“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

 

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

Two years following the success of 2014’s “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, Marvel Entertainment released a new “X-MEN” film set ten years after the previous one. The movie proved to be the fourth one directed by Bryan Singer.

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” began in ancient Egypt, where the world’s first mutant, a powerful individual named En Sabah Nur, ruled by by transferring his mind into new bodies. Unfortunately, a group of former worshipprs betrayed En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse” by entombing him alive. They also killed his four lieutenants, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, who tried to protect him. The movie jumped to 1983 Egypt where C.I.A. Agent Moira MacTaggert (last seen in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”) has been investigating a cult in Egypt that worships En Sabah Nur. Her accidental exposure his tomb to sunlight awakened the ancient mutant and produced a shock wave around the globe. Following his awakening, En Sabah Nur set out to recruit four mutants as his new “Four Horsemen”:

*Ororo Munroe aka “Storm” – an orphan and pickpocket from the streets of Cairo, who is able to control the weather

*Warren Worthington III aka “Angel” – a mutant with feathered wings on his back, who has resorted to participating in underground fight clubs in Berlin

*Psylocke – an enforcer for the black marketeer mutant Caliban, who is not only telepathic and telekinetic, but can also produce a purple-colored psychic energy

*Erik Lehnsherr aka “Magneto” – a Holocaust survivor and former friend of Charles Xavier, who has the ability to manipulate metal and control magnetic fields, and who is recently grieving over the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter by the Polish police

Apocalypse’s shock wave also caused Jean Grey, an adolescent student and mutant at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to have a nightmare and momentarily lose control of her powers. When Charles Xavier attempted to investigate the power source he discovered that Moira was involved. Although her previous memories of them together were erased, Xavier meets with her to discuss the legend of En Sabah Nur. But when they become aware of the ancient mutant’s plans to bring about the apocalypse; Xavier and Moira recruit fellow mutants like Raven aka “Mystique”, Hank McCoy aka “Beast”, Alex Summers aka “Havok”, and Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver” to stop Apocalypse’s plans. Xavier students like Jean Grey, Scott Summers aka “Cyclops” (Alex’s nephew) and Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler” also join the campaign to stop En Sabah Nur.

Let me be frank. “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was not well received by the critics and many filmgoers. I am not going to explain why they felt this way about the movie. Needless to say, I do not agree with this pervading view. I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was a great film. It was not. I believe the movie had some problems.

One of those problems is that some of the cast members were obviously too young for their roles. This certainly seemed to be the case for James McAvoy Michael Fassbender and Rose Byrne, who portrayed Charles Xavier, Magneto and Moira McTaggart. All three are in their mid-to-late 30s and portrayed characters who were in their early 50s (late 40s for Moira, I suspect) . . . with no make-up to convey their characters’ aging. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult portrayed Mystique and Hank McCoy, who were slightly younger than Xavier and Magneto. But “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” gave a good excuse for their slow aging . . . Mystique’s blood. Another cast member who portrayed a character much older than himself (without makeup) is Lucas Till, who is at least 25 or 26 years old, reprising his role as the late 30s to early 40s Alex Summers. And finally, we have Josh Helman, who is barely 30 years old, who reprised his role as William Stryker, who must have been around the same age as Xavier and Magneto. Does Singer have something against aging in his “X-MEN” films? And if he wanted to maintain the same cast, could he have at least consider using aging makeup for at least five members of the cast?

Two, what was the point in including both Stryker and Wolverine in this movie? Why? They were not essential to the plot. Was it really necessary for Singer to convey that Stryker had ended up giving Wolverine adamantium after all? Despite the time change in “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”? What was the point? Could we at least have one “X-MEN” film in which Hugh Jackman does not appear? I also see that Singer, along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, decided to include Stryker in this tale as a plot device to delay Hank, Raven, Peter, and Moira from reaching Cairo. Pointless. It was the most pointless moment in this movie. Finally, I had a problem with the “Four Horsemen”. Aside from Magneto, the other three were barely used. What was the point in showing how they were recruited by En Sabah Nur, when Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender seemed to be the only ones in scenes featuring the ancient mutant and his “Horsemen”, who had the most lines. It is bad enough that once again, Singer indulged in his penchant for ignoring minority characters like Storm and Psylocke. Then he includes Angel into this movie – who was shown to be younger than Storm, Scott and Jean in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” – and barely give the latter any lines.

And yet . . . I still liked “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. In fact, I liked it more than I did “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. The 2016 movie had its problems, but it never seemed racked with so many plot holes like the 2014 movie did. Without the cloud of time travel hovering over the movie, the writing for “APOCALPYSE” struck me as a little clearer and a lot more straightforward. I can applause Singer for attempting to tackle something complicated as time travel. I simply believe that he, Kinberg and the other screenwriters did not handle it very well. On the other hand, the more straightforward narrative for “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” seemed to suit both Singer and Kinberg.

I did not care for the minor arc regarding William Stryker and Wolverine. And yes, En Sabah Nur’s plot to retake the world seemed a bit unoriginal. But Singer and Kinberg handled this story a lot better than they did the time travel plot for the 2014 movie. And to be honest, I rather liked it. I did not love it, but I liked it. I also liked the fact that En Sabah Nur’s plot had a surprising twist (well, one that I did not see coming) that did not involved his “Four Horsemen”.

