Friday, 10 February 2017

My Dear Readers,

This is the final post of the Magnificent Tramp.

I loved writing this blog, it helped me to cut my teeth, taught me to think about film differently, and encouraged me to seek out new cinematic experiences. For a part-time, rambling and inconsistent blog, I was surprised and delighted by the positivity and encouragement I received, and I'm heartened that I'm still receiving views after all this time.

But I have not posted for nearly two years, so the time has come to officially retire the Tramp. It was a cracking, magnificent journey, but it's now time to move on.

However, I'm still writing film reviews, which you can find over at the fantastic CineVue. And I don't intend to stop blogging, either, so I have a new space for that at CultCrack. I hope you'll agree that it's a step up from the writing I've done as the Magnificent Tramp, and as well as film reviews and features, I'll be writing about games, too. It's a very exciting time for the ex-Tramp, and it would be great if you'd come with me on my next steps.

So be sure to check out CultCrack and look out for the exciting projects that will be coming your way over the next few weeks and months.

This is the Magnificent Tramp, signing off.


Twitter: @Dr_Machell 
Facebook: CultCrack
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Friday, 29 May 2015

What a Lovely Review - Mad Max: Fury Road

Thirty years after Beyond Thunderdome, Fury Road is the best Mad Max film. It is also the best film of this year, and it is one of the best action films ever made.

Allegedly, it took writer-director George Miller twelve years to get his vision completed - a level of production Hell that is usually the death sentence for a decent film - and yet, here it is, 450 hours of raw footage condensed into a spry 120 minutes of relentless, dizzying, bellowing thunder clap of a picture. This is a film that scoops us up in a gasoline-infused tornado and hurls us into an insane opera of war drums, flame-spewing guitars and roaring velocity. That the production could come from the same creative mind responsible for Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in The City is baffling, yet here is Miller, showing career hacks like Michael Bay and Zach Snyder what cinematic destruction really looks like.

The composers that bring Miller's furious orchestra together are the key elements of character, pace and structure. As well as a host of archetypal men-of-few-words, the conception of Max as a mythic character owes a clear debt to Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy - in Beyond Thunderdome Tina Turner even refers to Max as the Man With No Name - and just as Leone's films stood on their own and were entirely unconcerned with connecting their stories, so does the original Mad Max trilogy leave trifling concerns of between-film continuity at the door. Fury Road is no different, offering an altered back story to Max and making no mention of his previous adventures. There are plot elements drawn from all three previous films, but nothing concrete to connect them, all of which makes it easier to accept the re-casting of Mel Gibson to Tom Hardy. Hardy looks, feels and acts like a different Max, and yet simultaneously he is still, undeniably, Max Rockatansky. Concerns over whether Fury Road is a sequel or a reboot miss the point - all that matters this is another Mad Max film.

Look familiar? Hardy does his best impression of Woody from Toy Story

Much has been made of a minority of internet trolls laughably calling themselves 'Men's Rights Activists' angrily typing away from their parents' basements about there being women in Fury Road. And yes, the rumours are true: there are indeed some female characters in the film, many of whom have dialogue and character arcs all of their own. Fury Road isn't a feminist film - it's a movie directed by and about a man, after all - but it puts more or less every action movie since Terminator 2 to shame in having a cast filled with interesting female characters with their own arcs, motivations and agency. Charlize Theron heads the charge with a superfluous performance that reminds us what a versatile and talented actor she is. Reminiscent of the dynamic between Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby in 2012's criminally ignored Dredd, Max plays foil to Theron's Furiosa; where Max is fully formed at the start of the film, stumbling in to other people's stories as he does, Furiosa is granted the lion's share of characterisation. Max, and by extension, the audience, are more or less along for the ride.

And what a ride it is. So many films promise what only Mad Max: Fury Road delivers, in the sense that it really could be called one long chase sequence with only a few short stops to catch our breath. Quite apart from the astonishing practical effects and minimal CGI, the constant inventiveness of the set pieces, and the technical marvel at cohesively editing all
Imperator supreme: Furiosa at full throttle
this chaos together, the film's real achievement is in making the extensive action meaningful. Economy is the magic word here; paradoxically not a single shot is wasted or feels gratuitous amidst all the profound, glorious excess, all of which is in service of the story and characters. If cinema is primarily a visual medium, then Miller knows not to waste time on expository dialogue when having psychotic cultists chainsaw each other on pogo sticks does the job just as well. Moreover, each set piece effectively functions as a distinct act in this heavy metal opera: the action doesn't add to the narrative, it is the narrative. The visual cacophony is matched by a deafening score by Junkie XL, a thumping mixture of operatic grandeur and heavy metal sturm und drang, all of which are offerings made to the God of Destruction, swirling and thrumming in a Wizard-of-Oz maelstrom of insane momentum. And yet, in the madness there is method, a meticulously structured and tightly plotted story that evokes mythic themes of redemption, rebirth, and revolution, channelled by both Max and Furiosa.

Who could possibly have predicted that after all these years, the fourth Mad Max film would not only work, but would result in the best action film of this century? Recasting Tom Hardy was inspired not just because Hardy is perfect for the role, but also, that it elevates the character from an icon of Australian cinema to a mythic archetype. Simply put, Mad Max: Fury Road, in its economical excess, in its merciless thunder of sound and fury, in its meticulous, beautiful madness, is about as pure an expression of cinema as can be hoped for. This, in itself, makes it unmissable. That it has been released in 2015, surrounded as it is by micro-managed expanded universes, vapid exercises in franchise management, and risk-averse studio decisions, is nothing short of a miracle.       

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

***By now, many of you will have seen the film, so you can expect that this review will be full of SPOILERS.***

The first time that I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, it disappointed me. The second time, it surprised me. But one thing about my opinion didn't change, which is that at its core, Joss Whedon's follow up to his 2012 mega phenomenon Avengers Assemble is an enormous mess, in equal parts frustrating and brilliant. The first issue is that there are just too many characters: we've now got eleven official Avengers, not to mention support from Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Professor Selvig, Laura Barton, Dr Helen Cho, passing references to Jane Foster and Pepper Potts, Ultron himself and two supporting villains in the form of Kretschmann and Ulysses Klaue. Granted, many of these appear only briefly or in cameo, but the sheer number of them means that the chess pieces are forever being moved around to make space for each other, and it's indicative of a franchise that is threatening to crack under its own weight. 

