Monday, 27 June 2011

'Bridesmaids' review:

"It's coming out like hot lava" screams a character in blockbuster comedy 'Bridesmaids' as they unleash a torrent of diarrhea into the sink of a plush public bathroom. It's a line, and indeed a scenario, that wouldn't be out of place in any other Judd Apatow produced comedy, where it might just as plausibly have been shouted by Seth Rogen. Here however, the difference - and the selling point - is that this line is shouted by a woman, Megan played by Melissa McCarthy.

Co-written by and starring Kristen Wiig, 'Bridesmaids' is about Annie, a woman in her thirties who is watching her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) get engaged and wondering how life has passed her by. Her car is rusty, her cake shop closed down in the recession and she lives with a couple of creepy room mates (one of whom is played by Matt Lucas). Worse still, the elegant, high-society Helen (Rose Byrne) seems set on supplanting her as Lillian's maid of honour.

'Bridesmaids' is a rare comedy that gives women permission to be funny, to pull ugly faces and to fart in public. Unlike the majority of comedies which relegate female characters to disapproving shrews and the perennial, sighing babysitters of giant man-children, this is a film in which the few male characters play it relatively straight whilst a female ensemble carries all the crass, sweary jokes. In this way it both subverts and conforms to the lucrative Apatow comedy model.

It's hard to recall another film comedy in which women take centre stage (perhaps the Tina Fey penned 'Mean Girls'?) and 'Bridesmaids' should definitively put to bed the myth that women aren't funny, with a first half hour as solidly amusing as that of any comedy made in the last decade. Yet sadly the rate of laughs is not sustained beyond the opening minutes and for most of the two hour running time 'Bridesmaids' seems to forget that it's a comedy, getting bogged down in Annie's inevitable fall-out with her friends and with her mild-mannered love interest (Chris O'Dowd).

It's also disappointing that some of the laughs are so uninspired, desperate and lazy, for instance when Wiig plays drunk and cringingly mimics Hitler, asking an air steward if he's German. Or when we are asked to laugh as an overweight person runs towards some food. The more manic and exaggerated the film gets in pursuit of easy laughs, the less funny it becomes. These moments are made more disheartening by the early promise offered by a laid-back and naturalistic lunch scene in which Wiig and the ever-excellent Rudolph effortlessly convince as best friends, showing that Wiig as a writer and a performer can offer so much more.

'Bridesmaids' is far better than its only real summer comedy competition, 'The Hangover: Part II', and must therefore be considered the year's best out-and-out comedy. At times it certainly lives up to that billing on merit, but mostly the fact this is what currently passes for above average just highlights the dearth of quality comedy films being made right now. But at least the long overdue emergence of this film, and its subsequent commercial and critical success, should ensure women are allowed to keep on being funny on film. David Brent once said "women are as filthy as men", but it's taken until now for Hollywood to make a feature of it.

'Bridesmaids' is out now in the UK and has been rated '15' by the BBFC.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

'The Tree of Life' review:

With only his fifth feature film in just over thirty years as a director, elusive American auteur Terrence Malick continues his fixation with now familiar motifs: images of white picket fences, long grass and sunlight flickering through the trees accompanied by softly spoken classically American narrators pondering existential themes. Discussions of God, nature and morality rendered poetic and lyrical in movies which liberate this visual medium from dialogue and even go some way towards rejecting conventional narrative form.

'The Tree of Life' stars Brad Pitt as an authoritarian father - a middle American salesman in the 1950s - and the bulk of the film follows his interactions with wife Jessica Chastain and three sons, one of whom is played by a haggard-looking Sean Penn in infrequent glimpses into the future. It's a series of moments and a prevailing mood rather than a complex, three-act story: a father and son tale which sets its characters in the context of a vast universe, pre-historic life and the end of time itself. A slow and deliberately paced "nothing happens" movie in which literally everything happens. There are even dinosaurs.

