Wednesday, 28 May 2014

'X-Men: Days of Future Past', 'Godzilla', 'The Wind Rises', '20 Feet from Stardom', 'Blue Ruin', 'Locke', 'A Story of Children and Film', and 'Tracks'

'X-Men: Days of Future Past' - Dir. Bryan Singer (12A)

Regular readers of this blog will know I'm a huge fan of the Marvel Studios movies to date, with my enthusiasm for 'Captain America: the First Avenger' and 'The Avengers', in particular, leading me to become an avid reader of the comics themselves. I like the Sam Raimi 'Spider-Man' series a lot too (even the third one, with reservations) and I even have time for Ang Lee's much-maligned 'Hulk' and, over on the DC side of things, I am overall a fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Yet, even though I'm of that generation that grew up with the Saturday morning cartoon series in the 90s and had parents who owned and loved an extensive collection of the Claremont/Byrne comics, I have never been a huge fan of Fox's X-Men movie franchise. The first one was pretty good - certainly better than I remember expecting it to be after seeing the title characters disappointingly decked out in unexciting black leather outfits - and its direct sequel, 2003's 'X-Men 2', was better still, but I've never been nostalgic about the series at all. And that's in spite of the fact that, with a couple of exceptions, the casting has always been superb.

That cast is probably why the series has limped on within the same continuity for over a decade now, even after the third entry 'X-Men: the Last Stand' killed off several main characters and pissed fans off by being completely terrible in almost every way: how do you recast Ian McKellan as Magneto or Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier? To say nothing of the fact that Hugh Jackman, a near unknown when he was first cast in 2000, practically is Wolverine. The solution was to go backwards a few years ago with 'X-Men: First Class' (which most seemed to love and I completely hated bar its, again, exceptional casting), keeping the option open of making more Jackman Wolverine movies (2013's 'The Wolverine' was legitimately pretty great, whilst 2009's 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' is best left forgotten) and enabling the recasting of key roles without inviting the same unkind comparisons that might have persisted had it been a straight-up reboot.

Now, seven movies in to Fox's X-Men movie franchise, they've finally made one I unequivocally love. Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two movies, returned to the director's chair to tell a very X-Men story: one involving not only the comic book series' staple of time travel but also spinning a tale specifically designed to address and repair perceived to an increasingly elaborate and inconsistent continuity. Put that way, 'X-Men: Days of Future Past', which is loosely based on a classic Chris Claremont and John Byrne story, is possibly the most comic book movie ever. The series that once felt the need to make jokes about heroes wearing "yellow spandex" has now fully embraced the madness of comic books and I couldn't have had a bigger smile on my face whilst watching it. Especially at the ending, because here's the thing: Singer and writer Simon Kinberg have done it.

They have fixed the X-Men movie franchise and in a classy way that makes it possible to make new movies with the 'First Class' cast (primarily James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence) without fear of bumping into any of the old baggage that once lay in the way. It's a smart movie that celebrates the past, but definitively makes way for the future. It's a rare sequel/prequel that actually elevates everything that came before and makes it all seem, finally, like it all sort of makes a certain fuzzy kind of sense. I like problem movies, which is to say movies which seem to have set themselves a problem and solved it. It's partly why I liked Joss Whedon's 'Avengers' as much as I do. By all rights that movie should have been a huge mess: too many characters to juggle, too many egos on set, too much extended universe baggage to make it appeal to new audience members - yet it all clicked into place.

The same applies to 'Days of Future Past' in that this movie seems to have been conceived as a way to address continuity mistakes and to help rejuvenate and reboot the franchise. It's a placeholder movie, paving the way for new stories with a couple of hours of energetic rebuilding work, basically. Yet it also works on its own terms somehow, and is fast-paced, fun and contains terrific fight scenes not matched by any X-Men movie and, possibly, by any superhero movie to date. For the first time I'm excited to see a new X-Men movie. In fact, now I'm excited to see the recently announced Channing Tatum Gambit movie. It's not often movie number seven is the best in the franchise, but Fox's X-Men just got really good and it only took about 15 years to get there. Oh, and Quicksilver is awesome.

'Godzilla' - Dir. Gareth Edwards (12A)

Can't talk about this one without a mild SPOILER that won't be a surprise to anyone who's seen the more recent trailers, but some may want to avoid until they've seen the film.

