No amount of research can prepare the casual viewer for seeing a movie as narratively oblique as “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Long past the point of establishing any firm continuity, this now-lengthy film franchise has come, gone and been rebooted under the supervision of countless filmmakers, each of whom have taken this material to the brink of possibility and then doubled back around with alternating perspectives until all narrative connections have either been tangled or severed beyond understanding. To see all those stories and characters come to a head in this, the seventh chapter of the “X-Men” saga, is to be caught in a web of maddening inconsistencies. What event triggered this crucial moment in time where all of the varying timelines are required to converge? What will the notion of time travel alter, for one ensemble as well as the other? Did the movies secretly fit together before now and we just didn’t know it? Or do all the preceding stories even retain their purpose, assuming that the climax of the newest entry negates many of the events that were seen in the earlier entries? This is the kind of movie that may endure as one of the great mysteries of the genre, even for comic book enthusiasts who are well versed in logical stretches and alternate timelines.
One can almost imagine how the great architects would respond to seeing so many treasured landmarks being used as disposable set pieces in a movie like “Godzilla.” Not simply content anymore to lay waste to an isolated locale like Tokyo, the brains behind the most famous of overgrown movie reptiles make every endeavor to trace a destructive path through countless geographical spots in this most recent endeavor, including the Hawaiian islands and Las Vegas, a paradise of structural genius. For the famous builders, watching years of planning and construction demolished in just a few short seconds by visual effects wizards would probably strike a cynical chord; just as it takes discipline to create something so important and lasting, how sad it can be to see it all so easily undone through the audacity of filmmakers that have the means – and the budgets -- to cause ruin in an arena where history is always in the way of large monsters on a rampage. Halfway into the final act, in which Godzilla and two giant insects destroy the better part of San Francisco, I was less interested in who the winner would be and more concerned as to whether I would ever be able to drive down Lombard Street.
We first see him staggering down the lonely roads of Billings, Montana. His pace suggests aimless meandering but the mind has intentions, firm and unwavering. An envelope in the mail is the catalyst for his journey: in it, a notice from one of those clearing house sweepstakes mailing lists creates a false impression that a million dollars is waiting to be redeemed, but only if he makes the trip out to collect it. Two problems: 1) he doesn’t know any better than to trust the manipulative advertising, because he has dementia; and 2) the pickup site is in Nebraska, and relatives have no desire or patience to take him to his intended destination fully knowing there is disappointment at the end. So with stubborn persistence he sets out on foot each day, determined to collect his winnings even as family continues to undermine all those attempts. Foolish for him, perhaps, but is he really doing it for the money, or just for the ability to keep his mind and body occupied in a time of unending mental haze?
No greater witness exists in the events of “Elephant” than the focused, almost predatory movie camera. It begins by plodding rather aimlessly through school hallways, occasionally stalking lone figures whose movements are indicative of grinding routine. Their faces come into view during stationary pauses, but most of their dialogue, succinct and shallow, is often muffled behind an ominous soundtrack. Here there are the idle paces of teenagers with unknown agendas, and facial expressions that seem evaporated of enthusiasm: for all of them, this is apparently nothing more than a normal school day. But then a brewing storm of tragedy reveals itself almost accidentally, when one of the figures steps out of the building, catches sight of two teenage classmates dressed in camouflage and notices they are carrying duffle bags and snarls of resentment. “Get out and don’t come back,” one of them warns him. “Some heavy shit’s going down.” Their proclamation casts a shadow on everything we observe, and suddenly the camera is no longer just a device, but a powerless onlooker documenting a series of unrelated lives before they are all altered by something devastating and unforeseen.
There is a critical scene in “Nymphomaniac: Volume II” that is as close as one is likely to ever come in finding a central point for its damaged protagonist. It involves the character of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) climbing a steep hillside and finding a wilted tree jutting out at the peak, its shape altered by many years of piercing winds that have swept over the ridges with unforgiving power. Immediately she identifies with this odd creation, a shell that has been molded by elements sweeping past its branches for its entire earthbound existence. “That tree is me,” she tells the intrigued Seligman, who for the past several hours has absorbed the details of her strange but adventurous life. Her projection is the result of an early lesson by her father, who believed all trees reflected the character of our human souls. Yes, but does a tree have the will to decide where it grows? Can it simply alter its existence if it does not find comfort in the harshness of the world around it? For this one woman, that metaphor casts a beam of insight into explaining why she has arrived at this one critical point of existence; for us, it suggests a mind oblivious to the chain reactions of fate, and the refusal to find (or even desire) change that may present less bleak circumstances.
Here, thankfully, is where the superhero screen treatment finds the right sense of balance. “The Amazing Spider Man 2” is a surprisingly effective sequel that trickles to the surface with composure and foresight, dropping viewers into a world of sweeping depth without bombarding them with overzealous action sequences to a degree of utter desensitization. And that’s as much a surprise as it is a virtue, if you think about it; after the ante of this crowded genre was raised significantly thanks to the first “Avengers” picture – an admiral endeavor despite its damaging repercussions on the competitive edge of action filmmakers – Hollywood has unabashedly lost sight of the notion of restraint, and descended head-first into an era in which wall-to-wall visuals rob us of independent thought. Something about a kid being bitten about a radioactive spider, thankfully, is unmoved by that trend, and the newest movie about his adventures involves narrative legwork that is not only refreshingly focused, but in many ways very old fashioned in its sensibility. Once upon a time our greatest protectors stood for something in protest of cruel tormentors and crumbling societies, and here is a protagonist that actually finds the time to do something noteworthy in the foreground, all while seeking insight and interacting with others for the benefit of character development rather than just the setup of mindless movement.