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Column Fri May 23 2014
X-Men: Days of Future Past
I'll admit, I was impressed by the attempted scope of X-Men: Days of Future Past even before I saw the film. What I'd deduced was that screenwriter Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer (who directed the first two X-Men chapters) were finding a way to incorporate the casts of the original, modern-set X-Men films and '60s-'70s-era original team from X-Men: First Class. What I had not anticipated (and this may be a failing on may part) was that Singer and company would attempt to use Days of Future Past as a way to line up, course correct and incorporate elements from all of the other X-Men films (including the dreaded X-Men: The Last Stand and the even worse X-Men Origins: Wolverine) in an attempt to make this particular cinematic universe feel more cohesive. And for the most part, they pretty much nailed it.
Days of Future Past is a crowded affair with an unbelievable amount of plot — enough to cover three films, it feels like. But if you're fairly well versed in the other X-Men films, you should do alright. The story begins in the future, in a world where mutants are largely extinct after decades of being hunted by giant robots called Sentinels, who not only target mutants, but also hunt those with latent mutant genes that may one day be passed on to create mutants as well as anyone who helps mutants hide, escape or otherwise avoid death. In other words, this version of Earth is fairly grim. But a few survivors have come up with a far-fetched plan to send a message 50 years back in time, to a specific moment when history changed course and resulted in this desolate world.
The survivors include familiar faces like Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) and of course Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), as well as new faces like Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Sunspot (Adan Canto), Blink (Bingbing Fan) and Bishop (Omar Sy). Basically, Wolverine's future brain is transported psychically via Kitty's powers into his body in the past, and it's his job to find Xavier and Magneto from the '70s (we're talking end of the Vietnam War, Nixon administration here) and help them stop the assassination of the Sentinels' inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the hands of a seriously warped Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).
In an ironic twist, Mystique believes this killing will stop the Sentinel program, but it instead it's used by the government as proof that it needs to be ramped up. In another twist, the Sentinels in the future have the ability to adapt to the powers of the mutants they hunt thanks to Mystique's shape-shifting DNA being incorporated into their hardware. Anything to get more Mystique on screen works for me.
So the rest of the film involves Wolverine finding young Charles (James McAvoy), who is living a depressed, drugged-up lifestyle under the care of Beast (Nicholas Hoult); as a result of taking drugs that allow his legs to work again, he no longer has his psychic powers. Then they all have to break Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of the most impenetrable prison on Earth. Then they have to find Mystique, which is surprisingly difficult, since she's on her own mission to save mutants from being experimented on by Trask (the absence of many of the surviving First Class team members is explained here) and eventually attempt to kill him. And did I mention perhaps the most entertaining sequence in the whole film involving Quicksilver (Evan Peters)? Make fun of his costume all you want, internet, but he's by far the best new character featured in Days of Future Past. As you can see, the film is in no short supply of story details.
The challenge is to keep the main story going in the past, while occasionally reminding us that the future is in great danger as well. Sentinels are bearing down on old Xavier and his team in the future, while history is in danger of repeating itself in the past. And yet, Singer manages to keep it all aligned somehow, while dropping in references to events from other films. For example, there's a young Army officer named Bill Stryker (Josh Helman) who plays a major part of this story as the liaison between Trask and the military. When Wolverine spots him, he almost loses his mind knowing the pain that this man will unleash on him. It's a nice touch that doesn't feel like as much of a wink to the audience as other moments, such as young Magneto getting his first look at Wolverine's bone claws and commenting, "Imagine if those were made of metal." There are a few moments like that that made me wince (a nod to Quicksilver's parentage might be the worst), but nothing so terrible that they erase what is so good about this film.
With all of these fine actors in the cast, it's great to see Singer give most of them time to really give us a chance to see why casting is critical to making superhero films work. Fassbender owns the last 20 minutes of the film to such a degree, I almost forgot there were other actors doing things around him. And it was great to see Lawrence get a chance to turn pure rage into her most aggressively physical performance. I realize that a lot of her martial arts work is done by a stunt person, but there's something so perfectly broken in her performance that it justifies Mystique's thirst for vengeance. You know that if she succeeds in killing Trask, the world is doomed, but her pain makes us want it for her nonetheless.
The overall quality of the action sequences seems the most impressive thing about Days of Future Past. Watching Iceman soar on one of his patented ice bridges made me giddy. Or a dust up between Wolverine and Beast is so snarlingly animalistic that you'll never want it to end. With so many strong players in the film, it's actually kind of bizarre that Jackman's Wolverine — the glue that seems to be keeping this franchise alive and on track — is almost lost in this overstuffed adventure. There are moments where I feel he's being wedged into a scene just to get him more screen time, and there's an element to his time travel that involves him keeping calm or risk losing his psychic hold with Kitty in the future that is just plain dumb and unnecessary as anything other than a means to get us back to the future from time to time.
