Jaws Revisited

It only made sense when doing a large extended-family vacation on Cape Cod, after spending an afternoon on the beach, to take another look at Jaws. The first time around, the film got lost in the phenomenon. It’s heralded as the first great summer blockbuster, and it caused too many people to stay away from the ocean, or even from swimming pools.

This time around, with full familiarity of the plot, on a (very) large screen, with no cuts for time or content, and—bliss!—no commercial interruptions, I’m reminded what a good film it is. Spielberg thought of it as a director’s film, and while it will always be much more than that, he was right. It’s the vision of a single person, from its opening shot through the attacks through the family drama to the men-against-shark standoff.

Of course you can find flaws. “Bruce” the mechanical shark isn’t always full of the flexibility and subtlety of movement that you might find in a CG creation. But it’s real, not digitized, and that adds to the authenticity of the film. The scenes of Quint’s fishing boat don’t always cut together well; it’s a tribute to Oscar-winning editor Verna Fields that you barely notice how different the skies are in the background, some days clear, some days cloudy, many days in-between. Continuity errors abound. Even John Williams’ famous score, two notes of which are forever part of our culture, occasionally errs on the side of joyfully exciting and rousing when it should be leaning toward the tense and fearful.

Those small quibbles aside, this is a well-constructed and well-directed film. The forced decision to show the effects and presence of the shark before actually seeing it is one of cinema’s happy accidents (though Spielberg was going to hold back on that from the beginning). Seeing what it can do before seeing it in the flesh builds suspense and activates the imagination. Having Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) look through a book of shark attacks, often reflected in his glasses, is a lesson in how to show instead of tell, especially when we are drawn into the book with him, only to be startled along with him by his wife.

Part of the strength of the film is the genuineness of the family scenes. This is a husband and wife who know each other well and love each other deeply; you can almost feel their connection and history. The dinner scene where a son imitates a deeply distracted father says more about the power of a father’s influence than a dozen documentaries.

Then there is the acting, rarely talked about when Jaws is mentioned. There isn’t a weak performance in the film. Scheider is the model of coiled intensity, and you can see him thinking in character. Robert Shaw as Quint has rightly been hailed for his performance, which probably should have been nominated in the supporting actor category. Of course his soliloquy on his time on the Indianapolis is classic, but his performance is much more than that one monologue. He’s rough and independent, until he doesn’t need to be anymore. He’s focused and humorless, until he lets his guard down and humor out. Lastly, Richard Dreyfuss is just about perfect in his role. His character is smart and is amused as much as Quint by those that don’t get what’s really going on and what it demands, including Quint. Together, these three are a joy to watch, individually and when they need to work together.

There are too many great “moments” to count. The series of cuts that bring us into Brody’s worried face is classic, as is the use of a dramatic zoom shot that perfectly captures the sickening dizziness of realizing that another attack has occurred. Then there is the public rebuke of Brody by a victim’s mother, neither milked for dramatic effect nor dismissed by the film. It’s allowed to stand and sink in, both to Brody and to us.

Seeing it in full with no edits reminded me of how violent Quint’s death was in the original uncut version; my guess is that this scene is heavily edited when shown on television. It doesn’t revel in the gore, but it doesn’t shy away from it either.

It’s no wonder Spielberg was disappointed when the film was nominated for Best Picture and he was overlooked in the director category. Yes, it’s the biggest of popcorn movies, and yes, it’s a thriller. But it’s also a supremely crafted, well-acted film. Take a second, uninterrupted look sometime, preferably when you’ve just gone swimming in the ocean.

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Two Films from 1942

Holiday Inn

As part of my general research on musicals, I wanted a complete look at a couple of films of what I’d only seen bits and pieces. Both were released in 1942. Both were packed with star power, and are considered minor classics. That means for most of those folks who like older movies that they are worth a visit, but no rushing is involved.

First was Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and featuring a score by Irving Berlin, and introducing us to the Oscar-winning “White Christmas.” (No, the 1954 film by that name was the third film to use the song, the second being 1946’s Blue Skies). It also features “Happy Holidays,” which is ubiquitous around Christmas, and the song the filmmakers thought would be the big hit, the mostly forgotten “Be Careful, That’s My Heart.” We also hear some of “’Easter Parade,” which would get its own film a few years later.

(Factoid: Yes, the hotel chain was named after the hotel in the film.)