I may not have a high opinion of “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. But the movie did provide some interesting consequences that played out in “APOCALYPSE”. One, both movies allowed Xavier and Mystique to become close again, following their estrangement in “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”. In one of the movie’s more interesting scenes, Mystique discovers that she has become something of a legend to some of the younger mutants, including Xavier’s students. The movie also allowed Jean Grey the opportunity to learn to utilize her “Dark Phoenix” powers with more control . . . and without Xavier trying to suppress her. Do not get me wrong. I am one of those fans who actually enjoyed “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. But it was nice to see Xavier dealing with Jean’s powers with a healthier attitude. And although I was not impressed by how Singer and Kinberg pushed Storm into the background – especially during the film’s second half, it was nice to get a peek into her life as a young Cairo pickpocket before she ended up as one of Apocalypse’s minions and later, a student at Xavier’s school.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s productions. I thought Grant Major did an exceptional job in not only re-creating ancient Egypt for the movie’s prologue and for the rest of it, the early 1980s. This is not surprising, considering Major’s work with director Peter Jackson on movies such as “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography contributed to the movie’s epic and sweeping look. Louise Mingenbach’s costumes, along with Geoffroy Gosselin and Anne Kuljian’s set decorations struck me as a solid reflection of the movie’s early 1980s setting. But the two aspects of the movie’s visual style that really impressed me were Michael Louis Hill and John Ottman’s editing, especially in scenes that involved En Sabah Nur’s entombing in the movie’s beginning and the X-Men’s showdown with the ancient mutant. I was especially impressed with the movie’s special effects, especially in the very two scenes that I had just pointed out.

The acting featured in “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” also struck me as impressive. Well, to be honest, there were only a few performances that really caught my notice. However, I certainly had no problem with the other performances. Of the four actors who portrayed En Sabah Nur’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, only one left no impression upon me – namely Ben Hardy, who portrayed Angel. The character barely had any lines and if I am mistaken, I could have sworn that Angel’s character was from a younger generation (that of Rogue and Iceman’s) – at least in the current movie franchise. I can also say the same about actress Lana Candor, who portrayed Jubilee. Not only did the actress barely had any lines, she was also portrayed as an Xavier student from Rogue and Iceman’s generation in a previous movie.

Although Alexandra Shipp, who portrayed Storm, and Olivia Munn, who portrayed Psylocke; were shifted to the background after their characters were introduced; both managed to impress me in the end. Shipp’s portrayal of the adolescent Storm struck me as rather lively and energetic. And Munn was effectively intimidating as the mutant enforcer, who becomes one of En Sabah Nur’s minions. The movie also featured solid performances from Rose Byrne, who returned as C.I.A. Agent Moira McTaggert; Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan as the adolescent Jean Grey and Scott Summers aka “Cyclops”; Kodi Smit-McPhee as the younger Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler”; Lucas Till as Alex Summers aka Havok; Nicholas Hoult as Dr. Hank McCoy aka “Beast”; Josh Helman as William Stryker; and Evan Peters as the always amusing Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver”. If you are careful, you might also spot Hugh Jackman, Zeljko Ivanek, Ally Sheedy and of course, Stan Lee.

Only four performances in this movie really impressed me. One of them turned out to be James McAvoy’s portrayal of Charles Xavier aka “Professor X”. At first, McAvoy’s performance seemed solid . . . almost perfunctory. But once it became apparent that Professor Xavier’s fate was connected with with En Sabah Nur’s scheme, McAvoy skillfully portrayed the telepathic mutant with a great deal of emotion and pathos. Michael Fassbender proved to be equally fascinating as the emotionally battered Erik Lensherr. He did a great job in conveying Magneto’s reactions to the deaths of a family and peaceful life, and to being emotionally manipulated by En Sabah Nur. Jennifer Lawrence continued to impress me with her excellent portrayal of the complex Raven aka “Mystique”. I found it fascinating to watch the 20-something actress portray a character who had become battle hardened and mature after spending two decades fighting on behalf of fellow mutants. Many critics have complained about Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the movie’s main villain, En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse”. Apparently, they could not get past the actor’s make-up or mask. Well, I could. And I thought Isaac did a pretty damn good job in portraying a villain who was not only something of an egomaniac, but also a world-class manipulator. And he did so with great skill and subtlety.

I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was one of the best movies from the summer of 2016. Nor am I saying that it was one of the best in the “X-MEN” movie franchise. But I certainly do not believe that it was one of the worst. As far as I am concerned, the worst in the movie franchise was released four-and-a-half months earlier. But I thought it was something of an improvement over the convoluted plot that seemed to mar “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction, Simon Kinberg’s screenplay and an excellent cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

Top Favorite WORLD WAR II Movie and Television Productions

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September 1-3 marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939; the German Army invaded Poland on the orders of its leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a week following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. While the Polish military struggled to keep the invading Germans at bay, its government awaited awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom, with whom they had a pact. Two days later on September 3, Poland’s two allies declared war on Germany and World War II; which ended up engulfing both Europe, Asia, North Africa and the South Pacific; began.

Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war.

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR II MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1a - Band of Brothers

1a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

1b - The Pacific

1b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

2 - Kellys Heroes

2. “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles starred in this memorable war comedy about a group of Army soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Brian G. Hutton directed.

3 - Inglorious Basterds

3. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this excellent alternate history adventure about two plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent starred.

4 - Casablanca

4. “Casablanca” (1942) – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s un-produced stage play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie also starred Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

5 - The Winds of War

5. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this excellent 1983 television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali McGraw.

