Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Michael Fassbender”

X-Men: Apocalypse

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

There are many reasons why this X-Men movie should have been better than it is. For starters, there’s the cast of genuinely fine actors (myriad Academy Awards and nominations between them) who are deserving, just by dint of turning up on set I’d have said, of a much better script. Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) returns as Magneto, James McAvoy dons 1980s pastel sweaters and shoulder pads as the now wheelchair-bound Xavier, while Jennifer Lawrence gets to retain her more fetching human shape than Mystique’s peculiar azure physique. Most importantly, Oscar Isaac makes his Marvel debut as the eponymous villain (wait, what?? That’s right – “Apocalypse” refers not to the state of the world ending, but the guy who attempts to make it happen.) Isaac has been the Next Big Thing for a couple of years now.

Secondly, Bryan Singer is still in the director’s chair of the movies he propelled to comic book superstardom back in the early 2000s. The guy gave us The Usual Suspects, for goodness sake! He handled Tom Cruise in Valkyrie! This man’s no slouch in the smart-blockbuster department.

But while it has some snazzy set-pieces – top honours going, as in X-Men: Days of Future Past, to Quicksilver’s clever, Eurythmics-accompanied scene – X-Men: Apocalypse is mainly notable for the worst dialogue you’ve heard since, well, the 1980s. In setting the film in that seminal era, presumably to capture and thrill its target audience of long-time comic fans, the movie’s writers do things very on-the-nose: visual gags are pointed out by close-up camera work; hairstyles and clothing feel self-consciously worn; and the Egyptian-set scenes feel like a nod to Indiana Jones and other teen movies of the 80s with all the mystical chanting and ritualistic shenanigans. Rather than pleasing, it’s simply dated. (Despite this, it’s apparently a decade where the CIA could get photos developed in less than 24 hours.)

As the clunky narrative battles to include too many concurrent threads, X-Men: Apocalypse often feels like two movies – the well-acted, serious one with Fassbender speaking convincing Polish, and a throwback to the 80s gate-crashed by a Sith Lord. Entertaining in parts, unfortunately it makes for a less than satisfying whole.

 

Steve Jobs

Yes, there was another Steve Jobs movie recently, but memories of Ashton Kutcher’s well-intentioned rendition of the famously polarising tech wizard faded as quickly as that film failed to deliver what audiences had hoped for.

You see, we’ve all read the magazine profiles or heard the folklore, and legend has it Jobs was the antithesis of the charitable, even-tempered Bill Gates. But goodness doesn’t (necessarily) genius maketh, and Danny Boyle’s often excoriating fictionalisation of three of Jobs’ major product launches delights with its terrific performances, while Aaron Sorkin’s (The West Wing, The Social Network) motor-mouthed script dishes a lot of dirt.

As Jobs, Michael Fassbender yet again morphs entirely credibly into his character despite looking all the while like Fassbender (not a criticism, more an awestruck observation), while Kate Winslet (nominated alongside Fassbender for the film’s only Oscars) is sensational as his right-hand woman, Joanna Hoffman. With an effortlessly strong supporting cast spitting Sorkin’s lines, Boyle still saw fit to ratchet up the orchestral soundtrack and in some scenes this feels unnecessarily bombastic, but there’s no denying he has a flair for making tech-talk exciting.

Narratively, the film takes a lot of liberties with the truth, and if one is to be disappointed at all, it’s that much of the gossip on screen didn’t actually happen. How this sits with Jobs’ family and colleagues one can only speculate, but for Joe iPhone User, it still feels like a fascinating, compelling exposé.

Macbeth

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 4th October 2015

On the surface, somewhere just beneath the dim illumination of a CliffNotes translation, the Scottish play is a simple story of one man’s unquenchable thirst for power, and the depths he and his wife will sink to in order to get what they want. Killing your king because someone told you you’d make a good regent and having your erstwhile best friend knocked off because you fear he’s suspicious may seem the stuff of hyperbole, even in today’s world where deceit and corruption appear to be part and parcel of political ascent. But it is timeless melodrama, and we relish the bloodlust while judging its female protagonist more harshly for really being the brains behind the brawn of the operation.

So it is impressive that young Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) has taken up this poisoned chalice of a play written half a millennium ago, in a language most people hate to read, and in only his second feature-length outing produced an extraordinarily accomplished and consistently mesmerising cinematic interpretation.

There is lots to applaud. Kurzel retains the original setting of a grey, cold and dark 11th century, where “going to work” means hitting the battlefield in ultra-slow-motion, sword brandished and face grimly drawn against blood red skies. Neatly abridged to a eminently palatable two hours, the actors purr in a Scottish brogue, delivering complex lines so languidly we are actually given time to hear, appreciate and understand their tribulations.

