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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

rs_634x939-140324091106-634.jennifer-lawrence-x-men.ls.32414Ever since Marvel’s Avengers destroyed the box-office in 2012, every studio with super hero franchises has been looking to follow suit. It’s not just about comic book franchises; it’s about building a comic book universe. It’s been a long dark period for the X-Men ever since the regrettable 2006 debacle The Last Stand, which callously killed characters, butchered others, and botched the most famous storyline in the history of the comic. In 2011, Matthew Vaughn proved there was still life to be found in the franchise with his terrific 60s-era prequel, X-Men: First Class. Now, post-Avengers, Fox is salivating at combining the past X-Men and the present X-Men into one colossal movie with a colossal budget. Back on board is director Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films and the man who helped kickstart the modern superhero era. If that wasn’t enough riding on the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past also follows the second most famous storyline in the history of the comic.

In the horrible future, killer robots known as Sentinels hunt down mutants. These are the invention of Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who was killed back in 1973 by the vengeful shape-shifting mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The murder convinced humans to subsidize Trask’s killer robot plan of defense. Thanks to experiments replicating Mystique’s mutant ability, the Sentinels have the ability to adapt to any power, turning them practically indestructible. In the future, the Sentinels are eradicating all mutants, mutant sympathizers, and eventually human beings. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have teamed up with a small band of surviving mutants, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Thanks to the phasing powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they can send Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973 so that he can prevent the Trask assassination. The only ones who can help Wolverine is the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), former mentors to Mystique. Except Xavier is a recluse and strung-out on drugs to dull his powers and Magneto is locked away underneath the Pentagon.

eotca49rixfbkx8q5rf1The X-Men films have always had a topical advantage to them that provided a weightier sense of drama than your typical story about a reluctant soul blessed with amazing powers. The mutant allegory automatically applies to any sub-group facing oppression mostly through fear and ignorance. What other superhero franchise has two opening scenes in a German concentration camp? The stakes are even larger with this movie because of the Horrible Nightmare Future that must be prevented. Now we all assume said Nightmare Future will be avoided by film’s end, so the movie provides a proverbial reset button that the filmmakers can have fun with, and they do (look out future mutants). Excluding the Nightmare Future framing device that becomes an unnecessary parallel storyline, the majority of the film takes place in 1973. If X-Men: First Class tapped into the groovy optimism and “take me for what I am” sense of social justice of the time, then this film certainly taps into the disillusionment of the 1970s, where the promise of reform and hope morphed into anger and cynicism (hey, that’s like us today!). This loss of innocence is typified in Mystique, who becomes the central figure of the movie in many ways. Her seething desire for vengeance is what animates her, as well as the pain of betrayal from the men closest in her life, as well as the world who once held such promise. Also, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) has become one of the biggest female stars on the planet, so it makes sense to bolster her role. The central conflict is stopping an assassination, one domino that leads to many others, but it’s emotionally about Mystique having to confront her feelings of hate. It’s another platform for the ongoing conflict of perspectives between Xavier (restraint, tolerance) and Magneto (strong defense, eye for an eye). But as I found in First Class, it’s hard not to agree with Magneto as human overreaction leads to rash and thoughtless actions, like Horrible Nightmare Future.

That’s not to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past fails to deliver when it comes to the popcorn thrills and action highs we crave in our finest summer blockbusters. The action set pieces are large without dwarfing the characters, playful and imaginative without losing a sense of edge and danger. I loved how the character Blink (Bingbing Fan) would utilize her mutant power of opening portals as a fighting strategy. It makes action sequences so much more inventive and visually exciting to throw a series of portals. The pacing is swift short of the second half of Act Two, gearing up for the climactic showdown in D.C. that dominates Act Three. The time travel story starts with a lot of exposition but it gets smoothed out as it goes, the rules of the story fall into place. Every action sequence hits, some admittedly better than others, but it’s the small touches that Singer injects that made me smile most. I enjoyed Magneto pointing a gun, being toppled, but still using his power to have the gun fire in midair. I enjoyed the animalistic nature of the Beast/Wolverine brawl. Jackman is looking even veinier than usual in his bulked out form. Thankfully the fish-out of-water timeline jokes are kept to a minimum. Wolverine is the perfect glue to hold both timelines together. And then there’s that standout Pentagon prison break sequence (more on that later). Singer might not have the most natural instincts developing and staging action, but the man is a surefire talent when it comes to staging eye-catching visuals (I would say the same about Christopher Nolan). Even his unfairly maligned Superman Returns is proof of the man’s cinematic gifts. As far as entertainment value, this is right up there with X-Men 2. I still view Vaughn’s savvy First Class as the best X-film of the bunch, which has only gotten better the more I’ve watched it.

o-X-MEN-DAYS-OF-FUTURE-PAST-TRAILER-facebookAnd if that wasn’t enough, Singer’s new film does what every fan has been hoping for: (spoilers) it erases all the crummy X-Men movies, namely 2006’s Last Stand and the first Wolverine solo effort, from the official timeline. It’s time to start anew, toss out the old stuff nobody liked, and forge ahead with a new unified timeline. There can be two parallel X-Men franchises, one present/future and one with the prequel casts, and they can go on forever as desired, or until the prequel cast prices itself out. In one fell swoop, Singer and company have reset the mother franchise and given fans new hope about the possibilities. Make sure to stick around to the very end of the credits for a scene that indicates directly who the next major villain will be in the 2016 sequel.

