Stars: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
Release date: May 22nd, 2014
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Running time: 131 minutes
Best part: The kinetic action sequences.
Worst part: The slight tonal shifts.
I’m going to state a fact that will make almost every cinema-goer feel incredibly old: the original X-Men movie was released 14 years ago. Kicking off the current, and seemingly unending, wave of big-budget superhero flicks, the original threw mutant powers, attractive stars, and thought-provoking issues at a modest $75 million budget. Today, this amount feels insignificant compared to the sums thrown at blockbusters like The Avengers and the Amazing Spider-Man instalments. This year, the latest adventure, X-Men: Days of Future Past, takes the franchise in a new and wholly welcome direction.
Attempting to revitalise a once-declining saga, Days of Future Past comes out swinging and, for the most part, pulls off more miracles than effect shots. After the thumbs-up success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and thumbs-down debacle of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Days of Future Past proves just how prescient and touching these blockbusters can be in the right hands. Unlike the latest Spider-Man instalment, this movie ties multiple ideas together without giving off the overwhelming aura of studio interference. In this intricate and entertaining instalment, the X-Men characters we know and love – and even some of those we only mildly tolerate – come together after years of bickering and battling. The plot picks up with our heroes struggling to survive a 2023 Terminator-like apocalyptic wasteland, situated atop where our world once stood. Infected by destructive robots known as the Sentinels, the Earth houses mutant and human inhabitants under strict control. In the opening sequence, Several younger mutants try and fail to fight off the all-powerful Sentinels. Landing at a mountain-carved base, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) have a plan to end the war before it can begin. Sent back to a Nixon-drenched 1973 by Kitty Pride/Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Logan must find the younger Xavier (James McAvoy), Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to prevent a vengeful Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating slimy military scientist/Sentinel developer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).
Professor X & Magneto.
Despite all this, the greatest assignment, related to this production, has been handed to screenwriter Simon Kinberg. Avoiding hiring multiple screenwriters – unlike most modern blockbusters – Kinberg’s task revolved around tying the original X-Men trilogy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine, and X-Men: First Class‘ timelines together. Being a stressful and obstacle-laden mission, this labyrinthine system pays off more often than not. Thanks to its favourable character arcs, tangible plot threads, and valuable thematic details, Days of Future Past smoothens out the franchise’s rough edges. X-Men and X2 director Bryan Singer returns with a grand vision in mind. Legitimising even the franchise’s most frustrating instalments, the narrative is never tied down by its exhaustive number of super-powered creations. Moving at a rollicking pace, exposition and questionable explanations are pushed aside in favour of awe-inspiring action sequences and memorable character beats. Efficiently, the story’s time travel laws are discussed and dropped at opportune moments. After Logan’s time-jump, fun comedic moments and solid performances elevate this otherwise confusing thrill-ride. In fact, Logan’s journey is the movie’s strongest asset. In the first 70s-set scene, the clawed crusader must contend with mobsters, half-naked ladies, lava lamps, and water beds. Making for an impressive sequence, Logan’s amusing facial expressions deliver the most essential details. Of course, like with the preceding instalments, the historical and social aspects cast an inspired shadow over the action-heavy narrative. Comparing Nazi Germany and the Vietnam War to the West’s stranglehold over Earth, major events and emotion-fuelled moments amplify this series’ true merits.
“All those years wasted fighting each other, Charles…but at least we got a few of them back.” (Magneto (Ian McKellen), X-Men: Days of Future Past).
However, the average filmgoer, looking beyond the Paris Peace Accords and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, is expecting to see our favourite mutants showing off their extraordinary abilities. For better or worse, those sequences fuel a good portion of the exhaustive 130-minute run-time. Some effects, ranging from Toad’s whip-like tongue to Iceman’s slick manoeuvres, overpower certain scenes. Occasionally, some set pieces come off as excessive more so than necessary. In fact, the excessive number of characters and superpowers occasionally shifts the tone. However, the grander set pieces, along with the eclectic 70s aesthetic, bolster this ambitious saga. The Paris sequence, crossing several plot-strands at once, delivers intensifying and heartfelt jolts. With allegiances and motivations tested by significant political events, this sequence sets certain characters on edge whilst introducing the world to our lead characters. In addition, the climactic battle in Washington D.C. could be the year’s best set piece. Thanks to Magneto’s stadium-raising prowess, this sequence caps off this already sumptuous and captivating superhero drama. Thankfully, despite limiting some major characters’ screen-time, the leads re-invigorate their roles. Jackman, in his 7th outing as Logan/Wolverine, carries this confronting narrative with style and charisma. Perfecting his character’s gruff tone and purposeful mannerisms, Jackman’s prowess remains immortal. McAvoy and Fassbender delve deeper into their roles with effervescent turns. Meanwhile, in and out of the blue make-up, Lawrence and Hoult make for worthy members of this ever-expanding cast.
