How Days Of Future Past Remade The X-Men Series

“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”

Contains spoilers for X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, The Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Back in the late nineties, the superhero genre was struggling to survive on the big screen. Superman, Batman and Howard the Duck had all tried their luck in Hollywood, but while some went on to become cult classics with dedicated followings the majority were consigned to an eternity of dusty bargain bins and late night syndication. The Crow, The Rocketeer and The Mask made small advances, but they did so as horrors, period adventures and slap-stick comedies rather than straight superhero movies.

Blade too found an audience, and after a lull in TV movies re-established Marvel as a comic book studio with cinematic ambitions. It wasn’t until X-Men landed on the scene in 2000 that they gained any real traction, however, and with that one movie they defined what not just a Marvel movie but comic book adaptations in general were to be: spectacular, yes, but also funny, grounded and relatable. Mainstream cinema had mutated, changed irreversibly for the foreseeable future; the X-Men were superheroes and proud.

X-Men saw Professor X and Magneto resume their conflict from the comics, as analogues of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively. It opened during World War II, with a young Erik Lehnsherr taking out his frustrations on the gate of a concentration camp, before cutting to Mississippi where 17-year old Rogue accidentally put her boyfriend into a coma. Rogue (alongside Logan, a cage fighter calls himself Wolverine who she met in Alberta) join Charles Xavier’s X-Men, and fight alongside Cyclops, Jean Grey and Storm when Magneto threatens an international summit.

X-Men

For more than a decade the genre flourished, as X-Men found favour at the box office and soon opened the floodgates to its superhero kin. Thanks to Bryan Singer superhero movies would cast real actors, explore current themes and continue to develop the use of special effects in cinema. Before long Marvel had stopped releasing films and started launching franchises; and the likes of Spider-man, Daredevil and Hulk were soon breaking box office records for rival studios Sony, 20th Century Fox and Universal.

Singer, however, stayed ahead of the game, and in 2003 released what was arguably (up until that point, at least) the greatest superhero movie of all time. X2 made X-Men look like test footage, upping the ante with a larger cast, considerably increased budget and thematic complexity that had never before been seen in the genre. New mutant Nightcrawler brought religion into the mix, while Iceman came out (as a mutant) to his parents and anti-mutant crusader William Stryker used his own son’s gifts to commit genocide — a sort of genetic cleansing.

X2 still holds up to this day, largely thanks to Singer’s direction. Although the focus is on Wolverine, a mutant with the ability to heal himself, and his search for answers pertaining to the adamantium plating that was previously applied to his skeleton, almost every member of the supporting cast gets something interesting to work with. Weatherwoman Storm is struggling to have faith, shape-shifter Mystique doesn’t want to hide anymore and telepath Jean Grey is finding it increasingly difficult to control her abilities. The latter sacrifices herself to save her friends, but a final sequence suggests that she is about to be reborn as Phoenix, as in the comics.

X2

Singer has always been good at endings, and X2 boasted one of the most exciting yet. Before post-credits stingers became a thing and each superhero movie insisted in teasing the next in line, X2 invoked one of the most celebrated storylines in comic book history: X-Men‘s Dark Phoenix Saga. With Wolverine having found his answers at Alkali Lake it seemed that it was finally time to shift the focus to a different character. Wolverine would still feature heavily given his feelings for Jean, but if it was to stay true to the story the sequel would also require beefed up roles for Professor X, the previously underused Cyclops and the as yet unintroduced Beast (discounting Hank McCoy’s brief television appearance in X2 of course).

It was not to be, sadly, as Singer then left the series to reboot Superman over at Warner Bros. A number of directors flirted with X-Men 3, including Matthew Vaughn, before Brett Ratner took over the reins. Unsatisfied with merely concluding the Phoenix storyline set up in the previous film, Ratner also attempted to adapt Gifted, another much-loved miniseries created this time by Joss Whedon and introducing for the first time a mutant cure. The results were famously disastrous, as the story — a plot-driven and disappointingly shallow affair starring Vinnie Jones as The Juggernaut, Bitch — called for the deaths of about half the cast and left much of the rest depowered by the end of the film.

