Justice League (2017) – Movie Review

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I went into Justice League, DC’S most recent grab at Marvel’s success, with trepidation. Other than Wonder Woman, each DCEU film has left me somewhere between “meh” and “ugh”. Even when Joss Whedon (Avengers) came in to help a grieving Snyder finish the movie, their exponentially different styles worried me, and that worry was mostly justified. Yes, Whedon’s wit does bring a welcome shine to the gloomy proceedings and, unlike Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, keeps this movie from being an all-out slog. Still, it’s an awkward epic that can’t overcome the franchise’s dark doldrums. Just like every other superhero movie ever made, a charisma-less and bland villain with limitless power appears, bent on destroying Earth because of “reasons”. Superman still dead, the world must depend on lesser heroes to save them. Affleck is still a pretty good Batman, Flash is light-hearted fun, Aquaman is kinda cool, Cyborg is dull and dour, and Wonder Woman is still the standout. There are still certainly some interesting moments between the characters, but they’re mostly overshadowed by superhero-ethic clichés, stupid drama, bad CGI, and nonsensical logic (why are these guys such quick allies?) There really is just so much that doesn’t work: specific jokes, bad visuals, interpersonal relationships, muddy action, plot predictability. The main problem, though, is that DC and Warner Bros. think, through their previous films, they’ve given us enough reasons to care about this universe, and they haven’t. The positives here, mainly just seeing these heroes together on-screen, have left me mildly curious about the future of the franchise, but only barely. Otherwise, Justice League is easily the worst superhero movie of the year.

 

2 out of 5 stars

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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) – Movie Review

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In 2000, Bryan Singer shook Hollywood with X-Men: a blockbuster that dared to take comic book superheroes seriously and intelligently. Now, in 2016, he bequeaths us X- Men: Apocalypse – the most dire sabotage to the genre’s longevity and credibility we’ve seen since…well, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and, amazingly, just as excruciating). My theory? Singer has consciously treated his fourth X-Men as a piece of holistic, self-reflexive, self-loathing performance art. You wanted an Apocalypse? You got one, all right.

You’d expect the film’s critical lambasting proceeding the airtight Days of Future Past to be hyperbole. But no – X-Men: Apocalypse really is THAT intolerable. Many have pointed to the film’s Return of the Jedi “the third one is always the worst” quip turned horribly ironic prophecy for the First Class trilogy. But what if this wasn’t just a smarmy, overconfident boast backfiring hilariously? What if the film is literally cheerfully prophesying its own awfulness?

Screenwriter Simon Kinberg (whose ongoing employment after penning both X-Men 3 AND 2015’s Fantastic Four speaks to a deep, virulent masochism on Fox’s part) meticulously collects Every. Single. One. of the superhero genre’s most loathed tropes, and rubs them in audience faces to such a nauseating extreme I felt a rash breaking out over my corneas. Oodles of stilted, snoozy exposition, and uber-serious self-important melodramatic posturing? Check. Risible, shoehorned-in love scenes? Yup (“I’m on a beach” is in danger of becoming the new “Martha” or “Brutasha” of boneheaded superhero movie maneuvers). A plot that careens from subplot to subplot like a drunken mosquito, each only in service in the interests of (sigh) universe building, yet still unreasonably stagnant and draggy? Oh yes. A climactic blow-out so bloated with incompetent, aimless CGI it nearly outdoes Hulk’s murky mess of a lake battle that then devolves into a literal, beat-by-beat remake of Fant4stic’s mortifying, rushed final boss battle? Oh COME ON. This is beyond surgical, histrionically poor filmmaking. This is Fox watching the world burn.

You can practically taste Singer’s desperation to ape as many iconic X-tropes as possible for fear that he won’t get another chance, including clumsily reintroducing his original roster, but it only makes the film more contemptuous. At one point the plot gets – literally – hijacked just to devote the film’s middle third to an extraneous William Stryker/Weapon X Hugh Jackman cameo. And yes, in spite of the material’s almost unquenchable coolness, it’s a dud too. Singer can’t even be bothered to keep up the campy, pop-art political subtext of the last two X-outings, despite the almost irresistibly spoofable Reagan administration. But, lest you find his film insufficiently profound, he has a peeved Magneto…um…destroy Auschwitz. Um. Wow. I’ll just let the seismic tastelessness of that sink in, and scuttle on.

