Wonderstruck (2017)


Sometimes the most exciting adventures can start on the other side of a closed door.

(2017) Drama (Amazon/Roadside Attractions) Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Jaden Michael, Amy Hargreaves, Morgan Turner, Ekaterina Samsonov, Lilianne Rojek, John Boyd, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Anthony Natale, John P. McGinty, Damian Young, Sawyer Niehaus, Raul Torres, Lauren Ridloff. Directed by Todd Haynes

 

The difference between childish and childlike is the difference between being self-focused and being struck by wonder. In the former, all we can think about is our immediate desires; in the latter, the world is fresh and new and worthy of exploration. Deep down, all of us yearn to be wonder struck.

It is 1977 and Ben (Fegley) is grieving the loss of his mother (Williams) in a car accident. He doesn’t know who his father is and his mother refused to discuss the matter, wanting him to wait until he was older but she passed before she could tell him what he wants, what he needs to know. Sent to live with his aunt (Hargreaves), he sometimes sneaks back to his old house to immerse himself in the things that surrounded him. There he finds a clue to his father’s identity on a bookmark with a New York City address, a far journey from his Gunflint, Minnesota address. On his way back to his aunt’s, he is struck by lightning and left deaf.

It is 1927 and Rose (Simmonds) has been deaf all her life. Her overbearing father (Urbaniak) wants her to learn how to lip read but she’s having none of the tedious lessons from an insensitive teacher. She is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Moore) who is performing on Broadway so she leaves her Hoboken, NJ mansion and runs away to the city to see her idol.

Both of these children will encounter New York’s Museum of Natural History – the one where the displays come to life after dark if such things can be believed. Both will be captivated by similar displays and both are connected over time without knowing it.

Haynes is an extraordinary visual director who tends to favor films that are concerned with transformative experiences, so in a sense this is right in his wheelhouse but at the same time it’s a bit of a departure for him. The film is a lot more mainstream than his films normally are – although his last one, Carol, was Oscar-nominated and was at least a modest success but it certainly couldn’t be described accurately as “mainstream.”

Some distinctions need to be made here; this is a film about children but it isn’t a children’s film. While some kids who are a bit more eclectic in their cinematic taste might appreciate it, it is adults who are going to find more magic here than the younger set. Haynes has always had a really good sense of era; the 1977 sequences are in garish color and as Ben emerges from a trash-strewn Port Authority to the strains of Deodato’s funky version of Also Sprach Zarathustra which is perfect for the moment. We see New York in a moment where it is grimy, gritty and harsh, a city decaying from its grandeur but still confident in its greatness. The 1927 sequences are in black and white and are silent which is also appropriate; in these sequences New York is magical, the center of the world, the place everyone wants to be and for good reason. Haynes and editor Alfonso Gonçalves skillfully weave the two stories into a viable whole without jarring the audience, a masterful feat.

Here I must mention the music. I’ve never been a huge Carter Burwell fan but this is by far his most brilliant score to date. It is the kind of music that breaks the heart and centers the viewer in both eras. The use of period music, particularly in the more recent sequence, is near-perfection and hearing two era-appropriate versions of David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” shows not only intelligent planning on the matter of music but a good deal of intuition. I don’t often buy film scores but I just might this one.

This is based on a book by Brian Selznick (who also did the book that spawned Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) and Selznick wrote the screenplay. I haven’t read the book but judging on what I saw on screen it couldn’t have been an easy adaptation. I do have some complaints about the film however; there were a few too many plot contrivances that made this feel like one of the Disney Channel’s weaker efforts at times and distracted from the overall magic of the film. Also Fegley was somewhat over-the-top in his performance; he should have been instructed to dial things down somewhat. Simmonds was much more effective in her role. Moore, who has collaborated with Haynes on four films now, shines as the silent film star but more so in a mystery role that she appears in near the film’s conclusion – more I will not tell you.

Capturing the sense of wonder of childhood is no easy task and Haynes can be forgiven if he wasn’t always entirely successful. We do get a sense of the frustration that physical limitations can put on someone and while this isn’t the definitive story about deafness, it is at least one that I think that the non-hearing community will appreciate. I wasn’t quite wonder struck by Wonderstruck but I did appreciate it and I do recommend it and I think that you will enjoy it if you give it half a chance.