6 - Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote, produced and directed this 1987 excellent comedy-drama about his own childhood experiences during World War II. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

7 - A Bridge Too Far

7. “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) – Sir Richard Attenborough produced and directed this darkly fascinating adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Operation Market Garden campaign. The all-star cast included Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal and Gene Hackman.

8 - Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this detailed and first-rate account of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. The movie starred Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.

9 - The Longest Day

9. “The Longest Day” (1962) – Darryl Zanuck produced this all-star adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Normandy invasion. The cast included Robert Mitchum, Richard Beymer, Robert Wagner and John Wayne.

10 - The Bridge on the River Kwai

10. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 World War II novel. The movie starred William Holden, Oscar winner Alec Guinness and Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa.

HM - Empire of the Sun

Honorable Mention: “Empire of the Sun” (1987) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about a British boy’s experiences in World War II China. The movie starred Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers.

“X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” (2014) Review

 

“X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” (2014) Review

When the news reached many fans that Bryan Singer would be helming the next film, fans rejoiced. As far as they were concerned, the best movies from the franchise had been directed by Singer. And since he had served as one of the producers for 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”, that particular film is highly regarded by fans as well.

The latest film in question, “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” seemed to serve as a sequel to both “FIRST-CLASS” and the 2006 movie, “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. Adapted from Chris Claremont
John Byrne’s 1981 storyline, “Days of Future Past”, for comic book, The Uncanny X-Men, Issues #141-142; “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” starts in the 2020s in which robots known as Sentinels are exterminating mutants, humans who harbor the genes that lead to mutant offspring, and humans who help mutants. A band of mutants led by Charles Xavier “Professor X” and Erik Lehnsherr “Magneto” manage to evade the Sentients and eventually find refuge in China. Realizing that the Sentients will finally catch up with them, Xavier and Magneto, along with fellow mutant Kitty Pryde, come up with a plan to prevent the events that would kick-start the creation of the Sentients.

Using Kitty’s ability to project an individual’s consciousness through time, they instruct her to do the same to Logan’s “Wolverine” consciousness back to late January 1973 (over ten years following the events of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” – to prevent Raven Darkhölme “Mystique” from assassinating Bolivar Trask, the creator of the Sentinels. Following the assassination, the U.S. government captured Mystique and allowed Trask’s company to use her DNA to create Sentinels that are near-invincible due to their ability to adapt to any mutant power. Xavier and Magneto advise Wolverine to seek out both of their younger selves for aid. When Logan finally arrives in the past, he learns that the younger Xavier has become an embittered man over the premature closing of his school for mutants and addicted to a serum created by Hank McCoy “the Beast” to suppress his mutation. Logan also learns that the younger Magneto has spent over 10 years imprisoned for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

I might as well lay my cards on the table. I love time travel movies. It is the reason why I am such a big fan of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” franchise and especially 2012’s “MEN IN BLACK 3”. The return of Bryan Singer as the director of an X-MEN film was not the reason why I had anticipated this film so much. It was the story’s theme of time travel. Only in this case, the movie’s time traveler, Logan, does not bodily travel back through time. Instead, his 2020s consciousness is sent back to his 1973 body. I found nothing wrong with that. After all, the 2011 movie, “SOURCE CODE” used a similar method. And the 2000 movie, “FREQUENCY” featured the communication between father and son – across a period of thirty years via a shortwave radio. When I realized what the plot was about, I suspected “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” might prove to be the best film in the franchise.

The movie certainly featured a great deal that made it memorable. Unlike “FIRST CLASS”, “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” did an excellent job in re-creating the early 1970s. One has to thank John Myhre’s excellent production designs, along with Gordon Sim’s set decorations, the special effects team and Newton Thomas Sigel’s superb photography. I was especially impressed by Sigel’s photography and the special effects in the following scenes:

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More importantly, Louise Mingenbach did a much better job in creating costumes that adhere correctly to the movie’s setting (especially the early 1970s) than Sammy Sheldon did for the early 1960s costumes for “FIRST CLASS”.

“DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” also featured some excellent action sequences that left me feeling slightly dazzled. I especially enjoyed the two battles fought between the mutant and the Sentinels in the movie’s first five minutes and its last ten to twenty minutes, Mystique’s rescue of her fellow mutants from an Army base in South Vietnam, the rescue of Magneto from a Federal prison and especially Mystique’s attempt to assassinate Bolivar Trask at the latter’s meeting with North Vietnam generals, following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.

But action scenes, cinematography and special effects do not alone make a good movie. Thankfully, “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” featured some excellent dramatic scenes and a decent narrative – with some flaws. I must admit that I was impressed at how screenwriter Simon Kinberg carried over the early Xavier-Magneto relationship from “FIRST CLASS” in two scenes – Xavier greeting the recently imprisoned Magneto with a punch to the face and their embittered quarrel aboard Xavier’s private plane, as they fly to Paris. He also did an excellent job in carrying over the same for the two men’s relationship with Mystique. The first meeting – actually, I should say Magneto’s first meeting with Wolverine proved to be interesting. It did not take long for the animosity between the two to immediately spark. One of the best dramatic sequences proved to be – ironically – in the middle of the film’s last action scene that was set on the White House lawn. I am speaking of that moment in which Xavier tried to talk Mystique out of carrying out her plan to assassinate Trask. As for the sequences set in the 2020s, I cannot recall any memorable dramatic moments. But there is one unforgettable scene that linked the two time settings that I will never forget. It featured a conversation between the young and old Xavier, thanks to a psychic link set up by Logan. A great, dramatic and emotional moment.

