BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Action Violence, Peril and Frightening Images

Directed by: Bill Condon

Written by: Stephen Chbosky & Evan Spiliotopoulos

(based on the fairy tale BEAUTY AND THE BEAST by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont)

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McKellen & Emma Thompson

1991’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is the latest in a long line of Disney classics to get the live-action remake treatment. Even though none of these remakes have been bad thus far, I was a bit more skeptical on this film because 1991’s animated classic is one of Disney’s best movies (whereas the original SLEEPING BEAUTY, JUNGLE BOOK and CINDERELLA aren’t exactly amazing). Surprisingly, I found myself delighted with the 2017 rendition of this classic fairy tale romance. It’s not a masterpiece like the animated film that it’s based upon, but this live-action remake is great nonetheless. Featuring creative liberties (to set it apart as its own film), fantastical visuals and brilliant casting, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is sure to win over viewers of all ages.

Set in 18th century France, the plot follows bookworm Belle (Emma Watson), an outsider in a small-minded town. Though the villagers sneer at her constant reading and intelligence, one person who admires Belle for all the wrong reasons is war hero Gaston (Luke Evans). This pompous, egotistical stud is determined to make Belle his trophy wife, but she rebukes him at every corner. When her inventor father (Kevin Kline) goes missing in a dark area of a nearby forest, Belle discovers that he’s been imprisoned by a hairy Beast (Dan Stevens) and offers to take her father’s place to grant his freedom.

Belle’s courageous act may just wind up reversing a long-standing curse on the Beast’s castle…as he must find true love to break the spell that imprisons him and the castle’s many inhabitants (who have been transformed into living inanimate objects). Will love spring forth in the unlikeliest of places? Does personality matter more than outward appearance? Will the spell be broken? Seeing as you’ve likely watched the animated classic or are familiar with this fairy tale, you probably already know the answers to all of those questions. However, that doesn’t lessen this enchanting fantasy-romance.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has great visuals for the most part. The various inanimate objects look cool and detailed, especially when they get to shine in musical numbers and a hilarious stand-off in the final act. The settings all appear real, even when the viewer is placed inside the Beast’s massive castle. Huge camera movements (panning out between towers and faraway places) lend a huge scope to this story and the atmosphere is appropriately fantastical. This remake completely nails the feeling of the 1991 original and the CGI is almost flawless.

The key word there being “almost” because Beast’s face looks unconvincingly cartoonish. This poor quality isn’t distracting to the point where it completely ruins major parts of the story, but there are moments in certain scenes where my mind went “that looks sloppy.” The effects on the Beast’s facial features are so mediocre that my mother (who never notices or cares about CGI) leaned over and asked me “Is the Beast’s face CGI?” upon first seeing him. The computer-animated Beast’s ugly mug sticks out, especially when compared to the beauty of everything else around him, in a unintentionally bad way.

That’s not detract from Dan Stevens as the Beast because his performance is true to the character. This remains the case when he sings a new song that’s original to this remake. Stevens’s solo “Evermore” is easily the best new tune added to the mix, while the rest of the fresh musical additions seem utterly bland and forgettable. This especially goes for “Days in the Sun” which seemed to be filling in for the far superior “Human Again” (which was added into rereleased versions of the 1991 film). Don’t worry though, because all the original beloved songs are included in this version and sung flawlessly. From the rowdy “Gaston” and high-energy “Be Our Guest” to the uplifting opener “Belle” and the beautiful-as-always “Beauty and the Beast,” this 2017 version captures the musical spirit of the original film!

Besides Dan Stevens as the Beast, the rest of the cast is packed full of A-list talent. Emma Watson (from the HARRY POTTER series and THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) now joins the ever-growing list of live-action Disney princesses and makes a phenomenal Belle. Though she has an instantly recognizable face, Watson manages to disappear into the good-hearted bookworm protagonist. Kevin Kline shines as her loving father, with an added subplot that wasn’t in the original film. Luke Evans is perfectly cast as good-looking villain Gaston and Josh Gad is clearly having a blast as his sidekick LeFou. Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald and Gugu Mbatha-Raw all bring their voices to the main inanimate objects.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST isn’t perfect (like 1991’s animated masterpiece), but it remains a fantastic piece of magical entertainment nonetheless. Some scenes are directly recreated from the 90s classic, while new creative liberties have also been taken. Some of these additions work in the film’s favor, while a majority of the new songs are totally forgettable (with the exception of the Beast’s “Evermore”). The effects are spectacular for the most part, with the exception of the Beast’s distracting CGI face. Still, the film’s positives far outweigh its negatives. If you want a lively musical, an uplifting fantasy, emotional romance or good old-fashioned entertainment, then 2017’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST delivers on all of those fronts.

Grade: A-

THE WOLVERINE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Sci-Fi Action and Violence, some Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: Mark Bomback & Scott Frank

(based on the WOLVERINE comics by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rita Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi & Brian Tee

Wolverine is one of the biggest badasses in comic book history and is arguably the most popular character from the X-MEN franchise. It’s no wonder that studios seemed eager to give him his own big summer blockbuster with 2009’s X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE…which turned out to be a terrible film and was trashed by fans. In an effort to properly bring Wolverine to the big screen, 2013’s THE WOLVERINE attempted to right the wrongs of ORIGINS and served as a proper sequel to X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. Though it’s not the best X-MEN film by a long shot, THE WOLVERINE is a lot of fun!