Whedon, usually so assured at handling a large cast, strains to keep all the plates spinning, and if he's at all at fault here it's from trying perhaps a little too hard to cram in as much as possible, thereby losing some of that effortless magic that characterised the first film. Certainly, no one could accuse him of not working hard enough, but the first Avengers worked so well because it knew instinctively how and when to streamline the extensive cast of the wider MCU, whereas Age of Ultron never quite knows whether to ignore its auxillary characters or include them in the film properly. Instead, we get a compromise where characters such as James Rhodes or The Winter Soldier's Sam Wilson appear, but whose presence is of little or no consequence. For example, Rhodey / War Machine is at the party at the beginning of the film, but inexplicably disappears after Ultron's first attack, only to reappear at the climax with nary a mention as to where he's been in the meantime. For casual viewers, this is confusing - who the hell is this guy in a grey Iron Man suit, and why wasn't he around earlier? - and for seasoned Marvel fans it's logically frustrating, not least because the last time we saw Rhodey, in Iron Man 3, he'd dropped the War Machine moniker in favour of being Iron Patriot. What's happened between that film and this one for him to revert to the War Machine armour? Why hasn't he been helping the team up until the end? By themselves, these questions don't harm the film too much, and there is an easy answer - because there's not enough space to fill the screen with another major character - but dramatically it's still unsatisfying.

The point here is that Age of Ultron is just too overloaded with stuff: there's too much exposition, too many action sequences, too many characters, and too many sequels to set up.  People complained that Iron Man 2 spent too much time setting up future films, but frankly, Age of Ultron beats it hands down in this regard. Fundamentally, Avengers: AoU is an overladen bridge, buckling most visibly in its mid section, where the plot grinds to a halt in favour of franchise management, clunkily handled character development and consequence-free action sequences.

It's these flaws that on my first viewing spoiled much of the film for me and made AoU feel disappointing and incoherent. However, after having seen the film a second time, it's easier to see that AoU offers much to revel in. Without a doubt, the film's opening sequence is far better than it's predecessor's, and arguably the best of all the Marvel films. The initial extended tracking shot is a joy to behold, and once again shows Whedon's talent at framing action and creating a cohesive sense of space with multiple characters - it's just a shame that this sequence is never truly matched again. Following this, the plot steps up with Tony and Bruce secretly developing the Ultron AI, which effectively, if a little perfunctorily, re-establishes their friendship so wonderfully sketched in the first film. The ensuing party sequence is one of the best character-based scenes in the film, though it's a shame that this is one of the few moments of levity and lightness of touch the film brings us beyond.

Where AoU starts to show its cracks is the Wakanda sequence - both in Ultron's search for the vibranium metal, and the smackdown between a hypnotised Hulk and Iron Man. It's painfully clear that the only reason that Ultron specifically needs vibranium is so that the film can send him to Wakanda, thus setting up Ulysses Klaue as a future Marvel villain. Following the Avengers' confrontation with Ultron, we are treated to a fight between Iron Man and a hypnotised Hulk, which requires the plot to grind to a halt as we are distracted by an exciting but ultimately empty sequence with no lasting consequences for the characters: Bruce already feels wary of his violent side without the need for this sequence, and the potentially interesting twist that the fight turns the public against the Avengers is dropped almost immediately.

Subsequently, the scene with Barton's farmhouse and the reveal of his family is a clunky and unnecessary character beat, borne more, one suspects, from Jeremy Renner's insistence that his supporting character be given more screen time this time around, than a considered creative decision by Whedon. Most egregiously, however, it gives rise to the worst line in any MCU film, when Black Widow tells Bruce that she's a monster because she is sterilised. This, from the writer-director who recently described a clip from Jurassic World as '70s-era sexist'. It's disappointing, weirdly unnecessary, and bafflingly offensive.

It's clear that the plot has ground to a halt here, and while it pushes itself back into second gear its clunky machinations become all too visible: Nick Fury returns because he needs to be around for the climax's deus ex machina, and Thor goes on a vision quest to learn something that the audience already knows. Fury's return is frustrating because it effectively voids the ending to the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Thor's side quest is another pointless distraction that should have been cut before it was ever filmed. Once the team confront Ultron and retrieve the dormant Vision, however, the film once again finds its footing. The twins' switching of sides once they learn what Ultron is really up to is handled well, and the train sequence, while clearly owing a debt to Spider-Man 2, is one of the best actions beats of the film.

Subsequently, the 'birth' of Vision is one of the best moments in the MCU franchise, with Paul Bettany injecting humanity into a character that could so easily have been laughably silly. Indeed, it's here that Age of Ultron finally takes off, answering the question of The Vision's trustworthiness with one lift of Thor's hammer, a pitch perfect moment that encapsulates Whedon's trademark wit, humour and sense of drama.

The climax that follows, while being bigger and more complex than the first film's Battle of New York, doesn't quite manage to hit its exhilarating heights. This isn't to say it doesn't work - it really does - it's just that the sense of space that Whedon crafts so well in the film's opening sequence just isn't there in the climax, and it's often impossible to tell where each of the characters are in relation to each other. What we get instead, however, are a dozen great moments where everyone gets to do their thing, and a sequence that epitomises the film's raison d'etre in a single, transcendent shot that is both crammed with action and yet meticulously framed and executed. There are, however, a few bum notes even in this, the film's most confident and successful scene. Fury arriving in the nick of time, complete with the helicarrier, stretches our suspension of disbelief, and Quicksilver's death is a cheap way to insert emotional stakes without taking out any of the main players. This is especially annoying given how successfully Aaron Taylor-Johnson works to differentiate himself from X-Men: Days of Future Past's version of the same character, and how much potential his character has for development. On that note, both Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth bring welcome new blood to the team, both in terms of interesting abilities and succintly drawn characters. Indeed, if you ask me, Hulk should have died rather than Quicksilver: it would have been a far bigger shock to the status quo and a more impactful way of writing Banner out of the series than having him leave the team in all-too-familiar self-imposed exile.

Where many films like this fail because of rushed, underwritten scripts, apathy on the part of the studio, or the creative team missing the point of the main character (Amazing Spider-Man 2, I'm looking at you), Avengers: Age of Ultron fails as a coherent narrative because it tries too hard, attempting to be all things to all people. But it succeeds, moment to moment, with its wit, directorial verve, and a cast of actors that could now play these characters in their sleep. When Age of Ultron sags, it sags badly, and the wholly superfluous Wakanda sequence should never have made it into the shooting script, let alone the finished film. At its best, however, AoU soars with imagination, excitement and confidence. It's an odd thing, but on that all-important second viewing, my opinion of the film's quality hasn't changed - it's a clunking mess of a film, overburdened with the demands of an unwieldy franchise - and yet, my emotional, gut response has gone from confusing disappointment to surprising satisfaction and real, unabashed enjoyment. If this franchise is to continue its successes, Marvel and uber-producer Kevin Feige need to learn the lessons of Ultron's mistakes. For now though, I can forgive its errors and revel in its triumphs.


