Chuck Koplinski: Soul at heart of time-traveling 'X-Men' sequel
In the Marvel Comics Universe, the "X-Men" books were always the ones with a social conscience, focusing on issues of alienation and bigotry in whatever forms they may have taken during different phases of the series' existence.
So it goes with the movies, as the "Spider-man" films are more romp than circumstance, the "Avengers" universe movies deliver superhero spectacle and the "X-Men" flicks tackle the weighty topics, shouldering them with intelligence as well as wit.
The latest episode in the series, "Days of Future Past" finds original director Bryan Singer back at the helm with a story that reiterates many of the themes that have become hallmarks of the series, but does so with a force and poignancy that has been missing from previous episodes. Though it suffers a bit from being too clever for its own good, especially during its prolonged climax, there's no question this is an exceptional entry, rivaling "X-Men 2" in terms of quality and resonance.
After a needlessly confusing opening, Singer gets down to brass tacks and plunges us into a complex time-travel story that will tax the most literal-minded of moviegoers and confound those who opt to go out for popcorn at the wrong time. The time is the not-so-distant future where everything has been laid to waste. The governments of the world have dedicated themselves to wiping not just mutants off the map, but any humans who have DNA that may produce one.
Adaptive war machines called Sentinels, invented by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), are used to hunt them down, and what makes them so effective is that they've been modeled after the shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). These killer robots are first set loose in 1973, and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his rival Magneto (Ian McKellen) have determined that if Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can send one of their members back in time to prevent this from happening, their dismal present — our future — can be averted. Reasoning that only the most durable among them could survive such a trip, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is charged with saving the day.
Of course, once our hero is sent back, things become even more tangled and complicated, which provides the film with its most entertaining and intriguing moments. The younger version of Professor X (James McAvoy) is a disillusioned sot who Logan must rally if he's to do any good, while Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is far more impulsive and dangerous, making it even more difficult to recruit him for the cause.
While the film's intent is a serious one — to remind us once more to cherish individuality, to encourage us to look past our worse selves and strive to be better — Singer doesn't forget that this is also a movie of big moments. He delivers with one big set piece after another in which all of the heroes are allowed to stretch their abilities. Scenes depicting Magneto lifting the shell of Washington, D.C.'s old RFK stadium and transporting it above the city, or the Sentinels assaulting the heroes' stronghold in China, demonstrate that Singer is effectively using every modern effects tool at his disposal to create a grand spectacle.
However, the highlight of the movie — and perhaps what will be the greatest action sequence of the year — involves the new recruit Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a blindingly fast speedster, breaking Magneto out of his Pentagon prison cell. Slowing all the action to a crawl, we're able to see him move about at a heightened rate, altering the paths of bullets as well as changing the direction of their pursuers so that they end up harming themselves. Not only is it one of the funniest moments of the movie year but one of the most inventive.
Singer has the ability to render these and other moments inventively and with humor, giving his entries in the series a sense of assuredness that others lack. With the exception of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" movies, the X-Men films are consistently the smartest of the superhero entertainments, delivering not just grand spectacle, but lofty ideas as well. There's meat to these comic book capers, and in setting and maintaining a high standard, Singer should be commended for continuing to push himself as well as challenging his audience.
'X-Men: Days of Future Past' (3-1/2 stars out of 4)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Evan Peters and Omar Sy.
Directed Bryan Singer; produced by Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, Lauren Schuler Donner and Singer; screenplay by Kinberg.
A 20th Century-Fox release. 131 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language). At AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13, Harvest Moon Drive-in and Savoy 16 IMAX.
Also new in theaters
Opulent 'Belle' an effective social drama. (3-1/2 stars)
There's a Jekyll and Hyde quality to Amma Asante's "Belle" that comes off as a blatant attempt to appeal to two distinctly diverse audiences.
One part Jane Austen novel, one part British history lesson, the film contains a romance between two young lovers separated by social conventions while recounting the development of a significant legal case in English history that radically altered the country's position on the slave trade. That it all works is a bit of a miracle, but Asante provides a surprisingly assured hand in guiding the film, buoyed by a dynamic performance from her lead actress.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (the luminous Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the child of a Royal Navy admiral and a slave woman, is raised by her father's great-uncle, chief justice Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), aristocrats who have the temerity to treat her as an equal and expect everyone else to do the same.
