X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

★★★★

X Men Days of Future Past PosterDirector: Bryan Singer

Release Date: May 22nd, 2014 (UK); May 23rd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence

Whereas Matthew Vaugh’s franchise revitaliser X-Men: First Class gained plaudits for its cast-iron story told with an injection of slickness and youthful energy, this next stop in mutant-ville is something quite different indeed. Ambition is the word that instantly springs to mind; from the moment livelihood-altering time travel is suggested (though it’s more mind travel) until the film’s final buzz-inducing reel, X-Men: Days of Future Past presents a whirlwind of famous faces enraptured in a spider’s web of plot, humour and enticing entertainment. Along the way Bryan Singer’s instalment exhumes a few hiccups, particularly as well-versed characters get caught up in allegiance purgatory, and the film’s lack of transparency when it comes to who wears the most villainous shoes is a problem too. But d’you know what? It’s tough to get anywhere without ambition, and this Inception-cum-Minority Report outing sprinkled with comic book enthusiasm has enormous ambition. Unsurprisingly then, it gets somewhere.

It’s 2023 and the world is being pillaged by Sentinel robots that bare only grudges, towards mutants and humans alike. Long-time enemies Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) congregate with a number of X-Men and hatch a plan to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) mind south, back to 1973, in an attempt to cut the Sentinel problem at its source — that is, Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Wolverine’s solitary hope in regards to changing the course of history lies in tandem with a united mutant front, where differences are pushed to the side for the greater good. Only, this proves to be an obstacle for Professor X and Magneto’s younger selves, the duo irrevocably at odds over morality.

Days of Future Past purveys an ever-increasing sense of magnitude. As the film progresses we entertain thoughts of grandeur, that this might be a final hurrah for some. There are so many faces on screen that the loss of simply just one begins to feel unlikely. Many will succumb, we feel, and this undoubtedly instils a weighty load atop proceedings. At one point Trask urges the need for his Sentinel program: “A common enemy against the ultimate enemy… extinction.” The line represents this all-or-nothing undercurrent that drives events, ushering forth supreme unpredictability. The most engaging X-Men films are those that contort whichever mutant-human relationship is in fashion during said time period, and here we begin to see the inner-workings of primitive convolution.

Much like its predecessor, Days of Future Past wears the international climate within which the film is primarily set like a rain jacket on a cloudy day: posing relevant questions and suitably prepared for any proceeding answers. We’ve advanced a few decades since First Class and are now thoroughly engulfed a Vietnam War culture where blame is tossed left and right like a hot potato and international relations are frazzled at best. Musings over corporate-compelled destruction of the mutant race are a reflection of US military intervention across Asia. Discussions between the suit-wearing brass are centred on geopolitics, the language bolstering accusation and condemnation. (“You will have lost two wars in one lifetime.”) Despite an inordinate helping of fantastical powers such as shape-shifting and object manipulation — a stadium relocation is equally as impressive as it daunting — the shrouding of events in familiar histories gives the film vital realism that otherwise might be lost. At various points, Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography shape-shifts into stock footage of JFK assassination ilk, further furnishing authenticity.

Action sequences that spawn from the aforementioned clash of mutant and humankind are exhilarating. Carrying a wonderful visual gloss, these moments serve to get the heart pumping and, admirably, never oust the film’s emotional prerogative. Though, the same cannot be said for plot goings-on. It’s not universally indecipherable, however the narrative does falter on occasion. As Wolverine awakens in 1973, “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” consciously lamenting with poignancy in the air around him, there’s a struggle between reality and non-reality that never fully realises closure. His present self is dropped into the past, but where is his past self? The Wolverine character hits a stumbling block or two as the film progresses. His main objective is to rally the X-troops, but that’s about it. Afterwards, the mutant mainstay becomes something of a generic piece in the puzzle. An impeding notion arises, therefore, that him being selected to go back in time is more of a Hugh Jackman star power issue as opposed to a Wolverine character arc issue. “You sent back the wrong man,” says the Aussie.

Nonetheless it is the characters who generally hold the key to success. A few have never been better relayed on screen. As young Charles Xavier, James McAvoy steals the show in a performance of initial enduring frailty and disillusionment. He has lost everything, yet refrains from morphing into a charity case. Rather, our sympathy is earned through the Scot’s heart-wrenching depiction of a broken man, one of McAvoy’s best turns to date. A scene between he and his older manifestation is arguably the best of the entire piece, a memorable moment made so with the aid of Patrick Stewart. On the flip side, Michael Fassbender’s domineering Magneto is cold and calculated; we never truly know where his allegiance lies. The impressiveness in Fassbender’s performance comes by way of a subtle regret that he exudes, a nuance that holds greater verve as Magneto embraces his thirst for resolution. Jennifer Lawrence is icy as Mystique, her desire for revenge both ambiguous and purposeful.