Let me take time to single out just how expertly Evan Peters (TV’s American Horror Story) steals the entire mutant-heavy movie. First, he’s the most comically attuned character, which is a nice break from how serious, and rightly so, every character is so often. Quicksilver provides a whole new jolt of entertainment, and when he checks out after the prison break sequence you’ll dearly miss him. The character is a rapscallion (as my late grandmother might have termed) that enjoys using his super speed powers to mess with people, to test his limits, to see what he can get away with, and a Pentagon jailbreak is right up his alley. Ignore the silly yet period appropriate outfit and ignore what initially seems like Peters’ smirking self-involvement from trailers and ads. When this character is onscreen the movie has a joyful sense of irreverence. He is instrumental to freeing Magneto and the onscreen depiction of his super speed is the best illustration of the power ever conceived in film and TV. There is a segment sent to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and some wonderful special effects, which is just so playful, so giddy, and so cool that it very well might be my favorite moment in any superhero movie… ever. It is definitely an applause-worthy moment and my audience responded in kind. Quicksilver is a perfectly utilized supporting player in a movie stuffed to the gills with characters.

The time travel geek in me has a few quibbles with the parallel lines of action from past and present. Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back in time but he film plays out like it’s happening simultaneously to the events of the future. So if Wolverine is pulled out in the middle of the movie, he’ll have failed his mission to change the future, even though by going back in time he’s already, blah blah blah butterfly effect. Anyway, I understand how they want to make the future story have a sense of urgency but it’s not like waking Wolverine from a dream; the times are not happening concurrently. He’s in the past, meaning that the moment he goes back there, the future will already be altered due to the consequences of his actions, for better or worse. There is no race against time to keep his consciousness back in time until he complete his mission. I can see why they went this route for a summer blockbuster, but that doesn’t quell the quibbles.

video-undefined-1C88A9B800000578-163_636x358X-Men: Days of Future Past is a time-hopping, unabashedly fun time at the movies; well as fun as preventing nightmarish futures built from the consequences of oppression and prejudice can be. With Singer back in the saddle and the bridging of the two X-Men universes, the series is back on track and once again the promising font of stories and characters. The newest X-film is one of the most entertaining, funny while still being dramatic, and while burdened with the largest cast of any super franchise, finds notable moments for its characters big and small to remind us that these people matter. While less philosophical and funky than First Class, this is one of the best films in the franchise, on par with X2. The action sequences and visual eye-candy are great fun with some inventive and memorable touches. It’s also nerdy fun getting to watch the past and present interact, and for many this is their first return since 2006’s crappy Last Stand. It’s not a perfect movie; I wish there was more early Sentinel action, I wish Dinklage had much more to do, and I wish that the plot didn’t so transparently hinge on Xavier not having his powers. The slate is clean and all X-Men fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The future is once again rosy. The X-Men, and not just Wolverine, are relevant once again.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Super (2011)

Super is a different kind of superhero movie. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither) has crafted a story that attempts to deconstruct the superhero fantasy. In his story, the people that put on the costumes to fight crime are just as dangerous as the criminals.

Frank (Rainn Wilson) has two memories he can hold onto as his life’s highlights: marrying Sarah (Liv Tyler), a former drug addict, and assisting the police in finding a crook. He works as a short order cook and dreams of being something more. Then local crime lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon) comes into Frank’s home, eats his eggs, compliments him on his cooking of said eggs, and then walks off with Sarah. He’s been gotten her hooked back on drugs. Frank tries to rescue her but Jacques and his goons (Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn) won’t let him get anywhere close to his wife. Then Frank becomes inspired. He feels that God has spoken to him and instructed him to become a crime-fighting super hero, the Crimson Bolt. With a wrench, Frank patrols his streets looking for crime to vanquish and a way to thwart Jacques. Along the way he gets help from Libby (Ellen Page), a 22-year-old girl who works in a comic book store. She jumps at the chance to live out her super hero fantasies and elects herself to be Frank’s sidekick, Boltie. Together they plot to clean up their city and maybe enjoy some of the perks of superhero-dom.

