Jack of the Red Hearts


Famke Janssen prays for strength.

Famke Janssen prays for strength.

(2015) Drama (ARC Entertainment) AnnaSophia Robb, Famke Janssen, Scott Cohen, Taylor Richardson, Israel Broussard, John D’Leo, Sophia Anne Caruso, Drena De Niro, Chris Jarell, Tonye Patano, Maria Rivera, Preston Fritz Smith, Ana Maria Jomoica, Stephen Hill, Nan Lynn Nelson, Harry Sutton Jr., Drena De Niro, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Jenny Jaffe, Brianna Mann, Christine Toy Johnson. Directed by Janet Grillo

Autism is something that is often written about and occasionally depicted on the movie screen but rarely does it show what it means day to day to a family with an autistic child, particularly a low-functioning one. As the mom here snaps at an insensitive remark about her autistic daughter, “She’s not Rain Man.” Sadly, the movies give an image of autism as a kind of cute disease turning the folks that have it into happy idiots. That’s as far from the truth as can be.

Jack (Robb) is a street-smart, street-tough kid who has just turned 18. She and her sister Coke (Caruso) have been in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention for years. Jack’s probation officer (Patano) is pretty much fed up with her and is ready to send her to adult jail this time, now that she’s old enough. Jack wants nothing more than to get Coke out of the system so the two can live together and take care of each other.

But Jack’s going to need money to get an apartment for them if that’s going to happen and something more stable – a real job that pays well, but Jack has no employment experience. With the help of a friend she connives her way as a caregiver into the household of Kay (Janssen), Mark (Cohen), Robert (Broussard) and autistic Glory (Richardson).

The bills have been piling up and they can no longer afford Kay staying home and caring for Glory, but the child needs full-time supervision and the family needs two incomes and quite frankly, Kay needs the break, worn down from caring for a child who is no easy task. Jack, a born hustler, convinces the actual applicant (Jaffe) to leave her resume and references with her and then Jack assumes the identity of Donna, a well-qualified caregiver. Of course, Jack knows nothing about caring for an autistic 11-year-old but she figures how hard can it be?

Well, any actual parent of an autistic child will tell you that it can be terrifyingly hard. Autistic kids, depending on the type of autism, can lash out, go into trance-like states, be stubborn as mules, obsess with odd items, require rigid conformity and/or act out in very violent and public ways, often when it is least convenient. The thing the movie gets right is that caring for a child who has difficulty functioning can break a parent down; this is their child whom they love and they can’t hold a conversation with them, or at least only a rudimentary one. It requires extreme patience and an amazing amount of love.

What it doesn’t require is a stock character from an Afterschool Special who is about as badass as Taylor Swift saving the day. The script is riddled with clichés and as predictable as the Cubs missing the playoffs. Robb is a talented actress but she is reduced to face-scrunching, high-level mugging and when called upon to smoke (which she does because, you know, street kid) she’s the most unconvincing smoker ever, clearly not inhaling. I’d much rather that Jack be a non-smoker than be an approximation of one.

I’ve met several autistic kids in my life, some more high functioning than others but Richardson is completely unconvincing in the role. Her smile is like she’s posing for a head shot and when she’s screaming and acting out, I don’t see in her performance how incredibly intense this acting out can be. The best way to think about it is that she’s pretending to smile rather than actually smiling. Now, I’m fully aware that every autistic kid is different and some may well smile like they’re in a toy commercial, but it comes off as non-genuine here and it is distracting overall to the movie. Richardson has a history of playing Annie onstage, so you know she’s got talent, but this was a definite misfire and I blame the director, who should know better.

I liked Janssen’s performance as the long-suffering mom. Janssen clearly gets how stressed out Kay is and how bone-weary she is. When Janssen gets the chance to act with silence, she is marvelous – conveying far more of the parental experience with her eyes and her facial expression than the script is doing. Sadly there is so much that the script does that stops the movie dead in its tracks, like a family sing-along that feels completely in-authentic and the denouement in which is exactly what you think it will be. Even the plot twists aren’t twists so much as lane changes.

