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.)

Hollywood has plucked up creative, foreign and low-budget indie directors and thrown them into big budget films to varying degrees of success. Phillip Noyce, Lasse Hallström, Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer, Gus Van Sant all burst on to the filmmaking scene with very distinctive voices at very small studios. Some of these directors had the fortitude to maintain their voice while others seemed to bury it in the same old classical Hollywood trappings. Marc Webb directed my favorite picture of 2009, (500) Days of Summer (2009’s top 23 films). He took the romantic comedy, a genre so often recycled by Hollywood, and injected it with a quality both honest and artistic. Hollywood snatched him up and put him to work on the re-boot of its Spider-Man tent-pole, the Amazing Spider-Man, which opened in theaters everywhere at midnight, just ahead of the July 4th weekend. Though the film has a lot of flash— as these films should— I was pleased to notice Webb working to transcend the tropes of the superhero film, highlighting the souls of his characters.

As much as I am a fan of indie and world films, I am also a fan of science fiction, raised on not only Star Wars but also “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” on TV. In the mid-eighties, I rode my bike several miles to the newsstand for the latest issue of the Uncanny X-Men. It would be hard to shake that influence as a kid. So when the studio invited me to a 9 p.m. preview screening last night of Webb’s the Amazing Spider-Man, I went.

I arrived at the local IMAX 3D screen with high expectations based on my love of (500) Days of Summer, early critical buzz for the new film itself and news that Webb shot it using 3D cameras with the several-stories-tall IMAX screen in mind (see this Sunday’s article in the “Miami Herald”). The results fall somewhere below Matthew Vaughn’s re-boot of X-Men: X-Men First Class,  but above Joe Johnston’s Captain America. It definitely does not touch Nolan’s re-boot of the Batman films, though, but maybe hovers around the quality of Kenneth Branagh’s version of Thor.

Webb certainly takes his time with the characters and allows them to interact while packing on emotional baggage that subtly informs their behaviors. When Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) kiss, it feels like these are two intelligent, yet clumsy, people falling in love. Between fight scenes involving Parker/Spider-Man, story and character mounts up before the film’s final showdown. Sometimes the smallest things in these flashy, noisy films are the toughest to earn, and Webb knows how to earn them.

I feared nothing good could come out of the number of names involved in the script, which included James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. None of those writers, though well-respected and talented in their own rights, had ever worked with Webb, and his collaboration with his screenwriters in (500) Days of Summer, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, made for a key partnership, as revealed in the extras of the film’s blu-ray (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). Movies written in committee often have the soul drained out of them as distinct voices struggle to be heard in the din of what the committee might assume the mass audience would prefer to see in a movie. But that is not the case with the Amazing Spider-Man. I was glad to see Webb avoid repeating lines from the previous series of Spider-Man films by Sam Rami, which have almost become cliché (“With great power comes great responsibility”). Instead, we watch Parker learn responsibility throughout the film from the most extreme situations fighting the shape-shifting Lizard (Rhys Ifans), a mad scientist-type with his own well-earned baggage, to the smallest gestures respecting his last surviving parental figure, Aunt May (Sally Field).

Webb has lined up some fine actors for the film’s many iconic roles. As in the Social Network, the British-born Garfield assumes the American accent impeccably. Also, despite his age, he carries the goofy/angst-ridden quality of a high schooler well. Stone never looked better in a film, and she brings a lot of charm to the roll of Stacy, an alternate girlfriend in the mélange of off-shoots of the Spider-Man universe from Marvel Comics. The director shoots her with a similar affection as he did Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days. Finally, Ifans deserves acknowledgment for bringing some sincerity and pathos to one angry character in the comics.

One of the problems with these kinds of films is that the acting becomes buried behind masks and special effects. Webb allows his actors every opportunity to show their feelings by often unmasking them. Spider-Man is seen in action as much with his mask off as it is on. The Lizard is not always covered in scales, as whatever chemical he has ingested seems unstable, and there is often some human expression working itself out through the effects.

One final thing on the effects, Webb knows how to earn the IMAX 3D effects. All of his shots are filled with depth, and—like (500) Days— he is not afraid of cluttering a scene with props. Meanwhile, Spider-Man’s drops off the high-rises of Manhattan are stomach-churning. I often have trouble with films on the giant IMAX screen, as the screen feels too large to catch a complete shot, but Webb has used the giant frame in the best manner I have ever experienced in IMAX. I have never felt more comfortable in one of those theaters, despite the film’s two-hour-plus runtime. Webb has earned his keep in Hollywood on many levels while not losing touch of the sense of drama that brought him there.

Hans Morgenstern

The Amazing Spiderman is rated PG-13 and runs 136 minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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