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X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men Apocalypse

“From the ashes of their world, we’ll build a better one.”

It’s been sixteen years since Bryan Singer brought the world the X-Men. It was a silly bit of fun that was pretty enjoyable. It gave us a perfect personification of fan favourite Wolverine and introduced a generation to the awesome abilities of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (if you were two years old when it came out, you’re old enough now to go watch Green Room – get to it).

Somehow, miraculously, even after a bloody awful second sequel, this franchise is the only one left from the super-cheesy noughties comic book films that plagued filmgoers for years. Now we find ourselves, if you count the Wolverine solo outings, with the ninth film in the series and some of us wondering what they can possibly do next.

Buried underneath the ruins of a destroyed pyramid, En Sabar Nuh – the world’s first mutant – has been imprisoned under the ancient rubble for thousands of years. Resurrected by a cult believing him to be an all-powerful God, the man we will come to know as Apocalypse (played by the suddenly everywhere Oscar Isaac) sets about recruiting his own personal Four Horsemen and putting plans in place to kick-start the end of the world.

Sinking his teeth into the strongest, most disillusioned mutants he can find, Apocalypse soon has an entourage that includes a young, impressionable Storm (Straight Outta Compton‘s Alexandra Shipp) ; the beaten down Angel (former Eastenders regular Ben Hardy); the power hungry, vicious Psylocke (Olivia Munn); and the world-weary, disenchanted Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Tapping into the anger and negativity in their lives, convincing these powerful mutants to work for him makes the wannabe-god a force to be reckoned with and together they waste no time in bringing about, well, the apocalypse.

Meanwhile, James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier is dealing with his own band of misfits in his now world famous school. But, when Apocalypse kidnaps the X-Men’s leader for his own ends, it’s down to Mystique (the returning Jennifer Lawrence) to rally the troops and fight the impending doom. Returning good guys Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Holt), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Alex “Havok” Summers are joined by a cavalcade of newcomers. Fresh to the First Class arc, if not necessary the franchise, the younger incarnations of Scott Summers, Nightcrawler and Jean Grey all join the fray and team up to take on the biggest, most powerful mutant that the world has ever seen.

Director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg have returned to the X-Men franchise to round off this particular story arc and, believe it or not, they’ve done an okay job of it. Now, I know this is going against the grain a little for this film, so maybe I should clarify that a little.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of First Class or Days of Future Past. I don’t think they’re bad films, not at all, but I honestly believe that X-Men, as a franchise, has been treading water since the year 2000. Singer and 20th Century Fox found a winning formula when the first film was a hit all those years ago and as Fox have tried and failed over and over again to bring a decent comic book film to profit, they have refused to take any risks and change up the recipe with these films.

The biggest issue there is that when you’re averaging a film every two years and you’re not changing things up, the audience, no matter how die hard they are, will eventually stop going to see your films as a way to tell you that they’ve had enough of your shit. What made this trilogy – yes, I’m calling it a trilogy – worth a second look was the genius casting of Michael Fassbender in the recently vacated Ian McKellan role of Magneto. I’m still convinced that First Class is actually the quietly disappeared Origins: Magneto movie we were supposed to get; and as such, the story of Erik Lehnsherr and his change to the maniacal Magneto across the first two films is nothing short of riveting.

But after the reboot/timeline shift/whatever you want to call it, I was ready to write this film off as the worn out end of another trilogy, soon for the glue factory. But once again, while Apocalypse may not be the best film you watch this year, and it’s got some pretty glaring problems, but it’s a film I wouldn’t tell you to avoid. It’s almost worth the *phew* two and a half hours you’ll spend watching it.

As far as flaws, I’ve got to start with the most obvious one. Apocalypse himself. For what is supposed to be a terrifying, world ending bad guy, I genuinely couldn’t care less about him or his motives. The problem with these super-strong bad guys, the ones that are supposed to be unbeatable, is that by the time you get to the end of the movie you know full well that he’s gonna get his arse handed to him. Usually through the power of teamwork, or love, or a mutual fondness for hardcore pornography, or something. Either way, and this is another problem with this refusal to change the formula, you know you’re in for a happy ending when the forces of good triumph! And to be honest, Apocalypse is just a bit crap.

