Archive for June, 2019

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Posted: June 29, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Simon Kinberg. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp and Jessica Chastain.

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It is 1992, nine years following the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, and the X-Men are now well established as heroes. Mutants are no longer hunted, and even Magneto (Fassbender) has stopped fighting, concentrating instead on founding a home for mutants on a remote island. Meanwhile Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is enjoying the adoration that the X-Men bring and has no compunction in sending them on increasingly dangerous missions despite the warnings of Mystique (Lawrence, doing the minimum amount to fulfil her contract). When a space shuttle is threatened by what seems to be a solar flare, Xavier insists the X-Men travel into orbit, despite the misgivings of Beast (Hoult). When disaster strikes Jean Grey (Turner) saves the day, but also absorbs a significant amount of energy.

Back on Earth Jean finds her telekinetic powers have become much stronger, and she’s also begun to remember her past, and a tragedy that Xavier forced her to forget. Increasingly belligerent Jean’s powers, and her rage, grow exponentially, with tragic results for the X-Men. As she goes on the run her exploits make humankind fear mutants again. Hunted by human and mutant alike Jean’s only ally is Vuk  (Chastain) and alien who understands the power Jean now wields, but does Vuk really want to help Jean or does she have an ulterior motive and can the X-Men bring themselves to take down one of their own?

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It’s scary to realise that it’s almost 20 years since X-Men first hit our screens. No one could have guessed the film could be a success, and no one could have guessed how huge a star a certain Mr Jackman would go on to be. There have been 12 films in the X-Men universe so far, and to say their quality has been variable is an understatement. X2 was a rare sequel better than the original, but the follow up (which also featured the Jean Grey/ Phoenix story and was also written by Kinberg) Last Stand was awful, and the Wolverine film that followed was possibly worse. The franchise was reinvigorated by the superb First Class, slipping back in time and recasting the actors, bringing in the likes of McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence, but the franchise has struggled to come close to that highpoint again. Days of Future Past was enjoyable, thanks in no small part to Jackman, but Apocalypse was mediocre at best, not terrible but not exactly exciting.

And so we come to Fox’s penultimate film in the franchise before they had it all over to Disney, and whilst not unenjoyable, the X-Men exit with a whimper rather than a bang.

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Part of the problem is the story, and however much Kinberg wanted a chance to do the Dark Phoenix idea better (a chance afforded by Days of Future Past rewriting the timeline) it’s still a story we saw not that long ago. The story veers all over the place, and whilst Chastain is eerily alien, Vuk never feels like enough of a threat. The dialogue is clunky, and the “maybe we should be the X-Women” line is well intentioned but seems like a sop, especially when for large portions of the film it’s male characters doing much of the heavy lifting.

Lawrence doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort, and some of the younger cast do seem a trifle overawed or side-lined, take Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, though it is hard to express much emotion when your eyes are constantly covered up, or Shipp as Storm who doesn’t get nearly enough to do. Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler is good fun however.

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Turner is good, and gets to show quite a range, but for saying the film is about her, at times the focus shifts too far away from her and she becomes less a character than a plot point. Still the Queen of the North continues to impress as an actor, though the accent takes a little getting used to.

McAvoy, Fassbender (as Magneto) and Hoult are all great actors, and not a one of them feels like they’re phoning it in, but they can only do so much with the material at hand, and the film, like many X-Men films, is kinda hamstrung by feeling the need to be an allegory of the civil rights movement, all the time, and I’m not sure how many times Magneto can flit between sides in the conflict, it all starts becoming a trifle samey.

I wasn’t bored, there’s some neat humour, some good performances, and some enjoyable set pieces—especially the fight on the train—but every time you think the film is going to spring into life it backs down or diverts down a narrative alley.

An enjoyable but in the end eminently forgettable superhero film, but it is at least better than Last Stand (and probably Apocolypse). I guess we wait now to see what Disney will do with Professor X and co, but I can’t help thinking whatever that is, they’ll do it better.

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“I think I can see Micky Mouse from here!”

 

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And so we come to the final Bond film of the 60s, and a somewhat unique beast given its atypical length (until Casino Royale this was the longest Bond film by far) unconventional structure (certainly in comparison to most of the franchise) and of course, most notably, the fact that it’s the one and only time George Lazenby straps on the Walther PPK.

