Friday, May 27, 2016

Summer School: 'X-Men: Days of Future Past' (2014)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

One of the great things about the world of the X-Men in comic books is how vast and varied it is. Even within the larger Marvel universe, the X-Men exist in their own expansive world, one that encompasses a wide range of superpowers, heroes, villains, conspiracies, institutions, alien races, alternate dimensions, dystopian futures, etc. Even the best movies in the X-Men franchise prior to Days of Future Past haven't managed (or even attempted) to capture that scope. So it's exciting when Days opens not on Xavier's mansion or a government building or a quiet suburban street, but in a war-torn, post-apocalyptic wasteland like something out of the Terminator movies. Returning director Bryan Singer immediately announces that this is going to be a different sort of X-Men movie, and he largely delivers on that promise.

As has been the running theme of these entries, it seems, watching Days immediately following the previous movies in the series highlights some of its shortcomings, most notably its haphazard approach to continuity, which it both uses and disregards whenever convenient. The entire story is built around the idea of messing with the timeline, so keeping things straight would apparently be important, but Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg use only the elements that serve their story, and throw out the rest. It's easy to forgive those missteps when the story is as entertaining and exciting as Days is, though, and Singer and Kinberg do a great job of creating an engaging, fun and thrilling story out of scraps of several other movies.

Days takes place mainly in the past, during the 1970s about a decade after the events of First Class, with a framing sequence and occasional glimpses of that post-apocalyptic future. Although the movie was touted as a combination of the casts from the first three movies and from First Class, the actual screen time is divided unevenly, with only Hugh Jackman from the original cast taking on a real starring role. The rest of the returning characters appear only in the future scenes, and some barely even appear at all. After fighting so hard to get more substantial storylines for Storm in previous movies (and ending up with high billing in this one), Halle Berry only has a handful of lines. Anna Paquin, also highly billed, doesn't appear at all until a wordless cameo in the coda. The longer cut of the movie (which I still haven't seen) features an entire future-set subplot about Paquin's Rogue that was cut for time, and while it would have been cool to see her do more, I don't think the movie suffers for where it places its focus.

Adding Jackman to the cast of prequel characters is a brilliant move, and his Wolverine fits in perfectly with James McAvoy's Professor X, Michael Fassbender's Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique and Nicholas Hoult's Beast. Getting Wolverine's consciousness back into his younger self to stop a terrible future from happening requires some pretty painful contrivances (especially the random, nonsensical new powers for Kitty Pryde), but it's worth the effort, and Jackman makes the most out of his character's man-out-of-time predicament. This is easily the most humorous X-Men movie, but it also features real emotional depth, especially in the struggles of Professor X and Magneto to believe in their dreams again. The mid-film scene in which McAvoy and Patrick Stewart interact (via a trippy sort of cross-time telepathy) as the two versions of Professor X is a lovely distillation of the core philosophy of the series.

On top of all that, Days is a great action movie, easily the best installment in the series since X2. It features some impressive set pieces with real suspense, and the time-travel storyline lends a sense of urgency to every mission that none of the other movies had. The X-Men are saving the world, but they're doing so by having intense arguments with each other, combining two of the elements that make this franchise unique. The fate of humanity and mutantkind hinges on whether two old friends can put aside their differences and work together.

And it really does feel like something important hinges on these characters coming together and fighting for what they believe in. The climax features some excellent, extremely effective cross-cutting between the two timelines, as the mutant-hunting Sentinels close in on the future X-Men, while Magneto and Mystique close in on the president and his advisers in the past. And yet the final victory comes about thanks to diplomacy, not violence, although there is plenty of that leading up to it. The coda, featuring cameos from several stars who had major roles in the earlier movies, is pure fan service, but it's crafted with just the right balance of pandering and genuine emotion. In a way it's a shame that the success of Days and Hollywood's endless hunger for franchises won't allow the series to end, because Days is a satisfying capper to an inconsistent but groundbreaking superhero series.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Summer School: 'X-Men: First Class' (2011)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Falling somewhere in between a prequel and a reboot, X-Men: First Class was a refreshing change of pace for the franchise when it was released in 2011, following 2006's disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009's even more disappointing spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It doesn't look quite as good in retrospect, especially compared to Bryan Singer's first two movies, and, like The Last Stand, it sets some dangerous precedents for messing with series continuity that would become the foundations of later installments. To be fair, at the time the filmmakers didn't necessarily anticipate that the timelines of this film and the previous films would merge, but First Class makes enough references to the earlier movies that it can't entirely be viewed as a standalone piece.