Super mines familiar territory scene in other movies, the what-if scenario of what might transpire if people put on some tights and attempted to fight crime. Unlike last year’s similarly themed Kick-Ass, this is a movie that refrains from overt style. It does not portray Frank as a hero in any traditional sense. Gunn takes great pains to showcase the frayed mental state of his main character. Frank is troubled, seriously troubled. His attempts to escape his reality are borderline dangerous and his violent attacks are without warrant. I watched this movie shortly after seeing the suitable violent Hobo with a Shotgun (good pairing, folks), and the tone of the violence between the two films was starkly different. Hobo‘s violence is meant to make you laugh; Super is meant to make you wince, then laugh in a “Oh my God” kind of alarm. In Super, the extreme bouts of violence, which are not as prevalent as in Hobo, are meant to make you think how stunningly dangerous Frank and Libby are. When somebody cuts in line at a movie theater, the rest of the people react in disgruntled anger. But Frank goes into his car, changes his clothes, comes back as the Crimson Bolt and declares, “You don’t cut in line,” and strikes the guilty party across the face with his trusted wrench. The crowd is freaked out, naturally. These revenge fantasies are taken to the limits, and Frank has decided that everyone deserves the same punishment for breaking the rules of society whether they be a drug dealer or a line jumper (“You don’t butt in line! You don’t steal! You don’t molest little children! You don’t deal drugs! The rules haven’t changed!”). Frank follows in the same vein of disturbed social justice as Travis Bickle.

The characters are played straight, which only highlights their demented oddball qualities even more. Wilson is a strong comedic actor as he showcases week after week on TVs The Office. He’s always had something of a unique “off” quality to him, be it presence or looks or demeanor. It allows him to slip into cracked characters so easily. Frank is a troubled individual, but there’s something sympathetic about his plight to finally assert himself in the world and stand up to forces that he feels have victimized him. He’s a sad guy, lonely, deeply insecure, feels impotent to the world, and yet he can put on a costume and work out his varied psychological issues. Wilson can be terrifying, deadpanned hilarious, and even potentially touching as he desperately seeks a life filled with moments he can be proud of.

But it’s the little firecracker that is Page (Juno, Inception) that makes Super come alive with risk. Page’s performance is bristling with uncontrollable energy; she practically shakes with excitement over becoming a superhero sidekick and leaving her boring reality. Then, when they actually do kill bad guys, she jumps around, taunting at the top of her voice, chuckling at a level of violence that should be disquieting to most normal human beings. That’s because Page, in particular, has tapped into her character’s manic wish-fulfillment role-playing persona. What would faze people makes me laugh and hop around in impish joy, because she is laying out her idea of justice. And Page is joyous to watch. She’s so excited onscreen that her words practically trip over themselves. And then there’s the superhero sexual angle. This is the first movie, by far, where I ever viewed the elfin actress in a sexual manner. And with Gunn’s film being what it is, prepare for some strange discomfort. Libby tries to seduce her superhero partner into being a partner of a different sort, and she leaves the sidekick suit on.

The tone is meant to make you squirm and laugh under your breath through gritted teeth. Seeing Frank legitimately hurt people can be funny in a bleak sense, and the delusions of the main characters and their inept execution as superheroes certainly adds plenty of chuckles. When Frank tells his newest sidekick that they’re going to fight crime, she’s bouncing off the walls in happiness. That is until she discovers “fighting crime” means sitting in an alley and just waiting for crime to materialize. “This is so boring,” she groans. Frank’s oft-repeated catch phrase of empowerment, while swinging his wrench of justice, is: “Shut up, crime!” But then he later starts to reconsider his place in the order of society, reflecting upon his brute force actions and whether he too has become a criminal in the pursuit of battling evil (“How can I tell crime to shut up if I have to shut up?”). The side stories involving the evangelical TV superhero The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) are a hoot. They’re even funnier when you consider that Frank uses these outlandish bits of corny Christian message-delivery as confirmation from God. For those looking for some Kick-Ass kicks, they will be sorely disappointed until the violent confrontation between good (Frank and Libby?) vs. evil (Jacques and his minions).

Super isn’t so much of a superhero parody as a morally queasy, crazy, discomforting comedy of the darkest sort. Gunn’s film shows that people with unchecked superhero fantasies can be just as dangerous as the criminals they seek to penalize. Gunn de-romanticizes the concept of vigilantism. Wilson and Page make a fun pair of superheroes with a few screws loose themselves. This is a different kind of superhero movie, the type that shows how dangerous and ridiculous and insane the fantasy can be in a real world where the bad guys have guns and a short fuse. Gunn’s Troma-fied super story has plenty of dark laughs, uncomfortable moments, and nutball characters. I don’t even fully know what to think about the film. Do I really like this? Am I supposed to? Is this all entertaining or just uncomfortable? Is it an entertaining form of discomfort? Does the ending, which aims for emotion, work, or has the film burned too many bridges and fried too many nerves to attempt something tonally different? Super probably won’t win any new converts to the genre, and I imagine its bleak laughs will push many away, but the film also has a car-crash watchability. I do not mean that in a backhanded way. Super keeps you watching but you don’t know if you want to.