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After killing the love of his life (see the events of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND), Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has become a rugged, cave-dwelling mountain man. Through a few twists of fate, Logan runs into katana-wielding bodyguard Yukio (Rita Fukushima). She’s been looking for Logan because he has been summoned to Tokyo by dying friend Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi). However, there are suspicious motives behind the unexpected invitation. Logan soon finds himself in the middle of a deadly conspiracy that includes: ninjas, yakuza, a highly dysfunctional family, and poisonous mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova). To make matters even worse, something is seriously wrong with Logan’s healing abilities and he finds himself struggling with painful limitations.

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The major improvements that THE WOLVERINE makes over its prequel predecessor are smart writing, an intense mystery, and high stakes. The first two qualities come from Logan being thrust into the plot of a thriller that requires him to do some digging into Yashida’s highly dysfunctional family. The script also captures the trauma that Logan suffers from as a result of the Dark Phoenix hijinks in THE LAST STAND. Though there may be a bit too many of these nightmare sequences, it was a nice way to see this film attempt to repair some of the damage done by the third X-MEN.

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THE WOLVERINE also sees Logan facing weakness and potential death due to his sudden mysterious mortality. Though the film lays obvious groundwork early on and those with a careful eye will be able to correctly predict what is happening, it doesn’t make Wolverine’s struggle any less intense. Logan’s lack of healing abilities make the intense action more gripping to watch. Every bullet or hit he takes has an impact this time around, so he simply can’t take his usual approach rushing into the violent fray. This was a smart move on the part of the filmmaker and writers. It certainly helps that the action sequences are awesome anyway, with set pieces featuring ninjas, knife-wielding yakuza on the roof of a bullet train, and a giant silver samurai.

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Hugh Jackman jumps right back into his iconic role as Wolverine and seems to be doing the character just as well as ever. New additions (a mainly Japanese cast of supporting characters) range across the board. Rita Fukushima is a badass, receiving her time to shine in action scenes and well-placed comic relief. Hiroyuki Sanada and Brian Tee play their characters with all the subtlety of moustache-twirling villains, but this makes their eventual showdowns even more satisfying.

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Haruhiko Yamanouchi is mainly regulated to flashbacks, but gives a solid enough performance in his brief screen time. Tao Okamoto is good in her role as a girl on the run with Logan, but the romance between them feels forced. Finally, Viper (played by Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova) is lame villainess. She’s basically X-MEN’s hammy equivalent of Poison Ivy and one of her powers is the ability to shed skin (through not very convincing CGI). Also, Khodchenkova chews the scenery and goes into clichéd villainess territory with her performance. I cannot fully describe how terrible Viper is, but she’s the second-worst antagonist that I’ve seen in the X-MEN series (the first being the mouthless bastardization of Deadpool in X-MEN ORIGINS).

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THE WOLVERINE is a far better Wolverine solo story than 2009’s lame X-MEN ORIGINS. Much of the positive qualities stem from a better script, better action scenes, high stakes, and better performances. This is a conspiracy-thriller that happens to have a clawed mutant as the main character. That concept is pretty neat by itself and when you throw in the idea of Wolverine losing his healing abilities, you’ve got yourself something special. The film stumbles in obvious foreshadowing, excessive dream sequences and a lame villainess. However, THE WOLVERINE’s positive qualities far outshine its problems. This is the fifth-best X-MEN film and the best WOLVERINE movie thus far (unless LOGAN tops it in two weeks).

Grade: B+

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action Violence, some Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Brett Ratner

Written by: Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn

(based on the X-MEN comics by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, Kelsey Grammer, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, Ben Foster, Dania Ramirez & Eric Dane

After directing X-MEN and X2, Bryan Singer decided to put his filmmaking talents towards another superhero franchise in SUPERMAN RETURNS. X2’s final shot teased the Dark Phoenix storyline in the next installment and Bryan Singer seemed eager to return to the franchise after his Superman film, but 20th Century Fox eventually grew tired of waiting and wound up giving the third X-MEN film to Brett Ratner. Fox’s impatience and Ratner’s incompetence (this was his first huge-scale blockbuster) both sunk the X-MEN series for a number of years before an eventual prequel/reboot repaired the damage. It’s not as if THE LAST STAND is all-out horrible, but blandness and mediocrity make it all the more disappointing.

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Shortly after the events of X2, mutants have become slightly more accepted in society. There’s even a blue-furred Cabinet member in Washington, but some politicians still aim for mutants to assimilate to “normal” human culture. Scientists have discovered a cure for mutations, which has caused a controversial rupture in the mutant community. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and the other X-Men seem split on scientific breakthrough, with Storm (Halle Berry) becoming furious and Rogue (Anna Paquin) showing genuine interest towards curing her deadly touch. Other dangerous mutants see the cure as an attempt to drive them extinct, resulting in metal-bending Magneto (Ian McKellen) forming the terrorist group known as the Brotherhood of Mutants. The Brotherhood aims to wipe out the source of the cure: Leech (Cameron Bright). Meanwhile, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has returned from the dead…and has brought an uncontrollable force back with her.

