‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Takes Us Back to When Queen was King

Bohemian Rhapsody poster

Many will say this in their reviews of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and I have to as well: Freddie Mercury was a one-of-a-kind performer. Whenever he was onstage, he had a commanding presence only a handful of artists could ever hope to equal. Nothing seemed to ever hold him back as he rocked us in a way few others, if any, ever could. Watching him and Queen perform in front of thousands of fans also had a cinematic quality to it, and I went into this biopic hoping Bryan Singer (and Dexter Fletcher who replaced him as director) could capture the exhilaration of their live performances. Could such a thing even be possible?

Well, right from the start when Queen performs their own kick-ass version of the 20th Century Fox fanfare, “Bohemian Rhapsody” proves to be an exhilarating ride. While there were times when I thought the filmmakers could have dug even deeper into Freddie’s life and the lives of his fellow bandmates, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, it proves to be a biopic which takes you back in time to when Queen was the biggest thing in music, let alone in the world. But at its center is an iconic singer who is on a long journey not to stardom, but finding respect for himself.

When we first meet Freddie, we learn his birth name was Farrokh Bulsara and that he was the child of a Parsis couple, something I was previously unaware of. His mother Jer (Meneka Das) proves to be a loving presence, but his father Bomi (Ace Bhatti) doesn’t even try to hide his disappointment over the lackadaisical way in which his son lives his life. By day he works as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, and he spends his nights at a local club where a band named Smile performs to an enthusiastic audience. When the lead singer quits, Freddie seizes the opportunity to grab the job, but Brian and Roger feel his overbite will easily upstage him. That is, of course, until they hear him sing.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” at times speeds through the history of Queen to where I wished they would slow down a bit and focus on bits and pieces which haven’t been covered as much in the past. I kept hoping there would be a sequence on the making of the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack, one of the best soundtracks ever. The filmmakers don’t even get around to dealing with the songs they did for “Highlander,” and that was a real bummer. Still, we get to learn about the beginnings of some of their most famous songs like “Another One Bites the Dust” which features one of the greatest bass lines in the history of music, and the immortal rock anthem that is “We Will Rock You.”

One of the movie’s centerpiece’s is the creation of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which allowed Queen, as the Beatles did with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to push the boundaries of mainstream music to create something truly unique. This all leads to a scene where the exasperated EMI executive Ray Foster (a priceless Mike Myers) explains how no radio station is about to play a six-minute song, especially one which features opera in it. While it is seen as one of the greatest rock songs ever created, this doesn’t stop the filmmakers from throwing out initial reviews of it which showed anything but admiration. It’s only over time that something can ever be truly considered a classic.

Looking at Freddie’s life overall, it does seem deserving of an R-rating. But for a PG-13 movie, I felt “Bohemian Rhapsody” dug deep enough into the man’s life in ways I usually expect a PG-13 movie to avoid. Some may say this is a sanitized biopic, but I was surprised at how willing the filmmakers were to portray Freddie’s debauched lifestyle and of the underground worlds he chose to delve into. The scene in which Freddie learns he has AIDS is especially devastating, especially when scored to the song “Who Wants to Live Forever.” There is even video footage of people with AIDS, and seeing Freddie watching it is especially heartbreaking as it gives him a glimpse as to what is in store for him.

When it comes to music biopics, I keep thinking of ones like Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” and “I Saw the Light” and of how they kept their main subjects at a distance. This proved to be especially frustrating as I felt like I never got to know more about their main characters, Jim Morrison and Hank Williams, and even wondered why anyone would bother to spend time with them. “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t make this same mistake nor does it hide from Freddie’s flamboyant lifestyle which alienated many of his closest friends. It’s not afraid to make the singer unlikable at times, but it also pays him the respect he deserves especially when he humbly reunites with his bandmates who, unlike other musicians, were never afraid to tell him no.

Rami Malek gives a truly phenomenal performance as Freddie Mercury. If you are still wondering what this movie would have been like had Sacha Baron Cohen not dropped out, Malek will silence those thoughts immediately. It’s as if the actor is possessed by Freddie’s spirit as he inhabits the role with a fearlessness and a gusto to where it is impossible to think of someone who could have been better suited to play the lead singer of Queen. Malek owns the movie from start to finish, and you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Malek also does a brilliant job of letting you see Freddie’s inner turmoil as he struggles with who he is and his sexuality. In many ways Freddie was a social outcast before he came to be the lead singer of Queen, but he becomes even more of an outcast at the height of his fame. Seeing him in almost near isolation from the rest of humanity is distressing, and it reminds me of what the late Robin Williams said in “World’s Greatest Dad:”

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

Kudos also goes out to Lucy Boynton who proves to be a fetching presence as the love of Freddie’s life, Mary Austin. Boynton, whom you may remember from “Murder on the Orient Express,” makes you believe how Mary was a huge lifeline to Freddie, especially when he became deluded and was ruthlessly manipulated by those who never had his best interests at heart. Even as their loving relationship was torn apart, they remained the best of friends, and I believe Freddie when he was quoted as saying how Mary was really his one true friend in the world.