I read on the Wikipedia site that “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” is regarded as the best film in the X-MEN franchise and the best reviewed. I feel that it had the potential to be the best in the franchise, thanks to its time travel theme. But . . . I am afraid it did not achieve that goal. At least for me. What tripped up this movie? Simon Kinberg’s screenplay. However, I cannot solely place the blame on him. As one of the producers and the director of the film, I believe Bryan Singer deserves most of the blame.

I read somewhere that Josh Helman had originally been hired to portray a younger version of Juggernaut, who was portrayed by Vinnie Jones in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. But the filmmakers changed their minds, dropped the Juggernaut character from the script and gave Helman the role of a younger William Stryker. And this was the biggest mistake that Singer, his crew and the rest of the producers made. A big mistake. The 2009 film, “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” made it clear that Stryker was the leader of a group of mutant mercenaries hired to help him develop his Weapons X project. Stryker was portrayed by the then 46-47 year-old Danny Huston, who portrayed Stryker as someone in his late thirties or early forties. I recall that Stryker had recruited both Logan and his half-brother, Victor Creed “Sabretooth” in Vietnam. Later, Logan had left the group in 1973. But there was no sign of Sabretooth and the other mutants working for Stryker in “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. And we are also supposed to be believe that a Stryker portrayed by a 26-27 year-old Josh Helman, was the son of a 10 year-old boy. Are they kidding? When I had pointed out this problem on the Internet, I was told that the audience was supposed to dismiss the 2009 movie as part of the franchise. What the hell? Was this really Singer’s idea of handling the continuity problem of William Stryker in this movie? If so, this is sloppy film writing at its worse.

The William Stryker character proved to be a problem in other areas of the story. In the movie, he is supposed to be Boliviar Trask’s Army liaison. Okay, I can buy that. But would an officer of the U.S. Army stand by silently, while Trask meets with a group of Communist military generals (especially from an army that had just been at war with the United States) in order to sell his Sentinel program? I rather doubt it. Even if Congress was not interested in using Trask’s program, I doubt it or Stryker would be so cavalier about Trask selling his program for combatant robots to military armies they would deem enemies of the U.S. The movie also featured a scene with President Richard M. Nixon discussing the chaos and violence caused by Mystique’s assassination attempt in Paris with his political and military advisers in the White House’s Oval Office. Nixon and his advisers are suddenly surprised by Trask and Stryker’s appearance, who were there to push the Sentinel program again. Guess what? I was also surprised. How did Trask and Stryker gain entry into the Oval Office without an appointment or security agents stopping them? How was it even possible?

Since I am on a roll, there are other matters in the script that I find questionable. For example . . . did anyone notice any similarities between the plot for “X-MEN UNITED” and this film? In the 2003 movie, Magneto hijacked William Stryker’s plans to use the kidnapped Xavier to kill all mutant in order to use his old friend against non-mutants. And in “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, Magneto (again) hijacked Trask’s Sentient robots that were created to kill mutants in order to bump of President Nixon and his advisers. Hmmmm . . . how unoriginal. And how was Magneto able to reprogram the prototype Sentinel robots in the first place? He had never displayed any technological skill or talent in the past. I read in Wikipedia’s recap of the movie’s plot that Magneto had intercepted the Sentinels that were in transit by rail and laced their polymer-based frames with steel, allowing him control of them. What the hell? I have never heard of such contrived bullshit in my life. I take that back. I just realized more contrived bullshit in the plot. When did Kitty Pryde acquire the ability to send a person’s consciousness back through time? Her ability is to phase through objects like walls, doors, etc. How did she acquire this second ability, when it was non-existent in the comics? According to Bryan Singer, Kitty’s phasing ability enables time travel. Hmmm. More bullshit to explain vague and bad writing. And speaking of the future segments, could someone explain what was going on the movie’s first action sequence that involved the younger mutants fighting Sentients . . . and nearly being wiped out? And yet, the next thing I know, all of them rendezvous with the older mutants in China – Xavier, Magneto, Ororo Munroe aka Storm, and Logan. So . . . could someone please explain in full detail what the hell was going on?

And could someone please explain why Storm ended up as a background character in this movie? All she did was stand around, while others around her talked . . . until a few minutes before her death. I read that actress Halle Berry was pregnant at the time of the movie’s production. All I can say is . . . so what? Rosamund Pike (her co-star from the 2002 Bond movie, “DIE ANOTHER DAY”) was pregnant during the production of “JACK REACHER”. She was not treated like a background character. And Berry could have been provided with a great deal more dialogue than she was given. There was no need for her to be involved in mainly action sequences. Also, I am at a loss on how Jean Grey and Scott Summers aka Cyclops ended up alive and well in the altered timeline. How? How on earth did their fates have anything to do with Trask’s Sentinels? It was Stryker’s actions in “X-2: X-MEN UNITED” that eventually led to Jean’s “death” in this movie and eventually hers and Scott’s actual deaths in “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. And I do not recall Stryker’s Army career being affected by Trask’s downfall by the end of this movie. Some fans claim that the post-credit scene of “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” explained how Xavier was resurrected, following his death at the hands of Jean. Uh . . . it did not explain anything to me. And you know what? Neither “THE WOLVERINE” or “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. Am I to assume that Xavier’s resurrection in the franchise’s movieverse will always remain a mystery?