Surely, you plead, there’s solace to be found in our beloved cast of lovable mutants? Not so. Most of the movie alternates between the cast of actor-props practicing their constipation stares as they feign telekinetically moving/dissolving things. By the final third, the main attraction is Jennifer “Speechsnoring” Lawrence, Rose Bryne, and Sophie Turner attempting to aggressively under-act one another (Turner wins; we have an actual contender for ‘worst blockbuster performance ever documented’. Just remembering her gives me a headache). Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops matches them in petulant overacting, and is just as hatable for it.

It almost defies belief seeing the X-Men’s single most formidable foe squandered to such an outstanding degree. Poor, poor Oscar Isaac. It’s offensive enough leaving Apocalypse bereft of any context or explanation for his powers, resurrection technology, or world-destroying motivation, but he’s so swaddled in mountains of torpid Power Rangers prosthetics, and given nothing to do but whisper and stand with his arms outstretched, we nearly forget about him while he’s still on screen in front of us. As he innocuously and politely assembles Alexandra Shipp, Ben Hardy, and Olivia Munn’s human action figures to stagnate around a desert with him (for HOURS.), CGI farts swirl around his visibly slight frame signifying his (unseen) menace. Shameful is far too feeble a word for this travesty.

The rest of the cast phone it in with furious nonchalance. Michael Fassbender in particular, doesn’t bother hiding his contempt at how often he stands around vacuously, stuck with a pathos subplot so strained he – literally – bellows at God. James McAvoy is on inappropriately but hysterically fine comedic form for the first third of the film before being reigned in as a googly-eyed morality platitude slot machine. We get glimmers of charisma from Evan Peters’ delightfully snarky Quicksilver (and yes, he gets another slow-mo scene. Satisfied?) and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s bashfully goofy Nightcrawler (even if 13 years of FX improvements make him and his ‘bamfing’ look even less credible than Alan Cumming in 2003). Naturally, Kinberg is clueless on how to use either to anywhere close to their full potential, sidelining both and saddling Quicksilver with a motivation so cumbersome you can feel Peters rolling his eyes as the words tumble sheepishly out of his mouth. Recognizable side characters like Tómas Lemarquis’ sassy Caliban intrigue, but are virtual nonentities.

Still doubt Singer’s willful self-destruction? Dig this: the earlier X-Men movies fiercely advocated for education and tolerance, employing violence only to stave off hate- crimes. Apocalypse ends with Lawrence’s MystiKatniss droning on the virtues of militarism Above All Else. Here is the death of Xavier’s dream – so dismal that the only worthwhile embers are lazy callbacks to moments done better in other Bryan Singer X-Men films (McAvoy and Fassbender virtually shed tears of embarrassment reenacting dialogue exchanges from X-Men 1). If this is the rejigged time-stream after Days of Future Past, they may as well ship Wolverine even further back in time to put the whole sodden franchise out of its misery.

 

3 out of 5 stars

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Black Panther (2018) – Movie Review

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There are some films where you can practically hear the history books writing themselves – though if all history books were as outrageously fun as Black Panther, university campuses would be bursting at the seams. Accompanying 2017’s Wonder Woman as a triumphant one-two punch of unprecedented blockbuster representation finding record-breaking box office and critical success, Black Panther’s real shock is that… yes, it is exactly as good as you’d hope. A robust, whip-smart, emotional, and superbly entertaining thriller as unafraid to dive headlong into contentiously topical politics as unabashedly indulge in superhero silliness. Some things are worth the wait.