Except for “White Christmas” and Astaire’s incredible solo “Let’s Say it with Firecrackers,” this is neither Crosby’s or Astaire’s best effort. No Ginger Rogers, of course, so that ineffable connection between Astaire and his greatest partner is missing, as his paired dances here attest. Perhaps the only dance duet of interest is the one where Astaire is supposed to be drunk (which was reflected in reality to the degree that the continual shots he took between takes took effect).

The various romantic connections in the film tend to leave a slightly bad taste in the mouth. Women don’t come off well (is it really that easy to change your romantic attachments that quickly?), and the men deceive, lie and connive. It’s hard to root for any person’s plan or any specific coupling. And then there is “Abraham,” a number you might not see, depending on where you watch this. It’s in blackface, which is anathema to some, but historically interesting to others. (I fall in the latter category.) The only guarantee to seeing the whole film is to rent it or see it on TCM.

For Me and My Gal

The other “old” film I finally saw was Gene Kelly’s first, which paired him with his ideal partner, Judy Garland, who was so instrumental in making sure he played this role. Kelly had become a Broadway star in 1940’s Pal Joey, and it wasn’t a surprise to see him land a lead role right away.

It’s a fascinating film for several reasons. First is the pairing of one of the two great film male dancers ever to dance before a camera, and the greatest musical performer cinema has ever seen. His strong and brilliant dancing was accompanied by a softer tenor voice that was just a bit better than serviceable. Her singing voice was nonpareil, and her dancing was better than most people tend to notice. Together, they both sounded and looked great. Just take a close look and listen to their first number together, the title tune, and see how perfectly the voices match and how connected they already were as dance partners. Though there were efforts to pair them more often, her health and his broken ankle prevented more than two other films done together.

This is also a Busby Berkeley film, but if you didn’t know that going in, you might not guess it while watching. Dramatic scenes are sensitive, and the camera movements are smooth and elegant. No overhead shots of dancers in kaleidoscopic patterns; no big This is clearly not the Warner Brothers Berkeley of the early ‘30s. One scene in particular stands out. World War I has begun, and American has just entered the fray. Kelly’s character is drafted at what he considers the worst moment for his career. He does something to keep him out temporarily. The scene is beautifully shot, and could have been done by Hitchcock in its balance of what we see, what we don’t, and the tense build-up to the final action.

While the singer/dancer relationship between the two leads is impeccable, their romantic connections don’t quite work, especially in the context of America’s recent entrance into World War II. Future California Senator George Murphy plays Garland’s character’s first dance and romantic partner, and he’s such a great guy who so clearly loves her selflessly that we find ourselves rooting for them to get together. But the film tells us that it’s Kelly that she loves and who ultimately should be with her. But he’s a cad, and a seeming unpatriotic one at that, necessitating some significant reshooting to help regain the audience’s sympathy so we can more easily accept the relationship that the film tells us is the one that “should be.”

Watching Garland at this point in her career is catching her at a transitional moment. Just 19, she is not playing a teenager here, as she was two years later in Meet Me in St. Louis. Her character is older, and she pulls it off. She is clearly a performing professional who’s been at it for a long time, which works completely. She is also a rousing singer when she needs to be, and a sensitive torch singer at other times. She’s not quite the dramatic actress she’d become later, but it’s fun to watch her rise to each challenge the film presents her.

Historically, most people remember this as Kelly’s first film. It should also be remembered as an “of its time” war film (that ended with a call to buy war bonds), and especially, as the first of the greatest singer/dancer duo in film history.

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Jersey Boys

What a fascinating, enjoyable mess of a film! The saving grace of the film, of course, is that glorious music (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man”), with a nearly irresistible hook of the classic rags-to-riches-and-off-to-who-knows-where story, in this case, the tale of the Four Seasons. Converting a jukebox musical into a hit on Broadway was challenging enough, but successful. Taking that musical and putting it on screen has proven a rather awkward fit.

For those who love the music and are curious about the story, that’s enough to see it. For many of the rest of us, it’s also a Clint Eastwood film, reason enough to be curious. While it may seem an uneasy fit to have the director of Unforgiven, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby direct a musical, remember that the Western-star-turned-director is a music lover, a film score composer on a number of his films, and director of 1988’s Bird, on the life of jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker.

Yet loving music doesn’t a musical director make, and that’s part of the problem. Eastwood has clearly proven himself far more than a director of Westerns, but his oeuvre is deeply serious: think Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, Changeling, J. Edgar, Hereafter, Blood Work, and his newest work currently in post-production, American Sniper. Nary a hit song among them! Eastwood’s best work is characterized by an even, tense, almost fatalistic disposition, with an energy closer to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh than the exuberance of a musical star.

