Lamp Light


The look on your face when you’re late for work due to a tunnel collapse.

(2016) Thriller (RandomMason Rey, Joel P.E. King, Kelly Frances Hager, A.J. Sweatt, Chelsea Christopher, Dr. A. Goodwin, Nathan Goss, Rebecca Torres. Directed by Mason Rey

 

There was a joke going around some years ago: Ever have one of those days? Well, I have one of those lives. That can truly be said about Don Gos (Rey), a telemarketer trying to shill for investors into a precious metals company. Most of the people he speaks to aren’t exactly overjoyed to be speaking with a telemarketer which is pretty much true for all of us, even telemarketers. Still, he handles the abuse and the snide comments with as much grace as he can muster.

Afterwards, he gets to go home but not to a loving family but to an empty apartment. Don’s love life is all online with a girl named Olive he’s never met and frankly, considering the way things are going, probably never will. To say the least Don has some self-confidence issues.

On the way to work the next morning he decides to take the scenic route, trying to delay his arrival at the office for as long as possible. Not to He goes through a tunnel – which promptly collapses on top of him, burying him alive inside his car. At first, he thinks this will be a temporary inconvenience but as the hours pass by he realizes that help may well be on the way but it might not arrive in time. The car’s chassis has protected him thus far but the weight of the mountain on the steel encasing hi is beginning to take its toll and it seems only a matter of time before he’s crushed to death.

Don’s beginning to freak out more than a little bit until he hears the voice of a fellow survivor – Gym (King) who is not far away but unable to move any closer. The two get to talking and little by little Don begins to take a hard look at his life and his choices – and particularly to what happened to his marriage and why his wife (Hager) isn’t around anymore.

In this kind of cinematic situation, Hollywood tends to want heroic figures in peril and this surprisingly goes a different route. Not to knock Mason Rey but he is far from the action hero mold; he’s more of an everyman, not in great shape and a little bit too much into geek things. It’s not that he isn’t good looking, it’s just he isn’t the sort that is going to dig his way out of this with a plastic spork and a drinking straw.

I guess you can go as far as to say that this is an “in-action” movie rather than an action movie. All but the first 20 minutes is set in the interior of a crushed car and that doesn’t allow for a lot of camera movement., so most of the film we are stuck staring at Rey doing various things to pass the time, from taking stock of his food and water to drawing figures on the car to trying to dig his way out. There isn’t a lot for Rey to do but chat with the disembodied voice of Gym and that leads us to watch as Don’s grip on sanity begins to get somewhat loose. Rey is compelling given the circumstances but fair warning, some are going to find the film a bit too static.

=And it does move pretty slowly. This is a character study in which we essentially are trapped in Don’s head along with him. There are some flashbacks but for the most part this is the Mason Rey show, which considering he also wrote and directed this isn’t too surprising (if you looked carefully at certain festival screenings he was also selling popcorn in the lobby). Fortunately, Rey has enough presence to back it up so it doesn’t come off as auteur ego.

=There are some plot malfunctions that are a bit glaring; for example, one would think that Don would be in greater danger from asphyxiation than being crushed to death. He does an awful lot of talking which would fill his limited air supply with carbon dioxide but that aspect doesn’t seem to be addressed unless you attribute some of the of the sanity issues to hypoxia rather than stress. In any case, that isn’t made really clear. There are a couple of others but I won’t go into detail as they would constitute spoilers and this is a good enough film that it doesn’t deserve to be ruined by a venal critic trying to make a point.

Yes, this is a film I’d actually recommend with some caveats. It is ponderously slow and is more of a cerebral film than an action-oriented one so even if the buried alive aspect intrigues you, the approach may not be to your liking. Nonetheless there are some compelling features that make this flawed but ultimately satisfying film worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Mason Rey is a fairly compelling lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: Awfully slow-moving and not a lot of action.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as you might expect from someone being slowly crushed to death.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daylight
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist

Killing Jesus (Matar a Jesús)


The gun lobby corrupts yet another innocent youth.

(2017) Crime (Latido/64A Films) Natasha Jaramillo, Giovanny Rodriguez, Camilo Escobar, Carmenza Cossio, Juan Pablo Trujillo, José David Medina, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Jhorvin Ospina. Directed by Laura Mora Ortega

Revenge is one of those things that tend to take on their own lives apart from those who are out to achieve it. They shape lives, become obsessions and often cost more to the one taking revenge than on the one they are getting revenge from.