The obvious way to reboot 'Godzilla' for a modern audience would be to re-tell that great original story from Ishiro Honda's 1954 classic, with all its post-war nuclear paranoia and pitch-perfect melodrama, as scientists work against hope to prevent the gigantic scaley metaphor from wiping out humanity one city at a time. He emerges from the sea, we get terrified, he fights the army, we somehow beat him back, the end. That first movie is popularly acknowledged to be the best of a series that, depending on who's counting, now extends to around 40 entries all sticking to a tried and tested formula which typically sees Godzilla fighting other giant kaiju whilst we humans look on helplessly. It's a "proper movie" that still holds up, in other words, whilst the sequels went the way of 'Rocky'. So it's fascinating to me that Gareth Edwards, director of DIY critical darling 'Monsters', has effectively bypassed this obvious route to respectability and gone straight into this prospective franchise in the spirit of those sequels. It's a weird choice but he more or less pulls it off with an entertaining monster smash-up even if it's not the more grounded and cerebral film many were expecting.

Godzilla is, charitably, a supporting player here, arriving around the hour mark and seldom seen until the big final showdown in which he rescues hopeless humanity from no less than two other gigantic terrors, after which he is declared the "king of monsters" by the TV news and celebrated in the streets. He's not the main hero and nor is he the epic antagonist, but instead serves as an elemental force of nature who sweeps in and, as Ken Watanabe's scientist has it, "restores balance" when things are at their bleakest. Until that happens we have to make do with a bunch of really good actors with varying degrees of little to do (Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Brian Cranston, David Strathairn) and a lot of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a military guy who, for one reason or another, follows the monsters around the world, acting as witness to a lot of city destruction and a number of futile US military attempts to thwart the beasts.

It lacks a little on the human side, but one thing Edwards' movie gets spectacularly right is the special effects on the monsters, which pull of that difficult trick (notoriously hard with CGI) of giving the creatures weight and scale. These are impressive things that easily dwarf aircraft carriers and skyscrapers. One of the most fun aspects of this movie is that Godzilla and his kaiju cousins are completely indifferent to us, only attacking when we get in their way, something best shown by scenes which show the American navy travelling alongside Godzilla as he makes his way inland. He could smash them up in moments were he bothered, but we're insects to him - which is probably the clearest way the film retains any of the original's fear of destructive forces outside of our control. Despite the cheering at the end, there is little indication that Godzilla has gone out of his way to save humanity, just that his vague objective matched up with our own this time around.

Far from perfect and not as complete or fully realised a vision as last year's more ambitious and imaginative 'Pacific Rim', Edwards' latest monster movie is a strange inverse of his last one: great at delivering epically sized beasts laying waste to civilization in suitably entertaining ways and a little bit shoddy when it comes to character work. Perhaps if a supporting player like Bryan Cranston were the star instead of the bland Taylor-Johnson then things would be very different, but as it stands this is a film that has just enough thrills to make you forgive its shortcomings.

'The Wind Rises' - Dir. Hayao Miyazaki (PG)

Supposedly representing the final film from legendary writer/director Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, 'The Wind Rises' is a relatively low-key affair which serves partly as a biopic of aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi - designer of the famous 'Zero' fighter plane during the Second World War - and, oddly enough, also as a loose adaptation of a short story by Tatsuo Hori called The Wind Has Risen, which concerns a woman suffering from tuberculosis. It's a strange blend, especially as it means half the story (the part concerning Jiro's love for his sickly wife Naoko, which becomes increasingly pronounced in the final third) bares no obvious correlation with the life of the person the film is directly about, but it works in injecting what might have been a fairly dry tale about an aviation pioneer with the heart and romanticism associated with the filmmaker.

In almost every Miyazaki film to date his passion for machines, engines and, especially, aircraft has loomed large - most notably in 'Castle in the Sky' and 'Porco Rosso' but also visible in the joy of flight experienced on the catbus of 'My Neighbour Totoro' or the broom in 'Kiki's Delivery Service' - so in many ways, though it is less fantastical and magical (and it does still have those qualities stylistically), 'The Wind Rises' does have the air of a great passion project and represents an extremely personal sign-off. In the dream sequences, which are many, Miyazaki indulges his childish imagination, creating wondrous and impossible aircraft and contriving to have two of his heroes converse in what is ultimately aviation hobbyist fan fiction, as Jiro regularly checks in with the Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni, who forms his imaginary mentor. Miyazaki's obsessions enter the film in other ways too, with Jiro's drive and single-minded dedication to pursuing his chosen profession, perhaps at the expense of his personal life, another recurring theme.