Sunday, 12 April 2015

From Best to Least Best: Ranking the MCU Movies Part 2

5) Thor

Thor is another one that benefited from (my) low expectations. At the time, it seemed unlikely that Marvel could successfully integrate Norse Gods and magic into a world that up to this point was strictly in the realm of science fiction. If we imagine the difficulty of combining the worlds of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, we can see how tricky a feat it was for Marvel to do something similar. That they managed it at all is to be applauded, but that the film's tone and distinctive aesthetic never feel at odds with the rest of their films was a triumph for the studio. The film's success can be attributed to a witty script, director Kenneth Branagh's theatrical sensibilities, and a perfectly-pitched performance from Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. Alongside the likes of Robert Downey Jr., I think that it's often forgotten how diverse an actor Hemsworth is, incorporating the comedic, heroic, arrogant and noble layers of Thor into a coherent and convincing performance. Thor's secret weapon, however, is in the deliciously evil turn from Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who is by far the best villain in the MCU. Revelling in his scheming, with a grin to rival Jack Nicholson's, Hiddleston gives us one of the best performances in any of Marvel's films, and like Iron Man and Downey Jr., it's now impossible to imagine another actor filling the role with such aplomb. Moreover, Loki and Thor's fraught relationship is genuinely emotional, even moving, which shines a light on something else lacking in Marvel's characters up to this point: depth. Thor's redemption narrative, coupled with Loki's jealousy and betrayal of his brother are the first examples of real character development in the series. As a consequence, Thor is the first MCU film with a complete narrative: several intertwined plot points that come together to create a proper conclusion that works emotionally. It's ironic that where the previous three films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2) focussed on the character concepts to audiences, their most outlandish character to date was given the most depth and most satisfying narrative arc of Phase One.

4) Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 is a cracking entry in to the MCU canon, and the best Iron Man film by miles. While Jon Favreau did a fine job with the previous instalments, hiring Shane Black was a great move, especially given his work with Downey Jr. on the superlative noir thriller, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Just as Joss Whedon was the perfect choice to direct the ensemble cast of Avengers Assemble, Black is excellent at channelling the irreverent exuberance of Downey Jr. and his world. Moreover, while it's a Kevin Feige-produced Marvel film first and foremost, Iron Man 3 has Shane Black's stamp all over it; the Christmas setting, the dock-based finale, and Tony and Rhodey's buddy-cop-esque relationship, Iron Man 3 recalls both Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and his Lethal Weapon screenplays. Furthermore, we finally have an Iron Man film whose climax doesn't disappoint, and a plot that doesn't just not run out of steam halfway through, but actually takes it up a gear in one of the most unexpected and smart twists in any superhero movie to date. When I first saw Iron Man 3 at the cinema, I remember being a little put off by the Fox News-esque footage of a vaguely-defined foreign looking man issuing terrorist threats. The genius of the Trevor Slattery twist, of course, is that it disrupts those borderline racist depictions of terrorism, not to mention challenging the Reaganite politics of the previous Iron Man films. I can't decide decide whether I like this aspect of the twist more, or the fact that it caused legions of interminably vocal fanboys to howl with derision at the fact that the Mandarin had been changed from the comics.

Iron Man 3 isn't perfect, however. While the finale is undeniably exciting, it could be said that it's all a bit much, given how relatively understated and idiosyncratic the rest of the film is. Plus, Pepper Potts is again given almost nothing to do, and of all the (few) female characters in the MCU, hers seems the most extraneous. Finally, and this is a little contentious, even though the mid-point Mandarin twist is great, it kind of robs the film of a really great villain: dubious as the politics were, there is no denying that the Mandarin was an intimidating and seemingly formidable enemy for Tony, helped in no small part by Ben Kingsley's fantastic voice. After the twist, we're left with Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian, who while serviceable, feels a little like a stock revenge-baddie of the type we've seen before.

These niggles aside, Iron Man 3 is great entertainment, easily the best Iron Man film, and one of the best MCU films.   

3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

A year after its release, I still can't believe how much I like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, especially after its disappointing predecessor. The Winter Soldier is so good, in fact, that it makes the first Captain America seem better in retrospect, partially by channelling all of the Cap's straightforward simplicity and sincerity, and placing in the moral ambiguity of a 1970s spy thriller. Known primarily for their work on Community, Anthony and Joe Russo are a solid choice as directors, and it's little surprise that they'll be returning for Captain America: Civil War, as well as directing Avengers 3 and 4. What is especially great about The Winter Soldier is its completely different aesthetic to The First Avenger, working both visually and thematically as Steve Rogers finds himself as a man out of his own time. Most importantly, however, is the fact the The Winter Soldier's plot is far and away the most accomplished of all the MCU films. In fact, it's the only MCU film whose story feels like a proper, grown-up film, daft superhero action aside. Robert Redford is particularly good at providing the necessary gravitas as Nick Fury's boss, and at times he really does a good job of muddying the narrative's moral waters; there's a degree of ambiguity and complexity here that really doesn't exist in the other MCU films, and The Winter Soldier provides an especially effective counterpoint to the black and white morality of The First Avenger.

Clearly taking its cue from the Bourne films, The Winter Soldier finds a good balance between Cap's superhuman abilities, ridiculously advanced technology, and the story's need to keep things relatively grounded in a believable reality. In addition, Samuel L Jackson's role is much beefier and more satisfying that in other instalments, finding himself at the centre of one of the series' best set pieces to date when his car is attacked by Hydra agents. Plus, who can resist grinning at the cheeky epitaph on Fury's gravestone, 'The path of the righteous man...'? Similarly, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow gets her best supporting role in the series yet, in a team-up with Cap that yields a surprising amount of chemistry.

As with Iron Man 3, the film's not perfect, and the eponymous Winter Soldier is suprisingly absent in his own film. It was difficult deciding whether I like Iron Man 3 or Captain America 2 more, but Captain America just pips Iron Man to the post with its excellent action, great cast, and vast improvement on The First Avenger.

2) Avengers Assemble

Is The Winter Soldier a more cohesive, maturer, better told story? Probably. Is Iron Man 3 smarter, with its subversive and irreverent spirit? Yes, I'd say so, but there is simply no denying the fact that Avengers Assemble is one of the giddiest, satisfying and unfailingly fun pay-offs ever, ahem, assembled. Playing effectively as the joint third act climax to Captain AmericaThor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, Avengers Assemble achieves the seemingly impossible by cramming together seven (if you count Hawkeye and Black Widow) superheroes into one film and making it work. Writer-director Joss Whedon is of course at the core of the film's success, and following Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly / Serenity, demonstrates once again that he is the best in the business at getting ensemble casts to work in harmony. Smartly re-using Loki as the main anatagonist, Avengers Assemble establishes a paper thin but efficient premise, before giving us everything we want: the Avengers fighting each other, Hulk smashing, and finally, the team coming together, culminating in a money shot that has jumped directly off the comic page.

