The Good Dinosaur


Fireflies sold separately.

Fireflies sold separately.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, John Ratzenberger, David Boat, Carrie Paff, Calum Grant, Jack McGraw, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Ryan Teeple, Marcus Scribner, Peter Sohn, Steven Clay Hunter, A.J. Buckley, Mandy Freund. Directed by Peter Sohn

What kid doesn’t like dinosaurs? They’re big, they’re extinct and they capture a child’s imagination like almost nothing else. But what if dinos were still around?

In the latest Pixar animated opus (the studio’s eighteenth), the asteroid that caused the mass extinction of the dominant lifeform on earth skips off the atmosphere and zooms past the world, startling a group of grazing dinosaurs. Flash forward an indeterminate number of years and the dinosaurs have become an agrarian society, with an Apatosaurus family running a farm. Poppa (Wright) and Momma (McDormand) Apatosaurus are expecting with three eggs about to hatch. Out pops Buck (Scribner), Libby (Nipay-Padilla) and lastly Arlo (Ochoa) who turns out to be something of a runt.

As on the farms most of us are familiar with, the entire family is expected to help. Arlo tries his best, but as the runt of the family he’s afraid of everything and despite his father’s patient efforts to make a man outta him, Arlo continues to be ruled by fear. When it is discovered that a critter is stealing corn from their grain silo, Arlo is given the task of trapping the critter, which he does, and killing it, which doesn’t quite work out when the critter – which turns out to be a young human boy, scares him and gets away.

Exasperated, Poppa gives chase, bringing along Arlo but the movie takes a Disney turn – you’ll understand when you see it . Things grow a bit desperate on the family farm after that and Arlo is asked to step up. He does his best – at least his heart is in the right place – but he doesn’t have the strength and stature to make much of a difference.

When a freak storm washes Arlo away in a raging river, he is saved by the human child. Nicknamed Spot (Bright) by Arlo, the two begin a journey back to Arlo’s home. Along the way they’ll traverse a beautiful but dangerous landscape full of nature’s fury but also of other dinosaurs, like colorful velociraptors, rootin’ tootin’ T-Rexes and opportunistic pterodactyls. They’ll also form a unique and lasting bond that only comes from enduring the worst that nature can throw at you and surviving.

This is something of a dino-Western, which is just as bizarre as it sounds. Essentially, think of this as a John Ford Western with dinosaurs in the saddle (although they actually don’t ride anything – well, Spot rides Arlo but that doesn’t count since the horses in Ford’s films generally didn’t talk). That fusion of dinosaur story and Western is the most inventive thing about the movie story-wise – more about that in a moment.

This movie can really be categorized as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Starting with the good, this is the most beautiful looking of all of Pixar’s films, with gorgeously rendered landscapes that are nearly photorealistic, looking very much like Big Sky country – I’m not sure what landscapes inspired the artists at Pixar but wherever it was, I wouldn’t mind going there myself.

The bad is the story. There’s nothing that really distinguishes it from plenty of other Disney and Pixar films; young protagonist overcomes adversity and personal tragedy, discovers the value of friendship and/or family and makes a journey – physical or otherwise – to reunite with his/her family. The only thing missing is a princess singing a song to the woodland animals.

The ugly are the dinosaurs (and humans) themselves. Amidst all the photorealistic grandeur are these cartoonish looking humans and worse, dinosaurs that look more like action figures than dinosaurs. I’m thinking that Disney didn’t want to frighten kids unnecessarily – after all, Dinosaur isn’t considered one of Disney’s big hits – so they made them as non-threatening as possible. That’s all fine and dandy – Disney’s gotta sell merch, after all – but why go to the trouble of creating such amazing environments and then filling it with creatures that don’t match? It makes the plastic look of the dinosaurs here even more glaring, along with their goofy cartoon expressions. It would have made more sense to create a more cartoon-y environment for these action figures to play in if they were intending to go this route.

And why is that a problem? Because it comes off very cynical, like the movie is an excuse for Disney to sell toys. And, to be honest, nearly every movie aimed at kids is just that. But it’s so glaring here that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, particularly of parents who will exit the theater knowing they will have to shell out hundreds of dollars for The Good Dinosaur-related toys and games this Christmas. My advice; just say no. It’s good for a kid to learn the lesson that they can’t always get what they want. As long as they get what they need, which isn’t anthropomorphic movie-related toys.

