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Saturday, May 31, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past Movie Review

Even to X-Men fans, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" seems like it would be one giant mutant headache. The seventh film in the Marvel series, it's a sequel of sorts to both "X-Men: The Last Stand" from 2006, and 2011's "X-Men: First Class", references the "Wolverine" spin-off films, and even includes a character from the next "Avengers" movie (but played by a different actor). Add to this a slew of B- and C-list mutants to keep track of, plus the inherent flaws of any time-travel storyline and you've got a gordian knot of superhero proportions. But thankfully, "X-Men" director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have taken all this history (and baggage) and created a refreshingly sharp, smart and satisfying popcorn movie with plenty to please both hardcore and casual fans of the "X-Men" series.

The film begins in a dystopian future, where mutants and sympathetic humans are corralled in concentration camps. To battle the mutant "threat" of destruction to the human world (see "The Last Stand" - or don't, it's awful), the government unleashed machines called "Sentinels" - capable of targeting and killing those with the mutant gene. In the opening battle scene, we find that the Sentinels are also able to absorb and adapt mutant abilities, making them nearly impossible to kill.

The Sentinels have decimated the X-Men, leaving only a handful to fight the good fight: most familiarly, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Storm (Halle Berry), Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) - who is now working with the X-Men in their common cause. With the enemy bearing down on them, Professor X devises a plan to stop the war before it starts. It entails traveling back in time to 1973, and stopping Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the Sentinel inventor, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) - an act of violence that convinces world leaders of the mutant threat.
Last time we checked, there aren't any time-traveling X-Men, but with Kitty Pryde's phasing abilities, they could theoretically send someone's mind back in time to their younger self. Wolverine's healing abilities and the fact he was alive in 1973 make him a strong candidate but not an ideal one. Part of his task requires convincing young Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbinder) to work together to stop Mystique, and Wolverine's not exactly a master of detente.

Wolverine's sent back to find the Xavier School closed, with only Professor X and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) holding down the fort. Xavier is hooked on a drug that suppresses his mind-reading powers. To complicate matters further, Magneto is imprisoned in the Pentagon for killing President Kennedy. So he has to: a) get Professor X on board, b) break Magneto out of the Pentagon and c) find Mystique. It's a tall order, but having Wolverine as the messenger from the future makes for some great chemistry and humor between the leads. There's a lot to love about Wolverine, but when he wakes up in his 1973 self - naked, on a waterbed, with Roberta Flack on the radio - it's pretty wonderful, all around. (Let's just let that one sink in a little.)

To break Magneto out, Wolverine, X and Beast enlist the help of the teenaged Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Fans who were horrified when the first images and clips of Quicksilver made the rounds ("He looks like a 90s club kid!", etc.), might find themselves pleasantly surprised. The Quicksilver scenes are actually some of the most entertaining and visually interesting of the film. Peters, who regularly creeps out audiences in "American Horror Story", makes the cocky Quicksilver likable and charming. One of the best set pieces in the film shows a scene in "Quicksilver time", set to "Time in a Bottle" by Jim Croce. It's also the only scene enhanced by the Real 3D process (which is mostly unobtrusive in the rest of the film). It will be interesting to see what Joss Whedon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson will make of Quicksilver in next year's "Avengers: Age of Ultron".

While Wolverine tries to assemble the team, Bolivar Trask attempts to get world leaders on board with his vision of defense. With a brush mustache and prodigiously coiffed, Dinklage is an effectively oily Trask - a man who is at once fascinated with the mutants, yet sees no problem with destroying them in the most horrible ways possible. In the meantime, Mystique, all-too-aware of what Trask's experiments have done to her mutant friends, is only trying in her own way to save her kind. Lawrence plays her as a bit damaged and erratic as she is torn between the influences of her "brother", Professor X, and her mentor/lover, Magneto. Lawrence is great, but it's disappointing that the plot relies on a woman being brought to heel by the male figures in her life - it's one of the main flaws of the film.

There are other flaws in the film, to be sure. Some business about a rental car that makes no sense, why didn't they call Quicksilver to help out in the final battle, etc. There are undoubtably more details to be hashed and rehashed over by the fanboys, but to be honest, they don't seem to matter much in the overall enjoyability of the film. There are some wonderful moments from the cast (such as a "meeting of the minds" between the younger and the elder Professor X) and little nuggets of X-Men in-jokes peppered in the dialogue. The action scenes and set pieces are well-crafted and coherent, and while many of the visuals are lifted from other films ("The Matrix" seems often referenced), the effects are elegantly and effectively done. The addition of Real 3D doesn't add much to the experience (except in the aforementioned scene), but it doesn't detract, either.

The most entertaining thing about "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is simply the play between the cast members. Most everyone has settled into their characters and now seem to finally be having fun with their roles. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and helps propel the film through its running time of 2:11. There are at least two more "X-Men" films in development, and more to be confirmed. While there is always the chance for another "Last Stand" (shudder), let's hope that Singer and team can keep up the momentum. This one will be hard to top.

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