If I’m asked to name my favourite Bond film, OHMSS tends to trip automatically off my tongue, but it had been a few years since I’d seen it so, as with each film in this re-watch, I did have a little trepidation going in, would it live up to my lofty expectations, or would it appear I’ve been labouring under a false belief all these years.

Let’s cut to the chase, I bloody love it!

It really is a top-drawer film, a proper film in so many ways, and it’s interesting to compare it to the mishmash that was You Only Live Twice. The script here is far stronger, which helps enormously, and by all accounts this is the Bond flick that adheres most directly to the book (which I really must read again). Peter Hunt’s direction also helps. One can’t help feeling that he’s choosing to direct a film, not a Bond film, and I wonder if the franchise could do with trying that again some time.

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Given it’s his one and only film, let’s talk Lazenby. Old George gets a rough time from critics, he’s wooden, he can’t act, he’s a joke. In all honestly Lazenby could be considered one of the weakest elements of the film, yet also, conversely, maybe it’s strongest asset. In the end however good Rigg is (and we’ll come onto Dame Diana shortly) this film succeeds because of that final scene, and the fact that George sells it in a way many another Bond actor might not have. It’s even more evident after so recently watching YOLT, but just imagine Connery in that final scene. I shudder at the very thought. It’d be like Austin Powers at the start of The Spy who Shagged Me “Way hey, I’m single again!”.

Lazenby won’t ever win a best Bond contest, but he was the perfect Bond for the perfect Bond film. His inexperience and vulnerability make this film work, and sure, he wouldn’t have been half as good in something like Goldfinger, but in OHMSS he’s spot on, and I really wish he’d done one more film, and that the producers had decided to focus on Bond getting revenge rather than the half hearted attempt Connery makes during Diamond’s pre title sequence (but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

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I do love a happy ending…

Lazenby certainly has the look, and it’s amazing to consider he was just 28 when this was made! And really I don’t think he’s that terrible an actor all things considered, and he potentially could have grown into the role. He has the physicality, and convinces in the action scenes, but also the romantic ones. He and Diana Rigg may or may not have hated each other during filming, but onscreen at least they effortlessly play the part of two people madly in love, and however much Diana may have been carrying George at time in those scenes, it really does take two to tango, so I think he deserves some credit.

Yes his delivery of some lines is a little ropey, and he doesn’t have the witty delivery of Connery (or Moore or Brosnan) but he arguably gives one of the greatest bits of the franchise when he’s cradling Tracy’s head in his lap.

tracy3So let’s talk Tracy. Oh my, if OHMSS is my default fave Bond film, then Diana Rigg is my default fave Bond girl, and let’s be clear here, she more as likely always will be. Beautiful and determined, ethereal yet steely, Diana Rigg is nothing short of magnificent, and after all the, let’s be honest, insipid Bond girls we’ve had up to now (excepting Fiona Volpe of course) Tracy is a breath of fresh air. This is a character with true agency, a damaged soul who, lest we forget, when we first meet is trying to kill herself. She’s a risk taker, a woman who, as her father says, has burned the life out of herself by living too fast. This is a woman who gambles with money she doesn’t have and then pays her debt in Bond’s bed, which is her decision, unlike certain other 007’s Lazenby does give her the option of not paying her debt in this fashion. Yes, you could argue she’s a damsel in distress who needs Bond to save her, but I think that’s a flawed assertion. What rises Tracy way above the average is that she chooses to let Bond save her. He doesn’t just rescue her, she lets him rescue her.

And of course she’s quite capable of looking after herself, she skis as well as Bond, drives as well as Bond, and is pretty handy in a fight as well, just see how she despatches Gunther late on—and interesting to note that the Bond theme that started playing when the attack on Piz Gloria began, cuts out just as she kills him, almost like she was 007 (now there’s a thought to rile an awful lot of fans!)

She’s also quite capable of turning on the charm, and the scene where she quotes James Elroy Flecker to beguile Blofeld is so joyous I think I could watch it on a loop all day.

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“Who loves ya baby!”

