It wouldn't hurt to have a Marvel Comics scholar gobbling popcorn by your side as the plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past goes flying over your head. The story is madly convoluted, darting back and forth between past and future and hopping all around the globe as killer robots descend from the sky and everybody's favorite mutants—old vets mingled with their younger selves—kick butt and levitate real estate down below.
Much of this may be baffling to non-scholars, but it doesn't really matter. Returning director Bryan Singer, whose first two X-Men movies launched this 14-year-old franchise, is so attentive to his characters' feelings—to their by-now-familiar resentments and sorrows—and so inventive in staging action scenes amid the acres of digital effects on display that it's hard not to get swept along.
The picture begins in a dystopian future (only about 10 years hence, I'm sorry to report) in which an endless war has reduced the world to a corpse-strewn wasteland. The mutant X-Men are on the run from a legion of airborne death machines called Sentinels—towering robots programmed to track and destroy them. The mutants are losing this battle. A group of them, led by the kindly Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the baleful Magneto (Ian McKellen), gather at a cliffside Chinese lamasery to plot a last-ditch strategy. They figure that since the Sentinels were created by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) back in 1973—and then inadvertently upgraded by the shape-shifting mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence)—someone should be sent back into the past to adjust this history. Mutant Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) organizes the time-tunneling foray, and Logan the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) volunteers to take the trip.
Soon Logan awakes in a water bed in Manhattan, with a lava lamp bubbling nearby and a Roberta Flack hit whispering on the radio. After a refreshing brawl with a gang of mobsters, he makes his way to the suburban mansion that will one day become the Xavier Institute, the famous mutant academy. There Logan finds that the younger Xavier (James McAvoy), has succumbed to drink and despair. Logan rouses him, though, and together with the young Beast (Nicholas Hoult) they set off for Washington, D.C., to spring the younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from the bowels of the Pentagon, where he's been imprisoned for, let's say, an infamous historical crime (a witty plot flourish).
The Pentagon breakout is a terrifically funny action exercise featuring the mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters, of American Horror Story), a young wisenheimer so speedy he can play ping-pong with himself and reroute bullets in midair. Meanwhile, in Washington, the determined Dr. Trask is trying to sell Congress on using his Sentinels for military purposes. And in Saigon, where the Vietnam War still rages, Mystique, in another furious action scene, is liberating a group of captive mutants about to be shipped back to the States for scientific examination. The next stop in her pursuit of Trask is Paris, where among several other things she kills a man with her foot. Then it's back to the States, where Magneto wreaks spectacular havoc atop a speeding train as his fellow mutants attempt to abort Mystique's deadly mission.
Marvel fans might have some fidelity issues with the film: the 1981 comics story from which the movie is drawn was centered on Kitty Pryde, whose place has here been taken by Logan. But Jackman, as always, warms the whole picture with his soulful portrayal of the conflicted Wolverine—a violent man now faced with the task of preventing an act of ultimate violence. McAvoy and Fassbender are likewise affecting as the estranged friends Xavier and Magneto (the scene in which they temporarily put aside their differences over a game of chess has a quiet emotional glow). And once they get past the Kitty-Logan thing, fans will probably be happy to see a number of vintage mutants passing through (among them Halle Berry's Storm and—super-briefly—Anna Paquin's Rogue), along with others (Sunspot, Blink, Toad) of somewhat lesser renown.
Singer is clearly the ideal X-Men director. His gift for blending slamtastic action and monumental CGI setpieces with deep feeling and droll humor fully honors the classic Marvel comics. The film's head-spinning complexity may irritate those only casually interested in this sort of movie, but its emotional resonance and state-of-the-art digital excitement are undeniable. As comic-book blockbusters go, it approaches summery perfection.
Cold in July
Cold in July is a sharp little noir with some nasty surprises. The dark story is set in East Texas in 1989. Michael C. Hall (taking another step in his post-Dexter career) plays Richard Dane, a quiet guy with a proto-mullet and a sad mustache who runs a photo-framing shop in the small town where he lives with his wife and son. One night, awakened by odd sounds out in his living room, he finds a burglar prowling around and accidentally shoots the man dead. The top cop who arrives to investigate (Nick Damici) tells Richard that the deceased, a lowlife named Freddy, had a criminal record and won't be missed. Richard is relieved, at least momentarily.
But then Freddy's ex-con father, a grizzled coot named Russel (Sam Shepard), appears in town intent on revenge, and soon becomes a menacing presence in Richard's life. Richard is understandably spooked—until he spots the late Freddy's picture on a wanted poster at police headquarters and realizes that, while the man in the photo may be Russel's son, he's not the man that Richard killed. The cops dismiss this claim—it's just a bad mug shot, they say. Then they attempt to dispose of Russel in a most unpleasant way. But Richard saves the old man, and together they pay a visit to the local cemetery, shovels in hand. There, in a vividly gruesome scene, they discover that the body buried in Freddy's grave is in fact not Freddy. So where is he?
To get to the bottom of this mystery, Russel calls in an old army buddy, Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), a pig farmer who also runs a Houston detective agency. Jim Bob arrives in a big red Cadillac with bullhorns on the front bumper, and he gets right to work. He soon learns that Freddy was a member of the notorious "Dixie Mafia" until he rolled over on his associates, testified against them in court, and was quickly tucked away in a witness protection program. Mafia thugs have been looking for him ever since. Now that he's dead, though…
But Richard and Russel and Jim Bob know he's not. They set out to find him, and soon stumble across a video store that specializes in custom tapes of a horrifically vile nature. Guns are eventually drawn, blood begins to gush, and the movie ends in a harrowing slaughter-fest that might draw an appreciative wheeze from the ghost of Sam Peckinpah.
The movie's director, Jim Mickle, has a flair for old-school genre filmmaking. His 2010 Stake Land was a well-regarded vampire item, and last year's We Are What We Are was an exceptionally stylish cannibal flick. Here, working again with cinematographer Ryan Samul and soundtrack composer Jeff Grace, he builds an atmosphere of tense apprehension with carefully calibrated colors and shadows, and a pulsing electronic score that relentlessly fuels the sense of mounting dread. The script, by Mickle and Damici, adapting a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, hits some memorably grisly notes (the one repulsive video we see is right up there with the horror tape in David Cronenberg's Videodrome). The characters are distinctively textured and the actors are all solid (Johnson is especially fine as the flamboyant Jim Bob). This is the sort of movie that often gets discovered only after it's moved along to cable. But why wait?