Beyond that, what else can I say about the final film in Marvel's Phase One? Jeremy Renner gets the short shrift in one of the film's few bum notes after being Loki hypnotises him, but Mark Ruffalo proves to be Marvel's best re-casting decision, replacing the good-but-pain-in-the-arse-to-work-with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, and becoming the accidental star of the film in the process. The dynamics of the team work perfectly, if a little predictably, which again is thanks to Whedon's expert and steady hand. Avengers Assemble is not particularly deep or complex, but as a pay-off for Marvel's four-year experiment it is near flawless.

1) Guardians of the Galaxy

The only film that can match, let alone outdo, Avengers Assemble for wit, inventiveness and sheer moxy, Guardians of the Galaxy is not only far and away the best MCU film to date, but one of the best 'fun' blockbusters to come out this decade. Guardians of the Galaxy the only MCU film other than the first Iron Man that can truly stand on its own, with only minimal and inconsequential references to wider Marvel continuity. Yet again, Marvel hits it out of the park with their casting, with main players Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel bringing life and dimension to what could easily have been one-note, annoying characters. The revelation, of course, is Dave Batista, who plays his Drax the Destroyer with an intoxicating mixture of deadpan humour, unexpected nuance and real menace. This, I think is Guardians' secret weapon: conjuring action, humour, and emotional drama in one effortless flourish. It's little surprise that following Guardians' release, Chris Pratt has been tipped to play Indiana Jones; Raiders of the Lost Ark is a clear tonal reference point for director James Gunn, and he references that film throughout.

I think it's somewhat of a misnomer, however, to describe Guardians as a risk, as so many commentators did prior to its release. Marvel, above all else, know how to make money and they never would have thrown the dice as recklessly as some have suggested. Moreover, since when did enormous, special-effects laden summer blockbusters from major Hollywood studios constitute large risks? Sure, a lot of the material of Guardians is odd, but cut from the same cloth as Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and with an established base of millions of loyal fans, Guardians of the Galaxy was always going to be a financial success in 2014. In 2008, before Marvel started their project, we might have reasonably called Guardians of the Galaxy a gamble, but not after the success of Iron Man, Thor and Avengers Assemble. What is to be commended, is that Guardians of the Galaxy works; a joyous mass of strange characters, daft humour and colourful action. Like Shane Black and Iron Man 3, Guardians' success lies in the fact that it feels like James Gunn's film, while still connecting to the wider MCU. Guardians of the Galaxy is far and away the best Marvel film to date, and the imminent Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to have to do something very special indeed if it intends to match it.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

From Best to Least Best: Ranking the MCU Movies Part 1

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Marvel's franchise template of an expanded universe has become the model for modern blockbuster cinema, even if the half-baked efforts from Sony and Warner Brothers, with their poorly-conceived Spider-Man and Justice League universes, feel like pound-shop knock offs of the Real Deal. Marvel's Cinematic Universe is easily the best long-running superhero series (sorry, my beloved X-Men), consistently surprising audiences and taking risks. Up for release next month is Avengers: Age of Ultron, and with the current catalogue at ten entries, it seems as good a time as any to list the Marvel films in order of my least to most favourite. I've agonised over the order of some of them, and most of the films are clustered pretty close together. Suffice to say I like all ten of the MCU films so far released, and this two-part list is more indicative of my personal tastes, rather than a definitive statement of overall quality. This week, we'll take a look at numbers 10 to 6, in a rundown dominated by Marvel's Phase One, and next week we'll finish the list with 5 to 1.

You're welcome.

10) Captain America: The First Avenger

Despite being a firm Phase One favourite of many Marvel fans, I've never fully enjoyed the first Captain America film. I didn't like it at all when I first watched it, and I have always found it to be amongst the most frustrating of the MCU films. While it has a strong opening, it completely fumbles its middle and final sections, presenting us with a series of montages masquerading as a second act and a finale that never fully rises to the boil. However, on subsequent viewings I have warmed to its stronger points, and grown to admire the film as a whole. While director Joe Johnston - enthusiastic minute-taker in the If Only We Were Steven Spielberg Club* - has never really made a great film, his work is almost uniformly without cynicism and brimming with a clear love for cinema. Watching his The Rocketeer is like watching a small child quote Indiana Jones in his back garden; he gets it a bit wrong, but it's cute anyway. Even Jurassic Park III, which Spielberg 'let' Johnston have, has sort of an infectious innocence about it, even though it's fundamentally crap. Similarly, although much of Jumanji doesn't hold up very well today, the central premise is so gleeful it's difficult to resist. It's in this spirit that I can enjoy The First Avenger, which at its core functions as an innocent and uncomplicated fable of good guys vs. bad guys. It's about little more than bravery triumphing over bullies, and wears its heart completely on its sleeve, which I admire. In this sense, Johnston is the perfect director for the material, especially given his preoccupation with mid-twentieth century American iconography.

Unfortunately, however, the plot really is all over the place, and loses focus in its second half, a problem from which many of the Phase One films suffer. Captain America: The First Avenger is most confident when introducing the pre-Super Soldier Steve Rogers, a man whose heroism is at odds with his physical abilities. It's intriguing, well paced and a good change of pace from the alpha-male focussed Iron Man and Thor. Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell and Stanley Tucci are all stellar in supporting roles, and the whole affair captures the fun of the other MCU films, which carving out its own identity and texture, helped in no small part by the period setting and Shelly Johnson's distinctive cinematography. However, when it comes time to strap in and enjoy Rogers and his pals zip off to save the day, the film fumbles. Instead of showcasing Rogers and his team in a single, well-executed and exciting mission, the film treats us to a montage of the Cap's Greatest Moments. On their own, they look great, but without the connective story tissue they add up to very little, feeling more like flashbacks than complete scenes. It's a section of the film that insists on telling us how great Captain America is, rather than showing us, which also means that his badass team, known as the Howling Commandos, are given the short shrift: we never really get to know any of them, and so it's difficult to care or even follow what happens to them. This is especially disappointing given the time the film dedicates to developing the other supporting characters. By the time the finale rolls around, too much disconnect has happened between the audience and the film's wonky sense of pacing, and before we know it, the whole thing is all over in a finale that feels abrupt and undercooked. That said, Captain America: The First Avenger does have its stand-out moments, whether its in the delicious early nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark - "while the Fuhrer digs for trinkets in the desert" - the best post-credits tease since the first Iron Man, or Hugo Weaving's pitch-perfect 1940s-serial scenery chewing as The Red Skull. It's just that those moments rarely hang together in a way that works for me, and it's for that reason that while The First Avenger isn't the weakest MCU instalment (and is by no means a bad film), it's certainly the most disappointing.