Nate’s Grade: B

Inception (2010)

Without a doubt, no movie has piqued curiosity like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. After breaking all sorts of box-office records with The Dark Knight, Nolan earned some capital. He wanted to make an expensive, intellectually demanding, high-concept movie that takes place mostly in the realm of dreams. The studio said yes, anything to keep their golden goose happy before a third Batman can roll out. Nolan has been tinkering with the script for Inception for almost ten years, trying to scale it down but never being content. This is a story that called for the biggest stage, which required a heavy price tag, and could only be fulfilled once Nolan was an established hit-maker. Early images of shifting gravity and folding cityscapes got people buzzing but then the concern was whether Inception would be too smart for audiences to embrace. You know, the same public that made two Alvin and the Chipmunks films blockbusters. Two weeks running, Inception has made a sizeable portion of money and become the “must-see” movie of the summer. Score one for the public.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert extractor. He can sneak into your dreams and discover whatever secret you’re hiding from your self, your wife, even your shrink. All for a tidy sum, of course. He’s on the run from U.S. authorities because they believe he killed his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). A rich businessman, Seito (Ken Watanabe), promises to clear away the pending charges if Cobb can perform one important job. Instead of stealing an idea, Cobb will have to plant an idea, known as inception. A young upstart (Cillian Murphy) will inherit his dying father?s empire, and Seito wants the guy to break up that empire and sell it off. Cobb enlists the help of a skilled team to pull off what is believed to be impossible; Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the point man, Ariadne (Ellen Page), as the architect of the dream world, Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger who can convince the mark he?s other identities, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist that creates a compound to put the team under a deep sleep. They’ll need it because Cobb plans to go three levels deep, a dream within a dream within a dream in order for inception to take root. The only way out is a “kick,” the sensation of falling that will awaken the dreamer. The team is under great risk not just from the dream world, but also from Cobb. He?s been secretly keeping memories of his dead wife alive and she keeps intruding into shared dreaming, causing havoc, relying on the same info that Cobb knows. The deeper they go into the dream the deeper they also go into Cobb’s memories.

Inception can be many things to many people, as is the nature of dreams. I found the movie to be a master class mousetrap. Watching Nolan and his origami-like script fold and bend and connect is a true pleasure. However, the movie is not a great character piece. Cobb is the only person on the entire team allowed any sort of back-story or inner lives or even personality traits. What do we know about Arthur, Ariadne, Eames? Nothing. They are all members of the team, but it is Cobb who is the only one allowed to have supporting details. Despite Cobb’s tragic past with his wife, emotionally the movie can best be described as a bit distant (not cold, distant). Nor does Inception deal with the psychology of dreams or the interpretation of the subconscious and its links to our own reality; this movie does not have Freudian psychoanalysis in mind. What Inception does deliver is a brilliantly staged heist that takes place in the realm of dreams, and if that doesn’t sound like a fun concept then I don?t know what does. To get to that heist, the audience must slosh through about 90 minutes of solid set-up and exposition (Pages character is essentially an exposition device). There are a lot of rules to digest in order for the final hour to have the impact that it does. If you nod off for a portion of that time, like my father, you will be lost as to why anything is exactly happening. Having seen the film a second time, I can say that once the hyperactive “Oh my gosh, this is awesome!” haze of newness wears off you do realize that the pre-heist portion of the movie can be a bit slow. I think that for future DVD-viewings I will skip to the start of the heist and sit back and relax (much like skipping the first hour of King Kong).

After talking about what Inception is not, let’s focus on what Inception is. It is a massively entertaining, brain-tickling thriller with eye-popping visuals that verge toward the iconic. Nolan isn’t the greatest orchestrator of action (a foot chase in Mombassa is pretty lackluster short of a narrow alleyway) but the man knows how to put together tremendously memorable set pieces. From Paris folding upon itself to a fistfight in a revolving hallway, Inception is packed with stimuli to ignite the senses. It’s the first movie in years that I walked out and thought, “How did they do that?” It renewed my sense of mystery and wonder with the movies. And the last hour is ridiculously fraught with tension as the movie descends level after level of subconscious, juggling four separate action set pieces with mounting climaxes. The revolving hallway fight is perhaps my favorite action scene in years. I still got goose bumps the second time. Gordon-Levitt hops from ceiling to floor like he’s Spiderman, or Gene Kelly, all while the camera remains fixed. Gordon-Levitt gets a lot of zero gravity experience in this movie. He might have qualified for a free ride on the space shuttle.