The movie eventually revealed that the younger Magneto had been imprisoned for Kennedy’s assassination. As it turned out, Magneto was trying to save Kennedy’s life. Why? Because according to Magneto, the 35th President was a mutant. What was the point of this tidbit? To give Kennedy a reason for his . . . uh, liberal politics? Why was that necessary? Speaking of Magneto, I noticed in one scene that was dressed in this manner in order to retrieve his uniform and telepathy-blocking helmet:

Mind you, Michael Fassbender looked good. But honestly . . . why did his character, a forty-something year-old man who was born and raised in Europe, had to channel “Superfly” in order to retrieve is old uniform? I have one last quibble. This movie is supposed to be set around late January to early February, 1973; during the time when the Paris Peace Accords to end the Vietnam War were signed. Could someone explain why the weather conditions – for locations in the State of New York; Paris, France; and Washington D.C. – in the movie made it seem this story was set during the spring or summer? No one wore a heavy coat. Nor did I see signs of snow, blustery weather or trees with dead leaves.

Before one thinks I hate this movie, I do not. I believe “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” has a great deal of flaws. But it does have its merits. I have already commented on them, earlier in this review. But I have not touched upon the performances. Personally, I have no complaints about them. Sure, Halle Berry barely had any dialogue. Ian McKellen was slightly more fortunate, which I found surprising. Anna Paquin as Marie aka Rogue, Kelsey Grammer as the older Hank McCoy aka the Beast, Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, and James Marsden as Scott Summers aka Cyclops all made ten (10) seconds or more appearances at the end of the film. What a waste. However, Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde and Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake aka Iceman gave solid performances. So did Josh Helman , who made a very effective and scary younger William Stryker. Evan Peters gave a very entertaining and crowd-pleasing performance as supersonic mutant Peter Maximoff aka Quicksilver. I enjoyed Nicholas Hoult’s quiet, yet intense performance as the younger Hank McCoy. Hugh Jackman gave his usual intense and deliciously sardonic portrayal of the time traveling Logan aka Wolverine. However . . . I sense that he is getting a bit too old to be portraying a mutant that barely ages. And his physique looked extremely muscular . . . even more so than he did at the age of 31 in 2000’s “X-MEN”. In fact, his body looked downright unnatural and heavily veined.

However, there were outstanding performances in the movie. Patrick Stewart did an excellent job in conveying the many aspects of the older Xavier’s emotional reactions to the war against the Sentients. Also, both he and McKellen continued their first-rate chemistry as the former foes who had renewed their friendship. Both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continued their strong screen chemistry as the younger Xavier and Magneto. I was especially impressed by their performances in the scene that featured their quarrel aboard Xavier’s private plane. And remember the rapture I had expressed over the scene that featured the two Xaviers? Well, one should thank both Stewart and McAvoy for making it so memorable. Peter Dinklage gave an outstanding performance as the intelligent mastermind behind the Sentient robots, Bolivar Trask. But the best performance, I believe, came from Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the younger Mystique, who seemed hellbent upon assassinating the man she perceived as a threat to the mutants’ future. She was all over the place . . . and in the right way. I found her performance a lot more impressive than the one she gave in “FIRST CLASS”.

Unlike many other fans of the X-MEN movies, I was not particularly impressed by the news that Bryan Singer had returned to direct this latest film for the franchise. I was more impressed by the movie’s theme of time travel. “DAYS OF FUTURE” had a lot to offer – colorful visual effects, great dramatic moments, superb action sequences and some excellent performances by the cast. But the inconsistencies that popped up in the movie’s plot were too many for me to dismiss. And I believe that in the end, those inconsistencies prevented the movie from achieving its potential to be the best in the X-MEN franchise. Hmmm . . . too bad.

 

 

 

 

 

“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

The fandom surrounding the 2002 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” has always struck me as somewhat a fickle affair. When the movie first hit the theaters over eleven years ago, many critics and film fans had declared the movie a major improvement over its predecessor, 1999’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Some even went out of their way to declare it as the second best STAR WARS movie ever made. Another three to five years passed before the critics and fans’ judgement went through a complete reversal. Now, the movie is considered one of the worst, if not the worst film in the franchise.

Well, I am not going to examine what led to this reversal of opinion regarding “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Instead, I am going to reveal my own opinion of the movie. Before I do, here is the plot. Set ten (10) years after “THE PHANTOM MENACE”, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” begins with the Republic on the brink of a civil war, thanks to a former Jedi Master named Count Dooku. Disgruntled by the growing corruption of the Galactic Senate and the Jedi Order’s complacency, Dooku has formed a group of disgruntled planetary systems called the Separatists. the Galactic Senate is debating a plan to create an army for the Republic to assist the Jedi against the Separatist threat. Senator Padmé Amidala, the former queen of Naboo, returns to Coruscant to vote on a Senate proposal to create an army for the Republic. However, upon her arrival, she barely escapes an assassination attempt.

The Jedi Order, with the agreement of Chancellor Palpatine and the Senate, assigns Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and his padawan (apprentice) of ten years, Anakin Skywalker, to guard Padmé. A contracted assassin named Zam Wessell makes another attempt on Padmé, but is foiled by Obi-Wan and Anakin. They chase her to a Coruscant nightclub, where they capture her. During their interrogation of Wessell, she is killed by her employer with a poisonous dart. The Jedi Council orders Obi-Wan to investigate the assassination attempt and learn the identity of Wessell’s employer. The Council also assigns Anakin as Padmé’s personal escort, and accompany her back to her home planet of Naboo. Obi-Wan’s investigation leads to a cloning facility on the planet of Kamino, where an army of clones are being manufactured for the Republic and Zam Wessell’s employer, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett. Not long after their arrival on Naboo, Anakin and Padmé become romantically involved, while aware of the former’s status as a member of the Jedi Order.