And yet, after a dizzyingly gorgeous animated prologue, establishing the MacGuffin mythology of fictional African technology haven Wakanda, we wait even longer, as director Ryan Coogler deviates into a seemingly tangential Prologue 2.0 set in the slums of Oakland, California. It’s a disorienting start (but don’t worry; it’s only moments more before T’Challa spin-kicks someone), but its coy foreshadowing heralds an important lesson: Coogler is an immaculately precise director unaccustomed to wasting a frame of film. No one could accuse Black Panther of being unambitious, with a plot encompassing human trafficking, international arms deals, salient commentaries on tradition vs. modernity, redefining power amidst a global economy, and roughly as many political maneuvers as an entire season of House of Cards (including brazen, poignantly tongue-in-cheek barbs about immigration and colonial history) – as well as, y’know, fight scenes, cool gadgets, and all that other superhero stuff. The seamlessness with which Coogler weaves together each seemingly disparate plot thread and theme is almost mind-boggling – and yet, his film is as much a cohesive entity as it is more than the sum of its parts.

Appropriately, for a superhero film whose production was inevitably delayed for decades due to its affiliation with a revolutionary political party, social politics comprise the core and foundation of Black Panther. Here, Coogler pulls no punches, but is never pedantic. We start out in fun but familiar territory, with a first act globetrotting takedown of Wakanda’s arch-nemesis Ulysses Klaue (a gleefully scenery-masticating Andy Serkis, arguably Marvel’s most downright fun adversary to date), reminiscent of a contemporary 007 romp (complete with T’Challa’s own ‘Q,’ in Letitia Wright’s hysterical, impossibly delightful Shuri). But, right when we begin to settle in and munch our popcorn, Coogler yanks the rug out from us, with a second act tonal shift that flips the film on its head, to the point where more than a few audience members will be left questioning the ethics and legitimacy of the hero we’ve spent the entire first half admiring as infallible. Enter Michael B. Jordan, who not only energizes the film with a furious surge of passion as he shifts from his early performative swagger to magnetic, fiery dogmatism, but shifts the conflict to a ‘Malcolm X vs. MLK’ critique of Wakanda’s isolationist inertia in the face of contemporary racism and post-colonialism. It’s a shockingly bold move for the normally sociopolitically safe Marvel, but it pays off, making the brewing climax not only breathtakingly tense, but an impressively nuanced conversation on ethics, empathy, and the real impact of a contemporary revolution. You won’t find that in Ant-Man.

Nonetheless, Coogler has his priorities straight, and Black Panther balances its political core with a raucously fun comic book ride. Aesthetically, it’s a triumph – the FX, art, and costume design are flooring in their imaginative intricacy, incorporating Tony Stark calibre technology into traditional African designs and costuming (force field cloaks?! cool!), lending itself to a pragmatic sci-fi futurism unlike quite anything we’ve ever seen in the movies before, while the pastel hues of the ‘spirit world’ are jaw-dropping in their beauty. The fight scenes are thrillingly fun, balletic as they are brutal (and while T’Challa’s new suit, and its explosive release of kinetic energy, adds a fun new level to the customary punching, kicking, and clawing, it’s in the hands, spear, and wig of Danai Gurira’s scene-stealing, steely general Okoye, that the film is at its most fun and thrilling), and Ludwig Gorasson’s musical score, layering traditional African chanting and instrumentation into brassy superhero swells, is addictively sumptuous. There are occasional fumbles – Coogler’s pace occasionally lags and sputters, with a more meditative second act verging on the lugubrious (and a couple of “Remember who you aaaaaaaaare” heart-to-hearts with John Kani’s deceased patriarch that can’t help but have their gravitas undercut by snickering comparisons to The Lion King). Still, Coogler sinks it home with furious aplomb, steering (just) clear of conventional Marvel third act ennui with a ‘kitchen sink’ climax so furiously tense and bonkers (two words: WEAPONIZED. RHINOS.) that all cinema armrests will be marked with the claw marks of being gripped by a captivated audience.

