X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Poster-High-ResWith X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer returns to directing the characters he first successfully brought to the big screen more than 10 years ago in X-Men (2000) and X-Men 2 (2003). In between he directed the fanboy-maligned Superman Returns (2006), the even less liked Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), not to mention the underrated, though problematic, Valkyrie (2008). After these diversions, among others, one has to wonder…  Does he still have the touch that made the first two X-Men films so enjoyable before he handed the series off to Brett Ratner, who directed probably the least liked film of the franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)? Can his new X-Men film measure up to the humanity director Matthew Vaughn brought to the series with X-Men: First Class (2011)? And how far gone is the witty, suspenseful director who gave us The Usual Suspects (1995)?

The last question is the easiest to answer:  The old director is long gone, sucked deep into his passion for superheroes first manifested with the early X-Men films before going wayward and indulgent with Superman Returns and then hitting a wall with Jack the Giant Slayer, the director at his most cold and dispassionate. Unfortunately, his time spent with mediocre films has a presence in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It’s made plainly clear when considering what Vaughn brought out of the youthful X-Men characters in First Class. x-men-days-of-future-past-DF-26952R_rgbIn the hands of Vaughn, who burst on the scene adapting a darker group of wayward heroes with the excellent and harrowing Kick-Ass, the X-Men felt human in a manner the franchise has never felt before or since. When Michael Fassbender as Magneto and James McAvoy as Professor X tangled verbally while coming terms with their powers and the role they had to play on this planet, the script and the director gave them space to explore their burden without over exposition. The British actors stepped up with performances that made the characters seem like something more than cartoon characters. Those performances were the best special effect of the entire film.

There’s just no room for that kind of soul in this epic version of the X-Men, and it’s fun an diverting, as these summer tent pole films should be. However, as Vaughn proved (not to mention Christopher Nolan and Marc Webb) these superhero films can still have soul brewing below the digital effects and stunt choreography. X-Men: Days of Future Past has an uphill battle for space to flesh out our heroes, as the drama is packed not only with characters but doubles some of them. With time travel at the heart of the film’s plot, the drama sees the younger mutant heroes in a parallel story line with their elder counterparts.

All the actors are back, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, McAvoy and Patrick Stewart as a younger and elder Professor X, and Fassbender and Ian McKellen as Magneto. There’s also Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and even Ellen Page playing the most essential Kitty Pryde role of the entire series. DF-07871   Hugh Jackman as Logan in X-Men: Days of Future Past.All are quite capable thespians, but the film just feels too concerned with set pieces and action sequences to allow for much feeling. There are even expositional speeches some characters give on their own histories to help clarify who they are to the plot and where they are emotionally. Ultimately, it is futile to look for any redemption beneath the 3-D effects and the convoluted plot of this new X-Men film.

That said, no one is going into an X-Men film expecting to feel emotionally involved with the characters unless you’re bringing childhood sentimentality with you. The film literally cuts right to the chase in a world in ruin where our hero mutants are being hunted down by giant robots called Sentinels. Kitty Pryde has mastered the ability to send the consciousness of one her fellow mutants back in time, so her rag-tag group of familiar heroes old and new can stay a step ahead of the attacks. As this on-going war unfolds, the drama includes lots of action sequences. x-men-days-of-future-past-DF-02072_rgbSinger’s longtime editor John Ottman also provides the film’s punchy orchestral music that accentuates the action a bit too literally sometimes. Like the campy ‘60s-era Batman TV show, punches are often emphasized with musical stings. The battles with the Sentinels, though, are vicious affairs that feature many dying mutants. Thanks to time travel many get to the chance to die more than once, some in quite horrific ways, even if they are ripped apart in their elemental states. But it still seems futile. Only when Wolverine volunteers to have his consciousness delivered to the watershed moment of these Sentinels, in the early ‘70s, does hope seem to arise, but he’ll have to convince an embittered, young Professor X about his mission.