At its core it's a film about choosing to pursue your creative dream even if it might be appropriated for nefarious purposes. Some have criticised the director for not going far enough to address the fact that Horikoshi ultimately designed efficient engines of war and destruction which were quickly put to devastating purpose in expanding the Empire of Imperial Japan - and it is fair to say he doesn't admonish Jiro for anything more severe than maybe not paying his (fictionalised) ailing wife enough attention. That said, given some of that negative reaction I was surprised how much the oncoming war underpins the entire film from its opening dream sequence (interrupted by bombs and destruction) to it's bittersweet final moments as Jiro finally perfects his plane only to be suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of what it will be use for next.

I'd argue Miyazaki effectively creates an air of menace and unease for most of the running time, with the foreshadowing of the coming destruction keenly felt during a haunting portrayal of the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, as it levels Tokyo amidst an eerie sense of calm and quiet resignation of defeat in the face of a greater power - one of the greatest sequences he's ever conceived. The anti-war theme also comes to the fore in Jiro's dreams and the question of whether to "live in a world with or without pyramids", as Caproni puts it to him, is central. Then there's the kindly German traveller who (voiced to great effect by Werner Herzog in the English language dub) speaks gravely about the great evils being perpetuated by Japan's Nazi allies in Europe and who is suddenly forced to flee from the secret police. Ultimately this distaste for (though never outright rejection of) war is what sours Jiro's greatest achievement.

As you'd expect by now, the animation is peerless and beautiful, rendered all the more majestic by Joe Hisaishi's sweeping score. Miyazaki always nails small character moments and this film is no exception, from the effortless poetry of Naoko pulling her quilt over the sleeping Jiro as he rests at her side to his light and joyful depiction of something as simple as a paper airplane drifting on a breeze or a group of kids squeezing cartoonishly into the narrow confines of a giant biplane. Without much in the way of conflict to power the narrative, or anything like the fantasy of 'Howl's Moving Castle', 'Spirited Away' or 'Princess Mononoke', this is a film of small moments and wonderful details, no less joyful than those he's given us in the past. He threatened retirement in the past and then came back with some of his most celebrated work, so here's hoping this isn't the last of Hayao Miyazaki. But, if it is, this personal and intimate film is a great way to go.

'20 Feet from Stardom' - Dir. Morgan Neville (12A)

Controversially taking the Best Documentary Oscar earlier this year when it beat the fancied critical favourite 'The Act of Killing', '20 Feet from Stardom' may not be as exceptional a film in terms of form or content, but it's still a very entertaining doc, especially for those with a predilection for the girl groups of the 50s and 60s. The great Darlene Love is probably the best known of the film's subjects, as it explores the careers of remarkable singers (more often than not black women) who found themselves, for one reason or another, working as back-up rather than making the breakthrough as solo acts. There's all the expected VH1 Behind the Music style accounts of the highs and lows of fame and fortune, as some make it and others fall into obscurity and even out of music altogether, but it's pretty shallow when it comes to insight and is far from a definitive account of any era or artist. The main reason to watch is to see and hear these brilliant singers given a long overdue spotlight, and to learn anecdotes about their careers in music which saw them working behind everyone from Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder via Springsteen and Bowie.

'Blue Ruin' - Dir. Jeremy Saulnier (15)

With a low budget crowd-funded on Kickstarter and a very slight plot, 'Blue Ruin' is a taut thriller that mostly gets by on atmosphere, with the camera often uncomfortably close to Dwight (Macon Blair) who, when we first meet him, is a soft-spoken, reclusive vagrant - apparently sleep-walking through the past several years of his life in a traumatised stupor and living on a beach in a rusted, blue Pontiac. This changes when a local cop informs him that the man who killed his parents is due to be released from prison, prompting Dwight to start moving with a zombie-like single-mindedness on a quest for revenge. He starts up his old car, gets himself a gun, and heads out on a path of endless and empty ultra-violence with no clear winners.

Whilst clearly relishing the imaginatively executed scenes of violence, and clearly taking influence from the black humour and dark-hearted menace of early Coen Brothers movies, director Jeremy Saulnier also makes revenge seem appropriately childish. His baby-faced protagonist seems stuck in infanthood after losing his parents and seems perpetually afraid and incompetent, as opposed to cool and in control, a fact which serves as a nice counterpoint to the place revenge now seems to occupy in media in a post-Tarantino world. He gets his guns from a similarly childish old school friend, who displays a juvenile male's love of firearms and murder that is without conscience or understanding of consequence. That's not to say Saulnier isn't perhaps having his cake and eating it, with part of the thrill of 'Blue Ruin' definitely coming from the well-crafted scenes of death and violence, but it's an interesting and welcome aspect and one which elevates this interesting film above the crowd.

