Cinema Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

DIR: Bryan Singer • WRISimon Kinberg PRO: Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer • DOP: Newton Thomas Sigel • ED: John Ottman • MUS: John Ottman • DES: John Myhre • CAST: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Michael Fassbender

The aesthetic that was begun with the decision to opt for black leather as opposed to the colourful skin-tights of comic-book illustration in Bryan Singer’s low-key (at least by today’s standards) X-Men (2000) saw triumph in the likes of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. But, ultimately, it stumbled and failed to a global audience in the clunky third acts of The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel. The Nolan-verse, though well thought out, gritty and relatable, left too much of a chasm between the onscreen worlds depicted and the fantasy settings that drew in the materials’ initial fan-base. Indeed, if the gargantuan success of the Marvel movies, whose Avengers Assemble climaxed a clean 200 million North of Nolan’s last outing in Gotham, spelt out nothing else to audiences and studio heads alike it became clear that any amount of salt could be pinched in watching, provided the audience was having fun.

Essentially, the aesthetic of the criminally underrated Blade, triumphant with Spiderman 2 and del Toro’s Hellboy films – fumbled with the likes of Daredevil and The Fantastic Four – has been perfected by them boys at Marvel to at last allow filmmakers read from the playbook of superhero storytelling that allowed for their massive popularity in the first instance and use the sources themselves as story-boards wherever possible in order to best emulate/adapt the look, mood and story-structures to a cinematic context –  a feat already gleefully achieved this year by Marc Webb on The Amazing Spiderman 2.

Our first glimpse of Stan Lee’s mutant “evolutionaries” in this colour-palate came with the messy but fun X-Men: First Class and since the announcement that Singer would return to the series with an adaptation that would unite both casts, old and new, anticipation has been building to see whether Marvel’s greatest property might step forth from the darkness successfully and enjoy the sun as it shines forth from Avengers‘ producer Kevin Feige’s arse. Well let’s have a look then…

The film opens in a future not ten clicks from the “real” world of The Matrix franchise. Evidently gigantic robots (coincidentally also called sentinels) have ravaged the world for want of ridding it of mutants for good. A last band, including everyone you want, plus a couple of bonus mutants, gather at the great wall of China and opt to fling Wolverine’s conscience back to his pre-adamantium days in the 1970s that he might get the boys (young Xavier and Magneto and friends) together again in order to thwart the efforts of Jennifer Lawrence’s shape-shifting Mystique to assassinate one Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) – an event which set off the chain-reaction leading to the dystopia of the film’s opening. This sets us up to globe-trot the world of 1970s Marvel-lore with none other than Hugh Jackman’s cool-as-hell Logan. Make no mistake; this is Fox’s answer to Marvel.

The film’s set-pieces are truly the meat here, and at a count of seven and a half in a matter of 131 minutes they would truly want to be, with the highlight undoubtedly the breakout of Magneto (at this point an X-troupe) from his plastic prison beneath The Pentagon, featuring series newbie Quiksilver, as played with anarchic frenzy by Evan Peters. Singer shoots action well enough as is, but here his wide array of characters allows him girth to upscale each kerfuffle to its almost maximum potential. Almost every action sequence allots him a new notch for his CV’s bedpost: Blink’s utilisation of portals (like the video-game, yes) during fights is complex yet impressively compact in shots; a fight in a fountain in Paris cut between Super-8 crowd-footage and Hi-def is a delight; Hugh Jackman looks cooler than Michael Fassbender (neckerchief, really?). How then will this measure up to the excellent Avengers Assemble, a comparison I feel will prove appropriate and inevitable in discussion of this film.

This verdict harkens back to this review’s lengthy introductory paragraph and asks the viewer what they want from a comic-book film. On all counts Avengers is a superior film. Every character has a seeming drive and a fair amount of screen-time. In Days of Future Past the only arc is James McAvoy’s Xavier and it is a flimsy one at that. The bold move this film makes (that some will call lazy) is the love for its characters on behalf of cinema-goers that it takes for granted.

Essentially, this is a comic-book story as told on paper, in that every second of plot is incidental as the end of every thread must return us to the status quo before the credits roll. There is fine acting on show here (a special shout-out here to McAvoy and Fassbender who share a sizzling chemistry when onscreen together) but it is only as 3-dimensional as it needs to be, as are the characters. Any scorn heaped upon this film on account of plot-holes (of which there are a handful) and character development (almost none) are justified but if you enter this film with the same entertainment bar set as when you flick open a Marvel comic you will genuinely not leave disappointed. I had an absolute blast.