There were positives, though they were admittedly few and far between. The introduction of Angel was surprisingly effective — we meet him in the bathroom, trying to file down his wings so that his anti-mutant parents wont notice — but he never felt like an integral part of the story. Similarly, the introduction of Kelsey Grammar as Beast and Ellen Page as Shadowcat were undeniably astute choices, and both did excellent work throughout the movie. And while Professor X and Cyclops may have met with ignoble ends Jean Grey and Mystique got rather more fitting send offs: the former was murdered by a distraught Wolverine while the latter was de-powered by a guard and quickly abandoned by Magneto.

X-Men The Last Stand

Things only got worse when instead of continuing the story (with a cast as high-quality as Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Halle Berry they were beginning to get quite expensive) 20th Century Fox announced a series of prequel spin-offs centring on Wolverine and Magneto. Only the former ever actually made it into cinemas, and it became immediately apparent why — Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine continued to sully the franchise’s once good name. Just as X-Men: The Last Stand had wasted a number of characters, X-Men Origins: Wolverine introduced a number of fan favourites only to leave them stranded in the past or butchered beyond recognition. Gambit, though ably played by Taylor Kitsch, was never to be heard from again, while Deadpool, a comedic character with incredible potential, was reimagined as a mute henchman.

In 2o11, 20th Century Fox released another prequel, this time centring on the formation of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters. Taking its subtitle from the comics, First Class saw Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) form an uneasy alliance against Sebastian Shaw and the Hellfire Club. Having previously turned down The Last Stand, Matthew Vaughn took the reins for First Class, introducing a new team of X-Men that included Havok, Banshee, Mystique and Beast. Though ostensibly a prequel, Vaughn’s film also took a few liberties with continuity, like including a young Beast (remember: Hank’s still human as of X2) and having Charles meet Xavier before they meet for the first time in X-Men Origins, and before they meet for the first time again in the original X-Men.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was loathed by fans and mocked by critics, and to all intents and purposes it was ultimately dropped from canon by the studio. That didn’t stop Fox from pursuing a second Wolverine spin-off, however, and after intriguing talks with Darren Aranofsky broke down James Mangold signed on as director. Nobody was expecting a straight sequel from Hood’s film, but what was truly surprising was that The Wolverine was actually set after the events of The Last Stand, with Logan still haunted by the spectre of Jean Grey. Unexpectedly, The Wolverine was also quite good, and though it had little to do with the other films it took the time to explore Logan in more depth than ever before. With post-credit stingers now in vogue, it also teased X-Men: Days Of Future Past by reintroducing Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Ian McKellen as Magneto, together for the first time in over five years.

The Wolverine

Stewart and McKellen weren’t the only original cast members to be returning for the film, which was tasked with acting both as a sequel to X-Men: First Class and X-Men: The Last Stand. Based on the time-travelling storyline from the comics, Days Of Future Past would see both ensembles united for one cross-generational adventure. X1 and 2 director Bryan Singer was also set to return, and many expected him to use the film as an opportunity to erase the subsequent instalments from existence, or simply to ignore them all together as he had once done in Superman Returns. But could Singer do it? Could he replicate the success of X2 while juggling two separate casts and simultaneously trying to erase the last five years from history? Or were the X-Men destined to die out; outmoded, outdated and out-evolved by The Dark Knight Trilogy and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe?

The success of X-Men: Days Of Future Past comes from Singer’s obvious love for the franchise. This is not a vein attempt to reassert his dominance nor is it an attempt to dismiss the work of others, it is simply the continuation of a saga that is clearly close to his heart. The film opens with a long overdue and much missed Patrick Stewart voiceover, in which he muses about whether the future is truly set or whether it can still be changed. Singer knows the answer, and having — along with everyone else — witnessed his characters abused at the hands of Brett Ratner uses the opportunity to give them the send off they deserve. Sentinals have wiped out most of mutant-kind, but thanks to Shadowcat’s time-travel abilities the X-Men have managed to survive. Understandably unhappy with the status quo, however, Professor X and Magneto conspire to send Wolverine back in time to prevent their future from ever having happened.

Though not without its moments, X-Men: First Class suffered for its distance from the original series. Vaughn had for the most part been left with secondary and tertiary characters with which make up his team, and couldn’t take any real risks without upsetting the fans and jeopardising its place within the established canon. Not only does X-Men: Days Of Future Past inextricably link the two timelines, but having finally given the future team the send-off they deserve Singer could persevere with the prequel and rewrite history as he saw fit. In this respect X-Men: Days Of Future Past is in a similar position to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, only rather than threatening a fan culture that spanned ten movies, four television series and countless novels and comics Singer’s film would only erase five films, three of which had already been largely dismissed.