For starters (literally), the opening is an exact replica of the opening scene of Singer's X-Men, with young Erik Lensherr discovering his powers as the Nazis cart his mother off to a concentration camp. Director Matthew Vaughn (who stepped in when contractual obligations kept Singer from returning, and who was originally set to direct The Last Stand) then expands on that, introducing young Erik to the sadistic Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an underrated villain in the series. Although the movie takes place in 1962 and contradicts a number of established back-story elements from the earlier films (especially The Last Stand), it still works to connect itself to its predecessors, with cameos from Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn and references to events that would theoretically be yet to come for these characters.

Still, First Class is plenty entertaining on its own, and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender do a good job of putting their own stamps on Professor X and Magneto. Vaughn has a lot of fun with the time period, in his visual style (including split screens, reflections and Dutch angles), in the fashions and in the use of real historical events, most significantly the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is reimagined as a mutant battle. Shaw makes for a fabulously evil villain, more sadistic and sinister than Magneto or Stryker, albeit just as focused on the idea of human-mutant mutually assured destruction. McAvoy, Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence as the young Mystique establish a strong central dynamic that will carry through the next two movies, and Nicholas Hoult offers decent support as Beast (although he looks pretty silly in his furry blue form).

Other supporting characters are kind of wasted, though, especially the team of X-Men that Professor X eventually recruits to go after Shaw. They're mostly third-string characters, rather than the actual "first class" from the comics, since the movie doesn't reuse any characters who were already introduced in the present-day timeline in the previous installments. Shaw's team of evil mutants is also pretty forgettable, and January Jones' wooden performance kind of ruins the introduction of Emma Frost, one of the most interesting characters in the X-Men canon. The flaws of First Class are more apparent when it's viewed in the context of the series as a whole, but from moment to moment it's still fun to watch, and it delves into philosophy and character dynamics much more effectively than The Last Stand did. In a way it's a victim of its own success, since instead of launching a rebooted franchise, it got folded into the main series, retroactively becoming a solid prequel rather than a true fresh start.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Summer School: 'X-Men: The Last Stand' (2006)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

When X-Men: The Last Stand was released in 2006, I was in the minority of critics who gave it a positive review, albeit with a number of reservations. Revisiting it now right after rewatching the first two movies, I'm more attuned to its faults, but I still don't think it's nearly as bad as some critics and fans have made it out to be. Sure, it's a letdown, especially after the excellent X2, but it's far from incompetent, and it delivers one of the most memorable moments of the entire series (Magneto taking hold of the Golden Gate Bridge and moving it across the bay to his destination). Brett Ratner is justifiably considered a hack, and he obviously doesn't have the same connection to the material as Bryan Singer (who's now directed four of the six movies in the main series). But he knows how to put together a Hollywood movie, and The Last Stand often works well enough as a large-scale spectacle.

It's much less successful on a character level, especially in its truncated attempts to adapt the Dark Phoenix Saga storyline from the comics. The resurrection and corruption of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is handled clumsily and without the emotional resonance that should come from such a beloved piece of storytelling, and overall the character interactions are not nearly as affecting as they were in the first two movies. Ratner and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn either downplay the important relationships (Professor X and Magneto share only a few moments onscreen) or overplay them (the shift of Jean and Logan's dynamic from unrequited love to melodramatic romance is completely miscalculated). The movie adds far too many new characters only to completely squander them, while doing a disservice to some of the central figures from the previous movies.

Poor James Marsden, after disappearing for large stretches of X2, gets unceremoniously killed off about 20 minutes into this movie, and even Professor X (Patrick Stewart) ends up dead in an anticlimactic confrontation halfway through. Both Cyclops and Professor X have been dead multiple times in the comic books, so it's not like there isn't precedent for their demises (however temporary), but the movie fails to give them the weight that Jean's death carried at the end of X2 (which is sort of undone here). After exploring his past in X2, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is mostly used as a fighter here, except when called on to wail over Jean's corruption. The returning character with the most significant development is Halle Berry's Storm, finally given some depth (in her need to step up as leader following Professor X's death) after her fairly flat appearances in the previous movies. Berry fought hard to get Storm more screen time, and those efforts finally pay off here.

