Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Movie Review: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" (2012) by David Pretty

Hello, Mystery Mavens!

In my humble opinion, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has some pretty hefty shoes to fill.  And no, I'm not referring to the bar set by its predecessor from 2009.  I'm actually referring to the stellar BBC television program that began the following year and just got renewed ("Yay!") for a third season.

The televised Sherlock transplants the action to modern-day London gaining all of the potential intrigue of a contemporary police procedural in the process.  The scripts are incredibly clever, like little matryoshka dolls of mind-fuckery that constantly keep you guessing.  Sherlock actually, y'know detects stuff and routinely gets his trench-coated ass handed to him in a fight.  Most importantly, the show features the prodigious talents of Benedict Cumberpatch (!) as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson.  Their palpable chemistry and snappy repartee is just as engaging as anything tabled in Guy Ritchie's first Sherlock film.

So, I have to ask, is there any real reason to watch a new entry in this film series?  Well, chaps, the answer might prove to be decidedly elementary.

First up, the film's trailer:

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows picks up a year after the first film ended.  Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is still under the thrall of the devious Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), but she soon learns that  working for a megalomaniacal super-villain can have its downsides (despite the presumably awesome dental plan).  At the same time,  Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has been diligently linking Moriarty to a series of arms acquisitions, homicides and anarchist bombings.

Facing impending nuptials and the promise of a normal existence, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) is less then enthused when his counterpart tries to rope him back into one final escapade.  The good doctor's hand is forced, however, when he and his new bride are very nearly murdered by Moriarty's goons en route to their honeymoon.  Only thanks to Sherlock's timely intervention is the day saved and Watson grudgingly agrees to help his old partner one last time.

The two travel to Paris in an effort to track down a gypsy woman named Simza (Noomi Rapace) whom our heroes had saved from Moriarty's machinations earlier.  As it turns out, Simza's brother Rene is being used as a pawn to escalate tensions amongst the leaders of France and Germany.  After a bomb blast is cleverly used to cover up an assassination, Moriarty gains control of a major munitions company and then plans to make a killing by nudging the European superpowers into a world war.

This plot alone is enough for me to recommend the film.  I'm pleased that director Guy Ritchie and his tandem screen-writers Kieran and Michele Mulroney had the collective stones to bring up the very-real contemporary threat of war-profiteering and crisis capitalism.  You get the sense that their version of Professor Moriarty would be well at home in today's modern world which offers unlimited financial gain to anyone who can dream up the worst possible exploitation and then jettison their conscience.

Mercifully, the part of Moriarty has been given to Mad Men's Jarred Harris, a consummate actor who is absolutely genuine in this role and positively magnetic to watch.  He's supremely self-assured and in the hands of such a capable actor, you can see all sorts of interesting cogs and pin-wheels turning just below the surface.  It's a masterful bit of casting.

Of course, both Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are fantastic again as Holmes and Watson, but their characters don't really see much growth here.  What we get from them in A Game of Shadows is just a second serving of what we saw in the previous film. If not for their dual aptitude to verbally paint-brush each other like an old married couple, I'd have to call this one a wash.

Noomi Rapace makes for a much more genuine addition to the cast, but regrettably she's little more then a mobile plot device here.  Stephen Fry as Sherlock's brother Mycroft, on the other hand, proves to be a naturally eccentric member of the Holmes clan.  His au naturel scene with the wonderfully uptight Kelly Reilly as Mary Morstan-Watson is delightfully well-played.   

As good as the performances, dialogue and ample MacGuffins are, the film still feels like a retread.  For example, I really liked the "bullet time" feature in the first film.  It was sparingly used as a stylistic device to indicate the relative speed of Sherlock's "two-steps-ahead" thought process.  But here it's used ad nauseam.   The flight through the woods sequence, for example, ends up looking like an out-take from the John Woo version of Les Misérables.  At one point in time, I half-expected a bunch of doves to fly by.

The film also looks unrepentantly dull.  Not that the first film was a riot of color, but it just seemed a lot more fun to watch.  After the movie leaves the Gypsy camp outside Paris it's nothing but iron-gray skies, poorly-lit factory interiors and glacier-perched Swiss castles.  I know that darkness is thematic to the whole Shadows angle, but the level of drab is downright oppressive.  It makes the film's two hour and ten minute run time feel like a school trip to a prison complex.

But I still need to give the producers credit for a few things.  As soon as the script told us (in no uncertain terms, mind you) that Moriarty was a former boxing champ I immediately feared that we'd be forced to sit through some hackneyed Pier 6 brawl between the arch villain and Holmes by the end of the film.  Guy Ritchie does a cheeky little twist on this by having the two engage in a hypothetical mental battle not unlike two samurai standing at either end of a bridge.  It's a clever little sequence which satiates audience expectations while ridiculing those expectations all at the same time.    

Although there's little here we haven't seen before, the action scenes are well-mounted, the witty dialogue is well-presented and the script is built on a daringly modern and provocative premise.  I just wish that it would follow the television show's lead and feature more skull-duggery and less skull-bashery.         

 Tilt: up.

Movie Review: "Sherlock Holmes" (2009) by David Pretty

Greetings, Amateur Sleuths!

The behind-the-scenes doc on the DVD for Sherlock Holmes makes a pretty convincing case that the titular character wasn't all about deerstalker caps, pipes, trench coats, magnifying glasses and blurting out "The Game's Afoot!" every twenty minutes.  Having said that, I still think I would have preferred a bit more sleuthing and less fisticuffs.

See how many reviews clues you can spot in the film's admittedly crackerjack trailer:

The story begins as the eponymous Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) prevent an occult murder in the catacombs below London and capture the arch-villain Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong).  Before Blackwood is executed he boasts to Holmes that he'll soon rise from the grave to oversee three more killings that will alter the order of the world.  The fiend is summarily hanged and Watson himself pronounces him dead.