But overall, this is an excellent installment in the X-Men universe, and I didn't mind having 75 mutants to keep track of (there are even a few familiar faces toward the end of the film that I wasn't even aware were in this) because I knew this was a one-off story and we probably won't have to deal with so many characters in the next installment. I'm not going to dive into whether this Days of Future Past adheres closely to the Chris Claremont version because it doesn't matter; one story does not take away from the other, and certainly there are enough similarities at play in the film that fans of the comic book source material will hopefully not be too heartbroken by any changes. Days of Future Past isn't just great storytelling and comic book movie making, but it feels like a necessary step in pulling together a somewhat scattered film series and turning it into a single functioning world. Rarely has taking medicine tasted so sweet.
I don't get why people are being so hard on the latest Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore film Blended, especially when you realize what the film is actually about. At the core of this seemingly unfunny, shit stain of a movie is a very serious message about bringing two families together. One belongs to Sandler's Jim, a widower with three daughters; the other belongs to Barrymore's Lauren, a divorced woman with two sons. And through a contrivance that's not even worth mentioning, both families end up going on vacation in an exotic location, where they have to pretend to be one big family.
But it's that exotic location that gave me my first clue what Blended was really about. The film is set in South Africa, and I'm fairly certain that the true "blending" being represented racial blending in a post-Apartheid South Africa. Sure, it's about 20 years after the fact, but I feel fairly confident I'm on the right track here. While I can't draw parallels between all of the characters in the film and real-life players in the long struggle that resulted in the end of Apartheid, I feel pretty sure that Sandler and Barrymore are meant to represent the black and white cultures, who hate and distrust each other after one date at a Hooters (that's in the movie, not in real life). Once they get to South Africa, they meet a helpful concierge (Abdoulaye NGom), who is clearly standing in for Nelson Mandela, the peacemaker between the two sides. The great Terry Crews is also on hand as the resort's only source of entertainment, so I'm guessing he's a stand in for Winnie Mandela or maybe Peter Gabriel. Things get a bit fuzzy here.
The whole time I was watching this film, I was concerned that there was no counterpart for former South African president F. W. de Klerk, but sure enough, enter Joel McHale as Lauren's conniving ex-husband, who never finds time for his kids. Boy, is he a dick. Then we have Kevin Nealon and Jessica Lowe as a sexed-up couple at the resort, who essentially never stop making out even as the turmoil around them escalates rapidly; so I'm guessing they represent the United States. Wow, this is exhausting.
So I guess what I'm trying to say here is that if you are a student of world history, then Blended might be for you. But if you have any taste or class or culture or sense, book a trip to the moon for the next couple of weeks and feel free to return to Earth once the film is out of theaters. The saddest part about this movie is that Sandler and Barrymore have actually collaborated to make one of Sandler's best films that isn't Punch-Drunk Love; that would be The Wedding Singer (also helmed by Blended director Frank Coraci) and not 50 First Dates. But nothing about this film even comes remotely close to redeeming it or justifying its existence. It's a movie where a character will tell a joke and then explain the joke in case you're too dumb to get it. Don't worry Sandler, I get the joke; it just isn't funny. But I am encouraged by his interest in politics. Perhaps his next film will be a metaphor for the war in the Falkland Islands.
To read my exclusive interview with Blended star Bella Thorne, visit Ain't It Cool News.
History can leave us with a warm fuzzy feeling, or it can leave us cold and distanced from events we'd rather forget. The latest from director and co-writer James Gray, The Immigrant, features a past that is a bit of both for its characters. The film itself carries with it a warm, faded-newspaper tone that makes the story both firmly set in the past but also one that its participants are trying to forget. Marion Cotillard and Angela Sarafyan play sisters Ewa and Magda, on a ship from Poland, disembarking at Ellis Island eager for their new life to begin. Before being given their papers to go into New York, Magda is diagnosed to TB and told she must stay in the infirmary for six months, after which she will either be allowed into the country or sent back to Poland.
Devastated by this turn of events, Ewa turns to a "travelers' aide" named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who seems like he wants to help her, giving her a place to stay and a job as a seamstress for his variety show (a.k.a. burlesque show). He makes it clear that if she can make enough money, he can get her sister out with no questions, which naturally leads to her joining up with the show as a performer. Before long, the true nature of her job reveals itself as a front for a prostitution ring run by Bruno, who seems unnaturally obsessed with Ewa, even claiming that he loves her.