This only goes so far, as some in the rarefied social strata they live in have a hard time not looking down their noses at the young girl. As she blossoms into a beautiful young woman, along with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), Belle finds herself being marginalized once more as she comes to realize she has little say so in regard to who she'll marry. However, she crosses paths with one John Davinier (Sam Reid, constantly in near histrionics), the son of a local vicar who falls for her.
While all this is going on, trouble is brewing in the English courts, as a case involving an insurance claim brought forth by a trading company that wishes to collect for the slaves they purposely threw overboard is about to land in Lord Mansfield's lap. It goes without saying that Belle has a vested interest in the outcome of this case, for if the country's position on slavery changes, perhaps the way she is regarded will change as well. Whether Lord Mansfield's ruling on this case will be affected by his close ties to the young lady remains to be seen.
This is an engaging story on both fronts as Asante does a fine job doling out information about the case in such a way that a sense of tension is created even if you know the outcome.
However, perhaps the filmmaker's most important contribution is the consistent tone she brings to the material, never allowing the movie to become too melodramatic or develop into a soap opera, which it could have easily become.
What's surprising is that the love story is equally involving. This is due in large part to Mbatha-Raw, who wisely plays her role with restraint. She does a remarkable job showing Belle's growth from bewildered young woman to an assured crusader for her rights and those of others. The actress has learned that less is more, though it must be said that her large expressive eyes seem to give her a distinct advantage where conveying her character's inner turmoil is concerned.
Mbatha-Raw carries the film and proves to be an actress I'm eager to see develop on the big screen.
'Moms' Night Out' a misguided adventure. (1-1/2 stars)
While a movie may be pitched to a particular audience, that doesn't necessarily mean that those who fall outside that demographic can't enjoy or be touched by it.
Obviously, I am not a young girl between the ages of 7 and 12, yet I found "Frozen" to be a charming film that was far more entertaining that I thought it would be. Directors Andrew and Joe Erwin's "Moms' Night Out" was made for the haggard and unappreciated, namely the modern mother who feels herself pulled in five different directions at once, never doing anything particularly well while barely keeping her family afloat.
If there were a poster child for "Fatal Stress," it would be Allyson (Sarah Drew), a young mother who is convinced she's doing a poor job raising her three kids. Frankly, there's plenty of evidence to support this, as her trio of tykes are uncontrollable hellions, with one of her sons being in the habit of getting his head stuck in toilets and other tight spaces.
Often left to hold down the fort on her own, Allyson is slowly losing her mind as Sean (Sean Astin), her well-meaning but clueless husband is constantly traveling on business. Upon returning home, he notices how frazzled she is and insists that she take time for herself, something she leaps at. Before you know it, she has set up a night out with her BFF Izzy (Logan White) and her pastor's wife Sondra (Patricia Heaton). A quiet dinner at a tony restaurant is about all that's on the agenda, but of course, it all goes horribly wrong.
The rapidity with which the film goes off the rails is remarkable. While this "Adventures in Babysitting" for adults is meant to be a lark, the ridiculous depths it sinks to makes an episode of "Three Broke Girls" seem like a Moliere farce in comparison.
One awkward moment trips on the heels of another as the matronly trio find themselves looking for their lost vehicle, visiting tattoo parlors and being in a deadly car chase as they wind up searching for Alyson's sister-in-law's lost baby. The film is hardly helped by Drew's performance, which goes from charming to grating in nothing flat, and that proves to be one of the movie's great faults. She gives us a woman so manic that electroshock therapy seems a more viable option for her than a night out with the girls.
While the Erwins' intent is to pay tribute to the tireless work of mothers everywhere, in the process they make all of the men in these women's lives — and by extension, all males everywhere — look like complete idiots. Watching kids without any of them getting hurt or lost is apparently a skill inherent only to the female of the species.
Yep, if "Moms' Night Out" proves one thing, it's that men, children and, well, the entire world would be in turmoil if mothers weren't there to hold it all together. While that may be true to a certain extent, showing you appreciate the mom in your life by sitting through this film with her is simply asking too much, no matter how many domestic crises she may have handled in the past.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at email@example.com.