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X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is a superhero story that’s more driven by its script’s needs, rather than a natural progression of events. This opens up lots of plot holes and leaves many moments feeling like they came right out of nowhere for no apparent reason. To give specific examples without diving deeply into spoilers, the movie needs a character to return so they just sort of bring her back with no explanation. The story also requires a few important characters to die along the way, so Ratner just throws in a couple of death scenes that feel forced instead of devastating. Wolverine needs to stumble upon the Brotherhood of Mutants, but the movie doesn’t feel the need to give us a reason for that…so here’s a quick psychic vision.

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LAST STAND’s disjointed narrative can be summed up in one scene that features a conversation about whether or not Xavier’s School should be shut down and this complex issue is resolved with a couple of half-assed sentences. A complex problem that could have filled the latter half of this film (and given the protagonists more to fight for) is simply thrown away with a shrug. Of course, this movie still need a final battle though, so here’s Magneto using the Golden Gate Bridge to raid Alcatraz…which is admittedly pretty cool. If only the rest of the movie could put some weight behind the special effects heavy final showdown.

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LAST STAND has the odd problem of feeling too full and too empty at the same time. This third X-MEN installment was (supposedly) intended to be the finale of the superhero trilogy and therefore, lots of new characters were thrown into the mix. So many new mutants were included that this movie feels overcrowded and makes its Brotherhood antagonists look like throwaway thugs. The old mutants are back with Professor X, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm, Cyclops (James Marsden), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Rogue and a few others. However, most of these performers seem to know that this follow-up isn’t anywhere near the level of the first two installments and seem to be returning out of contractual obligations and big paychecks (reasons that are more than understandable, but still remain depressing).

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Ratner’s X-MEN introduces three new protagonists into the series. Shadowcat (who was a brief background character in the first two films) is played well by Ellen Page. Out of trio of new X-Men, she seems to get the most development as there’s a blooming romance/friendship between her and Iceman (which makes for some annoying drama from Rogue). Ben Foster’s Angel is given four brief scenes and culminates in an obvious cliché between him and his father. On a side note, Angel’s thin story arc seems far more developed when compared to the two-scene-long conflict between Iceman and Pyro (Aaron Stanford). Finally, Kelsey Grammer is perfectly cast as Beast and receives a few good moments, even if his character mostly exists for exposition.

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Shadowcat, Angel and Beast are miles better than any of the antagonists. Mystique has a couple of brief scenes, but her part is overshadowed by the far lamer Pyro as Magneto’s newly chosen second-in-command. Most of the Brotherhood consists of bastardized mutants from the comic books with rather cheesy powers. There’s Spike, who uses his own bones as weapons and takes on Wolverine in one tiny scene. There’s a nameless guy who can regenerate limbs and only exists for a “kick in the balls” joke, also delivered by Wolverine. Multiple Man isn’t given much to do, while three stupid emo mutants (one of which is a human porcupine) are annoying beyond all reason. The only standout antagonist (aside from Magneto) is Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut. The character’s only purpose is muscle, but Jones is clearly having a blast.

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X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is a bland, disappointing sequel that tries way too hard without ever realizing why the previous two installments worked so well. It’s clear that a fumbling director and studio interferences were the main reasons why this third X-MEN film fell apart, as demonstrated by a bored returning cast and a sloppy narrative. Still, there are a few redeeming things in THE LAST STAND. Though they aren’t exactly great characters, Shadowcat, Angel, Juggernaut and Beast are fun to watch. The action has some good spectacle (the Golden Gate bridge scene remains very cool). When compared to the rest of the series though, THE LAST STAND lies alongside ORIGINS: WOLVERINE at the bottom of the X-MEN totem pole.

Grade: C-

X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action/Violence, some Sexuality and brief Language

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris & David Hayter

(based on the X-MEN comics by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee)

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Bruce Davison, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford & Kelly Hu

Sequels rarely manage to rise above their predecessors, but X2: X-MEN UNITED is on the short list of titles that have accomplished that cinematic feat. 2000’s X-MEN laid a lot of ground work for future installments and introduced us to the world of mutants, so X2 is granted much more narrative freedom right off the bat. Though this sequel runs over two hours in length, not a single minute of screen time is wasted. Partially based on the graphic novel GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS with incorporated bits of the WEAPON X storyline, X2 is among the best superhero films of all time.

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Picking up a short while after the events of the first film, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has returned to the X-Men base/Xavier’s school with no new information about his past. Wolverine’s dilemma seems small though, because mutant Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) has attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. With prejudice, hatred and fear towards mutants growing across the nation, the President has green-lit a questionable operation led by Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox). When he raids Xavier’s school and kidnaps Professor X (Patrick Stewart), it becomes evident that Stryker has something very dangerous in mind. Good and evil mutants must unite if they wish to save the mutant race from genocide-happy Stryker, who is also linked to Wolverine’s forgotten past.

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X2 features a lot of returning cast members and all of them slip right back into their roles with ease, even improving on the previous performances. Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Ian McKellen as Magneto are equally perfect. Wolverine is a major player in this sequel’s script, but only receives one plotline of the complicated story. This allows plenty of room for the rest of the mutants to be further developed. More time is given to Cyclops and Jean Grey, while Storm is allowed to bond with newcomer Nightcrawler. Even Anna Paquin (one of the first film’s biggest problems) redeems her character of Rogue with less unconvincing over-the-top accent and more believable emotion put into her line delivery. Rebecca Romijn is also given a bigger part of as the sexy, deadly Mystique.

