Tag: Michael Fassbender

Movie Review: X-Men Days of Future Past

I’d be one of the first to sing the praises of Marvel’s cinematic arm from the rooftops. Their connected films have maintained a reasonable baseline of quality, with its weaker films still being decent or fun to watch. Unfortunately, movies of Marvel franchises outside of the actual Marvel Studios have had a rougher road. Spider-Man’s suffered through a very dodgy reboot, the Punisher’s outings have been divisive, and a lot of comic fans would rather not discuss Daredevil. As for the X-Men, Marvel’s team of mutant misfits has been around for quite a long time, and X-Men: First Class made a move towards rendering some of the rougher outings of Xavier’s gifted youngers superfluous. X-Men: Days of Future Past goes one step further, driving nails into the coffin of those movies best left unnamed.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Things are not going well for the X-Men. Incredibly powerful and highly adaptive robot killers called Sentinels, originally programmed to hunt mutants, now dominate the planet. All of humanity save for its very worst are oppressed and face extinction. Guided by Professor X and Magneto, the few remaining X-Men hatch a desperate plan. The theory is that if the assassination of the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask, by the mutant Mystique is prevented, the future will be altered. Therefore, one of the X-Men must allow their consciousness to be projected back in time to their younger body. The only mutant with the regenerative capabilities to survive this journey is Wolverine, and it is he who suddenly awakens in 1973, looking for Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr.

It should be fairly obvious that what we have here is retroactive continuity, or a ‘retcon’. This is the third X-Men movie directed by Bryan Singer, and the prevailing sentiment is that things have been inconsistent since he gave up the helm. X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are both held in largely universal contempt. The Wolverine had some good ideas, and X-Men: First Class was a welcome return to high-quality mutant storytelling. It seemed, at the time, that Matthew Vaughn was mostly interested in starting the timeline over – the Marvel universe, after all, has acknowledged the presence of multiple universes and timelines for a long time. Singer, for his part, has seized onto one of the most beloved tales from the comics and uses it to whip the mutant franchise back into line with his vision.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox & Empire
The more things change…

Unlike the bright color pallete of Matthew Vaughn’s film, though, Singer returns to his beloved barely-accented black leather as if it’s still 2003 and everybody is chasing the Wachowskis. He is so eager to push characters and elements of the story into position for his glorious return that he skims over a lot of details. This is especially true in his vision of the Sentinel-dominated future: some characters are barely introduced or characterized, others have powers that make no sense or have no explanation, etc. In other words, characters exist for the sake of the plot, rather than moving the plot of their own volition, which is a mark of lazy and lackluster storytelling. And while we’re on the subject, I’m still not sure how I feel about the overall use of Kitty Pryde and Mystique in the film. These are powerful, even iconic female characters in this franchise, yet they feel like they’re barely there, despite Mystique’s central role in the plot. I can’t point to any one aspect of their roles that gives me this disturbed feeling, but it hangs over the proceedings like a dark cloud.

However, it’s not all bad news. Not by a long shot. Continuing to be one of the most inspired casting choices since Christopher Reeves’ Superman, Hugh Jackman does a great job as Logan, breathing much-needed life and presence into what could have been a dull plod of a proceeding. Also returning are Michael Fassbender as the younger Magneto and James McAvoy as younger Xavier, and they still have the chemistry, intellectual fortitude and emotional pathos that made First Class so good. The scene between McAvoy and Patrick Stewart as his older self is amazing, and should have been left out of the trailers to make its already significant impact even more powerful. Our nominal bad guy, Bolivar Trask, is actually a nuanced character, and while he isn’t given that much to do, Peter Dinklage makes the most of every scene he’s in. Much like First Class, there isn’t a great deal of action, but what action we do get is staged very well, some of it carrying satisfying tension while one scene in particular is paired with a fantastic musical sting that actually made a ‘bullet-time’ gimmick fun to watch.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox & Empire
Like First Class, seeing these two interact is one of the highlights of the film.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is decent and enjoyable. It’s not as good as First Class, but the way it handles the other previous films gives me hope that Singer is moving away from the negative aspects of said films (see most of my criticism above) and towards plots and performances that let the characters guide the story, rather than the story pushing the characters around. Singer is attached to direct X-Men: Apocalypse, and it seems that he has some interesting ideas in that regard. Days of Future Past was a movie all about the restoration of hope, and it accomplishes this goal, not only for the characters, but also for the audience.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Centurion