But if you need only one reason to buy a ticket to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it is Singer’s (and Fletcher’s) recreation of Queen’s epic performance at Live Aid in 1985. I’m sure you have all seen footage of this concert on YouTube, but I was enthralled at how the filmmakers made us feel like we were right there in Wembley Stadium where the band played to the largest crowd any band could ever play to. This recreation proves to be one of the most exhilarating sequences I have seen in any 2018 movie, and it is the perfect way to cap off this biopic.

Could a better movie have been made about Freddie Mercury and Queen? Perhaps, but I find it tiring to think of what could have been and would much rather deal with what ended up on the silver screen. “Bohemian Rhapsody” proved to be an immersive cinematic ride which brings back to life an amazing performer who left the land of the living far too soon, but whose role in music history will never ever be forgotten.

Regardless of who deserves the most credit, we owe Dexter Fletcher many thanks as he managed to bring this chaotic production to the finish line and oversaw it during post-production. Without him, I wonder if this movie would have ever been completed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Exclusive Interview with Andrew Douglas about ‘U Want Me 2 Kill Him?’

U Want Me 2 Kill Him poster

U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is yet another in a long line of movies “based on a true story.” But after watching it, you have to believe it’s true because no one could make a story like this up. Based on the Vanity Fair article by Judy Bachrach, it stars Jamie Blackley as Mark, a very popular high school student who ends up getting into a relationship with his online girlfriend Rachel. Mark ends up becoming so hopelessly in love with Rachel to where he’s willing to do anything to win her favor, and she soon has him befriending her lonely younger brother John (Toby Regbo) who gets picked on at school every day. As a result, Mark and John develop a strong friendship which soon leads them down some very dark paths that will have them doing things they never believed they were capable of. It all leads to one of the most shocking and baffling crimes in England’s history.

The movie’s director is Andrew Douglas who is best known for making the acclaimed documentary “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” and for helming the 2005 remake of “The Amityville Horror.” I got to speak to him about “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” which I felt served as a reminder of how threatening technology is in this day and age, and of how the emotions of a teenager are always simmering just beneath the surface. Douglas talked about the long road it took to get this movie financed and made, how familiar he was with the real-life story, and he also gave me an update of what’s happened to Mark and John since the movie’s release.

WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS.

Ben Kenber: I was not at all aware of the true story this movie was based on. Were you aware of this story or the Vanity Fair article it was based on before you got the script?

Andrew Douglas: I’m not a big magazine reader anymore because of the internet, but for some reason I did look at that magazine and I did see the article. Ever since “The Amityville Horror” I’ve always got a weather eye out for projects. I didn’t know at the time what it could be or what it might be, but it just seemed such an extraordinary story. Being in America and finding a story from back home was also very appealing, and then it took a couple of years (to get it off the ground). It had a funky journey because uncharacteristically I tried to buy the rights to the story. It wasn’t something I’m used to, but I did have an agent and I reached out to try to buy the rights to that story thinking it was so extraordinary that I got to be able to do something with this. In the meantime, Bryan Singer of all people had also reached out and snagged the rights. So, a year went by or maybe six months, and a script came out based on that story which Bad Hat Harry, Bryan Singer’s company, had produced and it was pretty good and I took a meeting on it. It went into the air as what’s called an open directing assignment, so I managed to arrange a meeting on it. In the meeting I pitched a slightly different interpretation of the same material, and then another year went by during which the studio the project was with, Warner Independent Pictures, went down the tubes taking the script with it. So, all of a sudden that material was untouchable, so Bat Hat Harry got in touch with me and said, “Remember the take that you had on this story?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Well could you come in and re-pitch it to Bryan?” So, I did and they really liked it and they felt it was sufficiently different from where they’ve been in order to start again with the same thing. Over the next year I developed up the script and I found a young English writer who had a great voice for authentic youth, and I presented it to Bad Hat Harry and got my commercial company, Anonymous Content, involved a little bit as well to pony up some money, and all of a sudden, we had a film. Interestingly, right around the time I was shooting, there was also in London an opera based on the same article. I went to see it and it was kind of very operatic and it couldn’t be more different from the film, but it was very interesting to me that here’s a story that grabbed at least three different people in three different ways. The first script was quite documentary in the sense that they presented the kids from a kind of adult perspective, and really to me it was a story of how weird the world is. The opera was told from the police woman’s point of view, so to some extent the story was really about a police woman being puzzled by the internet and by the strange landscape of the internet. My take on it was here’s this weird world, here’s this odd landscape that we haven’t really explored in literature or in film yet, but I’m going to approach it from the point of view of one of the inhabitants of it. The idea was to see if I could find a way through the perplexing nature of what Mark does. What was interesting to me as a kind of challenge was we have these two ordinary boys, more or less ordinary boys, who live in an ordinary town, horribly ordinary, who go to a regular school. They are not project kids, they are not kids who are used to knives or used to violence. How do they make the journey that they made? That was really a kind of interesting challenge to me, and I felt as though it would be best served by really taking on the point of view of one of the kids. It could’ve been either of them funny enough, and John certainly makes an interesting journey as well. But I thought Mark was slightly the more difficult journey to explain; a regular kid who’s handsome and good at football and popular with the girls. What is missing in his life that he needs this thing so badly, that he needs to go as far as he goes? And I just thought that was both interesting in a conventional drama, but also interesting in the context of this new landscape of the internet.