Sure enough, not long after, Blackwood's crypt door is broken open from the inside and his body goes missing.  Things are further complicated when an American con artist / potential rival / love interest for Holmes named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) appears on the scene with dubious motivations to track down a missing man.  This sends our dynamic duo back into action as they reveal a convoluted plot filled with conspiracies, secret societies, and the apparent fusion of sorcery and science in the form of a terrible weapon.

Now, I understand the producers wanted to revitalize the character for a modern audience, but I feel their main motivation was to spotlight hyper-kinetic action over deduction and reasoning.  The rare scenes with Holmes piecing together clues almost seems like an afterthought amidst all the pitch melees, running gun battles, explosions and racing carriages.  Having said that, director Guy Ritchie realizes his interpretation with full conviction and I couldn't help but be pulled along.

Robert Downey Jr. overcomes any trepidations about his suitability for the role by turning in another bravura performance and employing a veddy proper British accent likely honed during his days on Chaplin.  Here his unearthly powers of observation are played almost as a curse rather then a blessing.  As a result, the Holmes we see in this film is more of an oddball bohemian than a stodgy, procedural analyst from past versions.  Ritchie employes a rather clever "bullet time" effect every time his hero's abilities come into play, which gives us a great visual interpretation of how quickly and keenly the character's mind works.

I also like Jude Law's take on the role of Watson, who mercifully isn't just an oblivious oaf who sole purpose is to ask incessantly dumb questions on behalf of the audience.  This particular Watson is a military veteran, adept at hand-to-hand combat and also a highly-skilled field physician, all of which add up to a practical raison d'être.  Their partnership  makes considerably more sense than in previous film iterations and their skills complement each other like a Victorian-era superhero team.

The banter between the two is also considerably funnier and more natural than what was on display in Iron Man 2, but a great deal of credit has to go to the deft touch of screen-writers Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg.  Only Rachel McAdams, who is admittedly fetching, comes across as distractingly contemporary.  Mark Strong's Lord Blackwood is an appropriately powerful presence who mercifully avoids the mustache-twirling flavor of cliche villainy.

The action is well-staged with a final set-piece that ends up on a half-constructed Tower Bridge.  Now I realize that the actors were likely fighting on a CGI construct but the effects are quite convincing.  I honestly have no idea if Guy Ritchie's claim that his version of Sherlock Holmes is actually more faithful to the original source material then previous films, never having read the books myself.  But there's enough mystery-solving, good performances and derring-do here to keep me entertained all the while piquing my interest in reading one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original works.

And let's face it, folks, that not the worst thing a film can inspire you to do.

Tilt: up.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Movie Review : "Valhalla Rising" by David Pretty

All Hail, Warriors and Warri-ettes!

At the very least, Valhalla Rising proudly revels in the fact that film is a visual medium.  The producers tracked down some amazing locations, immersed their authentically-clad, grizzled actors in these stunning environments and then photographed the shit out of 'em.  It's as if Ken Burns did a documentary on bloodletting and evisceration.   

The trailer manages to convey this somewhat:    

Like a Dark Age-era UFC fighter, One-Eye (Mads Mikkelson) is hauled around the unspecified countryside by his cruel captors and forced to fight in endless hand-to-hand mortal combats.  Despite his notable lack of depth perception, the Nordic champion excels, parleying his savage hatred and lethal innovation into one stunning victory after another, often against overwhelming odds.

In addition to his prowess in battle, One-Eye seems to posses the gift of second sight.  He envisions a method of escape and when the prophecy comes true, his deliverance is suddenly at hand.  He proceeds to slaughter his taskmasters, only staying his hand against the young boy who fed and watered him in captivity.  Now allied, the two strike forth into the unknown together.

They soon encounter a pack of fervor-ridden Christians led by a Svengali type who persuades them to venture to the Holy Land where riches and absolution await.  After a grueling sea voyage that conjures up shades of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", this rag-tag crew finally arrives in a lush, temperate, arboreal wilderness that bears very little similarity to the arid lands of Jerusalem.       

It soon becomes glaringly apparent that they are not, in fact, in the Middle East, but in North America.  Undaunted, the crusade's fanatical overseer (Ewan Stewart) is determined to conquer this Brave New World in the name of Christ, but, as one might suspect, the phantasmal indigenous population has different thoughts on the matter.  Indeed, the film has a lot to say about the dangers of noble imperialism and how righteous, enlightened men can still wind up punctured and humbled.   

I'd love to have a dime for every time the once-artistic but now creatively bankrupt George Lucas has evoked the phrase "tone poem", especially in referencing his abysmal Star Wars prequels.  Well, except for a few brief promotional trailers, there is absolutely nothing in those films which even vaguely approximates a tone poem.  If Lucas wants to see what a genuine example of this is, I humbly suggest that he watch Valhalla Rising post-haste.

Right from the first few frames, this movie is arresting.  The craggy, fog-soaked barrens are a perfect backdrop to the actor's equally well-worn faces.  As the film unspools (at it's own damned pace, thank you!), cinematographer Morten Søborg and director Nicolas Winding Refn continue to locate and capture the most amazing visual panoplies.  Even during moments of limbo, such as the becalmed sequence at sea, they still rely on creative applications of color filters and lighting to evoke mood and atmosphere.

This is also used to great effect during One-Eye's visions, which are strikingly awash in red.  Since these half-glimpsed snippets are can either be startling, innocuous or downright foreboding they create a genuine imbalance in the viewer.  The frequent use of hand held cameras, lingering static shots and teeth-jangling music also helps to contribute to the film's unsettling qualities.