Yet for all the breathtaking cinematography and fine performances (especially from Pitt), 'The Tree of Life' is undermined in its scope and grandeur by the existence of the less literal and more abstract '2001', and also by the Charlie Kaufman written 'Adaptation', in which a pretentious screenwriter seems to pre-empt the film (suggesting a movie which shows the creation of all life from small organisms to human beings for the purposes of parody). It's ripe with "meaning" and each whispered piece of narration is clearly supposed to be incredibly deep. Yet the philosophical aspect of 'The Tree of Life' is disappointingly simplistic.

As ever, Malick's depiction of female characters leaves a lot to be desired. In his films - with the possible exception of 'Badlands' - women are made of fine porcelain and (presumably because of the womb) are depicted as pure parts of nature to be negotiated and understood by male characters. I'm sure Malick means this as a positive - praising mothers upon a pedestal in the Catholic tradition - however it is deeply patronising and this inherent female closeness to nature and, by proximity, God prevents Chastain's character from being any more than a romantisied cipher. By contrast the father and his sons are allowed to show more emotional range and are given permission to change and grow over the course of the narrative.

'The Tree of Life' offers a simplistic and idealistic version of nature and of our place within it, where spirituality is unchallenged from its dominant Hollywood position where it stands for "depth" and "truth". In this way Malick has made a movie which supports the dominant ideology almost wholeheartedly, however ambitious it might be in scale. It's a seductive tapestry and, in a few instances, it is genuinely heartfelt, yet something is missing. The anti-war sentiment of 'The Thin Red Line' and its critique of capitalism ("the whole thing's about property") or the nihilistic, satirical edge of 'Badlands', seem like they come from a very distant place from 'The Tree of Life', which unambiguously advocates an intelligent design view of life on our planet. Religion has always formed a large part of the sub-text, and even the text, of Malick movies - but never to the same extent as this passionate hymn.

That is not to say that 'The Tree of Life' is not one of the best films of the year so far. The simple fact that it is in any way comparable to something as seminal as '2001', and that the director has constructed something so intimate yet epic, is enough to cement its place as one of the year's best films and a likely Oscar contender for next February. In terms of imagery and sound design it is almost peerless and the use of digital effects is wondrous and inspiring.

'The Tree of Life' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and released in the UK on July 8th.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Airline Food

I've not been able to update here for a little while, thanks to a recent trip to sunny San Francisco where I visited the offices of Pixar - as the Disney press machine prepares the world to receive 'Cars 2'. But before the fruits of that trip - including interviews with the likes of John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton - are be published over the coming weeks, I thought I'd unleash some mini-reviews of the rag-tag (and fairly recent) selection of movies to which I was treated whilst airborne.

'The Adjustment Bureau' is a Phillip K. Dick adaptation about a New York politician (Matt Damon) who falls desperately in love with a ballerina (Emily Blunt) following a chance encounter on a bus - changing both their pre-determined fates. It's then that the shady, besuited and seemingly omnipotent Adjustment Bureau pop in, with Terence Stamp and 'Mad Men' actor John Slattery among their ranks. They try to dissuade the loved-up couple from utilising this new found free will, but find Damon is not about to give up on love so easily.

It's undeniably slick and the leads are likeable, yet the film just never builds up any forward momentum until the final minutes. Instead we are taken slowly through a story which covers years of its character's lives, without much feeling of threat along the way. As a result it's hard to feel to involved in what's going on. Though there are some interesting ideas at play here, mostly concerning our desperate need to believe we have control over our lives even if we don't.

Probably the most entertaining film I saw on the flight, 'The Eagle' is the story of a Roman officer (Channing Tatum) and his Gaul slave (Jamie Bell) as they traverse the unclaimed lands north of Hadrian's Wall in search of a stolen standard - a golden Eagle lost by a massacred company of soldiers under the command of Tatum's father whose reputation has been shamed. What follows is a sort of occasionally violent road movie as two disparate individuals relate their different experiences of life, honour and war whilst fighting woad warriors and rolling around in mud.

Most intriguing is the film's casting of Americans as Roman soliders and British people as local Gauls - a fact flagged up as all the more deliberate when we hear the English Mark Strong also doing an American accent as a Roman. This not only sets up the Romans as invading foreigners and reverses the traditional movie role of the square-jawed American hero, but also opens the film up for potential reading as a critique of US foreign policy - a reading which holds up thanks to a degree of nuance and sophistication lacking in many more direct contemporary war films.

