much of the shooting was done in atmospheric Prague which is my favourite city, so I recognised many of the locations and even the speed boat which carries its deadly cargo down the River Vlatava in the concluding climax (I actually saw the craft on the river during one of my visits).

    "The Young Victoria"

    Queen Victoria was Britain's longest-serving monarch, reigning for an incredible 63 years (1837-1901) and the abiding image of her is an aged and dour woman, but this film presents a very different picture, the run-up to and the early period after her taking the crown at the tender age of just 18. It was a challenge for Emily Blunt, still only in her mid twenties, to carry a major movie in this way but she gives a fine performance, by turns vulnerable, assertive, impetuous, and amorous.

    Diana, Princess of Wales, famously asserted that there were always three people in her marriage to Prince Charles and her royal predecessor Victoria - albeit in a different sense - had many people in her courtship with and marriage to her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Rupert Friend), most notably Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), and this account makes plain the personal and political manoeuvring around the teenager as she sought her independence.

    It is a fascinating history tale by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée but, as a film, fails to excite or engage, since the script by Julian Fellowes does not come up to the standards of his work for "Gosford Park". Splendid settings and costumes are not enough.

    Footnote: Sarah Ferguson, once a member of the British royal family, was a producer on the film and one of her daughters, Beatrice, has a non-speaking and uncredited cameo role as a lady-in-waiting.

    "Your Sister's Sister"

    I would see the beautiful and accomplished British actress Emily Blunt in anything and last viewed her in "The Five-Year Engagement". While this was a big, Hollywood romantic comedy, "Your Sister's Sister" is a small, independent rom-com with a more serious edge. Playing opposite Blunt is Rosemarie DeWitt as her sister and Mark Duplass as the brother of her ex-boyfriend. These three virtually occupy the whole 90 minutes and have plenty of (largely improvised) dialogue in a movie which some might find wordy but I felt was incredibly naturalistic and engaging.

    The film was both written and directed by Lynn Shelton and might be thought of as a woman's movie but I would recommend it to anyone interested in human relationships for its sensitive, yet amusing, exploration of sibling relations, different forms of love, and the desire for parenthood.

    "You've Got Mail"

    As you'e reading this review on the web, it's a fair bet that you use e-mail, so you have to see this movie which is effectively an on-line romance courtesy of AOL's Instant Messaging system. This is a reuniting of the team that made such a success of "Sleepless In Seattle" (1993) - the dependable Tom Hanks, the cute Meg Ryan, and writer/director Nora Ephron - in what essentially is a remake of "The Shop Around The Corner" (1940) that could be called "Sleepless In Cyberspace". This time we have a modern setting as Joe Fox (a.k.a. NY152) and Kathleen Kelly (a.k.a. Shopgirl) fall in love in spite of being rivals in the book-selling market of New York City. It's all entirely predicable, but charming, funny and romantic.

    "Zero Dark Thirty"

    The title is never explained, but it is military jargon for 30 minutes after midnight, the time that the raid on the Abbottabad compound was launched, and apparently it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade-long mission to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (or "USB" as he is referred to sometimes in the movie). The film reunites the winning team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who were responsible for the brilliant "The Hurt Locker", and who have now produced a stunning piece of work.

    When bin Laden was eliminated by SEAL Team Six on 2 May 2011, it was obvious that there would soon be a film about the exploit, but few would have guessed that the director would be a woman, the lead character would also be a woman, the focus would be on the intelligence-gathering operation rather than the military planning of the raid, and the whole thing would be so lacking in machismo and so non-triumphalist. All these unexpected features, plus outstanding acting, brilliant cinematography and superb sound, make this a superlative exercise in film-making.

    The narrative is in the form of a triptych: a deeply disturbing set of interrogations involving torture, a painstaking and obsessive pursuit of intelligence links to the courier, and then the audacious raid into Pakistani territory under the noses of the country's equivalent to West Point (depicted in almost real time). Linking the three segments is Maya, the female CIA analyst on whom we have no background information, played by Jesica Chastain who confirms her status as one of the finest actresses of her generation.

    In this long, but gripping, film, only one scene did not work for me: when a CIA chief lambasts his team for failing to find their man. This scene apart, the whole movie is utterly absorbing in its authentic presentation. There are clearly conflations and mistakes in the telling of this true story, but it is clear that Bigelow and Boal have had access to people who know a lot about this unique operation and have helped the creation of a work of great verisimilitude and power.

    "Zootropolis"

    A staple of children's movies is to give animals human characteristics, whether it is our feathered friends in the "Rio" series or our furry friends in the "Alvin And The Chipmunks" franchise. What is different about "Zootropolis" - called "Zootopia" in the USA - is that this is not one breed of talking animals existing in a human world, but every breed of animal inhabiting a world in which there are no humans. The colourful representation of this world, the engaging variety of characters, and the clever script with a message of tolerance and inclusion make for a wonderful movie from Walt Disney Productions.

    The basic story is a kind of "Lethal Weapon" pairing of two unlikely partners in crime-fighting: a female rabbit called Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) and a shady fox called Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). In pursuit of a missing person (sorry, animal), they encounter all sorts of adventures and a cast of characters ranging from sloths who will not be hurried to a Mr Big who turns out to be a tiny version of "The Godfather" concluding with a singing gazelle (Shakira). I took my five year old granddaughter to see the movie and she loved it, finishing up dancing in the aisles.

    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.

    Last modified on 25 May 2016


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