It’s possible that if you’re not into the source material, this visceral rendition still won’t impress – but those who are even vaguely familiar with the tale of ambition taken too far will be hard-pressed to imagine a better lead actor than Michael Fassbender. Heralded for doing the hard yards in Shame and Hunger, he and French-Hollywood star Marion Cotillard are perfectly-paired, equally-footed in their stardom and on-screen luminosity (his Scots accent comes more easily but Cotillard’s acuity with the Shakespearean tongue is still impressive). Crucially, these Macbeths invite us to feel (rather than just hear) their motivations, and their individual descents into psychological hell thus recast a merely evil couple as grieving parents whose shared fatal flaw is weakness in the face of flattery and temptation.

Forget your Denches and McKellens – whether a buff of the Bard or someone for whom his fame is baffling, this is the version of Macbeth that you need to see.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 25th May 2014

Unless you’re a loyal fan of the comic adaptation genre, you may be feeling a little fatigued or even disillusioned by the thought of another X-Men movie. Admittedly, it’s probably because Marvel seems to put out a new superhero story every couple of months, and we’re only just recovering from being slammed by Captain America’s shield and strung up by Spider-Man’s webbing.

To be fair, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the first in a few years, since Kick Ass director Matthew Vaughn took audiences on a trip back in time to the true origin story of the mutants as they first found one another in X-Men: First Class (2011).

And he did a great job, casting young British heavyweights James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as the young Professor Xavier and Magneto respectively, and laying out a convincing tale of How Things Came To Be. It was incredibly satisifying to watch the youngsters get to grips with their accursed talents and transform into their young adult selves. With a witty script, exhilarating set-pieces and a terrific set-up, First Class transported Vaughn from his status as Guy Ritchie’s right-hand man (back when Ritchie was still an exciting filmmaker to watch) into a worthy director in his own right.

I’ve not kept up with the political wranglings that determine which Hollywood maestro gets to direct which tentpole movie, but for some reason Vaughn wasn’t picked for the Future Past team, losing out to the franchise’s first director, Bryan Singer. This is still great news – Singer made his mark with The Usual Suspects, one of the greatest crime movies of modern times, before helming the first two X-Men films. He wisely gave up his director’s chair for the following movies (including the Wolverine spin-offs), perhaps one reason those seemed to lose panache as the 2000s rolled by. So it’s nice to see Singer’s still got it, capitalising on Vaughn’s fresh take to deliver a tale which (appropriately) ties the series’ early history into where we find it now.

The conceit of Days of Future Past is an oldie but a goodie: a team member (here Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) is sent back to 1973 to warn the juvenile versions of Xavier and Magneto that unless they get over their feud and join forces, an historical event to be perpetrated by one of their own will have an irreparable effect on their future, resulting in the internment and extinction of the beleaguered mutant population.

With McAvoy and Fassbender back on screen, still calling each other Charles and Erik, (a sweet touch which at times serves to ground their predicament and their fine acting in something altogether more human and serious than your typical comic book scenario), we’re treated to more “origin” moments, including the thrilling introduction of Quicksilver whose ability to move like lightning is demonstrated in an exhilarating scene which actually sets the bar too high to be reached thereafter. Jennifer Lawrence, whose Oscar nominations stack up during each X-Men hiatus, plays a key role once again as Raven/Mystique, effortlessly wonderful whether sporting a pout and a blonde hairdo or bringing down several US marines with one high kick.

As in First Class, the 1970s make for an aesthetically enjoyable era to be transported back to, with waterbeds and lava lamps and a great soundtrack to boot. One particularly nice touch is the use of 16mm cameras to render civilian footage of the mutants fighting in the streets of Paris, evoking the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination (which is also cleverly referenced in the script). Well-paced and well-acted, although the story meanders slightly in the middle it is by all accounts still gripping, aided no doubt by Raven’s incessant shape-shifting which keeps us on our toes. And to top off the excellent casting, we get Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage as the baddie entrepreneur, Bolivar Trask, resplendent in oversized glasses (and not a cloak in sight), his voice as deep and menacing as any Bond villain.

With the Inception-like layers of past and present (evoked all the more thanks to Ellen Page’s presence), some of the plot threads may not have the strength of Spidey’s web, but Days of Future Past is a great-looking, thought-provoking continuation of the mutants’ tribulations.

12 Years A Slave

Any qualms one might have that we need another slavery movie like we need more Holocaust tales are swiftly put to rest as the true-life horror story of Solomon Northup, a free man sold into a life of torture, swiftly unfolds.  

We first meet him cutting sugar cane in stifling heat and sleeping top-to-toe in crowded quarters before flashing back to 1841 where Solomon is living a comfortable middle-class life with his wife and children. Amidst energetic, old-style dialogue and exquisite costuming, one fateful night his fortunes change very much for the worse.  

British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor has been building a strong career for years, known to many for Children of Men, and no doubt others as Keira Knightley’s poor husband in Love, Actually. Rightly praised for his performance here, Ejiofor is excellent in his portrayal of a righteous man who refuses to “confess” to being an uneducated man from the south, yet battles with the necessity to demean himself in order to stay alive (“I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune,” he tells a distraught woman for whom the prospect of death offers release).  

You know something is wrong with the world when a callow Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) wields power over the strapping Ejiofor, and indeed the sheer injustice and unwavering brutality makes this a frequently difficult watch. At the same time, there are glorious moments where a cacophony of sound and picture lifts your spirits momentarily out of the gloom; then immensely powerful scenes where silence and inaction speak volumes.  

