Tag Archives: X-Men: Days of Future Past

The Top Five Films of 2014 (And the Not-So-Top Ones)

After the mad dash of the holidays, we stumble into January determined to take stock of the year that was and sweep aside the old in preparation for the new.

2015 brings with it an exciting new batch of movies, but before we welcome such heady stuff as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” it’s time to look back on the best of 2014.

My Top 10 list falls a little short this year. I could only come up with five really exceptional films. But there are many other cinematic highlights to discuss, along with a bonus list — the 10 Most Overrated Films of 2014.

Happy New Year.

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The Top Five Films of 2014 (in no particular order)

1. “Birdman”: Like a wild, unpredictable improvisational jazz piece (an idea referenced in the film’s inventive musical score), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s show-biz satire exhilarates and astonishes. Seemingly shot in one seamless, kinetic take, the movie is unlike anything we’ve seen before. An excellent cast lays bare a humiliating array of ego trips and insecurities, most notably Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in performances that are self-deprecating and spell-binding. Fame has never been so fickle, so funny or so heartbreaking.

2. “Boyhood”: Watching 2014’s most languid and lovely drama is like thumbing through a decade’s worth of scrapbooks of one lad’s ordinary, extraordinary life. Writer-director Richard Linklater filmed the movie over a period of 12 years, resulting in a fictional time capsule of youth that never feels fabricated. As the boy in Linklater’s ‘hood, Ellar Coltrane is at once average and remarkable, bolstered by the poignant presence of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his flawed but well meaning parents. Whether you’re 15 or 50, this movie sparks reflections of formative moments in your own life.

3. “Guardians of the Galaxy”: The year’s most undeniably entertaining movie was shockingly absent from many critics’ Top 10 lists. Come on, guys! Don’t pretend you didn’t love this wacky space romp, which expertly culled its irresistibly fun ideas from such timeless classics as “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” In introducing us to its strangest band of misfit superheroes yet, Marvel shamelessly pandered to ’80s nostalgia and got us all hooked on a feeling. Chris Pratt’s roguishly charming Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s butt-kicking Gamora, Dave Bautista’s hilariously literal Drax and the lovable duo of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are part of cinema history now, and rightly so.

4. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”: I thought I was over Wes Anderson. The director’s rococo affectations were beginning to feel increasingly empty to me. But then came “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” detailing the quirkiest of adventures shared by concierge extraordinaire Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) and his trusty lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). Anderson’s fantastical fairy tale of international intrigue contains one surprising and delightful cameo after another, but it’s really a showcase for the improbable comedic talents of Fiennes, whose portrayal of the unflappable  Gustave is unexpectedly bittersweet. Anderson has always been a filmmaker to be reckoned with. This is undoubtedly his masterpiece.

5. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: There are movies you like, and then there are movies you fall for, truly, madly, deeply. In 2014, that film for me was writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s effortlessly cool, exquisitely romantic vampire drama. As sleek and sexy as midnight velvet and dripping with playful pop cultural, literary and musical references, “Lovers” depicts the reunion of insomniac soulmates who aren’t your average bloodsuckers. Tom Hiddleston plays angsty Adam as a brooding old-school rock ‘n’ roller from Detroit. Tilda Swinton’s Eve is his exotic, more adventurous paramour, who hangs out in Tangier with none other than Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). This film really has to be seen to be believed. I want to sink my teeth into it again and again.

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Honorable Mentions

“Gone Girl”: Gillian Flynn’s poisonous page turner is demented, disturbing and oh-so-much wicked fun in director David Fincher’s darkly funny big-screen treatment. You’ll never look at Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and the rest of the film’s fine cast quite the same way again.

“Nightcrawler”: Jake Gyllenhaal’s greasy, greedy, hypnotic turn as a ravenous coyote prowling L.A.’s seedy nightscapes in search of anything that bleeds is the highlight of writer-director Dan Gilroy’s pointed media satire.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”: Building on the firm foundation laid by 2011’s “X-Men: First Class,” this sequel unites multiple generations of our favorite mutants — including Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven and a double dose of Magneto and Professor X — in a twisty brain-teaser that effectively erases the franchise’s loathed third installment and paves the way for exciting installments to come.