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

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The movie version of 300 has definitely made an impression. It’s given us a ton of Internet memes, helped shape all sorts of workout regimens and pushed Gerard Butler towards being the stereotypical big scowly action star. But it also had the subtle benefit of introducing the world to Michael Fassbender. In between his memorable supporting turn in Inglorious Basterds and being exactly the sort of Magneto fans have been craving in X-Men: First Class, he took the lead in another period action-adventure called Centurion, but to say this movie and 300 couldn’t be more different is something of an understatement.

Courtesy UK Film Council

Fassbender is cast as Quintus Dias, a centurion serving as second-in-command at a Roman border post in Britain around AD 117. His garrison is destroyed and he captured by the vicious Picts. When he’s rescued, it’s by the legendary 9th Legion, which is given orders to stomp their way north to wipe the Picts out. This, unfortunately for the Romans, goes pretty horribly and Quintus tries to lead the handful of survivors home while a Pict hunting party lead by an exceedingly scary young woman tracks them down.

At first, Centurion seems more driven by plot than characters. Unlike other movies that establish their ensemble cast as quickly as possible, writer-director Neil Marshall carefully paces the opening to give us the information, atmosphere and tensions of the age before really diving into the characters we’re going to spend the next 90 minutes with. I haven’t seen any of Marshall’s other work – Dog Soldiers, The Descent or Doomsday – but he certainly seems to have a good grip on pacing in his writing, and clean shots in his direction, as well as an unflinching and visceral taste for combat.

Courtesy UK Film Council
With those metal weapons, Magneto would have sorted the Picts out in about 3 seconds flat.

As the characters begin to emerge, their roles grow organically out of the flow of the story. Most of them are cyphers or stereotypes, but their delivery is earnest and the writing of their lines decent without either verging into ham-handedness. When the 9th falls, it’s a sad moment, but it’s difficult to care as much as Our Lady of Soundtrack Sorrow wants us to. The deaths of individuals later in the story means far more than the wholesale slaughter of faceless Roman soldiers. It’s not that I’m expecting Marshall to compel us to care about all 3000 of the Romans, and the characters we do get are certainly better than many of their modern counterparts, I just feel that some of the drama’s a little overwrought.

This is a tale that owes far more to HBO’s Rome mini-series than to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. As these characters grow and interact they do so in ways that seem earnest and unforced. Fassbender’s Quintus in particular shows not only brotherly concern for his fellow men but a growing bitterness at their circumstances and a grudge against both sides in the conflict. And neither the Romans nor the Picts emerge as the ‘good guys’ in the war. Keeping the moral ground gray between the two of them was very wise on Marshall’s part, as it keeps the focus on the dwindling number of actual characters caught between these rather dickish powers.

Courtesy UK Film Council
Trust me. She’s pretty scary.

While many other period pieces go for a stew of anachronisms, playing devil-may-care with the technologies and languages available to a given set of peoples, Centurion actually has a great deal of authenticity going for it. While the Romans speak English for our convenience, their arms and armor are right out of the Empire’s heyday, and the dwellings and lifestyle of the Picts is masterfully depicted, from their means of restraining prisoners to the status of their women. Between this, the characters and the smart plotting, there’s a lot to like about this movie.

It doesn’t quite delve into the naked melodrama of Edward Zwick’s Last Samurai or Defiance nor does it play up the violence or spectacle for its own sake as 300 does. Centurion opts instead to tell a decent story about survivors behind enemy lines and does that job rather well. The characters we do get are interesting and well-acted, the story never bogs down or feels overly contrived and the action feels authentic and visceral without being completely over-the-top, which all adds up to an enjoyable adventure story bordering on the excellent. It does everything right that pointless slapped-together flicks like The Expendables get wrong. Consider checking it out on Netflix Instant if you’re on the lookout for an action-adventure or period piece with at least a bit of a brain in its head. And while I mentioned I haven’t seen any of Marshall’s other work, considering he’s put together a movie about werewolf soldiers and one that’s described as Mad Max driving headlong into 28 Days Later… I think I’m going to have to correct that.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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