Film Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 27th May 2014.

After a lacklustre second sequel, an enjoyable prequel and two disappointing Wolverine solo outings, director Bryan Singer returns to take over the reigns of the X-Men franchise with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Combining the retro cast of X-Men: First Class (2013) and many of the significant characters from the original, Singer has crafted a mega lineup of mutants that should have any comic film fan salivating. The time bending plot will not disappoint. Unfortunately, as is the way with these sorts of features, not everyone gets enough screen time to satisfy.

In the distant future, mutant exterminating machines called Sentinels have almost wiped out all of the X-Men. A rag tag group of survivors led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) realise that their whole situation is a direct result of the assassination of the creator of the Sentinel programme, Dr Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in the seventies. Using Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) time travelling powers, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to convince Professor Xavier and Magneto’s younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) to put their issues aside and fight to save the future.

Although a welcome presence on the screen, I’m not entirely sure how it is that Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier is alive and well in this film. Last seen being blown into smithereens in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), he then popped up in the post-credits sequence of The Wolverine (2013) with no explanation. I assume his mind control is so great that he can will himself back into existence. In that case, why not also fix your legs and get rid of the wheelchair? Never mind.

Bookended by scenes in the future, the majority of the film takes place in the seventies. Fish out of water Wolverine (Jackman absolutely inhabiting his signature character) attempting to bring the warring parties together leads to many memorable moments, in particular an excellent sequence featuring Quicksiver (Evan Peters) slowing time to ensure Magneto’s breakout from the Pentagon. McAvoy and Fassbender bring back their chemistry as the feuding mutant leaders but once again, Jennifer Lawrence proves that she can steal a movie from anyone. She looks great in blue body paint too.

Hot from Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage is charismatic as the porno ‘tached Trask. Perfectly cast, it is significant that his lack of stature is not even mentioned in the film.

Back to the future (Marty), Stewart, McKellan and Halle Berry’s Storm have little in the way of dialogue, which is a shame for the two former and not so much for the latter. In fact, the biggest chunk of dialogue Stewart gets is in the much anticipated scene with McAvoy as the older (and balder) Xavier meets his younger counterpart. Like the iconic scene in Heat which saw De Niro finally share the screen with Pacino, the double Professor X scene is brief but noteworthy.

The CGI heavy action sequences are well done, with the imposing Sentinels particularly threatening. The scenes set in the future are quite dark, which might frustrate those viewing in 3D (I went to a 2D screening).

With an impressive array of cameos, Singer certainly knows how to craft a compelling X-Men tale. I don’t find his directorial style to be distinctive at all, but I suppose it is comforting to know that all of the franchise entries have the same look and feel. I don’t know if that’s a criticism of other franchise directors Brett Ratner, Matthew Vaughn, Gavin Hood and James Mangold, or a compliment to Singer’s obvious influence on the X-Men movies.

From a storytelling perspective, the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past make the plots of the original trilogy redundant. I suppose this splitting of timelines ala the recent Star Trek reboot will allow for more stories to be told, but I dislike my previous investment in the earlier movies to have gone to waste.

The Year in Film: 2011’s Best

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday  27th December 2011.

In my annual wrap up of the year in cinema, we’ve so far waded through the stinkers and underrated gems that disgraced and graced the silver screen. After much deliberation (at least five minutes), it’s now time to announce my best films of 2011. Drum roll please.

3. Captain America: The First Avenger In the final lead up to The Avengers, the ultimate Marvel superhero team up, this year saw the release of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and the far superior Captain America. Directed by Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III), this action adventure got the mix just right. A likeable hero (Chris Evans) and a charismatic baddie (Hugo Weaving channelling Werner Herzog), combined with some amazing special effects to render Evans as a pre-transformation weakling, plus a not too complicated storyline all made for an enjoyable ride. The setting of the film in World War 2 gave the flick some real stakes too. The final five minutes of the film were essentially an ad for the next film but I was having so much fun to care. The 3D effects were OK too.