The film's authentic locations are augmented by some truly stellar make-up and costume work.  The apparel boasts a tremendous attention to detail, whether it be crude seam-stitching on a leather tunic or the hand-crafted rings which constitute a suit of armor.  One-Eye's mangled orbital socket is appropriately nasty-looking and there are some truly stomach-churning moments, including a graphic cranial breach, an abdominal unzipping and some poor bastard's melon getting piked.  One major demerit, however: the blatantly obvious arterial sprays of CGI blood make the normally quick n' dirty battle scenes resemble a Monty Python skit.         

Mads Mikkelson (who played the equally creepy Le Chiffre in Casino Royale) is perfect as One-Eye.  It's as if James Woods and William Fichtner had a child together but it was taken away from them, imprisoned in a Vietnamese tiger cage, tortured, starved and then forced to join a medieval Fight Club.  Some folks might argue that having no dialogue would make this role a cakewalk, but I don't agree.  It's challenging to project bad-assery merely from presence alone.  Mikkelson is so intensely quiet and lethally explosive that he's easily included in that hallowed pantheon of mute screen antiheroes who come with a NOT TO BE FUCKED WITH warning sticker.

The main character's slack-jawed ways conveniently dove-tail with the presence of young Maarten Stevenson as The Boy.  Somehow having this squinty, long haired, blonde moppet interpreting One-Eye's thoughts like a prepubescent Oracle is a helluva lot creepier then having One-Eye speak for himself.  Their's is an interesting dynamic, conjuring up shades of Lone Wolf and Cub.  Stevenson gives a remarkably aware performance and both he and his stoic ward move through this dark and miserable world like Mad(s) Max and the Feral Kid in The Road Warrior.

They get ample help from the supporting cast.  Ewan Stewart's General is like a medieval Republican who's convictions are only based on mindless rapture and personal hubris.  Gary Lewis is great as The Priest, occasionally betraying a fanatical flicker of madness from time to time.  Alexander Morton is also wonderfully deadpan as The Chieftain.        

I have to temper my praise with one nagging gripe:  I really wish the producers had hired an all-Scandinavian cast.  With so much effort put into the film's authenticity it just seems weird that the film-makers didn't consider this to be relevant.  I know the Vikings landed and settled in parts of Scotland, but with character names like Hagen, Eirik, Gudmond I'd still expect them to sound like Max Von Sydow instead of Billy Connolly.     

Honestly, everything else I'm about to say is just a symptom of unrealistically escalated audience expectations.  If you're looking for pitched battles and a script seeded with strategically placed action beats, don't bother watching Valhalla Rising.  If your level of satisfaction after watching a film is in direct proportion to how contrived the Hollywood-approved bow-tie ending is, look elsewhere.  If you're allergic to the concept of film as art, then just keep watching Van Helsing and Zookeeper.    

On the other hand, if you like elemental movie-making, have some semblance of an attention span and don't mind drifting down an Apocalypse Now-style lazy river of weird and unconventional visual delights, Valhalla Rising is your kind of picaresque adventure.

.      Tilt: up.  


Friday, January 13, 2012

Movie Review: "X-Men Origins - Wolverine" by David Pretty

Greetings, Canuckleheads!

Just like X-Men: The Last Stand, the awkwardly titled X-Men Origins - Wolverine is a junky, poorly plotted pastiche of random characters and disparate story lines which displays open contempt for the continuity that came before it.  It really seems like the product of a committee rather then the singular vision of a willful director.

Just check out all the disjointed images and Cuisinart-style editing masquerading as a trailer:

Despite its lethal flaws, the early scenes in 1845 Canada respect Wolverine's roots.  We get to see young James Howlett's mutant powers emerge during childhood after he witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of the estate's caretaker (who turns out to be his real pappy).

We then get a montage during the credits featuring James/Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his half-brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) fighting side by side through a hundred and fifty years worth of human conflict.  It's a potent, economic summary of the character's early days and I'm still firmly onboard at this point.

After Victor goes all "My Lei Massacre" in Vietnam and a firing squad fails to put them both down, the two are recruited by the slimy Major William Stryker (Danny Huston) for black-ops missions. The group's questionable actions soon prompt Logan to walk away.  While living a peaceful existence in the Canadian wilderness, Logan is pulled back into his violent past when Victor begins killing members of their ex-team as well as Logan's beloved Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins).

In order to best his half-brother, Logan voluntarily undergoes an experiment by Stryker's design that sees his skeleton laced with unbreakable adamantium. The gamble pays off but in the process, Logan loses his memory and reverts back to his feral state.  The rest of the film sees our hero attempting to regain his memory, unravel the threads of duplicity and play out his inevitable revenge.

The thing that pissed me the most about this film is just how often the script thumbs its nose at good opportunities provided by the original source material.  Indeed, if the film had remained true to the comics, the roster of "Team X" would have been considerably more thematic, cool and original as opposed to  completely friggin' random.  Why Blob, Deadpool and are here is anybody's guess.  I suppose they were more marketable or somebody on the film's board of directors wanted them shoe-horned into the script.

Another inexplicable choice was jettisoning Wolverine's entire history with Canada's Department H, the group which eventually becomes Alpha Flight.  I know it's unlikely that we'll see our Canadian national superhero team in their own feature, but since their involvement in Wolverine's origin is integral I expected a mention at the very least.  Frankly, it's unforgivable that the entire element is excised just to make room for more "popular" characters like Gambit.

Frankly, if not for Hugh Jackman's participation, I'd be a lot harder on this piece of crap.  Jackman's natural charisma and clear dedication is palpable and he seems to be doing everything in his own power not to denigrate the character of Wolverine.  It's just a shame that he gets absolutely no help from the script.  This is particularly lamentable since Jackman does manage to eke out a few moments which really showcase his range, particularly in his scenes with Silverfox.
Liev Schreiber might have more depth as an actor than original Sabretooth Tyler Mane but it still adds up to another glaringly obvious continuity lapse.  Schreiber can certainly do menace well but it takes more than a pair of mutton-chops to bring Sabretooth's brutish, bestial savagery to life.