BK: Yes, absolutely. These days people seem to be more open with one another on the internet than in real life when they are face-to-face.

AD: Yeah, I think that’s true, and also not necessarily honest as well of course. One of the things that internet provides then and now, even though we have cameras now which we didn’t have in the wild west of 2003, is the secret language of texting. So, I might be projecting on this, but there is still something very alluring, hopefully not with my kids, about what is called the dark room. Being able to go into a dark room where nobody knows you and nobody can really see you and you can be anything. Maybe it was two years ago that there was a floater piece about young gamers with their avatars. They had a real portrait of the gamers and then right next to them was their avatars, and it was so interesting and, in many ways, it was like a pageant. You get for example a disabled person or another person or the most extreme avatar who is everything that they weren’t, and it was very interesting and moving to see that article. I think to some extent this is what we do and this is what my film’s about. The film doesn’t judge them. Mark says early on to John, “I want a mad life like you have,” and John gives him one. He so does for six months there; he gets a very, very mad life. John on the other hand, he’s just sort of like a brother or somebody to look out for him, and you get that. So, I try not to judge the kids and say they’re weird or they’re bad. I just try and say that in a funny way both kids got what they needed and what they weren’t getting from home. And I thought the judge was very cool. I copied the dialogue straight from the court transcripts, so when the judge says that each boy is an extension of the other, that’s actually what the judge said. I thought that was like one of the coolest judgments. You’ve got to expect courts to be that smart, and I just thought that was really interesting because it was something that nobody had really seen before. It was a new crime so John was accused of organizing his own death, and Mark equally was accused of stabbing him. So, for the judge and for all the generations of the legal institution, it was very perplexing which could have been another take on the movie of course. This is material that has many different points of view on it. Somebody else could’ve taken it from the point of view of the trial and try to figure that out. You know how cool “The Social Network” was? It was all based around those court hearings. That could have been another way to go, but you just make your choices and I am pretty happy with how it came out. There are moments where it has to kind of stretch credibility. I had Mike Walden (the movie’s screenwriter) write the characters as realistically as I could bear, but still when you look back from the end of the film they’re melodramatic. They’re still not quite real and that was kind of intentional. The film is almost more fun watching it the second time. A film like “The Usual Suspects” or “Fight Club,” when you watch these kinds of films a second time you see all the tricks, and it’s very satisfying the see how the filmmakers flirted with showing you everything.

BK: This is definitely a movie that needs to be watched at least twice to see how the characters managed to accomplish all that they did. “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” also reminded me of what it’s like being young and how the emotions of a teenager are just simmering below the surface to where they don’t know how to deal with certain things.

AD: Right, and the stakes for a kid dealing with those emotions are always so high. So, here’s this person online who he never met. He has a girlfriend of sorts, although that other girlfriend in the real world is just kind of messing him around, but here’s this girl he’s never met and he knows the stakes are so high somehow, and that kind of felt true. You’re absolutely right in what you just said. You have a feel as though one meeting and he loves somebody, and then they die and then you have to seek revenge. Teenage emotions, they run so big really.

BK: Yes, they do. It’s almost easy to believe that a young teenage boy could do what he did, and that’s scary too because when you’re that young and you feel the need to do something, you can get easily manipulated. The other thing I found fascinating, even though we know what happens at the end, is how the movie shows the power women can have over men.

