Time is, time was, time’s X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. There were clearly commercial reasons why the latest chapter in the X-MEN franchise had to be a time travel tale: Having previously flubbed the introduction of a new, younger Professor X and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the producers clearly wanted to recover a bit of the franchise’s mojo by bringing back the old band — namely Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen under the direction of Bryan Singer (plus Hugh Jackman) — while also trying to finesse the audience into a better appreciation for their replacements. The side benefit is that the time period decided upon for this film has interesting significance for the themes explored in the X-MEN universe. After my quick review of the surprisingly decent MALEFICENT, I turn my attention to what Singer has wrought. Click on the player to hear the review.
From the Better Late Than Never Department: Cinefantastique’s Spotlight Podcast 5:20, focusing on X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, was supposed to post last Monday. Unfortunately, technical delays prevents it from being posted until today. Listen in as Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski discuss the latest installment of the Marvel mutant film franchise, in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time to enlist Dr. Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in an attempt to prevent an apocalyptic future with dire consequences for mutants and humans alike.
The most astoundingly okay movie so far this year – which is apparently all it takes to earn high praise these days
If you want to thrill to the excitement of an astoundingly, supremely, stupendously okay movie, then run – don’t walk – to a theatre showing X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. This film truly has it all: profoundly okay plot; jaw-droppingly okay action sequences; eye-poppingly okay 3D; superbly okay special effects; and amazingly okay acting. It truly is the most finely tuned okay movie of the summer season so far, and it’s hard to imagine any other film surpassing its okay-ness. On the other hand, if you prefer something more than okay, you should stay home and read the film’s reviews instead; there, you will encounter a staggering validation of director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men universe, an almost universal paen to the best that fantasy cinema has to offer. It seems that, in this case, being okay was not merely enough; it was far more than enough, earning accolades normally reserved for something good, or even great.
Why this should be so is a bit of a mystery. It’s not as if the annual build-up to a season’s worth of summer blockbusters has been fraught with terrible disappointments. Sure, there was THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, but also there was CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, which was also okay. Even better was GODZILLA, which avoided the overblown bombast of most blockbuster fare. So why is X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST being fanatically embraced for being merely okay?
I suspect the answer can be summed up in two words: Brett Ratner. The X-Men tribe has never forgiven Ratner for directing X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006), or more precisely, the tribe has never forgiven the film for having been directed by Ratner, who is perceived as an outsider, a hack, who hijacked the franchise and ruined it. By embracing X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, the tribe is embracing the return of their tribal elder, Singer, whose helming of the first two X-MEN films (2000’s X-MEN and 2003’s X-2: X-MEN UNITED) – helped elevate the movie franchise somewhat above the standard we had come to expect from cinematic comic book adaptations. (Anybody remember TANK GIRL? No? How about STEEL?).
The problem with film as tribal identifier is that actual quality is often overlooked; flaws that would have been scorned in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND are blithely overlooked in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. So let’s examine just how okay the new film is, flaws and all.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST gets off to an okay start with an okay action sequence, set in a murky future when the X-Men are hunted down by Sentinels (essentially robots). There are some mutants who will be familiar to fans of the comic book, but their presence means little to anyone else, except insofar as we get to glimpse a variety of different superpowers. The most visually impressive of these is Blink (Fan Bingbing), who can open portals in space through which she and her fellow warriors can leap.
I say “visually impressive,” because in terms of actual strategy, the power is rather useless. Rather than being transported to safety or some strategically appropriate place, leaping through a portal places someone only a few feet from where they were, and it becomes very quickly clear – to the audience, at least – that any blow struck, weapon thrown, or shot fired will simply follow the fleeing mutant through the portal and strike its target – which is what finally happens when these super-smart Sentinels finally figure out the obvious.