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There are many new, interesting characters brought into this sequel too, including a couple of big-name mutants making a grand entrance into the film series. Iceman (Shawn Ashmore, who was a background character in the first film) is given a real relationship with Rogue and has one hell of a heart-breaking story arc. Aaron Stanford (who didn’t go on to do much after the X-MEN series) is solid as violent Pyro. Alan Cumming is perfectly cast as blue-skinned, hook-tailed Nightcrawler and receives a fantastic storyline about redemption. I wish that Cumming had appeared in other X-MEN installments as well, but alas, this was to be his only stint as the unforgettable fan favorite mutant.

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Two fearsome antagonists come in the forms of a hate-filled human and his deadly mutant sidekick. William Stryker is played fantastically by Brian Cox. As a complex villain motivated by personal baggage and the belief that he’s doing the right thing for the human race, Stryker might be the best performance of Brian Cox’s career. Clawed sidekick Lady Deathstrike is played by Kelly Hu. Though her appearance and origins are considerably changed from the comic book lore (which I’m sure pissed some fans off), Lady Deathstrike serves as a scary villainess and a threatening equal to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. The eventual confrontation between them is one of my all-time favorite movie fight scenes. The stakes are upped by both characters’ metal claws and rapid healing abilities, and also makes the vicious action insanely fun to watch.

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While the first X-MEN used themes of prejudice to craft a simple superhero tale of good vs. evil, X2 opts for a smarter route. We are given windows into each of these characters and the idea that the world is stacked against them. X2 weaves a positive perspective of understanding and forgiveness from Charles Xavier’s point of view, while Magneto’s hatred and fear-mongering also reveal a lot about his character. The world of mutants and humans is greatly expanded upon as this story’s scope is much larger than the first film. There’s also a final shot that ranks among the best cliffhangers of all-time, even though THE LAST STAND was a disappointment and didn’t deliver on X2’s promises.

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As a whole, X2: X-MEN UNITED is where the X-MEN franchise separated itself from clichéd superhero fare. There are tons of enjoyable and great superhero movies in existence, but it takes a lot to rise above any overpopulated film genre. The X-MEN series is something special and this is fully demonstrated by how phenomenal this second installment is! Though I’d rank DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and FIRST CLASS slightly higher than X2, this second installment is one of the best superhero films ever made and a perfect entry in one of the smartest superhero franchises of all-time!

Grade: A+

X-MEN (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer

(based on the X-MEN comics by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee)

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Bruce Davison, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park, Tyler Mane, Anna Paquin & Shawn Ashmore

An X-MEN movie had been trying to get off the ground for nearly two decades. Many different scripts passed through lots of hands before this movie was finally released in the summer of 2000. Though X-MEN might seem slightly dated by the standards of our modern spoiled superhero sensibilities, it was a game-changer at the time of its release. Most notably, it resurrected interest in a genre that had been dying a horrible box office death a few years prior (e.g. BATMAN & ROBIN). Though most of its sequels are superior and this first film basically exists as an introduction to the franchise, 2000’s X-MEN is big fun entertainment that’s loaded with spectacle and special effects.

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In the “near future,” the public has become afraid of mutants, individuals born with superhuman powers. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is one of these mutants, gifted with extraordinary healing abilities, elevated senses, and indestructible metal claws. Alongside him is teenage runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin), who sucks away the life from everything she touches. Wolverine and Rogue stumble upon Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Run by psychic Professor X (Patrick Stewart), this “school” is a safe haven for mutants as well as a front for the X-Men, a top-secret group of mutants.

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Not all mutants are good though, and menacing metal-bender Magneto (Ian McKellen) has plans to level the playing field between mutants and humans. Accompanied by shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), slimy Toad (Ray Park), and feral Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), Magneto begins to enact a carefully calculated terrorist plot that involves an important mutant at Xavier’s School. It’s up to Wolverine and the rest of the X-Men: Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), to stop Magneto’s evil plan.

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X-MEN both is and isn’t your typical superhero film. The former comes from following a by-the-numbers plot about good vs. evil. There are clear-cut heroes, diabolical villains, a plan to take over the world, and an exposition-filled origin story that paves the way for future installments (five of which have followed in the last 16 years and that number jumps to seven with the WOLVERINE films included). The driving force of X-MEN’s narrative comes from prejudice on both sides of the mutant fence. Plot developments are driven forward by a bill that would force mutants to publicly reveal themselves. Magneto’s motivation is driven by his hatred for mankind, which in turn was spawned from mankind’s hatred towards him. Wolverine and Rogue are drawn together due to a world that seemingly hates them for simply being who they are. Themes of prejudice and civil rights are evident in this film, even though it sticks to a clichéd superhero plot.

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Wolverine, Rogue, Professor X, and Magneto are the main players here and every other mutant is swept to the sidelines. Hugh Jackman was a fresh-faced newcomer at the time of X-MEN and really broke onto the big screen in the role of Wolverine. It’s damn near impossible to imagine anybody else playing the clawed mutant, especially since Jackman has done so for eight films. He’s a likable protagonist with a mysterious past. Patrick Stewart is perfectly cast as the kindly, peaceful Professor X. He’s an old man with a good heart and does his best to fill those around him with hope for the future. The oppositional force comes in Ian McKellen’s Magneto, who garners sympathy due to his tragic backstory (shown in a prologue sequence) and warped ideals.