And man, this film is so very long. I mean it’s nearly two and a half hours. It’s an X-Men movie for shit’s sake, there’s just no need for it. So much is put on that screen with so little actually happening that I really, truly wondered on more than one occasion if I’d missed something, a plot point or bit of story somewhere. I wondered if maybe I’d slipped into a mini coma at one point and missed a chunk of exposition at around the half way mark. And if someone could explain Olivia Munn’s terrible, terrible costume, I’d really appreciate it. She looks awesome and bad ass when you first meet her, and she transforms into some weird vinyl clad monstrosity that isn’t half as titillating as the 12 year old boys in the costume department thinks it is.

But things aren’t all bad. In fact, the film has a few positives that elevate its standings quite a bit for me. Newcomer to the series and Game of Thrones alum Sophie Turner has a decent turn as the young Jean Grey. Much like Jennifer Lawrence before her, I was a fan of the actress originally in the role and Turner has managed to convince me that, yet again, I was wrong to doubt the younger replacement. Although, she has taken on the annoying trait McAvoy had in previous films of touching her face to indicate she’s doing a psychic thing; but it doesn’t detract from her performance and she’s rather good. It’s always good to see homegrown talent on the big screen, especially when she’s from your surrogate home of Northampton.  Quicksilver’s return isn’t half bad either; he’s not overplayed and his super-speed shtick isn’t overused, but when it is used, it’s a wonderful, fun little bit of film.

As with the previous films though, the big hitter here is Michael Fassbender. I’ve really enjoyed watching Eric’s gradual change to Magneto over the years. Fassbender has always been convincing as the guy who’s trying, sincerely, to do good and is screwed with at every turn. Back at the turn of the century, McKellan’s role as the already jaded and evil Magneto was stupendous, but Fassbender makes you genuinely feel some sympathy for the mutant who is proven to over and over again that he won’t be accepted, even when he’s being the good guy. Long after these films are gone, the German-Irish actor’s role in them will be remembered as the defining part of this trilogy.

I went in to X-Men: Apocalypse with pretty low – okay, very low – expectations; but overall, I have to admit that it wasn’t as rubbish as I anticipated it to be. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it doesn’t quite hit the awful levels of X-Men: The Last Stand where it throws all the shit at the wall hoping something will stick. A rubbish bad guy and a severely bloated run time hinder a film that was actually pretty enjoyable. If I had to score it, I’d give it a solid 6/10.

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Film4 FrightFest 2015 Preview

It’s that time again where give the batteries in our torches a quick shake to get them working, brush the cobwebs out of the cellar doorway and gingerly tip-toe through the darkness and tap-tap-tap on the lid to the coffin where we keep Mike Shawcross. Come on, Mike. Time to wake up, drink the blood of a few buxom-virgins and tell us what you’ll personally be seeing at this year’s FrightFest, following yesterday’s announcement from Film4.

by Mike Shawcross (@Shawky1969)

Another year, another FrightFest and the UK’s première genre festival continues to grow and grow. In its 16th year it continues to impress with what looks to be an incredible line up, another screen and more parties. There does seem an aspect to bring the FrightFest community together with a few more social events. The Duke Mitchell Club was fantastic fun last year and one event I will be visiting this year. We have a Karaoke party as well (not for me!)

