Friday, May 23, 2014

DAYS OF SEQUELS FUTURE: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” Guarantees the The X-Men’s Cinematic Future

Admittedly, 20th Century Fox’ X‑Men franchise (including the spin-offs) has been somewhat floundering in quality since Bryan Singer’s departure from directorial duties after 2003’s X-Men 2. Some have been quite good (The Wolverine) and others…not so much (X-Men: The Last Stand). So much so that a “soft” reboot in the form of Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) was necessitated. Bryan Singer himself has taken a few hits, both professionally (Valkyrie, Superman Returns) and (in recent days) personally. However, X-Men: Days of Future Past ushers in a return to form for both the director and the franchise.
The story begins in the not-too-distant future wherein mutants are being systematically slaughtered by giant robots known as “Sentinels”, who were conceptualized in the early 1970s by a millionaire industrialist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) for the sole purpose of their eradication. When Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinates him for his slaughtering of mutants in the name of science, it sets of the chain of events that lead to the true “last stand” of Homo Superior.  In a last desperate bid for survival, the few remaining mutants, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan), devise a plot to send the consciousness of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past in order to prevent Mystique from succeeding in her task. However, in order to do so Logan will have to engage the help of the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively); no mean feat as, given the events chronicled in First Class (2011), the two men couldn’t be any further apart ideologically or emotionally.
In a sense, Days of Future Past is Bryan Singer’s Star Trek: Generations (coincidentally starring Patrick Stewart) as he has to juggle elements and casts from two iterations of the same franchise and balance them out.  For the most part, he succeeds where Generations failed. While Hugh Jackman is the ostensible star, every main character is given equal weight; an impressive undertaking as he served only as a producer of First Class and, thus, had not worked with the new cast in a directorial capacity until now. Yet, the film feels like he’s deftly handled those characters this entire time. Given that the bulk of the film takes place in the past, much of the returning regulars from the previous X-Men films, such as Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore),  and Rogue (Anna Paquin), get the short shrift in screen time. But in their case, quantity does not equate to quality as their characters, and newcomer to the franchise Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, are pivotal to the story in their own ways, as is scene stealer Evan Peters as Quicksilver, the fastest mutant alive. A super speedy smart-ass, he practically owns the movie in just one stellarly-rendered scene that borrows from the climax of the animated film Over The Hedge (2006). 
As far as the main players go, the performances are indeed sublime. The real life bromance between McKellan and Stewart adds to their characters’ relationship in the future and heightens the contrast of said relationship of their younger selves. The contrast between the young and old is powerful. McAvoy’s Xavier is self-loathing and depressed, while Fassbender’s Eric Lehnsherr, while still duplicitously arrogant, is much more conflicted and unsure. The tension between them, the hurt and longing, is practically palpable. Interestingly enough, Hollywood’s current “It” girl Jennifer Lawrence’s performance makes one forget that she is the second actor to play the live-action Mystique. As the villain of the piece, Peter Dinklage is rather…ordinary; not that that assertion is an indictment. As Trask, he is Americanized Tyrion Lannister in a polyester business suit; a study in charismatic banality, providing contextual logic to his monstrous actions (only in one moment in the film does his performance seem to slip into "Simon Legree" territory; a hiccup in an otherwise interesting turn). Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy/Beast is given much more to do this time around, with the producers having taken a page from Marvel’s The Avengers, to give McCoy the appropriate “hulk out” moments (though not nearly as satisfying).
Hugh Jackman has come a long way since he first donned the Adamantium claws. What’s always interesting about Jackman is that despite the amount of times he’s played the character he always seems to find a new facet to explore.  This time, Logan is the guide instead of the guided. He must mentor the self-destructive Xavier. Despite having the experience and knowledge of Xavier’s history, he is as unsure as the young Xavier is. It is a unique and unfamiliar position for the character to take and Jackman evinces this superbly.
The X-Men: Days of Future Past screenplay by Simon Kinberg, (very loosely…I repeat, VERY LOOSELY… based on the comic book storyline of the same name by writers Chris Claremont and John Byrne) coupled with the editing from Singer’s partner-in-crime John Ottman allows for a film that is mostly tight. There are a couple of set up scenes that almost Tarantino-esque (meaning, goes way too long), but they are few and excusable. The time travel theories used in the film are plausible for the story logistics (so long as one does not dwell on them too much). Ottman’s score, as usual, does justice to the film but is eminently forgettable out of context. The special effects are top notch, though 3-D does call attention to some of its weaknesses but it’s not too distracting. Some die-hard X-Men fans may scoff at the design of the Sentinels themselves, but as rendered in both the past and the future they are appropriately menacing.
Singer plays fast and loose with continuity, both in terms of history in general and the X-Men films in particular.  However, he does have an eye for detail and a sense of pop culture kitsch of the era (one to particularly humorous effect), and does a good job of tying in some subplots from the previous films, thereby placing First Class and this film firmly into the fold. For anyone who had issues with Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (and those numbers are legion), let’s just say that this film offers vindication.
The film, however, is big...nay, scope; arguably as much as Marvel's Thor: The Dark World. As the film progresses, it gets bigger in visuals, in scope, and in stakes, building to a resounding crescendo. Despite the change in directors, the sense of anything-can-happen begun in First Class is continued here; especially as the film rushes to its conclusion. And what a finale it is. Singer’s direction is so tight that it literally ratchets up the suspense. Many of the people who will view this film will be more than familiar with the story upon which it is based. However, it is a testament to his skill that despite this, the viewer catches their breath waiting to see how these things play out.  If only Singer had brought this sort of deftness to Valkyrie and Superman Returns. Singer’s predilection towards themes of isolation, segregation, and persecution are on display here, but here they’re tempered with a sense of family. At least to this reviewer, for the first time the characters feel as though they are part of a larger family. Without that feeling, this film would not be as potent.