The music of Jersey Boys is consistently uplifting in every meaning of the word, but it’s always fighting a slightly dark, artificially heightened world here. In most musicals, the central conceit of a world where music arises from almost nowhere is echoed by a deliberately affected world of large emotions, bright colors and décor, and an acting style that allows the move from “reality” to musical expression. That is flipped on its head here: the music (since it’s all performance and stays in the world of the film) isn’t allowed to break as free as it wants or needs to. It’s part of a rather downbeat story that even at its most successful peaks is fraught with argument, competition and tension. The world of the film, on the other hand, is more synthetic than the music. The not-quite-real world of the 1950s, the clichéd Italian-American sets, food and unending parade of b0dda-boom, bodda-bing talk—it’s hermetically sealed, cutting off a sense of real life, and draining the tale of a good percentage of the kick that comes with knowing this really happened.

Part of the problem is Eastwood’s tendency to recreate the recent past in amber. In Changeling, J. Edgar, and now this film, Eastwood takes known eras and moves them in the direction of Louis XIV’s court. It’s not so stylized at to be completely break off our conception of the time period, but it recreates it in a facsimile that we can’t really relate to. We observe the world far more than we’re drawn into it.

The look doesn’t help. Cinematographer Tom Stern is expert at creating a cool, reserved palette (every film named in the third paragraph was photographed by Stern). Jersey Boys has a yellow-brown cast, but it’s a grey-yellow-brown, not warm like a sepia-colored period piece. The occasional costume change brings some visual relief, but the joy of the music tends to clash with the look of the film.

Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of a key ingredient in a musical with this kind of score: it’s called pizzazz. There is a moment or two (especially in the creation of the title of “Big Girls Don’t Cry”) that lifts, but they ultimately only provide contrast to the rather weighty tone and feel of the rest of the film.

John Lloyd Young, winner of the Tony Award for the stage version, has nearly the same voice as Frankie Valli, though it’s a little less sweet. He’s fine as an actor, but unusually inexpressive for a performer, even in the most dramatic scenes. Young does manage to pull off the younger scenes (though if he can be seen as sixteen, I’m still 39), where an unwrinkled face and some teenage hutzpah work in his favor. But the more mature scenes seem to lose their fire. The film is stolen by Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, an overly confident and oftentimes loathsome creature who got things going with the group that eventually became the Four Seasons. It’s also a great platform for Christopher Walken to “go Mafia” successfully as an influential mob leader.

Deciding in what voice to present a story is often a challenge: first-person, second, third, or something else. Here we have all the members of the group directly address the camera as they tell certain parts of the story. That may have worked well on stage when you have a live audience, but breaking the fourth wall is a dicey choice. We get used to it as viewers, but part of me wanted the scriptwriter and director to find another way of showing me what they wanted me to know and feel rather than telling me.

Then there’s the credit sequence at the end. I flashed back to Slumdog Millionaire, and the comparison wasn’t in the newer film’s favor. Not quite sure what was advanced by doing that.

When all is said and done, however, one’s enjoyment of the film will likely be predicated upon one’s enjoyment of the music. With the smallest apologies to those who’ve seen the film and paid close attention, it’s the film’s ace in the hole.

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The Monuments Men

I hesitated to write about this film, but have recently noticed that it is at the top of the rental charts. If a number of people are going to see it, a review seems necessary.

The Monuments Men is a rather poorly made film based on what seemed a surefire story idea—the work of a motley crew of men commissioned by President Roosevelt during World War Two to search for art masterpieces stolen by the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners. The story itself is the strongest and most enjoyable aspect of the film, and if that’s enough for a viewer, then the film should get by on those merits.

Unhappily, that strong story element is almost undone by the film itself. The ragtag group of men—a staple of every other Western, espionage and search film—is comprised of some of the most famous actors currently working: George Clooney (working as co-screenwriter and director as well), Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (recent Oscar-winner for The Artist), Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett. And believe it or not, that’s one of the biggest problems, or rather, the direction of these fine actors is one of the biggest problems.

Most of them seem to be in their own, separate film. Clooney is back to his shaken-head acting style of the ‘90s, with nary a hint of the skill he demonstrated in Syriana or The Descendants. It’s the most half-hearted, limp performance we’ve seen from him in years; he’s phoning it in. Damon is ever the hardworking professional, but his story arc pulls him into a side story, and he has little chance to raise the film with his interaction with the other men. Bonneville gives the stiff-upper-lip try that the disciplined British are known for, but has little connection with the others. Murray is pretty much always in his own film.

