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X-Men: Apocalypse

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Released: 18th May 2016

Directed By: Bryan Singer

Starring: James Mcavoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne

Reviewed By: Daniel Burden

I’m a bit confused. And not because of the convoluted, truncated timeline of the X-Men franchise. Early reviews for Apocalypse, the 8th film set in Fox’s Marvel mutant playground, were borderline scathing and utterly slated the film. I genuinely don’t understand the complaints and find them to be incorrect, where in the league of X-Men films Apocalypse ends up ranking I am not yet sure as the films vary greatly in quality, but I do know this, it is a good film. In fact, it’s ‘X’cellent.

Maybe part of the reason is Apocalypse being released so close to Captain America: Civil War and comparisons between Marvel and Fox are inevitable, and while it is fair to say this film never quite reaches the dizzying heights of Civil War, it manages to add a huge amount to mythos of X-Men and breathe even more new life into the franchise than the two previous films already have.

It’s unapologetically a comic book film, full of excess and stunning set pieces combined with provocative imagery. Perhaps it is best closer compared not the comic books, but the fantastic X-Men animated TV show from the 90s. It is big and bold and knows what it is, with no pretensions of doing anything other than being a crowd pleasing blockbuster.

When ancient mutant En Sabah Nur is accidentally awakened in modern day, after his rule of the world was interrupted in Egyptian times and he was forced to sleep for millennia, he decides to wipe out humanity and start the world afresh in his image. With him come the four horseman, which is only the beginning of the biblical imagery within this film, in the form of Angel, Psylocke, Storm and Magneto. Each of them have their reasons for signing up with the titular villain but none more than poor Magneto who comes across at his most sympathetic in this film, you really feel for him and Michael Fassbender really sells his pain.

All that stands in their way is the X-Men. While many return from previous instalments, Professor Xavier, Beast, Mystique, Havok and Quicksilver, we also get a crop of new characters. Well, I say new but they might seem awfully familiar to even casual fans of the franchise. The change in time period allows us to meet the younger versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler, played by Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner and Kodi Smit-McPhee. We’ve already seen the older incarnations of these characters in the first trilogy of films but this time round they already feel more interesting and developed than the last time. In particular, Sophie Turner gives a standout performance at Jean, with dark hints at what is to come for her character.

In terms of the acting, it mostly falls on the side of excellent, James McAvoy gives his third and best performance as Charles Xavier and has a lot to do this time around with his character being vital to Apocalypse’s evil machinations, as already mentioned Michael Fassbender is fantastic as Magneto.

But let’s talk about Jennifer Lawrence and Mystique, whether the actress or the studio wanted her to be less blue, we barely see Mystique in her natural form and they really don’t seem to know what to do with the character, her story arc from First Class all but forgotten as is the idea of being ‘ Mutant and proud’, in form of making her Katniss Everdeen-lite at best. Lawrence gives a tour de force of bland throughout the film and looks bored with being there.

Olivia Munn brings very little to Psylocke, partly due to the writing, but some of the blame lies with the actress who fails to give the character the faintest hint of personality. Alexandra Shipp does a much better job with her performance as the new incarnation of Storm, and made me want to see more of her in the future, not just in this franchise. Other characters such as Angel barely register.

Finally, there’s Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse. A mixed bag, the actor does his best to work through heavy prosthetics and often manages to layer in menace to the ancient villain, presenting himself as God but is much more of a conniving devil, coercing the horseman to join his crusade. Sadly, it’s not quite enough and Apocalypse, while a genuine threat to the X-Men and the world, falls a little flat. Isaac is one of the best actors working today but even he can’t save this bad guy from appearing distinctly lacklustre.

The action is fantastic, the Quicksilver slow motion sequence truly manages to top his first appearance in Days of Future Past and is a real highlight, but the film does descend into a CGI overload in the final act and the destruction does become a bit numbing. Some of the CGI also appeared unfinished, and could have done with a bit more work. As spoiled by the third trailer we do get a glimpse of Wolverine, Hugh Jackman returning briefly before his final solo film next year, and it is a great scene.

Overall, X-Men: Apocalypse is entertaining and fun, with a slew of fantastic actors bringing these comic book characters from the page to screen, it isn’t perfect but manages to hold attention from start to finish.

This franchise has had ups and downs but Apocalypse is most definitely an up.

And make sure you stay until the end, there is a stinger after the credits and it seems to be setting up, well, I won’t spoil it for you, other than to say there’s something sinister coming in the X-Men’s future.

In Cinemas This Week

Ghost in the Shell

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Reviewer: Hannah Woodhead

Director: Rupert Sanders

Stars: 

Released: March 30th, 2017

Months before it came anywhere near the big screen, Rupert Sauder’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell had a problem. The decision to cast white actors in the majority of main roles in a live-action version of a cult Japanese manga/anime did not go unnoticed by fans around the world, and many took to social media to voice their disappointment in Hollywood’s decision. “I think when people see the film they’ll understand the casting choices,” said Sanders smugly.

Well, Rupert – I saw the film. I understand the casting choices. You made the wrong ones.

It seems he meant that he decided to cast Scarlett as the character of Major to differentiate her from the world in which she exists, but the logic is flawed, and as the film drags on, it’s increasingly obvious that Johansson’s casting wasn’t anything to do with a conscious decision about storytelling. It was an attempt to make the film appeal to a wider audience, and indeed for large portions of the film Johansson cavorts around in a strange almost-nude ensemble that seems to fetishise the character. In fact, the film isn’t short on creepiness: there’s a transphobic joke, and an uncomfortable scene which implies a sexual assault is about to happen. The Major’s beauty is mentioned almost constantly, and you get the sense that the characters aren’t referring to the miracle of cybernetic enhancement. Whilst these could have been opportunities for the film to make a statement, that never happens, and it all feels gratituitous.