It’s been a while since I have seen Singer’s previous X-Men films but I can say that I was not as invested in these characters cinematically until this particular film. Despite the fantasy, the film is anchored in very relatable, human emotion. The fans will enjoy the little Easter eggs that pepper the film and the game of “name that mutant” that goes with it. For the non-fans, there is enough action, suspense, and emotion to satisfy. In whole, this is a film on par with Marvel’s The Avengers. The torch has been passed between the original and new cast (though expect to see Jackman as Wolverine in a film or two to come), and with this film, the future of the X-Men franchise on film is practically assured.
Sorry, Marvel Studios.

Friday, May 2, 2014

OH, WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE: "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" Thrills Despite a Disjointed Presentation [MINOR SPOILERS]

When Marvel Comics produced the first issue of “The Fantastic Four” in 1961, it heralded a change in comic book storytelling. No longer did each story exist in a vacuum but, as in real life, events in one story would have consequences in another with subplots being carried over the course of months in myriad issues. This soap-operatic tone was not only perfected in, but was an integral part of, “The Amazing Spider-Man” from the late sixties into and through the seventies (which included the 1970’s introduced companion title, “Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man”). It was a comic filled with teen angst, mystery, romance, and tragedy (and, oh yeah, super-heroics and costumed super-villains). In this sense, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 truly is a comic book come to life. From the manner of storytelling to the character voices and the visuals, the film is a homage to that era of Spider-Man comics even as it tries to work within modern storytelling aesthetics.
Coming off the heels of the last film, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is standing in sundry crossroads: whether to continue find out what happened to his parents Richard and Mary Parker; whether or not to honor his vow to the late Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary) to stay away from his daughter Gwen (Emma Stone). In the meantime, Peter’s old childhood friend, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), returns from exile and discovers that he is dying from a rare genetic disease inherited from his father, Norman (Chris Cooper). Meanwhile, a quintessential, emotionally unhinged “nobody” named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), who was saved by Spider-Man, becomes the victim of an industrial accident at Oscorp that leaves him forever changed. During all of this, Gwen grows weary of Peter’s on again/off again inner struggle and calls off their relationship.
If that’s a lot to digest, that’s because it is.  The problem here is that Webb and screenwriters Alex Krutzmen, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pikner, and James Vanderbilt are trying to condense storylines that would take at least a year to tell in comic book form into a two hour, twenty-two minute run time (thus making an argument that what works in one medium may not work in another).  While the film is enjoyable, it's extremely disjointed. Webb tries to balance comic book aesthetic with real life. This film implies that such a balance is indeed delicate because at times the movie strays too far one way or the other. Jamie Foxx, an extremely capable actor, falls way too far into caricature in his first few scenes though he more than makes up for same when he assumes the mantle of the super-villain “Electro”. DeHaan plays Osborne as if someone had saved Jack Dawson from the Titanic, transported him through time to the present, dyed his hair, and gave him crazy pills. This DiCaprio-lite interpretation of Osborne is just as distracting as Foxx’ overacting and takes one out of the picture. The same can also be said of star Garfield at times, as the tics and mannerisms he imbues Peter Parker with are maddeningly overdone. Also in evidence is a German mad scientist caricature reminiscent of Dr. Kaufman in Tomorrow Never Dies or John Glover’s turn as Dr. Jason Woodrue in Batman and Robin. Assuming arguendo that the intent of the film is to homage that era of comic book storytelling, these characterizations are arguably spot on in keeping with that era. However, Webb is also trying to keep things “real” and, as such, the combination of these two styles are discordantly jarring. The script makes a couple of head scratching leaps in logic in order to keep the story going, but for the most part they’re not distracting enough to remove you from the action. Unfortunately, the "too many villains" syndrome in these type of films doesn't help matters here. However, given how broadly drawn (pun intended) these villains are it's almost forgivable; almost.