Like the alternate reality of The Matrix, people can manipulate the world of dreams, which allows for some imaginative visuals. Aside from the dreams-within-dreams impacting one another, there aren’t really playful distortions of reality. There?s a few M. C. Escher-inspired staircases but nothing too out of bounds. Nolan devises a reason for this since the dreamers do not want to call attention to altering the dream. They want to hide among the subconscious projections; get in and get out without being noticed. You do wish that Nolan played to the potential of his flexible reality, but on the other hand, it’s still fairly mind-bending to reach inside a magician?s hat into another magician?s hat and so on. I wonder if there was another story that could have succeeded in this setting, namely competing thieves that have to race against time within the world of dreams. Think about it next time, Nolan. That one?s on me.

But the most exciting aspect of the movie is how intellectually stimulating it is. The movie is jam-packed with ideas like Nolan’s other works, so much that it’s hard to fully process everything the film offers in one sitting. The pieces do fit together and the movie follows its own internal logic, so if you didn’t skip out on any bathroom breaks, you should be able to follow along reasonably. On first viewing, Inception is bristling with intelligence and narrative complexity, and it rarely stops to pander to an audience. It expects you to keep up for the rewards that will follow, and they are indeed rewarding. The movie isn’t as complicated to follow but it can definitely get complicated when you try and explain action beyond a literal level. Nolan laces all sorts of narrative stops and peculiarities that can be targeted for an alternative thesis statement on the ending. The very ending shot is ambiguous perfection. It keeps the mystery of what constitutes reality while providing an out for people that want to formulate a happy ending. There’s plenty of room for interpretation and analysis but it doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Hollywood is pretty risk averse when it comes to anything that makes people think, let along anything expensive that requires active synapses. Nolan has long been a filmmaker of intellectual heft and non-linear narratives. His narratives are complex puzzles that snap together with airtight precision. The joy of a Nolan film is surrendering yourself to his narrative origami and waiting to see the Big Picture. There are new insights to discover with every viewing. Nolan may not be the second-coming of God, as those frothing at the mouth on Internet message boards proclaim, but I can think of no other director working today who harnesses Big Ideas on such a big stage.

Inception is a $160-million dollar studio film with substance, but it also looks like money well spent. The film looks amazing. The cinematography by Wall Pfister (Dark Knight) is gorgeous without being self-consciously arty, pleasing the senses without drawing too much attention away from the story. But with a screenplay that makes all kinds of leaps, you need the help of a good editor to guide the proceedings. Lee Smith (Truman Show, Master and Commander) is that man. While the repeated cutbacks to the van falling in slow motion can be giggle-inducing, Smith gamely holds everything together thanks to his skill in juggling all the parallel storylines/dreamscapes. Finally, the score by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator) is full of ominous, blaring horns that send shivers and get your blood pumping. Johnny Marr (The Smiths, Modest Mouse) even added an assist by strumming the guitar licks on the score. Apparently Zimmer’s key score themes are actually the tune “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” the Edith Piaf signature song used to signal “kicks,” played at a slowed speed. At the risk of sounding like one of those frothing from the mouth on the Internet, that’s insanely cool.

The acting is uniformly good with a few bumps. DiCaprio (Shutter Island) might need to do something light after continuous roles where he inhabits mean weighed down by guilt and dead wives (three in a row for those counting). He’s a good emotional anchor. Watching the star of 500 Days of Summer and Brick as a suave, cool-as-can-be action star is improbably awesome. Hardy (Bronson) is a scene-stealer mostly because he?s the only member of the team that has a sense of humor. Cotillard (Nine, Public Enemies) who won an Oscar playing Edith Piaf in 2007’s La vie en Rose, gets her best part since then. She gets to do many things as Mal, a projection of a character. This means that she must be limited in how she fills out the character because she is defined by Cobb’s fading memory. Yet she can be malicious, playful, spiteful, loving, vulnerable, and more. Cotillard and her big, glassy eyes do a great service in selling a romance we only see after the fact. Page (Juno) just feels out of place. She seems like the kid among a group of adults. And while the elfin actress will always look youthful until she applies for an AARP card, Page just seems in over her head. Her performance is fine if a bit mealy-mouthed but she still feels miscast.

Inception. Expect it to become a fanboy religion in a matter of weeks. It wears its influences on its sleeve, from The Matrix to Abre Los Ojos (or the American remake, Vanilla Sky). Thrilling, stimulating on different levels, and supremely engrossing, Inception is just about everything you could wish for in a summer blockbuster, except when it can also feel mechanical, distant, and free of emotion and character development save DiCaprio (perhaps this is further evidence that it was all a dream?). Regardless, Inception is easily the brainiest movie of the year, and usually those don?t get packaged as big-budget Hollywood spectacle. Just make sure to bring your totem the second time you watch the movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

Juno (2007)

Juno is a hysterical teen comedy with equal parts sweetness and sour. The idea of an underage pregnancy certainly presents a lot of conflicts and seriousness but the film avoids direct messages on the big topics thanks to large doses of levity and some hard-earned wisdom. With this serving as a companion piece to Knocked Up, I suppose Hollywood is convinced there’s something inherently funny about unplanned pregnancy. Remember that, suddenly expectant fathers and mothers.