As the titular monarch, Chadwick Boseman delivers a remarkably grounded performance. Steering the film with a regal calm undercut with muscular emotion and crucially accessible doubt, the film revolves around his steady, magnetic presence, as the showier, scene-stealing bits are commanded by the trio of powerful women supporting him (the perfection of Wright, Gurira, and the luminous, passionately charismatic Lupita Nyong’o). Martin Freeman’s befuddled fed provides ‘fish out of water’ access to Wakanda with customary dry wit; he’s fun without overstaying. Finally, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, and Angela Bassett all elevate one-dimensional secondary characters with gravitas and class, while Winston Duke’s M’Baku is so ferociously terrifying mitigated by some of the most precise comedic timing seen in years, he damn near strolls off with the film himself.

A staggering accomplishment as fun as it is masterfully thoughtful, Black Panther may not quite settle into The Dark Knight territory of genre-transcending masterpiece, but it pounces proudly at its footsteps, this decade’s ‘thinking audience’s blockbuster with a conscience’ to beat. Soak in the well-deserved fun, and let the BET’s 2010 cartoon theme triumphantly play me out: “Black Pan-ther! Black Pan-ther!”

 

4 out of 5 stars

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Comic Book Review – Thor: God of Thunder Volume 4: The Last Days of Midgard (2015)

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This volume collects issues #19-25.

The series takes an interesting turn as Thor faces off against Roxxon Corporate President Darren Aggers. Aggers is clearly polluting the environment and Thor is none too happy about it. Unfortunately, for the God of thunder he cannot swing his hammer at this foe as he is protected by an entourage of lawyers and the politics and bureaucracy of human kind. Thor does have help with rookie agent of S.H.E.I.L.D., Roz Solomon, who tries to help Thor battle Aggers through legal means, though the Odinson is not big on patience in that regard.

In the future, Old King Thor desperately is trying to reignite life on Earth, which is now a barren wasteland. His granddaughters plead with him to give it up, but two of the most enduring traits of the God is his love of Midgard and his stubbornness. To complicate matters, Galactus shows up, very worn down and hungry, and the Earth will be his meal. But, not if the King of Asgard has something to say about it, “Have at thee”.

This collection is bittersweet for a few reasons. First, it signals the end of Aaron’s “God of Thunder” era for this series. Marvel and Aaron made headlines and announcements from different media sources that there would be a Goddess of Thunder, which meant the cancellation of this series as well as the launch of a new one. It does look like it is off to a good start, the Odinson is still around, and is continuing on plot threads from this series. The other bittersweet issue is that Easd Ribic will no longer be the primary artist with Aaron for Thor beyond this volume. He is teaming up with Jonathan Hickman for next year’s Secret Wars event (an excellent combo) but breakout artist Russel Dauterman joins team Thor and is doing a fine job with all things Asgardian. Well, enough of the future of this series and on to the content here…

I love this series and I was never really a Thor fan before picking up volume one. Aaron and Ribic grabbed me with the whole God Butcher arc, through volumes one and two, and forced me into being a mighty fan of thee! Even volume three with Ron Garney on pencils, and Malekith as the antagonist, was quite the awesome journey. I would give the first three volumes a no doubt grade of A++. But this entry here, I would give an A- or even a B+. It is great but does not reach the same plain as it’s predecessors.

Thor’s battle with Aggers and Roxxon has it’s ups and downs but ultimately reaches an anticlimactic conclusion. As Aggers is a new character, it would have been nice to have some more background information on him and how is able to do what he does. Plus, Thor has been around awhile, quite awhile, it seems he would be a bit brighter for a battle with the CEO of a Midgard corporation and not be so stereotypically fooled. The outcome for Asgardia and Broxton felt like it had been covered before in the event Seige and even during Fraction’s run, but felt really forced as Aaron, whether from orders from higher up or not, sets up a new status quo for both realms.

The bright spot of this tale is the moments of action, which Aaron sets up nicely and Ribic and colorist Ive Svorcina make look legendary. Roz Solomon gets further developed which is a plus. She is a rocking new S.H.E.I.L.D agent. And although Aggers is a mystery and a too much of a cliche, he still made a nice villain for this story.