Director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp extended their 'Pirates of the Caribbean' friendship into the animated realm with 'Rango', a Spaghetti Western about a domesticated, big-city chameleon (Depp) who convinces a hayseed town of assorted desert creatures that he is a notorious gun-slinger rather than an actor - soon becoming entrusted as the town's sheriff (a similar premise to that of 'A Bug's Life' or 'The Three Amigos').

Boasting a distinctive look, brilliant character designs and an edgy tone, 'Rango' takes a great many risks for a mainstream animated adventure film: the imagery is often a little dark (such as when Rango talks to a roadkill armadillo) and the dialogue isn't far off that of the genre's earnest live-action equivalents. Frequent references to Clint Eastwood or Western genre tropes (and even a nod to 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas') will pass over the heads of younger audience members, but it's still a blast for those in the know. Nicely animated too - 'Rango' is probably the most technically impressive computer animation yet seen outside of Disney/Pixar.

Before the popular emergence of Judd Apatow, the masters of all that is crass and disgusting were the Farrelly Brothers ('There's Something About Mary', 'Dumb and Dumber', 'Me, Myself & Irene'). But their latest tasteless gag-fest 'Hall Pass' fares much less well than either its predecessors or the current crop of American lad comedies. A likeable cast of Owen Wilson, Jenna Fischer, Jason Sudeikis and Stephen Merchant can not save what is an unfunny and desperate affair, which just tries far too hard to shock and ends up feeling tame as a result.

'Cedar Rapids' is very much an "offbeat, indie comedy" in the Fox Searchlight style, this time starring the third banana of the 'Hangover' films, Ed Helms. Directed by Miguel Arteta ('Chuck and Buck', 'The Good Girl', 'Youth in Revolt'), 'Cedar Rapids' wears its quirkiness on its sleeve, with overbearing, foul-mouthed characters straying into "wacky" territory at every turn. Its saving grace is that John C. Reilly is genuinely very funny whenever he's on-screen, though not enough to distract attention from the predictable and sanctimonious ending (you can smell a closing speech about "integrity" forming somewhere before the end of the first act). At the very best 'Cedar Rapids' should be considered an inoffensive and middling comedy from a director and cast who can do much better.

The less said about this one the better. 'Just Peck' is an "R-rated" teen comedy which looks and feels like a hideously misjudged Disney channel sitcom. There are moments when it becomes clear that the film is supposed to play as satire, such as when the "why are we here" duo of Adam Arkin and Marcia Cross threaten to sue the school principal if she disciplines their son for smoking drugs at school ("are you questioning our parenting?"), but generally it is hard to tell where the sappy, high school drama ends and the joke begins. It's like watching an episode of 'Hannah Montana' full of crude jokes about rape, incest and self-abuse (and often all of the above). It just doesn't make any sense. Who is this movie intended for?

Monday, 13 June 2011

'Kaboom' review:

There is something infectious and even alluring about 'Kaboom', the latest exercise in sardonic camp from veteran of the "New Queer Cinema" Gregg Araki, best known for his mid-90s "Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy". It's possibly the film's playful tone which knowingly assures the audience that nothing is to be taken all that seriously. There is a deceptive air of effortlessness to 'Kaboom', which could smack as the work of a director barely breaking into a sweat. Above all it's a shameless so-called "guilty pleasure" of a movie - a less kitsch version of the sort of thing you might expect from John Waters - a large portion of which consists of attractive young people having lots of sex, all of which feels somehow explicit, in spite of the fact that it really isn't.

'Kaboom' is one of those movies almost designed to frustrate the film reviewer, in that it isn't especially easy to define along the lines of any given genre. It isn't an all-out comedy, though many of the lines and characters are played for laughs, but it isn't anywhere near earnest enough to be considered so hallowed an animal as the word "drama" would suggest. It's certainly got a toe or two in horror movie genre at various points, though there are also elements of the thriller, the science fiction film and even the police procedural at work here. In fact it often feels like a complete mess. Yet it's fun to sit back and watch something that isn't asking you to congratulate the filmmaker for his vision, or yourself for your discerning high-taste.