This rather unique situation had an unexpected side-effect. By establishing a new timeline Singer didn’t negate the other movies but validate them. By taking away their responsibility to uphold the main story, audiences could no longer criticise them for wasting characters or spoiling stories. They could be re-evaluated, assessed differently, and maybe even accepted as unremarkable movies that nevertheless had their place in the franchise. Singer facilitates this approach by featuring flashbacks not just to his earlier movies but to every film in the series. He also incorporates Ellen Page and Kelsey Grammar from Last Stand (not to mention the Sentinals first glimpsed in its Danger Room scene), and nods to X-Men Origins: Wolverine by giving the character bone claws in the past. What’s more, the ending arguably has more impact if you’ve seen The Wolverine.

Another of the film’s many successes is the way it shifts focus from Wolverine to the rest of the young team. Once in the past, Logan takes on something of a supporting role, sent back with a mission that is widely ignored by everyone he puts it to. Though he succeeds in convincing Charles and Hank to suit up, their plan to free Erik and reason with Mystique backfires when the former instead tries to kill the latter. It’s a shocking scene, and for the first time in the series puts Mystique front and centre. McAvoy and Fassbender do terrific work, once again acting as contrasts to Stewart and McKellen, but it’s Jennifer Lawrence as Raven who everyone will be talking about afterwards. In the original trilogy she was little more than Magneto’s right hand man, in X-Men: First Class she was Charles’ pet and Erik’s prize, but here she’s a force of change in her own right.

Having spent most of the movie trying to kill Bolivar Trask (an assassination which will directly lead to the events seen in the future section of the film), Mystique decides to spare him at the behest of Charles. No longer the killer that she was once destined to become, Mystique suddenly has a new fate to look forward to. She doesn’t stop there however, shooting Magneto in the neck with a plastic bullet and dooming him to a life in prison. The effect this is likely to have on the timeline is incalculable, as not only does it side Mystique with the X-Men rather than the Brotherhood of Mutants but it also takes Magneto out of action long before he can threaten the world in X-Men, X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand. She also changes Wolverine’s fate, rescuing him from William Stryker’s Weapon X programme and potentially saving him from ever having adamantium fused to his bones.

Ending the film here would have been impressive enough, but rather than finishing with temporal upheaval Singer instead chooses to depart on a far sweeter note. Waking in a new future, having succeeded in saving the world from Trask and his Sentinal programme, Logan finds that everything has changed. At this point Wolverine is the only character who knows the full story — knows that he was betrayed by his best friend, experimented on by the government and responsible for the death of Jean Grey — awakens to find most of that suffering erased from history. It’s a moment of incredible power and beauty, and continues to build as he sees Rogue, Iceman, Shadowcat, Storm, Jean, Cyclops and Charles all alive and well.

With X-Men: Apocalypse and an untitled The Wolverine sequel already announced, it’s clear that this isn’t the last we’ll see of the X-Men. Perhaps we’ll also get an X-Men 4, or a spin-off centering on Quicksilver, Gambit, Deadpool, Angel, Blink, Bishop or indeed any of the other characters under-served by the extant series. (Having written a small caveat into his latest film — revealing that time is like a current that has a way of re-establishing itself — he can really have his cake and eating it.) Right now, however, it’s important to take stock and to appreciate the magnitude of Singer’s achievement. Evolution has once again leapt forward; following Marvel’s The Avengers it seems that we have moved into a new age of superhero movies, and with X-Men: Days Of Future Past Fox has shown that they are still in the game. As I said in my review: Singer hasn’t just re-written history, he’s made it.

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X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)

Days Of Future Past

In 1973 the death of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and the subsequent capture of his killer Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) leads the United States government to pursue the late inventor’s sentinel programme. Fifty years later, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Logan (Hugh Jackman) are among the last mutants remaining after the shape-shifting robots have exterminated most of their kind. Using Kitty’s powers, Charles and Eric send Logan back in time to stop Mystique, save Trask and hopefully prevent the future as they know it from ever happening. In order to succeed he must seek out their younger selves (played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively), a task that is easier said than done given that they are no longer on speaking terms, with the former suppressing his abilities with the aid of a serum and the latter incarcerated miles beneath the Pentagon. Luckily, he has Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to help him.