British director Steve McQueen is known for tackling the hard stuff – his breakout film, Hunger, told the story of an IRA prisoner on hunger strike, while his follow-up, Shame, dwelt on a New York yuppie’s sex addiction. Both roles were played by McQueen’s regular leading man, Michael Fassbender, and despite top-class efforts from the whole cast of Slave, the charismatic Irishman wipes the floor with everyone else on screen as the malevolent, lascivious, alcoholic land-owner whose inherent shame and hunger for power make him a frightening adversary of the powerless.    

Despite everything we think we already know, the violence meted out upon human spirit and vulnerable flesh is gutwrenching. Given his predilection for long takes and intense scenes, McQueen doesn’t flinch as he keeps the camera on the subjects so we are given no respite throughout floggings and rapes. It’s a showcase of his direction, and the actors’ enormous resilience (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is truly extraordinary in her screen debut as Patsey), as many scenes play out continuously like theatre, eschewing cuts for reaction shots which may have given the actors a break but would have certainly broken the tension.

Coming to New Zealand fresh from the Golden Globes’ stage where it took out the gong for Best Picture (Drama), this slavery biopic is now said to be a shoe-in for the Oscar in March. It’s certainly meaty fare in the manner of Amistad (and considerably more gruelling than Amazing Grace). Let’s see if it’s just what the Academy ordered.

Jane Eyre

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 4th September 2011

Adding to umpteen television and film adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, this latest rendition (by a clearly talented but largely unknown young director, Cary Fukunaga) delivers a beautifully photographed, affecting story of pain and mistreatment giving way to true love.

Rising star Michael Fassbender (brilliant in every role, from Hunger to the latest X-Men movie) is the mercurial Rochester, whose brusque appraisal of his young governess elicits a sharp-witted response that establishes an electric rapport between the two. Australian Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) has the perfect wan face to play the titular self-contained, emotionally bruised orphan with a tale of woe she refuses to tell. There is strong support from Judi Dench and a terrific Jamie Bell – so mature and nuanced in his performance of St John Rivers that it’s surely time to forget about Billy Elliot.

The core cast handles the archaic dialogue with ease, enabling us to enter freely into the bleak world where a teacher speaks of “rooting out the wickedness in this small, ungrateful plant”. Inevitably, as with many stories of this era, the thwarted romance includes misunderstandings and tortured longings, and some may feel the lessened age-gap between the leads is not entirely faithful, but Jane Eyre is still a satisfying watch.

X-Men: First Class

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 5th June 2011

Hollywood is often criticised lately, not least by reviewers, for rolling out remakes and sequels in lieu of original stories.  Occasionally, however, it throws us a prequel that is actually worth its squillion dollar budget and the inevitable marketing hype.  Christopher Nolan took the Batman franchise to new heights with Batman Begins, and J.J. Abrams honoured the Star Trek legacy – giving us the crucial backstory to explain a character’s subsequent emotional make-up, and the early, often hilarious, attempts at costuming and weaponry.

The first X-Men movie leapt from the pages of a comic book onto cinema screens in 2000, special effects blazing as it dramatised the story of genetic mutants fighting to be accepted by humankind.  It laid out the core dilemmas (to fight or acquiesce; to use powers for good or evil) and set up the enmity between Professor Xavier and Magneto.  Following a few sequels and a trip down memory lane for key cast member Wolverine, the film-making powers that be finally fill in the gaps leading up to the earlier story, allowing Layer Cake’s Matthew Vaughn to take the helm .

Taking snippets from the original opening scene set in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944, X-Men: First Class wisely carries on from that moment, following young Erik Lensherr (the Ian McKellen role here played principally by an intense Michael Fassbender) on his trajectory to embittered, avenging action hero.  Fast forward to 1960s Oxford, and a beer-sculling Charles Xavier (James McAvoy a boyishly arrogant Patrick Stewart prototype) is using nerdy chat-up lines on young women at university.  The CIA gets involved, other mutants are conscripted, and off we go.

But wait – we need a baddie for our X-Kids to fight.  Suffice it to say, Kevin Bacon’s deceitful little face (so charming, but with such underlying evil) is rather suited to his role as the German/Russian/American-speaking Sebastian Shaw.  Like a wannabe Bourne movie, the film tries to be as clever as its protagonists by having actors speak several (non-native) languages and relying on subtitles for a significant portion.  The locations are plentiful and the jet-setting James Bond-like in its execution, helped no doubt by the 1960s outfits and appropriately lo-fi technology (the prototype for Cerebro is amusingly unsophisticated).

For the most part this prequel is fun, and it satisfies our curiosity about how things came to be, eking out the revelations right until the end.  The story perhaps strives a little too hard to be clever by using the Cuban missile crisis as a backdrop for dastardly actions, and it lags towards the end of an overlong running time.  Rumour has it this is to be the first of a new trilogy, so after a promising start we must simply hope it doesn’t going the way of the later Star Wars

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