Before the snowballing madness of the third act, which culminates in a final shot that more than echoes Takashi Miike's 'Dead or Alive', 'Kaboom' plays out like some sort of hitherto unseen pilot for a 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' style US TV series that never got the green light. It sees a cast of twenty-something actors (Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett and Juno Temple), playing teenage college kids and speaking in a sort of Joss Whedon-esque high school patois (albeit with a far greater level of sexual frankness and coarseness), as they embark on a serious of casual sexual encounters and discuss, for instance, the practical implications of autofellatio. It's like a bumper episode of a post-watershed 'Hollyoaks', only with a creepy murder mystery dimension and a touch of the supernatural (so in fact it's closer to Channel 4's 'Misfits').

The acting is fairly rotten, the dialogue forced and often clunky, and the lighting looks cheap for the most part. It's crass, exploitative and has all the nutrition of bubblegum, but it's hard not to smile through it nevertheless - probably because of these things rather than in spite of them. And not in some tiresome "it's so bad it's good" kind of a way, but because the filmmaker is so clearly not vying for your approval that it's sort of refreshing. Araki isn't asking to be taken seriously and isn't expecting you to love him. He isn't even chasing box office. Like his sexually liberated characters, he seems comfortable taking his passion where he finds it. I'm not sure it's a film I'll ever return to - and, in honesty, I'm not even sure it's any good - but it does posses a rare amorphous quality all of its own.

'Kaboom'is out now in the UK and rated '15' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

DVDs in Devon: 'Julie and Julia' + 'How to Train Your Dragon'

I've been visiting my grandmother in sunnyish Devon with my girlfriend this week, but I have managed to see a couple of films on DVD - giving me something to write about now as everyone takes a midday nap.

On Monday, at my nan's insistence, we all sat down to watch Nora Ephron's last film, the 2009 culinary double-biography 'Julie & Julia' starring the dependable Amy Adams and the legendary Meryl Streep. I was pleasantly surprised.

'Julie & Julia' acts as both the story of US TV cooking legend Julia Child, as she learns how to cook as the middle aged wife of a US diplomat in 1950s Paris, and of Julie Powell - a popular New York-based cookery blogger who became famous after tackling every recipe in Child's mighty Mastering the Art of French Cooking within one year.

An unashamed "feel-good movie", it feels like a bit of a whitewash, as it nakedly celebrates both women with little scrutiny of either character. It's also a little predictable and sloppy the way that Julie's moment of crisis comes courtesy of an unconvincing fall-out with her husband, rather than say, as a result of online criticism or the pressure of balancing her new celebrity with her mundane job in an insurance call centre. But this is my only serious gripe against what is overall a charming and polished film.

Both Adams and Streep make their characters fun and the film enjoyable. Especially the latter, as she impersonates the beloved cook, taking on her odd mannerisms and bizarre speech pattern perfectly. Stanley Tucci is also worth a mention as Child's loving husband.

As a point of curiosity, it was interesting to note how Ephron shot at many of the same Parisian locations as fellow New Yorker Woody Allen would later use for his 'Midnight in Paris'.

Tuesday night we watched the Dreamworks animation 'How to Train Your Dragon', which entertained me far less.

I confess, I'm not a fan of the Dreamworks house style anyway, but 'How to Train Your Dragon' did nothing for me. The story is exactly the same as that of so many other cartoons (notably the superior 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs') as a young schlemiel (always an inventor) struggles to fit in with a society that doesn't understand his individuality. In this case a whiny young Viking lad (Jay Baruchel) struggles to embrace the family business of killing dragons. Instead he befriends one of the creatures and alienates himself further from his horrifically unsympathetic father (Gerard Butler), before saving the day and changing the world.

The character designs and animation are far superior than any of the other Dreamworks movies, and it's also less of a crass, celebrity-filled gag-fest, but it still lacks the nuance and artfulness of a Pixar film. There is some pleasure to be had looking at the imaginative and varied dragon designs, but the movie is clumsily written and goes to all the obvious places in perfunctory fashion.