It’s telling that despite all the thrilling melees between mutants and sentinels and the twisty plot, that a brief moment alone with one character steals the entire film. There’s a glimpse into the experience of Quicksilver (played impishly by Evan Peters) with his power to speed himself up through the moment while everyone else around him practically freezes. He, Wolverine and Professor X are trying to bust Magneto out of a maximum security prison when they are confronted by security guards who fire a barrage of plastic but deadly bullets. x-men-days-of-future-past-DF-24983Rv4_rgbQuicksilver saves them all before Wolverine can even extend his claws. It’s a split second, but it’s drawn out to two and half minutes as Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” is used to score the “action.” The melancholy classic adds a nice dimension to what would be just a mere humorous set piece. Peters captures a sort of loneliness in an almost mundane expression of his mutation, as he sets the guards up for profound failure before they can even realize it. It’s a brilliant scene in a film that certainly does not forget humor in the face of apocalypse, but more significantly, it has a bit more resonance in highlighting how lonely these heroes can feel, which cuts to the core of the perpetual us vs. them message behind the X-Men.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is a fine action movie, and it will do well for the ongoing domination of superhero movies at the box office. Singer knows he’s not creating anything more than this. You can tell that even in how he handles the exaggerated  ‘70s wardrobe of the characters. He knows he’s not obliged to re-create the ‘70s of American Hustle or Boogie Nights. That’s why it’s kind of funny to see Peter Dinklage in a polyester suit and a Tom Selleck mustache. It’s all comic book exaggerated, and everyone steps up with the degree of severity that these kinds of films call for. But it’s a miracle what spending a little time with a character does to flesh out the proceedings.

Hans Morgenstern

X-Men: Days of Future Past runs 131 minutes and is rated PG-13 (some mutants suffer brutal deaths, there’s an impactful use of the phrase “fuck off” and you get a gander at Jackman’s backside). 20th Century Fox invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. It opens in theaters pretty much everywhere this Friday, May 23.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Though his new film follows some colorful characters, as can be expected by David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook marks a notable downshift for the director. His career highlight remains a truly artful film on kookiness, society, consumerism and even transcendentalism: I ♥ Huckabees. His earlier films, Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, even the Clooney/Wahlberg vehicle Three Kings, all blended obsessions to twisted heights. But I ♥ Huckabees captured  existentialist humor with a wry sense of wit. His last film, the Fighter, revealed a tonal change for the director, entering an earthly true story, which handed him some extraordinary characters. It’s no wonder two of its actors (Christian Bale and Melissa Leo) won well-deserved supporting Oscar® awards.

Now comes Silver Linings Playbook, based on the first novel by Matthew Quick. Long before arriving in wide release this weekend, the film had received major buzz and praise during film festivals mostly for a restrained and humble performance by Bradley Cooper. He plays Pat, a man who has served time at a mental hospital trying to readjust to life outside. His character undergoes the usual idealistic sympathy set-up trope of dramatic irony in these types of movies:  He finds sneaky ways to keep medication from going down his throat. At his last day in the hospital, surrounded by fellow twitchy crazies, including Chris Tucker, Cooper, Weaver and Tucker in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Image courtesy of the Weinstein Companywho reappears throughout the film almost like a phantom, providing exhilarating comic relief, Pat does not seem to accept his own mental instability. His coping mechanism outside then turns out to be a power word (Excelsior!) he learned during therapy that reminds him to find the silver lining in any negativity encountered as he stumbles to reconnect with friends and family. Pat’s main motivation, however, is to get back with his ex-wife who has a restraining order against him after a violent incident when he caught her cheating on him in the couple’s shower. It’s all a very fine line for an actor to walk, and Cooper ultimately fails to infuse the character with enough dynamism to make him memorable.

Despite the trite situations characterizing him, Pat only barely appears sympathetic. The character’s single-minded drive keeps him rather inaccessible, creating a perspective that can only seem condescending to the movie audience looking in on his life. Compared to other crazies on the big screen, Pat becomes a rather slight crazy. It makes one wonder if, by the end of this year’s Oscar® campaign season, whether Cooper can make an impact beyond the Weinstein hype-machine that has already begun pushing him. The brief opening scenes in the mental hospital beg for unfair comparisons to Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for which Nicholson won the Oscar® award. Then your mind may drift to other crazies cooped up in madhouses. Cooper is certainly nowhere near as interesting as either Brad Pitt or even Bruce Willis were in 12 Monkeys, a transporting mixture of madness and time travel. Pitt received an Oscar® nomination for the role that year but lost to another great crazy played by Kevin Spacey for the Usual Suspects (and, to an unofficial extent, for his role in Se7en that same year).