Sharp-eyed viewers with brain cells that can access memories back to 2006 will marvel at the novelty of seeing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen once again playing Charles Xaviar and Ian McKellen, former friends turned rival mutant leaders – one peaceful, the other militant. What’s marvelous here is that Xaviar died in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. We knew he would return because, in a post-credits sequence, we heard his disembodied voice emanating from a comatose body in a hospital; however, it was a bit of a surprise to see the same old Xaviar back in the surprise post-credits sequence of THE WOLVERINE – a surprise that, we expected, would be explained in this film. But no, we just have to assume that when Xaviar beamed his mind into that body it took on all the physical characteristics of his old self, including both his mutant powers and his spinal cord injury. It’s a horrible continuity lapse, but that’s okay because it’s perceived as a bit of an f.u. to the events of Ratner’s film.
The next bit of okay-ness involves the plot of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. In order to prevent this terrible future from taking place, the surviving X-Men need to send someone into the past. That someone turns out to be Logan (a.k.a., Wolverine), ostensibly because the character’s healing powers will allow him to make the life-threatening journey, which would kill anyone else, but mostly because everyone knows that Hugh Jackman is the real star of this franchise, and no one wants to sit through another X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, without him. Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) will send Logan back in time – which is pretty impressive when you consider that this was not previously Kitty Page’s mutant power. But that’s okay, because Bryan Singer directed this film.
The rules of time travel are laid out well enough, but the logic conforms to standard screenplay myopia: in order to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) – an event that will spur the Sentinel project into reality – Wolverine travels back to a time just before the assassination. Not, you know, to a time decades before, when he might prevent Mystique from turning to the Dark Side in the first place, because that would derail the whole time-lock plot device of desperately trying to reach her just before she can pull the trigger.
There is one nicely okay quality to Wolverine’s time-jump: selected for his physical resiliency, he really isn’t the right man for the job, which consists of convincing the younger versions of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr) to put aside the enmity and join forces to prevent the catastrophic consequences that will result from the assassination. A man of action rather than words, Wolverine struggle to play diplomat provide a few nice moments before the character is sidelined – because even though the filmmakers knew they needed to put him in the story, the story isn’t really about him.
It’s also well and truly okay seeing Xavier walking around and feeling sorry for himself, wallowing in self pity over the way things ended between him and Lehnsherr and Mystique.* Xavier’s disillusioned condition echoes the opening of THE WOLVERINE (2013), except that sequence set Logan on a character arc that the rest of the film would follow; in this case, Xavier’s state is just a temporary distraction, a plot device to give him something to do and to explain why he might be initially too weak to face off with Lehnsherr when the inevitable betrayal comes.
Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. You know that, as the franchise’s icon villain, Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto) will inevitably betray Xavier’s new-found trust in him, right? What you didn’t know was how soon it would happen and how stupid it would make Xavier and Logan look. But let’s set that aside and ignore it, because the film certainly does. But that’s okay, because X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is directed by Bryan Singer
Before friends-turned-enemies Xavier and Lehnsherr can become friends again, Wolverine and company need to break Lehnsherr out of prison. This leads to one of the few, exceptional scenes in which X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST exceeds being okay: Quicksilver (Evan Peters) breaks Lehnsherr out of the bowels of the Pentagon in an amazingly photographed sequence that conveys super-speed by, ironically, slowing everything down. Giving new meaning to the phrase “bullet-time,” the scene plays from the fast-paced mutant’s point of view as he calmly weaves in between guards, dodging and deflecting bullets. In fact, the movements of everyone else are so slow that Quicksilver can barely be said to be dodging anything; it’s more like someone stepping off the sidewalk while noting a car headed in his direction from a block away. Why the sequence is almost as good as Hammy’s hilarious jump to hyper-drive in OVER THE HEDGE.
The only problem with this scene is that it establishes Quicksilver as a potentially invaluable asset to Logan and Xavier – he’s so fast he’s invisible to everyone else, including the dangerous Magneto – and yet they leave him behind because…well, just because they don’t want him around to solve the inevitable crisis we know is coming. If he can just flit around unseen and fix everything, where’s the drama? So script contrivance wins out. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
The initial assassination attempt is thwarted, but that does not solve the problem, because Mystique is still out there, planning a second attempt. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST purports to dramatize the battle for her soul between Xavier and Lehnsherr, but since Lehnsherr’s solution to the problem is to kill Mystique, it’s a bit of a one-sided tug-of-war. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
So the film builds toward a second assassination attempt, this one involving both Trask and President Nixon (Mark Camacho), which also involves Lehnsherr lifting a baseball stadium and plopping it down around the White House. He’s also taken over the Sentinel prototypes (which were made of non-metal so as not to be subject to his power) by using his magnetic power to insert metal rods into them. The scene suggests Magneto has some previously unacknowledged clairvoyant power, since he is able to perform this metallic surgery at a distance, without being able to see inside the complex technological network inside the Sentinels. Quibbling aside, Lehnsherr’s plan to avoid a horrible future in which human fear of mutants has led to virtual extinction, is to assassinate the president on national television. The logic eludes me (unless the fact that the president happens to be Nixon is supposed to curry favor). But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed the film.