Usually with Pixar I’m as entertained as the children around me – certainly Inside Out from earlier this year was a film that I enjoyed as an adult perhaps as much and maybe even more than the kids in the audience. That story was imaginative and the environment equally so. There isn’t any of the magic from that film here. What we have here is one big commercial for action figures in the most beautiful backyard ever. Caveat emptor.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous environments. Plenty of Christmas toy-buying opportunities.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian story. Characters are surprisingly weak-looking.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slated to be released over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2014, but due to production problems which led to original director Bob Peterson being replaced, the movie was pushed back to the spot that Finding Dory was originally slated for, prompting that movie’s delay until 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Can You Dig This?

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Trick ‘r Treat


Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

(2007) Horror (Warner Brothers) Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Quinn Lord, Rochelle Aytes, Lauren Lee Smith, Monica Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Samm Todd, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Gerald Paetz, Connor Levins, Patrick Gilmore, T-Roy Kozuki, Britt McKillipp, Brett Kelly, Isabelle Deluce, Alberto Ghisi, Barbara Kottmeier, Laura Mennell, Amy Esterle. Directed by Michael Dougherty

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Halloween has become a revered American holiday with many traditions and tales. Some are more or less universal (at least here in America) and some are regional but all are important as part of the holiday that signals the approaching end of the year and the beginning of the holiday season.

This anthology sat on the shelf at Warners for two years before getting an excuse me release and heading straight to the purgatory of home video. Usually that’s what happens to movies that are just plain lousy. Was that the case here?

Trick ‘r Treat is an anthology horror movie in the tradition of Tales of the Crypt with interconnected stories all connected by a diminutive linking device. The movie opens with a young couple, Henry (Penikett) who loves Halloween and Emma (Bibb) who clearly doesn’t returning home after a Halloween party. Emma’s distaste for the Halloween ends up having some fairly nasty consequences for her.

Their neighbor Steven Wilkins (Baker) the high school principal, catches a young teen stealing candy from his yard which leads to a lecture – and the revelation of the principal’s dark secret which doesn’t turn out so well for the teen. It does however lead to an interesting jack-o-lantern carving session with his boy Billy (Levins). Then we move on to four teens – who had visited the Wilkins home earlier – who head out to the local quarry where according to local legend a school bus full of mentally and emotionally challenged kids were driven into the lake by the school bus driver while chained to their seats and drowned – supposedly at the behest of their ashamed parents. As one of the teens – bullied Rhonda (Todd) – discovers, some urban legends should remain just that.

Another quartet of teens including virtuous Laurie (Paquin) go to the town’s annual Halloween party on the square, hoping to find Laurie’s “first.” However, it’s not the “first” you’re probably thinking of. Finally, the town curmudgeon (Cox) who hates Halloween with an absolute passion finds that one little trick or treater named Sam (Lord) in a filthy pair of orange pajama footies with a burlap sack wrapped around his head will give him a Halloween he will never forget.

All of the stories are connected together mainly by Sam who appears in one way or another in each one. Some of the connections are a bit of a stretch but by the end of the movie it all makes sense. A tip of the hat for the writing which is rock solid.

There is a pretty decent cast here with several veterans like Cox, Paquin, Bibb and Baker who have turned in a number of solid performances over the years and all are just as solid here. Most of the supporting cast is more or less unknown but there aren’t any false notes in the acting which is impressive. Todd as a matter of fact distinguishes herself as the put-upon teen who ends up in an urban legend of her own.

The stories themselves aren’t particularly gory or innovative but they get the job done. While modern horror movies tend to rely on gore and/or special effects, these are more story-driven and in some ways are throwbacks. For old school horror fans, this should be welcome news as this really is the kind of horror that isn’t done very often these days – although in the last 18 months or so I’ve noticed that there has been more of a movement in that direction with certain individual tales in anthologies and a movie or two.

Throughout the movie we do see children and teens put in jeopardy – while the latter is no biggie as far as Hollywood is concerned, the former is a major no-no and was likely the reason the movie stayed shelved so long. The major studios are a bit squeamish about children in jeopardy, Jurassic Park notwithstanding, especially when said children are not only in peril but don’t always survive. For horror fans, that’s a big deal as we usually see kids saved in unrealistic ways or have movies watered down so the kids can survive. It’s refreshing to see that taboo bridged somewhat.

So this is one of those movies that didn’t get the release it was expected to receive nor the attention it deserved (although critics generally praised it). The horror film fan community however is well aware of the movie and has generally embraced it – so much so that a sequel has been planned (although not yet come to fruition). In any case, if you’re looking for a hidden gem to watch this Halloween, here is one for your consideration.