Danny Huston is good as Stryker, but frankly he can't hold a candle to Brian Cox, one of my all-time favorite character actors.  Taylor Kitsch manages to become the second G.I.N.O. in cinema history: I.E. "Gambit in name only".  It's bad enough that there's no logical reason why this character is in the script, but I also have no clue as to why Kitsch was cast in this role.  He's a non-presence who doesn't even bother to approximate a proper Cajun accent.  Boooo!!! 

Some of the special effects are really weak and even Wolverine's claws occasionally look like test footage. Except for a few stylistic flourishes during the ample fight scenes, the film's direction is completely flat and uninspired.  It's as if director Gavin Hood knew that the script was ass and cranked out the utilitarian dialogue scenes in order to get back to the mindless, popcorn crowd placating action beats.      

In order to cram in as much crap as possible, it also feels as if entire chunks of character development and exposition are missing.  For example, Wolverine goes from being called James by Victor to Logan by everyone else with no explanation provided by the script.  If fans didn't know that his real father's last name was Logan, we'd have no clue.  There's even a completely superfluous sequence involving the capture of a young Scott Summers/Cyclops, which seems to exist only to generate some eleventh hour links to the previous X-Men trilogy.

I have to chalk up X-Men Origins: Wolverine as another squandered opportunity to make a respectful comic book movie that dovetailed with what preceded it.  Again, I find myself lamenting the fact that Bryan Singer jumped ship from the X-Men series since he was doing so many great things with these characters.  After he left, the wheels really fell off.

The best thing I can say about X-Men Origins: Wolverine is that it doesn't suck as badly as X-Men: The Last Stand.

Tilt: down.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Movie Review: "X-Men: First Class" by David Pretty

Welcome, Danger Room Denizens!

X-Men: First Class is a welcome revelation.  Bryan Singer returns to the franchise, this time in the capacity of producer.  Here he's teamed up with the Matthew Vaughn, the ballsy director of Layer Cake and Kick-Ass and together they put the mutant saga right back on track.

Cue the trailer!

The original X-Men comic launched in September of 1963, just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly wiped humanity off the face of the earth.  Kudos to Vaughn and his fellow screenwriters (Jane Goldman, Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz) for using this real-life event as a lynchpin for their story.  This helps to ground the film's more fanciful elements, honors the comic book's decade of origin and provides ample opportunity to display some delightfully retro production design.  I fact, from here on in I plan to refer to the film as X-Men: Mad Mutants.

As if the producers knew exactly how much I loved the Magneto origin scene in the first X-Men, they respectfully port an extended version over hereAfter the cruel Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt  (Kevin Bacon) punishes young Erik Lensherr after failing to manifest his powers on command, you can certainly forgive his outlook on life as an adult.  In a concurrent scene of notable contrast, a young telepath named Charles Xavier catches the pint-sized shape-shifter Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence) stealing from the kitchen of his parent's opulent estate.  The two form a lasting bond which sustains them into adulthood.

The action leaps eighteen years onto the future to 1962.  The adult Erik (Michael Fassbender) is obsessively trying to hunt down Schmidt, who now goes by the name of Sebastian Shaw.  Shaw flagrantly exhibits his own mutant gifts, including the handy ability to absorb energy and deliver it back with a touch.  He's assembled a small cadre of similarly-powered allies including the typhoon-wizard Riptide (Álex González), the teleporter Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and a telepathic hottie named Emma Frost (January Jones).  Together they seek to trigger a nuclear exchange between the Americans and the Soviets in the hope of slaughtering the human population and bolstering the mutants.       

When CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) encounters Shaw and his cohorts, she seeks out Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who's finishing up his thesis on mutancy at Oxford University.  When Xavier and Raven out themselves, the government sets them up with their own department and they immediately begin recruiting mutants.  Soon their ranks include such notable characters as Hank "Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Sean "Banshee" Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones) and Alex Summers a.k.a. Havok (Lucas Till).  It's not long before both sides are battling for the fate of humanity as a warhead-laden Russian ship nears an invisible line in the waters off Cuba..

X-Men: Mad Mutants is a real marvel, no pun intended.   It's as if the X-Men saga was infused with the same gumption that made Batman Begins such a resounding success. Anyone who classifies themselves as an X-fan will really dig how things come together here.  We don't just arbitrarily see mutants chose sides, the script is so patient and generous that we can actually anticipate their decisions.  My only regret is that small choices made in the original trilogy effected the "timeline" depicted here.  For example, it would have been cool to see "Iceman" a.k.a. Bobby Drake included in this "First Class", but he was established as a teenager in the previous films.  

Nevertheless, it's a treat to see Hank McCoy develop Cerebro and the resulting mutant recruitment montage.  I love the underground bomb shelter functioning as a Mark I Danger Room.  It's fun to see the X-men jetting around in an prototype Blackbird.  Hank's desire to find a cure results in his additional mutation, which fans have come to expect.  Mystique slowly comes to accept her appearance and evolves into the self-assured militant seen in subsequent entries.  And don't even get me started on the brilliant cameos, none of which I'll presume to ruin here!

I may be overstepping a hunch here, but it seems as if Bryan Singer's influence can be felt in the casting choices as well.  James McAvoy is inspired genius as Xavier.  It's fun to see a young Professor X if only to rebut critics of the first film who criticized the characters for not "getting off on their own powers".  Indeed, Charles uses his telepathy here to impress mini-skirted hotties at every opportunity as if it's some sort of  Criss Angel party trick .  Just like Jean-Luc Picard, it turns out that Xavier was also a bit of a hell-raiser when he was young. 