I could discuss the aspects of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that seem to repel a good number of fans. But that would take a separate article and I am not in the mood to tackle it. There were some aspects that I personally found questionable. One of those aspects was the handling of the character Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas. When Kamino Prime Minister Lama Su had informed Obi-Wan that a Sifo-Dyas had ordered a clone army for the Republic, I assumed that Count Dooku had impersonated his former colleague, following the latter’s death. It seemed so simple to me. Yet, a novel called “Labyrinth of Evil” revealed that the Jedi Master had been tricked into ordering the army by Chancellor Palpatine before being murdered by Dooku. Now, I realize that I am actually criticizing the plot of a novel, instead of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, but every time I watch this movie, I find myself wishing that Dooku had ordered the clone army, while impersonating Sifo-Dyas. But I do have a few genuine complaints. Physically, Daniel Logan made an impressive young Boba Fett. However, it was pretty easy for me to see that the kid was no actor. Oh well. I also wish that Lucas and screenwriter Jonathan Hales had proved a longer scene to establish the antipathy that seemed to be pretty obvious between Anakin Skywalker and his stepbrother, Owen Lars. Instead, their scenes together merely featured some low-key dialogue and plenty of attitude from both Hayden Christensen and Joel Edgerton. Oh well. And if I must be honest, Count Dooku’s lightsaber duel against Obi-Wan and Anakin on Geonosis proved to be rather lackluster and short.

Many fans have complained about the love confession scene between Anakin and Padmé at the latter’s Naboo lakeside villa. Although, I have a problem with the scene, as well; my complaint is different. Many believed that the scene made Anakin look like a sexual stalker. Frankly, I have no idea how they came to that conclusion. It seemed obvious to me that Lucas had based the Anakin/Padmé romance on something called courtly love. However, it was also obvious to me that Christensen seemed incapable of dealing with the flowery language featured in courtly love. I am not stating that he is a bad actor. There were many scenes in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that made it clear to me that he is a first-rate actor. But . . . the movie was shot when he was 19 years old. It is obvious that he was too young to handle such flowery dialogue. He was not the first. I still have memories of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy’s questionable attempts at the fast dialogue style from movies of the 1930s and 40 featured in the 2007 movie, “ATONEMENT”. Like Christensen before them, they were too young to successfully deal with an unfamiliar dialogue style.

Despite the above flaws, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” remains one of my top two favorite STAR WARS movies of all time. Why? One, I love the story. Many fans do not. I do. It has an epic scale that some of the other movies in the franchise, save for “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, seemed to lack. And I feel that Lucas and Hales did an excellent job of allowing the story to flow from a simple political assassination attempt to the outbreak of a major galactic civil war. During this 142 minute film, the movie also featured some outstanding action, romance between two young and inexperienced people, a mystery that developed into a potential political scandal, family tragedy that proved to have a major consequence in the next film and war. The best aspect of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – at least for me – were the complex issues that added to the eventual downfalls of the major characters.

Naturally, Lucas provided some outstanding action sequences in the movie. I mean . . . they really were. I would be hard pressed to select my favorite action scene from the following list:

*Coruscant chase scene
*Obi-Wan vs. Jango Fett fight scene on Kamino
*Obi-Wan tracks the Fetts to Geonosis
*Anakin’s search for the kidnapped Shmi Skywalker on Tatooine
*Anakin and Padmé’s arrival on Geonosis
*The Geonosis arena fight sequence
*The outbreak of the Clones War

Earlier, I had complained about Obi-Wan and Anakin’s lackluster duel against Count Dooku. But . . . Dooku’s duel against Jedi Master Yoda more than made up for the first duel. I thought it was an outstanding action sequence that beautifully blended the moves of both CGI Yoda figure and actor Christopher Lee’s action double. More importantly, this duel between a Jedi Master and his former padawan beautifully foreshadowed the conflict between another master/padawan team in the following movie.

However, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” was not simply an action film with little narrative. It had its share of excellent dramatic moments. Among my favorites are Anakin and Obi-Wan’s rather tense quarrel over the Jedi mandate regarding Padmé’s protection; Chancellor Palpatine’s pep talk to Anakin before the latter’s departure from Coruscant; Anakin and Padmé’s conversation about love and the Jedi mandate; Obi-Wan’s conversations with diner owner Dexter “Dex” Jettster, Count Dooku and especially his tense encounter with Jango Fett; Jedi Masters Yoda and Mace Windu’s conversation about the Clone Army; and finally Anakin and Padmé’s poignant declaration of love. But if I had to choose the best dramatic scene, it would Anakin’s final conversation with his dying mother, Shmi Skywalker. Not only was the scene filled with pathos, drama and tragedy; both Christensen and actress Pernilla August gave superb performances in it. Many fans have complained about the Anakin/Padmé romance in the film. I suspect a good number of them have a problem with Padmé falling in love with a future Sith Lord, especially after he had tearfully confessed to slaughtering the Tusken Raiders responsible for his mother’s death. Perhaps they wanted a modern-style love story, similar to the one featured in the first trilogy. Or they had a problem with the love confession scene. Although I had a problem with the latter, I definitely did not have problem with the romance overall. One, I never believed it should be an exact replica of the main romance featured in the Original Trilogy. And two, it featured other scenes building up to the romance that I found more than satisfying – especially Anakin and Padmé’s Naboo picnic and their declaration of love, while entering the Geonosis arena.