I think it’s safe to say that for a while there thing’s weren’t looking very good for 20th Century Fox’s flagship superhero franchise. The X-Men had been in a bad way for some time; the saga had devolved into three separate sub-series, the continuity of which had become convoluted, often contradictory, and its biggest box office draw — the now ubiquitous Hugh Jackman — was openly considering an early retirement. Worse, the story behind the camera was often as difficult to follow as that which was unfolding before it: first, director Bryan Singer left the celebrated trilogy he had started in the ill-equipped hands of Brett Ratner, then Gavin Hood pursued a Wolverine prequel only for Matthew Vaughn to reboot the series with a largely new cast, while most recently James Mangold took on a second Wolverine spin-off, which — just to confuse matters further — acted not as a sequel to Hood’s film or a spin-off from Vaughn’s but as a continuation of the original trilogy. I did my best to make sense of it all here.

Some faith was restored when Singer announced that he would be returning to the series he started, and the revelation that he would this time be adapting the revered Days Of Future Past storyline from the X-Men comics was met with (admittedly wary) optimism. What Singer had planned was certainly ambitious: to use a time-travel plot device to not only knit together the now disparate threads — each with its own cast, often playing the same characters — but to unpick some of the narrative knots introduced into the series by Ratner, Hood, Vaughn and Mangold. It seemed from the outside as though Singer was plotting not just a movie but a rescue mission, and though he has ultimately succeeded in putting the franchise back on track his efforts go far beyond papering over the cracks supposedly left by others. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is not simply course correction — the film doesn’t tie itself in loops trying to plug every single hole (you may remember Wolverine had his adamantium claws severed in the last film, yet he retains them here) — but an attempt at something bigger and more exciting.

Considering just how much ground he has to cover Singer tackles the first act with an astonishing lightness of touch. We are reunited with Kitty Pride — complete with hitherto unseen time-travelling abilities — in a brief but brilliant opening salvo that also introduces four new characters and establishes the film’s dystopian future timeline. Patrick Stewart then explains the stakes, while also dispensing with fifty-odd years of history and laying out the various obstacles that Logan must overcome in his mission to save the future from the past. Before you know it you’re transported back to the 1970s, watching Wolverine struggle out of a waterbed and into a floral shirt — cracking wise once again after ten minutes of action-packed but sober exposition. After five movies and one gratuitous cameo you could be forgiven for expecting another glorified vehicle for Jackman; however, not only does Singer somehow manage to breathe new life into the character by putting him into a novel situation but he manages to keep Logan under strict control and just to the edge of the spotlight. X-Men: Days Of Future Past feels like the missing piece of the puzzle, and once in place it becomes clear that the series isn’t really about him after all.

Singer may give the likes of Storm, Shadowcat and Iceman one last chance to shine (not to mention Daniel Cudmore’s Colossus, who after three films of relative inactivity finally gets something to do), but his focus is ultimately on the newer cast of 1973. Despite fears of overcrowding born from seemingly endless casting announcements, Days Of Future Past is in fact a surprisingly intimate affair. This is the story of two feuding friends, and of the young woman caught in their crossfire; as McAvoy’s Charles and Fassbender’s Erik pursue their individual ends, Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique is left to strike out on her own — a path that will ultimately lead mutant-kind towards extinction. A supporting character in the original trilogy, and somewhat underserved by Vaugh’s First Class, Mystique finally comes into her own, growing to embody the struggle between revenge and redemption that has been at the franchise’s core ever since day one. It’s such a perfect fit that you wonder if it has in fact been Singer’s plan all along — when Stewart (and later McAvoy) insists that it’s never too late to bring someone back from the brink, he could almost be speaking of the franchise itself.

Where Days Of Future Past really distinguishes itself, however, is in its surprisingly unspoiled and understated second half. It’s amazing just how little of the story has been given away in the film’s apparently excessive promotional materials. There comes a point after Mystique has saved Havok (Lucas Till) from Saigon and Professor X, Wolverine and Quicksilver (who makes an impression far exceeding the time he is actually onscreen) have freed Magneto from prison that you realise you have no idea what’s going to happen next. X-Men has always been the full package — offering not only superhero spectacle but also compelling characters and real satirical edge — and Singer weaves a story that makes absolute sense, whether you look at it from a logistical, emotional or historical standpoint. This gives the third act stakes not often seen in the superhero genre; Mystique’s soul, Charles and Erik’s friendship and fifty years of history (not to mention the films audiences have grown up with) are all on the line. By the time the film ends you will have laughed, you will have cried and you will have left Wolverine-esque gashes in the arms of your chair.

