REVIEW: “X-MEN: Days of Future Past”

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The X-Men franchise (and I’m including the Wolverine films) has been filled with great movies and great disappointments. It was only two years ago that we saw a reboot of sorts and a new direction for these cinematic superhumans. Now they are back in a film that at first sounded risky and potentially disastrous. Instead of continuing with a storyline strictly focused on these rebooted characters, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” mixes them with the characters (and the performers who played them) from the past series. So my first question was is this “X-Men 4″ or X-Men: First Class 2”?

This huge mash up could have went terribly bad. I’m so happy to say that the opposite is true. In fact, after a somewhat disorienting start, the movie turns into what is easily one of the best movies of the entire franchise. Bryan Singer, the architect of the original X-Men films returns to direct this ambitious and large-scale blockbuster which gets its title from the classic comic book storyline from Chris Claremont and John Byrne.

 

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The future world is a dark place especially for mutantkind. Giant robot mutant hunters known as Sentinels have chased mutants to the edge of extinction. The X-Men of the future (played by the original cast members from the first films) have traced the origins of the Sentinels back to 1973 and a man named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Led by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), they devise a plan to send the never-aging Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to influence the situations that lead to the Sentinels’ creation. You with me so far?

When arriving in 1973, Wolverine is tasked with enlisting the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The problem is a lot has changed since the final credits scrolled in “X-Men: First Class”. It’s this landscape, filled with political tensions, shattered relationships, and fragile psyches, that Wolverine must navigate if there is any hope of averting their future extinction. Obviously several major threats are at work both in the past and in the future. The movie hops back-and-forth throughout but the main focus of the film is Wolverine’s mission in 1973.

The movie literally plunges into its bleak future setting with practically no buildup whatsoever. We do get some exposition that sets the table, but it took me a few moments to get my feet planted and, aside from the familiar faces, it took some time to connect this movie to any of the earlier films. But once the story begins to take form it is an exhilarating and captivating experience. In fact, the story is the movie’s greatest strength. “X-Men: DOFP” features one of the smartest and most layered stories that you’ll find in a superhero picture. Even more, the story never becomes convoluted or confusing. I loved how everything unfolded and numerous connections to other X-Men films are sprinkled everywhere.

Another thing I appreciated is how everything had importance and carried weight. Every decision had to be made with careful thought given to their consequences. Convictions had to be questioned and actions had to be scrutinized. There are very few wasted scenes in this movie (there are a couple – for example the Wolverine butt shot? Seriously Bryan Singer?). I also think the way they joined the old with the new was smart, effective, and It avoided all of the traps that it easily could have steppedl in. Narratively this was a huge treat right up to its very satisfying payoff.

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As for the performances, can we just go ahead say without question that Hugh Jackman IS Wolverine? Once again he is very good, but he was not his normal action-fueled centerpiece and I’m fine with that. The real highlights for me were Fassbender and McAvoy. Fassbender is one of our best working actors today and his Magneto is menacing and unpredictable. He’s a man of conviction and unharnessed anger and Fassbender paints him perfectly. But the best performance may be from McAvoy. He’s tasked with conveying a huge range of emotions and I never questioned the authenticity of what he was doing. It truly is brilliant work that sets itself apart in a profound way.

I can’t believe I’m saying this again, but here we have yet another really strong 2014 blockbuster. On an almost unprecedented level, this year’s big budget movies have really taken steps up (minus a couple of disappointments). “X-Men: DOFP” is really good. It’s start is a bit jarring, the future Sentinels look pretty generic, and I could list a few other nitpicks. But in terms of story, storytelling, and sheer entertainment, the movie scores where it counts. Now the big question is where does it go from here? Have we seen the last of the “First Class” X-Men? Will the old timers take back the reins? I don’t know but after seeing this movie I am really intrigued.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

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Excitement, intrigue, skepticism, and division. These are just some of the words that describe the reactions to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. Was there enough material to stretch out into three films? Was there enough character depth? I’m certain you’re familiar with all of these debates and concerns. With the tablesetting done in the first film, the attention now turns to the second installment. In many ways this is the film that will tell whether the trilogy decision was a mistake. With the first movie set around introduction, does the second film have enough meat-and-potatoes to satisfy an audience especially considering Jackson’s format of near 3 hour movies.