When talking about the acting in any STAR WARS movie, one has to consider the franchise’s occasional, yet notorious forays into cheesy dialogue. And if I must be frank, I have yet to encounter one actor able to rise above the cheesiness. But despite the cheesy dialogue, the saga has provided some first-class performances. They were certainly on display in“ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Ewan McGregor became the saga’s new leading actor following the promotion of his character, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Jedi Knight. And he did an excellent job as the straight-laced knight who continued to be wary of his padawan of ten years. McGregor also handled his action scenes with the same amount of grace he handled his performance. Instead of a stoic monarch, Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala has become a Senator for her home planet of Naboo. This has allowed Portman to portray her character with more force and vibrancy, much to my relief. And Padmé’s romance in this film allowed Portman to inject a good deal of passion into her performance. Hayden Christensen took over the role of Jedi padawan Anakin Skywalker with a great deal of criticism. Much of the criticism against him came from two scenes – Anakin’s confession of love for Padmé and a comment regarding a dislike of Tatooine’s sandy terrain. I do not understand the criticism about the sand line, since I have no problems with it. I have already expressed my complaints about the love confession scene. But I still felt that Christensen did an excellent job in portraying a 19 year-old Anakin, who lacked any real experience in romance and at the same time, harbored frustration and a good deal of angst regarding his Jedi master’s tight leash upon him. And at the same time, the actor did an excellent job in conveying the more intimidating (and scary) side of his character.

“ATTACK OF THE CLONES” featured other first-rate or solid performances. Ayesha Dharker gave a solid performance laced with amusement as Padmé’s successor as Naboo’s ruler, Queen Jamillia. Ahmed Best returned as Gungan Jar Jar Binks, now Naboo’s political representative for the Galactic Senate in a downsized role. Rose Byrne had a brief appearance as one of Padmé’s handmaidens, Dormé. Frankly, I found Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse’s roles as Owen and Beru Lars equally brief. However, both Edgerton and Christensen still managed to convey some hostility between the two stepbrothers with very little dialogue. Jimmy Smits’ performance as Prince/Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan, future stepfather of Princess Leia Organa, was brief, yet solid.

The more impressive performances from Samuel L. Jackson, who was given a lot more to do in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially in the last third of the movie. And if there is one thing about Jackson, once a director gives him an inch, he will take it and give it his all. He certainly did in the Geonosis sequence. Christopher Lee made his first appearance in the STAR WARS as former Jedi Master Count Dooku. He was elegant, commanding and very memorable in the role. I could probably say the same about Temuera Morrison, who was marvelous as the bounty hunter, Jango Fett. This was especially in the Obi-Wan/Jango confrontation scene on Kamino. Both Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels returned to portray droids R2-D2 and C3PO. Baker did a good job, as usual. But Daniels was really hilarious as finicky Threepio, who found himself in the middle of a battle with crazy results. And I will never forget his line – “Die Jedi dog! Die!”Pernilla August returned to portray Shmi Skywalker and probably gave one of the best performance in both the Prequel Trilogy and the saga overall. I found her portrayal beautiful and poignant. Both she and Christensen brought tears to my eyes. When I first saw “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, I was surprised to see Jack Thompson in the role of Cliegg Lars, Shmi’s husband and Anakin’s stepfather. I must say that he gave a wonderfully gruff, yet poignant performance. And finally, there was Ian McDiarmid. Oh God! He was just wonderful. It is a pity that his role only made brief appearances in the film. I really enjoyed the actor’s take on his character’s subtle manipulations of others.

Watching “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, it occurred to me that it was one of the most beautiful looking films in the franchise. Between David Tattersall’s photography, Ben Burtt’s editing, Gavin Bocquet’s production designs and the art designs created by a team led by Peter Russell, my mind was blown on many occasions by the film’s visual effects. I was especially impressed by the work featured in the Naboo scenes (filmed in Italy), the Coruscant sequences and especially those scenes set on the water-logged planet, Kamino. And yet, there is one scene that I always found memorable, whenever I watched the movie:

starwars2-movie-screencaps.com-14515

But one cannot discuss a Prequel Trilogy movie without bringing up the name of costume designer Trisha Biggar. Her work in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially the costumes worn by Natalie Portman – blew the costumes she made for“THE PHANTOM MENACE” out of the water. For example:

Padme 6

Padme 4

Padme 1

The Hollywood movie industry should be ashamed of itself for its failure to honor this woman for her beautiful work.

What else can I say about “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”? It is not perfect. I have never seen a STAR WARS movie that I would describe as perfect. But my recent viewing of this film has reminded me of how much I love it. Even after eleven years or so. To this day, I have George Lucas to thank, along with the talented cast and crew that contributed to this film. To this day, I view “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” as one of the two best films in the franchise.

“THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

Throughout Hollywood history, the topic of the American Civil War has proven to be a volatile mix in terms of box office and television ratings. Robert Redford’s new drama about President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination called “THE CONSPIRATOR”proved to be the case. 

Directed by Redford and written by James D. Solomon, “THE CONSPIRATOR” told the story about Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken’s efforts to prevent Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the Lincoln assassination during the spring and summer of 1865. Following the 16th President’s death and near fatal attack upon Secretary of State William H. Seward, a Maryland-born boarding house owner and Confederate sympathizer named Mary Surratt becomes among those arrested in connection to the crime. The Federal government, under the authority of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, is convinced of Mrs. Surratt’s guilt because of her son John’s connections to assassin John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators. Mrs. Surratt’s case was not helped by the fact that they had used her Washington D.C. boardinghouse as a meeting place; or that John managed to evade capture by the Federal authorities following the assassination.

