Monday, May 23, 2016

THE PURPOSELESS SLEIGHT OF HAND
On X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Correspondence

Here’s the gist of this: anyone who complains that Shane Black’s highly enjoyable The Nice Guys isn’t “good enough” (it isn’t, but that’s so much beside the point it hurts) literally deserves an endless diet of cookie-cutter Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney fairytale makeovers (they’re the same thing by now, I suppose, since they’re all from the same supposedly money-spinning machine). This is all the more obvious seeing as the newest instalments of these assembly lines, Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse and James Bobin’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, are such crashing bores. 

To be fair, X-Men is the one Marvel franchise outside the reach of the company (having been licensed to Fox at a point where there was as yet no overarching masterplan in place) that has managed to maintain a semblance of personality and consistency among the monolithic identikit tributaries. But Apocalypse, by now the fourth series entry directed by Mr Singer, follows the same highly predictable arc of every other super-hero film so far: X-Men come together to fight dangerous threat to people of Earth (here the ur-mutant, all-powerful En Sabah Nur) in massive city-destroying battles (here it’s Cairo that bites the dust), while looking suitably dour and serious while doing it and battling their own personal issues.

This was, of course, one of the key things that made super-hero movies so interesting 20 years ago — realising these heroes were as broken and doubtful as we were — but by now it’s become simultaneously massively overused and massively underused. In Apocalypse, which is set in 1983 in the continuum that started with Matthew Vaughn’s insouciantly enjoyable prequel X-Men: First Class, you have a supremely talented cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and Oscar Isaac but with practically nothing to do other than show up and emote soulfully in between CGI-laden strife and destruction.

I used to think — based on The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil and Valkyrie — that Bryan Singer was, frankly, a more talented, ambitious director than he’s turned out to be. But even Simon Kinberg, the go-to writer and producer involved with the series for a while now, has been involved with more interesting stuff (like Ridley Scott’s The Martian or the Neill Blomkamp films) than Mr Singer, whose only recent non-X film was the non-starting Jack the Dragon Slayer and seems to have gotten stuck in the X groove. Cue Wesley Morris’ beauteous New York Times thinkpiece on the inherent evilness of superhero movies as a modern equivalent of a soul-sucking assembly line of purely utilitarian movies whose single-minded intent is make money for its producing studio. Apocalypse is certainly presented with as much professionalism as Hollywood can muster, but, really, just how much more can one filmgoer’s diet depend on superhero movies, especially when even the prestige stuff isn’t making much of an effort?

Case in point: the handsomely mounted but utterly pointless Alice Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to Tim Burton’s equally forgettable take on Alice in Wonderland that helped start off Disney’s newest franchise, real-action takes on the studio’s animated library. The only notable entry in the series so far has been Jon Favreau’s lively Jungle Book; Mr Burton’s version of Lewis Carroll’s classic read too much like a watered-down candy-coloured version of his traditional Gothic sensibility, but he never actually meant to direct the sequel that is now inevitably following, handed to Brit James Bobin, a former TV comedy director given his big break on the two recent Muppets films.

Mr Bobin’s second-tier status scans perfectly with the usual “hired hand” requirement for these big-budget productions, but the problem is not so much with his perfectly functional handling as it is with the idea that Alice in Wonderland required a sequel that has practically nothing of Carroll’s work in it. This Alice is an original script by Disney “staff” writer Linda Woolverton that seems custom-built to fit the studio’s line of strong female “princesses” — the grown-up Alice is here a dashing sailorwoman that blithely ignores Victorian London’s glass ceiling — but has little to nothing to do with Carroll’s books other than the title and a couple of borrowed characters, sending Alice traveling through time to save the Mad Hatter’s family and in the process effectively showing an “origin story” that explains Wonderland.

Now as we all know Wonderland is not to be explained, and that someone at Disney decided it should be (and in a film whose heroine, played by the very wonderful Mia Wasikowska, is still third-billed behind the effectively supporting performances of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen) is enough to explain what is so utterly wrong about Alice Through the Looking Glass: that it simply exists when there was no need for it, and that the film itself, despite the lavish care put on it and the obvious talents of the many involved, is unable to come up with a creative justification for its sheer existence.

One last example, if I may, comes from Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, he whose Cinema Paradiso became a worldwide sensation on the back of its Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. While Mr Tornatore has certainly aimed for further international success, he has never repeated the result. (To be honest, I liked it when I first saw it, but time has not been kind to it.)

The Correspondence, spoken in English and set in the UK, is a metaphysical weepie shot with all the glossy detachment of a fashion spread; its one good idea is to tell its love story between astrophysicist emeritus Jeremy Irons and his thesis student and off-campus lover Olga Kurylenko as a modern-day epistolary novel, substituting text and video messaging and emails for letters. The trick is that Mr Irons dies within the film’s first 20 minutes, yet his passionate messages to Ms. Kurylenko keep arriving; is he truly dead, but if so who is sending them?

To quote from Dr Sheldon Cooper, it’s grand malarkey with a side of poppycock, and many of the best weepies out there trade in exactly that kind of preposterousness. But Mr Tornatore wants to be taken so seriously that the po-faced, sweepingly dramatic handling merely underlines how gimmicky the whole thing is, even with an inspired score by Ennio Morricone (who still hasn’t lost his touch and actually comes up with the exact delicate lyricism the director never finds) and Mr Irons’ regal voice. That the film lies squarely on the shoulders of the lovely Ms Kurylenko but fails to give her anything worthwhile to work with, resulting in an awkward performance, is the clearest sign of what’s wrong with Mr Tornatore’s film: it’s an illusion with nothing to support it or take away from. Much as most of the big-budget stuff coming out of Hollywood these days.




X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

US, 2016, 143 min; CAST James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn; DIR Bryan Singer; SCR Simon Kinberg; DP Newton Thomas Sigel (widescreen, 3D); MUS John Ottman; PROD DES Grant Major; COST DES Louise Mingenbach; ED Mr. Ottman and Michael Louis Hill; SPFX SUP John Dykstra; PROD Mr. Kinberg, Mr. Singer, Hutch Parker and Lauren Sjuler Donner; Twentieth Century-Fox, Bad Hat Harry Productions, Kinberg Genre Films, Hutch Parker Entertainment and The Donners’ Company in association with TSG Entertainment and Marvel Entertainment



ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

US, 2016, 113 min; CAST Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Mia Wasikowska, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Barbara Windsor; DIR James Bobin; SCR Linda Woolverton; DP Stuart Dryburgh (3D); MUS Danny Elfman; PROD DES Dan Hennah; COST DES Colleen Atwood; ED Andrew Weisblum; SPFX SUP Ken Ralston and Jay Redd; PROD Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd and Tim Burton; Walt Disney Pictures, Roth Films, Team Todd and Tim Burton Productions



LA CORRISPONDENZA

IT, 2015, 122 min; CAST Jeremy Irons, Olga Kurylenko; DIR/SCR Giuseppe Tornatore; DP Fabio Zamarion (widescreen); MUS Ennio Morricone; PROD DES Maurizio Sabatini; COST DES Gemma Mascagni; ED Massimo Quaglia; PROD Isabella Cocuzza and Arturo Paglia; Paco Cinematografica in co-production with RAI Cinema

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