Monday, June 2, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m going to make this short because you and I both have things to do.

Every once in a while, you find a diamond in the rough, a needle in a haystack, if you will. For the unfortunately burgeoning superhero genre, that diamond, or rather those diamonds, in the rough, are Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies. In the original trilogy (or tetralogy) of X-Men, X2 (United), and The Last Stand (Origins being that questionably included fourth installation), Singer directed the two best: the first and second. Last Stand and Origins are both enjoyable and entertaining enough, but neither attempts to be anything but an action movie, whereas Singer’s tended to include interesting, thoughtful commentaries in addition to being remarkably entertaining action flicks.

Thankfully, Singer has retaken the chair and has rattled off arguably the two most accomplished superhero movies ever not made by Christopher Nolan. Though it has its detractors, First Class is, in my opinion, a terrific movie that succeeds both as a pure action flick but also as a thoughtful commentary on intolerance, and not just that of the oppressors. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Singer picks up exactly where he left off, delivering a great movie, though not one I can wholeheartedly say lives up to its immediate predecessor (The Wolverine is dumb and doesn’t count).

Beginning about 10-15 years in the future, the film quickly shifts into the 1970s and handles it perfectly. Wolverine (you know who) must find the younger versions of Professor X and Magneto (McAvoy and Fassbender) in order to prevent the human-mutant war that necessitated his time-travelling expedition to 50 years in the past.

The movie’s first scene in the ‘70s is hysterical, and its handling of the ins-and-outs of everything, from the clothing to the cars, is spot-on. The writing helps too, and milks as much humor from its premise as possible without overdoing it. But the script also tosses aside characters too nonchalantly. The really fast guy utilized at the beginning is soon forgot about when his powers almost certainly could have come in handy later on. McAvoy and Fassbender are also sidelined too much to Jackman. Dinklage’s part is also a great example of how to make a villain unthreatening, uncomplicated, and boring, three insults to the man’s significant acting abilities.

Singer’s direction is fluid and frenetic and, dare I say, terrific, strange considering the scatter-shot nature of several of his directorial flourishes (i.e. the Pentagon kitchen scene, the Prof. Xs’ conversation, etc.). But it’s by no means perfect. Too many of the action sequences are choreographed and directed (and possibly even written) so as to become too far-fetched. Most of these actions are results of the mutants’ powers, but if an event is such that I have to think too hard about how on earth it could have happened before I chalk it up to a superpower, then there’s a very good chance the powers have been overutilized. After the original plan goes up in flames, too many of the plot developments require too much suspension of disbelief as well. It almost seems as though the writers said, "It would be cool if this happened to screw everything up. Damn, how the heck are we going to get out of this jam? How about a semi-ridiculous plot twist?" When things like these happen, the movie’s realism, which its non-superhero, allegorical elements have in spades, is undermined.

In comparison to every single other X-Men film ever made, this one’s acting is bar-none the best of the bunch. As the young Professor Charles Xavier (Professor X), James McAvoy gives easily the greatest X-Men performance ever and arguably the greatest ever leading performance in a superhero movie. His borderline-leading-supporting performance is powerful and fun and captivating and emotionally fulfilling. Michael Fassbender, as Erik Lensherr (Magneto), is given much less to do than in First Class, but still manages to create an interesting, believable character throughout, even though the limited screentime I just noted does make his critical character transition too rushed.

Patrick Stewart gives his best performance of the series. His screentime, though, is just too little to make that much of an impact. Nevertheless his dream-based speech scene is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. The truest lead, Hugh Jackman, does a characteristically great job of being a solid, watchable lead, and his one-liner deliveries are all, without exception, hysterical and brilliant, but he never overcomes the unfortunate one-dimensionality the script prescribes for him.

Lastly, Peter Dinklage, who could make an excellent villain, is shunned by the script in terms of both nuance and menace. Usually when a villain is robbed of nuance, he’s only evil. But the script decides to scrap it all and provide Dinklage with some of the most unmenacing scenes and dialogue I can remember. Part of the issue, I believe, is Dinklage himself. He fails to create the sense of fearful hate the man needs. He also lacks the domineering physical presence his character needs. (Watch season two of Game of Thrones to see what I’m referring to. Just because you’re a dwarf doesn’t mean you can’t have a domineering physical presence.)

The action scenes are virtually all excellently done, and I firmly believe it should receive a visual effects Oscar nomination. But as has been previously mentioned, several of the scenes are too ridiculous for a moment or two.

I return to one of the film’s greatest strength, its ability to thoughtfully explore fear of the unknown. Singer’s first to X-Men films and First Class as well delved deeply into humanity’s fear of what it doesn’t know, of the pain we inflict on others when we don’t yet know what they are capable of because we are so scared they might destroy us first. It also takes a brief look at a question altogether unaddressed by contemporary reviews: nature vs. nurture. Lensherr is believes only a violent solution is possible because of the unimaginable cruelty inflicted upon him in his youth, while Xavier’s more pleasant upbringing made him a more caring person. This fourth Singer movie is no different. Its commentary on intolerance is smart and nuanced. Perhaps more importantly, it’s not heavy-handed.

By no means superhuman, the movie is still another fine example of the wonders Singer can do with superheroes.


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