'Locke' - Dir. Steven Knight (15)

A masterclass in terms of showing what you can achieve with one (admittedly world class) actor and a tight, disciplined screenplay, 'Locke' is literally a film in which Tom Hardy drives down a British motorway for around an hour and a half, juggling problems at home and work on his phone. It begins with him getting into his family car in Birmingham and ends with him taking an exit ramp off the M40 and, though hugely important to Hardy's Ivan Locke and to the disembodied voices we hear on the other end of his carphone, the problems he faces are refreshingly down to earth. If given a small budget, one actor, and the brief to make a film entirely set in a moving car, it would be tempting to inject high-octane drama by making, say, something about a man with a bomb on his backseat who is having to deal with terrorists as he drives against the clock to rescue his wife and kids - but Locke gets a lot out of far less. It's consistently tense and thoroughly gripping even though it's about a man who's simply trying to get to resolve marital problems whilst also trying to co-ordinate what we're told is the "biggest concrete pour in Europe" (outside of military and nuclear). High stakes on both fronts, but on a relatable, human scale.

The only criticism I have of 'Locke' is that some of the voices on the other end of the phone sound theatrical and exaggerated rather than naturalistic, which is jarring when Hardy's adopted Welsh accent comes across as conversational and a little more nuanced, which has the effect of making it feel like the two sides of the conversation are coming from different films. Though that's a minor quibble at most because Hardy delivers a central performance that is captivating from beginning to end, even as/especially when he monologues about the minutiae urban planning and the construction industry in great detail. In fact his Alan Partridge-like fixation on pedantic, humdrum details lends the film a lot of humour even as you find yourself on the edge of your seat wondering if he can get the council to approve a vital 'stop and go' on a minor road at short notice.

'A Story of Children and Film' - Dir. Mark Cousins (PG)

In the vein of his celebrated television series 'The Story of Film: An Odyssey', critic-turned-filmmaker Mark Cousins turns his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema onto films from around the world depicting children, shining a spotlight on a number of little-seen gems and forgotten classics along the way. Using footage of his young niece and nephew playing in his front room as a sort of framing device, he identifies what he thinks are true expressions of childhood on camera and then uses films - ranging from the blockbuster 'E.T' to Iran's 'The White Balloon' and the Albanian 'Tomka and His Friends' - to illustrate how these traits and ideas have best been depicted on film.

It's as much a celebration of cinema and childhood as it is a work of criticism and film history, with the definite article in the title of his aforementioned series replaced with a more subjective 'A' this time around. Admittedly, some of the links Cousins draws between the films feel like a stretch (I'm still not sure what his segways to the art of Van Gogh have to do with anything) but it's primarily made up of clips from some truly beautiful films, presented here with an enthusiasm to match the intellect.

'Tracks' - Dir. John Curran (12A)

The based-on-a-true-story tale of one young woman's nine month trek across the best part of 2,000 miles of inhospitable Australian desert, from the Northern Territory town of Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean on the west coast, John Curran's 'Tracks' struggles to convey a sense of either time or distance. Like many walking films before it, such as Peter Weir's 'The Way Back' or even John Hillcoat's adaptation of 'The Road', the great swathes of land covered by the protagonist are lost in the edit in the name of brevity, with the film instead taking us from incident to incident - which seems antithetical to the nature of the story being told. The ever-watchable Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn Davidson as a loner who prefers the company of animals to people, yet the film - even with frequent flashbacks to a traumatic childhood - never really gets to the heart of why that is, or why it is she decides upon this arbitrary and extremely dangerous goal.

We don't really even get to see her deal with isolation for any great stretch of time, as the film bumps Robyn into numerous people seemingly every other scene - from Adam Driver's well-meaning photojournalist to empathetic aboriginal elders and bemused white settlers. It's ultimately a movie hamstrung by an apparent belief that the only way to advance the story or develop its central character is through dialogue and contrived drama. I can't help but imagine Robyn Davidson's months in the outback must have, in truth, consisted of very little of either. Her biggest struggle, perhaps after ensuring a reliable supply of drinkable water, must have been against boredom and madness. This should have been a tale of remoteness, quiet self-reflection and perseverance, but what we have instead is a fairly conventional romance story about a woman who just needs to learn to let people in, principally by learning to love Driver's manic pixie dream-boy.