The main highlight for this collection for me is the story of old King Thor, that intersects with the modern tale, trying to revive a dead Earth only to have Galactus show up and be very hungry. Thor’s granddaughters are really cool and are a bunch of B.A.’s! And seeing old King Thor in action is sweet, especially against the devourer of worlds. Again, kudos to Ribic and Svorcina as they illustrate probably the best take on the big fella I have ever seen. The only issue I had here was that Glactus came off as spiteful and mocked Thor quite a bit. The best portrayals of Galactus are where he is cold and indifferent. He has no malice or feelings of revenge when devouring a world, he just does it because it is the will of the comos that relinquishes his hunger in this regard. But this is an undefined future and he looks extremely worn down. He did not even have a herald, so the personality change might have been to the centuries not being too kind to the big fella.

The final issue of the series is a combination of stories. One where a young Thor fights frost giants, another featuring the origin of Malekith, all while the granddaughters of Thor read on about these tales. Entertaining tales as they mostly are setup for the next era of Thor.

More love to Esad Ribic and the art teams here as they turn in incredible work. Ribic gets some help out at the end of this series from illustrators Agustin Alessio, Simon Bisley, and R. M. Guera.

So, for now, this is it for the God of Thunder and an amazing run, but the story does continue and as long as Jason Aaron is writing them and Marvel puts quality artists on them, I will stick with it.

 

5 out of 5 stars

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Comic Book Review – Thor: God of Thunder Volume 3: The Accursed (2014)

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Yes, I said it, and no, it is not hyperbole folks. Thor has always been my favorite comic book character. Thematically, the Thor mythos is a perfect blend of norse mythology, epic fantasy, and superhero tale that seems almost catered to my tastes. That been said, I’m very well acquainted with the best writers in the history of the character. Lee,Straczynski, Langridge, and most importantly, Simonson. For the past year or so, I’ve now added a new name to the very top of the list right alongside good ol’ Walt, and that name is Jason Aaron. After his incredibly awesome debut run featuring a spine-chilling and fantastic new villain, Gorr the God Butcher, he has returned to tackle a classic villain, and I was a little nervous. With his own original creations, sure, Aaron was great, but could he handle the classic Thor mythos with the same skill and impact? Oh yeah, you better believe he can. This volume has cemented my admiration and respect for Aaron.

This is the third volume of the “Thor: God of Thunder” series, under the Marvel NOW! initiative. It does feel less beefy than Aaron’s first Thor volumes, The God Butcher and Godbomb, as it features two one-off issues to bridge the gaps between the preceding Gorr story and the Roxxon story that is currently on the stands. This in no way diminishes the quality of the volume, however, as every issue, whether part of a multiple-issues story, or just a one off side-story, are all fantastic.

The first issue, #12, features Thor returning to Earth and spending time there, interacting with the various human friends he has made over the years and performing the sorts of acts you’d expect a noble, honorable god like Thor would perform. It’s not an action-packed issue, at all. It is a character study of a god, and it’s a great change of pace. It’s hard to explain, but this issue really humanizes Thor in a way only the very best stories can. It actually reminds me a lot of Superman for All Seasons, and I mean that in the best way. This sort of issue could easily become preachy and/or cheesy to the point of being unbearable, and it definitely strides that line very closely at times, but the fact that it is, for the most part, so poignant and affecting is a testament to Aaron’s fantastic writing.