As for the new characters, they're largely forgettable, and there's no villain here comparable to Brian Cox's delightful William Stryker in X2. The company that creates a mutant cure (a storyline with potential for allegory that's mostly wasted) isn't particularly sinister, so Magneto ends up as the de facto main villain, and while Ian McKellen is great as always, the series has relied too much on returning to Magneto's familiar mutant superiority angle for its major climaxes. Magneto recruits some underused new allies that are little more than cannon fodder, and the new heroes make only slightly more of an impact. Kelsey Grammer is quite out of place as the Beast (the guy is erudite, but that doesn't mean he should sound like Frasier), and Ben Foster essentially has nothing to do as Angel, while Ellen Page has a few nice moments as Kitty Pryde, even if the Kitty/Bobby/Rogue love triangle doesn't really go anywhere.

Almost of all of the plot developments in this movie were later ignored and/or retconned, so in retrospect it's hard to get too worked up over the characters that are killed off or depowered. Still, The Last Stand set the precedent for rewriting or discarding the series continuity, with its retroactive powering-up of Jean and its supporting cast of mutants with ill-defined powers. It's a movie that seems to care little about what makes the X-Men unique, instead focusing on delivering big, expensive action thinly supported by elements from the comics. Putting the X-Men in a glossy action movie isn't necessarily a bad thing, but burning through so many of the characters' most interesting stories in service of that action is a definite disappointment.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Summer School: 'X2: X-Men United' (2003)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

From the first moments of X2: X-Men United (or just X2, depending on what source you trust), it's obvious that the success of the first X-Men movie three years earlier has afforded director Bryan Singer a massive increase in budget. Teleporting mutant Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) would have been too elaborate to create on the budget of the original movie, but here he catapults himself around the White House with impressive fluidity, mixing acrobatic combat with CGI flashes as he disappears and reappears throughout the building. Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shoot the sequence with equally acrobatic camera movements, creating suspense and intrigue right from the start. That level of confidence never flags over the course of more than two hours (the sequel is also about half an hour longer than the previous movie), and X2 still stands as the pinnacle of the long-running series.

It also, however, introduces some of the trends that would end up sabotaging later entries, including the excess of thinly developed characters and the endless cluttering and/or rewriting of continuity. The new characters here mostly serve useful functions, and the expansion of the backstory mostly makes sense, but it's not hard to see how further efforts in those areas could go off the rails. Nightcrawler is the most prominent new hero introduced here, and while Cumming's performance is a little underwhelming, Singer and screenwriters David Hayter, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris smartly use Nightcrawler's background as both a circus performer and a devout Catholic to flesh out the character in a few small scenes. New villain William Stryker, played by Brian Cox with sinister flair, is also a welcome addition, and his fervently anti-mutant perspective makes him in a way a better antagonist for the X-Men than the somewhat sympathetic Magneto.

Speaking of Magneto, he's one of many returning characters who gets some interesting character development, as he teams up with the X-Men to take down their mutual enemy Stryker, who plans to use Cerebro to wipe out all mutants. Ian McKellen is great at maintaining Magneto's air of danger and malevolence even when he's on the side of the good guys, something that both the movies and the comics can't always manage. After giving a breakout performance in the first movie, Hugh Jackman also gets more to do here, as X2 explores Wolverine's mysterious past, which ties in with Stryker's long-term mutant experimentation. There's real soul and anguish to Wolverine here, and his unrequited love for Jean Grey sets up her tragic fate. As in the first movie, Famke Janssen is the most underrated cast member, and she gives Jean a quiet strength through to the end.

The expanded cast does mean that some of the returning characters get short-changed, especially James Marsden's Cyclops, who's offscreen for almost the entire middle of the movie. Anna Paquin's Rogue, a sort of audience surrogate in the first movie, has little to do here despite her burgeoning romance with Shawn Ashmore's Iceman, and although Halle Berry reportedly got a bigger part written for Storm, she still often comes off as superfluous. Even so, every character has a part to play in the overall story, and the larger scope mostly justifies the larger cast.