Though Mystique engages in a number of villainous acts, she’s never intended to be the definitive villain. In fact there is no real categorical antagonist here. The closest we get is Peter Dinklage’s suit-wearing scientist Bolivar Trask, though his infrequent appearances on screen tend to hinder any evil momentum. “Trask is the enemy,” we are informed and, although his Sentinel program is born from an unsavoury mindset, Dinklage never really comes across as the heinous bad guy that he probably should. Days of Future Past is layered with humour, often successful attempts too, and Quicksilver speeds off with many of the funniest moments. Evan Peters emits wit as quick as his feet, striking up a comedic dynamic with the dry banter of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Listen out for Jim Croce’s “If I Could Save Time in a Bottle” and look out for the ensuing scene; intuitive excellence.

Despite a small helping of problems associated with narrative, X-Men: Days of Future Past manages to leave a lasting impression on us, an emotional impact bred by the people involved and the morals that they relay. This has a special aura surrounding it, a magnitude that usurps its few flaws. Regardless, we ought to applaud scoping aim, particularly when the aimer just about hits bullseye.

I suspect Singer and company have been practising their darts.

X-Men Days of Future Past - James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

★★★★

Director: Peter Jackson

Release Date: December 13th, 2013 (UK/US)

Genre: Action; Fantasy

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly

Peter Jackson’s carrot-wielding Bree resident looks knowingly at the screen before sidling along the rainy, muddy Middle-earth town. Moments later the smoky, beer-filled room of the Prancing Pony inn hosts dwarf-heir Thorin as he glances wearily around clutching his axe in preparation for any potential attack. Gandalf the Grey sits opposite him, enticing us with familiar wispy tones, underplayed confidence and Lord of the Rings lingo (“We’ve been blind… and in our blindness the enemy has returned”).

We’re back. No, it’s not quite the Middle-earth from a decade ago — or, narratively, decades later — but it was never going to be. Rather, The Desolation of Smaug signals a return to the comfort of Peter Jackson’s pre-Lord of the Rings universe, and already proceedings seem more urgent than last time around.

Following their narrow escape from the Misty Mountains and temporary fending off of Orc war chief Azog, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his company of dwarfs find themselves splintered from Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who must investigate the state and whereabouts of an evil necromancer boasting powers that are ever-growing. As they part ways for the time being, Gandalf suggests that the best way to continue on their journey towards the Lonely Mountain and Erebor, is for the group to travel through a dishevelled, haunting forest, rather than treading two-hundred miles north and going around it. In the first film, the dwarfs and Bilbo most certainly would’ve taken the long route, and would definitely have sung an out-of-place song about picking mushrooms or making fire en route. Many of the previous instalment’s shortcomings (long-comings, even) are brushed to the side this time though, as the film hurtles along at a splendidly speedy pace, with plenty of action and wit to serve.

In fact, the variety of creature encounters and battle sequences give The Desolation of Smaug a much needed burst of energy from the get-go, unlike An Unexpected Journey which never really hit any kind of stride until Bilbo’s magnetic encounter with Gollum. Sadly Gollum does not feature here, however Bilbo does partake in a similarly dynamic conversation with Smaug the dragon, a meeting which is surprisingly full of more humour than tension. Martin Freeman comes into his own as the Hobbit Baggins, and along with a new found purpose through which his character evolves, Freeman also offers more than a handful of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. His hurried, fidgety approach works expertly as he is often seen placing his cohorts before himself, exemplified during the tremendous barrel scene. However Bilbo’s engaging back-and-forth with Smaug sits effortlessly at the pinnacle of Freeman’s performance. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the dragon and, unlike Gandalf who possesses an assuring whispery tone, delivers his speeches deceitfully and slyly, as the words echo off the screen.

For a film (and trilogy) entitled “The Hobbit” we really could’ve done with more of said small being. At over two hours and 40 minutes (nine minutes shorter than the previous film) there is bountiful time for director Peter Jackson to tell the story of Bilbo finding the Ring and how the poisoned chalice affects him, however the film only breezes over the developing relationship between Hobbit and Ring. Rather, The Desolation of Smaug puts greater emphasis on the relationship triangle which incorporates a returning-to-the-franchise Legolas (Orlando Bloom), new-to-the-franchise Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and already-in-the-franchise Kili (Aidan Turner). The return of a makeup-laden Legolas is smart move on Jackson’s part as both the elf and Tauriel are the primary vehicles of energy, dispatched by way of exhilarating, fun-to-watch battle sequences; we even see Legolas skate via Orc rather than shield, as he did in The Two Towers. However unlike the romance sub-plot featured throughout the original trilogy (both book and film), the love triangle here feels very forced and artificial. Its creation was conceived exclusively for the big screen, but the film does not need it for added drama or emotion — that is already there as part of Bilbo’s journey.