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The only bad apple in the cast comes in the form of Anna Paquin’s Rogue. Paquin isn’t exactly known for being the world’s best actress (watch any episode of TRUE BLOOD and you’ll immediately know what I’m talking about) and her Mississippi accent is distractingly over-the-top. Paquin’s line delivery is utterly devoid of believable emotion and this makes Rogue into a hollow character, despite of her tragic backstory. The supporting cast somewhat makes up for Rogue’s boring character, because Halle Berry is enjoyable as Storm, James Marsden gets a few good laughs as egocentric Cyclops, and Famke Janssen is an interesting ally as Jean Grey.

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Magneto’s henchmen (and henchwoman) are interesting as well, even though they only function as muscle for him. The second most interesting villain, behind Magneto, comes in the ever-changing form of Mystique. As much as I love Jennifer Lawrence’s take on the character in recent installments, Rebecca Romijn is far more threatening as the blue-skinned baddie. Tyler Mane is basically a growling hairy guy as Sabretooth, though he receive get a very cool one-on-one fight with Wolverine. Ray Park, who also played Darth Maul in 1999, is a blast as the long-tongued, agile Toad. As far as humans go, Bruce Davison is great as a hate-filled politician with a significant role to play in the story.

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The first X-MEN is a fun superhero flick. It follows the familiar beats of many other superhero stories, but repeats the clichés in interesting ways. The film is loaded with cool sequences and an exciting good vs. evil showdown in the finale. X-MEN is good, but very much feels like an introduction for better sequels. Seeing that X2, FIRST CLASS, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and THE WOLVERINE are all heads and shoulders above this first installment, this can definitely be seen as the case.

Grade: B

THE SHADOW (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Fantasy Action Violence

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Directed by: Russell Mulcahy

Written by: David Koepp

(based on THE SHADOW serials by Walter B. Gibson)

Starring: Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen & Tim Curry

One of my earliest memories in a movie theater was seeing a trailer for THE SHADOW on the big screen. I remember this superhero flick looking like the epitome of cool. Years passed and the movie was forgotten to the annals of my memory, until it all came flooding back when I saw the title pop up on cable. Based on the pulp character that spanned across books and radio shows, THE SHADOW was essentially set up to be a potential new superhero for the 90’s. Universal Studios was hoping to sell SHADOW merchandise and have a new hit franchise on their hands. However, the film didn’t do well at the box office due to stiff competition (THE LION KING, THE MASK) and has become a bit of a hidden gem.

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Following WWI, American Lamont Cranston embraced his darker side and became a brutal drug kingpin in Tibet. His evil nature was changed when he met the wise Tulku. Under this mysterious man’s guidance, Lamont Cranston became a gifted psychic with the ability to cloud others minds and ostensibly become invisible (leaving only his shadow). Returning to New York, Cranston becomes the supernatural vigilante known as “The Shadow.” However, a darker force has arrived in the form of Shiwan Kahn (the last remaining descendant of Genghis Kahn), who intends on conquering the world. It’s up to The Shadow to take down this mystical madman before he executes his deadly plans.

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The 90’s saw many lame superhero films (STEEL, JUDGE DREDD, THE PHANTOM, SPAWN) that were basically failed franchise attempts for their studios. It’s sad to see THE SHADOW in such lackluster company as these titles, because the movie is hugely entertaining and mostly well executed. The style in which the 1930’s period is brought to life is visually stimulating and director Russell Mulcahy seems to enjoy flying his camera through his old-fashioned New York if only to show off how cool it looks. I don’t blame him, because this movie has a similar look and atmosphere to Tim Burton’s BATMAN. The effects can be a little cheesy here and there (a flying dagger looks laughably bad), but for the most part I thought The Shadow himself looked cool. There’s a smoky effect when he turns invisible that has held up very well over two decades later.

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As the titular hero, Alec Baldwin does a better than expected job. Baldwin always seems to take the role of some quirky side character and usually makes the most of his screen time. Here, he’s allowed to shine as the hero who starts off as a pretty despicable character in the prologue and then turns into a superhero to redeem himself. There are definite similarities between The Shadow/Lamont Cranston and Batman/Bruce Wayne, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. THE SHADOW actually embraces its silly side far more than either of Burton’s BATMAN films, which makes for an interesting (albeit ridiculous) watch.

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The side characters are not too shabby either, with big names popping up in these smaller roles. Peter Boyle (Frank from EVERYBODY LOVE RAYMOND) serves as a taxi driver and Alfred of sorts to Baldwin’s Shadow. Ian McKellen has a bit part as a scientist capable of making a highly dangerous bomb. Tim Curry is sadly underused as a greasy-haired henchman. Penelope Ann Miller plays the Shadow’s love interest and seems to be built up as something more than just another damsel in distress. However, the movie really doesn’t do much with her other than include her in the background as the Shadow makes new discoveries. As the villain of the piece, John Lone’s Khan is a fun screen presence. I especially enjoyed watching this baddie use his psychic powers on unsuspecting jerks, but his motivation and ultimate scheme are bland and overused (he wants to take over the world…of course).