9) The Incredible Hulk

I have a great deal of time for The Incredible Hulk, not least because it doesn't sit quite as well in the Expanded Universe as the other films. Released the same year as Iron Man, Marvel were still clearly hedging their bets with regards to their cross-continuity, and so what we have is a film differing greatly in both tone and style from Iron Man. Although The Incredible Hulk isn't connected to the previous Ang Lee Hulk, it also doesn't explicitly distance itself from it, making it feel somewhere in between a reboot and a sequel. What the film demonstrates very well is that it is possible to effectively (re)introduce a character without another interminable 'Origins' plot. Right off the bat we have Edward Norton as an already Hulkified-Bruce Banner, hiding from the authorities in the Brazilian favellas. Hunted by Tim Roth's menacing Royal Marine Emil Blonsky, Banner is searching for a cure to his condition. It's a decent premise, and the first transformation scene, coming early in the film, is great, setting the film apart from Lee's ambitious but plodding predecessor. However, just as Iron Man struggles to do anything interesting with Tony Stark after he gets into the completed suit, The Incredible Hulk struggles after Banner finds himself back in the US. It's never clear whether or not Blonsky's superior, General Ross, is supposed to be a villain, and while the final showdown in the city is exciting and well staged, it can't help but feel rather perfunctory, not least because of the film's lack of a clear theme. As a result, the film's story never really climaxes; I'd suggest this is because, as the second MCU film, it's raison d'etre seems to be the dual question, "Can we really do this comic character justice on the big screen, and will audiences accept him?" The first Iron Man exists for basically the same reason, and I would argue that it's this proof-of-concept approach to the material that means the narratives of both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk don't work especially well. It's a problem that Marvel didn't really solve until the redemptive narrative arc of Thor, and is something that with their demonstrably growing confidence, they've been refining ever since.   That said, it's better paced than Captain America, and has a feel and identity of its own. While having virtually no impact on the events of the wider MCU, The Incredible Hulk is a solid action film, and works best as a monster movie.

8) Thor: The Dark World

While there's nothing especially wrong with the second Thor entry, and despite the fact that I find it more consistently entertaining than both The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk, there just seems to be something lacking about this one. Perhaps it's the lame rom-com subplot between Natalie Portman and Chris O'Dowd which goes nowhere, or the unnecessary addition of the Lady Sif taking a fancy to Thor: also a dead-end that leads nowhere. I suspect, however, it's something a little deeper than that, and I'd attribute it to a director better known for his TV work and, ahem, the new Terminator film, due later this year. Alan Taylor's direction is fine but humdrum, lacking anything approaching the sincerity of Joe Johnston, the idiosyncrasy of Iron Man 3's Shane Black, or indeed, Kenneth Branagh's commitment to the portentous silliness that made the first Thor such a laugh. This blandness bleeds through into the film's villain, Malaketh, who doesn't come remotely close to Loki as a great bad guy. Tom Hiddleston, however, remains on top form as Thor's conniving adopted brother, clearly having the time of his life as the MCU's best baddie. Indeed, positioning Loki as a central character only strengthens what would otherwise be a rote plot. In fact, all the key players are on good form, and despite the film's shortcomings, the action is still exciting; I especially like the London-set, portal-hopping finale, and seeing Loki and Thor working together is a treat. As a result, The Dark World firmly consolidates the promise of the first Thor, Avengers Assemble and Iron Man 3: that Marvel has finally cracked how to properly structure a narrative towards a satisfying conclusion.

7) Iron Man 2

Much like The Incredible Hulk, I have a lot of time for the second Iron Man film, and unlike many fans, I don't hate the fact that its main purpose for existing is to set up future Avengers films. Robert Downey Jr. is on top form again as the eponymous hero, and the sub-plot of his needing to find a new power source for the suit works especially well, tying together Tony's rediscovery of his father's legacy, battling the villain Whiplash, and meeting with Nick Fury to discuss the tantalising Avengers Initiative. What's key here is that this is a good sub-plot, as is the Justin Hammer as a rival weapons developer sub-plot, as is the mounting tension between Tony and Colonel James Rhodes. It's just a shame that none of these become the main plot of the movie, and as such it struggles for both narrative direction, and an identity sufficiently distinct from the last film. In addition, Iron Man 2 introduces Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow, but rather than focussing on her impressive skill set, positions her as a sex object for Tony. Avengers Assemble and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have gone some way to rectifying that representation of her, but in a series that has yet to feature a single woman in the lead in ten films (and won't until it hits film number 20 (!) with Captain Marvel), it's a particularly embarrassing misstep. That said, replacing Terence Howard with Don Cheadle as Rhodes is a brilliant move - "I'm here, it's me, get over it" - as is the introduction of War Machine. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell have terrific fun in their roles as Whiplash and Hammer, and the action sequences, tepid finale aside, are fun, tense and exciting. It's another one which has grown on me over time, and while it might not quite hit the mark, it's got a lot to offer.

6) Iron Man

Iron Man is rightly beloved as the film that opened Marvel's experiment in cross-franchise continuity, but in hindsight, it's not quite as good as some of the later entries to the MCU. On release, Iron Man's secret weapon was low expectation, owing partially to the fact that the character was unfamiliar to most audiences. Additionally, this was a time for the genre when for every Spider-Man 2 there was a Daredevil or X-Men: The Last StandSuperman Returns had disappointed audiences and most people were more interested in the upcoming The Dark Knight than in Robert Downey Jr. dressing up in red and gold armour. It came as somewhat of a surprise, then, that Iron Man was full of wit, innovation and humour. Downey Jr. was a revelation as Tony Stark, embodying the role as effortlessly and inextricably as Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones. It's easy to forget, too, the brilliance of the suit design - the suit effects really are flawless - and not since Superman The Movie (or Spider-Man, at a push) had a superhero costume been translated so faithfully and effectively on the big screen. But perhaps most impressively, the film balances its tone perfectly, engaging in a wry self-awareness without ever falling into tiresome post-ironic snark. The icing on the cake was, of course, the post-credits tease, which had people cheering in the cinema. Again, it's easy to forget how innovative this was; superhero films just didn't inhabit shared universes at the time, and the promise of this happening, however tenuous, felt tantalising.