There's a real depth to McAvoy's performance which is largely absent in most super hero flicks.  This is mostly due to the fact that he approaches the material as if it's any other dramatic action film. The fact that there are teleporting demons, diamond-skinned psychics and submarines suspended in mid air is irrelevant.  What remains is a portrayal of slowly eroding, child-like innocence after Xavier realizes that some people will engage in evil actions just to foster their own agendas.

I wish I could mention Michael Fassbender simultaneously, since he's equally adept.  Now getting rave reviews for his brave performance in Shame, Fassbender actually augments Ian McKellen's incredible showing in the original films.  Every look, every gesture and every line reading seems to remind us that he's been privy to humanity's boundless cruelty first-hand.  Between his revealing portrayal of Magneto and the cold hard reality posed by the script's last act, his final actions shouldn't come a complete surprise to anyone.

These two fantastic actors get to share considerable screen time together.  In doing so, their relationship seems unbreakable.  Half way through the film you begin to realize that you're watching a prequel this isn't going to denigrate what's already been established.  I'd say George Lucas needs to watch this and take notes, but what's the point?  

In fact the scene where Xavier helps Erik overcome his mental block in moving massive objects is downright sublime.  It's passionately written and acted, shows how Magneto became the Master of Magnetism and puts an intriguing spin on the original films.  After all, we've just seen how Lensherr's arch-rival was instrumental in helping Magneto unlock his full powers, which he now uses to actively combat Xavier's protegees.   

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is another incredible find.  I'm now left to wonder what Rebecca Romijn might have done had she been given a similarly meaty role in the original films.  Regardless, Jennifer is absolutely fantastic.  Her pre-evil Mystique is surprisingly innocent, charming, self-conflicted and a tad bratty.  It's a sharp contrast to the "Black Widow" persona exhibited in the other films, but thanks to the clever script, these differences don't seem anathema.

Okay, I'll admit it, I still see Kevin Bacon as that punk teenager in Footloose.  Imagine my surprise when Kevin (as Schmidt) started speaking flawless German in the concentration camp sequence.  Turns out, he's great as the film's main villain, gleefully and effortlessly rocking sideburns, ascots and inhuman levels of confident smarm.  His Sebastian Shaw is a supremely cocky S.O.B. who would never entertain the thought that he might be wrong, even for a second.  Sounds like the perfect 2012 Republican party nominee, huh?

As for poor January Jones, she looks dazed and confused as Emma Frost.  Instead of projecting the sharp tongue and emancipated sluttiness of the White Queen, January comes off like Betty Draper just after she opened Don's secret desk drawer.  It's as if she got chloroformed after wandered onto the set by mistake, woke up to dressed in an impossibly revealing costume and was then forced to read lines off of a cue card.  Where's the wit?  The concentrated bitchiness?  Just read Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men and you'll understand what I mean.

In contrast, Rose Byrne is feisty and no-nonsense as Moira MacTaggert, but, damn, couldn't they have kept her Scottish somehow?  Lucas Till's Havoc is appropriately surly and out of patience.  Caleb Landry Jones is more of a physical presence as Banshee, but he's a welcome one.  He always sounds as if he's got marbles in his mouth, presumably while simulating an Irish accent.

Nicholas Hoult as Beast/Hank McCoy seems a bit too "aww, shucks" for my tastes but I believe this is part of the character's arc.  Even at the end he hasn't really had time to acclimate to his new "beastly" appearance, so his bad temper is certainly excusable.  Admittedly, Kelsey Grammer's incarnation of Beast in the otherwise forgettable X-Men The Last Stand represents the final evolutionary step for this beloved character. 

I'm of two minds when it comes to the costumes and make-up.  On one hand I find it refreshing that Vaughn is unrepentantly dedicated to recreating comic book imagery as best he can.  On the other hand, the movie often serves as Exhibit "A" as to why a four-color, two dimensional piece of art sometimes looks distractingly infantile when translated to film.  

The makeup for characters like Azazel and Beast are also unabashedly primary and kinda goofy-looking.  It's as if the film-makers didn't realize just how bright these colors would pop on celluloid.  Beast often resembles a particularly loopy Jim Henson creation: like a disproportionate muppet head grafted onto an actor's body.  In a film that's otherwise so committed to realism, such things are distractingly obvious.

The film also suffers a bit as it barrels mindlessly towards it's obligatory action finale.  The CGI grows increasingly plentiful as well as cartoonish.  Also there are inexplicably protracted scenes with the Russian and American fleet captains reacting to the mutant war happening around them.  Frankly, this time would have been much better served actually focusing on the combatants.

And while I respect the director's commitment to use practical, on-camera flying effects, it also conjures up shades of the 1978 Superman movie.  The actors look immobile and vaguely petrified, so it's not hard to tell that they're suspended from a wire some distance off the ground.  Surely there must be a more convincing way to do this by now?

When I catch myself resorting to minor gripes like this, I have to confess that the film itself is quite solid.  In fact X-Men: Mad Mutants  is actually pretty friggin' good.  It's smart, relevant, brilliantly acted, colorful, and unabashedly embraces some of the goofier trappings of  the comic book medium.  Plus, it's got Ren McCormack in a silly hat.  

Most importantly, the film serves it's primary function as a cinematic enema, helping us forget that X-Men: The Last Stand even exists.     

   Tilt: up.




Thursday, January 5, 2012

Movie Review: "X2: X-Men United" by David Pretty

Greetings Mutants and Mutettes!

Ever wonder why a twelve-hour-long HBO series can be uniformly excellent all the way through yet movie trilogies struggle to maintain a consistent level of quality in half the run time?  More often then not, it's because producers fail to see the value in retaining the same creative team throughout an entire film franchise.