“Edge of Tomorrow”: “Groundhog Day” meets “Alien” in a surprisingly clever post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick, which nobody saw because they were tired of watching Tom Cruise in post-apocalyptic sci-fi flicks. Cruise is billed as the star but Emily Blunt steals the movie out from under him as a tough-as-nails warrior, nickname the Full Metal Bitch.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”: Marvel’s ever popular comic book movie franchise finally grew up with a thriller that boasts slick action and a satisfyingly adult script.

“Snowpiercer”: The year’s most original, intriguing and just plain weird sci-fi thriller depicts a violent, stylish, totally bizarro class war aboard a train designed to traverse an ice-bound post-apocalyptic globe. You probably loved it and hated it simultaneously.

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Memorable Performances

The ever charming Shailene Woodley wormed her way a little deeper into our hearts in “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Divergent.”

Angelina Jolie was deliciously nasty as the misunderstood anti-heroine of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” reboot, “Maleficent.”

Tom Hardy did nothing but sit behind the wheel of a car and talk on the phone but was somehow spellbinding in “Locke.”

No one portrays eccentric geniuses quite like Benedict Cumberbatch, who dazzled as a socially awkward code breaker in “The Imitation Game.”

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The 10 Most Overrated Films of 2014 (in no particular order)

1. and 2. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” weren’t terrible but they were both seriously out of balance, proving the point that splitting book adaptations into too many parts may be financially savvy but cheats the audience out of a tightly crafted story.

3. “Magic in the Moonlight”: Woody Allen’s latest whimsical comedy features gorgeous French locales and yummy 1920s costumes but it’s an epic bore that teases us with the promise of supernatural intrigue, then delivers a lot of tedious talk instead.

4. “Begin Again”: Writer-director John Carney’s follow-up to the captivating “Once” is disappointing simply because there’s nothing genuine about it, from the forgettable music to the precious, pretentious performances of Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley.

5. “Chef”: Many moviegoers were charmed by this sleeper comedy, but I failed to fall under its spell, mainly because I can only watch Jon Favreau drive around in a food truck for so long.

6. “Godzilla”: After last year’s underrated but totally awesome “Pacific Rim,” this monster mash-up promised super-sized thrills. The film’s scaly star was largely absent, however, making this Kaiju smash-fest a giant disappointment.

7. “Under the Skin”: Critics inexplicably went ga-ga for director Jonathan Glazer’s interminably dull indie drama, which consists of a morose, otherworldly Scarlett Johansson trolling the streets of Glasgow for unsuspecting perverts.

8. “The Lego Movie”: I’m not going to deny this animated flick featuring everyone’s favorite building blocks is fun, playful and clever to a point. Seriously, though, how old are we, America’s collective moviegoing audience? 12?

9. “Interstellar”: Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi opus is stunning in many ways and I was one of the critics who highly recommended it. Two months later, though, I have to admit this technically impressive but flawed film was easier to forget than I expected.

10. “The Interview”: Sony Pictures and the nation’s major movie chains never should have caved to the cyberterrorist threats that kept this North Korea-bashing comedy out of theaters. I just wish Seth Rogen and James Franco’s goofy riff on totalitarianism actually had something to say. Then it might be worth all the fuss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Prep for ‘Future Past’ with Ultimate X-Men Recap

Are you planning to see “X-Men: Days of Future Past” this weekend?

Ideally, you’ll want to watch all six movies that preceded this sequel, which features a time travel plot so twisty and complex, it would leave J.J. Abrams scratching his head.

Director Bryan Singer’s wildly entertaining but mentally taxing seventh franchise installment requires moviegoers to keep straight a huge ensemble of mutants past, present and future in various eras, various places and various stages of their lives.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy “Days” but it does help if you brush up on the X-movies that have gone before. Below you’ll find reviews, complete with plot summaries, of every chapter in the franchise, from 2000’s “X-Men” to last year’s “The Wolverine.”