So why isn't Iron Man higher on my list? In short, it's been superseded by its more confident and better structured successors. As with many of the early Marvel films, Iron Man's villain is its weakest asset, filling a perfunctory role so that we can have a climactic showdown, which, while okay, neither lives up to nor exceeds the film's previous set-pieces. Linked to this is the fact that after Tony gets into the completed suit, the film runs out of story. I think that an interesting facet of the Phase One films is that they feel like proof-of-concepts, rather than narrative films. The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man especially are strongest in their first and second acts, when they are introducing their audiences to these outlandish characters. As I've suggested above, once the films are finished with the set up, they run out of steam, because they're interested in their characters first, and their narratives second. This would be fine, but because Iron Man is a Hollywood tent pole movie, it needs to have an action-packed third act, which given the loose and fun spirit of the film, just doesn't quite work. Iron Man secures its place through its light tone, Downey Jr.'s pitch-perfect performance, and in its sheer gall at setting up a shared cinematic universe. Undeniably flawed, and far from Marvel's strongest film, it remains a solid and highly entertaining first instalment in the mega franchise.

Once these early films were under Marvel's belt, and once the studio became more adept at handling their cross-continuities, they became better at balancing story and character. As this list would suggest, the MCU films have broadly improved as the studio has grown in confidence. The next five films on this list represent the series' development, so come back next week to see how they stack up.

* Other members include Head-of-Club Robert Zemeckis and purveyor of sentimental schlock and inferior Harry Potter films, Chris Columbus.  

Monday, 9 March 2015

Beyond Redemption: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

After an extended hiatus, the Magnificent Tramp returns with a new series: Beyond Redemption. Once a month, I'll be posting extended reviews of films that are so absymal that they go beyond the levels of flawed, ascending to the nirvana of the irreedemable. In this first post, I'll be looking at The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which although currently has a rating of 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, is one of the most execrable examples of superhero cinema in recent memory. For my money, I thought the first Amazing Spider-Man was flawed but not unforgivably so. While unpopular with fanboys, I thought presenting Peter Parker as arrogant and self-involved was an interesting shift from Toby Maguire's whiny Peter and left opportunities for him to grow as a character. Consequently, I was looking forward to a flawed film that would hopefully have some interesting ideas, new interpretations, and if nothing else, some exciting web-slinging hi-jinks.

Oh, how I was wrong. So, terribly, terribly wrong. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 repeats all of its predecessor's vices and none of its virtues, presenting us with a perfect storm of schizophrenic characterisation, incoherent screenwriting and all the narrative direction of an overly long game of snakes and ladders. Of course, TASM2 is not unique in these flaws: The Dark Knight Rises suffers from pretty severe structural problems and plot-holes, Iron Man 2 exists mainly to set up future Marvel films, and Sam Raimi's much-derided Spider-Man 3 is an infuriating, overstuffed mess. But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gives us something especially rank, far outstripping the failings of its forbears. It is a production so black of heart, so devoid of humanity, so profoundly lacking in any mirth, wit, or joie de vivre that while it may not be the worst superhero film ever made (that particular accolade still belongs de facto to Batman and Robin), it is certainly the most toxic.

Both Amazing Spider-Man films were directed by Marc Webb, of the bafflingly popular but assuredly dreadful 500 Days of Summer. Where 500 Days' eponymous heroine is an object of affection for Tom, an impossibly desirable pixie girl who refuses to settle down, dammit, TASM2's Gwen is an object to be bartered over between Peter and her father. Using a woman in jeopardy as the call to action for the male hero is a cliche as old as the hills, and one which has a specific precedent in comic books. The Dark Knight Trilogy, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and Superman all make use of the trope to varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, there are several factors that make the cliche especially irksome in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not least because one of the few refreshing aspects to TASM1 was that Gwen was a far more proactive and resilient character than Mary Jane was in Raimi's films. In the second Amazing instalment, Gwen attempts to retain her agency by playing an active part in her and Peter's relationship, but doesn't count on her dead father getting between Peter's conscience and his libido. Peter is plagued by visions of Gwen's father, reminded of the promise that he made to stop seeing Gwen. Here, the film thinks that it is grappling with the same themes of power and responsibility that were at the heart of the Raimi films, but what Peter's conflict actually exposes is an unthinkingly paternalistic, and quite nasty core to the film's moral compass. Where Maguire's Peter was able to accept Mary Jane's informed decision to be with him, Garfield's hero interminably flip-flops on what he wants from Gwen in what can only be described as a calculated act of manipulation and emotional blackmail.

Squandered talent: Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy

For example, at the start of TASM2, Peter dumps Gwen because her dead father's stern-looking ghost reminds Peter of his promise to leave Gwen alone. She's understandably angered and hurt at Peter's decision, especially given that he has made no attempt to talk to her about it. Later, Peter decides that he still wants to be friends. No sooner does Gwen agree to this new arrangement than Peter immediately starts making flirtatious and emotionally manipulative comments along the lines of "if we're going to be friends you'll have to stop laughing like that because it's too damn sexy". Later, Gwen takes up a place at Oxford University and prepares to leave New York. Even though Peter has decided they can't be together, he still tries to stop Gwen from leaving by devising a stunt (webbing the words 'I love you' on to the Brooklyn Bridge) to persuade her to stay within his sticky grasp, apparently quite happy to destroy her once-in-a-lifetime chance of studying at one of the world's most prestigious universities. It's baffling to me that anyone could interpret his behaviour as emotionally responsible, let alone heroic.

Contrast this with Maguire's personal moral conflict in the Raimi films. Admittedly, Maguire does his own share of annoying flip-flopping, and does keep MJ in the dark about his dual identity as Spider-Man, but when it comes down to it, Mary-Jane is able to make her own decision about what she wants, and Peter accepts this without intentionally trying to confuse and manipulate her. Crucially, when MJ learns the truth about Peter she makes an informed choice to be with him, fully aware of the risks involved. Spider-Man 2 comes with its own problems, and I'm not defending that film's conventional and somewhat tiresome gender politics, but what Spider-Man 2 definitely does not do is present an arrogant, emotionally manipulative brat as a hero with whom the audience is encouraged to identify. Maguire's Peter is filled with insecurity and self-doubt, but Garfield's iteration of Peter is a cocky wise-ass who piles all of the emotional responsibility on to Gwen, while craftily denying her any actual control over the kind of relationship they have. Maguire's Peter knows that the connection between power and responsibility is sacrifice. In contrast, Garfield's Peter singularly lacks the maturity and selflessness to walk away wholesale from Gwen, and when he does toy with the idea of leaving her, it is because of a misplaced sense of guilt over breaking an agreement with her father. Crucially, that guilt has nothing to do with Gwen's safety or future happiness. Instead, the central moral conflict of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 lies in the agreement between two men over what to do with their woman. When that woman attempts to exert her own autonomy she is punished in an act of retribution so staggeringly instantaneous, emotionally hollow and unintentionally silly that on witnessing it I was shocked into exasperated laughter. Her death, regardless of its fidelity to comic history, is a cynical plot device designed both to appease comics fanboys, and as a weird and unsettling continuation of the theme / exorcism of the 'girl that got away' demon that also informs Webb's debut feature, 500 Days of Summer.