Admittedly, I have a soft spot for this franchise. Having grown up with this series blaring into my consciousness, I eagerly anticipate every instalment. Thankfully, Days of Future Past is a mature, exciting, and meaningful instalment. Legitimising this series in this post-Avengers era, this instalment rights some wrongs and justifies each character and storyline’s inclusion. From Quicksilver’s bullet-time sequence to Xavier’s resurrection via Cerebro, the movie delivers more outstanding moments than superpowers (and that’s saying something).
Verdict: The most ambitious and entertaining X-Men flick yet.
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni
Release date: December 26th, 2012
Running time: 86 minutes
Best part: The chemistry between Plaza and Duplass.
Worst part: Awkward moments of sketch comedy.
Time travel is a vital element of science-fiction. Time travel films like Looper became major hits last year and ignited heated debates on the subject. In the wake of this blockbuster fare, Safety Not Guaranteed hit the film festival circuit. This indie-dramedy is a sure fire winner, illustrating that low-key sci-fi should strive for recognition. It’s a sweet and inventive look at strange people toying with even stranger possibilities.
Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson & Karan Soni.
Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) is a lonely, unenthusiastic college graduate trying anything to get through each day. Failing to qualify for employment at a bar & grill, Darius is heavily and unhealthily reliant on her internship at a local magazine. However, life takes a turn when her boss Jeff (Jake Johnson) responds to an advertisement in a local newspaper. It reads “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. PO Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” Darius, Jeff and naive intern Arnau (Karan Soni) investigate the source of this unusual message. Their road trip takes them to a small seaside town, where the message’s author Kenneth (Mark Duplass) resides. Darius and Kenneth become acquainted and their eerily similar personalities draw them together. Safety Not Guaranteed excels at blatant honesty. The well written script, by first-time feature writer Derek Connolly, bases its humour on life’s inevitable restraints.
Safety Not Guaranteed’s weird subject matter may throw some people off, but human interaction is the main focus here. It not simply about how these conflicting personalities clash but how the world responds to the character’s perplexing desires. This quirky drama willingly balances between witty comedy and tragedy. Director Colin Trevorrow’s début feature is a profound journey into the heart and mind. His grounded direction makes this surreal story of time travel, regret and redemption easier to comprehend. Sparky dialogue, unadulterated humour and kinetic montages create a touching love story with a distinct independent film-making style. However, the film switches at points from intimate dramedy to awkward situational comedy. Despite Kenneth’s detachment from the community, his peculiar, and at points criminal, actions uncomfortably stand out in this heart-warming tale. This dynamic ensemble of cynical, immature and sarcastic characters provides an undying sense of charm. The characters are hauntingly real. They see the forest through the trees as their grasp on reality crumbles before their eyes. Fresh out of college, Darius is a rebellious and sardonic individual. The film’s opening scenes depict her solemn exile from the rest of her peers. Normally an unshakeably pessimistic lead character would divert the heart-warming story, but here her attitude is part of the bigger picture. Kenneth is both extremely paranoid and overly confident. Both traits somehow seem necessary for a character this deep into his own startling fantasy.
“The mission has been updated. I’m going back for you now. All right. Do you trust me?” (Kenneth (Mark Duplass), Safety Not Guaranteed).
Plaza & Duplass.
Similarly to Liberal Arts, a controversial relationship is softened by instant chemistry. Slowly building to an imaginatively silly goal, their relationship is enjoyable to watch. Their journey begins with an energetic interrogation. Darius’ intuitive reporter side clashes with Kenneth’s paranoia. They tussle with conflicting emotions and an Andy Warhol-esque assortment of Campbell’s Soup Cans. The horny yet charismatic Jeff and the hilariously shy Arnau complete this diverse cast of characters. Jeff’s reconnection with old girlfriend Liz (Jenica Bergere) is touching in certain scenes yet fails to connect with the story’s core themes. The film is grounded by naturalistic performances from prominent TV actors. Plaza (Parks and Recreation) is arguably the queen of dead pan comedy. She uses her snarky persona to illustrate her character’s misanthropic detachment from the world. Duplass (The League, Your Sister’s Sister) portrays Kenneth with his usual on-screen quirkiness. Kenneth is a tough nut to crack for this group of budding journalists. Is he insane, stupid, or in fact the world’s next scientific genius? Duplass’ Mumblecore roots energise his enigmatic yet sympathetic performance. Darius and Kenneth’s unusual personalities create a shaky yet sentimental relationship. They both have profound reasons for escaping the present. Their heartache pushes them to the edge as their promising relationship builds.