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Thought it runs slightly under two hours, THE SHADOW is a fast-paced flick with imaginative ideas surrounding its basic good-vs.-evil superhero storyline. There are moments when the film can be too far-fetched (e.g. the villain’s secret lair, messenger pipes that somehow stretch across New York and go unnoticed), but there are far more cool and stylish moments that counteract against those silly spots. THE SHADOW is one of those underrated superhero films that I wish would get a reboot (Sam Raimi was recently trying to make this happen), because it’s just so different in a world populated by Marvel and DC. If this film sounds up your alley, then you’ll likely have a blast. I know I did.

Grade: B

MR. HOLMES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Thematic Elements, some Disturbing Images and incidental Smoking

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Directed by: Bill Condon

Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher

(based on the novel A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND by Mitch Cullin)

Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy & Roger Allam

Sherlock Holmes. Whether you’re fan of his stories or not, you’ve definitely heard of this fictional detective at one point in your life. This might be a slightly unpopular opinion, but I’ve never exactly been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. I enjoy the two Robert Downey Jr. blockbusters, Disney’s take on the character (THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE) and even read THE HOUND OF BASKERVILLES in school. Other than that, I’m not a big Holmes aficionado. As a result, the announcement of MR. HOLMES (a film adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel) left me with an apathetic “meh.” I wasn’t planning on seeing this film in theaters and if I were to eventually review it, it would probably be far down the road. However, due to the urging of a few friends, I decided to give this small, little British movie a look.

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Set in 1947, Sherlock Holmes is a 92-year-old retired detective living in a countryside home with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son, Roger. Sherlock’s final days are passing him by and are filled with past regrets and memory loss. When Roger takes an interest in Holmes’s final mystery (which resulted in him retiring to the countryside), the elderly detective strains his memory for clues to the forgotten full story of that case. The only mystery here comes in Sherlock Holmes’s memories and the story is mainly played as a straight-forward drama. This is a most unusual Holmes movie and made all the better because of that.

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It should surprise absolutely no one that Ian McKellen is great in the title role. I cannot think of a single bad scene featuring this brilliant British actor and this film is yet another in a long line of memorable performances. Aiding McKellen’s portrayal of the world-famous detective is a purposely unconventional approach to his character. While other movies and books portray Sherlock Holmes as a pipe-smoking over-the-top genius, McKellen plays a more grounded Sherlock. In this fictional movie universe, Holmes is a more cynical man and has disdain for his exaggerated pop-cultural portrayal (shown in a brilliant scene where the elderly Holmes visits a movie theater showing a film based on one of his mysteries). The storyline is a blend of bittersweet drama and compelling mystery. The former comes in Holmes suffering through the trials of old age and a feeble body, while the latter arrives in Holmes’s flashbacks/memories. The mashing of these two different tones makes for an intriguing one-of-a-kind experience.

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Though the film has two distinct tones, there are technically three storylines at play. The main one is Sherlock’s struggle with old age and his tender friendship with Roger. The secondary plotline is the forgotten mystery that Holmes is trying to remember. The last (and definitely least) is Holmes visiting Japan to look for a medicinal plant that might aid his memory. These three plotlines weave in and out of each other with skill. Whenever one plot thread begins to overstay its welcome, the movie whisks us away into another. MR. HOLMES wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable or effective if it played out in chronological order, but its non-linear storytelling turns the film into a bit of a mystery in and of itself. Like the best mysteries, you never quite know where things are going either. Though I have issues with a couple of minor plot details, this movie had my full, undivided attention from the first frame to the end credits. That’s a pretty big compliment, seeing that I’m not necessarily an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes.

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For some reason, certain movie theaters have advertised MR. HOLMES as a family friendly outing sure to warm the hearts of every age. This could not be further from the truth. Younger viewers will likely be bored stiff through this melancholy drama, but I imagine that most cinema-loving adults will be pleased with this deliberately paced final chapter to a classic fictional character’s legacy. MR. HOLMES is one of the most unusual films that I’ve seen in quite a while and also one of the bigger surprises I’ve had this year. Those looking for satisfying closure to the celebrated fictional detective need look no further.

Grade: A

My Top 10 Films of 2014

List by Derrick Carter

2014 has been a solid year for cinema. As with every film critic (freelance or professional), there comes a time of decision-making as to what the best movies of the year were. This list is all opinion based (like my reviews) and I can understand why people might not (and probably won’t) completely agree with every choice. In deciding how to rank my top 10 of the year, I noticed there was an equal amount of independent/foreign fare and big studio hits. This was unintentional, but is a nice detail that highlights how balanced this year really was for cinema all around.

Before I get into my actual list, it bears mentioning that I have not seen/reviewed every single film from this year (I plan on covering FOXCATCHER, INHERENT VICE, and AMERICAN SNIPER eventually). I’m only one man after all, so my selections come from the films that I’ve watched and reviewed this year. That all being said and without further ado, here are my 10 favorite films from 2014!

Honorable Mentions: BOUND BY FLESH, UNDER THE SKIN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, FURY, THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, and A MOST WANTED MAN

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10. BIG BAD WOLVES: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Aharon Keshales’s and Navot Papushado’s directorial debut, RABIES. BIG BAD WOLVES serves as a drastic improvement. At first, the story seems relatively simple. However, the diabolical screenplay toys with the viewer in injecting a pitch-black sense of humor that works wonderfully and a dark tone that isn’t the slightest bit funny. Things aren’t as simple as they originally appear and a haunting conclusion ensures that this film will stick with you. I originally saw/reviewed it in January and it has held up on multiple viewings throughout the year. If you’re up for a disturbing tour-de-force of horror that defies expectations, BIG BAD WOLVES should be on your radar!