Continuity with the previous films is a mess (a problem with the previous X-MEN: FIRST CLASS as well), but we’re not supposed to worry, because Logan’s trip back to 1973 will reboot the time line anyway (so that the new, younger cast can take over, a la 2009’s STAR TREK), erasing all of the events seen in the previous X-MEN films. You might think fans would be a bit ticked off about this, but apparently not – because it erases the reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, so fuck you Brett Ratner – and if that means erasing Singer’s X-MEN films and the far superior THE WOLVERINE, so be it. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; after all; besides, the alternate timeline gives you license to kill off major characters, whom you can then easily resurrect in the new version of the future. But that’s okay because Bryan Signer directed the film.
Anyway, you get the idea. Lots of stuff happens; some of it is fun; most of it is okay; but the tribe loves all of it, regardless. Any why not? It’s an okay movie. But nothing more than that. It’s better than the abysmal X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and the almost as bad X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. It falls short of X-MEN and X-2: X-MEN UNITED – and far short of THE WOLERVINE. Ironically, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is just about on par with the unjustly reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND – another flawed film with enough good stuff in it to be okay.
[rating=3] A mild recommendation FOOTNOTE
Xavier can walk because he’s taking a drug that inhibits his mutant powers. His mutant powers have nothing to do with his inability to walk – his powers are genetic; his paralysis the result of a bullet wound at the end of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS – but that’s okay, because…well, you know.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Simon Kinberg; story by Jane Goldman & Simon Kinberg & Mathew Vaugh, based on the Marvel Comics characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Kinklage, Evan Peters, Patrick Steward, Ian McKellen. 131 minutes. PG-13.
Michael Fassbender tries out his Magneto powers… Director James DeMonaco discusses THE PURGE… Trailer for INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 seeks to unsettle…
Direct from the lavish Cinefantastique Studios in NYC, Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in genre media.
Once again, America has taken a look at the latest revisionist fairy tale and sighed a collective, “Why?” JACK THE GIANT SLAYER flopped at the box-office in its opening weekend, despite a mammoth budget, attractive leads, and director Bryan Singer expanding the story of a humble peasant vs. a ravenous giant into something that incorporates a plucky princess, an enchanted crown, a sardonic soldier, a war between giants and humanity, and much, (maybe too) much more. But is the audience’s resounding apathy deserved? Come join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they discuss this 3D attempt to do bigger better and weigh whether this version distinguishes itself from the revisionist lot, or is just more fee-fi-fo-fum.
Plus: Steve gives his capsule review of THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, and what’s coming to theaters next week. [NOTE: the podcast capsule is spoiler free. For a more in-depth look at what’s wrong – and almost right – about the ending, check out the review posted here.]
There’s no magic in this beanstalk, and viewers foolish enough to spend money on tickets are likely to feel as cheated as Jack when told he’s been swindled out of a horse and cart for a few worthless beans. The root of the problem lies in a fatal uncertainty about exactly what JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is supposed to be: a grim fairy tale, a light-hearted adventured, or an epic LORD OF THE RINGS knock-off. Whatever the intent, with its British flavor and oddball mix of humor and horror applied to a fanciful childhood tale, the film recalls JABBERWOCKY (1977). The misbegotten result would seem to suggest that only Terry Gilliam should direct Terry Gilliam films. (After all, if he couldn’t get it right, why should we expect anyone else to?)