Ah, Blofeld. Savalas is an interesting choice, the very antithesis of Pleasance, and not remotely like Charles Grey who’ll be up next, but if he perhaps isn’t an urbane foe, he does at least make for an intimidating one. You can’t imagine Donald Pleasance or Grey in a bobsleigh after all. He’s not the best Blofeld, but he might well be the most dangerous. His grand scheme is bonkers, and it’s nice that even he acknowledges that his price is ridiculous!

As Tracy’s father Draco Gabriele Ferzetti has the kind of easy charm that places Draco on a par with Kerim Bey or Tiger.

Ilse Steppat is wonderful as Irma Bunt, albeit there are shades of Rosa Kleb to the character. I hadn’t realised that she sadly died just a few days after the film’s release. She was only 52.

Tragedy would also befall another cast member, albeit later in life. I won’t go into Angela Scoular’s demise here, but I will say that Ruby Bartlett was a joy, can you imagine a Lancashire gal like that turning up in a Bond film these days?

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This certainly never happened to the other fella!

There are some other famous faces in amongst Blofeld’s angels of death of course. Catherine Schell would go on to play Maya in Space 1999, and before eventually winding up as Patsy in Ab Fab,  Joanna Lumley would of course follow in Diana Rigg’s boots by being in the (New) Avengers.

The recurring characters get a few nice moments, in particular Lois Maxwell plays nicely against Lazenby, and there’s a nice moment between her and M (such a shame Maxwell didn’t get the job as M, imagine that dynamic when Bond came in for his assignment!) Q’s wedding day advice to Bond is quite amusing as well.

The action scenes are top notch here, although you do have to wait a while, 007 doesn’t kill anyone until we’re 90 minutes in. This gives the film room to breath of course, and allows for the courtship of Bond and Tracy, Casino Royale will attempt the same thing, only slightly less successfully as it will be squeezed in near the end.

Eventually we get ski chases, and car chases, helicopter attacks and Lazenby sliding along the curling track firing a submachine gun, and we get that bobsleigh chase as well. Not to mention Bond’s escape from the cable car control room is quite hairy as well.

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Bond also gets to do some actual spying, breaking into Gumbold’s office and his safe before making off with his copy of playboy, and then going under cover as Sir Hilary Bray.

And okay, here’s where we get one of the film’s several contrivances. Why doesn’t Blofeld recognise James?  I mean they have met, that both men look different doesn’t negate the fact that technically they’re the same men they were in YOLT. Maybe 007’s had plastic surgery (an idea that didn’t make the final script) maybe Blofeld banged his head when he was escaping that exploding volcano or maybe, like Lois Lane, Ernst Stavro is easily fooled by a pair of glasses?

In the end it doesn’t spoil the film one iota, and nor does the convenience of Bond happening to bump into Tracy at the ice rink.

I’ve said this is my favourite film, and features my favourite Bond girl, but it also features my favourite Bond tune. No, not We have all the time in the world, though Louis Armstrong’s song is a doozy. I’m referring to John Barry’s instrumental. A wonderfully evocative and exciting track that still gets my heart pumping to this day, and yes I even like it better than the James Bond theme!

You can quibble about the producer’s decision to hark back to the previous films all day—scenes from the past films play over the titles, when Bond is considering resigning his draw is full of all manner of props from other films (though how he got Honey’s knife off her I’ll never know) and we even get a man whistling Goldfinger as he cleans Draco’s office—and you can be annoyed at Bond breaking the fourth wall for the one and only time, but I really don’t care, and Bond’s “This never happened to the other fellow,” like the title track, never fails to make me smile.

A Bond film like no other, with a Bond girl like no other and, most importantly of all, an ending that knocks the stuffing out of you, OHMSS really is magnificent.

Now on to the seventies and the return of a familiar face…

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Rocketman

Posted: June 1, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden and Bryce Dallas Howard.

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Crippled by a morass of addictions (drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping!) Elton John (Egerton) checks himself into rehab and looks back on the events that have brought him to this point, from his childhood (when he was still Reginald Dwight) as a boy with cold parents, his father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and his mother Sheila (Howard), where he first showed an aptitude for the piano, to the formation of a song writing duo with Bernie Taupin (Bell) and his troubled relationship with music producer John Reid (Madden). Despite his success Elton has to keep his sexuality a secret, which puts more pressure on him. As he spirals down into drug fuelled depression can he find salvation?