With Marvel having set a precedent in The Avengers, it seems that every studio with a superhero series to its name is pursuing an integrated mega-franchise. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is really the first film to deliver on this particular promise; Singer’s latest is an emotional, intelligent and thrilling movie in its own right but it’s also a part of something much, much bigger. It’s at once a conclusion (and an astonishingly satisfying one at that), a bridge between instalments (we get flashbacks/forwards to every film in the series) and a springboard for future adventures (I for one can’t wait to see more of Blink). Singer somehow manages to have his cake and eat it; rather than dismiss the films that came before, Days Of Future Past actually validates them — as if somehow elevating them by mere association with this towering achievement. He hasn’t just re-written history, he’s made it.

5-Stars

 

Filth (2013)

FilthBruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is in line for a promotion, and barring unforeseen circumstances he’s the clear favourite, putting him ahead of Ray Lennox (Jamie Bell), Amanda Drummond (Imogen Poots) and Peter Inglis (Emun Elliott). Cue unforeseen circumstances. Things start to go wrong when, on top of leading a murder investigation, Bruce is tasked with identifying the prank caller who’s been harassing the wife of Registrar General for Scotland’s Office Bladesey (Eddie Marsan) — a job complicated by the fact that he himself is the culprit. Under ever increasing pressure, and struggling with a number of psychological issues and addictions, Bruce begins to unravel, little helped by the unorthodox efforts of his Australian psychiatrist (Jim Broadbend).

If there was an award for best trailer of 2013 so far it would undoubtedly go to Filth, with the tongue-in-cheek 12A teaser making a joke out of the little available child-friendly footage and yet still hinting at one of the most outrageous, surreal and entertaining films of the year. Since Trainspotting, in fact — the last Irvine Welsh adaptation to get the balance just right.  The highlight of the adverts was arguably Jim Broadbent, who chewed the scenery as an Antipodean psychoanalyst who — judging by the accent — might have walked in from the set of a Fosters advert.

Unfortunately, Filth is not as outrageous, surreal or entertaining as the promotional material would have you believe. Many of the most memorable images are wasted in the first few scenes, relegated to dream sequences and unimportant imaginings, while Jim Broadbent has little to do but re-enact the scenes you’ve seen before every other movie for at least the last two months. The film is sick, twisted and decidedly un-PC, but it lacks the colour and playfulness that could have made it enjoyable, too. A discordant and juxtapositional soundtrack might work to offset or subvert the content, but it is neither as clever, cheeky or as punchy as it thinks it is.

That’s not to say that the film is without merit, as the performances are exceptional almost without exception. James McAvoy gives Bruce Robertson his all, wasting no time in a futile attempt to make himself sympathetic and instead channeling his full energies into making the character as vile, reprehensible yet undeniably compelling as physically possible. As established, Broadbent is a delight whenever he’s onscreen, while Imogen Poot, Jamie Bell and Eddie Marsan make impressions completely disproportionate to their minimal screentime. Filth has actors to spare, with Iain De Caestecker, Kate Dickie and Shirley Henderson left to fight over scraps.

Like Trainspotting, Filth is an extraordinarily unlikeable story full of the sort of reprehensible characters that you’d usually cross the road to avoid. Unlike Trainspotting, however, and despite a superior trailer, it lacks the directorial verve and editorial punch necessary to create the illusion of entertainment. It’s certainly filthy, but not at all gorgeous.