It also struggles under the weight of a third act that makes no sense, narratively or thematically, as the film has its cake and eats it too. The "love not war" morality of our dragon-training hero is here undermined by the film's generic need for a massive climactic dragon fight and a conventional villain, as a huge dragon-shaped deus ex machina emerges as the cause of all the Vikings' troubles and is destroyed without damage to anyone's conscience.

Tonight we're due to watch 1981 rom-com 'The Four Seasons', written and directed by its star Alan Alda, apparently one of my late granddad's favourite films.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

'Senna' review:

It was a forgone conclusion that I would cry by the end of 'Senna', the biographical documentary about the Brazilian three-time Formula One world champion who died after crashing his car during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. I'm easily manipulated and knew that, by the time the film got to covering the event of his premature death, I would have been rendered helpless by endless earnest accounts of the subject's greatness aided by elegiac, probably string-driven music. I was expecting to feel moved, if for no other reason than it is sad to hear about the accidental death of a relatively young person. But 'Senna', directed by Asif Kapadia, rises above cloying sentiment to provide a portrait of the icon that is as tragic as expected, yet equal parts exciting, joyful and insightful.

Mostly avoiding the driver's personal life, beyond frequent references to his devout Catholicism, the documentary does well to maintain a solid focus on Senna's career - showing us his development as a go-kart racer in his youth and following his F1 years season-by-season right up to his death. The relationships that become a part of this narrative include Senna's notorious rivalry with McLaren teammate Alain Prost, his friendship with team boss Ron Dennis and his unhappy experiences dealing with the political side of the sport - as personified by FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre. This narrative, which plays out like the best dramatic sports movie, is allowed to play out using only stock footage and candid shots of life behind the scenes. The fact that those who have been interviewed especially for the film are heard but never seen keeps the focus on the amazing racing footage and ensures the film keeps its forward momentum.

A film about the triumph and tragedy of the attractive, charismatic Ayrton Senna is not a hard sell, even for myself - as someone with next to no interest in F1 racing. But what is surprising is that the racing itself is incredibly exciting to watch, especially those shots which are taken from the perspective of Senna as he whips around corners at immense speed. Through the cinema, even those allergic to sport are made to appreciate Senna's art and his daring desire to win at almost any cost. We witness high-speed overtaking and marvel at his aptitude for driving in the rain - a condition under which he seemed simply unbeatable. Watching him race, it isn't hard to understand why so many millions of Brazilians looked to him for inspiration during some of the country's poorest years.

Audiences have been reported as staying until the very end of the credits before leaving showings of 'Senna' - a practice usually reserved for those expecting a brief epilogue at the end of a superhero movie. They'll tell you they were enjoying the montage of still photographs, though I suspect this is a convenient smokescreen for those weepy souls battling to compose themselves before re-emerging into the outside world. Yet 'Senna' is not an on-screen funeral for those looking to re-acquaint themselves with grief almost two decades old: this is ultimately a celebration and an invitation for those of us who missed it all the first time around to see what made him so undeniably special.

'Senna' is on a wide release now in the UK and has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Trailers: Fincher's 'Dragon Tattoo' Looks Good, But 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' Less So

I really didn't at all like the Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy": The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. Personally, I found them to be more than a little nasty and I felt they were blandly made, with a television aesthetic.

However, David Fincher - hot off the excellent 'The Social Network' - has been busy making his own adaptation, which looks markedly better. The trailer below is pretty electrifying, helped a lot of fantastic editing to the beat of a really energetic cover of Zed Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" by 'Social Network' composer Trent Reznor and Karen O - who provided songs for Spike Jonze's 'Where the Wild Things Are'.

I may still dislike the tone and attitude of the eventual movie, but this is a fantastic trailer regardless and I'm now excited to see the film.

Less exciting is the latest trailer for 'Planet of the Apes' prequel, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' - which stars Academy Award host and nominee James Franco, alongside Brian Cox and 'Slumdog' actress Freida Pinto. The trailer makes it look really boring, with shots of men in lab coats talking about genetics, intercut with the faces of unconvincing computerised primates. I don't really know who this movie is for, unless the franchise is much more popular than I realise.

To me it seems like the wisdom of the age dictates that all "properties" have to be continually "developed", and therefore we were give Tim Burton's lacklustre take on the series and now this (with a view to several sequels, I'm sure).