Issues # 13-17 features the return of Malekith the Accursed. This is the meat n’ potatoes of the volume and once again, Aaron hit it out of the park. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but needless to say, this is a great adventure story. It is filled with very compelling characters, as Thor is joined in his quest this time in the form of the “League of Realms”. This group, appointed by the “Congress of Worlds,” is comprised of appointed warriors to represent each main race in the nine realms. It’s an odd set-up, and could come across as a cheesy Thor-centric Avengers rip-off, but it really is an interesting idea. The amount of humor and intensity pulled out of such a motley crew working together to tackle a truly terrorizing villain is superb. Each character, whether it’s the fancy dual-pitol wielding light elf Ivory Honeyshort, or the more taciturn dwarf Screwbeard, son of No-ears, son of Headwound (he likes to make things “go ‘splode” lol), all have great, unique personalities that bounce off each other and Thor quite nicely. Lots of belly-laugh inducing humor in this one, as well as great tension. Aaron’s characterization of Malekith is easily as fantastic a villain as Gorr was, but very distinctly unique. Malekith’s psychotic sadism and sociopathic, seemingly-senseless plans are made even more unnerving by his lighthearted and eloquently refined manner. Of course, his handling of Thor is stupendous, second to none in my humble opinion. Again, I can’t say it enough, Aaron did an amazing job. The story here is tense, full of gravitas as well as a more down-to-earth grittiness than his past work. Bravo!

Issue #18 ends the volume with a fantastic one-off story revolving around young viking Thor, back in the past and partying with a drunken dragon, and then kicking its ass. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? I’m partially kidding. It’s a great, fun romp, but it’s also pretty moving as well, heartbreaking even. I’ll just leave it at that. I find the idea of young Thor to be brilliant, as he is a way to show major character development without erasing decades of comic history. I love that.

The art in this volume is definitely the aspect with the least amount of coherency. This volume features three different artists working the pen. Issue #12 is done by Nic Klein, and it’s definitely the weakest of the bunch. That isn’t to say Klein is BAD per se, but it is definitely shaky in parts. Some places, where Thor seems to have a deformed baby face with a five o’clock shadow, distract from the otherwise stupendous story-telling.

The art in issues #13-17 is done by Ron Garney. For the most part, he did a fantastic job. Upon opening the book, I was really sad to see Esad Ribic’s gorgeous painterly art style from the previous Thor volumes was missing, especially when I saw his gorgeous covers in this collection. However, Garney actually comes fairly close to capturing Ribic’s fantasy style and quality, at least relatively speaking. The art in these issues has a fairy-tale like beauty combined with a detailed and powerful sense of fantasy, with some nice comic book superhero boldness from time to time. It’s vibrantly colorful too, which can be a strange contrast to the darkness of the story, but I like it. While it’s not all perfect (the last half of issue 17 in particular is incredibly sloppy to the point of looking unfinished compared to the rest) but overall, Garney did great with the art in this book. I am impressed.

Issue #18’s art was done by Das Pastoras. I was a bit worried about his inclusion in this book, as I always found his past work to be incredibly off-putting. Here though, he did a great job. The best way I can describe it is to have you imagine Maurice Sendak’s art style with a graphic novel detail, and then ratchet the intensity to a level befitting a story where viking Thor fights a freaking DRAGON. Awesome.

I also appreciate the decreased pricing for this volume. While the five issue Malekith story is definitely less substantial than the eleven issues that Gorr received, this volume actually contains more issues than either of those volumes did. Volume 1 had five issues, Volume 2 had six, and this collection has seven issues in total. It’s nice to see us fans getting more content for our money. Hopefully Volume 4 will have eight issues.

All-in-all, this is another homerun from Jason Aaron. The various artists that joined him on this run – Klein, Pastoras, and most especially Garney- all did a great job rising to the task of proving art for Aaron’s brillaint writing. I’m just so floored by the aptitude of the writing here. The story moves along at an excellent pace, is brimming with a brilliant sense of cinematography, and is full of compelling, well-developed characters. Perhaps the most exciting thing to me about this collection of issues is that Aaron plugged in some truly Simonson-level foreshadowing that indicates that his vision for Thor’s future will only get more epic and grand in scale from here on out. I can’t wait! Esad Ribic has also returned to the series as full-time artist, so the future of Thor is looking brighter than ever. If you ever read this Jason, know that I truly feel your name deserves songs to be sung in its honor in Valhalla. So whether you’re a major Thor fan, a big comic book fan in general, or even a newcomer to the character and want a good jumping off point, this (as well as God Butcher and Godbomb) is as good as any volume you’ll find written in the last several decades. As a massive fan of the Thor character, this gets my highest recommendation.

