by Steve Habrat
Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.
X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.
What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?
By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.
As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.
Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.
by Steve Habrat
Earlier this summer, news broke out of Cleveland that three girls who had been missing for over a decade had finally been found alive in a home belonging to Aerial Castro. This miraculous discover was a happy ending for the families who were forced to endure years of torment over whether their loved ones were alive or dead. With such chilling news reminding us that the most terrifying monsters of all could be living just next store to us, now is the perfect time for a film like director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Dealing directly with child abduction, Prisoners wastes no time getting under the viewer’s skin and striking an all-too-real chord that sucks the air right out of the theater. With its dreary atmosphere and lack of polish to keep the audience removed from the story, Prisoners becomes a riveting revenge thriller that sidesteps an exploitative side, a trap many well-known revenge thrillers have fall into. Then there is the powerhouse cast (Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo), a slew of Oscar nominees and winners who comprise the fractured center of this deeply disturbing piece of filmmaking.
Prisoners begins with Keller (played by Hugh Jackman) and Grace (played by Maria Bello) Dover and their two children, young Anna (played by Erin Gerasimovich) and teenage Ralph (played by Dylan Minnette), heading up the street to the home of Franklin (played by Terrence Howard) and Nancy (played by Viola Davis) Birch for Thanksgiving dinner. While the adults sip wine and visit, Anna and Ralph wander around the neighborhood with Joy (played by Kyla Drew Simmons) and Eliza (played by Zoe Borde). The kids soon stumble across a dingy RV that Joy and Anna proceed to start climbing on. After discovering that someone is inside, Ralph and Eliza lead the kids away before the owner can come out and yell at them. Later on, Anna and Joy head back out to the Dover’s so Anna can show Joy her safety whistle. After failing to return, the parents begin frantically searching the neighborhood. Unable to find the girls, the parents alert the police, who immediately put Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case. That evening, Loki discovers the RV that the girls were reportedly playing on. Inside the RV, Loki discovers Alex Jones (played by Paul Dano), who he immediately takes into police custody. After discovering that Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old and there is no evidence of the girls having been in the RV, Loki releases Alex back with his aunt, Holly Jones (played by Melissa Leo). Enraged and convinced he is guilty, Keller takes the law into his own hands, kidnaps Alex, and begins torturing him in the hopes of finding the whereabouts of the missing girls.
While Prisoners presents itself as a revenge thriller, the film could also pass as a horror film—a horror of personality film to be exact. Early on, Villeneuve suggests that there is something ugly and horrible about to strike in suburbia. There are low rumblings on the soundtrack and he cuts to outside shots of the Birch home with an ugly gray tree cutting right through the center of their lovely home. Something is about to break up this happy family and leave them scarred forever. There is also no sunny comfort, as every exterior shot is filled with billowing snow, low roars of thunder, gray clouds, and sheets of rain smashing against homes and car windows. It’s about as atmospheric as a film can be. When the revenge aspect kicks in, the film doesn’t rely on copious amounts of blood and gore to shock (that isn’t to say the film is bloodless), but rather the heaving animalistic savagery that can erupt when one is consumed by unguided accusation. Villeneuve serves up several shots of rundown apartment hallways complimented by Jackman’s angry shouts and Dano’s terrified whimpers barely audible through the rotting drywall and wood. The yellowing walls and crumbling apartment building where much of the torture takes place mirrors the deterioration of the central character’s morals. The trust in the law is long gone and the only way to get answers is to viciously and relentlessly attack someone who may not even be guilty. Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski suggest that even through uncertainty, the drive to put a face on our pain and suffering can bring out the worst in us, even those who are claim to be men and women of God.
With the grim tone keeping us frozen in our seats, Villeneuve then allows the performances to emotionally drain us. Jackman completely disappears in the role of Keller, a bleary-eyed man of God who looks like he has been blasted by a wrecking ball. His anger erupts when Dano’s Alex is released in from police custody and when his wife sobs that he needs to protect his family, his revenge plot turns him into grizzled shell of a man who has to keep reminding both God and Alex that he doesn’t want to be unleashing the rage that he is. Howard’s Franklin is a timorous disaster who continuously suggests that torturing Alex is a grave mistake. Despite his protest, he aids in beating the man to a bloody pulp. Davis walks a fine line between objecting and approving of Keller’s approach to the horrific situation. She’s certainly distraught, but she demonstrates a bit more strength than Bello’s crumbling Grace. Piled under a mound of blankets, clutching tissues, and popping prescription meds, Grace finds solace in coma-like slumber. Dano is fragile yet dark as the bespectacled Alex, who enjoys yanking a dog up in the air and dangling it from a leash. Gyllenhaal is magnetic as the tattooed hard-boiled detective simultaneously trying to get to the bottom of the disappearances while unraveling something much bigger than he ever could have imagined. It’s even worse when his superior suggests that maybe he should let the case go. Melissa Leo rounds out the A-list cast as Holly Jones, Alex’s aging aunt with a broken past.
