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
I may upset tons of people when I say this but I have never been the biggest fan of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy, the wildly popular animated television series that relies heavily on making one random joke about pop culture after another to the point where I almost get sick to my stomach. I’ve always found the jokes lazy, with MacFarlane hoping you’ll giggle at all the randomness he fires at you at rapid speeds. He’s also gone on to create two other animated series that have almost identical set-ups (American Dad and The Cleveland Show), one worse the other. With the popularity of Family Guy, you knew MacFarlane would eventually make the jump to the big screen and now he has with the surprisingly funny and warmhearted Ted, the first good comedy of the 2012 summer. If you worry that Ted’s premise will wear itself out, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Focusing on a raggedy teddy bear that has magically sprung to life, Ted has a charm you just can’t resist, no matter how hard you try. This profane little party animal will also surprise you with his humility he demonstrates late in the game, something I was not expecting at all but ended up really getting into. Yet the magic of Ted comes from the way that MacFarlane manages to work his pop culture referencing gags into a live action film and for the first time, making it seem like there was some actual thought behind all those geeky references.
On Christmas day, 1985, young Boston outcast John Bennet (Played by Bretton Manley) makes a wish that the cuddly teddy bear he received Christmas morning would come to life and be his best friend forever. John wakes up the next day and realizes that his wish has come true. After horrifying his parents with his creepy new buddy, John and “Teddy” scamper off to conqueror the neighborhood. Teddy or Ted (Voiced by Seth MacFarlane), as he quickly becomes fond of, begins to catch the attention of the media and he rises to be a huge sensation across America. The fame fades and the years pass with Ted getting into trouble here and there. We soon come to present day where Ted and John (Played by Mark Wahlberg) are still shacking up together, living in a cloud of marijuana smoke and half-consumed beers. John works a dead end job at a car rental company that appears to be going nowhere fast but he still manages to get by. John is in a happy relationship with the sweet Lori (Played by Mila Kunis), who is forgiving of John’s loser lifestyle and beams at every moment they have together. Yet on their fourth anniversary, John fails to purpose to Lori, forcing her to demand that John pick her or Ted. John begins trying to grow up for Lori but the raucous Ted makes that a difficult task, especially when he gets his own apartment. Ted also finds himself harassed by a bizarre father (Played by Giovanni Ribisi) and his overweight son, who will stop at nothing to make Ted a part of their family.
It’s not hard to see what MacFarlane is saying with Ted, as he presents a man-child who just can’t let go of his teddy bear (or his free spirited youth, if we are going to identify the metaphor). Only when the man-child lets go of that teddy bear, will he truly be a man for his gushing gal pal. After some recently iffy starring roles, Wahlberg is back on track speaking through a thick Bahston accent and trading droll geek dialogue with the sexy Kunis, who couldn’t seem more at home here. The two work great together, making you wonder why nobody has tried pairing them up before. Every time you think John has finally gotten on the right track, in crashes the vulgar best buddy to rip him away from his adult responsibilities. Before separating, Ted and John would plant themselves on their sofa, rip bongs, and drone on and on about why Flash Gordon is the best movie ever made. When Ted gets his own place, things really spin wildly out of control into booze-filled blowouts that have them doing cocaine with one of their idols (I won’t spoil the surprise). Yet it was those little moments between John and Lori that forces some of the stuffing over in Ted and makes way for a human heart.
When we aren’t going “awwww” over John and Lori, you will be doubled over laughing over the slovenly title character as he curses his way into your heart. He ends up becoming a new pop culture icon himself! Ted is a skillfully illustrated little CGI creation that has been carefully fleshed out to make us never grow tired of his reckless, foul-mouthed behavior. Despite the fact he is a computer image, he really holds the screen, making us cease to see him as an expensive animation and view him more as a flesh and blood character. It helps that MacFarlane stuffs him with quite a bit of emotion that he smartly reveals at just the right time. When Ted realizes the damage he has done to John and Lori’s relationship, he goes above and beyond to really help his buddy out, actually realizing that he has been a horse’s ass and admitting it. This isn’t a fast one pulled by MacFarlane (thankfully). I kept waiting for Ted to revert back to being an asshole, and while he does in a way (he is more smartass than asshole), this character actually does undergo a major metamorphosis even before the final chase sequence is thrown in to for the hell of it.
Ted does come with a few rips and tears in his matted little body, mostly from the half-conceived weirdo father and his even bigger weirdo son, who are supposed to be the villains in all of this. Ribisi’s Donny is game to get freaky and he sure does in the final stretch, but Ted could have been a really great movie without his character being on board. His son does provide one of the film’s funnier one-liners but it doesn’t justify their inclusion. Without them, this comedy could have been fifteen minutes shorter and all the better for it. Community’s Joel McHale shows up as Lori’s frisky boss who constantly tries to impress her with all of his money. He quietly steals the show from everybody else and quite frankly, there wasn’t enough of him in the film. Ted also features a handful of other celebrity cameos that mirror MacFarlane’s fascination with random pop culture referencing. Don’t get me wrong, they are pretty clever and they will definitely catch you off guard. Another inspired decision by MacFarlane is having Patrick Stewart acting as the storybook narrator who goes off on a hilarious rant about how bad 2006’s Superman Returns was.
Another flaw that really bothered me in the opening half of Ted was the way that MacFarlane would undercut his own jokes. He would deliver a good one, think he was on a role, and then go too far with it, sucking the laughs right out of the moment. It happens a number of times near the beginning, sending Ted into a slight tailspin early on. Luckily, MacFarlane rebounds and the second half doesn’t have a dull moment. Overall, it is great to see MacFarlane showing a bit of range with Ted. After making millions off of rehashing the same material with slightly different characters, MacFarlane proves he could be a comedic force to reckon with on the big screen. He can do crass with the big boys and he can tell jokes until it hurts. If you were looking for another reason to see Ted, check it out for the chemistry between Kunis and Wahlberg, a pairing that I hope to see on the big screen again sometime. Even if you’re not a fan of MacFarlane’s television work, there is still much to enjoy in Ted. Plus, you have to give MacFarlane credit for producing a summer comedy that is worthy of the ten bucks you will spend on it.