Reviews

X-Men: Apocalypse better than Captain America; two good bromances in The Nice Guys, The Man Who Knew Infinity

X-Men: Apocalypse stars Jennifer Lawrence and Evan Peters (both above).
X-Men: Apocalypse stars Jennifer Lawrence and Evan Peters (both above).PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Russell Crowe (left) and Ryan Gosling pair up in The Nice Guys.
Russell Crowe (left) and Ryan Gosling pair up in The Nice Guys.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

X-Men: Apocalypse has characters with relationships that are more believable than Captain America: Civil War

Even as the Avengers are at this moment in cinemas bashing and smashing it up, here comes another team of superheroes.

Call it a cosmic coincidence, but in X-Men: Apocalypse(PG13, 145 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars), the good guys fight an omnipotent baddie from outside their world, when previously, the conflicts were always fraternal - Magneto (Ian McKellen, later Michael Fassbender) pitched against Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart, later James McAvoy).

In Captain America: Civil War, it's the reverse. The traditional alien attack set-up has been switched with a plot about an internal schism.

This may have something to do with Marvel licensing or, more likely, screenwriters in Los Angeles going to the same parties.

Of the two movies, the X-Men is superior. Not just because its director, Bryan Singer, has directed more movies in the franchise than anyone else in any superhero franchise (he's helmed almost every X-Men flick, from X-Men in 2000 to 2014's X-Men: Days Of Future Past).

Singer's movie is better also because he understands family. X-Men films are about outcasts who create a family, fully loaded with emotional baggage.

When you see the X-Men characters, you instantly "get" the relationship - father figure, kid sister and so on. Civil War, on the other hand, squeezes dramatic conflict out of the unearned insta-bond between Cap (Chris Evans) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

The first and most powerful mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) appears after a hibernation lasting millennia. He recruits minions, among them new faces Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp). Sophie Turner from Game Of Thrones debuts in the series as Jean Grey.

Battle spectacles are few - Singer does not subscribe to the idea that more is more; the city-levelling fights are precision-tuned while managing to surprise, such as when Jean Grey enters the fray in the most understated yet eye-catching way possible.

There are a couple of hokey moments. Erik Lehnsherr or Magneto (Fassbender), as his name suggests, is a character who tends to flip moral polarities. Here, he switches from Good Magneto to Bad Magneto because of an overused plot device. But those slips are nowhere on the same level as the "our mums have the same name" silliness seen in this year's Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

The Nice Guys (M18, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars) is directed and co-written by Shane Black, Hollywood's reigning king of bickering-buddy pictures.

The stinging repartee between Tony Stark and James Rhodes (Robert Downey Jr and Don Cheadle) in Iron Man 3 (2013), the insults flying between Riggs and Murtaugh (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) in the Lethal Weapon series (1987-1998) - those lines flowed from Black's pen.

He returns to the Los Angeles noir territory he covered in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).

It is the 1970s. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a private detective, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) a bully who roughs up other bullies for a living. The men are at first enemies, but later have to work together to look into the disappearance of an actress, Amelia (Margaret Qualley).

The things that fans like about Kiss Kiss are here: This is a two-hander in which men express affection by taking digs at each other. Their schemes always work, but never in the way they intend, and every scene pays off with a joke, either verbal or visual. Gosling and Crowe give very charming, lighter-than-air performances.

Black understands the grammar of film more than many others working in Hollywood. He uses tropes to subvert them by wringing a laugh out of them. The meta-references to Tinseltown's main business abound. Both Crowe and Kim Basinger (who appears here as a high-ranking lawyer) were in L.A. Confidential (1997), another movie about the movie business in which Crowe played a man who used his fists as a primary investigative tool.

If The Nice Guys is a movie about not taking movies too seriously, The Man Who Knew Infinity (PG, 109 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) takes the opposite tack. This is a prestige picture that brings to mind the feel of a Merchant Ivory Anglo-Indian period piece (Heat And Dust, 1983), with its tweedy, early 20th-century brown tones and characters who say what they really mean only when push comes to shove.

Just before The Great War, Madras resident Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) and self-taught mathematics genius writes to Cambridge University mathematics professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), enclosing some of his work. Hardy is impressed at the young man's natural flair and invites him to the college.

This is a long overdue biopic - long overdue mainly because the lead is South Asian and his gift was mathematics, two elements that make mainstream film financiers sigh and rub their temples.

Writer-director Matthew Brown managed to see the project through, however, and the result is fine, if a little unfocused. Brown chose to put the spotlight on two men, Srinivasa and Hardy, rather than on only the title character (Srinivasa). It is the same technique used in the biopic of Jesse Owens, Race (2016), and again, the reason is probably partly commercial (a film with a brand-name white co-star should do better at the box office) and partly for dramatic purposes.

Brown sticks closely to what is known about Srinivasa's life and thankfully avoids portraying him as exotic, despite the long scenes of him with wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) in Madras.

Best of all, this is a relatable portrait of a man who is a fish-out-of-water in Cambridge, showing signs of injury from culture shock and racist abuse, with symptoms that go unnoticed by Hardy because he is insulated by privilege.

Patel and Irons give admirably restrained performances, as does co-star Toby Jones as Hardy's colleague Littlewood. The mathematics is served up matter-of-factly and in small portions, with none of the patronising visual sugar-coating seen in films such as Cinderella Man (2005). We are grown-ups and can handle a little maths exposition.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

MATHEMATICAL BROMANCE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline 'X-men trumps Captain America'. Print Edition | Subscribe