Consider it your refresher course on all things mutant. Professor X would be proud.

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X-Men (2000)
Three and a half stars
PG-13
104 minutes

Some comic book junkies waited more than 30 years for an X-Men movie. When the film was finally made, it was greeted with a flurry of hype reminiscent of the fuss over “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” After months and years of pent up anticipation, someone was going to be disappointed. But that someone wasn’t me.

Director Bryan Singer brings the mythology of the comic book to life without sacrificing substance for special effects — and the special effects are spectacular. Yes, Wolverine’s knife-like talons shoot from his skin with a thrilling metallic ring and Storm brews up magnificent bursts of thunder. Yes, Magneto twists metal bars like balloon animals and Wolverine and Mystique pirouette in a graceful, butt-kicking fight sequence.

The heart of the film, however, is in the richness of the characters and the resonance of the themes of prejudice and intolerance which made the comic so popular. Dark, moody and intelligent, but always fun, the mutant charms of “X-Men” will satisfy even the most X-ignorant and leave them hungry for more.

The brilliance of “X-Men” begins with the casting. Led by stage and screen veterans Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and charismatic newcomer Hugh Jackman, the actors transform comic book caricature into flesh and blood. Jackman is Logan, one of a minority of humans who have reached the next stage in evolution, feared by society because of their extraordinary powers. Logan is also called Wolverine because of the metal claws that spring from his knuckles, his wolfish sensory ability and rapid healing power.

Wolverine meets up with waifish runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin). She’s no ordinary teenager. Anyone who makes skin to skin contact with her could end up in a coma or worse. The two are pursued by bad guys from the Brotherhood of mutants: shape-shifting, blue-skinned Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), big, dumb and hairy Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), slithery-tongued, high-jumping Toad (Ray Park) and their ringleader, Magneto (McKellen), who manipulates all types of metal without moving a finger.

Wolverine and Rogue are rescued from Magneto’s clutches by the X-Men, whose headquarters are hidden beneath a school for gifted youngsters where Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart), one of the world’s most powerful telepaths, trains mutants to use their powers for the good of humankind. He and ex-students Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whose power also lies in her mind; Cyclops (James Marsden), who can blast through walls with his eyes; and Storm (Halle Berry), who wields power over the weather, keep track of the world’s mutants and fight evil.

As Rogue and Wolverine adjust to a community where mutants share acceptance and mutual respect, the X-Men strive to keep them safe from Magneto’s grasp and stop his diabolical plot for world domination.

It’s a delight to watch the distinguished McKellen and Stewart face off in “X-Men.” Two such passionate and imposing actors need not leap from planes and pummel each other with their fists to catch our attention. In one tense standoff, they do battle with nothing but their minds — Xavier pulls a sort of Jedi trick on Magneto’s men while Magneto holds cops at bay by turning their own guns against them.

It’s Jackman, however, who holds the movie in his sharp-clawed hands. His Wolverine is a sexy mix of James Dean leather-jacketed cool and Jack Nicholson crazy. A raging animal whose only soft spot is for Rogue — and perhaps Jean Grey — Wolverine is the film’s darkest, most intriguing source of conflict. The chemistry between Paquin and Jackman infuses “X-Men” with a tender humanity.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters are too bogged down in explanations and exposition to extend this human touch to the rest of the X-Men. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that Cyclops and Jean Grey are lovers when they don’t ever seem to look at each other. Sometimes the mutants, who have supposedly been together through thick and thin, hardly seem to know each other.

Some people will probably complain about the way “X-Men” shamelessly and meticulously sets itself up for its inevitable sequel. I didn’t mind it. They won’t be able to make the second one fast enough to satisfy my craving for more.

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X2: X-Men United (2003)
Four stars
PG-13
134 minutes

“I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school looking for trouble.”

Professor X utters this line at the end of “X-Men,” and in “X2: X-Men United,” we find out exactly what he means by it.