REASONS TO GO: The score is amazing. Making the 1920s sequences silent and black and white is very clever.
REASONS TO STAY: Fegley is a little bit hammy. Overall the movie is a bit Disney Channel-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are a little bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simmonds is deaf in real life; her performance so moved Will Smith at the film’s Cannes screening that he personally congratulated the young actress.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life in Wartime
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Murder in Mansfield

Beasts of the Southern Wild


The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

(2012) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Amber Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Nicholas Clark, Joseph Brown, Henry D. Coleman, Kaliana Brower, Philip Lawrence, Hannah Holby, Jimmy Lee Moore, Jovan Hathaway, Kendra Harris, Windle Bourg, Jay Oliver, Roxanna Francis, Marilyn Barbarin. Directed by Benh Zeitlin

2013 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Director – Benh Zeitlin
Best Actress – Quvenzhané Wallis
Best Adapted Screenplay – Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
WINS – 0

Oscar Gold 2016

There is something precious about a child’s imagination. It is untamed, full of beasties and monsters but also full of beauty and innocence. Our worldview as adults is well-informed by our daydreams as children. I, for one, wish I could have held on more to those dreams.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) is a resolute 6-year-old girl living in the Bathtub, a (fictional) part of the Louisiana bayou that rests on the “other” side of the levee. Whenever it rains, the Bathtub floods. The people who live there are rough and tumble, really recognizing no authority but their own. Their lives are hardscrabble and they eke by on whatever they can manage.

Hushpuppy has a daddy named Wink (Henry) who is prone to disappearing. After one such disappearance, he returns home with a hospital gown and ID bracelet. He has a rare blood disease and it is slowly killing him. He means to make his daughter as self-sufficient as he can in what time he has left.

Her somewhat prescient teacher Miss Bathsheba (Montana) tells her and her classmates about global warming and the polar ice caps melting, adding that this would release prehistoric beasts called aurochs that would rampage across North America, devouring everything in their path. She also warns that a gigantic storm is coming. When it hits, Wink and Hushpuppy try to ride it out but when all is said and done the devastation is catastrophic. Worse still, the aurochs are on the loose.

First-time feature director Zeitlin has crafted an impressive debut that takes its visual cues from Terrance Malick. He co-wrote the movie along with Lucy Alibar, loosely based on her play. This feels far from the average stage adaptation because those often feel like you’re seeing a filmed version of a stage play with little depth of field so to speak. Almost all of this is outdoors and not just any outdoors but the somewhat wide and endless bayous of south Louisiana where the Gulf and the land are almost one entity.

Wallis won her Oscar nomination deservedly and it is a performance that will startle anyone who has seen juvenile actors “act.” Most of them are fairly unbearable with occasional exceptions but Wallis blows all of them out of the water here. Her Hushpuppy is primordial and wise at the same time, seeing the world with innocent eyes yet with a certain amount of world weariness that comes from living a difficult life. It’s a deep and layered role that would hopelessly stump even veteran actors but Wallis is so natural it’s like it was written for her, which it surprisingly wasn’t.

Most of the rest of the cast are locals; that makes for predictably varying performances although for the most part they are adequate enough. The aurochs are nicely rendered, considering the tiny budget the movie had and there are some moments of real beauty. Zeitlin doesn’t always connect things together real well but it can’t be denied that he has a really uncanny eye. This is a beautiful film.

The movie does move slowly in the middle as the residents of the Bathtub prepare for the storm. And like many movies that dry to depict the imagination of a child, it sometimes isn’t clear what’s real and what isn’t. Overall though this is a gorgeous movie, somewhat bittersweet about the process of growing up and how sometimes, the fantasies of youth are preferable to the realities of adulthood.

WHY RENT THIS: Wallis is a force of nature here. An imaginative story imaginatively told.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of children in peril, brief profanity, disturbing images, some sensuality and adult themes are the order of the day.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At nine years old, Wallis became the youngest Best Actress nominee in Academy history, a record that still stands through 2016.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are audition tapes, a featurette on the Aurochs, and a short film that Zeitlin previously made.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.1M on a $1.8M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eye of the Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold continues!

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

Moonrise Kingdom


Moonrise Kingdom

Edward Norton and his band of brown-shirted scouts are out on serious business.

(2012) Comedy (Focus) Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzmann, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, L.J. Foley, Jake Ryan, Charlie Kilgore, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Neal Huff, Lucas Hedges, Gabriel Rush, Tanner Flood. Directed by Wes Anderson

 

There is something about young love in the 1960s. There’s something innocent about it, more so than today where kids have access to so much information, both good and bad. Few 12-year-olds are completely innocent of sex in 2012; in 1965 that was not the case.

Sam (Gilman) is a bit of a misfit. He’s an orphan (although it isn’t on any of his registry forms) living with foster parents. He finds great delight in camping with the Khaki Scouts on nearby Prentice Island, of the coast of New England. The island has no paved roads and is mostly uninhabited, save for a family at Summer’s End living in the old lighthouse – the Bishops, whose daughter Suzy (Hayward) is beautiful beyond her 12 years.