The jumbled screenplay (credited to four different writers) mixes in bits of “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the “King Incognito” plot device (in which a royal personage takes on the guise of a peasant in order to get a street-level view of the kingdom). There is also a love story and a villain plotting to overthrow a kingdom, and needless to say, there is a third-act ogre battle.
If this sounds like more than enough to fill up an entertaining movie, then I am not doing my job, because JACK THE GIANT SLAYER feels empty – of warmth, romance, humor, and most especially wonder. The exposition plods; the jokes fall flat; the adventure stalls; and the love story withers on the … beanstalk, I guess.
Director Bryan Singer is undoubtedly talented, but he does not have the required deft touch for this sort of thing, nor does his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The opening prologue is a cut-rate version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, telling us what we need to know without making us care. The “clever” cross cutting between Isabelle the Princess and Jack the farm boy foreshadows their eventual union, but the parallels are ridiculously exact and leave the end result in absolutely no doubt, so that the love story feels over before it begins.
Unable to install a Sense of Wonder into the proceedings, Singer and McQuarrie eventually resort to visceral shocks. Giants (whose visages are impressively detailed if not cleverly designed or particularly expressive) munch and crunch their victims, both animal and human, which seems a bit daring (though not explicit, thanks to the PG-13 rating), but in the end it amounts to little more than gratuitous titillation, something seen and then forgotten in time for the happy ending.
In a way, this points up the difficult of transferring fairy tales to the screen. The strength of the original lies in its simplicity and in its literary form: terrible things happen – as when, for example, the Big Bad Wolf devours the first two of the Three Little Pigs – but those deaths are abstract and symbolic on the page, a warning that bad behavior leads to bad ends, while the audience identification figure survives by doing the right thing. The characters are archetypal, without distinguishing details to bring them to life in a way that would make them mourn their demise. Children can enjoy these stories without being traumatized, enjoying the thrill of fear and the cathartic satisfaction when their hero triumphs, often by exactly a grizzly retribution on the villain – a safe, simple morality tale that works precisely because there is no gray area to cloud the issue. Movies, which usually at least attempt to create individual characters have it a lot tougher; the visceral impact is stronger, eclipsing the moral point, which in any case is usually not profound enough to warrant being expanded beyond a few pages.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER certainly has little to say that would suffice to justify the running time. Unless you think it is profound wisdom to opine people of lowly station may aspire to something bigger. Or that a princess should get to know her kingdom. Or that her father shouldn’t marry her off to a scoundrel. Strangely, for all its attempts to build Eleanor up as a strong female lead, her role remains that of a damsel in distress; her appearance in armor is just another form of bling, not indicating that she is actually going to do anything.
But wait, not all is lost. Although romantic leads Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson are undermined by the script insistence on keeping them bland (Hoult made a much better lover when he was a zombie in WARM BODIES), the supporting cast shine through. Ewan McGregor is dashing as the princess guard, Elmont; his confident smile hits just the right tone – almost tongue-in-cheek, but not quite. Ian McShane is an impressive king. Bill Nighy provides an intimidating voice for the lead giant, General Fallon.
Best of all is Stanley Tucci as the scheming Roderick. In fact, he is too good. He makes you hate him so much you want to see him dispatched with – well – dispatch, but if and when that happens, what else has the movie got?
Well, the film does have that colossal confrontation toward the conclusion, when the giants rain down on humanity like organic meteors. The siege is reasonably well done because it relies not only on visual flair (giants hurling burning trees over the castle walls) but also on at least halfway believable depictions of how a human army might attempt to hold off a horde of giants. Truthfully, a bit more could have been done with this (showcasing – for example – how leverage might be applied by a smaller adversary to topple a larger foe), but at least the screenplay pulls off an interesting variation on “Chekov’s Gun” (you know, the one that’s loaded in the first act and therefore must be fired in the third) – in this case, a leftover magic bean that Jack puts to good use at a crucial moment.