Blanchett is part of that same story line as Damon, and seems in yet another film entirely. She plays an introverted Parisian curator who is forced against her will to work with the Nazis in their nefarious schemes. She, unlike the men (except for Damon) plays her role nearly as deeply and darkly as Streep in August: Osage County, without the drama and profanity. Blanchett, still obviously a beautiful woman (see Blue Jasmine for the most recent proof), is at the center of a “take off her glasses and OMG she’s beautiful!” moment that fails to capture her beauty and only captures the character’s desperate loneliness. In another film, it would be a quietly touching moment. It’s fine work, and is lost and out of place in the film.

That’s not her fault. The film can’t make up its mind whether it’s The Guns of Navarone or Ocean’s Fourteen. The tone varies wildly from 1940’s deadly serious to modern deadly serious to a jaunty all-star adventure where the actors are clearly have more fun than the audience. The shifts from real to silly are jarring and wrenching, and keep us guessing what the film is trying to be. Is it Stalag 17 or Hogan’s Heroes? Perhaps it’s trying for both, but that doesn’t work. When the work by a tertiary character such as Dimitri Leonidas’ Sam Epstein is a breath of fresh air just by being normal, straightforward and believable, you know the film can’t make up its mind.

The script is the other part of the problem. Its exposition is so embarrassingly for the audience that it’s uncomfortable, with Clooney ‘splaining things to the president that no one would in their right mind would condescend to tell the ruler of the free world at that time, complete with maps of Europe that help instruct FDR [that is, us] where France and Germany are. The script decides that we need two specific works of art to represent the cache of the missing pieces, and follows them awkwardly through to their eventual discovery. It’s dramatically satisfying to see if they can retrieve those specific pieces, but we lose the scope of the triumph in the process.

The truly sorry thing about The Monuments Men isn’t the jumble of a cinematic experience that it is. That’s painful enough. It’s that now the great film that could have been made on this subject will likely never be created.

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A Thought About Film Lists

Recently, a new listing of supposedly “great” films came out. It was done by Hollywood professionals, which suggests there is some validity to the rankings. I am not going to be more specific about it, as it would be healthier not to find it. The rankings are ridiculous, and point to the subjectivity and self-serving nature of the list. It also points to the short-sighted, ahistorical, chauvinistic tendencies of the group (which is much less a criticism than a clear-eyed description). Too many are recent, too many are more popular than great, and too many are American. The key here is that the list is actually given as Hollywood professionals’ “favorite” films. Heaven forbid anyone should think of this as a ranking based on quality.

Of course, there is no definitive film ranking. Even the most respected, the Sight and Sound magazine rankings that come out every decade, and include directors and critics, has some fascinating developments as you watch the changes over the years. I love Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but to vote it the number one film of all times, as the critics’ group did—not sure I can go with that. I delighted in seeing it move up the ranks over the years, and was glad it was getting the respect it deserves. But putting it on top? Not so sure about that.

Of course all lists are subjective, and they serve best as a general guide to what “some people” consider great work, and as a starting point for discussion. Andrew Sarris, the famed critic who introduced the auteur theory to the US, knew what he was doing when he had the nerve to rank great directors. It began a discussion that hasn’t abated since.

When my students ask how they can establish a better base of film understanding by seeing a lot of different films, I tell them to go to the AFI (American Film Institute) list of Top 100 and start there. No, that’s not necessarily a list of the best, but it’s more of a wisely considered opinion of various films by people who know more than most of us. That, and the fact that my students learn more at this stage of their learning process from American films than those that pose cultural barriers, make the list a great starting point for those just getting their cinematic feet wet.

If ever anyone says they’ve done the list and want more, I would sent them to the most recent Sight and Sound listing and begin to go deeper and wider with those films.

Lists will always be subjective, fun and wildly inconclusive. That’s OK. But please note that the latest list says “favorite,” not “best,” and not even “good.” If that starts a conversation about favorites, great. If it’s given weight on what’s best, we’re in trouble.

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The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars is a meticulously photographed and acted film containing some of the best acting you’ll likely see all year. It’s also a Young Adult tearjerker, and if that genre is not one of the viewer’s favorites, that fact can compromise one’s enjoyment. The film—believe it or not—reminds one a bit of the superhero and X-Men films of late. The genre may not be your favorite, but the dedication, commitment and fine acting we find there has an integrity all its own.

