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 Following

When I first saw the The Following advertised on Sky Atlantic, I knew I would be hooked. Two intriguing characters pitted against each other in that ‘good versus evil’ format that we are so used to seeing on television and at the cinema these days. In my opinion, the format still works — although it is no longer enough just to have a straight up ‘good guy’ and a straight up ‘bad guy’. As an audience, we have been completely saturated in this genre and modern day television characters cannot just have one layer: they must be like ogres, because as Shrek says, “Ogres have many layers”. Okay, I may have added the “many”. That is what made season one of The Following so compelling and consistently interesting — the main characters (particularly the two leads) were completely multi-dimensional in their thoughts and actions, and as a viewer I had no idea what was coming next.

Ogres + Onions + Layers = The Following. It all makes sense.

The show follows FBI agent Ryan Hardy, played exceptionally well by Kevin Bacon, and his desperate attempts to recapture serial killer Joe Carroll, portrayed wonderfully by James Purefoy, after Carroll’s escape from prison and subsequent unification with his cult of followers. From the outset, these were the two characters that kept me returning to the show each week — as it should be as they are steering the ship. Kevin Bacon is a very accomplished actor (he should probably ditch the EE adverts though as he is entering Go Compare Man territory) and his representation of a worn down, broken — both literally and figuratively — FBI agent who has hunted Carroll for years was spot on. However, the real shining light in season one of The Following was the scary, psychotic and yet fiendishly charismatic serial killer Joe Carroll. This is James Purefoy at his very best, and his very best is exceedingly good. Both Purefoy and Bacon play off of each other with ease, and their chemistry is the driving force behind the shows haunting atmosphere. Even as the surroundings change, the dynamic between the two stays the same.

“Dude, these pages are completely blank.”

As a result of running for fifteen episodes, season one was not over-encumbered with storylines, instead just scratching the surface of what the show can become in the coming seasons. The 15 episodes enabled creator Kevin Williamson to begin to develop effective supporting characters like Carroll’s estranged ex-wife and Hardy’s lover Claire Matthews (played by Natalie Zea) and Jacob Wells, a fairly young and inexperienced member of Carroll’s cult. Other actors who have each added to the show in their own unique way include Shawn Ashmore (of X-Men fame), Annie Parisse, Warren Kole (who is terrific in his role) and Valorie Curry. For me, there is no weak link in the cast thereby avoiding the sometimes detrimental effect that can have towards the likeability of a show in its premier season.

The cast of season one.

Each episode adheres to a consistently high quality set by those prior to it. The use of flashbacks throughout episodes is a very effective method of allowing the audience to understand who each character is and how they got to where they are. In particular, the flashbacks involving Hardy meeting Carroll back when he was a professor of English literature are well done. Time is given to various characters during each episode in order to keep the proceedings fresh and mobile, and enabling the actors to portray their respective characters in the light they wish to.  One of my biggest qualms about television shows is their misuse of actors and in terms of The Following, this is not the case.

Boasting consistently high ratings in the US and with a final episode which ended on an enormous cliff-hanger, The Following looks in good shape as it prepares for its second season. Going forward, the key to this shows success will be its ability to maintain the inescapably hostile atmosphere and creepily poetic dialogue.  If you have not watched season one, I recommend you check it out before season two hits television screens.

The Following Season Two will begin airing sometime at the start of 2014.

The Following Season One is available to pre-order on DVD and Blu-ray.