The Immigrant is a tale of woe and misery, but it's also a film that has a real eye for period, both in its production design, its language, even the way the characters speak. Ewa's struggle is really brought to life by Cotillard's harrowing performance, and Phoenix slips from warm and caring mentor to strong-handed pimp so easily, it's slightly terrifying. One of the few bright notes in this tale is the late-film entrance of Bruno's estranged cousin, the magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who also falls for Ewa and promises her a life away from the stage and the whoring. Ewa spends much of the film torn between wanting to escape and knowing that if she flees, she'll never see her sister again. The film can be rough at times, but it's always a fascinating journey.
Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night) and co-writer Ric Menello are telling a fairly straight-forward love-triangle story, but it's the details and strong performances that bring it to life. I think Renner is the real surprise here as the sweetheart of a charmer who reveals himself to be something a bit more complicated by the end of the film. Cotillard spends a great deal of the film looking like she's in perpetual shock, which may be what she's going for, but it's sometimes difficult to understand Ewa's state of mind as a result. She's still very good here, but we've seen her do better.
The Immigrant was nearly buried by The Weinstein Company after a limited release last week; the Chicago release was only announced a few days ago, and I'm glad people will get a chance to see it on the big screen because the production design and period sets on display are magnificent and quite stunning. And with a cast like this, without a weak link in the bunch, you'd hardly get the full impact of the total film watching it at home. This is no feel-good movie, but not all of them have to be; it is a story filled with hope, even amid the weighty material that surround it. It's a lovely, moving experience giving us an alternate view of how the United States once treated its newest residents. The film opens today in Chicago at the AMC River East theaters.
The first film I watched in the 2014 was a controversial Polish film called Aftermath, about a pair of brothers who uncovered a long-buried part of their hometown's past during World War II that the rest of the country would rather have kept secret. In the latest work from the great Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) comes Ida, the story of a young nun on the verge of taking her final vows, who also makes a similar discovery about the place she comes from. The resulting film is quite different from Aftermath but no less troubling and significant.
Shot in crisp, gorgeous black and white and framed to make every shot look like it could be hung on the wall of a museum, Ida involves 18-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), raised in a convent circa 1960s Poland, who is told by her mother superior that she must travel to meet her only living relative before taking her final vows. Annoyed by the request, Anna visits her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), an influential judge and party member, who drinks too much and seems to take home random men every night. After begrudgingly letting Anna into her home, she floors the young nun-to-be with the revelation that Anna's real name is Ida, she's actually of Jewish descent, and that her parents were murdered during the war, during Nazi occupation.
After warming up to each other, the unlikely pair travel the countryside to find Ida's parents' house and perhaps where they are buried. Despite the elegant look of the film, Ida is a straight-forward tale told without visual or written flourishes. There are long stretches with no dialogue, but a portrait of wartime Poland emerges that is ugly and shameful. The film's biggest revelations are given no more weight than the smaller, less significant ones, and the result is a quiet, intimate experience that opens up a world of pain for both women. Ida is crushed by new information, while Wanda is devastated by memories long buried in years of drinking and heartless sex. But somehow this unlikely duo establish a balance and help console each other.
It's clear that Poland is still trying to process and fully uncover a certain, awful part of its past, but a work like Ida helps put these revelations in some kind of perspective, although its clear that a great deal of healing is still happening. Director Pyawlikowski makes purely artistic choices with his camera that truly impressed me, with each sequence being more beautiful and haunting than the one before. He often will position his camera at his subjects in such a way that their heads are at the bottom of the frame, with empty sky or trees above them. The reason for this is open to interpretation but it feels like the filmmaker is leaving room for his characters' inner thoughts, or he's telling us that only a portion of their true lives has been opened up to us as of yet. It's a remarkable work, one of the finest I've seen this year, and it's well worth seeking out. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.Fed Up
Although it's not exactly a secret that products made with sugar and processed sugar are fairly bad for us, the new documentary from director Stephanie Soechtig (who made the doc Tapped, about the bottled water industry) puts a great deal of the fattening of America in perspective, probably in a way many of us won't want to face up to. Narrated by Katie Couric (a co-producer, along with An Inconvenient Truth producer Laurie David), Fed Up lays out the decades-long campaign by the food industry to inject addictive, corrosive sugar products into what we eat on a day to day basis, resulting in a shocking health crisis in this country.