WHY RENT THIS: Really good scares coupled with genuinely funny moments. Pretty solid cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kids in peril may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and some gore, some sexuality and nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam takes his name from Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An animated short prequel detailing the story of the demonic Sam is included on all editions, while the Blu-Ray also has a short history of the holiday and a look at the special effects used in the school bus scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Creepshow
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

X-Men: Days of Future Past


Smile and the world smiles with you.

Smile and the world smiles with you.

(2014) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Omar Sy, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Mark Camacho, Zabryna Guevara. Directed by Bryan Singer

In the modern era of Superhero films, each franchise faces a particular problem – each succeeding entry in the franchise needs to be bigger and better, the stakes higher in order for the audience to continue to flock to the multiplex to see them. That is why, in my opinion, studios choose to go the reboot route rather than continue on with existing casts.

Bryan Singer may not necessarily subscribe to that theorem. He took the cast members of the X-Men: First Class reboot of the popular mutant superhero series and blended it with the original X-Men cast of his era and created a time-travel epic that carries the torch for both series’ nicely.

In a dystopian future, mutants have been all but eradicated as well as a good chunk of the human race. The Sentinels, giant robots with organic elements and an artificial intelligence that allows them to adapt to the various powers of the different heroes they fight, have become so powerful that not even the X-Men of the future can best them. The only humans left are those who agree with the agenda that mutants must be wiped off the face of the planet, using those who remain as slave labor.

Making a last stand in a Chinese temple are the remaining X-Men: Professor X (Stewart), Magneto (McKellen), Storm (Berry), Wolverine (Jackman), Bishop (Sy), Colossus (Cudmore), Shadowcat a.k.a. Kitty Pryde (Page), Blink (Fan), Sunspot (Canto) and Warpath (Stewart). They know that it is inevitable that the battle will be lost. They have only survived because Pryde has developed a plan in which she sends one of their members consciousness back a day to warn the rest that an attack is imminent so they can be elsewhere when the attack comes.

Professor X proposes that they do something similar but long-range. He has pinpointed the problem back to an event in 1973 – one in which weapons scientist Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), an anti-mutant hater of epic proportions, is assassinated by Mystique (Lawrence), the shape-shifting chameleon who was once the close friend of Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and later became the ally of Eric Lensherr (Fassbender) a.k.a. Magneto. She was later captured and her DNA was used to make what was already hard-to-defeat giant robots into nearly unbeatable sentient machines. The assassination also turned public sentiment against the mutants.

Sending someone back forty years is nearly impossible however. Pryde points out that “the human mind can only stretch so far before it breaks.” However Wolverine with his mutant healing power is the only one who can survive the trip. So it is that Mr. Cheroot first and Ask Questions Later is sent back to the Disco age where he will be given the monumental task of convincing the younger Xavier to try and find Mystique and stop her from her appointment with Trask.

Wolverine knows full well that it will take both Xavier and Lensherr to talk the headstrong Mystique who is angry and wounded over the deaths of several friends in Trask’s experiments on living mutants to discover what makes them tick. However, this is no walk in the park assignment. Xavier is bitter and angry over being shot by his old friend. He was paralyzed in the incident but a serum that Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Hoult) developed allows him to walk and numbs the pain but also blocks out his powers. Xavier is just fine with that and really doesn’t give much of a flying you-know-what for the future but at last his conscience kicks in and he agrees to help Wolverine.

Getting Lensherr aboard is slightly more difficult. He is being kept in a metal-less prison hundreds of feet below the Pentagon – apparently he’s been blamed for the magic bullet that killed JFK – but Wolverine knows a guy. That guy is Peter Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver (Peters) who has superspeed and the attitude to match.

Of course, once they free Magneto he turns out to have an agenda all his own and now the clock is literally ticking – in the future, the Sentinels are approaching the temple where the remaining X-Men are holed up and Wolverine’s consciousness hangs in the balance.

This all sounds very convoluted and it is. I have deliberately left the individual powers of most of the different X-Men unexplained – it would just take too long. The issue I have with movies like this is that we get literally a dozen or more different characters most of whom are given short shrift or split screen time with a younger/older counterpart. When you have a cast that’s chock full of actors who’ve received Oscar consideration (there are eight of them), something’s got to give. Poor Halle Berry (who won Oscar gold) has almost no dialogue and only a couple of minutes of screen time although to be fair, Berry’s pregnancy prevented her from taking part in the movie as much as the producers would have liked. Anna Paquin (who also won an Oscar) gets no dialogue and less screen time than it takes to read this sentence and yet she gets star billing. Ah, the magic of Hollywood credits.