As for the films, so many I want to see, so many I’m going to have to miss out on… bigger festival more choice, bigger headache. Over the last few years the Discovery screens have shown the breakout films, the gems people talk about for weeks to come. The Borderlands was last year’s big discovery film; I wonder what will it be this year?

turbo kidOpening night brings monster wasps with Stung, post-apocalyptic sci-fi Turbo Kid and Irish witch-horror Cherry Tree; although personally I think Turbo Kid stands out here. Friday on the main screen and highlights look like We Are Still Here, a ghost story with vengeful spirits [which Paul Field recently raved about on the Failed Critics Podcast]. James Wan delivers more horror as producer on Demonic. I do like his work so will be staying in my seat for this one. Hellions looks interesting, starring Chloe Rose as she attempts to survive from trick-or-treaters from Hell on Halloween night. In the discovery screen 1 – Aaaaaaaah! from Steve Oram looks worth a watch, starring Toyah Willcox. Horror-comedy Bloodsucking Bastards is another one I’ll be checking out. DS 2 (Discovery Screen 2) we have III, a Russian film blending religious iconography with a violent disease, which I’ve been interested in for a while, and Final Girl, which sounds fun with Abigail Breslin as a lethal assassin hunting down a gang of murderers preying on young females! Creature-feature The Sand I may be staying off the beach for…

I’ve told you there is far too much choice! In DS 3 on Friday Zombie Fright Club could be great fun! Martial arts and zombies? Of course I’m IN! Body looks a possible selection as well as three girls break into the wrong mansion. As for the Eugene McGing’s haunted house mystery thriller The Unfolding…? I’ll wait to see what people think of that one first!

Into Saturday then and Shut In might be worth the early morning watch, starring Macaulay’s brother Rory Culkin. Bait is Dominc Brunt’s (you know Paddy from Emmerdale) second feature as a director; a true-life crime thriller starring Victoria Smurfit. Frankenstein has a strong cast with Carrie-Ann Moss, Danny Huston, Tony Todd and Xavier Samuel, directed by Bernard Rose (Candyman) and I fancy this one. Black magic goes awry in Deathgasm which sounds fun and, depending on if I get in, the Film4 screen is perfect for late night horror. If you like documentaries then there is Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD in DS1. I tend to miss them as I prefer feature films, but I’ve heard extremely good things about this documentary. The Hallow sounds like a must see film; a success at Sundance and directed by Corin Hardy (who will direct The Crow reboot), set in Ireland this horror film is full of demonic monsters in the woods. I’d love to see the zom-rom-com Night of the Living Deb, featuring Ray Wise, but it will clash with Deathgasm… choices, choices, choices! DS2 shows Another Me, starring Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) stalked by a doppelgänger, which looks good. DS 3 screens a few retro showings and the Duke Mitchell events!

Sunday and, after the success of The Babadook, Inner Demons must be worth a visit. I’ve seen these kinds of films before at FrightFest, but a Christmas horror story surprisingly doesn’t really seem out of place in August and is another to consider.over your dead body

I can’t resist a Takashi Miike film, so looks like I’ll be in the DS 1 first thing for Over Your Dead Body. More end of the world drama in These Final Hours and Summer Camp (from the team behind [REC]) may be worth viewing. Think I’ll miss high-school reunion slasher Most Likely to Die. Over in DS 2 more retro screenings with Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, cult fantasy film Hawk The Slayer and 80’s classic Hellraiser…. All of which I’ll miss! April Mullen has a second film at FrightFest after showing 88 in Glasgow earlier this year. I liked action-thriller 88, so on that basis alone I may look at Farhope Tower, even though not much more information has been released about this yet.

Monday is the toughest day of the festival! The twisted comedy about a sarcastic ex-girlfriend coming back from the dead, Nina Forever, looks interesting – as does the UK première of Emelie. And then we have one of my highlights – Tales of Halloween, the closing film and an anthology film, with directors Adam Gierasch, Axelle Carolyn, Neil Marshall and Lucky McKee joining in the fun. Big film to end on.

DS1 presents Paul Hyett’s Howl (which I saw a trailer for in Glasgow) and sees a group trapped on a train overnight with an unknown create – and I think I’m going to give it a go. The Lazarus Effect in DS 2 has a decent cast with Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplas and Sarah Bolger (who is also in Emelie) and sounds like a modern day Flatliners. In DS 3, Banjo (from FrightFest regular Liam Regan) is showing, starring Laurence R. Harvey and Dan Palmer – this will be on my list!

This year there will be 3 short showcases. I have to mention these as (and unashamedly plugged) I have worked on three films which have been sent for selection, so I may be in a couple of these showcases!!!!