Donnchadh Tiernan

12A (See IFCO for details)
130 mins

X-Men: Days of Future Past is released on 22nd May 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Official Website

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Valkyrie

Left to rr: TOM CRUISE, JAMIE PARKER and CHRISTIAN BERKEL  star in VALKYRIE

DIR: Bryan Singer • WRI: Christopher McQuarrie, Nathan Alexander • PRO: Gilbert Adler, Nathan Alexander, Lee Cleary, Christopher McQuarrie, Henning Molfenter, Bryan Singer, Jeffrey Wetzel, Charlie Woebcken • DOP: Newton Thomas Sigel • ED: John Ottman • DES: Lilly Kilvert, Patrick Lumb • CAST: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp

 

Take a moment to understand the degree of stigma surrounding the subject of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Now, add the tension of a cinematic portrayal of the mid-1940s that looks to the German population for acceptance. But then, unexpectedly, a different story reveals itself: Still 1940s, still Germany, but now proclaiming an unsung hero. Quite the sigh of relief…

Until we learn that Scientology is considered a dangerous cult in Germany. Suddenly the story of Valkryie’s production becomes a lot more complicated.

Here’s the history lesson in a nutshell: Along with the majority of the world at the time, there were a lot of Germans not happy with Hitler’s endeavours around the time of the Second World War. This led to the formation of a small group of military officials who plotted a coup against the Führer. The leadership of this group eventually fell to Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, played by Tom Cruise, who is determined to rid them of ‘Germany’s arch-enemy’. To do so involved an assassination attempt on Hitler, and a follow up plan-of-attack (Operation Valkyrie), which entailed convincing the reserve army force that the SS had staged the coup, and thus relieve the Führer’s chain of command completely.

Valkyrie sees a shift in duties from regular collaborators Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie who have hooked up to form The Usual Suspects and X-Men previously. Director Singer has been focussing on box-office monsters of late, with X-Men, X2 and Superman Returns his three most recent projects. Writer McQuarrie meanwhile has been on the other end of the spectrum, writing The Way of the Gun as in-your-face as possible, a two-fingered gesture toward the major studios who wouldn’t allow him creative control. Valkyrie serves as the happy medium.

Although focussing on the 20th July 1944 plot, the film begins in North Africa where we see an Allied air-attack inflict the injuries that will leave Colonel Stauffenberg without his right hand, two fingers from his left, and his left eye. Stauffenberg continues forth, duly eye-patched, and over the forthcoming years, rises through the ranks of the German military and leads the opposition against the Nazi Regime in a powerful tale.

However, this is not a character portrait, and although the political implications are dealt with early on, what begins as an intriguing tale, well told, becomes a reasonably basic action film. This is unfortunate, as Stauffenberg seems a captivating fellow with enough intelligence to single-handedly stage a mutiny and enough ballsy grit to reveal his devious plans from the outset to new military colleagues. Also, the deeper politics of the scenario are wholly substituted by moral dilemmas, and although it is quite the mind-boggling experience – rooting for the allies while still passionately patriotic – this context is lost after thirty minutes.

Cruise is adequate in what is not ultimately a demanding role. The support cast pack a punch or two, with the shuffle of Adolf Hitler (David Bamber) creating genuine unease, both Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp are persuasive as usual and Jamie Parker deserves note for his nervous portrayal of Stauffenberg’s adjutant Lieutenant Werner von Haeften. Disappointingly, Christian Berkel’s authentic accent is the only one to grace the screen, apart from Cruise’s three-line German voiceover and some extras. There are a handful of beautiful shots: a roofless church making do as a rendezvous point, and the Wolf’s Lair (as the name suggests, Hitler’s bunker), which is blanketed in a dense wood and incomparable security.

You know what to expect from such an action film: some explosions, tense musical crescendos and an attempt at a moving finale. Valkyrie is not to be proclaimed a national treasure, but it has been welcomed by German military officials and critics nonetheless and is a fitting tribute to a soon-to-be icon. The end product, like the original story, brings some wiles and a tense moment or two, but fails to pack the punch intended.

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