Despite this, the movie flows surprisingly well and those actors who do get more than a few moments of screen time make the most of it. McAvoy in particular does well with his self-medicating and self-loathing Professor a far cry from the suave and confident Professor X of his counterpart Patrick Stewart. We see the road that Xavier is taking towards the compassion and wisdom his character becomes known for and it’s rather fascinating. Jackman as well continues to make Wolverine his own and while it’s hard to make something new out of a character he’s played seven times, Jackman manages to accomplish that.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar and Dinklage is a superb villain. His Bolivar Trask doesn’t see himself as a villain but rather the facilitator who unites mankind against a common enemy. His enmity against the mutants is somewhat surprising considering that as a small person, Trask is himself an outsider within society. It’s a multi-layered role and a villain worthy of a broad canvas such as this.

As you’d expect the battle sequences are plentiful and well-done. The Sentinels are fearsome creatures that have expressionless faces that are all the more terrifying for their mechanical blankness. Lots of things get blown up real good, and there are plenty of fists, fur and energy beams flying through the ether, not to mention flames, ice and the occasional claw.

A warning to those unfamiliar with the X-Men comics; there is a lot that goes unstated in the film that may not make sense. For example, the Wolverine in the ’70s has bone claws and in the future, claws of metal. That’s because the metal infusion that changes the nature of his weapon doesn’t take place until later on in time. In fact, the man responsible, Stryker (Helman) makes an appearance as an ambitious Trask operative here – he’d be played by Brian Cox in X2.

What really saves this movie is the plot which is complex and intelligent. Some often snipe at comic books and the movies that are based on them for being dumb and loud, but this is certainly not the former (and only occasionally the latter). Some thought was given to the mechanics and ramifications of time travel. The movie also made a good effort in re-creating the time period. Just as First Class was something of a superhero Bond movie, this is a lot like a superhero conspiracy movie, complete with Tricky Dick, the military-industrial complex and lava lamps.

This is the kind of entertainment that is synonymous with summer and a perfect fit for a year which has been thus far an improvement over last summer. The X-Men have always been some of the most interesting of comic books with some of the most compelling themes in the art form. The apocalyptic vision of the future here however is nothing compared to what is to come in the next installment of the series which is teased in an extra scene following the credits.

REASONS TO GO: Some sensational action scenes. Riveting storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters; may be hard for non-fans to keep up with all of them. May not make sense to those unfamiliar with the comic.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of comic book action and violence, some suggestive material, brief nudity and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the comic storyline the movie is based on, it is Kitty Pryde who travels back in time, not Wolverine. The change was made for continuity reasons – in the 1970s Pryde wouldn’t have been born yet, whereas Logan is ageless and would appear exactly the same in both future and past.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Million Ways to Die in the West

X2


Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Kelly Hu, Katie Stuart, Kea Wong, Cotter Smith, Chiara Zanni, Daniel Cudmore, Peter Wingfield, Shauna Cain. Directed by Bryan Singer

As I write, moonlight shines down blue as sapphires through my open window. I can see a four-leaf clover clearly in the grass of my front lawn. If a haystack were at hand, I could unerringly find the needle hidden therein. Actually, none of those things are happening, but it feels as if they could. After all, I’ve just witnessed the extremely improbable: a sequel better than the original. Hard to believe, but true.

When last we left the X-Men (in 2000), their greatest foe, Magneto (McKellan) was confined to a plastic prison, unable to use his powers to escape. Rogue (Paquin) was back among the students at Xavier School, sporting a cool white streak in her hair after her ordeal on Liberty Island. Wolverine (Jackman) was leaving for Alkali Lake, a facility in Canada where some clues to his past might be found. To get there, he liberated a motorcycle belonging to Cyclops (Marsden). And Senator Kelly (Davison) had come out against the mutant registration bill he had sponsored. Of course, we know that the good senator was really Mystique (Romijn-Stamos), but that’s just our little secret.

As this sequel opens, the White House is under attack from a single mutant; a blue-skinned, acrobatic guy with a long tail and the ability to teleport. He takes on the Secret Service and dispatches agents with nearly no trouble, threatens the President (Smith) with a knife before teleporting out of the Oval Office, leaving the commander-in-chief more susceptible to his Mutant Affairs advisor, Colonel. Styker’s (Cox) suggestion that he raid the Xavier School, which he described as a training facility for mutants. Of course, it sounded much more sinister when he said it.