AD: Yeah, it’s all about sex in a way. What John is so instinctively clever about is that every kind of invention is really about sex or power. So, to create Rachel or somebody you talk about, but also somebody who is also in danger and in jeopardy… I didn’t really invent that, I kind of refined it. I was very careful to stay pretty close to the instant messaging transcripts, so all those characters come right from the source. So, John was kind of preternaturally clever in understanding that Mark is going to fall for both the damsel in distress and the sex, and this is going to be too alluring for him. Each time he loses Mark’s attention, he has to up the stakes to invent something even bigger. So finally, he invents the spy woman, and again the relationship is very kind of sexual. It’s funny in that there are so many ideas there and a film can only tackle a few without getting too dense. You’re right, that’s so interesting.

BK: At the movie’s end it is said that only so much can be revealed about these two boys because of their age, and they were ordered to never contact each other ever again. Since the making of the movie, has there any other news about these two boys?

AD: No, and it’s so disappointing. When I was doing screenings in London, I was so hoping that in the audience was one of them. I was so hoping that one of them would come out. I always imagined it was going to be John. My interpretation of his character was that he was kind of very proud of what he did. I tried to capture that when he’s proud of that scar. And I felt as though Mark might be more humiliated by the whole thing and that he might well disappear and use the anonymity of the court much more than John. But I felt that John would continue being a con man which is why I do that thing at the end where he’s still conning. That felt as though the con man as a character… We know now as grown-ups that they use people and that they always have to romance us and exaggerate, so the con man as kind of archetype, it’s hard to break that. But sadly, I never found out about them, and I really wish I could. Remember that film “The Fighter” that Christian Bale was so good in as the messed-up boxer? At the end of the movie you get this real satisfaction that you see the real guy (that his character was based on). I’d love to have been able to do that because it just kind of completes the circle, and it also nails down that this extraordinary thing you just saw is real. I would’ve loved to have done that. I would’ve loved to have been able to show pictures of them now. It would’ve been very satisfying to do that but no, not a glimpse.

BK: This is not a story you could easily make up. It definitely feels like it came from real life.

AD: I know, it’s too extraordinary isn’t it? Sometimes during the filming, I was going, “Oh man I wish I could put ‘based on a true story’ several times through the movie because otherwise people are just going to think I’m crazy to expect people to believe this.” But since I made this film, there was a big event here in America with that Heisman Trophy winner with that Hawaiian name. It just shows you what people will believe like Christianity or something like Mormonism. People believe what they need to believe, I think, at every kind of level. It’s almost as if the internet is like a new country or a new landscape, and I’m a bit surprised that there aren’t more movies about it. One of the things that occurred to me is that I think maybe studios are scared of films where the danger is all going to happen on the computer. I know that was certainly true for myself when I was trying to get financing for the movie. They said, “Oh is it all going to be on computer?” That’s why I kind of invented that thing where often times they are talking, so it doesn’t feel as though it’s all written onscreen. I’m just a bit surprised there aren’t more films coming out (on this subject).

BK: Yeah, it’s been a while. If you look back over the years, it’s kind of been an ongoing theme here and there like with movies such as “WarGames” from the 1980’s.

AD: Oh yes Ben, you’re absolutely right. I had forgotten about that.

BK: It’s interesting to see how technology has evolved over time. Even back then it was a threat, but technology is even more of a threat today than ever before.

AD: Right, right. I think that there was one moment in the film when the police are interviewing Mark’s parents in his bedroom and his dad says he just sits on that thing and points at the computer, not understanding that the computer is a door. It is a door to a place that the dad knows nothing about. That wasn’t kind of forefront in my mind as a parent or anything. It wasn’t meant to be a cautionary tale. It was meant to be a roller coaster to be honest. It’s really true that parents don’t quite understand that this technology is a back door, so who knows what?

BK: How did you go about casting the actors in this movie? They are all really good and very natural.

AD: Yeah, they’re terrific. It was just a normal process really. It started by trying to get real people cast. I really like Shane Meadows’ films like “This is England” and he always tends to use real people. But I quickly found that the script and the ideas and the characters were actually too complicated for real people to kind of be able to layer it, and so I went back to more conventional casting. It took a while. It took a lot of backwards and forwards with like 40 or 50 kids. Jamie was a stretch because that boy had to shave every hour (laughs). He’s got a real heavy beard. While everybody else would be having lunch, we sent him off to shave again.

BK: Much of the movie looks like it was shot handheld.

AD: That was intentional. There was a limited budget, but also it felt that the film would be best served if it looked very realistic because the story is so unrealistic. I felt if I shot it as realistically as possible, not quite documentary but very handheld and very real, I thought as though that would create a tension within the story.

