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+

KRAMPUS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Horror Violence/Terror, Language and some Drug Material

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Directed by: Michael Dougherty

Written by: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields

Starring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony & Stefania LaVie Owen

Director/writer Michael Dougherty already wowed horror fans with his 2009 anthology TRICK ‘R TREAT and has now moved his scary sensibilities onto another holiday with the aid of creepy German folklore. Christmas has long invaded Halloween (with stores putting up decorations ridiculously early and annoying neighbors hanging their lights before trick-or-treaters even arrive), so why can’t Halloween have its turn invading Christmas. KRAMPUS is a delightfully demented piece of horror-comedy that’s perfect for the holiday season. Not only is this one of the best Christmas horror movies in existence (not exactly a huge compliment when you consider the competition), it is also one of the best Christmas movies of recent years. I had a blast watching this film and already want to sit through it again.

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Christmas is three days away and Max is a pre-teen who still believes in Santa. He knows that most people think old Saint Nick is merely a marketing ploy and a silly story for younger children, but Max prefers to imagine that the spirit of Christmas is alive and well. This idea is not appreciated by his douchebag cousins who proceed to make Max’s life a living hell upon their arrival. Upset with his entire family, Max rips up his letter to Santa and throws the pieces out of his window. When a freak blizzard arrives and the electricity goes out, it appears that something strange is occurring outside. Somehow, the torn up letter to Santa has summoned a darker entity, Krampus, who has arrived to take Max’s “naughty” family to the underworld.

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Much like in TRICK ‘R TREAT, Dougherty knows how to capture a holiday atmosphere here. While he keeps a cheery Christmas mood for the first 15 minutes or so, he then showcases a much darker view of traditional holiday images. There are only a couple of spots involving identifiable CG that I can recall and those bits didn’t look bad as they were played up for campy laughs. The practical effects look absolutely fantastic in bringing bloodthirsty toys and evil elves to life. As for Krampus himself, he’s mostly kept to the shadows in the tradition of the unseen monster being scarier than showcasing it in the opening scene. We get little glimpses of the cloaked Christmas demon, but we don’t get a full-on, close look at him until the final third. His appearance is unique, creative and creepy. I don’t want to say anything more about it (no spoilers) other than it wasn’t what I expected and that was mostly a good thing.

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The characters are more than just your typical horror movie victims as they start off unlikable and gradually gain sympathy as the plot moves forward. I was surprised at how humanized David Koechner’s redneck father became, especially seeing that he seemed set up as a mean-spirited quasi-Uncle Eddie (from CHRISTMAS VACATION) comic relief at the beginning. Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and Allison Tolman are also solid as the rest of the parents. The child actors are particularly impressive, with young Emjay Anthony being the stand-out as Max.

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Dougherty unfolds his twisted holiday tale with style and a sense of humor. The plot progresses well as attempts of suspense are built up (not all of them being entirely successful) before we get on-screen monster action and threats. The backstory of Krampus is given in a very special way that surprised me (I won’t spoil it with specifics). The comedy really works here and the horror is light-hearted enough to the point where I was never really scared, but was still having an absolute blast. Though I might not have been creeped out while watching the film, I particularly enjoyed how grim the plot gets. The PG-13 rating never once popped into my mind. They even sneak in gore with Krampus’s various helpers. The ending perfectly caps off the whole experience and got actual applause in the theater from quite a few people. It sends the viewer out on a very satisfying final note.

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KRAMPUS is one of the best horror films of the year. Though I never was scared, it didn’t matter because I was having an absolute blast the whole way through. The Christmas spirit is captured through a horror-comedy lens. The characters are a lot of fun to watch. The monsters are brought to life through some stellar puppetry and this story plays out in near-perfect fashion. Aided by creepy German folklore as inspiration and standing alongside RARE EXPORTS as a hugely entertaining take on an anti-Santa Claus monster, KRAMPUS is a dark delight that will likely become an annual Christmas classic for horror fans.

Grade: A

TRICK ‘R TREAT (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Horror Violence, Some Sexuality/Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Michael Dougherty

Written by: Michael Dougherty

Starring: Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes, Leslie Bibb, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox

It is odd that so few horror movies really capture the essence of Halloween. Even the ones set around the perennial holiday fail to show the spirit of All Hallows Eve. Arguably there are two film that have become essential viewing for every October. One of those is John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, which caught the atmosphere of the holiday, even if it was just a slasher set on the night. TRICK ‘R TREAT does justice to October 31 though. Weaving four (five, if you count the prologue) stories together on a single Halloween night, this is like CREEPSHOW by way of PULP FICTION. It also is one of the very few modern horror movies that I would call an instant classic.

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To reveal too many details about any of the stories would take away some of the fun to be had, so I will be vague. A school principal lives a night life as a serial killer. A group of kids try to pull a prank on a fellow peer, not knowing that there may be some truth to a local urban legend. A young woman’s quest to lose her virginity takes a bloody turn. Finally, a grumpy old man is terrorized by a mysterious trick-or-treater. The stories are all connected by intertwining events, such as the local Halloween parade that ties two of them together or a couple of stories that begin on the same street. The clever ties that bind these tales of horror together make for a lot of enjoyment. This is one of those movies where you notice something new every single time you watch it (which should be every October).

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While some may expect TRICK ‘R TREAT to be frightening, they will actually discover that the movie is a perfect horror-comedy. It mixes the scares and humor in a way that doesn’t feel too overly scary or too campy. It’s a FUN movie that is the very definition of the word. The production values here are stunning. I didn’t spot a single mistake or misstep in either the plot or filming. This is a love letter to the horror genre and Halloween, one that gives piles everything a horror fan could want into 82 minutes of flawless entertainment.

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The casting is also phenomenal across the board as well. There are young talents on display, along with well-known faces. Dylan Baker is hilarious as the principal who takes great care in the poisoning and tainting of his Halloween candy. Anna Paquin plays Laurie, the 22-year-old virgin on the hunt for her first. Brian Cox (from RED and X-MEN 2) plays the equivalent of the Mr. Scrooge of Halloween finding his reckoning in the form of the odd-looking Sam, a trick-or-treater with a sharpened lollipop and a candy bar with a razor inside.

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Though all the stories are stellar, if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the final one involving Mr. Kreeg and Sam. The tension is intense and the character of Sam himself has become a common costume to see at horror conventions (for good reason). The concluding minutes of TRICK ‘R TREAT wrap up every plotline perfectly and the final shot is one hell of a way to end the film. Honestly, I get chills just thinking about it.

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The acclaim that TRICK ‘R TREAT has received is deserved. It truly is a shame that Warner Bros. mistreated the movie. Many should consider it to be an act of cinematic criminal behavior. This didn’t deserve to sit on a shelf for two years and then be carelessly thrown onto the direct-to-video market. This is a modern classic of the horror genre and hands down, the best horror anthology ever created! A seasonal masterpiece!

Grade: A+

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