About this time, Wolverine returned home to Xavier’s School, having found nothing but rubble and deserted buildings at Alkali Lake. The attack on the president, obviously carried out by a mutant, troubles Professor Xavier (Stewart). He decides to send two of his most capable X-Men, Storm (Berry) and Jean Grey (Janssen) to retrieve the President’s attacker. Professor X uses his neato-keeno computer Cerebro, through which he is able to connect with every living person on the planet, to find the blue teleporter. Professor X also decides to pay his old pal Magneto a visit, taking Cyclops with him.

While visiting Magneto, Professor X finds out something horrible; the secret of his school has been compromised by Magneto. Not willingly; Magneto would never betray his own kind to humans. Using an acid-like substance applied to the back of the mutant’s neck, Col. Stryker was able to control the powerful Magneto just enough to get him to reveal the information Stryker wanted; the exact location of Cerebro. Too late, Professor Xavier realizes he is caught in a trap and both he and Cyclops are gassed into unconsciousness.

At the same time, Storm and Jean Grey have found the mutant responsible for the attack on the White House, a pious German named Kurt Wagner, or as he was known in the Berlin Circus, Night Crawler (Cumming). Rather than being a dangerous villain, he’s actually rather sweet and endearing. Puzzled, Storm and Jean arrange to transport the German back to the Xavier School. It’s about here they lose contact with everybody.

Of course, things are not going too well at the School. Under attack from deadly commandos who menace shrieking children with what looks like Tasers, the soldiers find the mutant children to be a little harder to capture than they may have thought. Some, like Kitty Pryde (Stuart) are able to literally walk through walls to escape. Some, like Colossus (Cudmore) grow an impenetrable metal armor on their skin. Others, like Bobby Drake (Ashmore) can create walls of ice. And Wolverine? Well, he just kicks ass.

Wolverine escapes with Rogue, Bobby Drake, and a kid with attitude named Pyro (Stanford) who can manipulate fire. They go to Boston, where Storm and Jean Grey are and where Bobby Drake’s family lives. It leads to an awkward confrontation with Bobby’s parents, leading to one of the best lines of the movie; “Have you tried NOT being a mutant?” whines Bobby’s rather dense mother. Unfortunately, before any kind of understanding is reached, Bobby’s brother calls the police, which leads to a great deal of destruction and injury, most caused by Pyro. Things threaten to get WAY out of hand before Storm and Jean Grey arrive to whisk Wolverine and the kids away.

Now we find out what the reason for all this is. Col. Stryker doesn’t just fear mutants. He doesn’t just hate mutants. He wants to kill all of them. Permanently. And, using a second generation of Cerebro based on the components he’s stolen from the school, he has the means to do it in Professor Charles Xavier. Of course, the X-Men have no choice but to rescue their mentor, stop the genocide and save the day. And they have acquired a most unlikely ally: Magneto, who has escaped from prison in a rather clever (but gruesome) way. And, Mystique.

This uneasy alliance leaves you wondering about Magneto’s own agenda, which manifests itself in a spectacular way. The inevitable rescue attempt will lead to a surprise outcome in which one of the X-Men will defect to Magneto, and another will face the ultimate challenge. And when did this start sounding like a comic book?

The special effects are far more extensive here than in the first movie, and utilized more effectively. The fight scenes between Nightcrawler and the Secret Service, Wolferine and Lady Deathstrike (Hu) and Pyro and the Boston Police are done well, marrying expert fight choreography with special effects that bring to life the powers of the comic book heroes. Visually, the movie never lets up.

The X-Universe that Marvel Comics has created has a rich tapestry of characters from which to draw; many standbys, such as Gambit, Beast and Angel, have only been glimpsed so far in the movies.

What really sets X2 apart from its predecessor is the depth that is given to the characters. Jean Grey faces, in one of the movie’s better subplots, the increase of her own powers beyond her own abilities to handle them. Stryker is evil, but not in a cartoon-like manner. His hate is the man’s driving force, his fear the engine that powers his hate. His fear of mutants has hit his home in an impactful way, and drives him to exploit even those closest to him to meet his genocidal objectives.

Storm has always been one of the more enigmatic figures in the comic; she is aloof, distant and cold, but also loyal and fiercely determined. Berry plays her with all her vulnerabilities intact, quite a juxtaposition for a character able to create dozens of tornadoes with a thought.