X2: X-Men United wisely reunited the same crew that made 2000's X-Men a surprise hit.  In doing so, fans got see just how good a continuation can be.  Bryan Singer and his talented writing partners (Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and the returning David Hayter) built on the solid foundation established by the first film.  In doing so, they forged a superior sequel which manages to eclipse its predecessor in depth, complexity and entertainment value.

Here's the film's, high-octane trailer.


The film picks up right where the first one left off.  Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) follows up on Professor Xavier's advice to investigate Alkali Lakes (deep in stereotypically snowy Canada) but he fails to glean any new insight into his mysterious past.  When he returns to the X-mansion he finds the place abuzz with news that a newly surfaced mutant named Nightcrawler (Alan Cummings) has attempted to assassinate the president.

After Jean Gray (Famke Jannsen) and Storm (Halle Berry) are dispatched to track down the fugitive, Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Cyclops (James Marsden) confront Magneto (Ian McKellen) about his possible role in the attack.  They soon discover that a covert military operative named William Stryker (Brian Cox) has been wringing information out of the Master of Magnetism to use in campaign of revenge against Xavier. Taking advantage of the anti-mutant hysteria in the wake of the assassination attempt, Stryker is given carte blanche to annex the X-mansion.

But his strike team gets more then they bargained for with Wolverine on guard duty.  Logan kills a slew of the soldiers and manages to evacuate most of the kids, but his re-union with Stryker triggers a potent recollection.  As it turns out, the black ops agent also had a hand in turning Logan into a pissed-off, indestructible Slap-Chop.

Meanwhile, the multi-talented Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) uses her various guises to spring Magneto from his plastic prison and the two "evil" mutants end up rescuing the X-Men.  When Magneto tells them that Stryker plans to co-opt Xavier's unearthly telepathic powers to kill every mutant on earth, an unlikely alliance is forged.  As they move to confront Stryker on his home turf, the X-Men are blissfully unaware that Magneto has his own hidden agenda.

One of the great things about having the same writer and director carry over is that events which occurred in the first film really have a direct impact on what follows.  In that regard,  X2 is positively in love with the first film (as well it should be).  Immediately we're treated to a series of events directly inspired by what came before it.

Continuity junkies will have a ball picking watching this.  Bobby "Iceman" Drake (Shawn Ashmore) gets an expanded role and creates his signature ice-wall to boot.  Mystique, still mimicking the deceased Senator Kelly (Bruce Davidson), is revealed to Wolverine thanks to the scars he gave her in X-Men.  Rogue (Anna Paquin) shares a scene of bitter re-union with Magneto, recalling her near death at the climax of the first film. Colossus and Kitty Pryde, barely glimpsed before, get to exhibit their powers during the attack on the mansion.

And then there's a whole new well-spring of comic book minutia to geek out over.  Stryker's telepathic son conjures up shades of the classic X-foe Mastermind.  Wolverine tangles with a 2.0 version of himself in the form of Lady Deathstrike.  Nightcrawler is depicted as a devout Catholic.  Jean Gray's powers are now fluctuating wildly, hinting at her ascension to "Phoenix" status.  A hot-headed human flamethrower named Pyro (Aaron Stanford) has a crisis of allegiance.

Although with that last one, would it have really killed them to hire one more Aussie?    Sorry, I digress...

I love how the plot springs organically from its predecessor but then branches out into new and exciting territory.  The seemingly disparate puzzle pieces of the story all fall into place at the end.  For example, even though Nightcrawler is a new character introduced into an already-crowded ensemble, his abilities and  experiences eventually do pay off.

At every turn, Singer and his writers are committed to bringing complexity, nuance and respect to what many people would dismiss as a mere funny-book movie.  Clearly they aren't content with treating the audience  like a bunch of popcorn-drunk knuckle-draggers who'll pay to see anything.  This is no more evident then in the film's main plot.

Indeed, Stryker's scheme is pretty foolproof and it only starts to unravel when the "good" and "evil" mutants unexpectedly pool their collective resources.  I also have to give bonus points to the film-makers for insuring that these two opposing forces ally together for logical reasons, not because the script arbitrarily demands that they do.

The character of Magneto really benefits from this sharp screenwriting.  At first, he agrees to work with his hated rivals purely for self-preservation, but towards the end he just can't resist turning the tables to his own advantage.  Frankly, this resolution is a stroke of genius.  Above all, it shows that villains don't do evil things just for the sake of discord.  They bide their time, take care of number one and then strike when the time is optimal.

As great as X-Men was, you could really tell that it was shot on a limited budget.  This actually worked to the film's advantage since the special effects team had to take a back seat to the characters, performances, dialogue and story.  Unfortunately it also limited that film's scope and gave it a vaguely T.V.- movie-of-the-weak quality.

With X2, however, the whiff of studio frugality is gone.  There are several terrific locations, fantastic fight scenes, improved make-up jobs, aerial battles and spectacular moments whereby the characters really exploit their amazing powers. Bryan Singer's direction is a lot more ambitious here and his action sequences are incredibly dynamic.  Nightcrawler's assault on the White House is supremely thrilling and it sets the bar high for everything to follow.  Only in the scene with Jean Gray battling the deluge does the CGI illusion falter somewhat.  

Even amidst all the improved spectacle, Singer gives us plenty of quiet little moments with the characters.  In doing so he's rewarded with several fine performances.  Since Hugh Jackman had to sub in for Dugray Scott at the eleventh hour he never really got a chance to get properly bulked up the first time out.  Here he looks just as you might expect Wolverine to look: ripped, coiled and poised to fly off the handle at any moment.

He also gets plenty of opportunities to bring nuance to a character that some people have erroneously written off as a mindless berserker.  Taking a page from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's "failed samurai" concept, Logan shows plenty of range here.  Jackman expertly transitions between quiet, protective calm over the students, tragic heartbreak in his unrequited love for Jean and then back to bestial ferocity whenever he's faced with Stryker's goons.  Rumor has it that Jackman would habitually subject himself to ice-cold showers to generate the necessary foul mood required to play Wolverine, and let me tell ya folks, every sub-zero spritz seems to be up there on the screen.