I'm not completely writing it off as it could be really good, but the trailer leaves me unconvinced.

May I'm mostly put off by the core concept: that a bunch of laboratory apes could overwhelm a well-equipped human army. This seems to me to be completely stupid. Just because the apes become more intelligent, I don't see why that means they aren't still gunned down en masse as soon as the trouble starts. I guess I'll have to see the film if I want to find out how they overwhelm the world of man. We know who ultimately wins after all.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

What is Film Criticism For?

I don't really know what film criticism is "for" - other than the obvious, if facetious, response: "good movies". Though I was thinking about it (it was troubling me actually) and fancied throwing around some ideas here in the hope of coming to terms with the question.

One thought is that criticism is supposed to function as objective, empirical analysis which hopes to distinguish the worthwhile from the rest in the name of history. Is this critic in service of what might be termed "the canon", keeping it in order like some kind of cultural clerk? I don't know if true "objectivity" is possible, let alone desirable, in a critic, though, judging by the number of people who angrily rail against reviewer "bias" on internet message boards, it may be that many see dedication to such an emotionless approach as a critic's solemn duty.

Akin to that definition, but slightly different, is the popular assumption that art criticism exists as nothing more than a form of consumer advice: a way of sorting which novels, CDs of theatre tickets are worth paying for - and which are not. Film criticism may even be thought of as an extension of advertising. A bad critic might be one who gets it "wrong" too often, advising people to see things they then consistently fail to enjoy and who dislikes all the things that prove most popular.

It doesn't suit my voice, as becomes clear when I find myself ending reviews in a way that suggests a direct dialogue with a concerned investor, writing closing statements along the lines of: "if you like [insert genre] then it's certainly worth seeing" or "it's got plenty to find fault with, but it's the best on offer at the multiplex right now". At least when I do it, these types of endings highlight a failure of the imagination, providing me with a convenient way of summarising what has gone before without too much effort or skill. However, the best of these types of critics - who can do this with charm and authority - are by far the most popular, recognisable and beloved.

Generally (and conveniently) I prefer to see criticism as an end in itself. And, far from having a duty of care towards an imagined readership, perhaps reviewing should be about inciting a discussion amongst those who have already chosen to engage with a novel/CD/film? It could be that the best criticism is about providing a strong viewpoint which causes others to consider their own position on a given work and transform previously vague feelings into fully formed ideas.

Indeed, it might be termed an act of pomposity to aim to tell readers what to do, as if they were aimless sheep looking for a shepherd. I often feel embarrassed to hear that I've persuaded anybody to see or not see a movie. I immediately worry that I've prevented them from doing something they might otherwise have enjoyed, or that I have tricked them into sitting through something terribly dull. (Though I'm aware that this reaction is potentially quite patronising.)

One thing I am certain of is that I don't enjoy disliking anything very much. I've written lots of negative reviews over the last year and, at their worst, they are predictable demolitions of known turkeys, such as 'Sex & the City 2'. They never fill me with joy to write, especially as I consider the possible bursting impact I could have on somebody else's hard-earned happiness bubble.

I've come to admire the principle of the great Cahiers Du Cinema editor André Bazin, who preferred his writers to review only those films they enjoyed - calling it "appreciative criticism". For one thing, I like the way this approach is tacitly an even worse rebuke for a bad movie than an explicitly bad review - suggesting that an ignored movie is beneath discussion. But mainly I like how good-natured it seems and how good it must feel, as a writer, to concentrate on the positive.

If you are expressing your love of something, you are bulletproof. Even if everyone else thinks the film in question is naff, nobody reasonable is likely to shove a metaphorical turd through your letterbox. In contrast, when you criticise a film's score, you might get an e-mail from the crestfallen composer, and when you tear apart a small movie, you might find an angry letter from the director awaits you. Both these things have happened to me and they aren't pleasant to say the least. Not because I don't stand by what I write, or because I am allergic to criticism of my own work, but because you really don't set out to hurt a person's feelings. I assume that everyone is basically probably quite nice, so I never want to think I'm making a personal attack - though it must seem that way to someone who has poured considerable time and effort into their art. I have some sympathy with that point of view.