Scarlett Johansson is a talented actress – that’s a fact. She was spellbinding in Under the Skin and brought a character to life with nothing but the power of her voice in Her. Yet in Ghost in the Shell she doesn’t have the chance to really do much acting – so much of the film is concentrated on action sequences. The small parts of character development we do see are interesting and Johansson is more than capable of providing the delicate balance of vulnerability and grit that The Major requires, but it’s lost amidst the scramble to make the film big, bold and action-packed. It’s one fight scene after another, the only respite coming in the touching scene where The Major reunites with her mother, played by the wonderful Kaori Momoi. Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk and Juliette Binoche are a fine supporting cast too, but there’s too many characters given too little to do for any of it to really matter. If you come out of the film remembering any character’s name but The Major, pat yourself on the back for paying very close attention.

There are some positives to note beside the acting – Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe have produced an excellent score, and the visuals are stunning in IMAX, but too much of Ghost in the Shell is soured by an attempt to westernise a story that should have been treated with more respect.

There’s a serious lack of pacing at play too – at 106 minutes, this isn’t a long movie, but it definitely feels it. The first half drags and the second half glosses over much of the material that made the anime so unique and compelling. In fact the whole plot is largely changed and additions made, and the ending a definite departure from the original. Like Spike Lee’s Old Boy remake, it just feels unnecessary, like the story has been watered down for an audience who the producers assume have a limited attention span.

It’s lazy casting that ignores the fact that Asian audiences are criminally underrepresented in Hollywood, and Asian actors continually denied parts as studios have a ridiculous fear of alienating potential audiences. “You need a figurehead movie star,” said Sanders – so what about Rinko Kikuchi, the breakout star of Pacific Rim, or Kiko Mizuhara, the Asian-American actress who starred in Norwegian Wood and Attack on Titan? What about Rila Fukushima, who starred in The Wolverine, Arrow and – here’s the kicker – plays a robot Geisha in Ghost in the Shell?! Hollywood has a responsibility to audiences to introduce them to new talent and to represent the world for the brilliant, colourful diverse place it really is. Actors Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were catapulted to superstardom by their roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – big budget films can afford to take risks. Suggesting they are at the mercy of “what the fans want” is a complete cop-out.

Even if you try to ignore the obvious racism and creepy overtones in the film, this adaptation lacks the passion and emotion of its source material. The best films evoke some sort of emotional reaction from viewers – laughter, sadness, fear, anger. Ghost in the Shell evokes very little than a sense of wasted time. It’s definitely not the worst blockbuster ever made, but it’s far from the best, and the manga deserved better. Viewers deserve better. If you’re interested in the story, watch the fantastic original anime series first, and then if you feel the need, perhaps give this film an outing – but you might prefer to spend your time watching other films that deal with similar themes: Dredd, Under the Skin and Ex Machina are all far superior films and more worthy of your time.

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The Conjuring 2

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Released: 13th June 2016

Directed By: James Wan

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga

Certificate: 15

Reviewed By: Liam Hoofe

Having turned down an apparent life changing amount of money to direct Fast and Furious 8 James Wan makes his return to the genre where he had his name with his sequel to 2013’s hugely successful The Conjuring.  The Conjuring was a box office smash in the states – breaking all sorts of horror box office records and also providing us with a spin off in the form of 2015’s Annabelle, which also proved to be box office gold.

This time around Wan’s move focuses on the famous Enfield Poltergeist case, which took place in London in the late 1970’s.Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their role as Ed and Lorraine Warren, whilst a relatively unknown supporting cast play The Hodgsons- a working class English whose daughter, Janet has been possessed by the spirit on an old man who died in their house decades before.

In terms of narrative and scares the movie is horror 101- Wan delivers the usual array of banging doors and frightening reflections, but what elevates The Conjuring 2 is Wan’s confident and assured direction. He brings to the table his usual bag of tricks but as with the movie’s predecessor he delivers them with a quality that is largely absent from the genre.

Unfortunately the film is somewhat indulgent; at just over two hours long the film suffers from some serious pacing issues and spends a lot of time meandering around the relationship between the Warrens instead of just delivering the scares it should be aiming for. Farmiga and Wilson both deliver solid performances as The Warrens but there is too much unnecessary fluff in the movie, several scenes- including the movie’s final one feel out of place and make the movie an endurance test at times.

The film closes with footage and images from the real life Enfield case and whilst these clearly serve the purpose of scaring the audience with the old ‘ based on a true story’ line what they actually succeed in doing is showing what an effective job Wan has done in terms of period setting and casting choices. American’s all too often provide an unreal depiction of life in England but Wan gives us a pretty authentic slice of working class British life in the 1970’s.

The Conjuring 2 is not going to change the genre but it will likely do incredibly well at the box office. Wan delivers well-crafted cheap scares throughout and despite suffering from some tonal and pacing issues The Conjuring 2 is an entertaining slice of horror cinema that proves that when it comes to mainstream horror James Wan is the man to turn to.

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In Cinemas This Week

Video Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

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In UK cinemas from Wednesday 18th May 2016.

Here is Darryl Griffiths’ video verdict on Bryan Singer’s (X-Men: Days Of Future Past) X-Men: Apocalypse.

https://youtu.be/8ETp5vN5kpc

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