Sam met her at a church play when, bored, he went backstage to talk to the girls whom Sam was just discovering. The two began corresponding and soon realized that there was more than just like going on; it was love. Sam is distinctly unpopular, socially awkward and always saying or doing the wrong thing. He likes to puff on a pipe, not so much to smoke but because he likes the gravitas it gives him.

Suzy is a free spirit, whose lawyer parents Walt (Murray) and Laura (McDormand) communicate by bullhorn and display little warmth. Her fellow siblings listen to Benjamin Britton’s symphony on a tiny battery-operated record player that her brother Murry (Flood) hoards jealously.

They decide to run away together, accomplishing the feat in a manner right out of The Great Escape. They hike to an isolated cove over an Indian trail, Sam lugging all the survival gear they could possibly need while Suzy brings a collection of stolen library books (all of which are about strong heroines in magic or interplanetary kingdoms), a collection of 45s, the record player, her cat and a supply of cat food.

When Scoutmaster Ward (Norton) discovers Sam’s absence. He immediately notifies Captain Sharp (Willis) of the island police force – okay, he is the island police force. A search party is mounted and when Sharp stops by the Bishops, it is discovered that Suzy is missing too. All of this goes on while a monster storm approaches the island.

Anderson has a tendency to polarize audiences. Either you get him or you don’t; either you like him or can’t stand him. His movies have a sense of surrealism; just off-kilter enough to leave you off-balance as you watch it. Some people don’t like their realities being messed with but Anderson seems to get his jollies out of tilting people’s perceptions enough for them to gather some unexpected perspective.

Murray is perhaps his favorite actor – he uses him in almost all of his films. He is more of a sidereal character here; the sideshow, not the main attraction. In fact, most of the name actors are. The movie, instead, belongs to Hayward and Gilman. They are not precious as some juvenile actors are, nor do you get a sense that they are play-acting, as most juvenile actors do. Instead, they fill their roles and are at times called upon to do some fairly adult things – kissing, for example, and cuddling. You get the sense of the mutual attraction and Hayward has the kind of ethereal beauty that if it translates into adulthood is going to make her one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood – or the most beautiful women in whatever field she chooses.

Anderson shot the movie in 16mm and overexposed the film a bit, giving it an almost watercolor look. It has a sense of nostalgia, like a movie made in 1965 and only recently discovered but also a washed out look that is warm and inviting. Anderson is a director known for choosing color carefully and the khakis of the scout uniforms, the mustard yellow of their handkerchiefs blend in perfectly with the fields of grass that are slowly browning as autumn approaches. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, even more so in memory.

Critics have been going out of their minds with praise for this one, with several proclaiming it the finest movie of the year thus far. I am not completely convinced of it; there are times that Anderson seems to be quirky for its own sake, plus some of the sets look a little overly much like sets. A more naturalistic environment might have really benefitted as a contrast with the surreal goings-on.

Still, this is a very good movie that is going to be getting a wide opening this weekend. It has already been out in limited release since the end of May and has been doing good business indeed. This might turn out to be the sleeper hit of the summer, much like Midnight in Paris was last year. The Oscars might be remembering it in February much the same as it did the Woody Allen hit as well.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performances, surprisingly so from the juveniles. Laugh out loud funny in places, sweet in others.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too quirky for some – a definitely acquired taste.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexual content and a good deal of smoking. Also a bit of drinking as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot with 16mm cameras to give it a look like it was made in the 60s.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. The critics are falling all over themselves with praise.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

CAMPING LOVERS: The woodcraft that Sam espouses to Suzy is actually quite valid and is taught by the Boy Scouts today.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rock of Ages

The Lucky One


The Lucky One

Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling save the last dance for each other.

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner, Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart, Adam Lefevre Robert Terrell Hayes, Joe Chrest, Russ Comegys, Sharon Morris, Ann McKenzie, Kendal Tuttle, Courtney J. Clark, Jillian Batherson. Directed by Scott Hicks

 

The novels of Nicholas Sparks and the films that are based on them tend to sparkle with a certain patina of sentiment. They are filmed in rich autumnal colors, through hazy lenses smeared with Vaseline. They are the stuff of modern day fairy tales.

Logan Thibault (Efron) is a Marine serving in Iraq. While on his last tour he goes on a raid of a home and comes under heavy fire from snipers. He watches as men from his company and others are cut down by the insurgents.