When special operations commandos storm the professor’s ivy-covered, manor-style school for gifted young mutants, they get a whole lot more than they bargained for. Instead of lying there waiting to be tranquilized like good little kiddies, the students melt through walls, let out literally paralyzing screams, turn into walking masses of steel and spin walls of ice from their fingertips.

And then there’s Wolverine, who happens to be baby-sitting this particular night. You don’t mess with Wolverine.

You don’t mess with director Bryan Singer, either. The “X-Men” helmer is back in the driver’s seat for “X2,” and the man knows what he’s doing. The sequel is every bit as good as its predecessor, boasting seamless special effects, rollicking action and actors who really “get” their characters.

It is darker, sexier, more adult and more violent — though surprisingly nongraphic, with a heightened sense of camaraderie between the characters and more mutants with more intriguing powers.

In short, it’s a good time at the movies.

“X2” opens with an assassination attempt on the president of the United States by a mutant unlike any we’ve seen before. He is Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a blue-skinned, strangely tattooed, devil-tailed creature who can instantly teleport from one location to another, disappearing from the grasp of secret service agents in a kind of inky blue “poof!”

In a doozy of an action sequence, Nightcrawler is barely thwarted from knifing the pres, but the incident gives ruthless Army Gen. William Stryker (Brian Cox) the opening he needs to obtain authorization for a special ops invasion of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters.

Unaware of Stryker’s plot, Xavier, the wheelchair-bound leader of the X-Men, also known as Professor X (Patrick Stewart), dispatches the weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry) and telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to pick up Nightcrawler, in hopes they can prevent him from further violence.

Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), in the meantime, has returned, still unsatisfied, from his quest to solve the mystery of his past, and Jean’s powers are threatening to burgeon out of control.

It is Professor X’s nemesis, the metal-manipulating Magneto (Ian McKellen), who busts out of his plastic prison with the help of shape-shifting lackey Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), to warn Xavier and the X-Men of Stryker’s hidden intentions, which involve the professor’s powerful mutant-tracking device, Cerebro.

In true serial comic book fashion, there is a lot going on in “X2,” but screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris manage to keep the story uncluttered, as well as allow sufficient time for each character to have his or her moment.

New faces are introduced, including the rebellious, flame-throwing Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and the tough-as-nails Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), who is, in essence, a vinyl-clad female version of Wolverine with knife-like talons protruding from her fingertips.

All of the actors are game and energetic, most notably Jackman, whose rugged, flippant, cool-but-caring attitude signals the arrival of a true action hero, and the quietly imperious McKellen, who steals every scene he’s in.

Curry wisely does not go too far over the top in his portrayal of the eccentric Nightcrawler. Stamos gets more screen time and she’s surprisingly good, even getting a chance to shed her blue scales for her human skin in one scene.

Who am I kidding, though? The real stars of the X-show are the special effects and they are mighty impressive. From Wolverine’s whirling, lightning-paced final confrontation with Deathstrike, to the computer-generated maneuvering of the X-jet, to a scene in which Pyro unleashes jets of flame at a squad of police cars, only to be halted rather creatively in midrampage by the power-absorbing Rogue, these are action sequences that make you want to leap out of your seat and do an adrenaline-pumped dance of joy.

The “X2” finale is a bit overblown and those long-drawn-out and harped-upon secrets of Wolverine’s origins, once revealed, aren’t nearly as shocking as we might have expected.

Still, “X2” accomplishes what every good comic book should. It leaves us salivating for issue No. 3.

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X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13
103 minutes

The miracle of the first two X-Men movies was that they were based on a comic book series and still managed to be action packed and character driven. So while the audience was dazzled by the sight of Wolverine flashing those adamantium claws or Jean Grey manipulating futuristic airplanes with her mind, the real attraction was in the relationships of these mutants, whose ambivalence over their supernatural powers is really just a metaphor for whatever individual gifts or curses we struggle with here in the real world. 

Though he had hundreds of possible characters to choose from, director Bryan Singer was always careful not to cram the screen too full with them. They were painstakingly selected for maximum conflict, each one — with the possible exception of Halle Berry’s Storm — was given a moment to shine, and while fists flew and monolithic battles were waged, it was the interaction between them that made the films so compelling.