Now, as far as being a comic book come to life, the visuals are just, with perhaps a small bit of pun intended, “amazing”. While a 3D viewing will compromise the integrity of the CGI, the film is stunning to look at.  The cinematography of New York City (where the film was entirely shot) is lovingly rendered.  The web-swinging sequences are a joy to behold, and one scene at the commencement of the climactic battle between Spider-Man and Electro wherein the visuals are practically ripped from the comics.
What truly elevates this film are the leads.  Some would consider their real life relationship an acting “cheat”, but the chemistry between Garfield and Stone is the film's real hook.  Despite various missteps in his performance this time around, Garfield gets the essence of the Spider-Man character; most especially in the quieter moments such as one involving a bullied child.  As Gwen Stacy, Stone proves to be a formidable partner to both Parker and Spider-Man. She imbues Stacy with a subtlety that is, at certain moments, almost heartbreaking to watch. While their dialogue together is more quip than actual heart to heart, it’s what Stone and Garfield communicate behind their words, the energy between them, that sells their relationship (both on-and-off screen); sincerity in a world of fantasy. However, theirs are not the only performances that stick with you.  In one small yet pivotal scene, Sally Field reminds the world why she is an Oscar-winning actress. Dennis Leary, who cameos as the foreboding specter of Captain Stacy, says more with a look than some actors do with five pages of dialogue. And Paul Giamatti has a grand old time hamming it up as the Russian “Rhino”. Yes, another caricature; but he’s having so much fun with what little he’s given to do you just don’t give a damn and go with it.
Hans Zimmer ostensibly takes over the musical duties from James Horner, though he leaves the heavy lifting to “The Magnificent Six” (comprised of Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr, Michael Einziger, Junkie XL, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro). However, to his credit he does continue certain motifs, if not the actual orchestrations, established by Horner: an adaptation of Spider-Man’s theme, quiet piano for the romantic moments between Peter and Gwen, a schizophrenically comical yet dangerous theme for Electro, etc. However, it’s replete with the bombast Zimmer is known for. However, here it’s appropriate. It’s a diverse score that combines modern rock with quasi-classical movie scoring, providing a tone that matches the film in more ways than one.
Certain story arcs come full circle. Just like in the comics, this film features themes of the “sins of the father”, duality, identity, super power fantasies made manifest, and tragedy; heaps of tragedy. Those who have followed Spider-Man lore know to what I’m referring.  But there are also themes of redemption, paying it forward, inspiration, hope (hope that is inspired, not deceptively implied in an alien symbol), and most importantly, fun.  For all its strum and drang, despite the tragedy that is a hallmark of the character, the character of Spider-Man is one of fun, and while he’s in costume Garfield captures that essence in quip and mannerism beautifully.
This new franchise is a divisive one as it rewrites/reimagines stories and relationships both established in the Raimi and the source material. There will be some who will hate this film simply on that basis. However, on its own merits, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an uneven affair in terms of performances, story beats, and logic. However, for the most part, its pros far outweigh its cons.  Certain questions are answered, more are raised (for the inevitable sequel). Certain story arcs come full circle. While the details may be debated, the heart behind it cannot be. The Amazing Spider-Man is a mess but a highly enjoyable one and merits a big screen viewing.