Those performances in mind, Cooper should only muster a shrug in comparison. Plus, in Silver Linings, he has to play against another man of great lunatics: Robert De Niro, who is indelibly linked to Travis Bickel (Taxi Driver) and, for some, Max Cady (Cape Fear).Weaver and De Niro in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Image courtesy of the Weinstein Company Both, once again, Oscar®-nominated roles. Playing a different type of loon, as Pat’s OCD football-fanatic father Pat Sr., you better believe De Niro has to keep it low-key in order not to steal Cooper’s thunder. But guess who plays his mother in the movie? Another Oscar® nominee for psychopath: Jacki Weaver, though in Silver Linings, she plays Dolores with frayed-nerve but grounded charm. Dolores is the one person trying to hold the family together and the only one who does not seem self-absorbed in madness.

The family dynamic in Silver Linings Playbook gives new meaning to dysfunction, as Dolores struggles to keep father and son from burning out their short fuses, seemingly walking on eggshells between the two. Her husband seems to care most about the Philadelphia Eagles winning games and treats his namesake like some good luck charm above all else. Pat Jr. meanwhile is seemingly left to suffer his bipolar disorder in isolation. It’s an inward performance above all, despite some outbursts. This is not some scene-chewing crazy, which normally attracts Academy Award recognition.

It does not help that the film’s story is also a slight affair with some muddled intentions, climaxing at a dance competition that recalls Little Miss Sunshine, except the children are adults acting like children (again, condescending and— hopefully— unrelatable to an adult audience).Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Image courtesy of the Weinstein CompanyThe film opens with too many jokes at the expense of those with mental disorders to expect the viewers to sincerely care about these characters. When Pat Sr. lays a brutal beating on his son for no reason a sane person would do it, many in the theater where I saw it seemed confused by how the humor suddenly evaporated. These characters should have the viewer’s sympathy, but it never taps into their pathos in a way that does not seem condescending. There is something sad about watching punching bags duke it out.

This clash of characters also appears in the bond Pat forms with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who is coming down from the end of an outbreak of nymphomania after her police officer husband died in the line of duty. It seems to be the talk of the neighborhood. “Yes, I’m Tommy’s whore widow,” she says when introduced to Pat at a mutual friend’s house over dinner. TiffanyJennifer Lawerence and Bradley Cooper in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Image courtesy of the Weinstein Company is the embodiment of the Freudian notion of Eros and Thanatos, and I would dare say Lawrence gets the meatier role, channeling grieving with manic energy. Lawrence plays Tiffany with a charming straight-forward quality, a person who can give a damn what anyone thinks, as she tries to embrace life after death while still struggling with the pull and snap of the range of emotions that come after that. Her character garners more sympathy, and her portrayal deserves more recognition during award season consideration than Cooper.

Meanwhile, Pat seems obsessed to get back together with his ex-wife. Despite the jogs through the neighborhood Tiffany invites herself to with Pat, and Pat’s decision to join her in a dance competition if she assist in a ploy to get him in touch with his ex, Pat remains single-minded in his desire to make his ex-marriage work. There is a charming chemistry between the two lost lead characters, in the end, as you await the inevitable. But along with that, the film illustrates the phantoms we fall for within the people who we think we know. It’s a difficult thing to portray with humor, and often in Silver Linings that notion becomes lost in the mix of an attempt to make it all so wacky. So, enjoy the ride into a love founded upon shared madness. Some in the audience may feel better for themselves, others will wonder if there is any hope for these people who seem in a consistent state of denial, up to the film’s overly pat, trite conclusion.

Hans Morgenstern

The Silver Linings Playbook is Rated R (people curse and refer to sex) and runs 122 min. It opens in wide release today. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)