The Desolation of Smaug is too long, although at no time does it noticeably falter as a consequence. There is more than enough going on to keep the audience attentive, and as a result the film looks more like a film than it does a congregation of set-pieces. Along with the reduced frame-rate (in most cinemas, back from 48 frames per second to 24) the swift advancement of proceedings prevents the viewer from becoming bored and spending their time staring at background objects that look exceedingly prop-like in a higher frame-rate environment — this hampered part one. The typically Lord of the Rings wide-shots which span over landscapes are beautifully shot and film’s computer-generated additions mesh in well. In an interesting move by Jackson, we see a number of mirroring scenes which serve both as a warning of evil times to come, and as a chance to reflect. For instance, Bilbo twanging the spider web and alerting many spiders a la Pippin knocking the metal armour down a shaft, in turn waking the goblins in Moria, and Thorin’s emphatic “What say you?” in his Aragorn-esque speech demanding affirmation, are two examples. Perhaps the most poignant of all though, is the elderly dwarf Balin’s declaration of his admiration for Hobbits, “It never ceases to amaze me, the courage of Hobbits,” which he unveils with the same authenticity as Gandalf does towards Frodo early in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Peter Jackon’s passion for the subject matter seeps through in abundance here and his decision to split the cinematic adaptation of The Hobbit into three films looks a great deal more justified by the end of The Desolation of Smaug (though there’s still a way to go). Martin Freeman shines as Bilbo Baggins in a sequel which, although still has its downsides, succeeds its predecessor both narratively and in content.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Out December 13th, 2013)

As presumably everybody already knows, the trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was released yesterday. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a forthcoming trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, opened in cinemas back in December of 2012, and has now taken over $1 billion dollars at the box office. With all the fanfare behind the franchise and excitement starting to build already, I think it is fair to say that by this time next year, The Desolation of Smaug will have come close to that figure again, and perhaps have even exceeded it.

An Unexpected Journey, directed by The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, delivered a more light-hearted Middle-earth (in comparison to Middle-earth during The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and it is more than likely that part two of The Hobbit, which Jackson helms again, will be portrayed in a similar vein. For me, this is by no means a bad thing — the book itself is certainly less downbeat than its successors and therefore the film does not need to be either. The problem I had with An Unexpected Journey was its less-than-unexpected runtime, which approached almost three hours. Jackson had stated in interviews before the film was released that he was looking into using excerpts from Tolkien’s other related writings (Unfinished Tales and such), and as it turned out, he used a few more than he probably should have (such as the scene with bumbling wizard Radagast the Brown and his energetic rabbits). Something tells me The Desolation of Smaug will have a similarly long runtime, but at the end of the day if it means I am sitting for an extra hour in a cinema, why should I be complaining?

“Wait, you’re saying these are just… chocolate coins?”

The trailer for The Desolation of Smaug certainly looks more action-packed than the previous instalment, as Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins and his troupe of companions continue on their journey to the Lonely Mountain and an impending meeting with the dragon, Smaug. We see an array of new characters making an appearance in the trailer (such as Lost’s delightful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel) and old faces returning (the ever-popular Orlando Bloom is back as the, well… ever-popular Legolas). Stephen Fry finally gets his debut in the franchise as the Master of Lake-town and Martin Freeman’s Sherlock compatriot, Benedict Cumberbatch, plays the dragon — who better (than Kanyon… never mind)? Aside from those four, many of the previous actors from An Unexpected Journey are set to reprise their roles, signalling the return of people like Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield and James Nesbitt as Bofur the dwarf. We are even getting the pleasure of another Andy Serkis performance as Gollum.

Particular events outlined in the book which stick out in the trailer include the barrel scene, the company’s arrival and travels through places such as Mirkwood and Dale, and the eventual confrontation with Smaug. We even get a greater glimpse of the dragon right at the end of the trailer (as opposed to just an eye in the previous film). Once again, it appears that the graphics team and visual departments have all worked wonders on the actual viewing aspect of the piece, as the detail exuding from the trailer alone looks magnificent, an element common in Jackson’s films — they tend to be truly cinematic and spectacular (take The Lovely Bones as an example).

One thing is for sure, at the hands of Peter Jackson, regardless of runtime or unnecessary scenes or any number of frames per second, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is certain to be a visually stunning, exciting and hugely enjoyable watch for all.