X-Men: Days of Future Past struggles against summer competition

How times have changed. Until a few years ago, the Memorial Day weekend in the US would have signified the true beginning of the summer movie blockbuster season. This was the weekend that the biggest movies of the summer would be released, a trend started off by Star Wars in 1977.

This year, for me it actually feels like half the summer is already over. I’ve watched the 4 movies I was most looking forward to already – Captain America 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past. In the 9 weeks of summer that’s officially still left to go, I only have 3 movies I really want to see – Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow (getting great early reviews), the potentially dark and depressing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Marvel’s new franchise hopeful Guardians of the Galaxy (featuring Bradley Cooper voicing a talking raccoon, Vin Diesel voicing a talking tree and some awesome music from the 1970’s).

So, this is my mid-summer scorecard, which also doubles up as a review of X-Men: DoFP:-

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier – 8/10: I’ve already gone ga-ga over this film, so there’s not much more to say. The 3 Marvel movies released so far have come from 3 different studios. Captain America is produced by Marvel themselves, while Spider-Man and X-Men are with Sony and Fox respectively. Well, it shows. Marvel Studios, with Kevin Feige in charge, just has an intuitive feel of their own material; they have most of their casting right (except for Sebastian Stan as Bucky/ The Winter Soldier) and the look of their films (colour and texture) is glorious. They have the best balance between humour, gravitas and action (something that has been consistent from their first release in 2008, Iron Man).

 

  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – 7/10: This was the surprise package for me. I didn’t like the idea of this reboot when it happened in 2012. I didn’t like Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man (how would he fit his ‘big hair’ into his mask, I wondered). I didn’t like Emma Stone because I had seen her in Easy A (2010) and found her character irritating. I loved Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) too much to accept these pretenders to the throne. Well, I had to admit, Garfield made a refreshing change from the dour Tobey Maguire. The chemistry between Garfield and Stone was sparkling. And they kept it going in this summer’s sequel. Although Jamie Foxx was a disappointment as Electro, the creepy performance of Dane DeHaan, the action sequences and the heart-breaking ending all contributed to making this a pretty good entry in the series.

 

  • Godzilla – 8/10: I love movies and books that tease the arrival of something unexpected and awe-inspiring (think Jurassic Park in 1993 and Independence Day in 1996 and countless scifi/ first contact books I’ve read). I don’t mind not seeing the creature/ alien invader in its entirety till the end (think Cloverfield in 2008). Godzilla scored on both counts. Just seeing him roar was thrilling. Unlike many action films these days which rely on shaky cams and quick cuts, Godzilla had an editing and framing style which worked for me…lots of wide shots, held for long enough to see the creature and its surroundings. The cinematography is by Seamus McGarvey who has been Oscar nominated twice for Atonement and Anna Karenina – both beautifully lit and colorful, but also able to use shadows to capture the somber moments. This is the man who has now graduated to big spectacles like The Avengers and Godzilla. The quality shows on screen. Having an actor of the quality of Bryan Cranston anchor the first half of the movie also made a big difference.

 

  • X-Men: Days of Future Past – 6.5/10: This was the film which I expected would get my highest score of the summer. I love Bryan Singer’s work from the original two X-Men movies and I absolutely loved X-Men: First Class, which Singer produced. From screenwriter Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Sherlock Holmes), I expected to see lots of snappy dialogue and humour, blended with action (yes, he did co-write the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand, but he had owned up to that and promised to make amends this time around). Perhaps because of these high expectations, I came away a bit disappointed, even though there are some outstanding set-pieces in the film.

 

Let’s start with what worked:-

 

The opening action sequence was fantastic. Many things happen at the same time and the choreography is outstanding. I have long been a fan of Colossus from the comic books and in all these years, we only had a brief glimpse of him saving the students during the Xavier Mansion attack in X-Men 2. So it was great to see him in battle with the Sentinels, assisted by a bunch of new faces. The best of the lot was Blink played by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing; she has the power to open portals over short distances allowing her team mates to attack or escape from the Sentinels. Meanwhile, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) runs off with Bishop (French acting sensation Omar Sy, completely under-utilized) in tow, phasing through various solid objects with Sentinels in pursuit. Super stuff.

The real scene stealer in this film is Evan Peters who plays Peter (in the comics, he is Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver). There is a truly memorable scene in the Pentagon, which brings all the talent of the film makers and cast to the fore; the set design, props, choreography, special effects and acting all ensure that this will be a much viewed clip on YouTube for years to come.

The fight scene in Paris involving Magneto, Mystique and Beast – taking place on the streets in front of a large crowd of newsmen and members of the public, much of it caught through the perspective of their 8mm cameras.

The end-credits teaser which features En Sabah Nur (aka Apocalypse) in Egypt nearly 4500 years ago, with his Four Horsemen in the background. This sets things up for the next sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse due for release in May 2016, also directed by Bryan Singer.

 

Four things that didn’t work for me:-

 

I thought the title sequence was quite generic, featuring graphics of DNA combining and recombining with some artificial looking bits. I thought they could have been a bit imaginative and played with a time travel theme, or with representations of the different mutant powers. Even if they didn’t do this with the opening (for fear it would give away too much), they could certainly have done it with the closing titles (Pacific Rim and The Avengers both did this quite well).

James McAvoy as Charles Xavier – although we’ve been told that Prof X was going through a tough spell in 1973, it is difficult to reconcile James McAvoy’s take on this character vs. his own interpretation in X-Men: First Class and the iron-like resolve of Patrick Stewart character even in those bleak times being hunted by Sentinels in the future. Whatever the justification for his personal crisis, I just found James McAvoy too wimpy and whiny.

Tom Sigel’s cinematography – In recent years there has been a trend of switching from film to digital cameras. The only problem with some of these cameras is that they lack the inherent texture of film, the graininess/ mistiness that gives movies their magical/ fantastical feel as opposed to the realism of a news broadcast on TV. Because of this, I really dislike watching movies on HDTV/ BluRay and I also dislike movies like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies which look so hyper-real, the scenes actually look like someone’s amateur home video. Sometimes its also about how the cinematographer sets up the camera, as the same digital camera can produce a different visual texture in different movies. Well, in X-Men DoFP, it looked like the close-up scenes and the night time scenes were shot with this ‘home video setting’, while the big action sequences look fantastic and ‘film-like’. It felt like I was watching two different movies spliced together and it irritated me no end.

The music by John Ottman. Nothing to write home about. I was missing something iconic like Magneto’s theme from X-Men: First Class. Although to be fair to the man, he did have his hands full editing the film…that’s right, he’s a world class music composer and film editor. I think he’s a better editor than a composer.

That’s it for my mid-summer scorecard. I feel bad about being so harsh on X-Men; perhaps I may revise my score by the end of summer!

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