That is, perhaps, why we relate to the X-Men so well; they are powerful, yet completely human, with all the vulnerability and frailty that implies. Even Magneto, the arrogant master of magnetism, is not all-powerful. Hugh Jackman captures Wolverine’s essence: feral and utterly devoid of conscience when fighting, but tormented by a past he cannot remember, held hostage to questions he can’t answer. Some of his questions are answered during the course of X2 but of course not all of them and several new ones arise in the process.

Wolverine’s defense of the Xavier School is one of the most vicious fight scenes ever filmed in a superhero movie and while it got cheers from the audience, it also left me a bit unsettled. There is something about stabbing a soldier with diamond-hard, razor-sharp claws that is more violent than beating him into unconsciousness with closed fists, or shooting him with a rifle. It made me wonder how far one can stretch the concept of “good guy” when the good guy is stabbing people. It’s all psychology; stabbing is a far more personal act than shooting someone. Dead is dead either way, but in our culture, heroes don’t stab.

Cumming portrays Nightcrawler as a tormented, but gentle soul whose faith is the rock that he clings to, even when his faith is sorely tested. He’s almost puppy dog eager to please his new friends so when the rubber hits the road he is there for them at great personal risk to himself. Cumming makes excellent use of his screen time, making his character one that you want to see more of.

Keep an eye out for Colossus, as well. The audience really reacted to his limited onscreen time; you can bet the filmmakers are taking notice of this for a future movie in the series although to this point that hasn’t happened yet.

The true test of a movie can be broken down to a single old saw: did the audience leave wanting more? X2 has got it all; eye candy, subtle undercurrents to which most of us can relate, characters who are not cartoons (another irony, given that this is based on comic books), big explosions, terrific fight scenes, everything for the summer movie Neanderthal in all of us. X2 is a perfect popcorn escape.

WHY RENT THIS: All the action you an ask for. Character depth and sophisticated story. Perfect summer popcorn movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Still gives short shrift to some of the characters.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of comic book violence, a bit of sensuality and brief rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Entered the Guinness Book of World Records on its opening day by getting the most number of screens for a single movie on its opening day ever.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The special edition DVD release included a feature on Nightcrawler and rehearsal footage of the fight sequence between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike as well as a web-based Q&A session from the film’s release date. The Blu-Ray adds a history of the comic book X-Men as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $407.7M on a $110M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Wind Rises

X-Men


Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

(2000) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Matthew Sharp, Brett Morris, Shawn Ashmore, Sumela Kay, Katrina Florece, Alexander Burton, Kenneth McGregor, Rhona Shekter, Stan Lee. Directed by Bryan Singer

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies maybe of all time this one, and it had all the ingredients necessary for a monster smash hit; comic-book action, eye candy, a respected director, attractive actors, even a few Names. So is it any good?

Certainly, the movie has a rich storyline to draw from, one over 40 years in the making. There are some differences (a few of them fairly major) from the comic book mythos, but director Singer remained true to the comic’s essential storyline. That’s as well he should, as it is one of the most complex and interesting in comics.

It starts with a concentration camp in Poland, where a young Jewish boy named Eric Lensherr (Morris) is being torn from his parents. The hysterical boy manifests a terrifying power, but it is not enough to save his mother (Shekter) and father (McGregor) from their fates.

Flash-forward to the near future. Mutant children with strange and sometimes deadly powers are manifesting themselves all over the globe. Senator Kelly (Davison) is leading a crusade based on anti-mutant hysteria. Kelly wants these mutants to register themselves as you might register a handgun. Eventually, the senator means to see every mutant locked away in an effort to keep society safe from these potentially dangerous mutants.

Reasonable voices, such as that of respect geneticist Dr. Jean Grey (Janssen) are being shouted down by the hysterics. In the background, the young concentration camp survivor – now an immensely powerful man who can control magnetic fields at whim and who calls himself Magneto (McKellen),  broods and plots. His close friend, the charismatic and immensely powerful psychic Charles Xavier (Stewart), plots and hopes.

Meanwhile in northern Alberta a lonely, frightened teen calling herself Rogue (Paquin) hooks up with a surly, curmudgeonly loner named Wolverine (Jackman). Turns out Wolverine has an incredible regenerative power – he can take a great deal of punishment and heal at an astonishingly rapid rate. With a skeleton laced with a diamond-hard alloy called adamantium and claws of the same material that can shoot out from his knuckles and slice through virtually anything, he can dish it out, too.