Beyond the eye-catching opening, Singer stages a number of thrilling set pieces, including a fight between adamantium-enhanced foes Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), a midnight raid on Xavier's school, and a mid-air jet freefall that ends in the iconic image of Magneto using his powers to hold up the X-Men's plane just feet above the ground. Overall, X2 is an exciting, well-paced blockbuster that shows Singer at the height of his talents and balances the increasingly grandiose ambitions of the series with solid, character-driven storylines.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Summer School: 'X-Men' (2000)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Given how prevalent superhero movies are today, it's easy to forget just how revolutionary Bryan Singer's X-Men was when it was released 16 years ago. Before Singer took on the mutant superhero team, the only Marvel feature films that had made it to American theaters were Howard the Duck and Blade (both 1989's The Punisher and 1990's Captain America went straight to video in the U.S.). Even beyond Marvel, the most recent high-profile superhero movie was Joel Schumacher's notorious 1997 failure Batman & Robin. The climate was not exactly hospitable to superhero movies, let alone ones that took themselves seriously and attempted to address complex issues.

Against those odds, X-Men became the main movie responsible for the current superhero boom, the one that showed studios that audiences would flock to a well-crafted movie about people with superpowers wearing silly costumes and fighting each other, and that acclaimed filmmakers like Singer should be the ones entrusted with these characters. Not only did the movie succeed at the box office, but it also garnered positive reviews and pleased the hardcore comics fans who were ready to tear it apart. That level of commercial, critical and fan success has become crucial to the movies that Marvel now makes on its own.

And yet X-Men is also in many ways a modest film, since it was a gamble for 20th Century Fox at the time, and didn't have nearly the budget of a current superhero movie (even its own many sequels). Singer keeps the cast manageable, using only a handful of the dozens of mutant heroes as his main characters, and adding a few others as supporting or background players. This movie isn't trying to lay the groundwork for years of sequels and spin-offs; it's just trying to tell a solid, self-contained story about the X-Men, to introduce them and pit them against one of their most famous enemies. The climax doesn't involve the wholesale destruction of a city or the end of the world, but it still has high stakes in its more limited way. Subsequent movies would totally botch the series' continuity several times over, but here Singer keeps things coherent and streamlined.

He also lines up a fantastic cast, several of whom made these characters into definitive roles of their careers. Obviously Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is the breakout star of the film, and it's impressive to see how fully formed and commanding his performance as the character was from the very beginning. But Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are also fantastic, imbuing Professor X and Magneto with the depth necessary for the audience to take them seriously. It's a testament to their work in these films that the guys who played Capt. Picard and Gandalf are known nearly as widely for their X-Men work. I think Famke Janssen is underrated here (and in general), and she has great flirty chemistry with Jackman, without ever undermining Jean Grey's intelligence and autonomy.

There is a lot of silly stuff in this movie, including Magneto's primary plan to use some sort of gyroscope to turn all humans into mutants. But even if the action isn't as elaborate as in the later movies and some of the character introductions now seem a bit clumsy, the dynamics among the characters are strong and distinctive, the dialogue is often clever, and the story has clear dramatic stakes. The sequence featuring Magneto turning the guns around on the police officers who are surrounding him is still one of the most iconic moments in superhero cinema. There would be better superhero movies (and better X-Men movies) made after this one, but Singer laid the groundwork in a confident fashion that holds up remarkably well all these years later.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Murder on the 13th Floor' (2012)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

These days, Tessa Thompson is a rising star with notable roles in acclaimed movies like Creed, Selma and Dear White People, and upcoming appearances in the next Thor movie and Alex Garland's Annihilation. But just a few short years ago, she was a relatively unknown working actress, stringing together TV guest appearances and low-budget indie movies like Murder on the 13th Floor, a terrible thriller that eventually premiered as a Lifetime original movie. You would never guess from this movie that Thompson had a bright future ahead of her as an actress, but then again no one comes off particularly well in this sloppily conceived time-filler. It's the kind of movie that takes place in empty, cavernous spaces presumably because the budget didn't allow for enough supporting actors or extras, and the story is similarly bare-bones.