 

There’s a curious sense of déjà vu in many respects when it comes to Rocketman. An unconventional looking rock star who has to hide his true sexuality, a man incredibly successful yet perhaps doomed to a life of loneliness, a world of excess; drugs, sex, booze etc. A manipulative lover/manager who takes advantage of our hero, and the true friends he comes to realise he needs after all.

So far so Bohemian Rhapsody (throw in the fact that Madden’s character features in BR too, and that Fletcher finished off the directing on the Freddie Mercury biopic and you’ve pretty much got a full house) yet curiously these films are chalk and cheese in every other respect once you scratch beneath the surface. While BR was a pretty straightforward biography of Mercury, Rocketman is something altogether more, if you’ll pardon the pun, mercurial. It’s hard to say for sure but it feels like with this film Fletcher had far more freedom, which is odd in some respects given the subject of this film is still very much alive and involved in the production, but this isn’t some vanity project, or at least if it is it’s quite clearly of the warts and all variety, because Elton doesn’t necessarily come out of it as a virtuous hero, quite the reverse. Yes he’s manipulated, and yes he’s forced to live a lie, but he’s also something of a dick, and he freely admits it when he gleefully tells his rehab group that he’s been a C***T

Central to the film is the casting. Curious to consider that, originally and many moons ago, Justin Timberlake was in line to play the part, but that does make a bit more sense than Tom Hardy who was attached more recently. I like Hardy, but I can’t see him as Elton John.

Egerton on the other hand is perfect. He looks the part, and he bloody acts the socks off the part but, maybe more importantly, he sings the part too, so really, if Remi Malek got an Oscar and mimed, shouldn’t Taron be up for a statuette himself next year? He’s got a great voice, and he plays the two sides to Elton perfectly (the brash showman and the lonely, insecure man behind the huge glasses). From wowing them on stage, to crying his eyes out alone, Egerton is never less than perfect.

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But the casting is spot on throughout. As Elton’s long-time collaborator Taupin, Bell is astonishing, even more so given of the three male leads he’s the most understated. That Bell makes the impression he does despite sharing the screen with two men who get to chew the scenery tells you all you need to know about his acting ability. Apparently Barbara Broccoli has considered him for Bond—now I can see why (though he’s probably not tall enough).

On the subject of Bond let’s talk Madden. It’s weird but when the Bodyguard was on so many people were suggesting he could be 007, but I didn’t see it. Oh, lordy I see it now. Odd given in the Bodyguard he was a straight close protection officer, and here he’s a gay music producer, but he owns the screen, displaying more presence than I’ve seen from him before. With dark hair and smart suits he prowls the screen, a dangerous, incredibly masculine predator. John Reid is not a nice man, but Madden keeps it just the right side of moustache twirling. I hope Barbara was watching!

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Which brings us to the fourth major cast member. Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mum. I spent the whole film wondering where I knew her from, then I saw her name come up at the end and had a genuine “No Freaking Way!” moment. As with the three leads Howard is perfect, and you wouldn’t know she wasn’t British. She also, in some respects, has the hardest job because of all the characters she has to play the widest range in terms of her age, and she does it well. She also manages to make an unlikeable character at least somewhat empathetic. She might be cold, but she isn’t inhuman.

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Special mention for national treasure Gemma Jones as Elton’s loving gran, and Stephen Graham as foul mouthed empresario Dick James.

Fletcher’s direction is excellent, and the film plays like a musical at times, with characters bursting into song and the sudden appearance of a troupe of dancers. This melding of the real and the fantastical works wonderfully, and is probably the perfect evocation of the duality of Elton John’s life.

I’ve probably never considered myself a huge John fan, but it’s only when you hear the songs that you realise, oh he did that one, and that one, and that one…and even the tunes I didn’t recognise I liked.

On the story side it’s hard to know what is true and what, perhaps, is exaggeration, but this is clearly no whitewash at the end of the day, despite John and husband Furnish’s presence behind the scenes.

Funny, sad, joyous, colourful, dramatic; this is a gem of a film that’s meticulously directed and wonderfully acted. I liked, and still like Bohemian Rhapsody, but Rocketman blows it out of the water on every single level.

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