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9. THE LEGO MOVIE: On New Year’s Day, I was chatting with a friend about how much I thought THE LEGO MOVIE was going to suck. This concept seemed doomed from the beginning and I was reluctantly dragged to the theater at the urging of my younger siblings. In all of 2014, I have never been so happy that I was so wrong about a film! Blending meta-elements, rapid fire jokes, and a hilarious storyline, THE LEGO MOVIE is 2014’s biggest surprise! The animation (which appears to combine stop-motion and computer graphics) is stellar. Tons of jokes are present so that it takes multiple viewings to catch every little piece (pun intended) that the movie has to offer. LEGO MOVIE is not only the best family film of 2014, everything about it is awesome!

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8. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST: The X-MEN movies have a good vs. bad ratio of 5 to 2. Those are fantastic odds for any blockbuster series. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST delivered the best entry in the mutant saga to date. This much-anticipated comic book storyline was fantastically brought to life by returning director Bryan Singer. In lesser hands, FUTURE PAST could have become a standard blockbuster with the gimmick of time travel used to combine both casts of the franchise. Instead, this film was a delight to sit through for myself and many film goers this past summer. Easily the best comic book film since Christopher Nolan graced the silver screen with his take on Batman. Definitely count me in for APOCALYPSE in 2016!

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7. NIGHTCRAWLER: Scarier than any true horror film that I saw in all of 2014, NIGHTCRAWLER is a truly disturbing movie. Disappearing completely into the main character of Lou, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an award-worthy performance that creeped me out to the point where I was wriggling in my seat as he manipulated everyone around him. In a sense, Lou is a vampire sucking the moral decency out of everyone he comes across. As a dark, disturbing, and unflinching masterwork, NIGHTCRAWLER serves as cinematic nightmare that I can’t wait to revisit in the near future.

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6. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: This was the summer blockbuster that delivered on every possible level. It had grand action and amazing effects (those monkeys look so real), but also incorporated them into a smart story and complicated characters. While RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a huge surprise for everyone, DAWN has cemented itself as my personal favorite APE movie. DAWN blended spectacle and a fantastic plot so perfectly that it makes me shake with anticipation for the newest upcoming APES film (Summer 2016). Having seen RISE and DAWN, I’m more than prepared to bow down to our future primate overlords. This movie rocked!

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5. THE RAID 2: I watched the original RAID at its Sundance premiere and thought it was an impressive action flick, but a tad overrated in the end. This exhilarating sequel pulls out all the stops to one up the original in every possible way. While APES blended spectacle with an intelligent story, RAID 2 blends an intense gangster thriller with mind-blowing action scenes. I was exhausted by the end of this film and that’s the biggest compliment I can give any action movie. Each fight scene has its own unique spin so none of them blended into one another. A few that stick out in my mind are a prison yard fight, one of the most intense/realistic car chases that I’ve ever seen, and a stunning confrontation between two highly skilled, deadly men. Those are just a few of the phenomenal sequences that this epic-length modern action classic has to offer. It plays like THE DEPARTED had a baby with a Bruce Lee movie. It’s friggin’ nuts and I loved every second of it!

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4. WHIPLASH: How do you turn a protégé story about a young man trying to be a successful drummer into a nail-bitingly thriller? Apparently, you get Damien Chazelle to write and direct it. Though he is a young newcomer, Chazelle struck gold in this fantastic and deep drama. I didn’t like Miles Teller before watching this movie and now appreciate that he has some serious acting chops on him. J.K. Simmons, usually a side character or background actor, is given room to be the most intimidating antagonist that I saw in a film all year. He plays a conductor, but Simmons is downright scary as hell and entertaining to watch at the same time. Well shot, well written, well acted, and all around well constructed, WHIPLASH is a masterpiece!

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3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: The evening that I spent watching this magical film was an enchanting experience. Evoking a sense of classic comedies and a fairy tale color palette, Wes Anderson’s GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL sucked me into its oddball world from the first frame. Ralph Fiennes’s Gustave H. and Adrien Brody’s villain had me breaking into hysterical laughter throughout this whole film. Besides the humor, there’s a unique sweetness to BUDAPEST as well as a compelling storyline (background happenings reward repeat viewings). GRAND BUDAPEST is sincere in its story, humor, honest emotions, and ridiculous nature. Cinematic heaven!

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

2. GONE GIRL: Going into 2014, there was one film that I was highly anticipating. That was David Fincher’s adaptation of the best-selling mystery, GONE GIRL. The novel is acclaimed, for good reason, of having a nasty sleight of hand that trips up the reader’s preconceived notions. Fincher masterfully transfers that level of Hitchcockian suspense onto the screen in this deeply disturbing and haunting thriller. I didn’t spoil anything in my review and I won’t spoil anything here either. If anyone does try to give away the plot, slap them in the face before they can give away any detail. Though it’s really your fault for having not seen this film yet. Go see it! Seriously! It’s the smartest, entirely compelling and most intense thriller that I’ve seen all year. Once you’ve seen GONE GIRL, you’ll know why everyone is raving about it so much.