Overall a hugely impressive line-up. You can listen to me and the rest of the Failed Critics on the podcast [to be released on 3rd September] as I uncover the best and worst of the festival for 2015!

Film4 FrightFest will be held in London on 27th – 31st August 2015 and you can find more details on their website. Tickets go on sale at noon tomorrow.

Barely Lethal

Despite a whirlwind charm offensive from Hailee Steinfeld and some decent moments, Barely Lethal is a wasted opportunity.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

barely lethal 1Pro-Tip for all aspiring teenage/high school comedies: NEVER invoke the names of Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, 10 Things I Hate About You, et al during the course of your film.  Just don’t.  Ever.  Do not bring them up, either as homages or having characters mention them by name for whatever reason, as all it does is make you look worse off by comparison and leaving the viewer, myself in this case, wondering why they’re not just watching those frequently-much-better films.  The DVD cover of Mean Girls is prominently displayed at one early point in Barely Lethal and I strongly considered turning off the latter to watch the former again, even though I already re-watched Mean Girls exactly one month ago!

That’s actually being rather unnecessarily harsh on Barely Lethal, which isn’t as bad as its godawful title and trailer suggests it will be.  It’s just the kind of film that can’t stop making really obvious, really amateur, and really easy-to-avoid mistakes no matter how hard it tries.  And it keeps making them over and over and over, like a parent who still cannot operate a DVR despite having had the same one for 8 goddamn years.

So, for those not aware, Barely Lethal follows Megan (Hailee Steinfeld) who, orphaned at a young age, has spent her life being raised by a secretive branch of the US government that turns little girls into stone-cold killer assassins, headed by Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson).  She’s top of her class and the first of them to be activated, much to the irritation of her rival Heather (an utterly wasted Sophie Turner), but disagrees with Hardman’s “no attachments” policy and, whilst on various assignments, finds herself drawn to and desiring a normal teenage life.  When a mission to capture evil arms dealer Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) goes wrong, Megan takes the opportunity to fake her death, relocate to a quiet American town, and attend high school, posing as a foreign exchange student for a nice family.

From there, things proceed exactly as you’re expecting them to, which is the first big shame.  The spy/assassin elements never quite gel with the high school elements, you see, with the former just kinda walking in and out of the film whenever it pleases, leaving the majority of the film basically being another “fish-out-of-water high school” movie but with an unnecessarily complex backstory to that “fish-out-of-water” part.  The tone is also wildly unsatisfying, not committing enough to the dark comedy and more unsavoury implications of the spy/assassin part, but also not committing enough to the high school tone to be sincere and genuine, occupying a middle-ground that leaves everything feeling weak: the spy stuff too toothless, the high school stuff too underdeveloped.

Incidentally, I could tell that this was written by a man even if I hadn’t seen the titles and done my research, such is the utter disdain the film shows for high school and especially for teenage girls.  Even the most utterly blistering takedowns of high school culture, like the aforementioned Mean Girls, have some semblance of caring for its targets, usually out of a desire to want the place and people to be better and much less sh*tty.  Barely Lethal really doesn’t, and so every last cliché in the high school movie book – bitchy girls, arsehole teenagers who are cruel to everybody for no real reason, lecherous and/or painfully uncool teachers, hunky yet vapid and self-centred boy (Toby Sebastian) who our lead is inexplicably all over instead of their equally as attractive yet slightly dorky best friend (Thomas Mann) who acts like a petulant child when she doesn’t crush back on him – gets trotted out and abused with no substance or wit or subversive intent.  It’s basically Baby’s First High School with extra bitter vitriol.

Or, to put it another way, this is a real exchange in this movie that caused me to genuinely and involuntarily groan out loud.

“There is an army of highly trained murderous psychopaths out to get me!”

“Hey, you survived high school.”