The short answer to that question is an emphatic yes. “The Desolation of Smaug” is another huge sprawling Middle-Earth epic loaded with special effects and ambition. Better yet, it’s actually a nice step up for the trilogy. The film carries with it a true sense of adventure and I felt a much greater sense of urgency and peril than in the first film. These were big reasons why I really liked “The Desolation of Smaug”. While the first Hobbit picture was a fun and entertaining experience, I felt it lacked the big dynamic threat or plot driving exigency. That’s certainly not the case here.

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After a strange but brief opening flashback, the story picks up right where the last film left off. Gandolf, the hobbit Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield and his twelve fellow dwarves continue their quest to retake their home within The Lonely Mountain. Hot on their trail is the pale orc Azog and his troops. Their journey takes them through cursed forests, ancient runs, and expansive mountains. They encounter skinchangers, giant spiders, elven warriors, and of course a deadly fire-breathing dragon named Smaug. The urgency grows, the stakes get higher, and by the end we are set up for what should be a tremendous final chapter.

I have to admit I was really surprised at just how well the story moves along and how much ground is covered. I’ll admit there were a couple of points where things slowed down a tad and Jackson does buy some time while his camera pans around admiring the beautiful scenery or impressive set pieces. But as a whole these things didn’t bother me. The story is compelling and the excitement moves from one great action sequence to another. The best is an amazing barrel escape down a white rapid river as an army of orcs attack our heroes from the shores. It’s an incredible spectacle to watch.

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I think the decision to include sections from Tolkien’s “The Return of the King” appendices was a key reason this worked. Having read neither “The Hobbit” nor the “Lord of the Rings”, I can’t say how well the film melds the contents of both books. But from a cinematic standpoint the appendices do a great job of not only adding more content and weight to the story but also connecting it to the three “Lord of the Rings” films. Some have taken issue with this creative choice but for me it worked very well and it helps bring together Jackson’s massive cinematic universe. There is a clear link being formed between the two trilogies which go beyond simple references. Old favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has an action-packed presence in this film. The true corrupting influence of the ‘one ring’ begins to surface. And there are several other cool connections that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Once again the characters of the story are a real treat. Ian McKellen is great as always although he is given a few too many overly dramatic lines. You know the ones – the camera zooms in on his face and he utters an intense one-liner about the peril that lies ahead. Martin Freeman hits another home run as Bilbo. There is a real transformation (both good and bad) going on in the character and Freeman’s performance wonderfully captures that. But perhaps my favorite performance again comes from Richard Armitage as Thorin. This strong but emotionally driven character is tough as nails but he is constantly trying to reign in his sorrow, anger, and thirst for revenge. It’s a great character and a great performance.

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But there are also some really good new characters introduced. Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, a headstrong elf who can certainly hold her own. Then there is Luke Evans who plays Bard, a single father who finds himself thrust into the middle of Thorin’s quest. Both have significant roles and add a lot to the picture. I also like Lee Pace’s small but intriguing part as an Elvenking from Mirkwood. And then there is Benedict Cumberbatch who voices Smaug the fearsome, treasure-hoarding dragon. There simply couldn’t have been a greater choice than Cumberbatch. Then you have the twelve other dwarves. Thankfully we do see an expanded role for a couple of them, but unfortunately the majority of them remain indistinct making empathy for them rather tough.