BK: I liked that because you watch this movie and it just washes over you. It does feel like you’re being invited into these kids’ private lives in a way you wouldn’t necessarily be invited otherwise. In some cases, people might view this story as being rather convoluted, but it is based on a true story and the realism of it aids the movie very well.

AD: Oh good, I’m glad to hear you say that.

BK: Well thank you for your time Andrew, it has been very interesting to talk with you and I thank you for your time.

AD: Not at all. I appreciate your liking this film. Independent films need help; they need champions so it’s really great that you’re supporting independent films. It’s also easy to just go for the big studio films, but then I think we lose something. I’m a big fan of all kinds of movies. Along with everybody else I’ll be there watching the Superman or the Spiderman and I’ll be there on the first day, but equally I just love independent cinema and I love the way it deals with often times more grown-up ideas. It’s all great.

BK: I agree. My hope is that independent cinema goes through another renaissance really soon.

AD: Oh, I know, absolutely because you see films like “12 Years a Slave” or even “American Hustle” and they are very independent in spirit and they do so well. So, it just feels as though we don’t just want to watch tent pole movies. It’s just not enough because that’s too simplistic and sometimes you feel as though all you are is a consumer. You’re just consuming a kind of product. And with big movies they have less and less dialogue because they travel more easily like a “Transformers” movie. There’s not any dialogue in them anymore because that way they can just export it all over the world, and you just feel like a sucker sometimes.

“U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘X-Men: First Class’ Represents What a Prequel Should Be Like

X Men First Class poster

X-Men: First Class” is a huge improvement over the previous entry, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and it’s also the best film in the series since “X-Men 2.” It’s breezy fun, the special effects are terrific, and the emphasis on character this time around makes for a more involving prequel. With Wolverine shoved to the side, this fifth movie and the second prequel in the long running franchise, many other characters get their chance to shine.

The primary focus of “First Class” is on Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as we see the significant events which shaped and brought them together. But while Charles’ upbringing was a privileged one, Erik’s was unbearably tragic as he and his parents were imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp. Erik’s ability to control magnetism becomes evident early on, and this talent soon gets exploited by scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who commits an atrocious act in front of him. From there on, the driving force in Erik’s life is one of bloody revenge.

Prequels are tricky because we are naturally inclined to be against other actors taking over roles previously portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. Then there’s that cynical feeling of studios taking this route just to save money. It was deemed after “X-Men: The Last Stand” that a fourth movie with the same cast would have been far too expensive to make. Of course, with a reported budget of $160 million, “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t sound like much of a bargain. Moreover, does anyone remember “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd?” Did you think audiences were going to be fooled by a Jim Carrey-less prequel? Anyone remember “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas?” Heck, does anyone remember the first “Flintstones” movie? I remember seeing it, but the plot details escaped me once I walked out of the theater.

But what’s great about “X-Men: First Class” is the cast doesn’t need to worry about living up to the actors who inhabited the same roles before them. They get to approach these classic characters in a different light, and this frees them up from any restrictions which could have been imposed on them. Characters like Mystique and Dr. Hank McCoy are given more depth and complexity than ever before, and many surprises are in store for the audience as the script invests a lot of emotion in these characters including those bad mutants we rooted against in the past.

James McAvoy is excellent as the young Charles Xavier, and he looks like he had lots of fun making this prequel. Whereas Patrick Stewart’s Professor X was wise and mature, McAvoy’s is just getting started in his career and comes across as quite the ladies’ man. I also admired that while Charles is incredibly intelligent, we find his ego getting the best of him. So sure of all the things he is knowledgeable of, McAvoy does great work in making Xavier well-intentioned but not as open to mutants being themselves in the real world.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto remains one of the most fascinating characters in the “X-Men” universe. While he’s been the series’ chief villain and a megalomaniac, Magneto is simultaneously an anti-hero and has even been seen as a hero in the comic books. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for him considering the horrors he was exposed to in his youth, and it makes his future actions understandable, if not excusable. No wonder actors have so much fun in this role; you never know for sure the direction Magneto will end up taking. All you can say is, whatever he ends up doing, it will be to his benefit more than anyone else’s.

With movies like “Fish Tank” and “Inglourious Basterds” under his belt, Michael Fassbender is the perfect choice to play the young Erik Lehnsherr before and after he becomes Magneto. Fassbender has given performances deep with complexity and feeling; looking like the good guy at one point and then later turning into one seriously twisted individual. As Erik, he is great at showing the different layers to this character who is forever caught in a horrific moment he can’t get out of.

But one character who really gets expanded in “X-Men: First Class” is Raven whose shape-shifting abilities earn her the nickname of Mystique. Rebecca Romijn played Raven in the first three movies as a villain, and her character never got much in the way of psychological depth. Jennifer Lawrence, however, gets more to work with as we come to meet Raven at the time her allegiance to her “brother” Xavier begins to wane.