It’s a really lazy and underdeveloped movie, basically.  How lazy?  It has a montage set to “Bad Reputation” just like EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF HIGH SCHOOL-SET MEDIA IN HUMAN EXISTENCE.  Nothing feels natural, nothing feels paced, it just blazes through everything at 200MPH.  The point when Hardman inevitably tracked down Megan should be where the last third kicks off but I had a sneaking suspicion that the film wasn’t even halfway done, a suspicion that was promptly confirmed when I checked my watch and saw that we were only 40 minutes in.  The pre-high school stuff encompasses the film’s opening 10 minutes.  10.  Out of 105.  With the rest of those minutes instead being dedicated to trotting out every cliché in short order.  Surprising nobody, this means that the cast aren’t so much characters as one-note archetypes/stereotypes that their actors and actresses are supposed to fill in through sheer force of personality.

To her credit, this is something that Hailee Steinfeld manages to pull off.  Megan’s character, on paper, very much reads as a walking “Chloë Grace Moretz said ‘no’”, which is how it could have turned out in lesser hands.  Yet Steinfeld makes it her own in a number of ways.  She carries herself and convinces near-totally as somebody raised to become something they don’t really want to be, and who just wants to be normal; somebody who is genuinely out-of-their-comfort-zone at high school.  She’s also convincing at kicking ass when required, but not to the extent where I sit and wonder why she’s upset over the evil high school clichés instead of tearing through them like a hot knife through butter.  Then there’s her natural goofy charm, which is just so easily endearing and ultimately makes it hard not to like and enjoy time with Megan.  Between this and Pitch Perfect 2, which utilised said goofy charm way better but hey ho, Steinfeld very much seems to be in the part of her career where she’s a one-woman charm offensive, which is something I am not at all complaining about.

Unfortunately, her co-stars’ attempts to do the same are hampered by the simple fact that they don’t get enough screen-time to do so.  Sophie Turner is asked to do absolutely nothing besides be the film’s alpha bitch, not helped by the fact that she just walks in and out of the film at random points, giving no weight to her inevitable final showdown with Megan.  Jessica Alba seems to be trying to turn Knox into a witty and snarky yet legitimately dangerous villain but she gets maybe 10 minutes at best and her entire existence is just for perfunctory finale fireworks, whilst Samuel L. Jackson just kinda Samuel L. Jacksons for a bit, now seemingly at the part of his career where he will appear in quite literally anything that’s willing to provide him with money.  OK, more so than usual.

As for the action sequences…  Well, you know how Spy just proved than an action-comedy can and, in fact, should be just as proficient at the action sequences as the comedy sequences?  Turns out that Kyle Newman, who also directed 2009’s should-have-been-better Fanboys, is not Paul Feig.  The film’s low-budget radiates from how incredibly small scale the very few action sequences are, and all of them are shot abysmally and edited haphazardly.  The stand-out awful action sequence though is undoubtedly Megan and Heather’s big throw-down which, despite needing to be this big payoff, is near-incomprehensible due to excessively gratuitous camera shaking and unnecessarily tight framing.  Rule #1 of fight scenes in movies: the viewer needs to be able to see what’s going on!

And it’s little amateur mistakes like that which sink Barely Lethal.  I wanted to like this movie, and I do like certain parts of it – Hailee Steinfeld is a bona-fide charmer, there are the occasional funny lines, and the eventual bond that Megan makes with her ‘foster sister’ Liz (Dove Cameron) is kinda sweet and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing – but it’s one of those films that seems to believe that openly acknowledging its awareness of high school movie clichés gives it Carte blance to indulge in them anyway.  It wastes its premise on excessively trod ground and, unlike The DUFF, it’s too lazy (and rather vindictive) to come up with good enough material to make up for that fact.

Hailee Steinfeld is clearly destined to become A Star, regardless of whether it’s Serious Actor Steinfeld from works like True Grit or Charming Movie Star Steinfeld from this and Pitch Perfect 2, and she deserves films that are willing to work as hard and be as good as she is.  Barely Lethal is just not that film, and pure charisma alone can’t prop up a boring, disappointing, lazy waste of a movie.

Callum Petch is ready to do the Bus Stop.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!