16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) drinks her “weight in Sunny D” to take pregnancy test after test, but each pee-dipped stick gives the same result: Juno is going to become a mommy. The father is Paulie Bleaker (Michael Cera), a fellow high school student who has a fondness for jogging shorts and orange Tic-Tacs. Juno’s father and step-mother (J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney) lament that they wish their daughter would have told them she was expelled or into hard drugs instead of being pregnant. Still, they are supportive and Juno decides to give away her bun in the oven to a childless couple, Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner).

Juno doesn’t patronize or dismiss the gravity of what is indeed happening (a life is being brought into this world); Juno says she is trying to come to grips with issues “way beyond my maturity level.” There are moments that reveal real sadness and regret for some of these characters, and moments of palpable doubt about what it means to officially grow up and assume responsibility for another. Juno also refrains from easy high school stereotypes and coarse humor. Juno is an intelligent comedy that doesn’t make light of its circumstances even if the sarcasm is off the charts. It’s this winning combination of wicked wit and heart that makes [I]Juno[/I] destined to be a crowd-pleaser.

Writer/blogger/former stripper Diablo Cody makes one hell of an impressive screenwriting debut. The dialogue is practically sparkling and revels in the hip, hyper-literate realm that used to dominate the teenage speech patterns of shows like Dawson’s Creek. Sure, it’s not terribly realistic when characters can spout pithy one-liners mixed in with heavy jargon and lots of cool speak, but what do I care when I’m cracking up with laughter so often. But Juno cannot easily be dismissed as glib because Cody throws in some incisive moments that display shades of vulnerability and tenderness with her wacky assortment of characters. Even the aloof oddballs have moments that deepen them from just being quirky for quirky’s sake. These people are more than just receptacles for Cody’s wonderful words; they may begin that way but through the course of 96 minutes they manage to transform into flesh-and-blood where we, the audience, feel their pain and celebrate their happiness. You may be surprised, as I was, to discover yourself holding back tears during the movie’s inevitable and tidy conclusion.

The heavily acoustic score banks on a lot of pleasant, leisurely strumming but it suits the film and the song selections are apt. The very end involves a long acoustic duet rendition of the Moody Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You” and it may be one of the most disarmingly sweet, romantic moments of the year (the repeated lyric “I don’t see what anyone can see in anyone else” is a perfect summary for two outsiders finding their match). In fact, it’s probably the most potentially romantic song ever to include the line “shook a little turd out of the bottom of your pants,” but then again I do profess ignorance when it comes to romantic odes that include defecation references. Somewhere there has to be a Barry White song that has to cover this.

Director Jason Reitman feels like a natural fit for this smart-allecky material. He lets the story take center-stage and, just as he proved with last year’s Thank You for Smoking, he can coax terrific performances from a strong body of actors. He keeps the pace chugging along and keeps form command of the many storylines and characters needing to be juggled. Juno is a comedy that says more about a character through a handful of smart, wry observations that cut to the bone, which is helpful considering the short running time means the film needs to do the most with its time.

Page should have been crowned a star immediately after her blistering performance as jail bait with claws in Hard Candy, but perhaps her top notch comedic turn in Juno will right this slip-up and give Page the opportunity to star in, at least, the same amount of movies as, oh, I don’t know, Amanda Bynes (Seriously, Hollywood, are you just throwing money at her?). Page is the perfect embodiment of the wiseacre teenager that thinks she knows more than anyone else. She recites the refined dialogue with such precision and ease, always knowing what segments to enunciate or de-emphasize to maintain a seamless comedic tone. Page brings great empathy to a know-it-all character and is the snarky spirit that makes Juno resonate.

The supporting cast around Page doesn’t let her down. Cera gives another fine performance of comic awkwardness befitting a teenager contemplating fatherhood. Simmons and Janney make a great pair of unflappable parents, particularly Janney who gives an ultrasound doc a memorable tongue-lashing for an off the cuff remark about Juno. Bateman works the same laid-back demeanor that he excelled at on TV’s Arrested Development. Rainn Wilson (TV’s The Office) makes a very funny cameo in the beginning.