At a towering two and a half hours, Prisoners is surging with ripped-from-the-headlines realism that is never given a million-dollar sheen some films of this sort get. The film seems cold to the touch and the violence, when glimpsed, is absolutely stomach churning. People gasped when we caught a glimpse of Alex’s swollen and beaten-in face, the presentation of a torture device made out of a shower makes you groan in disgust, and a sudden suicide blasts both the characters and the audience across the face with a sledge hammer. Even the film’s child abduction subject matter is darker than the midnight hour and becomes a tough pill to swallow. The climax of the film threatens to become a bit ludicrous, but Guzikowski’s screenplay has every angle covered to make sure the events never plummet into implausibility. Overall, its tough to call if Prisoners will become a darling come awards time, but the film dares to explore humanity at its absolute worst. Not only that, but the performances, especially Jackman’s, demand to be seen and will not easily be forgotten. As an early fall movie season effort, Prisoners disturbs the viewer at the deepest levels imaginable.
by Steve Habrat
Two years after Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech took the world by storm and made off with the Best Picture Oscar, the British director returns with a film so immense and extravagant, you won’t be able to believe your eyes. Hooper’s Les Misérables is certainly a worthy follow up to The King’s Speech, but in size and scope, Les Misérables blows it right out of the water. As epic as they come, Les Misérables is a big Hollywood blockbuster (and a shameless one at that), one sure to run away with awards like Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Best Production Design at the Academy Awards, but just like its predecessor, the film bowls over the viewer with one gigantic tidal wave of emotion after another. Just when you thought you’ve recovered from one heart wrenching moment, Hooper unleashes another one almost instantly. The film, and the stars who inhabit it, belt their hearts out as tears stream down their muddy faces, singing live over having the lyrics dubbed in post production. Each and every one of them will give you chills, especially Anne Hathaway’s teary-eyed “I Dreamed a Dream.” For as high as this film flies, it could still have stood to have at least forty minutes cut from it, mostly because by the final act, we do begin to feel it’s epic runtime of two hours and forty minutes. It appears that Hooper was wildly faithful to the musical and the novel by Victor Hugo, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Beginning in 1815, prisoner Jean Valjean (Played by Hugh Jackman) is released on parole by chilly prison guard Javert (Played by Russell Crowe) after serving a brutal seventeen-year sentence. Valjean is cast out into the world without any food or a home but is soon taken in by the kindly Bishop of Digne (Played by Colm Wilkinson), who offers him a hot meal and a bed. In the night, Valjean steals some of the Bishop’s silver and then flees, only to be quickly caught by local authorities. The Bishop insists that he gave Valjean the silver as a gift and demands that they let him go free. Moved by the Bishop’s kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and sets out to make a better life for himself. Eight years pass and Valjean, who goes by a new name, is now the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner. Employed at his factory is Fantine (Played by Anne Hathaway), who is discovered by her co-workers to be an illegitimate mother sending money to her sick daughter, Cosette (Played by Isabelle Allen), and is fired by the foreman. Desperate, Fantine turns to prostitution to make money but one evening, Javert confronts her after she attacks a belligerent customer. Javert tries to haul her off to jail but Valjean quickly stops him after he recognizes her from the factory. Near death, Fantine begs Valjean to find her daughter and to take care of her. Valjean agrees and sets out to find Cosette, but Javert begins to suspect that Valjean is the prisoner who broke parole eight years earlier and he begins hunting him down.