The next morning he and his men are lounging around the now-secured area when he spies a photograph in the rubble. Curious, he walks over to it, bends over and picks it up to see a beautiful blonde  – when an explosion wipes out the men he’d just been standing with.

The rest of his tour he survives again and again, sometimes without rhyme or reason. One of his fellow Marines jokes that the girl in the picture is his guardian angel. Logan isn’t laughing though; he thinks she might just be.

After leaving the Marines he goes to visit his sister and her family in Colorado but it’s clear he has issues. He’s jumpy, morose and when startled reacts violently. He knows he can’t stay with his sister and her bratty sons; he decides to go find the woman in the photograph. By pure happenstance he stumbles on a picture of the lighthouse in the back of the photo with the woman and decides to hoof it from Colorado to Louisiana.

Six years later, he arrives in Louisiana with scarcely a bunion, his impossibly well-behaved German Shepard Zeus by his side. He shows the picture around town and is led to the local pet groomer’s where he finds the object of his search, Beth Clayton (Schilling). She is divorced from Keith (Ferguson), the town sheriff and son of the powerful Judge Clayton (LeFevre) and at the moment an uneasy peace exists between them, threatened by Keith’s alcohol abuse. Beth lives with her son Ben (Stewart) and her grandma Ellie (Danner) and their business is sorely in need of some help. Beth mistakes Logan for a respondent to her want ad but something about him – the fact that he confessed to having walked from Colorado to Louisiana made her a bit reluctant to hire him. However Ellie – who possesses a Sense About These Things – hires him on the spot, hoping he’ll re-ignite Beth’s spark.

Boy does he ever. It takes a few games of chess with Ben (who takes to the newcomer like a tick to a Golden Retriever), a fully clothed outdoor shower for the two of them together and a couple of beers and before you can say Logan’s Your Uncle, Ben the two of them are canoodling.

But the suspicious Sheriff doesn’t like having his ex hanging around another man and when he finds out that he has the Picture, he blabs it to Beth whom Logan neglected to mention that little tidbit of information to. Who had that picture and why will lead Beth to break things off with Logan, even though everyone and their cousin Moe knows that he’s The One for her. What will it take to get the two of them together? How about a freakish rainstorm?

Yup, this is Nicholas Sparks through and through, laden with coincidences and conveniences. In an interview, he talked about the book having a theme of destiny and fate, items he claims he doesn’t believe in himself. Me, I don’t buy it – most of Sparks’ books have an element of events conspiring to bring true love together by the final chapter, or tearing them apart.

Efron plays the taciturn Logan and we all know that he saw a lot of Bad Things over there because he’s supposed to be haunted. We can tell he’s haunted because his expression never changes. Ever. And his periwinkle blue eyes seem to look right through things. Efron may not be the most expressive actor on the planet but I know he can act. I’ve seen him do it in other movies. I think he either decided to play Logan as a soul-dead person, or he was told to by the director. Either way it was a poor choice. Even so, he has enough natural charisma that I actually liked his character. Go figure.

Schilling doesn’t generate a lot of heat with Efron and really doesn’t do much to make me think Beth is worth walking down the block for, let alone thousands of miles. Danner alone gives her role anything that can be qualified as memorable.

Yet despite all this I liked the movie much more than I thought I would and certainly much more than other critics did. I liked the story line and I liked Efron and I liked the dogs (there are LOTS of them) and I liked the Louisiana setting. I walked out with a good feeling and even though the movie is terribly flawed, I would still count it as a success just for that reason.

REASONS TO GO: Much better than I expected it to be. I liked Efron in this, although I would have liked a bit more expressiveness from him. Nicely photographed.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too over-reliant on coincidence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some war and domestic violence as well as a bit of sexuality and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers changed the location of the film to Louisiana from North Carolina where the book was set.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.The reviews are solidly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message in a Bottle

ARMED FORCES LOVERS: The studio screened the film in advance on military installations throughout the world as a way of saying thank you to the men and women in uniform.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Five-Year Engagement

The Tempest (2010)


The Tempest

Helen Mirren is one hot Prospera.

(2010) Fantasy (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Reeve Carney, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, David Strathairn, Djimon Honsou, Chris Cooper, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Jude Akuwudike, David Scott Klein, Bryan Webster, Kevin Cannon. Directed by Julie Taymor

 

William Shakespeare was a man who understood human nature perhaps better than any writer in history; certainly he understood his own and it isn’t far-fetched to theorize that when he wrote his play, The Tempest, he was fully aware that it would be his last and accordingly, gave himself leave to discourse on our own mortality which he did in a way that was beautiful and neither grim nor morbid. Visually acute director Julie Taymor has stated that it is the most visually beautiful of Shakespeare’s plays and she would certainly know – she has already directed a filmed version of Titus Andronicus (as Titus with Anthony Hopkins in the title role).