3-Stars

Trance (2013)

TranceSimon (James McAvoy) is a fine art auctioneer responsible for delivering the more expensive items to safety in the event of a robbery. This puts him in stark opposition with Franck (Vincent Cassel), an art thief  looking to steal Francisco Goya’s Witches in the Air. Fortunately for Simon he is in league with Frank, aiding in the paintings acquisition; unfortunately for Simon, an injury suffered during the operation has rendered him amnesic and unable to recall the painting’s location. When he is sent to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), however, reality begins to unravel as old memories come to the surface. Read more of this post

Arthur Christmas (2011)

With Christmas having been progressively militarised by Steven Claus (Hugh Laurie) in his figurehead father’s (Jim Broadbent) growing laziness, the magic of Christmas is under threat as presents are dispassionately delivered by diligent, absailing elves aboard a giant aircraft instead of by Santa in his trusty sleigh. When a child is missed and left presentless, lost in the operation’s margin of error, the forever festive Arthur Claus (James McAvoy) takes matters into his own hands, recruiting the elderly Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and endeavouring to deliver the child’s present using the old man’s archaic sled, Evie, along with one of his sole remaining reindeer and gift-wrapper extraordinaire Bryony (Ashley Jensen). Unfortunately, their crude equipment and the lateness of the hour leads to a number of sightings and their mission is mistaken by for an alien invasion. With the world’s armed forces in hot pursuit, Steven and Clause Senior must put aside their dispute about the future of the Santa brand and help Arthur before it is too late.

Following last year’s Finnish tale of feral Santamen who slay reindeer and punish naughty children, it is a bit of a relief to return to more traditional fare with an animated comedy about a good-natured misfit who just wants a perfect Christmas for all. The first CGI film from Aardman, Arthur Christmas treats the Santa myth with mock seriousness as it tries to put a decidedly British spin on a character who has to date largely been played by Americans. A note perfect voice over from Outnumbered‘s Ramona Marquez sets the scene beautifully as her character enquires as to Santa’s means of accomodating population growth and why his headquarters do not appear on Google Earth, hinting at the Aardman’s own quality that we are about to enjoy.

The voice cast is quite simply sublime, with the dulcet tones of Imelda Staunton, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Palin, Eva Longoria,  Andy Serkis, Dominic West and Joan Cusack filling out an ensemble that prove just as effective as the Claus’ they support. It is the unbeatable combination of Bill Nighy’s senile curmudgeon, Jim Broadbent’s out-of-touch has-been, Hugh Laurie’s ambitious commander and Ashley Jensen’s rookie elf that ultimately steals the show, however, with only McAvoy struggling to keep the eponymous Arthur on just the right side of annoying.

Like any Aardman production, however, it is the attention to detail and keen wit that sets the movie a Wallace and Gromit apart from the competition. With the exception of a clunky extra-terrestrial subplot, the film rattles along at an astounding pace as the visuals delight and the wordplay engages, both parents and children able to enjoy the jokes as equals. Gently mocking everything from Toronto, to alien-fearing Americans, to Christmas itself, the gags come thick and fast as the studio’s genius is put to reliably good use. The film’s message about the sterility of technology, however, might have been more effective had this not marked Aardman’s controversial embrace of computer generated 3D.

Although some may miss the nostalgic thumb-prints, there is no denying that this isn’t classic Aardman at its best.  Though the narrative may lose its way towards the film’s bloated mid-section, all involved regroup with such gusto for the inspired resolution that any earlier fumblings couldn’t be further from your mind. Witty, clever, and yet wonderfully absurd, Arthur Christmas is a very welcome addition to the Christmas film cannon.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Desperate to avenge his mother by killing the man responsible for her death, Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) travels the globe dispatching the Nazis who had served under Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) in the concentration camps of his youth. In England, meanwhile, Oxford graduate Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is recruited by the CIA to help avert a nuclear war. Travelling to America with operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and his childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Xavier soon encounters Lehnsherr and Shaw, founding the X-Men with the former after saving his life in the field. Where Charles teaches his new charges tolerance and humility, however, Eric believes that they shouldn’t have to hide themselves from humanity, that they are the next stage in human evolution and should take their rightful place in the natural hierarchy. When events result in a stand-off between the U.S. and Russian naval fleets, our small group of mutant heroes must put their differences aside if they are to defeat Shaw and avert war.

I must admit to taking my seat in the auditorium with a small degree of trepidation, what with all the early chatter regarding retcons and cameos, I feared a film which jeopardised established cannon in the blind pursuit of narrative freedom; the excellence of the first two instalments (and the adequacy of the third) being somehow undermined by a nifty new beginning where Charles Xavier says “groovy” and the sun inexplicably rotates the Earth. I needn’t have worried, however, with X-Men: First Class proving far less revisionist than director Matthew Vaughn might have had you believe. While he may take a few liberties with the extant franchise, they are – and this is where X-Men Origins: Wolverine went catastrophically wrong – for the good of the story.