3 out of 5 stars

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X-Men 3: The Last Stand (2006) – Movie Review

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A departed fanboy director. A widely reported rush production. And Brett Ratner as replacement director. Things weren’t looking good for the third installment of our X-Heroes. Cynics crossed their arms in haughty resignation, while comic geeks vented their outrage in a fittingly Phoenix-inspired display. And yet despite the odds here it is, tipped as the last stand, and the fears of those expecting the worst were perhaps unjustified.

Promising more emotional grounding in his instalment, director Ratner managed to pacify the blood-braying fanboys (and girls) still reeling from the sudden departure of fan favourite Singer. A snazzy trailer helped, showcasing some saliva-inducing imagery, and confirming that Ratner was faithfully sticking to Singer’s staunch visual style. The question remained, however; could he follow through and create an X adventure worthy of its highly acclaimed predecessors? The surprising answer is yes. And no. Well, sort of. X-Men: The Last Stand is a leaner, more streamlined entry excelling in slick sets, breathtaking action, and top-notch special effects. This is a summer blockbuster to the core, and damn proud of it.

Ratner’s presence behind the camera is unmistakable, and it is undeniably his crowd-pleasing instincts that steer X3 through the pitfalls of studio money-spinning agendas that surrounded the production. Unleashed on his audience is an infectious enthusiasm for visual spectacle that generates satisfyingly outrageous cinematic results. Not only are we are afforded a spectacular face-off at the Grey residence, but also the stunning sight of the Golden Gate Bridge being magnificently relocated, and a striking finale in which the world is literally turned upside down in an emotional confrontation.

This, however, is a film creaking with franchise baggage. The events of not one, but two previous X films bear down on Ratner’s film like the fists of Colossus, giving it a somewhat schizophrenic ambiance. The thrill-seeking director clearly struggles to compose X3 as both a sequel and a stand-alone adventure. As a consequence, few actors are given much to work with save the key players, who do what they can with a script that appears in a bit of a hurry. Famke Janssen stands heads above the rest: nothing short of brilliant as the returned Jean Grey (or Dark Phoenix), she portrays just the right amount of inner turmoil, vulnerability and downright creepy-ness to really hit the right notes. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are again the glue that holds everything together, both skilfully communicating the subtle nuances of their characters’ complex relationship. Others, like Kelsey Grammar’s Beast, and even James Marsden’s Cyclops come across as something of an after thought. There’s simply too much cast spread much too thinly.

The sacrifices extend throughout the rest of the film, too. Those little moments that imbued the other X films with heart and gravity are glaringly absent here; characters rush through expositional speeches, barely pausing for breath before the next explosive encounter. So while the pow-pow-pow approach ensures X3 a vigorous pace that effectively gathers momentum, its resultant whirlwind can tend to sweep over the rest of the film to its own detriment.

And when the final credits roll, just how has Ratner done with his last minute leap into the world of X? It’s difficult to judge how much tighter his X3 could have been if more time and creative control had been offered to him. The studio leash tightens noticeably as the running time accumulates: the three plot lines each struggle for exposure but none reach an entirely satisfactory conclusion. In the end, Ratner must be commended for crafting a film in a decidedly dubious climate, a film that is not only watchable, but entertaining too. X3 has its shortcomings, but there’s more than enough bang for your buck. And of course things are nicely left open for another installment. Now, where to find a fanboy director to fill those Singer-sized shoes?

 

7 out of 10 stars

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X2: X-Men United (2003) – Movie Review

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With nine films thus far and at least two more on the horizon, all released over a near-twenty year window, 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men” film franchise is something of a wonder in today’s world of near- constant reboots and remakes. While it has by no means been a smooth ride, the fact remains that the long-running series has been a widely beloved and infinitely important one, especially when placed into historical perspective. Director Bryan Singer’s original entry was one of the first major comic-to-film adaptations that convinced studios and audiences alike that comic-book movies could not only be mature and enthralling, but could be certified hits once again after the genre seemed to die-out in the 90’s. And thus, a franchise was born and has stuck around ever since, through thick and thin.