Singer famously abandoned the X-Men franchise when the prospect of bringing yet another Lycra-clad avenger to the screen — a musclebound fellow by the name of Superman — proved too tempting to resist. He left his mutant charges in the hands of Brett Ratner, helmer of the “Rush Hour” flicks.

In “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Ratner has clearly bitten off more than he can chew. The movie is so bloated with characters, old and new, that many of the personalities moviegoers have come to love have been unceremoniously shoved to the side. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg
(“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) and Zak Penn (“X2: X-Men United”) must share in the blame because they of all people should have known better than to attempt such a juggling act.

The plot of “The Last Stand” revolves around a pharmaceutical company’s sudden announcement that it has developed a cure for the genetic mutations that grant the X-Men their remarkable paranormal abilities. The U.S. government’s head of mutant affairs, Dr. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), aka the furry blue Beast, attempts to address this startling turn of events diplomatically, but the nation is quickly divided between those who line up at clinics, desperate for the shot that will rid them once and for all of their embarrassing
abnormalities, and those who take offense at the very thought of such a thing.

“There’s nothing wrong with any of us,” Storm protests as talk of the cure swirls around Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) School for Gifted Youngsters. Inclined to agree with her is Magneto (Ian McKellen), the megalomaniacal metal manipulator and Xavier’s best-friend-turned-nemesis, who seizes upon the controversy over the cure to brew up his own violent mutant revolution.

Xavier and the X-Men are a little too distracted to deal with Magneto immediately because Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who seemingly died at the end of “X-Men United,” has
resurfaced and she’s acting mighty strangely, causing inanimate objects to float about the room and trying to seduce Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who has long nursed an unrequited
crush on the fetching telepath.

The transformation of Jean into the omnipotent, id-driven force known as the Dark Phoenix is one of the most anticipated elements of “The Last Stand.” It doesn’t disappoint, at least initially, as the furious Phoenix demonstrates her awesome powers in her childhood home in a scene of absolute devastation. Unfortunately, Janssen spends the rest of the movie mostly standing around, as do many of our favorite members of the X-gang, that is if they haven’t already abruptly departed from the screen.

Among the other returning characters who get woefully short shrift are the fatherly Xavier, laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), chameleonic Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), angsty fireball-throwing Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose lethal talent for absorbing other mutants’ powers via skin-to-skin contact sparks a love triangle with her boyfriend, the hormonal Ice Man (Shawn Ashmore), and cute Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can
walk through walls.

These characters are all relegated to the background to make way for Storm, Wolverine and Magneto — not necessarily a bad thing considering Jackman and McKellen are two of the best actors in the franchise — and an assortment of new, but
largely uninteresting villains, including the behemoth Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones sporting a goofy helmet and an unsightly wedgy) and fast-moving Callisto (Dania Ramirez).

Ratner spends a lot of time dwelling on Magneto and his brooding band of drab disenfranchised mutants, who look like a bunch of pierced and eye-linered Goth kids
camped out at a Marilyn Manson concert, while utterly wasting some fascinating new arrivals, like the winged and tortured Angel (Ben Foster) and a mysterious bald child
named Leech (Cameron Bright), who is the source of the mutant cure.

Ratner seeks to mollify fans with some impressive special effects sequences, including a forest chase in which Wolverine gets to really bare his claws, an over-the-top set piece
on the Golden Gate Bridge and a final mutant showdown complete with flaming, flying cars and whizzing syringes.

On the whole, though, “The Last Stand” ends the X-Men trilogy on a terribly unsatisfying note. Of course, I’m not buying for a second that it was ever really intended to be the
final chapter. If you doubt me, stick around for the final teaser at the end of the credits.

The X-Men will be back. Let’s hope they bring Singer with them.