Having successfully deconstructed the superhero genre with Kick-Ass, it is interesting to see how Vaughn handles his superpowers. Reconstructing the opening scene from Bryan Singer’s first movie, Vaughn and screenwriter extraordinaire Jane Goldman have endeavoured to tell an X-Men origins story of their own, albeit one that beautifully marries the 1960s setting with an expanding array of new and returning mutants, successfully imbuing the story with a freshness not felt since we were last introduced to Professor X and his merry band of mutants. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender make the characters their own – no mean feat considering the talent which preceded (or is it superseded?) them – while Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, January Jones’ Emma Frost and Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert provide delightful additions to the franchise.

Elsewhere, however, the newcomers are less impressive. While the original X-film was criticised for feeling like a teaser for adventures to come on behalf of its slim cast, it at least found the time to flesh out its ensemble (OK, maybe not Toad). First Class, on the other hand, feels overcrowded, with many mutants given little to do but change sides and fill out the two organisations – I for one don’t remember hearing Álex González’s Riptide speak once. With the most recognisable mutants still in nappies at this point, the buck falls to an array of dopplegangers and less-than-inspiring B-mutants to take their place. While Banshee, Havoc and Darwin have their moments, Azazel never escapes Nightcrawler’s shadow and Angel Salvadore treads foolishness as the wasp-like go-go girl with explosive vomit.

Other elements that don’t quite work are the split screen training montages (the entire third act rests on Beast having the most productive week ever), the plotting inconsistencies (Beast has created an antidote to his mutation that he doesn’t believe will affect his mutation, quite despite the fact that it is his abnormally prehensile feet that give him his abilities) and the relationship between Xavier and Raven. While this latter issue may resolve itself as they mature into a more organic friendship by movie’s end, the characters’ childhood introductions don’t quite sit right, whether due to scripting issues or the child actors themselves. It is a small gripe, but one that haunts the film’s opening act nonetheless.

First Class is a return to form, however, with the renewed focus on characters and a welcome prioritisation of substance over style (poor special effects can be forgiven, an over-reliance on set pieces cannot) acting as a reminder of how figuratively rich the X-series can be. In tying Nazi occupation and the Cuban missile crisis to a high octane superhero tale of world domination, Goldman has once again delivered a wholly fulfilling script with some well observed inter-character dialogue. That said, although First Class has commendable aspirations, the heavy-handedness with which the name-checking of literary behemoths Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde is dealt serves only to illustrate how derivative the medium can be; riffing off existing emotional truths rather than exploring its own. Now five movies in, the core messages of self-actualisation and societal acceptance – while timeless – are beginning to echo previous instalments. Far from the vacuousess of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, however, at least it stands for something.

All in all, X-Men: First Class heralds an exciting new dawn for a franchise steeped in qualitative discrepancy. While some of the plot points might creak as the writers attempt to retrofit the narrative to the original trilogy, and although a few of the characters may fall by the wayside, there is enough wit, innovation and genuine exhilaration to justify a new franchise, even if one less radical than the overhaul befalling Star Trek. That this is largely down to Fassbender and McAvoy – although Lehnsherr may suffer a somewhat severe case of accent ambiguity and Xavier’s preoccupation with his hair might wear a little thin (ahem) – is a reflection not only of the filmmakers’ combined talents, but the quality of the source material from which they draw.

 

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

Gnomeo is the property of Ms. Montague, a gnome affictionado who is engaged in a bitter rivalry with Mr.Capulet, her neighbour and fellow gnome enthusiast. Divided by colour, Gnomeo (a blue) finds himself inconveniently in love with a red, Juliet. As their respective clans’ garden warfare escalates, their relationship is put to the test and their lives placed firmly in danger. Backed by Elton John’s voice box and with the assistance of a statue of Shakespeare, Gnomeo and Juliet must put an end to the feud if they are ever to live happily ever after and avoid their namesakes’ tragic fates.

It really is frustrating how charming Gnomeo and Juliet is, because that’s really all it has going for it. Basically a one-note gimmick stretched to feature length, Gnomeo and Juliet boasts a few fun visual touches, the odd laugh and some respectable animation. If everybody wasn’t so likeable it would have faded from memory quicker than you could say Despicable Me. As it happens, however, Gnomeo and Juliet is perfectly functional – nothing more, nothing less.