In Lawrence’s hands, she makes Raven/Mystique a strong female role model, one who is determined to be open about who she is and not be ashamed of it. While hiding herself in human form, as she is encouraged to do so by Charles Xavier, Raven’s frustration at appearing in public as someone other than herself is beginning to take its toll. Lawrence is riding high on some incredibly strong performances, and she continues to show how far her acting chops can stretch.

With Bryan Singer returning to this franchise as a producer, I’m sure he had a good hand in getting this particular entry focused more on character development. Each character is shown to be suffering through conflicted emotions as to what path the mutant race should follow, making them no different from the humans who deal with many of the same issues. Mutants are seen as the next stage in human evolution, but the haunting question of whether this will be to humanity’s best interests or detriment always hangs in the air.

But the person who deserves the most credit for “First Class” is its director, Matthew Vaughn. Coming off of the gleefully rebellious “Kick Ass,” one of 2010’s best movies, he manages to bring a lot of inventive energy to a franchise in desperate need of it. Vaughn also makes the special effects benefit the actors instead of just overwhelming them. What made the first few “X-Men” movies so special was the amount of emotion they generated, and the same thing is definitely the case here. It’s our connection with these characters which makes the action set pieces all the more exciting.

If there are any problems with “X-Men: First Class,” they come in the last half as the filmmakers become overly concerned about bringing the characters in line to where they are at in the first “X-Men” film. This was also a big problem with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” even though that prequel was much more convoluted. It would have been nicer to see the friendship between Charles and Erik get expanded instead of just ending this one with them taking opposite sides. Then again, perhaps it still could be expanded on in future installments.

Kevin Bacon, always a terrific actor, is perfectly detestable as the movie’s most irredeemable villain. At the same time, I wished the writers had expanded on his character more. Compared to the others, Sebastian Shaw threatens to be a little too one-dimensional in his actions. If Sebastian had more complexity to him, it would have made the transition of power between him and Erik all the more believable and compelling.

Other strong performances come from Rose Byrne as Dr. Moira MacTaggert and Nicholas Hout as the highly intelligent yet shy Dr. Hank McCoy. On the other hand, while January Jones is amazingly beautiful as Emma Frost/White Queen, her one-note delivery of dialogue is one of this film’s major detriments.

“X-Men: First Class” is a prequel done in the same spirit of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” and it’s proof you don’t need Wolverine present to make a good “X-Men” movie. This is a reboot which works to everyone’s advantage, and I am eager to see what comes next.

By the way, don’t bother staying through the end credits. There’s no post-credits sequence, so take care of that urine ache ASAP.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X Men Days of Future Past poster

Okay, let me get it out of the way now; “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is not only the best “X-Men” movie since “X2,” but it is also the most entertaining and emotionally powerful film of the franchise to date. For a while, it seemed like the series peaked as the succeeding sequels and prequels were critically maligned to where you wondered if this particular superhero franchise had finally overstayed its welcome. But with Bryan Singer, having been led away by Superman and a giant slayer among others things, back behind the camera again, everything feels fresh and invigorating again, and it’s hard to think of another “X-Men” movie which can top this one.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” starts off in a very bleak future where sentient robots known as Sentinels have exterminated most of the mutants as well as those humans who have helped them. Not much is left which leads me to believe that in the process of protecting humanity, humans ended up destroying themselves by creating the Sentinels. Time is running out for the remaining X-Men which include Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe / Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde / Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Bobby Drake / Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and of course Logan / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and they hide away in a Chinese monastery and prepare to use the only method they can to save all of humanity: time travel.

Charles explains to Logan of how they need to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the military scientist who created the Sentinels, by Raven Darkhölme / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). While it is completely understandable for any mutant to hate Bolivar with a passion, his assassination ends up making him a martyr and Raven gets captured and experimented on to where the analysis of her mutant powers help to make the Sentinels all the more effective. So Logan, with the help of Shadowcat, ends up traveling back to the year 1973 to stop Raven from killing Bolivar as he is the only one of the group who can withstand the rigors of time travel. But just when you think this is going to turn into the usual time-travel flick, it becomes anything but.

What I love about the “X-Men” movies are how they focus on character as much as they do on visual effects. The mutants are treated as the outcasts of society, and we feel their pain at being excluded for who they are. Singer understands this pain, and it makes his return to the franchise all the more welcome. Also, there’s something bigger at stake than changing the course of events in time, and that’s preserving hope. While Morgan Freeman said in “The Shawshank Redemption” of how hope is a dangerous thing as it can drive a man insane, the mutants (the good ones anyway) thrive on it because they know no one can live any other way. Even in the darkest of times, they strive to make the world a better place for all of humanity. You feel the weight of the choices they are about to make, and it produced moments which truly left me on the edge of my seat.

