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Knight at the Movies: X-Men: Days of Future Past; Black Box
2014-05-28

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It makes perfect sense to me now after seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past, the latest installment in the superhero series, why I found Captain America: The Winter Soldier so bland: The X-Men mutants are so unabashedly … gay! And fantasize as much as we might, those straight, testosterone-heavy superheroes from the other end of the Marvel universe found in Captain America, The Avengers, Iron Man, The Green Blow Torch, Hulking Bird Brain or whatever those movies are called—are most definitely not.

We have come to learn over the course of the seven ( and counting ) X-Men films that not only is the term "mutant" a metaphor for anyone identifying themselves as anything other than straight, but that mutants can also be good in one movie, evil in the next, gigantically pissed-off one second and deliriously happy shortly thereafter. No doubt, mutants are a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll, too. They're all emotional shape-shifters, which doesn't exactly make them terribly stable but certainly makes for interesting characters and involving plot developments.

Then, of course, there's the unique gift each mutant possesses—that super-special thing so unusual and extraordinary that the mutant has learned instinctively to hide it from their human counterparts, keeping it safely locked in their own mutant-sized closets, revealing their gifts only when their "mutant" radar ( one surmises ) safely announces they're among their own kind.

Ironically, this mutant variation on gaydar forms a key part of the plot of the new film. It's way, way in the future, when mutants are losing their prolonged battle against the human-created Sentinels ( robot-like machines infused with mutant DNA to make them invincible ). By traveling into the past ( utilizing the talents of Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat, played by the recently out and very proud Ellen Page ), the mutants intend to keep the war from ever happening and restoring harmony with the humans in the process.

So as the surviving mutants of the future ( which include Halle Berry as Storm ) do their best to keep their location secret from the Sentinels and stall for time, Kitty puts Logan/Wolverine ( Hugh Jackman ) into a trance and mentally sends him back to 1973. Logan's mission is to convince much-younger editions of Professor Charles Xavier ( James McAvoy ) and his frenemy Magneto ( Michael Fassbender ) that they must stop the shape-shifting Mystique ( Jennifer Lawrence ) from assassinating Trask ( Peter Dinklage ), the brilliant but mad scientist who is, at that moment, creating the Sentinels. In addition to the nasty robot thingies, Trask has come up with a handheld device, his own mutant Gaydar/Grindr that starts to squawk anytime a Gifted One is in range—the first step in removing the threat of mutants once and for all.

As usual, hothead Logan has little patience and doesn't suffer fools gladly ( nor does he take much notice of the kitschy 1970s-era culture around him, although director Bryan Singer delightfully makes sure we do, and of Jackman's shapely ass ). There's a fair amount of chop-socky action as Logan and younger editions of the mutants go about trying to stop Trask from realizing his plan for world domination and Mystique from killing him, inadvertently setting this chain of events of motion. But there's also plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor. ( President Nixon vs. Magento, anyone? ) And, as with all the X-Men pictures, there's a fair amount of reflection on the plight of the mutants as they try to assimilate into society, which serves to deepen the material just enough to keep it from floating away.

Not to be overlooked ( and who would want to? ) is the helluva gorgeous cast just waiting for you to objectify them. I mean come on—Hugh Jackman, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page!?! As usual in a Singer movie, the male extras are also pretty easy on the eyes. ( Upcoming Australian actor Josh Helman as the young Stryker is a standout in a small role. )

The picture has the energy of a classic cliffhanger serial like Flash Gordon and really zips along, skipping from one plot point to the next. Also, Singer's return to the series after a 10-year absence is a boon for the franchise ( or vice versa—maybe a tad of both ). The pacing that was sorely missed in the two Wolverine pictures ( both also-rans ) is squarely back in place, and even though the older versions of the mutants—played by Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen et al—aren't given much to do ( the movie's biggest drawback ), their inclusion allows everything to come full circle in a really satisfying way. "We are family," X-Men: Days of Future Past proclaims, "I got all my mutants with me," and it feels good knowing that audiences are going to be reminded that even in the alternate universe the X-Men, women and everything in between inhabit, inclusion is a really, really, big deal and needs to happen for the benefit of all.

Of related interest: Charles and Magneto—aka Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, real-life besties ( Stewart officiated at McKellen's wedding to his husband )—co-starred last year in a production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot at London's renowned Royal Haymarket Theatre in London's West End. This historic pairing is captured in Theatreland, an eight-part, behind-the-scenes miniseries that looks at the production along with a first-ever staging ( the disastrous musical version aside ) of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. For theater queens ( which most definitely includes moi ), this two-disc effort from Athena is a fascinating and entertaining look at these two legends hard at work.

Talented out writer-director Stephen Cone follows his critically acclaimed 2011 feature debut The Wise Kids with Black Box, which I described ( when the film debuted last fall at the Reeling Film Fest ) as a "fascinating treatise on the seductive, intimate power inherent in the play rehearsal process that unfolds within the "black box" of the undressed stage." And the undressing goes on offstage, too, believe me.

When graduate student Holly Pollard ( Josephine Decker ) opts to adapt a trashy, gothic-style Flowers in the Attic novel entitled The Reaper's Children, the idea doesn't exactly thrill her adviser. But tough, uncompromising Holly plows ahead anyway and puts together an ensemble of fresh-faced young undergraduates eager to follow her lead. These include the conservative Catholic Madeline, newly out Adam, brooding bisexual Brandon, 28-year-old and married Eddie, and British misfit Terra.

The arrival of the author, a seemingly meek and awkward man ( gorgeously portrayed by Austin Pendleton ), is at first a godsend to Holly, but the relationship quickly unravels. At about the same time, the actors find themselves increasingly pushed into darker and darker emotional territory onstage, fueling their heated interactions backstage ( the most effective of which will be the hot but twisted affair between Adam and Brandon ). Cone's emotionally dense film really captures the intensity of the rehearsal process at the college level and, as in The Wise Kids, he elicits wonderful performances from his cast of young actors. Black Box opens this Friday, May 30 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Cone, as well as various members of the cast and crew, will be present throughout the run for a post-screening audience discussion. www.siskelfilmcenter.org/black-box .


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