I'd follow Mr. Bazin's noble example and stop writing negative reviews tomorrow, only it would be much harder to fill the "pages" of this blog if I took that high road. As with any art form, the vast majority of movies are, by definition, average and many of them are very bad. To ignore these is a luxury I can ill afford.

If I have learnt anything from thinking about this as I write, it is that I want to resist the impulse to imply that I'm sorting films into two great piles marked "ones to watch" and "ones to avoid". There is undeniably a place for that critic, but it wouldn't make sense for that to me be, as I'm not a reliable populist. I didn't enjoy any of the three biggest current releases ('Pirates 4', 'Hangover 2' or 'X-Men: First Class'), though they are doubtless to prove highly popular with audiences and I would never dream of telling you to avoid seeing them.

I'd certainly be vain and out of touch to suggest a family of four forgo the thrills and spills of 'Pirates' and opt instead for 'The Great White Silence', just because I found it to be of greater interest. Someone who watches up to thirty films a month (usually for free) has next to no business telling anyone who sees one or two (for upwards of £7 a go) how and where to spend their money. A critic who sees thirty films a month may well develop different tastes to those with less cinema literacy and may lose sight of the fact that most people see film less as art and more as something to pass the time. My say on what you go to see is of no discernible value. It is only hopefully of some interest.

I haven't even mentioned people like Charles Gant or Nikki Finke, who talk about movies as part of an industry, let alone journalists who come to cinema from the perspective of satisfying the public hunger for celebrity gossip or fashion advice. There is also the film historian, like David Thompson or Ian Christie, to consider - but this'll have to do for now.

What are critics for? Damned if I know. But I'm certain there is a place for all the types I've described above and I know that, for whatever reason, I like to read what the best of them has to say.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

'X-Men: First Class' review:

It's barely been a year since the release of Matthew Vaughn's last film, the ultra-violent indie superhero movie 'Kick-Ass', yet his new movie - Marvel comic book prequel 'X-Men: First Class' - is already upon us. As that rapid production time might suggest, 'First Class' feels rushed: poorly scripted, with ropey back projection, lots of intangible CGI and a forgettable score. Problems which are only slightly alleviated by an interesting and talented cast, which includes James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Kevin Bacon, Nicholas Hoult and Oliver Platt.

As the name implies, 'First Class' is an origin story about the founding of superhero team The X-Men, which centres on the relationship between future enemies Professor X and Magneto - Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender). It starts by contrasting the lives of the two characters as children in 1944, showing how the metal manipulating Erik spent time in a Nazi concentration camp, where his parents were murdered and he was victim of experimentation, whilst the telepathic Xavier spent his formative years living in a mansion, dedicating himself to the pursuit of knowledge in order to better understand the mutant phenomenon.

The film then moves forward to 1962 where Xavier is graduating from Oxford as an expert on gene mutation, spending his free time downing yards of ale and charming sexy students with his well-rehearsed chat up lines. Meanwhile, Erik has become a Nazi hunter, scouring the globe in search of the man who shot his mother and experimented with his abilities, an energy adsorbing mutant named Sebastian Shaw (Bacon). With Cold War at its height, Shaw sets about provoking nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in the hope of destroying non-mutant kind forever. It is he who is behind the Cuban Missile Crisis, playing both sides against each other. Xavier and Erik meet whilst in pursuit of Shaw (Xavier in the service of the CIA), leading the pair unite and set about recruiting other mutants in the name of preventing his evil plan.

This convoluted, time-traversing structure means that the first half of the film consists almost entirely of insubstantial moments, as Vaughn cross-cuts between exotic locations and introduces us to a multitude of obscure Marvel characters. It takes an age to get moving and in this time none of the perfunctory sub-plots are developed beyond the superficial minimum, with the movie feeling like a simple box-ticking exercise. Many of the mutants - including Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Havoc (Lucas Till) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi) - are not fleshed out at all beyond the level of simple archetypes and are only really present to make up the numbers, in a film which might have done better to restrict the comic book heroes on screen in the name of greater depth. Certainly the best scenes are those which rest on McAvoy and Fassbender, who make for an appealing pair of opposites.