Garner as an actress has been somewhat hamstrung by her roles, either focusing on her multitude of ass-kicking abilities or landing her leads in romantic comedies that don’t require more than dimples and twinkling eyes. In Juno she is driven by her desire to have a baby; she’s affluent, prim, and an easy joke thanks to her stick-in-the-mud seriousness. But then Juno and the audience get a glimpse about how important being a mother is to Vanessa, and Garner nails a rather touching scene where she directly speaks to the growing child inside Juno’s belly upon Juno’s request. She speaks softly to the baby, briefly mentioning how loved they will be, and then she marvels at feeling the baby move. In lesser hands this scene could have induced eye rolls but instead seems genuine and a turning point for how we see Vanessa.

If Juno does have a flaw it is a minor one. The film places its teen romance on the back burner for so long that when it resurfaces and positions itself front and center the storyline lacks credence and believability. The conclusion would have had more emotional weight had the filmmakers spent more time on the teen romance angle, but regardless I was still amused, entertained, and grateful for the ending that came.

Juno is a delightfully tart and hysterical comedy that is easily quote-able thanks to Cody’s quick-fire retorts and snappy dialogue. Page is destined for greatness and Reitman proves once more that he can handle anything thrown at him with deftly comic aplomb. This is an impressive and assured comedy that bristles with comic vitality and confidence. This holiday season, make sure to take a trip to Juno.

Nate’s Grade: A

Hard Candy (2006)

Pedophilia is all the rage these days in the media spotlight, though people are misusing the term most of the time. Pedophilia denotes an attraction to pre-pubescent kids, not, say, a 16 year-old girl. But anyway, this is a nasty little firecracker of a film that pushes the audience into increasingly uncomfortable moral quagmires. I enjoyed being made uncomfortable, being forced to question who was in the right, when the truth of the matter is neither party, the accused pedophile or the vengeful 14 year-old girl, is totally justified in their actions. Ellen Page gives a shocking and intense performance, one of the year’s biggest surprises. She’s a skinny coil of rage, deception, and questionable ethics. Most of the film is just watching two actors argue back and forth, each vying for dominance, and the results are pretty absorbing. The movie trips up late by spelling things out when it should have remained a nagging mystery. Sure it’s not entirely believable but damn if it doesn’t put you into a tight spot.

Nate’s Grade: B+

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The story behind the making of X-Men: The Last Stand is more interesting than most. Bryan Singer had directed the first two X-Men films and had done a fine job establishing many loveable characters and the universe that housed them. Warner Brothers has been trying to get their Superman franchise flying for so long, going all the way back to 1996 when Kevin Smith wrote the script, Tim Burton was to direct, and Nicolas Cage was going to be the man in tights. Since then directors and drafts of screenplays have come and gone, including Brett Ratner, best known for directing both Rush Hour movies and a slate of mostly mediocre movies. Then Warner Brothers poached most of the X-Men 2 team to make Superman Returns, hiring Bryan Singer as director, plus X2‘s screenwriters, cinematographer, editor/composer, and maybe even the cat that licked Wolverine’s claws. Fox was left without a captain for X-Men 3. They daringly picked Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) but then he dropped out for family reasons. Then Fox went with their second choice … Brett Ratner. Both directors had essentially switched projects. Hollywood’s funny like that.

It’s been a few months since the events in X-Men 2. Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden) is still mourning the loss of his love, Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save the rest of the X-Men. He’s tormented by her voice, whispering all around him and pleading with him to return to Alkali Lake, the site of her death. Miraculously, Jean returns from the dead but she’s much different. Her persona has broken and the Phoenix has taken over, a destructive killing force unparalleled on earth.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) has great use for such a force. There’s been news of a new drug that suppresses the gene that causes people to be born as mutants. This discovery has been dubbed a cure. The question persists, is should being different be curable and what would that even mean? Magneto sees the writing on the wall, knowing that any cure would only be voluntary for so long. He collects new mutant fighters along with his stalwarts the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and fire starter Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a former student at Xavier’s School for the Gifted.

Over at Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school, the mutant students are each questioning life with a cure. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is considering it so she can finally touch her boyfriend, Bobby “Ice Man” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) without killing him. Plus, so he’ll stop spending so much time with Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (Ellen Page), a girl who can walk through matter. Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are left to run the team after some disastrous setbacks. Henry “Beast” McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) is a man covered in blue fur and appointed as head of Mutant Relations for the president. He senses the growing danger and anxiety the administration has with mutants and joins the X-Men to do what he feels is right.

It feels like that in a rush to production that character development, subtlety, and subtext were chucked out the window to make time for more boom-boom action. The first two X-Men flicks juggled the characters and introductions but still managed to squeeze in one great moment for the characters we cared about. The plot moved at a mature pace, insightful and touching on elements of psychology, politics, and personal struggles to fit into a society that fears you. There was some sophisticated, relevant stuff bandied about this franchise in between the kick-ass action. But with X-Men 3, you basically have Halle Berry doing less with more. She’s got more screen time, in part to her demands, and now she can use that extra time onscreen to show us how perfectly bland her character is as the film’s most laughable moral ideologue. The idea of a cure for the mutant gene is vastly interesting with all kinds of great avenues for character introspection and socio-political debate. But X-Men 3 renders all of its debate to be merely superficial, another in a series of plot points to get the action moving quicker.