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Two stars
PG-13
107 minutes

In the movies, at least, Wolverine has always been the coolest of the X-Men. Those lightning-quick adamantium claws. That werewolf-meets- Elvis pompadour. The leather jacket and the motorcycle, indicating his status as a rebel and a drifter. The grouchy glower and throaty growl. The fact that underneath all that animalistic rage, he’s just a softie with identity issues.

So, you might be tempted to think “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the first of several planned spin-offs of 20th Century Fox’s successful X-Men trilogy, would be the coolest flick of all.
Instead, it feels like the cold, stale leftovers of a franchise already past its expiration date.

If you’ve seen “X-Men” or its sequel, “X2,” then you’re already familiar with this origin story charting the mutant hero’s evolution from wolfie mercenary to indestructible
government test subject. “Wolverine” spends most of its time filling in the blanks, or manufacturing blanks to fill in — including the ferocious Canadian’s tragic love affair with an ethereal schoolteacher and his rivalry with psycho half-brother Sabretooth –before contorting itself into a tangle of twisted logic so that the story flows
back into the established movie mythology. Seamless is not a word I’d use to
describe this process.

The movie begins with an intriguing montage of all the wars the nonaging Logan (Hugh Jackman) and his equally timeless brother, Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber), have fought during more than a century of existence, stretching back to before the Civil War. In the modern world, their unique powers — bony talons burst from Logan’s knuckles, while Victor has
the nails and teeth of a tiger — capture the attention of William Stryker (Danny Huston), the sort of mildly deranged military chief who, at least in Hollywood’s version of things, is
forever starting up renegade bands of top-secret super-soldiers in the interest of national security.

When Logan loses his taste for Stryker’s bloody agenda, he hightails it to the Rockies and settles down as a lumberjack with a fetching pacifist named Kayla (Lynn Collins). You can
probably guess where this is going because, obviously, Jackman can’t spend the entire movie snuggling in a cabin with some hot chick. The abrupt disintegration of his idyllic normal life, the work of a brother pushed over the edge by the horrors of the Vietnam War, sends Logan on a quest for revenge and straight into the lab of Stryker, where the broken-hearted mutant
is transformed into the angry, hairy, metal-skeletoned beast we’ve come to know and love.

Pumped up like a plastic action figure — indeed, the actor’s muscles have become a spectacle unto themselves — Jackman is as roguishly charismatic as ever. His Wolverine
is soft-spoken, given to spouting quaint, old fashioned phrases, like “bub,” but there’s a burning, primal fury coursing through those swollen veins. We like him, but we’re also a
little bit afraid of him.

Unfortunately, ever since “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Fox has jettisoned that potent, satisfying blend of character development and action that made the first two films such a delight.
With a writer like David Benioff (“25th Hour,” “The Kite Runner”) on board, you’d think the screenplay might be a smidgen more cerebral but, then again, his co-scribe was Skip Woods (“Swordfish,” “Hitman”), so nevermind.

Action is now all that remains — and if you’re in the mood tostart your summer viewing off with a bang, you could do worse than “Wolverine,” I’ll admit — leaving Jackman little to do besides glowering, growling and flashing those claws. Another fine actor set adrift in a
sea of vaguely-sketched-out personalities is Schreiber, a thinking man’s thespian who brings a refreshing level of subtlety and craft to what could have easily been the stock bad guy role.

Yes, there’s real acting going on in “Wolverine,” but it only calls attention
to the loudly echoing vacant space that is the rest of the film. Director Gavin Hood — whose
previous films include the promising South African drama “Tsotsi” and the not-so-promising thriller “Rendition” — seems slightly out of his league with a movie of this massive-budgeted scale. Perhaps this is why he relies on action movie clichés for his visual approach. The hero clutching a murdered loved one and bellowing “Noooooo!” as the camera swirls overhead, Jackman walking in slow-motion with a gigantic fireball behind him — it’s all here.

Hood also encounters one of the pitfalls that befell the makers of “The Last Stand.” With a host of new characters to introduce, it’s impossible to give each one their due, so many of these new arrivals fail to make even the smallest impression. Among them, the sumo wrestler-sized Blob (Kevin Durand), the sparky Bolt (Dominic Monaghan) and sharp-shooting Agent Zero (Daniel Henney). Even X-favorites, like the cardflinging Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and
the slicing-and-dicing Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), are given deflatingly short shrift.