Paula (Jaramillo) is a college student majoring in photography. She spends most of her time hanging out with her friends, attending meetings of activist groups that are mainly all talk, and smoking way too much dope. Her father Jose Maria (Escobar) is where she gets her social activism from although he is wary; Medellin in Columbia is a rough place to live with violence around every corner. Still, he loves his daughter fiercely and from time to time gives her a lift home from school. That proves to be fatal as when opening the gate to his driveway while Paula is bending down in the front seat to make sure her camera bag has everything in it, a young man on a motorcycle guns down her father. Paula gets a glimpse of the killer’s face although he doesn’t see her.

The police prove to be unsurprisingly ineffective and corrupt, causing a great deal of frustration for Paula and her brother Santiago (Trujillo). Paula grows withdrawn, sullen while Santiago grows fearful for his sister who continues to go out with friends, although she is basically ignored. One evening, she catches the face of her father’s murderer in a nightclub and strikes up a conversation with him. His name is Jesus (Rodriguez) and even though he is drunk, he is clearly attracted to her.

Paula decides to take justice in her own hands, partnering with her dope dealer Gato (Cardenas) to buy herself a gun in order to do unto Jesus what he had done unto her father. However, that proves to be no easy task; stranger yet, she is beginning to see Jesus as a human being who in many ways is as much a victim of the violence and corruption in Medellin as her father was. In a somewhat surreal scene, he even teaches her how to shoot. Will she be able to complete her plan of revenge or will killing Jesus be too much for her?

This had the potential for being a very powerful movie on the nature of violence and how it pervades Colombian culture but Mora chose not to go that route. It also had the potential for being another crappy revenge thriller, but she chose not to go that route either. Rather, she chose to focus in on the relationship between Paula and Jesus and how it changed her…and how she changed Jesus. The thing that Paula expected the least is what happens – she starts to actually sympathize with Jesus but that pain of loss is still deep down and waiting for the opportunity to explode.

Most of the cast is non-professional which sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t. Jaramillo is not adept at handling emotional scenes; when she cries for her father it doesn’t feel authentic at all. She’s pretty enough and she says her lines with conviction but she has a hard time getting across the emotional side of her character. Rodriguez on the other hand is a sizzling presence who captures your attention whenever he’s onscreen. Yes he’s a thug with a fatalistic view towards life; he’s fully aware that his life expectancy isn’t very long and yet he has the arrogance of machismo guiding his actions. He also is loving towards his family and towards the girl whom he is developing deep feelings for and might he persuaded to let in where nobody is allowed. The performance has an undercurrent of vulnerability that makes the charismatic thug on the surface all the more memorable and while his brooding thug is no Brando, there is enough there to believe he could become a big star.

There are a few instances of shaky cam abuse and from time to time Paula does things that defy rationality – the dumb teen syndrome which allows certain types of horror films to exist. This does feel like a very personal film to Mora (see Trivia below) and sometimes it can be a bit raw. Having not been to Medellin I can’t say if it accurately captures the reality of street life there but it feels authentic to a non-expert like myself.

The movie has a lot going for it – particularly the social and psychological aspects – although it doesn’t always fulfill its own promise. Still, Mora is a young director and she’ll only get better and this is good enough to recommend provisionally and certainly good enough to warrant keeping an eye out for future projects from the director as well as Rodriguez. If you want to catch them right now, you can order tickets here.

REASONS TO GO: The progression of Paula’s perceptual change is fascinating to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Jaramillo isn’t always convincing from an emotional standpoint.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of drug use (mainly marijuana smoking), plenty of violence (some of which is graphic) and more than a little profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Laura Mora Ortega based some of the events in the film on her own life; her father, also a teacher, was gunned down by a hitman in front of her. She later met the man who murdered her father although not in the way depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping With the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lucky

Nerve (2016)


Isn't it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

Isn’t it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

(2016) Thriller (Lionsgate) Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Juliette Lewis, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jeffreries, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, Brian Marc, Ed Squires, Rightor Doyle, Josh Ostrovsky, Eric D’Alessandrio, Samira Wiley, Albert Sidoine, Chris Breslin, Wesley Volcy, Damond McFarland, Deema Aitken, Michael Drayar, Kim Ramirez. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

 

In this age of instant Internet gratification, it seems sometimes that those of a certain generation are fame-obsessed. They document every aspect of their lives, as if they were famous; some achieve a kind of fame on YouTube or Instagram or other websites with videos, music and art. Some even become mainstream media sensations as well.