I really give the filmmakers credit for wanting to make a film about how autism affects the entire family, and there is a great movie to be made on the subject, but this really isn’t it. Too many predictable plot points, unconvincing acting from the two actors who needed to be at their best and just pedestrian filmmaking torpedo what should have been a compelling film. Janssen’s performance is worth checking out but that only takes the movie so far; a very mild and disappointing recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Janssen is compelling as the mom. An inside look at the life of a family with an autistic child.
REASONS TO STAY: With a predictable movie-of-the-week plot, loses some of its credibility. Robb and Richardson give subpar performances.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of teen misbehavior, adult subject matter, teen smoking and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grillo in real life is the mother of an autism spectrum child.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Legendary

New Releases for the Week of December 4, 2015


KrampusKRAMPUS

(Universal/Legendary) Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler. Directed by Michael Dougherty

Holidays are the time for families to come together, but some families should remain far apart. Young Max has such a family and tired of the squabbling and the dysfunction, he finally reaches his breaking point and turns his back on Christmas. Little does he know that his anti-Christmas behavior has awakened a demonic presence, hell-bent on punishing those who don’t believe in the Christmas spirit. Now this fractured family must truly come together if they are to survive the night.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Holiday Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material)

A Royal Night Out

(Ketchup) Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Emily Watson, Rupert Everett. As Europe celebrates the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth are allowed outside the walls of Buckingham Palace to join the festivities. However, the two headstrong ladies ditch their military escort and find the first flush of romance and intrigue.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and brief drug elements)

Chi-Raq

(Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes. As the murder rate in Chicago skyrockets above the military casualties in Iraq, the death of a child caught in the crossfire of a murderous gang war sparks the women of Chicago to stand up and say enough. They vow to withhold sex from all men in Chicago until there is peace. Spike Lee’s latest joint is based on the classic Greek play Lysistrata. Catch the Cinema365 review of the film right here tomorrow.

See the trailer, clips  and a Q&A with Spike Lee here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use)

Jack of the Red Hearts

(ARC Entertainment) Famke Janssen, AnnaSophia Robb, Taylor Richardson, Sophia Anne Caruso. A streetwise teenage girl is desperate to get her younger sister out of the foster care system. Conning her way into a suburban home as a live-in helper for an autistic 11-year-old girl, she finds herself able to communicate with the child in ways nobody else can. She also finds a mother figure in the girl’s mom. But when the law finally catches up with her, she’ll have to choose between saving her own hide and saving someone else.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: NR

Janis: Little Girl Blue

(FilmRise) Janis Joplin, Cat Powers, Juliette Lewis, Dick Cavett. Janis Joplin remains a cultural icon, one of the first women to become a rock star (as opposed to a pop star which most women were relegated to prior to Joplin). Her gigantic voice was augmented by her reputation as a free spirit. Her death at 27 insured her status as a legend. This Amy Berg-directed documentary was given unprecedented access to the Joplin family and shows a side to the singer that few have ever gotten to see.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

The Letters

(Freestyle) Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer, Priya Darshini. Some have characterized Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a modern day saint and indeed the Vatican is looking into canonizing her even as we speak. However, the woman behind the selfless commitment to the poor and forgotten of the Calcutta slums revealed in her letters reveal a troubled and lonely woman who actively questioned her faith and even whether or not she’d been abandoned by God.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Plaza Cinema Cafe, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic material including some images of human suffering)

The Second Mother

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles. This frothy Brazilian concoction considers a hard-working domestic whose daughter comes to live with her in her employer’s estate. Her arrival puts the class distinctions in the household which mirror those set in place for generations into complete disarray.

See the trailer and stream the full movie from Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for some language and brief drug use)

Taken 3


Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

(2015) Action (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Dougray Scott, Sam Spruell, Don Harvey, Dylan Bruno, Leland Orser, David Warshofsky, Jon Gries, Jonny Weston, Andrew Borba, Judi Beecher, Andrew Howard, Cedric Cirotteau, Catherine Dyer, Jimmy Palumbo, Nazareth Dairian, Stefanie Kleine. Directed by Olivier Megaton

Sequels essentially come in two varieties; cash grabs made to capitalize on the popularity of the original film, or story extensions which continue the story from the first. Often the second kind can be an effective money maker for the studios, while the first kind can occasionally be surprisingly resonant with audiences. Generally speaking, however, all sequels are made – without exception – because the studios or the producers believe that there is a market demand for them.

The first two Taken films were very successful. In them Bryan Mills (Neeson), a former special ops military sort, sees his daughter Kim (Grace) kidnapped in the first film by sex traffickers and goes to Paris to kill everyone who looks at him cross-eyed and rescue his daughter; the second film has the ex-wife (Janssen) kidnapped in a revenge scenario by the dad of the kidnappers in the first film which leads to much of Istanbul being depopulated.

