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.

Monday, 12 May 2014

What is up with La Dolce Vita? A Rant.

After a long time meaning to get around to it, I finally watched Federico Fellini's 1960 La Dolce Vita at the weekend, an iconic example of Italian neo-realist cinema, universally lauded by critics, nominated for four Academy Awards and winner of one, as well as being listed by the British Film Institute as the 39th greatest film ever made. I couldn't stand it. Actually, I lie - the first hour, give or take, was by turns beautiful, intriguing, sexy and harrowing. The film's most famous scene, in which Anita Ekberg frolics in a Roman fountain was deserving of its status as an enduring icon of cinema, and Marcello Mastroianni's almost unbearable desire for Ekberg in that scene, figured by an untouchable sensuality, singularly captures one of the central and most complex themes of the film, Namely, that of the way male audiences idolise and objectivity women, necessarily making of them either Madonnas or whores. It is a moment of pure cinema, without need of dialogue or exposition, and one which is effectively ruined by the film's insistence on driving the point home, repeatedly, with endless scenes of men dryly explaining to each other what and how women should be. 

Mastroianni plays a society journalist who is caught between the temptations of the 'dolce vita' of the title - the 'sweet life' of the rich and famous, and a revulsion at the decadence, self indulgence and pseudo-intellectual posing that naturally follows. At a running time of nearly three hours and virtually no central
The best bit of the film. Save yourself the trouble and don't bother with the rest.
narrative, I can sympathise. Not tied down to the need to tell a single story, the film is able to explore its themes and paint its pictures freely. Except that, for my money, exploration entails more than simply endlessly repeating the same point in different settings. The lifestyles of the rich are simultaneously irrestistable and repellent. Celebrity comes with some pretty horrible existential consequences. Women are desirable. Women are mothers. Women are deified by men. Women are not treated like human beings by men. 
La Dolce Vita, I get it. This does not require three hours of interminable navel-gazing to come to terms with. Over the course of the film, there is undeniably beauty, composed with the artistry and artifice only accessible to a master of cinematic imagery, but call me old fashioned, I need more than artful composition, more than Italian cars shot in black and white, more than moody men in sharp suits ogling gorgeous women. Three hours requires, in my humble opinion, story. It needs narrative pacing, the ebb and flow of incident and character development. Call me a populist, but I want my characters to be in a different place when I leave them than when I met them. More to the point, I want their changes to change me; I don't want to have figured out the 'horrible' truth of my central character's ennui a full hour before he gets there (that truth, incidentally, is that rich people are often self-indulgent and boring, and hanging around self-indulgent, boring people is probably a bad idea). And I don't consider a dead fish staring blankly on a beach a sufficiently sophisticated or even interesting metaphor to justify having sat through 164 minutes hours of nicely composed shots of the same basic two or three fucking ideas. Yes, I get that it's (supposedly) split into seven segments (seven, geddit? Like in the Bible and that). I get the Madonna / whore stuff. I get the Catholic iconography, and its relationship to the iconography cinema. I get the endless descent into meaninglessness. We've all read Baudrillard. We all know about the Carnival, and the male gaze and structralism and blah, blah, blah. Yes, La Dolce Vita, you're very clever. Yes, I understand. Yes, you're spectacles are very stylish. No, you can't have my number.

And while I'm at it, another disappointment I endured lately was Frances Ha, a turgid little hipster nothing, universally and inexplicably admired, with pretensions towards both Fellini and Woody Allen. I have a far-less well developed dislike of this film, and so since it doesn't justify its own post, I wish to publicly express my dislike for Frances Ha here. I can't even be bothered to think of a pun on its lame hipster title. I know this has nothing really to do with the rest of my post. Think of this paragraph as a delightful little intermezzo

It's all, like, signs and signifiers, innit?
Anyway, before I'm accused of having too short an attention span and only wanting to watch The Wolverine or whatever, let me just say that I bloody love boring pretentious arthouse cinema as much as the next Guardian-reading toe sniffer. Lawrence of Arabia is about 4 days long and every frame of that film is exhilarating. Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is one of my favourite films, easily as iconic and twice as complex as La Dolce Vita, and yet still manages to include incident along with its religious themes. Bergman's Persona is a masterpiece of minimalist story-tellling and performance, despite very little happening during the course of the film, but it still feels more developed than Fellini's endless shrugging. I'll be damned if I know what Tarkovsky's Mirror was all about but it sure as hell didn't bore the arse off me. Pretty much Akira Kurosawa's entire catalogue is obviously pure class, as are Bicycle Thieves and The Battle of Algiers. Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie isn't entirely to my taste, but at least it's got a bit of blood coursing through its veins, and finds time to include a few laughs. And, aye, I know I've name-checked more or less the most obvious post-war arthouse cinema in an attempt to legitimise my position. Stop being such a smart arse. To return to Felllini, initially I struggled with 8 1/2, until about half way through when everything seemed to click into place for me. Perhaps I'm just a bit slow on the uptake. But for me, La Dolce Vita was the exact opposite: initially brimming with intense, potentially rich and complex imagery, tiresomely repeated ad infinitum. And don't give me any of that "it's supposed to be like that, duh, it's like we're the journalist, getting bored and ground down by it all together" guff. I am not the journalist, and I don't need three hours to figure out that rich people are vacuous.