Halle Berry as Ororo "Storm" Munroe get more to do here and that's a good thing.  She spars nicely with Nightcrawler and reveals tremendous fear, bitterness and trepidation towards humans, especially for a mutant who looks relatively "normal".   To me it's a tremendous waste that we'll never get to see the reasons for her pain.  It's also inexplicable to me as to why her subtle African accent from the first film has mysteriously vanished.     

Storm's expanded role may have come at Rogue's expense, which is a pity since I love Anna Paquin.  Between her showdown with Magneto, subdual of Pyro and bonding with Nightcrawler, she still gets quite a few memorable scenes.  Speak of the devil, Alan Cumming is truly fantastic as our favorite blue elf.  His German accent is subtle and mercifully avoid any comparisons to Colonel Clink.  His physical performance is a great compliment to the excellent make-up job and seems to carry with it trepidations caused by past abuse.     

Another demerit is James Marsden's reduced screen time as Cyclops.  With so many characters to put through their paces, I suppose someone had to be excised but a few more scenes with him and Logan would have been great.  Famke Jannsen is also tremendous again as Jean Gray.  Here she's coping with the instability that Magneto's artificial mutation machine has wreaked on her telekinetic powers.  Jannsen's so good that she's able to sneak in a few subtle tells regarding her feelings for Logan without courting thoughts of betrayal towards Scott.  

Patrick Stewart's contributions are also rather limited here, since he spends large tracts of time in thrall to Stryker's son.  Nevertheless, he still brings his "A" game to those early debates with Magneto and a terrible sense of loss in the tragic denouement.  As Xavier's ethical flip-side, Ian McKellen really runs away with the ball as Magneto.  Even while allied with his X-rivals he still gleefully baits Rogue and tries to tempt Pyro towards the Dark Side.  He's absolutely fabulous.

Also on the villainy front, Rebecca Romijn is slinky perfection as Mystique, even getting a welcome reprieve from the all-encompassing makeup in one scene.  Brian Cox, one of my favorite character actors of all time, also provides a tremendous level of depth to Stryker.  If you don't believe me then just compare him to the meat-headed Colonel Quaritch in Avatar.  He does a fine job revealing Styker's private shame over his own son's mutant curse as well as misplaced guilt for Xavier's failure "cure" him.  Again, it's great to see the power and complexity of a well-motivated antagonist.     

I love this movie and unlike, say, Spider-Man 2, I actually like it more and more every time I watch it.  It just kills me that Singer, for whatever reason, jumped ship to helm Superman instead of completing his mutant trilogy.  Instead the series capper was left in the stony mitts of that talentless fuck Brett "Ratface" Ratner.  The results were akin to a cinematic war-crime.

What's really masochistic is if you engage in some speculative "what if" scenarios.  Indeed, the last few shots of X2 give tantalizing hints as to what we could have been in X-Men 3.  Might we have been privy to Singer's take on the greatest X-Men storyline ever: the hallowed Phoenix Saga?

We'll never know.  In the end, this amazing plot line was pissed away by Ratner as a ham-fisted, addle-brained afterthought in the third film.  Man, talk about depressing.

Maybe one day Singer will go back and do what he did with Superman.  Maybe he'll try and erase a shameful coda to an otherwise promising first two films.


Tilt: up.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Movie Review: "X-Men" (2000) by David Pretty

Greetings, X-Peeps!

I wrote the following "review" back in July of 2000 after seeing X-Men several times in the theater.  I'd like to preface this with a warning: it's not so much a review as a stunned fanboy verbally fellating director Bryan Singer for finally getting a superhero film right.

Please excuse the amateurish quality of what you're about to read...

"I just saw X-Men, and all I can say is: 'Holy X-crement, Batman!'  Singer just pulled a miracle out of his...hat.

All of the negative reviews I've read so far seem to be born of rank ignorance.  Although some viewers going into this flick probably don't know a mutant from Blinky, the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons, I'm still confident that most X-Neophytes will find something to enjoy here.

Let's look at a few common criticisms:

(1) 'The tension between Wolverine and Cyclops seems forced'.  Forced?  Damn right it's forced!  These two characters have always been like oil and water and both are competing for the affections of Jean Gray. What the fuck do you expect?  The lore captured by David Hayter's script is brought to glorious life by Hugh Jackman, James Marsden and Famke Janssen.  All of them are flawlessly cast.

(2) 'Magneto's concentration camp origin scene shouldn't be in a COMIC BOOK movie.  It's making light of a serious...'  Shut Up!  SHUT UP!  SHUT UP!!!  Whoops, *ahem*, sorry.  Again we're talking about pop culture lore here.  The whole point is that Magneto has developed a massive hate-on for humanity because they killed his friggin' parents!  In one perfectly economical scene Singer gives his villain all of the underlying motivation required to fuel his agenda.  To all of those people why decry this scene I'd like to extend my own blast of venom.  It's morons such as yourselves that have kept comic books and their subsequent film adaptation ghettoized as kiddie entertainment.  Can't they just see this as a movie and not discriminate against it because of it's supposedly 'low-brow' origins?

(3) 'The X-Men don't seem get off on their own powers very much'.  Hmmmm, well, maybe that's because most mutants consider their powers to be curse.  It's not like Superman using his x-ray vision to peek into the girl's shower room.  What kind of weak-assed nit-pickery is this?  If Singer was concerned that there wasn't enough special effects in the film, I'm here to re-assure him that whatever he did worked perfectly. By focusing (go figure) on a series of individual dialogue-driven scenes, Singer gives fans what they want: comic book icons walking, talking and acting like characters in any other normal action movie.  It's awesome.