The Fault in Our Stars is about Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a young intelligent woman dying of cancer. In a poorly presented and unfortunately conceived support group, she meets young, handsome, winsome cancer survivor Gus (Ansel Elgort), who has a prosthetic left leg and more charm than a Disney prince.

There is nothing really new here. There is the requisite slow falling-in-love track throughout, and the requisite “unexpected” twist. But while adhering to the rules of the genre, it fills every possible blank space with life and its own truth. You can argue convincingly that Gus is too perfect, the film is too long by 20 minutes, and that the trip to Amsterdam is impossible and shoe-horned in for the scenery and change of pace. Yet objections ultimately crumble and fall at the high level of acting and the complete commitment to each moment that the film offers.

Shailene Woodley isn’t the only reason to see this film, but her performance would be enough to. After The Descendants, it became obvious that this was an excellent young actress with great promise. Her role in Divergent only showed that yes, she could carry a film—hardly a surprise. Here she gives what may be the best performance by an American actress this year so far, and perhaps still the best by the end of the year. She makes every moment both real and alive. Every small look, every quick thought passing through her mind, every line that could have been eye-rollingly clichéd—she delivers them as if they had just sprung up from her heart or mind. Her arc, from shut down and slightly bitter to open-minded and openhearted, is both par for the genre’s course and completely believable in her capable hands. Much more could be said, but suffice it to say that her performance is both great and enjoyable.

Elgort, as he perhaps should be, is not quite in her league, but is excellent. He isn’t called to go to the places Woodley is called to as an actress, but finds his character and stays in it the whole time. Their interaction is real and a joy to behold, as characters in the film and as fine young actors doing stellar work.

As Hazel’s mother, Laura Dern returns to first-tier acting and helps fulfill her early promise as a younger actress. As “in the moment” as the two younger actors are, Dern hits her notes nearly perfectly as an almost over-concerned mother. We sometimes laugh at her when we see her through Hazel’s eyes, but we always return to respecting and understanding her mother’s aching heart. From her way of rushing into Hazel’s bedroom at the first sign of possible trouble to her constant efforts to remain positive—against all odds and common sense—Dern is absolutely convincing, helping to balance the film by bringing strong acting to the older generation and helping us to see the effects of the disease on the caretakers.

Sam Trammell as the father isn’t quite a perfect fit. Looking like a cross between Colin Farrell and Brad Pitt, he doesn’t look old enough to be Hazel’s father, in spite of the facial hair. He also isn’t in the same acting league as Woodley and Dern. Yet even with that said, the film uses him well by pushing him a little into the background, which is not inappropriate. A teenage girl would most likely be closer to her mother, who is the comforter and here, the more emotional parent. Many dads don’t quite know how to connect with a teenage daughter, much less a sharp-edged one dying of cancer who verbally pushes one away as quickly as she would say hello. So what seems at first like an acting weakness is actually of a part with the film’s success at portraying a concerned but unsure father who is in the background, but is always there, always hoping to provide some comfort and strength.

There are a few negatives. The subplot of the American author now living in Amsterdam is never really a good fit structurally. Yes, it provides a new background for some of the action, but the whole sequence is little more than an elongated romantic montage from an ‘80s film. The author, a distracting but solid Willem Dafoe, doesn’t quite work as a plot device. He strings some activities together for our leads, but ultimately provides little more than a bit of harsh fresh air and a common enemy for our leads—as if they needed one more.

There has been a little controversy about whether or not the film’s treatment of the support group is anti-Christian. Though author (of the book) John Green self-describes as a Christian, he admits having trouble doing so because of some of its connotations. That tension is evident in the handling of the support group, which comes off (ho-hum) as an unhelpful if well-intentioned group led by a cancer-survivor nerd (And really, testicular cancer? Can we be any more obvious and insulting?) The “literal heart of Jesus” aspect is borderline offensive or ridiculous, depending on your mood. In a film that treats every other person with respect, it’s sad to see yet another portrayal of Christians (or at least folks professing to be) as out-of-touch and worthy of just a touch of disdain. It’s out of character with the rest of the film, and there simply isn’t a dramatic need to go in that direction.

Lastly, there is also a little brouhaha (spoiler alert) about having the leads’ first kiss be in the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. From a historical, mature adult point of view, it can be seen as insensitive at best. In terms of the romance and demands of Young Adult fiction, however, the film builds up to it in a way that makes it work dramatically.