In this one nobody gets kidnapped. Ex-wifey is murdered and Bryan framed for it. No exotic locations, no family vacations, just Bryan tearing through Los Angeles looking to find out who done it and who is going to get his ass kicked all over Southern California. With a persistent detective (Whitaker) chasing him, ex-wifey’s husband (Scott, taking over for Xander Berkeley) trying to assist him, Russian mobsters led by the sadistic Oleg Malenkov (Spruill) slithering about, his buddies Garcia (Harvey), Smith (Bruno) and Sam (Orser) lending their own particular sets of skills when needed and Kim generally getting in the way, it’s going to be a very bad day in SoCal until Bryan gets to the person responsible for all his woes.

Now, before you wonder about the size of the rating I gave this, keep in mind that you don’t go and see an action movie for deep personal insights, innovative storytelling techniques or snappy dialogue; while sometimes any or all of those occur in an action film, it’s icing on the cake when they do. Mainly what we go to see action films for is to turn off our brains, sit back with our ice cold soda and buttered popcorn and bliss out to car crashes, flying bullets and villainous asses being properly kicked. We want to cheer for the hero, boo the villain and leave the theater feeling that all is right with the world.

It’s a fairly low bar to set from a certain perspective but there is absolutely nothing wrong with forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours in the multiplex and this is the kind of tonic you’re looking for if that’s what you’re after. Neeson is the most personable action star working at the moment with perhaps the sole exception of Dwayne Johnson and he certainly gives us everything we’re looking for in an action hero in all three of the Taken movies, this one included. Bryan is kind of a sweetheart most of the time, showing up at his college-aged daughters apartment a few days before her birthday with a gigantic teddy bear in an effort to be unpredictable. His effort fails miserably but throughout the movie he seems like a genuinely affable guy you’d want to shoot pool with.

You’d also want him at your back cracking skulls with the pool cue if necessary and while Neeson is in his 60s and moves like he’s in his 60s during a foot chase early on in the movie, he gets all the other stuff dialed in perfectly. He doesn’t have the physique of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or the fighting techniques of a Jet Li or even the hangdog smartass attitude of a Bruce Willis but he sort of fits in the mold of a nice guy with skills who has been pushed where you should never push him.

The supporting cast, for the most part, is all right. Whitaker, a fine actor in his own right, is full of idiosyncrasies and tics and business that occasionally distracts from the matters at hand but he is a very smart performer who knows that he is supposed to be the Sherlock Holmes here and Whitaker would make a crackin’ Sherlock in my opinion.

What every action film has to nail are the action sequences – the car chases, the fights, the gun battles. Even if everything else doesn’t work a movie of this genre can be redeemed by its action sequences. For the most part, the sequences here are well put together, particularly the assault on the Russian mobster’s fortress-like apartment near the end of the movie. However, it also must be said that there’s nothing in the action sequences that particularly stands out.

While I admire producer/writer Luc Besson for leaving the mold of the first two movies and going in another direction, the one he took was a path too well-traveled by Hollywood. We’ve seen the hero framed for a murder he didn’t commit and then have to battle bad guys and cops alike to clear his name how many thousands of times, and frankly this doesn’t add anything to that tired old genre. However, it doesn’t disgrace itself either.

This is the weakest of the trilogy if only by a little bit but it still has enough going for it to be worth seeing if you’re into action movies and particularly the sort that Neeson tends to do. While so many of the twists here are horribly telegraphed and if you are unable to figure out who’s behind all this you really need a year or two of remedial movie watching, it still bears a bit of attention although chances are you won’t remember much of it twenty minutes after the credits start rolling.

REASONS TO GO: Nice action sequences. Neeson is a charismatic performer.
REASONS TO STAY: Very cliche story. Neeson beginning to show his age in some of the more physical aspects of the role.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of strong language but mostly, lots of shooting, stabbing, punching, kicking and general mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Neeson uses a number of different firearms in the movie, he is a staunch advocate for gun control in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Days to Kill
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold begins!

New Releases for the Week of January 9, 2015


Taken 3TAKEN 3

(20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, Al Sapienza, Judi Beecher. Directed by Olivier Megaton

Bryan Miller is a man with a particular set of skills. His work with the government had essentially put his marriage into Divorce-land and left him with an estranged wife and a daughter who adored him but for whatever reason was constantly getting into trouble. Sadly, Bryan’s reconciliation with his wife is cut tragically short by an old enemy. Framed for the crime and on the run, he is determined to protect the last person he has left while avoiding the cops, the FBI, the CIA – and the killers, who mean to kill his daughter before taking him out. Bryan Miller has other ideas, most of them involving killing them first.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and for brief strong language)

Inherent Vice

(Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro. In L.A. at the tail end of the psychedelic era, a rumpled private investigator is visited by an ex-girlfriend who explained that her current beau, a billionaire, is being kidnapped and held in a loony bin by his wife and her boyfriend. It’s all a bit confusing but the private eye consents to take the case, and with a boatload of characters that could have only come from the mind of Thomas Pynchon, the game is afoot. Or a leg.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Crime
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence)

Selma

(Paramount) David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson. In 1965, voting rights in the South were essentially limited to whites and African-Americans were often violently discouraged from demanding the right to vote. Into this came Rev. Martin Luther King and his decision to stage a high profile march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, a march that would be met with violence that would shock a nation and lead to President Lyndon Johnson signing into law the Voting Rights Act which until the Supreme Court recently dismantled it, protected the rights of all voters to go to the polls.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment and brief strong language)

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

The Wolverine


Hugh Jackman is pissed off they started shooting the new X-Men movie without him.