So many mutants, so little time.

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X-Men: First Class (2011)
Three stars
PG-13
132 minutes 

Many fans lost faith in Marvel’s X-Men after “The Last Stand,” the bloated, messy,
infuriatingly shallow third movie that seemed to signal a disgraceful end to the franchise.

Hope may be restored by “X-Men: First Class,” a younger, sexier installment designed to send the series in a fun and lively new direction, while introducing the comic book mutants to another generation of moviegoers.

“First Class” is a marked improvement over “Last Stand,” even if it doesn’t quite stack up with the effortlessly cool and exhilarating first installments, 2000’s “X-Men” and 2003’s “X-2: X-Men United.”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, who has yet to crank out a flick that’s not worth seeing — his ouevre consists of “Kick-Ass,” “Stardust” and “Layer Cake” — this reboot has energy, style and an infusion of new blood that bodes well for the future of the franchise. Vaughn penned the script with his “Kick-Ass” collaborator, Jane Goldman, and “Thor” scribes Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller, working from an idea from original series director Bryan Singer.

They’ve taken a few liberties in regard to the existing films, but proceed with a surprising amount of respect for the preceding installments. There’s even a couple of priceless cameos involving characters from the first two flicks and playful references to X-Men lore, including the much loved and reviled classic blue and yellow suits.

Some fans may be miffed that Vaughn and company freely mix and match characters from various eras of the comic book for a story that is set during the Cold War as tensions escalate between the United States and Russia. We’re introduced to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), aka Professor X, a wealthy Oxford graduate with telepathic talents tapped by the CIA as a consultant on the rapid evolution of a species of mutants with powerful but frightening natural abilities.

Assisting Charles is childhood best friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence of “Winter’s Bone” and the upcoming “Hunger Games”), a scaly, blue-skinned shape shifter who will grow up to be the alluring mimic Mystique, but for now is insecure about her true appearance. The agency wants Charles and Raven to help them prevent enterprising madman Sebastian Shaw
(Kevin Bacon) from igniting World War III in his quest to shift the balance of power between humans and mutants.

Shaw has a connection to Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust survivor and powerful manipulator of metal, consumed with the desire to avenge his past.
Erik’s obsession leads him to cross paths with Charles, who befriends the future Magneto and urges him to channel his anger into more positive pursuits. Together, they begin
recruiting others like them to join what one character describes as the CIA’s special “mutant unit.”

The recruitment sequence is one of the most enjoyable in a movie that takes its cues from the swingin’ ’60s suaveness of early James Bond films. There are submarines and smart suits, martinis and miniskirts and a pre-feminist vibe that’s capped off by January
Jones’ smoking-hot portrayal of Shaw’s shimmery, indestructible, skintight jumpsuit-wearing righthand gal, Emma Frost.

If only the countless scenes of generals plotting out strategy in war rooms filled with blinky lights and maps were as titillating. Sadly, the historic machinations of the plot tend to drag, as do moments involving Bacon’s Shaw, a disappointingly run-of-the-mill Bond-style baddie
whose motives are suspiciously like those of the fully formed Magneto.

A hefty helping of teen angst is served up by the film’s assorted young mutants, including Lawrence’s Raven, the fluttery fairy-winged Angel (Zoe Kravitz), shy and nerdy Beast (Nicholas Hoult), screaming Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), adaptable Darwin (Edi
Gathegi) and energy wave-blasting Havok (Lucas Till). As in past films, some of their powers are more compelling than others.

The highlight of “First Class” is the interplay between McAvoy and Fassbender as close comrades with starkly opposing philosophies that will eventually drive them apart.
Both actors bring an emotional weight to their scenes together, although it is Fassbender’s tormented rage — hold onto those metal fillings, folks! — that commands the most attention.

A final showdown between these friends, soon to be foes, hints at potentially awesome things to come.