Vee (Roberts) – short for Venus but nobody calls her that – is a high school senior in Staten Island and if there is a metaphor for boredom that’s better than that, I don’t know what it is. She is a bit of a milk-toast, unwilling to take chances. She’s been accepted at Cal Arts but is too afraid to tell her clingy Mom (Lewis) the news. Instead, she prepares to go to college locally with her mother as her “roommate.” You can imagine how enthusiastic she is at the possibility.

Her best friend Sydney (Meade) is much more of a risk-taker. She introduces Vee to an online game called Nerve in which you sign up either as a player or a watcher. Players are given time-sensitive dares to perform on camera of increasing difficulty and danger with cash awards increasing the more dangerous the dare. Watchers pay $19.99 for 24 hours and can suggest dares to be performed and follow their favorite players; the most popular players end up in a tournament of champions where the players can win big money – and everlasting fame.

Vee impulsively signs up as a player after she is embarrassed in front of the guy she’s crushing on. Despite her nerd friend Tommy’s (Heizer) misgivings (and let us not forget that he is crushing big time on her) she goes on her first dare – to kiss a stranger in a diner for five seconds. That stranger turns out (perhaps non-coincidentally) to be Ian (Franco), another player. Vee and Ian are thrown together in another dare which involves trying on ridiculously expensive clothes in Bergdorf’s before they are forced to leave the store in only their skivvies – although the clothes they were modeling mysteriously turn up for them to wear outside, bought and paid for.

As Vee’s popularity grows, the dares begin to get more and more serious – including riding on a motorcycle at 60 MPH with the driver blindfolded – and her popularity grows, becoming an instant Internet sensation, which infuriates her friend Sydney who has always been the attention-getter in their relationship. Still, as the stakes get higher and higher Vee discovers that leaving the game isn’t an option for her – and what seemed to be harmless fun has become something far more sinister. How far will she go to take the game down?

Let’s get something straight right off the bat; this movie is seriously aimed at an audience that is likely no older than 20. It is aimed at a generation that thinks anyone over that age is hopelessly techno-illiterate, hopelessly uncool and hopelessly clueless. The arrogance of youth is in perfect representation here; the feeling of invincibility that comes with someone who has a 1 or a 2 in front of their age (single digits only, wise-asses).

The look of the film is part of that. It’s cool and slick, almost like live action anime. This is the prettiest B-movie you’re likely to ever see; the lighting is superb. Roberts and Franco are perfectly cast; Roberts the good girl with a bit of a dark side and Franco the wisecracking player who’s kinda cute and kinda sweet. Both actors play what are essentially archetypes (and I don’t know if the characters come off that way in the Jeanne Ryan-penned young adult novel) and sadly, have about zero chemistry together. You never get a sense of attraction between the two of them which is one of the main faults of the movie. Perfectly cast individually yes, but the two actors can’t seem to forge a connection that is perceivable on the screen.

A lot of the stunts that the players are supposed to do don’t really generate a lot of tension; crossing between buildings on a ladder which plays to Sydney’s fear of heights seems almost anti-climactic. You never get a sense of jeopardy The same goes with the motorcycle stunt. By the time the final confrontation comes with the “evil” player TJ (Baker) there doesn’t seem to be any sort of tension whatsoever. Joost and Schulman are excellent directors visually, but this won’t go down as one of their best works. Something tells me that there are better things down the road for these guys. I certainly hope so.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film is very cool and modern.
REASONS TO STAY: A very shallow look at fame, a very shallow subject. None of the stunts were really all that convincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The film espouses risky and dangerous behavior as entertainment, condones teen drinking, drug use and sex. There is also some brief nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley appeared in Orange is the New Black as a romantic couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gamer
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Tallulah

Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday


When hitchhiking, always levitate to get an immediate ride.

When hitchhiking, always levitate to get an immediate ride.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Paul Reubens, Joe Manganiello, Alia Shawkat, Stephanie Beatriz, Jessica Pohly, Doug Cox, Richard Riehle, Katherine VanderLinden, Josh Meyers, Corey Craig, Paul Rust, Monica Horan, Brian Palermo, Linda Porter, Tara Buck, John H. Mayer, Dave Power, Bobby Ray Shafer, Frank Collison, Brad William Henke, Leo Fitzpatrick, Christopher Heyerdahl, Sonya Eddy. Directed by John Lee


Sometimes when confronted by something that was an important part of our growing up, we are surprised that it meant anything to us at all. Other times, we are reminded why it was so important in our memory in the first place – it’s like rediscovering who we once were all over again.