The film's most interesting claims, which seem to be backed up by medical and statistical data, are that exercise and better dieting aren't helping to fend off the obesity or diabetes epidemics because everything has sugar in it, even things that are supposed to contain less sugar. The human face Fed Up puts on this subject are those of overweight children, who the film says grew up without being a given a chance to eat right, thanks to a combination of aggressive marketing by food companies and terrible ingredients in most foodstuffs. Most of the kids in the film are exercising better than their thinner peers, and it's clear that they are filled with shame and disappointment every minute of their lives.
There is something about Couric's narration that makes Fed Up feel a little too much like a feature-length public service announcement, and I suppose that's exactly what it is. But it somehow makes it less likely that the information will sink in it the way it should. That being said, there are aspects of and messages in this film (primarily the ones that aren't narrated by her) that I will carry with me for a long time to come. Since I don't have kids, I had no idea how deeply fast food chains had penetrated some public schools; I had never noticed that on the recommended daily allowance label on every food product we buy that "Sugar" doesn't have a percentage next to it because if it did, it would likely show 200-300 percent higher than the FDA recommends (thank you, sugar lobbyists).
One of the more interesting revelations in the makes regards Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, which began as a call to industry to change the make up of the products to make them healthier. But thanks to a push from the food industry, her campaign now focuses more on exercise as a means of staying fit. At no time does Fed Up not know exactly who its target is, and boy do they hate the food industry. So if you're looking for an unbiased point of view on this issue, don't look here. That doesn't make me believe the claims contained in the film any less, but it doesn't exactly make for great journalism either. Although to be fair, a list of companies and food industry associations that would not submit to an interview with the filmmakers is included at the end of the film (that list includes Mrs. Obama). Fed Up is a tough movie to watch, but ignore it at your own peril. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Queen Margot (La Reine Margot)
Twenty years ago, when I first saw Patrice (Intimacy, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) Chereau's epic story of sex, religion and the French class structure, Queen Margot, I was probably a little too young to fully appreciate the spectacle and deeper historical significance of the Catholic-Protestant clash of the 1600s. I likely focused more on the sickening blood and guts, the lusty French women and the lush production design. I still believe a master's degree in French history would make my understanding of these philosophical battles more complete, but it's still wonderful to see the film restored to its original two-hour and 40-minute glory (the original US distributor, Miramax, cut it back by about 20 minutes) in this 4K restoration.
In the end, digging into the complexities of who hates who the most isn't really important; simply understanding the levels and layers of betrayal and desire are at the core of this costume melodrama. And when you first lay eyes of Isabelle Adjani as Marguerite de Valois (or Margot), all of your cares will be swept away as it is revealed that she has a sexual appetite that guides her politics as well as bedroom activities. Despite her being Catholic, she is forced to marry the Protestant Henri de Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) as a first step toward peace between the warring factions, but we find out that her three brothers (at least one of whom she is sleeping with) are using the wedding as a way to gather their enemies in one place and slaughter them.
Margot is actually in love with a peasant called La Môle (the so-handsome-it-makes-you-angry Vincent Perez), and much of the film involves Margot manipulating the men in her life so that she and her lover may escape France and avoid the conflict altogether. Everything about Queen Margot (based on the Alexandre Dumas novel) feels heightened, sometimes distractingly so. If I remember the original reviews of this correctly, one of the biggest problems critics had with the film was its visual style, which seems to consist of an abundance of close-ups and handheld camera work that felt like the camera were being blown around by the wind. So imagine that, plus 20 minutes.
But it's the performances that keep the film on track despite the out-of-control visuals. Aside from being lovely, Adjani gives an unforgettable performance as a shrewd manipulator of men, both in and out of bed. But there's also great work by Virna Lisi as Margot's downright awful mother, Catherine. I was also a fan of the dialed-back acting of the actor (I'm not sure of his name) who plays the Royal Poisoner, whose very job title ought to give someone cause to maybe keep an eye on who he handing off potions to.
All roads lead to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, where tens of thousands of Protestants were slaughtered, an event that is recreated in this film on a smaller scale in some of the bloodiest scenes I've seen in the last 20 years. There are things about the film that are all about passion and bloodlust, and then there are moments that are strictly batshit crazy. Queen Margot is a film that I have a great deal of affection for, but I'm not sure I could go as far as defend it against those who loathe all that it stands for. I completely get that reaction; I just happen to embrace the crazy a little more willingly than some. It's a sumptuous feast for those who love excess, and it also gave us one our earliest glances at a young Asia Argento as Margot's lady in waiting. So there's that. The film opens in Chicago on Saturday, May 24 at the Gene Siskel Film Center and plays once a day through Wednesday, May 28.