The two are attacked in the Canadian wilderness by a lion-like creature called Sabretooth (Mane) but are rescued at the last minute by a strikingly beautiful woman of coffee-colored skin and ivory, silken hair who generates her own weather patterns; she is Ororo Munro, also known as Storm (Berry). With her is a boy-next-door type named Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops (Marsden) who can generate devastating force beams from his eyes. The two take Wolverine and Rogue back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, a place where mutant youngsters can learn to control and refine their powers, as well as gain an education in an almost normalized environment.

They are also gearing up for a fight. You see, Sabretooth is one of a crew that works for Magneto that also includes the agile Toad (Park) whose tongue would make Gene Simmons green with envy, and the alluring, shape-shifting Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) whose normal appearance has her with a strange blue skin. Magneto believes that a war between normals and mutants is coming, and that natural selection favors the mutants, but sheer numbers favor homo sapiens, who will kill off all mutants in order to survive.

Xavier believes that humans deserve to survive but that mutants can be integrated into society. He has assembled a group of X-Men to protect humanity and show them that the two species can work together in harmony. Magneto, however, has plans to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s leaders and he needs a powerful mutant to make that happen – and it isn’t Wolverine.

There is a lot more depth to this movie than the average summer action flick. It examines our tendencies to distrust and be fearful of those different from us — skin tones, religion, sexual orientation, whatever. These “mutants” for the most part are no different than the rest of us, externally. What makes them different generally doesn’t manifest except in specific situations which is true of those that society currently does mistrust. “Normal” is really a term subject to broad interpretation, even outside the comic books.

The eye candy is impressive, but it isn’t what this movie is about. A lot of kudos must go to the casting director; nearly every role is perfectly cast, particularly Stewart and Jackman, who physically resemble their four-color counterparts. The script is well-written and thought provoking but never lacking in the action that summer moviegoers crave. The character who are developed are believable.

The trouble is, you would need a 30-hour miniseries to properly develop all of the characters here, so many get short shrift, particularly Storm who deserves more screen time and more background. Also, if you aren’t familiar with the comic as Da Queen is not much of the details are going to go sailing right over your head. You may want to have a 12-year-old boy with you to explain it.

Hugh Jackman ascended to immediate stardom with his performance here. His Wolverine is at the center of the movie, and Jackman carries it effortlessly. Stewart’s Xavier is not that dissimilar to Captain Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation but that’s just fine; the role calls for the kind of commanding presence and compassion that Stewart invested Picard with. McKellen is astonishingly compelling, as much victim as villain. One can’t help but sympathize with him even as he’s doing horrible things – the mark of a great movie villain. Not every actor out there could bring those qualities – which were always evident in the comic book version – to life.

It isn’t exaggeration to say that the success of this movie opened the floodgates for Marvel to re-define the superhero movie and become the industry force that they have become. The X-Men franchise has continued to flourish with two off-shoots starring Jackman as Wolverine and three other feature films and a fourth scheduled for release in May and a fifth already on the schedule for 2016. If a movie can be this entertaining and at the same time promote tolerance, I’m definitely on board for the series continuing indefinitely.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story used to address issues of intolerance and prejudice. Some nice performances, particularly from Jackman, Stewart, McKellen and Berry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too cerebral for those who like their comic book action non-stop. Some purists might complain about deviation from comic book canon.

FAMILY MATTERS: As is necessary for most comic book adaptations, there is a surfeit of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman started his tradition of beginning his day with ice cold showers whenever he is playing the role of Wolverine on this film. He had jumped into the shower at 5 AM, not realizing that there was no hot water. Not wanting to wake up his wife, he just tolerated and had an epiphany that this was what Wolverine felt all the time – wanting to lash out and forced to hold it all in. He uses these cold showers to get into character and has for every film featuring Wolverine.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release had a wealth of features including an Easter Egg scene involving a well-known Marvel superhero who doesn’t appear in the film (but would later get a franchise of his own), a Fox-TV special called The Mutant Watch that is centered around the Senate hearings on Mutant Affairs, an interview with Singer by Charlie Rose and Jackman’s screen test. There was also a method of integrating deleted scenes into the place in the film where they would have been by means of hitting the enter button on your DVD remote whenever an X-Men logo appeared on the bottom right of the screen. A special edition DVD, known as X-Men 1.5 was also released and while it had an entire second disc of special features, most were of the standard production diary sort which were strangely lacking from the initial release. Most of these are also available on the Blu-Ray edition released in 2009.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $296.3M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

 

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Phantom

Scream 4


Scream 4

Sometimes, a rave in a barn can be a Scream.