A defence of Gwen's death as Peter's comeuppance for not letting her go is void: he mourns her for a few months and then, as shown by the final, tacked on scene, goes back to business as usual: showing off in front of New York's uniformly idiotic public. The final scene of the film is unsatisfying as a finale, but more importantly it robs Gwen's death of any emotional resonance that it might otherwise have had were its consequences explored properly. Moreover, her death has nothing to do with rebuking Peter for his selfishness or manipulative nature - it is the consequence both of the broken contract between he and Gwen's father, and of that damned foolish woman who keeps getting herself into trouble when the men aren't around to stop her. Other superhero movies are often guilty of representing women as fantasy damsels in distress, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 goes one step further by being aware of its heroine's capacity for autonomy, before punishing her for taking action and not doing what she is told. It is almost as if Gwen has wandered in from a better written film, and finds herself surrounded by two-dimensional, unpredictable weirdoes who are guided by the invisible hand of an inverse morality. The film likes the idea of a sassy, sexy girlfriend with a mind of her own, but in profoundly hating the reality of an autonomous woman, acts accordingly by eliminating her.

Electro: Just as confused as the rest of us
Superhero films offer modern parables about the values of society, and tend to be strongest when exploring the manichean concepts of good and evil. This kind of cinema does not need to provide glib, Aesop-esque morals, but I do think that it needs a moral centre - even if that centre is disrupted or challenged. The thematic politics of many superhero narratives are essentially conservative - the triumph of order over chaos (The Dark Knight); the inviolability of individual freedom (Iron Man); stability vs insecurity - but they at least offer moral compasses, the direction of which can generally be agreed upon. But what moral compass does The Amazing Spider-Man 2 offer? When Peter refuses to help his terminally-ill friend, in which direction is his compass pointing? When he emotionally manipulates his girlfriend into staying with him, what form of ethics is the film advocating? I'm fine with films that encourage us to relate to unlikeable or morally dubious characters; some of the greatest directors in history have made based entire careers on exploring unpalatable characters. But when you position your character as a hero, as an embodiment of goodness, and the cypher through which the audience experience a power fantasy - which, let's face it, is what most superhero narratives are - then making that character an alpha-male douchebag with borderline sociopathic traits is rather problematic for the core morality of your story. As I have said, I quite liked that in TASM1 Peter began the film as an immature, entitled brat, but that only works if he grows and changes as a character. By the end of the second film he categorically has learned nothing.  Sure, he mourns Gwen's death, but only insofar that he is upset that he doesn't get to play with his favourite toy anymore. The film shows us nothing of his own culpability or responsibility for Gwen's demise; he's just in a huff because his dream girl has been taking away by the bad man. At no point does Peter show any understanding that it was his refusal to help his friend Harry Osborn that led to Gwen's death. The film tacitly absolves Peter of any fault, robbing itself of any redemptive catharsis. If Peter learns nothing from Gwen's death, which he doesn't, then her death is dramatically meaningless.

Which leads me on to the morality of TASM2's villains, who, like Peter, also appear to be suffering from their personality disorders, swapping out their motivations and character traits according to the whims of the plot. I feel safe in saying that the first sequence with Electro in Times Square is one of the worst storytelling moments that I have ever endured in a motion picture. In the space of ten seconds, Electro turns from a confused and frightened victim into a glory-hunting mass murderer, but to the ultra-impatient screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, exploring Electro's psychology is too much work - it's easier for him just to get pissed off at a TV camera pointing at Spider-Man, right? How are we supposed to care about this guy when apparently the only reason he's being evil is because the plot demands it? Even notorious disasters like Schumacher's Batman films, with all their silliness and ultra-camp aesthetics, understood that to engage with the story, the audience needs characters with coherent internal psychologies. How has a film from 2014 mishandled something that even Batman Forever managed?

After abruptly dispensing with Electro by squirting him with a fire hose (because water and electricity don't mix, I suppose), the film introduces Harry Osborn, Peter's heretofore unmentioned best friend. Harry has a terminal genetic disease and thinks Spider-Man's magic blood holds the key to a cure (just like Orci and Kurtzman's Star Trek Into Darkness). He approaches Spider-Man and asks him to help, so Spider-Man says no, because 'it might not work'. This is literally the reason that Peter, scientific genius (who, by the way, watches YouTube videos on how batteries work because the Orci and Kurtzman can't be bothered to include properly integrated exposition) and best and oldest friend to Harry Osborn chooses to let him die from a horrific disease. How exactly are we supposed to buy into the relationship between Peter and Harry, or into Spider-Man as a heroic character when he refuses to help his friend in need? 
This leads us to a crucial aspect of Peter's character: he only ever acts when it will either directly benefit him, as with his emotional manipulation of Gwen, or in self-aggrandising posturing, such as when he fights Electro and Rhino to the slack-jawed adulation of braying morons who are too stupid to see that they are in mortal danger. Peter might save people in public displays of aerobatics, but in private he is selfish, arrogant, and prone to obsessive behaviour and temper tantrums. Peter's refusal to even try to help his friend leads us to invariably sympathise with Harry. When he goes to confront Spider-Man, post-Goblin transformation, are we really expected to side with Peter, a man who left his best friend to a dreadful fate? To fool us into thinking Spider-Man is a hero, Harry is transformed from a realistic, desperate victim into gurning pantomime villain in one costume change. Regardless of its fidelity to comic canon, Gwen's death is a cheap trick to make Harry seem evil: not only is this entirely out of character for Harry, it also does nothing to absolve Peter of his responsibility to Harry, nor does it nullify Harry's legitimate grievance with Peter. In any case, Gwen's death was written in the stars, as demonstrated by the heavy-handed foreshadowing throughout the film. Her death was as destined as Harry's illness and Peter's Spiderness (which, as has been pointed out time and again, totally misses the point of the accidental nature of Spider-Man). According to the film's internal screwy logic, Gwen's death was both unavoidable but also-sort-of Gwen's fault for not listening to Peter. Most egregious of all, however, is using Gwen as on object to make Harry appear evil and to give Peter a bogus final-act catastrophe before his triumphant return at the end.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a profound and irredeemable mess. It is two hour and twenty minutes of moving images and sound, which although technically qualifies it as a feature film, falls woefully short of anything resembling a story. The shifts in tone are amongst the most jarring I have ever seen, and the complete lack of connection between scenes, characters, and plot-points make Prometheus seem like a masterpiece in narrative form. Characters change personalities from moment to moment, and the considerable acting talents of Garfield, Stone, Sally Field, Dane Dehaan, Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti and Chris Cooper are squandered by what must surely be one of the worst screenplays ever written relative to a film's budget and profile. Singularly, these faults could be forgiven, ignored even. Collectively, they do not negate the film's positive qualities (like Prometheus, the film is very well shot and brimming with colour, and the opening shot of Spider-Man falling towards Manhattan is undeniably exhilarating. Unlike Prometheus, however, no performance in TASM2 comes close to Michael Fassbender's terrific portrayal of David). But the final nail in TASM2's coffin is its dearth of morality; it is a film that profoundly misunderstands the basic concepts of responsibility, sacrifice, and human relationships. Very few characters act like real human beings in the world of TASM2, but worse than this, the one character to whom we must relate for the film to work is manipulative, reckless and borderline sociopathic. It is this lack of any recognisably moral dimension to its hero that ultimately betrays the film: as entertainment it is unwatchable, as moral fable it is repellent, and as cinema it is unmitigated failure.  