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The Wolverine (2013)
Three stars
PG-13
126 minutes 

Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine for more than a decade now, and the actor — and his spectacular bulging sinews — are no worse for wear.

Sure, the adamantium-clawed antihero had a bad time of it in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” a brainless, bloated action epic that twisted itself into too many knots in an attempt to conform to franchise canon.

But thankfully that seems like a distant memory with the arrival of Logan’s fifth big-screen outing, “The Wolverine,” (the sixth if you count his brief but priceless outing in “X-Men: First Class).

“The Wolverine” ditches the franchise’s preoccupation with its protagonist’s tortured origin story and puts the focus back where it belongs — on Jackman and his ferocious embodiment of the enraged mutant, the indestructible product of twisted government experimentation.

Capably directed by James Mangold (“Walk the Line,” “3:10 to Yuma”), the movie presents us with a Wolvy who is more vulnerable than ever before, physically and emotionally. The script by Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) and Scott Frank (“Minority Report”) doesn’t skimp on action, but also works hard to ensure its epic scale never overwhelms the human drama.

At the beginning of the film, Logan is squatting in the wilds of Canada, unkempt, stringy-haired and looking a lot like Jean Valjean, the desperate ex-con Jackman played in “Les Miserables,” only beefier.

This mutant is sorely in need of a bottle of shampoo, a shave and an escape from the bad dreams that haunt his sleep, including visions of lost love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who he was forced to kill at the end of 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

After a tragic encounter with one of his fellow beasts of the forest, Logan gets riled up and instigates a backwoods barfight. He is reluctantly extricated from the brawl by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a samurai with crimson hair and a penchant for schoolgirl skirts who has traveled all the way from Japan to track him down.

Yukio convinces Logan to return with her to Tokyo at the request of her employer, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a dying businessman who wants to thank him for saving his life years ago during World War II.

Once in Tokyo, Logan discovers there is more to Yashida’s interest than gratitude. The ailing man claims he can rid Logan of his rapid healing powers and the immortality that weights so heavily upon him.

While Logan considers this proposal, he is introduced to Yashida’s heirs, his scheming son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and demure granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Wolverine never could resist a damsel in distress and becomes Mariko’s protector after an assassination attempt by the Yakuza.

The Japan setting of “The Wolverine” makes for entertaining intrigue, complete with stealthy ninjas, sword-wielding samurai and family secrets hidden behind sliding Shoji screens. Here the tank-top-clad Logan and his husky biceps stick out like a sore thumb, which makes for some compelling culture clash.

With her balletic blade skills, Fukushima is a spunky new sidekick for Logan, while the slinky Svetlana Khodchenkova is alluringly creepy as venomous nemesis Viper.

Tossing off sarcastic one-liners and glowering grouchily at his castmates, Jackman continues to do an excellent job of channeling the tormented rebel’s fury and guilt. The actor is getting older, but you wouldn’t know it, especially from the state of his strapping physique.

There are a few points where the pace of the film lags — Mangold, to his credit, is more interested in character development than comic book bluster — but X-fans should be satisfied with the energetic action setpieces the director unveils.

There’s a great introductory sequence that takes place during the bombing of Nagasaki. A Yakuza ambush during a funeral zings with cleverly choreographed flying arrows, swordplay and martial arts, punctuated by the thud of Wolverine’s massive fists.

“The Wolverine” may be the first film ever to stage a chase atop a bullet train in one of the few instances in which Mangold gives in to the sillier impulses that comic book movies tend to bring out with over-the-top feats that defy physics.

Parents should note that the film’s PG-13 designation is what would be considered a “hard” rating. In other words, “The Wolverine” is considerably violent, despite its general lack of blood and gore. In one scene, Logan is pierced again and again by arrows. In another, a bit of self-surgery is performed that could either be considered laughable or cringe-worthy.

I’ll close with another note, this one to fans rabidly anticipating next year’s “X-Men: Days  of Future Past”: Stay for the credits to see a teaser that will have you wishing it was already May 23.