2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes “Rotpota”, as it has become known, was really the little film that could this year. Dismissed pre-release as another unnecessary remake, à la Footloose, this reboot of the original sci-fi classic franchise was a taut thriller that features the best motion capture performance so far. Starring as the CGI chimpanzee Caesar, Andy Serkis was a revelation and brought true gravitas to what was essentially a bunch of pixels. He truly deserves a much touted Oscar nomination, the first for such a performance. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, this is a seamless blend of live action and CGI.

1. Super 8 J.J. Abrams’ homage to the eighties films of Steven Spielberg was simply magical. A throwback to a time when movies for children were allowed to be scary, this was The Goonies, Gremlins and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial all rolled into one. Abrams managed to elicit the most natural child actor performances from stars Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning since Henry Thomas left a trail of Reece’s Pieces to attract a certain alien. All of the Spielberg hallmarks were present: the single parent family, the military and the monster wanting to find its way home. In one hundred and twelve superb minutes, Abrams manages to encapsulate the wonder of childhood.

My notable mentions for this year are: Thor, Bridesmaids, Fast Five and X-Men: First Class.

2011 also saw the release of twenty eight sequels (that’s right, twenty eight). It shows that in the current financial climate, the major studios are not prepared to bet on original ideas when there are less risky properties and franchises to build upon.

2012 is already looking interesting with The Adventures of Tintin, Warhorse, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Muppets on the schedule in the first weeks of January. Have a great cinematic 2012!

The future is now

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 5th January 2010.

The future has always fascinated cinema audiences. From the humble beginnings of the motion picture, fantastic depictions of life in the future have captivated moviegoers. Early sci-fi classics such as Le Voyage Dans La Lune (Voyage to the Moon) from 1902 and Metropolis from 1927 predicted, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, space travel, robots and skyscrapers.

Of course, the medium of film has been around long enough that many “future” movies are actually set in what is now our past. Let’s run through some films where the future is yesterday.

My first candidate is a bit of a cheat but the film, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was also made in 1984, was based on George Orwell’s 1949 novel. The book’s bleak depiction of a totalitarian society controlled by Big Brother hasn’t come to pass but some would argue that the development of technologies such as closed circuit television have increased the ability of governments to monitor their people. I don’t mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist but I’ve seen it on TV’s 24 so it must be true.

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) was set in 1998 and depicts New York City as a maximum security prison. Anyone who has visited the USA lately will note that it is actually harder to get into the country than leave, but for those who don’t like theatre, hot pretzels or Seinfeld, I suppose it can be considered a lockup.

1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes is set in 2001. This was the fifth and final of the sensational apes series and starred Roddy McDowell once again in a rubbery mask. I’m pretty sure that we haven’t yet been conquered by hairy creatures unless you count Movember.

Death Race 2000 is a Roger Corman cult classic from 1975. Starring Sylvester Stallone, it features a future where the American national pastime is watching the deadly Transcontinental Road Race. Criticised by critics for its gratuitous nudity and violence, the film accurately predicted the popularity of Wipeout and Japanese game shows.

The original X-men film from 2000 is actually set in this current year. Professor Charles Xavier leads his band of heroic mutants against Magneto’s evil crew in this Hollywood blockbuster. A quick look in the papers proves that mutants live amongst us today: Kevin Rudd with his inexplicable, unwavering popularity; Jennifer Hawkins with her freakish ability to convince people to buy Myer shares; and Britney with her special power to make sound without moving her lips.

2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968 was released simultaneously as a film directed by Stanley Kubrick and a novel by Arthur C. Clarke. Accurately depicting spacecraft moving through space silently, the movie also correctly predicted voice-print identification, flat screen monitors, chess playing computers and airline on-board entertainment units. Aspects of the film that did not eventuate by 2001 (or today) include suspended animation, space hotels, moon bases and artificial intelligence of computers, although I’m pretty sure HAL lives on in my troublesome iPhone. A similar vision of the “future” also appears in the 1984 sequel, 2010.

The film industry has been pretty hit or miss with its depiction of the future. However, some years to keep in mind, just in case they get it right, are 2012 (the tectonic plates will shift and life as we know it will end, unless you’re John Cusack) and 2015 (as depicted in Back To The Future II, we’ll all have flying cars and hover boards).