So let me get back to the original debate. Could “The Hobbit” story be told in two films? Probably so. Am I glad they expanded it to three by adding content from “The Lord of the Rings”? Absolutely! “The Desolation of Smaug” is a solid answer to the questions and criticisms thrown its way. The special effects are superb, the action sequences had my heart racing, the danger and imminence is there, and we spend more time with some wonderful characters. On the flip-side there are a couple of lulls and the indistinct tag-along dwarves still bug me. But those gripes do little to hurt the overall experience and Peter Jackson has me hooked for what the third installment will bring. It should be a blast.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“The Da Vinci Code” – 1 STAR

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For the sake of full disclosure, it took two sittings for me to get through Ron Howard’s “The Da Vinci Code” and I felt that was an accomplishment. I was never interested in seeing this movie but finally caught up with it over a three day span. There were several things that pushed me away from it from Tom Hanks’ hideous hairdo too much more glaring flaws. As you can probably guess, the Hanks mop is the least of the film’s unforgivable vices. “The Da Vinci Code” is a sloppy, lazy, and amateurish production from a director that should know better.

“The Da Vinci Code” was based on Dan Brown’s wildly popular 2003 novel of the same name. It reportedly cost $6 million to obtain the rights for the film with Howard signed to direct and Academy Award winning writer Akiva Goldsmith handling the screenplay. Goldsmith is hard to figure out. He’s done some brilliant work including “A Beautiful Mind” and “Cinderella Man” but he’s also written some real stinkers. But even with some questionable work on his resume, I wasn’t expecting the lazy and amateurish results that we get here.

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Hanks plays a noted religious symbology professor named Robert Langdon who is doing a series of lectures in Paris, France. He finds himself the prime suspect in a grisly murder inside the Louvre museum. He’s asked to come to the crime scene by a suspicious police captain (Jean Reno). While there Langdon discovers that he has been left a message from the victim that points him towards a mysterious cryptex, a device containing a message that could hold world-changing secrets. He’s joined by Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a French cryptologist and granddaughter of the victim. The two find themselves in the crosshairs of the French police and a mysterious religious sect, both trying to get their hands on the cryptex.

The big revelation turns out to be a possible death blow to Christianity and the Catholic Church. It’s told through a swirl of long-winded religious conspiracy theories, absurd revisionist history, and anti-Christian nonsense that serves as nothing more than insulting shock value. Most of this is revealed to Robert and Sophie by Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an old acquaintance of Robert’s and a Holy Grail enthusiast. He believes many of the secrets are hidden in Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, secrets that the cryptex can corroborate. Blah, blah, blah. Honestly it’s all so bloated, preposterous, and boring.

Goldsmith’s script is simply terrible. There’s not an ounce of creativity or subtlety in his storytelling. Everything is so contrived and by the books. There are numerous scenes of tedious exposition meant for nothing more but to fill in the audience on certain bits of information. There’s nothing wrong with that except for the fact they’re so poorly written and we know what they’re there for. This is also a movie loaded with ridiculous conveniences. So many times the story is advanced by a simple convenience that allows our heroes to either escape or find the next clue. Some of them are so lame that I found myself laughing out loud.

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I could go on about the writing but I can’t let Ron Howard off the hook either. This thing is an utter mess. It’s a thriller without thrills. The action sequences have no pop whatsoever. The dialogue is as stale and lifeless as you’ll find. His movement from scene to scene feels more like an assembly line production. And his dull and dank color palette gives the movie a dark and unattractive look. I mean neither Paris or London have ever looked worse on screen. Howard has shown in the past he knows how to direct a picture. I have no idea what happened here but a lot of the movie’s problems can be put on him.

I still can’t imagine how “The Da Vinci Code” made over $750 million at the box office. That’s something that boggles my mind. Maybe it was the controversial label that it received and deservedly so. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t because this is a good film. Even without its eye-rolling, anti-Christian shock value, “The Da Vinci Code” is a movie filled with cheap shortcuts, head-shakingly bad dialogue, and poor visual decisions throughout. It’s a shame it turned out this way because there was a good cast in place. But this just shows that you can have a good cast but if you throw them crap the result is going to be crap. Such is “The Da Vinci Code”.