Voiced almost entirely by Brits, the film has a strangely home-grown feel that verges on endearing. Emily Blunt displays some effective comic timing, continuing her tendency of lending charm to movies otherwise devoid, as previously evidenced in Gulliver’s Travels, while James McAvoy does little to make anything approaching a impression. Jason Statham is similarly entertaining, though the fun is generally in identifying the voices rather than in what they have to say. It is Ashley Jensen’s Scottish frog and Richard Wilson’s characteristic curmudgeon that delight the most, without them Gnomeo and Juliet might have been as lifeless as the studio’s previous feature: 9. You know, 9? Like a joyless Little Big Planet?

Not a member of the film’s target audience, however, maybe it’s only natural that I find my own distractions in the lack of Pixar-esque characterisation or DreamWorks’ trademark humour. What exactly is a gnome supposed to do with a flower? How, precisely, do you ride a lawnmower? Isn’t this just Toy Story but with garden ornaments? Can a plastic flamingo’s one true love really be replaced with such ease? Why am I not laughing?

Ultimately, Gnomeo and Juliet is a relatively serviceable children’s’ animation that doesn’t pander to an adult audience, and why should it? Making light of its lack of originality from the outset, there are enough gags to keep this mowing along at a reasonable pace. As Shakespeare meets Toy Story, however, it’s hugely disappointing.

FILM NEWS: X-Men: First Class trailer is all kick and no ass

The first trailer for Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is live, and it has left me a maelstrom of mixed feelings.

Before I get my mind-dump on, I’m going to do a little scene setting for those of you who don’t know your X-Men from your Brotherhood. First Class takes place before The Statue of Liberty, before Alkali Lake and, crucially, before Brett Ratner. It is largely a prequel, though through some toying with continuity it is also a quasi-reboot; plucking Hank McCoy and Emma Frost from later movies for Vaughn’s own devices. Set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film centres on the decaying friendship of Charles Xavier (who can manipulate minds) and Eric Lensherr (who can manipulate metal) as well as the formation of the titular X-Men.

While it is of course impossible to judge a feature film by its two minute trailer, I am going to do so anyway. When X-Men: Last Stand wasted a perfectly good Juggernaut on Vinnie Jones, proceeded to wipe half of its cast of superpowers and ultimately buckled under the franchise’s accumulative star power (Halle Berry, get your priorities right!), it was quickly evident that we had reached a clear dead end. With each new instalment granting Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine – one of the least interesting superheroes in the source comics – more and more screentime, the inevitable happened and the character was spun-off with an unwieldy X-Men Origins prefix to diabolical effect. Having outshone the majority of superpowered superheroes with his glorious Kick-Ass, the hiring of Vaughn heralded the end of lack-luster adaptations and a return to form for the X-Franchise.

The trailer for X-Men: First Class is an interestingly mixed bag, while the plot looks intriguingly stripped down and the focus correctly recentred on Professor X and Magneto –  both of whom had been done a complete disservice by trilogy’s end – the new cast fail to invoke such inspiration as the ensemble of Patrick Stewart et al. These are the characters we love but not as we know them, the darker tone suggesting that this franchise has been disappointingly Nolanised like just about every other property going.  The inclusion of Beast appears to play with continuity unnecessarily, there is a wealth of characters at Vaughn’s disposal and it is a shame we must distance ourselves from another incarnation – however laughable – in order to enjoy this first class.

This prequel remains atop my list of anticipation, however, as Vaughn has cut together some truly impressive and tributary footage which maintains the equilibrium between novelty and homage beautifully. Evidently aware of how well-received Nightcrawler’s introduction proved in X-Men 2, the inclusion of Azazel contributes to a greatest hits vibe as a number of the most interesting characters return to Xaviers School For Gifted Youngsters. The return of Mystique and the X-Jet in particular are unlikely to provoke much disagreement among fans.

I have faith that this will be worth the decisions made during writing, and that Vaughn will balance the trailer’s evident cool with enough warmth to bring these characters back to life. If the trailer proves one thing it is that this movie is still very much a part of the franchise which preceded it, and, if played right, this could be the X-Movie we have all been waiting for.  Just please, please Mr. Vaughn, remember the humour! I would like at least one butt and one joke to compliment my spectacular serving of levitating submarines.