The X-Men franchise was already overpopulated with lots of characters vying for screen time, so I don’t understand the decision to add even more characters to the ensemble and cut down the running time to a brisk 100 minutes. As a result, certain characters sit out for long stretches of the film, are inactive during key moments, some are mostly forgotten, or some meet unjustifiably hasty ends. If I was still an ardent comic book fan, and a follower of the X-Men, I might view the third film as heresy. Why even bother bringing the character of Angel into the movie if he’s just going to be on for two minutes, including a forehead-smacking deus ex machine moment? The Dark Phoenix storyline is the most pivotal storyline in the comic’s history, so why even bother dragging it into X-Men 3 if it’s just going to be Zombie Jean Grey? It feels like Ratner is off screen with a pole poking Janssen whenever the story needs her to wake up and stir up some stuff.

I hope comic fans enjoy the brief glimpses of some of their favorites, because X-Men 3 does a good job of throwing characters into a meat grinder. I had to check online to just to find out who they were, and even then my realization was followed by, “Her? Him? What?” And what the hell is up with Porcupine Face? That has got to be the worst mutant ability of all time. What’s he going to do to his enemies? “Hey, will you come a little closer. I have a secret to tell you. Closer … closer … closer still … that’s right, now please lean against my face.”

The movie trades character for action, so is the action even good? Ratner is a workmanlike director devoid of any personal style, which further brands X-Men 3 as ordinary. The action sequences aren’t anything extraordinary, there just happens to be more of them. The climax pits mutant against mutant in short-lived bursts. A battle between Ice Man and Pyro should be awesome, but Ratner stages the showdown like he was choreographing his neighbor’s kids. This battle lasts a whopping 45 seconds. The climactic end battle, the “war to end all wars,” is rather sloppy. Ratner keeps cutting back and forth between his pairing of Good mutant vs. Evil mutant (why do the two black girls seem forced to fight each other?), but his showdowns are all too quick to quicken the pulse. Wolverine’s brawls in the woods never rise up to the adrenaline-soaked fights in X-Men 2. The special effects and make-up are just as good; they’re just not being put to as good a use. If Ratner is going to dump character for action he has to make his action exceptional. The movie feels on autopilot.

Ratner is not fully to blame for the shortcomings of X-Men 3. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zack Penn (Elektra) have crafted an overly rushed story that is more tailored for getting the job done than telling a good story. They present some big ideas and interesting elements, like a love triangle between Rogue-Ice Man-Shadowcat, but then most of the promise is either skipped over or dropped. They’re trying to juggle too many balls at once, and it just makes me miss Singer and the X2 screenwriters and how effective they were in defining character even in the smallest of moments. Some of the X-Men 3 dialogue is awfully stilted, like “You of all people know how fast the weather can change” and “Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.” There’s also a silly subplot about Storm teaching Wolverine what it means to be responsible. Try and count how many times you roll your eyes with that one. How many times are they going to have the president look blankly at a TV screen and gasp, “My god”? There’s some clever use of mutant powers during battles (mostly involving Shadowcat) but there’s just as many routine moments as well.

The acting is all over the map. Jackman owns his role as Wolverine. McKellen and Stewart bring a needed dose of grandeur to the proceedings. The X-kids are enjoyable, and Ellen Page (knocking ’em dead in Hard Candy) makes a very nice addition to the fold. I’ve likely enjoyed Paquin the most in this series, next to Jackman of course, so it’s so frustrating that she just plays Jealous Girlfriend at Window. I think it’s criminal how little she’s examined in the movie, especially since the supposed cure has the most questions and ramifications for her. Grammer is essentially Frasier in blue fur, but that’s essentially what Beast is so it works. He has a very nice moment when he sees what life would be like minus his mutant likeness. It’s really hard to judge most of the performances because of how short they appear in the movie.

X-Men: The Last Stand is far from boring but it’s more serviceable than special, and lacks the maturity and imagination that its previous films held. This was a franchise full of limitless potential, so to see it drop to something ordinary is sad, especially if this is the rumored end of the franchise (a record opening gross over Memorial weekend says otherwise). This franchise feels dumbed down; yes it’s still entertaining on a mass market level but it doesn’t have the creativity and precision that Singer’s movies had. X-Men 3 is fast-paced and not without its great geek moments, but it’s also the least emotionally involving of the films. When the deaths and departures come you’ll probably shrug your shoulders because of how the film presents them. X-Men 3 is fine, but I expect better from this franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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