With four credited screenwriters, including Vaughn and Jane Goldman (with whom he scripted 'Kick-Ass'), it is perhaps no surprise that 'First Class' isn't the model of structural coherence or thematic restraint. The dialogue rarely rises above in-jokes about Xavier's future baldness or trite, over-explained literary references, to Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde, though a few of the actors are able to rise above the material with their credibility intact. The whole thing also reeks of compromise as the director sets up some quite sadistic and threatening scenes of violence before presumably remembering the film's prospective family audience. The brutal final kill shot is one such example, as Vaughn's camera maliciously, even pornographically, tracks the action. Only, without the blood and energy that would have underscored such a scene in 'Kick-Ass', this self-conscious moment feels muted and misplaced.

Worse still, Vaughn's treatment of female characters is the stuff of mild teenage fantasy. We are introduced to Rose Byrne's Moira MacTaggert as she strips into her lingerie to gain entry to a club filled with scantily-clad women. Similarly, minor antagonist Emma Frost (played by January Jones) is given little to do but look pretty, whilst Kravitz's Angel is first shown as a stripper, dancing for Charles and Erik as they sip champagne. She demonstrates her mutation - her insectoid wings - in a hopefully "sexy" way as they watch her from a red velvet bed. "How would you like a job where you get to keep your clothes on?" asks Charles on his recruitment drive, in the most chauvinist, patronising tone possible. Jennifer Lawrence too is subject to the film's leering male gaze, with her sub-plot being that her often-naked blue-skinned shape-shifter Mystique just wants to have body confidence. Like Byrne and Jones, Lawrence is all but written out of the film's biggest action sequence and instead is reduced to a kind of romantic hot potato, thrown between three of the male leads in the course of the film's two-hours.

For me though, the most troubling aspect of 'X-men: First Class' is that Vaughn's sympathies lie with the forces of revenge, intolerance and indiscriminate violence - and as such he is at fundamental odds with the source material. Fassbender's enigmatic future-Magneto is cast as an effortlessly cool anti-hero and it's with sickening relish that Vaughn stages the character's violent revenge killings near the start of the film. His emphasis on Erik's concentration camp struggles make it clear where our most reactionary sympathies are supposed to lie. As with 'Kick-Ass' before it, the film runs on thinly concealed right-wing politics: this time promoting the idea that "victim's justice" is a form of common sense.

By contrast, it's the sheltered and wishy-washy Xavier, the college kid, who wants to get along with the non-mutant humans and "fit in" (tellingly, he is even shown to be disparaging of Mystique's natural blue form and wants her to undergo treatment to become "normal"). He hasn't lived life and felt hatred like Erik has and, naturally, harbours none of the resentment. Here the "good" concepts, of self-confidence and rugged individualism, are wedded to Erik and a militant ideal. Certainly, the film wants us to love McAvoy too, but Vaughn's heart really isn't in it. Vaughn celebrates Xavier most as a loutish drinker and sleazy womaniser, rather than as the genius future leader of the X-Men, and by the final shots it is clear who we are really rooting for under the stewardship of this cynical budget-Tarantino.

'Kick-Ass' had an infectious energy, matched by a humorous style and editing so slick that I was forced to turn a blind eye to its dark-hearted contempt for human life. Sadly, 'X-Men: First Class' didn't provide me with that same excuse and, consequently, I was never given permission to shake off my sense of disbelief and partake in the unalloyed joys offered by the best superhero movies, let alone Vaughn's love of mindless, anti-social violence. By commercial necessity, it's a weak, flavourless blend of 'Kick-Ass' and Bryan Singer's earlier films, which doesn't tread anywhere with much freedom or confidence.

'X-Men: First Class' is mean-spirited, but isn't mean enough. It isn't allowed to get as bloody as it would like to. It isn't as stylish as it thinks it is. It isn't camp enough to be fun in spite of these failings and it isn't knowing enough to be considered ironic. Conscious of its brief to please a wide audience, the movie limply rests somewhere between those positions, unsure of what direction to take and which movie it wants to be - hoping you don't notice amidst all the explosions and the boobs.

'X-Men: First Class' has been rated '12A' by the BBFC and is on general release from today in the UK.