After playing Wolverine for so many years, I figured Hugh Jackman would be sick of the character as he remained a moody son of a bitch in. But the great thing about Wolverine this time around is how he and Charles Xavier essentially trade places. In the previous films, Charles was always trying to get Wolverine to look past his anger and bitterness to embrace a better path in life, and now Wolverine has to do the same for Charles. When we catch up with the younger Professor X (this time played by James McAvoy) in 1973, he is a broken man who has regained the ability to walk (don’t worry, there is an explanation) and has become more comfortable being a functioning alcoholic instead of being a teacher. His school is now empty since the Vietnam War took away many of his students, and he spends his days hanging out with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hout) who tends to his needs.

In some ways, Jackman looks really invigorated this time around as Wolverine proves to be the source of hope the other characters desperately need. He still remains the Wolverine we all know and love, and it’s a lot of fun watching him interact with the cast members of “X-Men: First Class.” Both McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who plays the younger Magneto, once again make these iconic roles their own without the shadows of Stewart and McKellen hovering over them. It’s also great to see Hout and Jennifer Lawrence back as well as both actors make Beast and Mystique more than just a couple of mere supporting characters.

It’s also great to see a lot of veteran “X-Men” actors here as I was afraid we would never see them together again in the same movie. Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page and Ashmore make their welcome returns count for every second of their screen time. And yes, Anna Paquin does make an appearance as Marie/Rogue. She’s only in the movie for a little bit, but at least she didn’t get cut out of it completely.

The screenwriter of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Simon Kinberg, and it is based on the famous comic book by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. For a time, I thought this was going to be your typical time travel movie where everything hinges on a pivotal moment in human history, but Kinberg has a few surprises in store for us as the story doesn’t stop at the moment we expect it to. The characters are acutely aware of the ripple effects they can cause in the history of things, and there’s no time wasted on showing how out of place they are in the 70’s as they always seem to be out of place in everyone’s eyes regardless of the decade.

There are also a bunch of new mutants joining the party this time around, and the one which stands out the most is Pietro Maximoff /Quicksilver who is played by Evan Peters. Peters is a gas to watch as his character moves at supersonic speeds around everyone, and he injects a good dose of humor into the proceedings. Singer also features Quicksilver in one of the movie’s most ingenious sequences which is scored to the most unlikely of songs. Seriously, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it has to be seen to be believed.

Another standout performance in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Peter Dinklage’s as Bolivar Trask. Like any good actor, Dinklage keeps Bolivar from becoming another one-dimensional villain as he infuses the character with an arrogance and blind ambition which makes him all the more dangerous. Bolivar believes deeply in what he is doing as he feels it is right, and you come out of the movie pitying him. This is a character who has struggled all his life to get the respect he feels he deserves, and he never gives much thought to the consequences of his actions.

I also got to give kudos to Richard Camacho who plays President Richard Nixon. After watching Frank Langella portray this American President in “Frost/Nixon,” I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see another actor play Nixon again as anyone else would have simply played him as a caricature. But I was surprised to see how good Camacho was because he didn’t give us the usual Nixon as this movie would have suffered as a result.

But in many ways, the biggest star of this “X-Men” movie is Singer himself. Regardless of his current legal predicament (I’m not even going into that here), he makes a comeback of sorts with this entry as his last few efforts have seen him lose his touch as a filmmaker. No, I haven’t seen “Jack the Giant Slayer,” but I have yet to hear my friends say anything good about it. But just as he did with the first “X-Men” movies, he does a terrific job of balancing out the visual effects with character development, and what results is the most emotionally satisfying comic book blockbuster I’ve ever seen. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which was really good, set the bar high, but Singer surpasses it by a wide margin with this installment.

After watching “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” you will agree that “X-Men: Apocalypse” can’t come soon enough. Seriously, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” only dreamed of being this good.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

X Men Apocalypse poster

In the whirlwind of superhero movies which have come out in 2016, “X-Men: Apocalypse” ends up being sandwiched between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Like those two, “X-Men: Apocalypse” has far too many characters and plotlines to deal with, and its running time is much longer than it needs to be. But while this “X-Men” might not reach thrilling heights of “Captain America: Civil War,” it is far more enjoyable than the dour affair that was “Batman vs. Superman.” Still, after “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” this entry does feel like a comedown for the long running franchise.

