Saturday, May 24, 2014

Pro-Outsider: Fun, challenging "X-Men: Days of Future Past" marks the spot


X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
131 min., rated PG-13.

Fourteen years ago, director Bryan Singer (2013's "Jack the Giant Slayer") kicked off the film adaptations of Marvel's "X-Men" comic books and now, amidst his alleged charges in the media, it's a joy to have him back at the reigns after sitting out the third entry in the original trilogy, the prequel and Wolverine's two solo installments. At the heart of its lore, "X-Men" has always been about something more than just good versus evil—discrimination and diversity—as a thinly veiled metaphor that could apply to the Holocaust, civil rights and gay rights. Now, more than ever, the thematic through-line is most profound, as we can identify with society's special outcasts. Since 2011's "X-Men: First Class" breathed new life into the franchise, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" feels like it's revitalizing itself and nullifying everything that we already know from the series, combining the casts of all the movies in the "X-Men" canon (save for Rebecca Romijn) and ingeniously throwing time travel into the mix.

It is 2023, the future, and a war against the mutant population has brought about an apocalypse. As Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can use her phasing powers to send mutants days back in time, she and her band of survivors rendezvous with metal-bending Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) and the telepathic Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Both men must set aside their differences to stand up against their bigger threat: giant robots, called "Sentinels," that have been programmed to exterminate all mutants. This calls for Kitty to transport Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to stop the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from following through with her own agenda and murdering Sentinel-prototyping scientist Dr. Bolivar Trask (a slyly cast Peter Dinklage). But first, Logan will need help from a younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Hank "Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), as well as Erik (Michael Fassbender), who has been imprisoned in the Pentagon for assassinating President John F. Kennedy.

If "X-Men: First Class" began in 1944 Nazi Germany, followed by a nearly two-decade jump, and then used the Cuban Missile Crisis as its backdrop, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" straddles two time frames, fifty years apart, and then sets itself around the Vietnam War. As with any time-travel movie, there is the tendency to find continuity issues with the pretzel-twisted logic. However, director Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand") are careful enough to avoid falling into the pit of too much dumbed-down exposition with their ambitiously diffuse and complex, but rarely convoluted, narrative structure. Wolverine's traveling back to the '70s is reliable for lava-lamp nostalgia and cheeky laughs (just look at the movie's version of Richard Nixon), and there are plenty of canon callbacks and Easter Eggs for fans without completely alienating general moviegoers. The handling of old and new mutants is also quite assured, as we're able to latch onto all of them as a team, and the "frenemy" relationship between Charles and Erik builds an emotional core, as well as their triangular relationship with Mystique. What makes the film part of such a special breed is the way it prioritizes, allowing the action to serve storytelling, characters, and social ideas rather than the other way around. Thankfully, it isn't all homogeneous action all the time because Singer is very skilled in keeping an expeditious pace and evenly interspersing his set-pieces within the human, er, mutant conflict. In what might be the film's biggest show-stopper, a playfully witty, gush-worthy sequence, set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," has mutant newbie Quicksilver (Evan Peters) beautifully demonstrating his whiplash-fast powers in a Pentagon prison break. The film also offers some of the more photorealistic effects seen in the series, especially the levitation and placement of the RFK Stadium before everything comes to a head on the White House lawn.

Plain and simple, the ensemble is an embarrassment of riches. Aside from Hugh Jackman, whose character apparently never ages, the actors playing old mutant friends and newcomers comparatively have much less to do and say, but acquit themselves just fine with what they have. By now, Jackman can retract his claws in his sleep, but as if he's playing his star-making role for the first time, his Logan/Wolverine crackles with wit and is more than up to the physical challenges. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are magnets as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen's younger counterparts, brushing back up on the complex dynamic they created in the prequel. In one scene on an airplane, Fassbender is particularly chilling when Erik raises his voice to Charles about abandoning the mutants. Jennifer Lawrence is a badass in performing the physical agility required of her in the blue body paint and does an angry, albeit vulnerable, reading of the slinky, hell-bent Raven/Mystique we would come to know as played by Rebecca Romijn in the earlier pictures. Interestingly, she is more freedom fighter than villainess here. An energetic Evan Peters (TV's "American Horror Story") is a hoot as the speedy Quicksilver, an awesome addition who feels a bit shortchanged and makes the heart grow fonder once he's gone. It's a quibble, but for a film that celebrates diversity and yet gives its females the short end of the stick (apart from Lawrence), Halle Berry's Storm is a casualty of there being an exorbitant amount of characters, or just lost in the editing room, and mostly stands around when she's not being defined by powering the weather. Ellen Page is also less of a presence here, which is more of a fault in the writing than her performance that relegates Kitty Pryde to cup her hands next to characters' temples, and Anna Paquin gets one profile shot in a glorified cameo as Marie/Rogue.

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is entertaining and challenging, a full meal of eye-candy and substance, as well as a summer tentpole that invigorates its comic-book property with gravitas and vigor. Where the film retreats from the comics to the screen matters very little. Both of the unanswered questions and unquestioned answers in regards to where this one fits within the timelines of the previous films don't really surface until the credits roll. And if one bothers with too much scrutiny, there is the missed opportunity of making the present-day mutants practically wait around, but it's a creative decision like any other, and while you're in it, such nitpicking hardly matters. If "X-Men: Days of Future Past" isn't completely airtight in its time-travel plotting, its game-changing finale will send one out on a high note and leave those well-versed in the comics and movies feeling sentimental. Your move, "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Grade: B +

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