Hugh Jackman is pissed off they started shooting the new X-Men movie without him.

(2013) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Famke Janssen, Brian Tee, Will Yun Lee, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Ken Yamamura, Nobutaka Aoyagi, Seiji Funamoto, Shinji Ikefuji, Qyoko Kudo, Nobuaki Kakuda, Chiharu Mizuno, Conrad Coleby, Taris Tyler. Directed by James Mangold

Nobody wants to live forever. Just ask somebody who actually might, like Logan – better known as the Wolverine (Jackman).

He is in self-imposed exile, sleeping in the frigid cold and rain, staying away as much as possible from other humans. After the death of his love Jean Grey (Janssen) at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand he has come to realize that he is going to watch everyone and everything he loves die, and in some cases be responsible for those deaths. Eternity can be long and slow and painful.

But he is found by a red-headed perky Japanese woman named Yukio (Fukushima) who is quite handy with a blade herself. She’s got that mischievous schoolgirl quality that Japanese women are fond of cultivating these days but she has an offer for Logan – to accompany her to Japan to bid farewell to her employer, Yashida (Yamanouchi) who had been a guard at the POW camp Logan had been interred in near Nagasaki and whose kindness had saved Logan’s life – a favor which the Wolverine felt obliged to return.

Yashida is dying but his doctor – who we will come to know as the Viper (Khodchenkova) – has discovered a way to transfer Logan’s mutant healing power to Yashida. Logan is skeptical and decides to pass. As he stays the night he meets Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Okamoto) whose brutal father Shingen (Sanada) will inherit the multi-billion dollar tech company Yashida built.

But Yashida had other plans for his money  and his company – he means to leave them to his granddaughter which throws things up into disarray. The Japanese Yakuza stage an attack at a sacred ritual in an attempt to kidnap Mariko. She is protected by her childhood friend and expert archer Harada (Lee) but  the numbers are overwhelming and Logan, who had sworn to forego his heroic past is sucked into the fray.

Based on one of the most popular storylines of the Wolverine’s four-color career, this portrayal of the X-Man is to my mind the closest to how the character behaves in the comic book. Not only did Jackman bulk up severely (which I’m sure the ladies will appreciate during his many shirtless scenes) but he is accessing a darker side of the character; not quite the anti-hero he would become but certainly a character with a rigid code that is mirrored by that of the Japanese samurai and ninja codes.

Unfortunately not all of the other characters hold up to Jackman’s Wolverine, particularly Mariko whose character is a typical damsel in distress. Of course, Wolverine develops a thing for her but for the life of me I can’t really figure out why. Rebound relationship, I guess. Yukio is far more interesting and in many ways, more suitable as a romantic partner for Logan but love doesn’t always go in the obvious direction.

There are plenty of terrific action sequences, particularly a chase scene on a bullet train in which Wolverine and several Yakuza assassins do battle on top of the train whizzing at 300 mph through Tokyo. It’s one of the most edge-of-your-seat action sequences you’re likely to see all year. There are several others which are nearly as good.

Unfortunately there are also long dry spells in which Logan seems to be recovering from injuries (his healing abilities are compromised during the film) and time after time we see blurry pictures of a wobbly Wolverine as he comes close to passing out. No mas, amigos.

While some of the conceits of the movie stretch believability quite a bit, still this is a slam-bang action movie that not only fleshes out the character of Logan quite a bit but also explores mortality and the culture of honor which is often circumvented by ambition. While standouts have been few this summer, this is a solid action movie that will keep you well-entertained and might resonate enough to warrant adding it to your home video collection when the time comes.

REASONS TO GO: Better and more faithful to the four color version of Wolverine. Amazing action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Silly in places. Drags a bit. Mariko comes off as bland.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, a small amount of gore, some sexuality and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is being released in Japan a month after it is in most of the rest of the world to avoid coming out near the anniversary of Nagasaki which figures heavily in the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Rain

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Monty Python and the Holy Grail