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), (aka BIRDMAN), Michael Keaton, on set, 2014. /TM

1. BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE): What do I even say about this film? When I saw the trailer for BIRDMAN, I felt iffy on it. This looked to be a quirky comedy that could potentially be good, but might rely far too much on the gimmick of having a washed-up former superhero actor playing a washed-up former superhero actor. Nevertheless, I walked into the movie theater hoping for a good flick. In less than 10 minutes, I was under the film’s spell. This wasn’t just good or funny, this was fantastic and amazing. Telling the story in a stylistic choice that appears to be caught in one take (through various hidden cuts) and containing some of the best performances that this entire year had to offer, BIRDMAN is an extraordinary piece of cinema. I’ve bad-mouthed Michael Keaton for a couple of crappy movies he did earlier this year, but his performance really is something to behold in this film! There’s never been anything quite like BIRDMAN before and there’s never going to be anything quite like it again. BIRDMAN is perfection!

2014 was a solid year and produced a lot of phenomenal films. I hope 2015 is even better!

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Epic Battle Sequences and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE RETURN OF THE KING by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Ian Holm & Marton Csokas

When Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was announced, everyone in the fantasy circuit probably went crazy. This sounded like a movie deal that was too good to be true. After all, this was a three-year laid out in advance. While all three films were shot simultaneously, they were distributed for three consecutive Christmases in a row. FELLOWSHIP was a solid start to the series, but lacked a natural flow and felt like an obligatory introduction in areas. TWO TOWERS is my favorite of the trilogy with the most exciting and dark material being covered from the entire Middle Earth saga. However, RETURN OF THE KING is the film that walked away with 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture). Though it remains more of a technical achievement than any of the other films, KING fumbles in the home stretch with a running time that feels too drawn out (made worse by an ending that can’t decide what it wants to be).

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The journey is drawing to a close as the ring of power nears possible destruction and peace for Middle Earth is becoming a real possibility. Frodo, Sam and (the not so trustworthy) Gollum are getting closer to the fires of Mount Doom. As Frodo becomes slowly corrupted by the ring, tensions between him and Sam grow. Gollum enacts a diabolical plan to get his precious ring back. While all of this is happening, the last battles are upon those few who remain from the original Fellowship and Aragorn is mustering up what it takes to reclaim his crown at one of the last kingdoms of men. This all leads to, of course, epic battles and a conclusion that will decide the fate of Middle Earth once and for all.

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TWO TOWERS delivered in bringing one of the best battle scenes ever in Helm’s Deep. That hour-long conflict would be hard to beat in a follow-up film, so Jackson’s solution is simple. He’s pretty much stretched out a majority of this three-plus hour film into two separate battle sequences. Scenes of Frodo and Sam trying to make it to Mount Doom are intercut, but the battles themselves are quite awesome. Adding another layer of tension is a crazed Steward who doesn’t want to give up his position of power for Aragorn as the rightful ruler. KING has plenty of moments that seem tailor-made to get the viewer to cheer and they work effectively. It’s nice to see cocky villains who you’ve been pissed at for most of the trilogy (or just this movie) get their comeuppances. One specific scene caused the entire theater to burst into applause when I first saw this back in 2003 and that moment still holds up perfectly to this day!

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This final film is loaded with appropriate pay-off for the whole trilogy. It’s nice to see story-arcs that have been building for over 6 hours (when you combine the running time of the previous two films) turn out to be worth the wait. The best of these lies with Frodo, Sam and Gollum though. The identity of the mysterious “she” that Gollum mentioned in his cryptic dialogue with himself at the end of TWO TOWERS comes to fruition in a scene that features probably the scariest creature of the entire series (which is saying a lot). This long suspenseful sequence also gets one of the biggest applause-worthy moments in its final minutes.

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Peter Jackson keeps an epic scale fully in tact for this finale to his original Middle Earth trilogy (way before three-film adaptation of  THE HOBBIT was even announced). This also contributes to the only problem that keeps RETURN OF THE KING from perfection in my eyes. The running time is unbelievably bloated and that all comes in the final 40 minutes. Spanning over three hours in length, Jackson feels the need to throw 5 different endings into the conclusion. It’s almost like he didn’t want to end the story, so he kept filming different final scenes and decided to loop them all together in the actual movie. Some of these details are so minute and insignificant (including Bilbo’s departure to the elf paradise and even going as far as Sam’s wedding) they become annoying. In this sense, Peter Jackson slightly wears out his welcome. When you’ve got 40 minutes of wrap-up scenes, there’s a big issue with the storytelling at hand.

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I don’t love RETURN OF THE KING as much as most other RINGS fans and the reason why might be considered a relatively simple complaint. The film slightly overstays its welcome in its (multiple) ending(s). The battles definitely up the action from the stellar Helm’s Deep sequence in TWO TOWERS and scenes that almost seem guaranteed to receive an applause in the theater still hold up flawlessly. It has been a lot of fun to watch character arcs develop and play out naturally over a 9-hour-plus trilogy (which is one hour shy of one season of GAME OF THRONES). Perhaps, the overlong climax is a prime example of too much of a good thing that ultimately becomes a problem. In the end, RETURN OF THE KING is a highly satisfying conclusion to a supremely successful trilogy of fantasy epics.

Grade: A-

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