So it is for those who grew up with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse during its CBS run from 1986-1990. It garnered 15 Emmys in those five years and changed the nature of children’s television. It also ended with the star disgraced after a public indecency incident which effectively derailed his career. Reubens, who played a man-boy character in a skinny grey suit with red bow-tie, pale skin and red lips, a 1950s haircut and an irrepressible attitude, made some cameo appearances but only recently has returned as a character actor, appearing most recently in the Gotham TV series.

Reubens is 63 now and his image is digitally enhanced to retain the youthful appearance of Pee-Wee Herman (Reubens). Still, he is placed in the idyllic small town of Fairville where he is the beloved fry-cook at the local diner, a man who’s never left the town limits and doesn’t aspire to. That is, until Joe Manganiello (Manganiello) roars into town on his motorcycle.

At first, all Manganiello wants is a chocolate shake – and Pee Wee makes a tasty one. But the men bond over a shared love of Root Beer Barrels candy and Manganiello impulsively invites his new best buddy to his birthday party in New York City in a week. He also advises Pee Wee to take a road trip rather than an airplane – the better to learn more about himself.

And so Pee-Wee hits the road and in some ways, the road hits back from a trio of brash bank robbing women straight out of a Russ Myers movie to an Amish community who are not ready for Pee-Wee to the most drawn-out Farmer’s Daughter joke in history, Pee-Wee discovers an America which is in many ways the way we imagine it would be, only through a skewed lens, but the more that happens to Pee-Wee the farther it seems he gets from his goal. Will he make it to New York for Joe’s party?

Those who loved Pee-Wee’s Playhouse are going to greet this movie with affection and nostalgia. Does it live up to the expectations of that show? Well, let’s be honest – Reubens set a very high bar with the show and movie, and I will have to say I’m not sure that Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday clears that bar, but it comes close enough that most devoted fans should be satisfied.

It also stands to reason that those who found Pee-Wee’s Playhouse less of a place they wanted to play in will probably not find this any more palatable. The same goofy vibe pervades and the same scattered sense of humor dominates. While most of the characters from the original show (other than Pee-Wee himself) are not involved, most fans will find the tone right in their wheelhouse.

Like much of the Playhouse material, the humor is a bit scattershot and some of the stuff works here better than other stuff. There is a sense that the filmmakers are trying a little too hard to recapture the magic and at times things feel a little forced. I have heard the complaint that Pee-Wee is essentially something of a one-note character but I don’t think that’s true, although he doesn’t have as much depth as some of the Muppets who always seem to have a lot of that for characters made of felt and wood.

I suspect those who have planned to see this likely already have and are either planning future viewings or have had their fill. However, those of you who are on the fence about this should be warned (or re-assured) that this is essentially more of the same of what you’re used to – not a bad thing of itself, but the material here while it doesn’t live up to the standards of the original doesn’t disappoint overly much either.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky and imaginative. Very charming in places.
REASONS TO STAY: An acquired taste. One gets a sense that the filmmakers are trying too hard.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lyonne and Greenfield both appear in the sitcom New Girl.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Mermaid

Leatherheads


Even in 1925, "hi, mom" was a thing.

Even in 1925, “hi, mom” was a thing.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Jack Thompson, Max Casella, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Malcolm Goodwin, Matt Bushell, Tommy Hinkley, Tim Griffin, Robert Baker, Nick Paonessa, Randy Newman, Grant Heslov, Mike O’Malley, Heather Goldenhersh. Directed by George Clooney

The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the United States. The championship game, the Super Bowl, is one of the most-watched sporting events on planet Earth. The league makes billions in advertising and sponsorship revenue, broadcasting rights fees, game attendance and merchandising. Millions follow their teams week after week during the fall. But it wasn’t always that way.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinski) is on the top of the world. The star football player for the Princeton Tigers football team, he is matinee idol handsome, a war hero, admired by millions and blessed with a bright future ahead of him. Pro football? C’mon, it’s 1925! Pro football is for miners, farmers and lumberjacks, the pay is ridiculously low, there are no rules to speak of and the crowds are ghastly.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is at rock bottom. The star player for the Duluth Bulldogs pro football team is trying to hold together his club by the skin of his teeth. They have to forfeit a football game because the game ball – the only one the team has – is stolen. As much as he loves the game, Connelly knows the future is bleak. He’s no longer a young man, he has almost no skills to speak of and football is all he knows. To make matters worse, the Bulldogs main sponsor is pulling out, and the team is about to fold.

Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is on the ladder to success. A brassy dame hustling, scratching and clawing to make her way as a reporter in a man’s world, she’s given a plum assignment by her editor (Thompson); a lieutenant (Casella) in Rutherford’s unit has stepped forward, claiming that his war record is false. Littleton is to get the confidence of Rutherford, build him up with a series of puff pieces and then when she gets the dirt, print the exclusive. If she does it, there’s an editorial position for her.

Connelly hits upon the bright idea of enticing Rutherford into pro football. In order to do it, he’s going to have to fast talk Rutherford’s agent/publicist CC Frazier (Pryce) into even considering pro football. When Dodge brashly guarantees ten grand per game, Frazier and Rutherford (mostly Rutherford who loves the game and wants to play past his college years) agree to join the Bulldogs. Littleton, smelling a fish story, decides to tag along.

At first, it looks like the most brilliant idea ever. Huge crowds show up to see the college star – even at Bulldog practices. The players begin to work harder to get into shape and Rutherford suggests some “effective” plays he used at Princeton. Of course, being a natural athlete better than most of the people playing the game doesn’t hurt and the Bulldogs begin to win. Connelly does his part by playing up the new guy and making sure he’s the one to score the touchdowns and that Rutherford gets all the glory. Dodge is far more interested in getting the girl, but when she discovers the truth, everything is at risk.

A nice period piece that captures the very early days of professional football nicely although I’m sure the NFL would take issue with some of the more, ahem, sordid aspects of the Duluth Bulldogs. Krasinski does some fine work as the ultra-preppy Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford. He was still best known for his work in The Office at the time (which was still on the air) and launches his film career with a completely different character than his Office work and does a great job in the process.

Clooney does his usual solid job; he seems to have an affinity for period pieces (O Brother Where Art Thou, Goodnight and Good Luck) and he plays a wise-cracking, hard-nosed Leatherhead well. Zellweger seems born to play the brassy, sassy dame with more than a little moxie. She looks right for the flapper era, and gets the cadences right.

Clooney captures the period nicely, with speakeasies and swell hotels. While the football sequences are mostly played for laughs rather than for any kind of authenticity, they are at least staged in an entertaining manner. Randy Newman’s score is reminiscent of his work in Ragtime and Parenthood; look for his cameo in one of the bar scenes.

I’m not sure whether Clooney intended an homage to screwball comedies or to actually make one; either way, it’s a bit light on jokes to match up to the better examples of the genre. The chemistry between Zellweger and Clooney isn’t as convincing as it could be.

Leatherheads is flawed, but generally entertaining. They try for the kind of screwball comedy that made things like His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels and Adam’s Rib, but don’t quite get there. With a better script and better chemistry between the leads, this could have been a memorable movie, but it’s still worthwhile on several fronts – just not really anything you’d want to sing the praises of too loudly. Definitely worth the rental at least if you don’t have anything particularly pressing that you’d like to see. It’s not a complete waste of your time and money at least.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice era re-creation. Clooney and Krasinski do fine jobs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fails at being a true screwball comedy. Chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger not quite there.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Due to a dispute with the Writer’s Guild of America over credit on the script, George Clooney removed himself as a voting member of the Guild.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Infamous prankster Clooney is shown playing some memorable pranks on his unsuspecting cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $58M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eight Men Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Minions

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

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines


Ol' red eyes is back.

Ol’ red eyes is back.

(2003) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Kristanna Loken, Claire Danes, David Andrews, Mark Famiglietti, Earl Boen, Moira Harris, Chopper Bernet, Chris Lawford, Carolyn Hennesy, Jay Acovone, M.C. Gainey, Susan Merson, Elizabeth Morehead, Jimmy Snyder, Chris Hardwick, Brian Sites, Alana Curry, Rebecca Tilney, Helen Eigenberg. Directed by Jonathan Mostow

Poor John Connor. He survived an unstoppable relentless killing machine from the future, but could he survive a movie without director James Cameron or actress Linda Hamilton as his mother Sarah? At least for the third go-round in the franchise he had Arnold back.