Thompson plays Nia Palmer, the nanny to wealthy couple Jordan (Sean Patrick Thomas) and Ariana (Jordan Ladd) and their son Cody (Terrell Ransom Jr.). Jordan and Ariana have developed a high-tech, ultra-modern high-rise apartment building, but inexplicably they and Nia are the only people who live in it. The building is completely finished and functional, but Jordan and Ariana are just now trying to sell the condos to residents, which seems like a poor business plan. Anyway, for some reason Jordan and Ariana live in a nice apartment on the 14th floor, complete with a bunch of goofy futuristic technology (like a toilet that analyzes your urine every time you use it, which becomes an important plot point), while Nia lives on the 13th floor in an apartment with no fancy upgrades. The only other person in the building is a tech guy whose job involves tweaking the various systems when they malfunction.

Since this is a Lifetime movie (or at least a movie that Lifetime picked up), Nia is having an affair with Jordan, and Ariana is about to put her in peril. Contrary to the title, there's no murder on the 13th floor (although there is eventually murder on other floors), and it takes quite a while for Ariana to enact her plan of hiring a pair of hitmen to kill Nia while Ariana and Jordan are out at a promotional gala. This movie has a weird moral universe, in which the interloper in the marriage of two seemingly stable people, who also pretty deliberately usurps the role of a young child's mother, is the sympathetic heroine, the cheating husband is the gallant hero, and the woman whose husband is having an affair and whose child is being turned against her is somehow the villain. Of course, Ladd plays Ariana as a snide, money-hungry bitch, while Nia and Jordan are both warm and caring. There's also a weird racial dynamic going on, since Nia and Jordan are both black, while Ariana is white. You could read the movie as having a stance against interracial relationships; only by restoring racial purity are harmony and balance also restored.

But this movie isn't sophisticated enough to be saying something that complicated. Mostly it's about watching Nia and Cody run around the empty building while being chased by a couple of clueless assassins, who accidentally kill Nia's best friend instead before realizing she's still alive. All of the high-tech gadgetry is depicted without consistency or believability; the bad guys electronically lock down the entire building, but then characters can open doors and use elevators when the plot requires it. The movie is only four years old, but its depiction of computer programs looks like something out of the '90s, when "the internet" was a scary unknown factor to use in thrillers like The Net.

There's virtually no suspense to the story, and the character dynamics are all awkward and forced (it doesn't help that much of the dialogue was poorly post-dubbed). The ending abruptly punishes the villain and sets up Nia and Jordan and Cody as a new family (apparently Cody isn't too concerned that his mom is being carted away in handcuffs), without addressing any of the consequences. It's a rushed ending to a movie that never thinks through any of its plot or character developments. Thanks to Thompson's stardom, however, its ineptitude will probably be showcased on Lifetime for years to come.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Special Agent' (1935)

At this point, I've seen nearly all of these quickie programmers that Bette Davis churned out in the 1930s, and what's left is mostly the dregs. Special Agent, one of 13 films Davis co-starred in with George Brent (just when I think I've seen the last of him, he shows up in another Davis movie), is definitely among those dregs, with very little to recommend it other than some historical curiosity and a solid (but not outstanding) performance from Davis. Brent is the real star here, playing a U.S. Treasury Department agent who works undercover as a newspaper reporter as he attempts to ensnare a wily crime boss played by an amusingly sleazy Ricardo Cortez.

Davis plays the boss' secretary and bookkeeper, who is also sweet on Brent's Bill Bradford, without knowing his true identity. Davis' Julie Gardner is a good-hearted woman, neither the amoral femme fatale nor the morally righteous crusader Davis played in other crime movies. She's in over her head and wants to get away from her boss, but she doesn't really have any mission other than living a safe and happy life (and eventually marrying Bill, of course). So Davis plays her with a mix of sweetness and determination, and she's easily the most likable character in the movie. But like all the other characters, she's basically one-dimensional, and the movie is more interested in plodding procedural details than in telling an interesting story or developing rounded characters.

It opens with a literal lecture to Bill and his colleagues from a superior officer whom we never see again, describing the vital importance of the Treasury Department in rooting out organized crime and other vices in the United States. And the rest of the movie pays lots of attention to minutiae like making photostats and squad cars radioing in as they follow some criminals to their hideout. There are a few nice touches to Bill and Julie's relationship, like her constant hunger (for food), and Cortez plays up his character's ruthlessness with enthusiasm. But those are small grace notes in an otherwise dreary, forgettable morality play.