God I hope these stupid, myopic reviews don't fuck with the box office returns and jeopardize a sequel from the same creative team.  I'll be pissed!

To the contrary, X-Men is filled with one fantastic sequence after another.  As a fan I expected (nay, demanded!) a requisite amount of respect but nothing like this!  Witness:
  • Magneto's Origin.  Suitably traumatizing and evocative.  Perfect.
  • Rogue's Origin.  Flawless.  Anna Paquin is a delight at first then totally tragic.  I had my doubts at first but she's good.  Rogue's southern accent and overt slinkiness have been nailed down cold.  
  • The Senate Hearing.  Bruce Davidson as Senator Kelly is well-cast and comes across as cold, smug, and bureaucratic.  If the film makes any mistake at all it's in killing him and Hank Gyrich since both of them are perfect foils for the X-Men.  No super-powers, but possessed of enough political clout to make our hero's lives a living hell.  Oh well, I guess it can't all be perfect.  Anyhoo...Famke Janssen, yet another great choice.  She's classy, smart as a whip (?) and sexy as hell!  Then we get the first scene with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan together.  Watching these two debate is worth $6.00 alone!  ("Wow, remember when movies were $6.00?" - yer host)
  • Wolverine's "Pit Fight".  Crap on a cracker!  Hugh Jackman single-handedly makes every fan-boy (and fan-girl's) dream come true.  To quote Apone from Aliens: 'Absolutely badass!'  This as about as perfect a film debut as you could imagine.  
As great as all these examples are, a million more follow.  Such as:
  • Logan's newfound appreciation for seatbelt laws.
  • The scrap with Sabretooth.
  • The tour of Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters, replete with appearances by Kitty Pryde and Bobby 'Iceman' Drake.  
  • Cerebro
  • Cyclops and Jean in training.
  • Wolverine's motorcycle ride.
  • The train station battle.
  • Storm's revenge.
  • Mystique in any scene she's in.
  • The police stand-off.
  • Wolverine's nightmare.
  • Toad's 'Darth Maul' homage.
  • Every one of Hugh Jackman's lines.
And so it goes.  I've already seen the movie three times and I'm unable to detect any crippling flaws.  A hearty 'thanks' go out to director Bryan Singer for having the guts to do this right.  He's really given fans a reason to rejoice..."

Wow...sorry 'bout that folks.  I did want to share this because it represents a sincere, first-hand emotional reaction from a movie fan who thought he'd never see a decent comic book movie made during his lifetime.  

Here's a more recent (and considerably more measured take) on the film.  But first, the X-trailer!

It's hard to believe that it's only been about eleven years since the world saw its first truly respectable superhero film.  As soon as I witnessed the sobering prologue detailing the origins of Magneto set in a Nazi concentration camp I shook my head and allowed myself a glimmer of hope that Bryan Singer was actually going to treat a comic book property with some semblance of respect.  When Hugh Jackman showed up as Wolverine I briefly threw a few hosannas skyward and then proceeded to enjoy the rest of the film as a humble masterpiece.

In light of even bigger revelations to come (such as its own superior sequel, Iron Man and The Dark Knight), the first pioneering X-Men flick hasn't held up quite as well.  But it's still pretty damned good.

The cast is impeccable.  I know Scottish actor Dougray Scott was originally tapped to play everyone's favorite cranky canuck, but can you really picture anyone else but Hugh Jackman as Wolverine now?  Striking the perfect balance between feral rage and blatant wise-assery, the character serves as a fantastic sounding board for all the silent objections audiences might be harboring towards the intrinsically silly concept of superheros.

He sparks nicely with Famke Janssen, who exudes her own quiet charisma.  She's brainy, willful and leaves no doubt as to why both Logan and Scott are butting heads over her.  James Marsden is also pitch-perfect as Scott Summers/Cyclops.  He's justifiably righteous but with a hint of pomposity to give Logan something to clash against.

Casting Patrick Stewart as Professor X wasn't so much inspired as it was a no-brainer.  I could only imagine what the equally accomplished Ian McKellen must have thought when he was strutting around the set as Magneto in his form-fitting helmet and bodysuit.  Regardless, he certainly has the acting chops to power though any potential distractions for the audience. 

Anna Paquin, playing a considerably younger-then-expected Rogue is charismatic, quirky and strangely vulnerable especially when you consider her incredible defensive powers.  Her scenes with Jackman are fantastic.  About the only cast member that seems ill-at-ease is Halle Berry, and it's telling that she jettisoned her African accent for the sequel. 

The supporting villains are all solid as well, with Rebecca Romijn as Mystique deserving a particular nod for her own mutant power to endure what must have been an agonizing (though greatly appreciated!) makeup job.  Bruce Davidson's hella-smarmy Senator Kelly also begs recognition for his brief but memorable screen time.

Bryan Singer's direction is a tad workmanlike, which probably reveals the pressure he was under to deliver something respectable without rocking the boat too much.  Although the script could be accused of being  "color-by-numbers" I'm kinda glad the film doesn't overstay its welcome.  The dialogue is also reasonably sharp with the exchanges between Cyclops and Wolverine standing out.  This makes Storm's groan- inducing final line to Toad all the more inexplicable.

Despite these minor quibbles, X-Men represented the first time that a comic book property had been brought to the big screen without a director using his "auteur" pedigree to somehow "legitimize" the otherwise "lowbrow" source material (Tim Burton, I'm looking in your direction).  Singer went on to lens a superior sequel but regrettably bailed on us to direct the otherwise turgid Superman reboot.  It's a shame because if he'd been on board for X-Men 3 I'm confident that we would have been treated the rarest of film accomplishments: the perfect trilogy.

Tilt: up.