What doesn’t work is the previous few minutes just before The Kiss. While poor Hazel is making her way up staircase after staircase lugging her heavy oxygen tank, the background vocal presentations about Frank over-make the case of the struggles Hazel and Anne Frank have/had in common. It’s overdone in terms of the story and could be seen as either far too overdramatic for Hazel’s character or far too indifferent to the plight of Frank or any of the Jews suffering under Hitler.

These quibbles aside, The Fault in Our Stars is a feast of good acting, and a classic demonstration of what can be done to elevate a less-respected genre. Great acting and full commitment to the moment can cover a multitude of genre clichés. There is much more reason to see it than to enjoy Woodley’s fine acting, yet that one central performance would be enough. A star was born in The Descendants. Here, it’s burst forth.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

It’s nearly impossible to pry this film from its many contexts to just judge on its own merits as a film. Is there a context that exists for this film to be viewed “objectively”? I think not.

It’s number 7 in the X-Men series, counting the various Wolverine iterations. It’s a “fun summer movie” not meant to be analyzed. It’s a fanboy’s dream, with past and future crashing into one another. It’s also stuffed to the gills with so many good actors, some Oscar winners and some “just” nominees, but all so talented, that it rivals the greatest films in history in terms of casting and thespian talent: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Barry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Omar Sy, and, oh yes, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. And that’s just for starters.

Perhaps the abundance of talent, the two time frames, and the accompanying two X-Men casts have pressed the fanboy button just a bit too much, and have set some reviewers into raves of ecstasy. The film is enjoyable, but its stock will fall over time, and it will find its rightful middle place in the oeuvre.

The film may have a great cast, but only makes great use of two excellent actors and one beloved one. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender get to show their acting skills, with the weight falling more on McAvoy, who obliges well (though with too tight a camera at times). Stewart and McKellen don’t phone anything in but they don’t have that much to do. Lawrence, still the “It Girl” until Shailene Woodley displaces her, leaves her acting skills at home and shows us her fighting skills instead. The talented Ellen Page is called upon to hold her hands up to Jackman’s head for a very long time and look tired. The talented Sy, so delightful in The Intouchables—for which he won the Best Actor César Award—has very little to do and he does it covered up to the point of near unrecognizability. Same for Halle Berry, except we can see her beauty shine through. And Dinklage is fine, though he did better film work in The Station Agent.

The best thing the film does is to use Wolverine to hold things together. Jackman’s best role by far, Wolverine is always a little out of place and time, which holds the two time frames together well; he doesn’t really fit into either place. Wolverine is also—due in great part to Jackman’s performances—the most sympathetic of the X-Men, and one that most viewers would enjoy taking the journey with through time. The only negative is the shot that shows us what incredible shape the man is still in—a shot that completely redefines the word gratuitous.

For several reasons, the film doesn’t add up to the sum of its incredible parts. The balance between the future and the past doesn’t quite work. (And what is it with our love for the ‘70s and Marvel Comics? We just had the newest ‘70s film with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) Since we don’t start in the present, we’re given a rather abrupt intro into the typically blue-grey dystopian world of the near future. (And if I don’t have to type the word dystopian again for a year, I’d be happy.) We don’t become familiar enough with it to care as much as we should, and since we know that the series isn’t going to end, the outcome is as predictable as a TV crime drama with the lead in “mortal” danger.

Then the actual plot line is a problem. With The Avengers, we had a battle that resonated with meaning; we had a knockdown, drag-out worthy of the best action films accompanied by the brand-new and perhaps tentative unity of a bunch of superheroes with issues. Here we have some destruction, but it simply shows how mean the mean people are. The climax (of sorts) is whether Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) is going to shoot someone. We already know the answer, and while the film tries to provide us with reasons why Raven would be acting this way, she comes off as someone more stubborn and self-centered than as one struggling with her internal issues as she seeks her “justice.” The climactic moment is tense to some degree, but is far too stretched out (must everything be down to the last nanosecond?) and not quite weighty enough to support the two time frames, the time travel, the extensive cast and the idea of the entire future of the mutants.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see New York City survive. And not every superhero movie has to end with a battle royale. The attempt to narrow the scope of the plotline is admirable. Yet even with the confines of a superhero world, the climax isn’t quite believable, and it’s too thin a plotline to support the film.

For fans, just another entry in the series is a cause for celebration. For the rest of us, it’s an action-packed, imbalanced film with a great, mostly underutilized cast. Yet for all of us, it is a visit to a fairly well defined alternate universe with strong (and now familiar) characters, with the presence of some of the best actors of our times.

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