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Tramp Reviews: X-Men: Days of Future Past

It's tempting to begin this review with a recap of the previous films. However, I've already done that here, and even X-Men: Days of Future Past itself assumes that its audience will be reasonably familiar with the series' convoluted narrative, offering virtually no explanation of who the extensive cast of characters are and their relationships to each other. However, despite the wilfully stuffy confusion of some reviewers, only a cursory knowledge of previous X-Men titles is really necessary to follow the time-twisting plot, although it's true that long-term fans of the series are the most likely to enjoy this episode fully. As always, since I'm writing this review several days after the film has been released, expect major spoilers. If you haven't yet seen the film, stop reading now, but if you're looking for a recommendation, X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the best entries in the series and you should see it as soon as possible.

One of the most interesting elements of Days of Future Past is its numerous allusions to dystopian science fiction cinema, particularly during its futuristic first act. The earlier films clearly owed a debt to the genre, but here there are specific visual and narrative homages to its forbears. The captured mutants being marched down bleak corridors are reminiscent of the workers in Metropolis, and the bodies of the dead recall the imagery of both The Terminator and Soylent Green, all piled up in a hellish landscape that reminds us of Blade RunnerThe Matrix and Tron. Disturbingly, these scenes are suggestive also of the holocaust sections in some of the other X-Men films, and are undoubtedly some of the darkest and most challenging sequences of the entire series. In another director's hands, these scenes could very easily have felt derivative
and even tasteless, but with veteran Bryan Singer at the helm, they feel like the logical, nightmarish conclusion to the themes of the series.

Storm's onscreen time is limited but memorable.
Where the visual references of the future scenes are necessarily science-fiction, the scenes in the 1970s are more likely to recall the political thrillers of that decade; an approach which also worked extremely well in this year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's one which functions simultaneously as a visual contrast to the future sequences, and as an extension of the film's political and social themes. Singer and his production team deserve recognition both for combining two potentially disparate aesthetics into a coherent style, and for creating a visual design distinct from both the millenial blue of the original trilogy, and the technicolour 60s fantasy of X-Men: First Class.

Perhaps the most consistent criticism that has been levelled at Days of Future Past is its convoluted narrative, jumping, as it does, from future to past and back again. To paraphrase one review of another superhero film, there is indeed more plot here than story. Moreover, the future scenes very much feel like the action-packed finale of a different film - the last few minutes of a movie edited to punctuate the 70s-set narrative. As a result, most of the future characters get only a few lines each, if at all, and not really anything approaching characterisation. That said, the future cast succeed at making us care about characters who are, to be generous, sparsely written, and Singer's narrative economy here is admirable. Imagine if Peter Jackson, with his inability to cut the fat from a story, had directed Days of Future Past, and it's easy to see the sense behind Singer's decision to keep the future scenes to a minimum. The director shows us only what is absolutely necessary before moving us on to the real meat of the 70s-set story. And it's here that the real emotional development comes, primarily in a neat reversal of the student / mentor dynamic between Wolverine and Xavier. Predictably, the main cast are all on form: Jackman has for years been inextricably associated with Wolverine, and is at complete ease in the role, whereas Fassbender and Lawerence both bring welcome depth and pathos to Magneto and Mystique. Indeed, more so than any other instalment, this X-Men film blurs the lines between heroes and villains.

Despite the strong performances and impressive narrative plate-spinning, it is fair to say that Days of Future Past exists primarily to tidy up an increasingly complicated and frequently contradictory backstory. The events of the disappointing third instalment, The Last Stand, are conclusively and overtly written out in the film's final scene with the unexpected but welcome return of some of the series' missing characters. Similarly, the repeated appearances of a young William Stryker feel unnecessary and extraneous to Days of Future Past's story. However, somewhat forgivably, his inclusion conflicts with the timeline of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, effectively erasing the events of that film from the series canon.

Arguably the strongest set piece of the entire series.
Days of Future Past's greatest strength lies in its action, which offers the best set pieces of the series as well Inception-flavoured finale which combines past and future showdowns with the terrifying, mutant-hunting sentinels. Incidentally, the film contains some seriously grisly violence and really pushes the 12A rating; if The Last Stand was unafraid to dispassionately kill off major characters, Days of Future Past forces us to witness the suffering of a cast ripped apart by robotic drones indifferent to their roles as series favourites.
as several sequences that feel fresh and innovative in a genre bloated with epic spectacle. The best of these is newcomer Quicksilver's showpiece, in which he whizzes around security guards in one of the most preposterously enjoyable jailbreak scenes ever filmed. Honourable mention also goes to the

With spectacular flair, distinctive visuals, and a strong, if somewhat convoluted story, X-Men Days of Future Past offers what may be the best entry in the series. This is also the darkest episode in the ongoing saga, but balances that darkness with perfectly measured levity and humour, deriving from an extremely polished script and strong central performances. If, as with all X-Men films, some of the characters feel a little-short changed, and the plot bounces along a little too quickly, it is only because of Singer's insistence on keeping a tight focus on the type of story he wants to tell. Similarly, much of the dialogue functions as simple exposition, but with a narrative that keeps the thrills coming thick and fast, it hardly matters. With an unprecedented run of three good films, after fourteen years it seems that the X-Men have finally found their footing, and it really couldn't be stronger.