While Safety Not Guaranteed lacks the thrills of big-budget sci-fi, its heart is in the right place. The film poses the question “what would you do if you could go back in time?”, but never abruptly pushes the idea upon its audience.
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels
Release date: September 28th, 2012
Distributors: TriStar Pictures, FilmDistrict
Running time: 118 minutes
Best part: Levitt’s cold yet charismatic assassin.
Worst part: An over abundance of slimy henchmen.
Imagine this possibility; you are handsomely paid to kill the scum of a futuristic crime-filled world, but your superiors decide to flip your life upside down and inside out. This is the premise of the fun sci-fi action flick Looper. The idea of meeting your future self has always been an alarming thought, what would you ask them? Or even more intriguing; How could it effect the future? Looper recovers quickly from plot flaws to create a largely satisfying and breezy character study of an assassin gaining a parallel identity and quickly losing time.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Joe explains that time travel has not been invented in his world of 2044, but it will have been in the future. Slick, leather clad assassins known as Loopers are a vital part of major crime syndicates using time travel to eradicate people from 2072, completing assassinations when their targets arrive in the past. When the mob have finished with said hired assassins, they ‘close the loop’; making Loopers kill their older selves for a satisfying reward. Joe’s life is livened with strip clubs, riches and drugs, but still wants out of his murderous existence. When his time is up however, his older self (Bruce Willis) escapes his execution. For younger Joe this is Bad news! Now hunted by his mobster superiors, younger Joe must escape their clutches, while protecting farm girl Sara and her son from his older self.
The second collaboration between director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) and superstar Joseph Gordon Levitt brings weight to a genre previously considered to have run out of originality. Time travel is a major staple of the genre. Influenced by entertaining ideas of time travel from films like the Back to the Future series, The Terminator and 12 Monkeys, Looperfinds its own sense of style while paying homage to classic 80’s sci-fi cinema. The film delivers on its intriguing premise, ceasing the ongoing number of underwhelming action flicks this year. ‘What if?’ is the film’s most important question, as the characters delve too far into their own motivations and soon struggle to see beyond them. Levitt’s Joe is a smooth character pushing himself to the edge. His repetitive lifestyle seems fun to the average Joe (no pun intended) but he becomes adamant on a life away from a technicolor drug trip. Willis’ older Joe is given a considerable amount of depth. His affect on his younger self creates a profound exploration of how one’s future can change with the pull of a trigger. The witty script works to Willis’ effect, creating instant chemistry with Levitt from their first dialogue sequence. Looper slows down to a considerable extent when Blunt’s single mother and her son are brought into the film. The plot switches from the chase to Joe’s interaction with country life, diverting from the breakneck pace of the first half to focus too much on Joe’s new way out.
“I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” (Older Joe (Bruce Willis), Looper).
The chemistry between Levitt and Blunt however proves why they are two of 2012’s hardest working actors, with English actress Blunt fitting into the country girl role with a convincing American drawl. Levitt, despite having to work around annoyingly distracting prosthetic make up, captures Willis’ mannerisms while creating a gritty interpretation of the cliche assassin character. While Jeff Daniels (the half of Dumb and Dumber who isn’t Jim Carrey) proves to be one of the best character actors in the business, with his intense performance adding to his already stellar year on screen after TV series The Newsroom. This neo-noir exploration of the ‘professional assassin on the run’ story is also grounded by creatively shot and violent action set pieces along with a techno score, subverting the monotony of modern action films. The style of Johnson’s biggest flick to date is heavily focused on the works of Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan. Not reaching the glittery, lurid and clean visuals of Total Recall and In Time (thankfully), its grounding in a dirty, third world environment is a chilling reminder of a slipping economy desperate to avoid gangster control. The use of dark colours and stylised costuming creates a believably contrasting and enviable world in which the wealthy try as hard as possible to avoid the grime-covered and brutal poor.
Certainly, Looper exists to boost Johnson and Levitt’s careers from indie to mainstream. Playing with interesting sci-fi concepts, this projects succeeds in taking us on a long, lost thrill-ride. In addition, with Willis back in full force, more movies like this need to be made.
Verdict: A mind bending and energetic sci-fi actioner.