The movie takes place in the 1980’s; a time of synth pop, “Knight Rider,” Ronald Reagan and “Return of the Jedi” among other things. The newest threat to both humans and mutants alike is En Sabah Nur, better known as Apocalypse, the world’s first and most powerful mutant. The movie starts off with him being entombed in a rocky grave after being betrayed by his followers, but he is awakened in 1983 and finds humanity has lost its way because, as he sees it, humanity was without his presence. As a result, he vows to destroy the world and remake it, and this time the X-Men may have a foe too powerful for them to defeat.

Playing Apocalypse is Oscar Isaac who enters yet another incredibly successful franchise after leaving his mark on another in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” In a way he is undone here by the large amount of makeup he is forced to wear as it threatens to rob him of his charisma. Seriously, the less makeup you put on Isaac the better as he can lock you in place with just a look from his eyes. Regardless, he is still very good here as he holds his own opposite actors who have been veterans of this franchise for quite some time.

Many of the “X-Men: First Class” cast return as well like James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hout, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne and Evan Peters. It’s great to see them all back as they are still deeply invested in these famous comic book characters as always. McAvoy, portraying Professor Charles Xavier/Professor X, shows just how mentally exhausting it is to fight an antagonist with only your mind. We also get to see how Charles lost his hair, and we leave the theater wondering how his eyebrows managed to remain intact.

Lawrence remains an enthralling presence in any movie she appears in, and she makes Raven/Mystique another in a long line of wounded warriors. The Oscar winning actress makes this comic book character into a hero as reluctant as Katniss Everdeen, and we feel for even as she feels she deserves no respect because of her regretful mistakes. While Raven/Mystique has been an antagonist for many of the “X-Men” movies, Lawrence makes her a complex character who comes to see what she must fight for most.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto has a setup like Logan/Wolverine had in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in which he’s found peace but eventually sees it completely destroyed to where the only thing on his mind is vengeance. It’s a familiar setup we have seen many times, but whether or not you know how Magneto will end up in this mutant tug of war, it’s worth just seeing Fassbender inhabit this role once again as he is riveting for every second he appears onscreen. Compare him all you want to Sir Ian McKellen, Fassbender imbues this iconic comic book character with a lot of raw emotion which will not leave you unmoved.

Evan Peters steals the show once again as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver, the man who can move at supersonic speeds and yet still lives in his mother’s basement. Peters had one of “Days of Future Past’s” best scenes which was set to the tune of a classic 70’s song, and he does his thing here yet again to an 80’s song. It has been said that the next “X-Men” movie will take place in the 90’s, so we’ll have some time to guess what classic grunge song he will be saving the day to.

A number of other X-Men return as well, but this time played different actors. Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler finally returns to the franchise for the first time since “X-Men 2: X-Men United,” and he is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee who gives the character a good dose of humor. Alexandra Shipp takes on Storm and sports a mohawk which is as fierce as her attitude, so watch out. The terrific Tye Sheridan portrays Scott Summers/Cyclops, and this character gets fleshed out in a way we have not seen previously. “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner appears here as Jean Grey, and it’s great to see the actress portray Jean’s dark side which is her gift and her possible undoing in the future.

With Bryan Singer returning to the director’s chair for his fourth “X-Men” movie, you can’t help but walk into “Apocalypse” with high expectations. Both he and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have too many characters to deal with to where several are not developed fully enough to be satisfying, and others are simply there for dramatic conflict. The mutant hating William Stryker returns, but the character barely registers this time around. We also get introduced to new mutants like Psylocke whose talents seem no different from others like her, and more could have been done to make her stand out. However, it should be noted that Olivia Munn fills out Psylocke’s uniform very well.

But even with its inescapable flaws, Singer still makes “X-Men: Apocalypse” a summer blockbuster packed with action, and the movie also hits you on a deep emotional level. We’ve been following these characters now for nearly a dozen movies, and we still care about their predicaments regardless of whatever timeline they are living through. Other directors in this franchise, with the exception of Matthew Vaughn, have not had the same success in engaging us as Singer has, and he continues to set the bar high for others looking to helm the next entry. And once again, Singer is served well here by his longtime editor and composer John Ottman who gives us yet another rousing music score.

So yeah, “X-Men: Apocalypse” could have been better, but it still works for what it is. It has a serious yet playful tone which has been the mark of many comic book movies in recent years, and it’s better than its score on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. Regardless of how you feel about this movie, there’s still a lot of life left in this franchise and I am eager to see how the next “Wolverine” movie turns out.

Oh by the way, the filmmakers do pull off a none-too-subtle dig at “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Trust me, you will know it when you see it. Suffice to say, I don’t think Brett Ratner will be returning to this franchise anytime soon.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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