Prospera (Mirren), once the Grand Duchess of Milan, has been exiled to a barren Mediterranean island along with Miranda (Jones), her daughter. The machinations of her wicked brother Antonio (Cooper) are what landed her there; he longed for her political power and wealth. However while on the island Prospera has amassed power of a different sort – magical and so when King Alonso of Naples (Strathairn) – complicit in Antonio’s usurping of her position and subsequent placing in a raft to die – returns from the wedding of his daughter with Antonio along, she uses the opportunity to summon a great storm that wrecks their ship. The passengers of the vessel are washed onto the rocky shores of the island, separated by the magicks of Prospera and her fairy servant Ariel (Whishaw), whom she previously had rescued from a tree where he’d been imprisoned by the evil witch Sycorax who died long before Prospera’s arrival.

King Alonso, along with Antonio and Antonio’s co-conspirator Sebastian (Cumming) and Prospera’s former advisor (and Alonso’s current one) Gonzalo (Conti) find themselves beset by evil visions brought upon them by Ariel at Prospera’s command; drunkards Trinculo (Brand) and Stephano (Molina) have discovered the island’s sole other inhabitant, the horribly deformed Caliban (Honsou) who had been enslaved by Prospera after he attempted to rape Miranda years earlier; the three plot Prospera’s downfall and assassination while partaking of much liquid courage.

Finally there is Ferdinand (Carney), Alonso’s son who has fallen for Miranda and vice versa, a union Prospera is not opposed to. The three groups will make their way to Prospera’s home and laboratory where Prospera will be faced with an awful choice upon which the fate of most of the castaways hangs upon.

Taymor is one of the most visually innovative directors working today; her images in Across the Universe are nothing short of spectacular. She works her magic here as well, showing Prospera dissolving into a flock of crows, or Ariel morphing into a variety of forms, or Prospera’s Escher-esque home. The visuals are often beautiful and dazzling, sometimes changing the night sky into alchemic equations that spin around the actors like locusts.

The cast is impressive but none more so than Mirren. An Oscar winner and along with Meryl Streep perhaps the most respected film actress of the 21st century to date, Mirren infuses Prospera with wistfulness, rage, motherly concern ad political savvy. The casting of a woman in the role completely changes the dynamic of the relationship between Prospera/Prospero and Miranda from father/daughter to mother/daughter and as we all know, those relationships are a different kettle of fish entirely. Whishaw plays the ethereal Ariel as androgynous and otherworldly; it is a scene-stealing performance that often ends up as the visual center for Taymor’s imagination.

Strathairn and Cooper are magnificent actors, both Oscar-nominated and in Cooper’s case, an Oscar winner. Strathairn has done Shakespeare before onscreen (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) and both capture the essence of their characters nicely. Brand shows little affinity for Shakespeare, reciting his lines as if he is performing a stand-up routine. Honsou as well carries Caliban’s rage and torment to fruition, although he occasionally goes over the top.

“Over the top” often describes the visuals that Taymor inserts into the film. Some are wonder-inspiring but after awhile I found myself somewhat inured to them; some of the most beautiful dialogue in history is here in this play – “We are such stuff that dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded by sleep” being one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever spoken in any play, ever – and yet these exemplars of language take a back-seat to special effects. Taymor may as well have set the movie on Tatooine and been done with it.

However, the prose of Shakespeare is ultimately what makes this movie worthwhile. That and some of the fine performances using those words. Usually I’m all good with special effects eye candy but here it detracts more than it creates wonder and that is where the film has its greatest failing; Taymor fails to trust Shakespeare to carry the movie on its own merits. If you can’t trust the greatest playwright in history, who can you trust?

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful eye candy. Mirren, Cooper, Whishaw and Strathairn are tremendous actors and show why here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many visuals and not enough substance; after awhile the effects distract from Shakespeare’s beautiful prose.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of nudity, some scary content and images and a little bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Prospero was originally written by Shakespeare to be a man. Taymor encountered Mirren at a party and the conversation turned to Shakespeare; Mirren mentioned that she had previously played Caliban in a stage version of the play and thought she might like to do Prospero as a woman. Taymor, who was thinking along the same lines, told Mirren so and the two essentially cemented Mirren’s participation right then and there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some rehearsal footage (one focusing on Russell Brand alone) as well as a music video of “O Mistress Mine” which runs over the closing credits.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $346,594 on a $20M production budget; the movie was a financial flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:Mongol