(2011) Horror Comedy (Dimension) Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe, Rory Culkin, Nico Tortorella, Eric Knudson, Marley Shelton, Anthony Anderson, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Mary McConnell, Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell. Directed by Wes Craven

 

New generation, new rules. The Scream franchise made its reputation for slyly skewering the conventions of horror movies (as well as any number of good-looking 20-somethings playing teens) while retaining a certain amount of hip cachet.

But that was back in the ’90s. Depending on who you talk to, Scream set off a whole new generation of innovative new horror films or were the final hurrah of a golden age of horror films (the 70s and 80s). Since then, horror films particularly in Hollywood have degenerated into mostly remakes of standards or soap operas about vampires (although there is a very strong underground horror movement in which exciting and innovative films continue to be made, some here in the United States but also in Europe and Asia). So, is it a ripe time for writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven to bring the Ghostface out of mothballs and turn their poisoned pens on a moribund industry again?

Woodsboro, the bucolic small town of the first Scream trilogy, has been immortalized and yet traumatized by the murders there 15 years earlier. The survivor of the murders, Sidney Franklin (Campbell) is returning after a ten year absence to promote her book. Gale Weathers-Riley (Cox) has settled down and married Dewey Riley (Arquette) who is now the sheriff. Gale, whose books became the lucrative basis of the Stab motion picture series, is suffering from writers block and might be just a hair jealous of Sidney’s success.

A pair of comely high school girls are murdered by Ghostface and evidence planted in Sidney’s car, leading her to be forced to stay in Woodsboro much to the chagrin of her agent Rebecca Walters (Brie). Sidney is staying with her aunt Kate Roberts (McDonnell) and her cousin Jill (Roberts) who is dealing with break-up issues with her boyfriend Trevor Sheldon (Tortorella). Jill and her friends Kirby (Panettiere) and Olivia (Jaffe) have received threatening Ghostface phone calls. They enlist the local movie club president Charlie Walker (Culkin) and Dewey’s Keystone Kops (or in this case, Demented Deputies) Hicks (Shelton), Hoss (Brody) and Perkins (Anderson) to keep Sidney alive and catch the killer. However, this is a reboot and the rules, if any, are far more different.

There are those who complained that the originally trilogy of Scream films overstayed their welcome and I have to admit that there’s a point there. The first movie was massive fun, marvelously self-aware and yet managed to have its cake and eat it too in that it made fun of all of the clichés of horror and yet it used them too when it suited the movie.

There is an attractive cast here but the movie is dually focused on Sidney’s gang (Campbell, Cox and Arquette) as well as Jill’s group (Roberts, Panettiere and Culkin). That might sound like Craven’s trying to pass the torch to a new generation but that really isn’t the case. At the end of the day, this is Sidney’s story to tell and Neve Campbell for better or for worse is Sidney. I’ve never found the character of Sidney to be anything more than the generic plucky horror heroine and to be honest I’ve never really thought Campbell has imbued the character with much of a personality, which to be fair has always kind of been the point – most of the quips and snappy dialogue have really gone to other characters in the series.

Arquette, always the comic foil of the series, still plays Dewey like a kind of stoned Barney Fife. It can be endearing in places, and annoying in others. Still, I think Dewey has kind of matured in a way the other characters here haven’t which is a bit of a plus.

The main question is whether the traditional teen audience for horror films will get behind a movie that features lead characters that are essentially in their 30s and even (gasp) 40s and I don’t think they really embraced the franchise the way the previous generation did. The reveal of the true identity of Ghostface, supposed to be a shocker, didn’t really deliver the punch the first movie’s reveal did and by the time the movie ended I was actually kind of bored.

The movie captures enough of the essence of the first film that I can give it a recommendation with some caveats in that the original still delivers the goods, even if the audience for it has moved on. Revisiting Woodsboro isn’t a bad thing in and of itself however, and if a Scream 5 is ever made I’ll probably see it (although Da Queen won’t). Not a glowing testimonial I know, but it’s all that I got.

WHY RENT THIS: Actors settle into their roles nicely. Great seeing Campbell-Arquette-Cox combo again.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Didn’t really capture my imagination. Seems a bit “more of the same.”

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of blood, gore and violence (as you would predict from a Wes Craven horror film), a bit of bad language and some teen drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The third consecutive movie in which Rory Culkin has been in a movie that Emma Roberts was in (the others being Lymelife and Twelve

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a promo for the Scream 4 video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $97.1M on a $40M production budget; the movie made a bit of a profit at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scary Movie

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Tillman Story