It’s almost a surprise, however, that one of the best entries in the entire saga came so early- 2003’s follow-up “X2.” With Singer once again at the helm, the film is in every conceivable way an improvement over his excellent first film- it’s more thoughtful, more daring, more exciting… I think one could even reasonably say that not only is it arguably the greatest film in the franchise- it just might be one of the best comic-to-film adaptations of all time. Yes, it’s that good.

Some time after the original film, a brainwashed mutant called Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) is sent on a mission to try and assassinate the President of the United States under the guise of being a martyr for Mutant Freedom. Despite the mutant being stopped, the troubling event gives Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) the political edge and backing needed to get approval for an “investigation” on Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters- but his investigation is actually an invasion, as he storms the school, taking many students hostage and forcing the remaining X-Men to flee. At the same time, Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) are sent on a mission to collect Nightcrawler and learn his motivation for the attack, Cyclops (James Marsden) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are captured by Stryker’s mysterious bodyguard (Kelly Hu) and the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) helps her former leader Magneto (Ian McKellan) escape from his high-tech prison. Soon, the remaining mutants (including Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Anna Paquin as Rogue and Shawn Ashmore as Iceman) are forced to team up with their former adversary to try and stop Stryker’s scheme to use Charles and his powers to wipe out all of the mutants on Earth.

Given the film’s nature as an ensemble piece, it’s near-impossible to discuss the performances of each actor individually. But to keep it brief, everyone returning from the original is great in their respective roles. Special commendation goes to Hugh Jackman and his continued excellence in the role that helped to define him as a superstar and to Famke Jannsen, who gets a lot more attention this time around. They are by far the stand-outs of the returning cast. I also highly enjoyed Stewart and McKellen, who bring a sense of class and elegance to their roles and are incredible as always. The newest additions are also outstanding. Brian Cox is one of the greatest actors of our time, and his turn as Stryker is quite remarkable. He gives the character both an easily- “despiseable” sense of threat and dread, yet also a nice and subtle sense of pain and pathos. He’s a cruel man, yet he has a past that might explain why he is the way he is. Alan Cumming is just magical as the frightened yet also amusing Nightcrawler, and there’s a lot of great moments in his performance. And Kelly Hu makes for a fun and furious adversary as Styker’s second-in-command “Lady Deathstrike.”

Singer returns to direct from a script by “X-Men” scribe David Hayter and the writing duo of Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. Singer got his start with hard-hitting thrillers like “The Usual Suspects” and “Apt Pupil”, and I think that’s part of what gives him an edge with the storytelling. He plays the stories straight and gives them a sense of real and honest threat, while also maintaining an emotional core that feels realistic despite the outlandish nature of the story and heavy Science-Fiction leanings of the material. He’s also a very gifted visual artist with a slick and savage sense of composition and flow that lends itself well to the needs of high- concept action. His work on the series has always been nothing less than stunning. The script is very tightly written and juggles the plethora of characters well- everyone has their moment to shine, every major player has a clearly defined role and arc and the pacing is superb. Some wonderful work is done with the writing, and it’s an honest shame that neither Hayter nor the writing partners of Dougherty and Harris were involved in the third entry.

The rest of the production is just marvelous. (Pardon the bad joke) Composer/co-editor John Ottman shapes some wonderful and memorable musical themes that compliment the tone and style perfectly, and he weaves together shots and sequences with a masterful touch. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s visual palette is cool and visually arresting, and his work is just stunningly gorgeous. Some wonderful visual flair is given thanks to his talent. And production and costume design courtesy Guy Hendrix Dyas and Louise Mingenbach respectively is just fantastic. The film is made with nothing but top-notch work from top-notch artists.

As it stands, “X2” is easily one of the best if not the single best entry in the long-running series. Its phenomenal direction, sharp and thoughtful writing, beautiful production and outstanding cast weave an enthralling and thrilling cinematic experience that still stands tall well over a decade later. It’s up there with the best of the best in terms of comic-book movies.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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