This time around, Connor (Stahl) is fully grown and he’s a mess. A loner who never really got over the events of his past, he’s further shut himself out from society after the death of his mother. He lives on the streets, for the most part shunning the city where he was born, although he comes back from time to time — like for example when he has a motorcycle accident and needs to steal some drugs from a deserted veterinary hospital to help dull the pain and stop the terrible dreams of Judgment Day that continue to plague him, even though he and his mom, along with the Good Terminator, stopped the machine-driven Armageddon from occurring, right?

Unfortunately for Connor, wrong. Also unfortunately for Connor, the veterinary clinic isn’t quite deserted. Kate Brewster (Danes), the vet who runs the clinic, shows up unexpectedly to handle a pet emergency. So does the T-X (Loken), a cyborg from the future which wasn’t supposed to exist anymore. This one is supposedly even more lethal than the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and she looks like she’s going to have her way with the trapped Connor when who should bust in but Arnold the Terminator. From there on in, it’s non-stop action leading to a wickedly twisted ending.

T3 did decent box office, enough to warrant a T4. Its critical reception, even within the action film addicts community, was more chilly. I have a few basic problems with T3. For one thing, one of the main action movie bugaboos: too many coincidences. Kate Brewster happens to be an old crush who gave Connor his first kiss as a young lad, and is the daughter of the general who heads the Skynet project for the government? I mean, really.

Secondly, Loken, while gorgeous, doesn’t really project the air of invincibility Robert Patrick did in T2. You got the impression that the Sarah, John and Arnie were overmatched and could get wiped out at any time by the T-1000. Not so here. Although the new Terminatrix has some built-in weapons and the ability to remote-control any machine she interfaces with, one gets the feeling that Arnie could lay the smack-down on her without dropping his cigar if he had half a mind to. I didn’t buy the menace that Loken was selling, and it did affect how I viewed the movie.

My other problem is with the whole idea of a Terminator coming to assassinate Connor. He is far too accepting of another set of androids from the future, almost seeming to expect them. Shouldn’t he be trying to figure out how Judgment Day could be back on the clock even after he had ended any chance of it taking place?

To the good side, the writing is a cut above the average action fare, and the twist at the movie’s end is a stunner. In fact, a number of conventions of the Terminator universe are turned on their heads in this movie, including the issue of Connor’s survival. Arnold has the terminator thing down to a “T” and could play the part in his sleep (and essentially would in Terminator Salvation). You get the feeling he really enjoyed himself making this movie, although, of course, he remains fairly emotionless onscreen. At the time this was made, the Awesome Austrian was on a roll, delivering some surprisingly strong acting performances (The Sixth Day and End of Days) that while not entirely deflecting the naysayers who said that the soon-to-be Governator couldn’t act, at least making the din of that accusation a bit less loud.

Director Jonathan Mostow had some pretty impressive shoes to fill in Cameron’s absence, but he is given a good template from which to work, and acquits himself nicely. The action sequences are well done, and the byplay between Connor and the Terminator is snappy. The only quibble I have here is a lack of spectacle; T3 seems in places more like a TV movie than anything else, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad entertainment.

This would be his last starring role before embarking on the political career that would take him to the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. There had been talk when this film was released that a fourth Terminator film would star Schwarzenegger and would continue directly where this one left off but those plans had to be scrapped. He has since announced that he would return to the role for a fifth Terminator film to be released in 2015 after appearing in Salvation through footage from the first Terminator.

While in nearly every way possible the third installment didn’t measure up to the first two films in the franchise, it is nonetheless entertaining enough to warrant a look and it is certainly much better than Salvation. This is essentially the role most associated with Schwarzenegger during his acting career, and the robot has always overshadowed the messianic John Conner figure in the imagination of the moviegoing audience. Our fascination with that character of the unstoppable robot has kept this franchise alive and active for well over 25 years. Not every movie franchise can say that, but as long as that fascination remains and they keep making Terminator movies as the Terminator himself might say, “Ah’ll be bahck.”

WHY RENT THIS: Arnold in his signature role. Stunning twist. Some nifty action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: T-X not nearly as impressive as one would hope. Too many action movie cliches.

FAMILY MATTERS: A good deal of sci-fi action and violence, some foul language and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Other than Schwarzenegger, the only actor to appear in the first three Terminator films is Boen as Dr. Peter Silberman. Boen has not appeared onscreen since, confining himself mainly to voice-over work.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD came in a two-disc edition packed with promotional features along with a Gag Reel and an odd two minute scene that seems to explain why the Terminator has an accent. There are also some features on the making of the T3 video game and the action figures that the movie spawned.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $433.4M on a $200M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Think Like a Man