Each and every frame of Les Misérables looks like it cost almost $100 million dollars to project onto the screen. The makeup effects are absolutely astounding, especially the aging of Jackman’s Valjean as the story progresses. Every smudge of dirt and speck of filth so perfectly splattered across each actor’s face. Another standout moment is when Valjean trudges through the sewer with rebellious student Marius (Played by Eddie Redmayne) and human waste covers them from head to toe. It is appropriately nasty to the point where you can practically smell the stench. The costumes are all wildly detailed and eye catching, especially a jacket worn by Valjean with a massive collar. Then there are the special effects, especially the overhead shots of small villages and growing cities that are so fussy, they make you want to tear your hair out. Hooper hurls his camera directly at them to focus in on one specific character standing on the edge of a cliff or riding a horse through the streets. Later in the movie, there are one or two scenes that feel more like indoor sets rather than outdoor locations, which sort of take us out of the moment. I couldn’t help but wish that Hooper would have at least attempted to shoot them outside but I can’t imagine that he would have been able to pull off some of the environment detail that he was going for if he chose to shoot outside.
The other big draw to the big screen adaptation of Les Misérables is the live singing done in front of the camera rather than the music studio. While many critics and audience members have complained that it was a failed experiment (I don’t really understand why they think it was a failed experiment), I personally liked it and found that it adds a layer of realism to the bombastic gloss of this expensive epic. It allowed Hooper to apply long takes of his actors doing the thing that pays them millions of dollars— act. Sure there are a few brief cuts here and there, but Hooper lets the camera sit (and sometimes pace) with all the actors. We get up close and personal views of brokenhearted emotion heating up and then boiling over as the viewer hangs on the frame in a state of awe. While some of the voices are certainly not going to nab a record deal (looking at you, Mr. Crowe), you still have to admire their confidence to let their voices soar. The lack of a true professional makes things all the more realistic and down-to-earth. Some musicals (not all) loose me when the actors sing like trained professionals.
While Les Misérables is beautiful to look at, the film wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for the downright incredible performances at the heart. While I’ve never downright hated Jackman as an actor, I could never really see the big deal about him but with Les Misérables, I am a true believer now. This guy is fantastic as Valjean, the tortured ex-prisoner who had his life turned upside down over stealing a mouthful of bread. While it is Jackman’s show, the one who makes off with the movie is Hathaway as Fantine, a woman forced into a life of hell. I promise that you will practically fall out of your seat when she performs “I Dreamed a Dream” as she battles back tears of embarrassment and defeat. It is a rare scene where the audience member actually wants to leap to their feet and break into applause. Crowe is great as the relentless Javert, who is always hot on Valjean’s heels. I can’t say too much for his vocal performance but the fact that he is really trying is good enough for me. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter drop by to add a bit of (grotesque) comedy to the mix as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, a couple of pick pockets who are taking care of darling little Cosette. Amanda Seyfried is a bit stiff as the adult Cosette, as is Redmayne as her suitor Marius. They get a last act love story and while it is effective, neither of them make us root for them like we should. Samantha Barks is also present as the Thénardier’s daughter Éponine, who secretly loves Marius. Barks wins our empathy with a lovely but painful solo performance in the rain.
While Les Misérables won’t win over every single viewer over, if you’re a fan of the book or the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, you are going to gush over Hooper’s achievement. I’d also say that if you enjoy musicals like I do, you are probably going to be hooked for a good majority of the movie. If you’re a casual moviegoer, be prepared for the longest two hours and forty minutes of your life. I still felt that the film ran a bit too long and some of the musical numbers could have been trimmed for a tighter and more inviting runtime, but there really isn’t one weak number of the bunch. Another minor complaint I had with the film was the fate of one of the characters, which just seemed downright bizarre and random. Overall, Les Misérables is overblown, funny, thrilling, mildly romantic, raw, repulsive, and most importantly, moving. It may have its flaws but is has everything a film fan could want in a movie and it really is a beautiful work of art to lay your eyes on. A phenomenal achievement for the very talented Mr. Hooper and the musical genre.
by Steve Habrat
It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies. The quality of these products have never been better and in the wake of The Dark Knight, there has been a scramble to craft another megahit superhero film that can submit both the spectacle and the complex storytelling that the mighty The Dark Knight mixed so brilliantly. While May’s Thor surpassed many of the recent releases as downright entertaining even if it was a bit hollow, the closest to perfection is without question X-Men: First Class. I always wrote off the X-Men films mostly because I found them to be quite inaccessible and their only appeal was to X-Men fanboys who were familiar with the countless hoards of mutants invented by creator Stan Lee. What ultimately rubbed salt in the wound was the flimsy origin tale Wolverine, which seemed to exist simply to be an indulgent pet project for the limitedly talented Hugh Jackman. It also put the bullet in the head of the X-Men film franchise.