As is almost obligatory these days, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is being presented in 3D engagements. Although officially not a post-production conversion, the film often looks like one. The early quiet scenes (of our lead characters as children, listening to bedtime stories) do provide a nice sense of depth, as the production design offers a genuine fairy tale ambiance. But once Jack and the Princess grow to young adulthood, and the action-adventure elements take over, Singer opts for camera angles and lens choices that create a resolutely flat look, with only a mild separation between the characters and the backgrounds. In a few cases, when we see human from the POV of giants looking down, the results are noticeably bizarre, with the human form stretched to ridiculous proportions, suggesting Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is another sad example of a big-budget movie with all the production value Hollywood can offer (including a fine score by John Ottman) but little in the way of inspiration. If not for the spark of life provided by the cast, the film would be dead as a diver after leaping off the rocky cliffs of the giant’s land in the clouds. In striving to be big in execution, the film feels small in imagination – a fact strangely underlined in Singer’s occasional choice of downward camera angles that lend a diminutive-looking stature to the giants. Taking something meant to be large and making it look small is no great accomplishment. If, instead, Singer had taken Warwick Davis (who shows up in a bit part) and cast him as a giant – now, that would have shown at least a touch of wit.
[rating=2] JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney; story by Darren Lemke & David Dobkin. A production by Warner Brothers Pictures, New Line Entertainment, Legendary Pictures. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane, Warwick Davis, Bill Nighy.
And so the story of two sisters vexed by supernatural forces — as captured by conveniently located video cameras — continues, or begins, or ends depending on how you want to look at it, in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3. Another prequel set in 1988 and purportedly recorded on VHS equipment — which doesn’t really account for the broadcast-quality image — the film purports to show how sisters Katie and Kristi Ray were first courted as children by forces malevolent, leading to the chaos depicted in the previous entries.
Those who are acquainted with the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise will know what to expect (although maybe not when to expect it), but is more of the same enough? Join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they patiently await the manifestations and debate whether this strung-out origin tale fills in narrative gaps or just restates already established history with more ungainly video equipment.
Also: A discussion of the Wachowski’s imminent return to genre and Bryan Singer’s bid to retell the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA legend once more. Plus: what’s coming in theatrical and home video releases.
It isn’t particularly well known, but mutants were with Washington when he crossed the Delaware, with Einstein when he developed the theory of relativity, and with Sarah Palin while she was waiting for Russia to raise its head above Alaska. Most specifically, they were directly engaged in the Cuban Missile Crisis — the world-changing historical event that is the backdrop for the first meeting of the psychic Professor X a.k.a. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the magnetically-charged Erik Lehnsherr, otherwise known as Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Come join special guest Orenthal V. Hawkins as he sits in with Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons to discuss X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the latest installment of the Marvel film franchise that uses comic book action to address some potent social issues. Does this chapter live up to the standard established by Bryan Singer? Is the first team-up of mutants — which includes Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), and Darwin (Edi Gathegi) — as impressive as the more famous ensemble of the previous films? And is Moria MacTaggert’s (Rose Byrne) choice of lingerie government-issued, or does Victoria’s Secret sell bullet-proof brassieres? Listen to the show and find out!
Via 20th Century Fox, here’s a special featurette from X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn, the 1960’s-set Marvel movie stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Kevin Bacon, Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi, Jason Flemyng, Oliver Platt, Morgan Lily, and Zoe Kravit.
Opens June 3rd, from Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox.
20th Century Fox released this cast picture from X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
Looks like the costumes are intended to actually resemble the ones from the comics. Imagine that.
Over at IGN, they’re featuring an interview with January Jones (MADMEN). Among other things, they ask her about the Hellfire club and the period setting.
“…I can say that it doesn’t feel like a period movie. There’s obviously historical aspects in the storytelling and some of the props and stuff, but I think it feels very modern. It does take place in 1962.
One of the things that’s brought in from that time, the Hellfire Club aspect especially, is that it’s pretty — I dunno, the Bunnies and the Playboy clubs. It’s really cool. You’d think Sinatra was there. The sets are really cool and the vibe of the whole thing is really neat.”
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is due in theaters on June 3rd.
It stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi, Jason Flemyng, Oliver Platt, Morgan Lily, and Zoe Kravitz.
Matthew Vaugh directs, from a screenplay by Jane Goldman,
Ashley Miller, Jamie Moss, Josh Schwartz and Zack Stentz. Story by Bryan Singer, based on the Marvel Comics characters.