Rejoice, fanboys! Marvel has cleaned house in their quality control department (Did you SEE some of the movies they were releasing before this summer? Seriously? Elektra? Ghost Rider? Anyone?!) and brought in Matthew Vaughn, the competent director of such films as last year’s underrated gem Kick-Ass and the ferocious dark comedy/gangster pic Layer Cake to shock the franchise back to life and infuse it with some fresh blood. Paired up with Bryan Singer, the director of the respectable X-Men, X2, and the lifeless Superman Returns, the two make a heady, personal, flashy, and swinging thrill ride that turns out to be the best origin film for superheroes since 2005’s Batman Begins. X-Men: First Class is set during the Cold War and finds itself besting the recent Cold War superhero extravaganza Watchmen in almost every way. It’s funny that this film would be the knockout punch to Watchmen, which many consider to be adapted from arguably the greatest graphic novel ever written.
Marvelously weaving history with the atomic age heroes, X-Men: First Class harkens back to when Professor X (Wanted’s James McAvoy) meets arch-nemesis Magneto (Inglourious Basterd’s Michael Fassbinder). Professor X, or Charles as we know him here, is a beer swilling genius whose groundbreaking studies on mutants is earning him a large amount of notoriety from the academic realm. Magneto, or Erik, is a bitter, shattered victim of the Holocaust. He is subjected to cruel experiments after it is discovered that he can manipulate metal. Erik vows revenge on the evil scientist who tortured him as a boy in a concentration camp. Jumping ahead into the early 1960s, a CIA operative discovers that mutants exist and are hell-bent on igniting nuclear war. The CIA seeks out telepathic Charles to locate and round up an army of mutants and train them to battle against the Hellfire Club, lead by one of the greatest superhero villains since Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker, Sebastian Shaw (an undeniably wicked Kevin Bacon). Shaw can absorb kinetic energy used against him, which grants him super strength and speed.
In writing, it sounds absolutely absurd. The film is aware that it is absurd and embraces its own absurdity, which remarkably, makes it impossible to resist. It’s campy one moment and the next; it’s ominous and heart wrenching. Perhaps Vaughn and Singer studied at the Chris Nolan school for superhero directors, because like The Dark Knight, the film features an electrifying climatic stand off that, as layers pull away, reveals one horrifying revelation after another.
X-Men: First Class also ends up breaking the golden rule when it comes to big budget blockbuster films—it has many subtle personal flourishes from its makers, mostly stemming from Singer, who is an open homosexual. The film becomes a rallying cry for acceptance from society. This actually adds to the power of the film, giving it a voice rather than just opting for the businesslike route it could have so easily taken. Marvel and the filmmakers have embraced some depth and given the characters some fleeting personality. While some of it is brief, the film does take place during a time when homosexuals were facing a great amount of prejudice as at this time, the American government deemed homosexuals un-American. Funny enough, the mutants face an eerily similar dilemma in the show-stopping climax.
This is a summer movie, after all, and the film does offer up its fair share of summer movie moments. The film becomes a showroom for stellar special effects, but Vaughn makes sure he does not loose his characters in all the action. The performances from its young leads are the true reason to see the film and they will leave you wanting a hell of a lot more. James McAvoy plays the party boy genius Charles with some unforgettable charm. And Michael Fassbinder flexes his acting muscle as snapping from sinister to heartbroken in the blink of an eye as Erik. One scene in particular hints that in the future, this man may have an Oscar in his possession. And bombshell Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique continues to prove that she is, in fact, more than just a bombshell and a serious actress even if she is spending much of the movie nude and blue. I also cannot ignore the impressive turn from Kevin Bacon, who plays one self-centered and cold-hearted bastard.
The X-Men series has finally returned to form and has left this guy wanting much, much more from it. Even at 132 minutes, it feels too brief and will have you hounding for a sequel if it doesn’t lure you back to experience it all again. While some of the characters are not fleshed out enough, you are willing to forgive as the film is taking on quite a few characters. It does it’s best and it’s best shapes up to be one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. You’ll be replaying the aerial battle between Beast and Azazel in your head for days. It thrills you to the core, but it will also creep on your emotions, which any great film should do. With expert direction and a seriously well-written script, X-Men: First Class strikes a perfect balance between blockbuster and character driven epic. You will not be disappointed. Bring on the sequel. Grade: A
X-Men: First Class will be available on Blu-ray and DVD September 9th.