Mrs. Surratt summoned a fellow native of Maryland, U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson, to defend her before a military tribunal. But political pressure from Stanton and others forced Johnson to recruit Aiken to represent Mrs. Surratt at the tribunal. Unfortunately, the 27 year-old Aiken lacked any previous experience inside a courtroom. The young attorney’s initial belief in Mrs. Surratt’s guilt and reluctance to defend her disappeared, as he became aware of possible evidence that might exonerate his client and that she was being used as a hostage and bait to lure her son John to the authorities through foul means.

“THE CONSPIRATOR” proved to be one of those Civil War movies that failed to generate any interest at the box office. Most moviegoers ignored it. Many critics bashed it, claiming it was another of Robert Redford’s thinly veiled metaphors on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I must be honest. I found this particular criticism worthy of some head scratching. Perhaps those critics had been right. But I must admit that I failed to see the metaphor. The manner in which the Army tribunal railroaded Mary Surratt to a date with a hangman’s noose sadly struck me as a very common occurrence throughout history. The wealthy and the powerful have never been reluctant to destroy someone they deemed as a threat or a convenient scapegoat.

Superficially, Mary Surratt seemed like the type of person toward whom I would harbor any sympathy. The Maryland-born woman had been a Confederate sympathizer. I personally found her political and social beliefs abhorrent. Yet, by revealing the lies and manipulations that she had endured at the hands of the Army tribunal and Federal government, both Redford andscreenwriter Solomon did an excellent job in igniting my sympathy. Mary Surratt’s experiences also reminded me that they could happen to anyone – even today. The idea of so much power against one individual or a particular group is frightening to behold, regardless if that individual is a slave, a Confederate sympathizer under arrest or an early 21st century citizen.

Aside from displaying the dangers of absolute powers, “THE CONSPIRATOR” succeeded on two other points – at least for me. I found the movie’s basic narrative well written and paced to a certain degree. Both Redford and Solomon had been wise to focus the movie’s plot on Mrs. Surratt’s case. They could have included the testimonies regarding the other conspirators, but that could have resulted in a great deal of chaos. However, the other defendants’ participation in the conspiracy against the Lincoln Administration was utilized in an excellent sequence that conveyed the events surrounding President Lincoln’s assassination, the attempt on William Seward’s life, John Wilkes Booth’s death and the subsequent arrests. With this excellent introduction, the movie smoothly segued into Frederick Aiken’s efforts to defend Mrs. Surratt.

However, no movie is perfect. And “THE CONSPIRATOR” had its own imperfections. My main problem centered on three characters – a close friend of Aiken’s named Nicholas Baker, who was portrayed by Justin Long; actress Alexis Bledel’s portrayal of Aiken’s fiancee, Sarah Weston; and the presence of Oscar winner Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. My only problem with Bledel was that her performance struck me as mediocre. No amount of romantic scenes or beautiful 19th century costumes could alleviate her performance. Justin Long’s presence proved to be a waste of time – at least for me. One, Redford and Solomon included a meaningless scene featuring the aftermath of a nameless Civil War battle with both James McAvoy’s Aiken and Long lying on the ground, wounded. What was the point of this scene? To establish Aiken’s devotion to the Union cause in the form of his friend, Baker? If so, I feel it failed to achieve this. Long was further wasted as one of the two friends who tried to convince Aiken not to defend Mrs. Surratt. Actually, James Badge Dale, who portrayed the young attorney’s other friend, William Hamilton, was used more effectively for this task. Long merely hung around slightly drunk or sober, as he grunted his disapproval toward Aiken. And I cannot understand why Redford even bothered to include his character in the plot. Also wasted was Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Edwin H. Stanton. Aside from convincing Reverdy Johnson not to personally defend Mrs. Surratt, barking instructions to government lackeys following the incidents at Ford’s Theater and Seward’s home, and ignoring Aiken’s attempts to contact him; Kline’s Stanton did nothing. I had expected some kind of confrontation between Aiken and Stanton . . . again, nothing happened.

Fortunately for “THE CONSPIRATOR”, the good outweighed the bad. This was certainly apparent in the rest of the cast. I would never consider Frederick Aiken to be one of James McAvoy’s best roles. But I cannot deny that he did an admirable job in transforming Aiken’s character from a reluctant legal defender to his client’s most ardent supporter. He also infused the right mixture of passion, anger and growing cynicism into his character. I have seen Robin Wright only in a small number of roles. But I do believe that Mary Surratt might prove to be one of her best in a career that has already spanned over twenty years. What truly impressed me about Wright’s performance was her ability to avoid portraying Surratt as some ladylike martyr that barely did or said anything to avoid conviction. Although Wright’s Surratt did suffer, she also conveyed grit and determination to alleviate her situation.

The majority of the cast for “THE CONSPIRATOR” gave solid performances. There were a few I considered standouts among the supporting cast. One of them turned out to be Danny Huston’s intense portrayal of the prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt. Evan Rachel Wood superbly guided Anna Surratt’s character from a defiantly supportive daughter to a young woman on the edge of despair. Despite a slightly unconvincing Maryland accent, Tom Wilkinson gave an intelligent performance as U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson. I could also say the same about James Badge Dale’s portrayal of William Hamilton, one of Aiken’s friends, who proved to be a wise adviser. As for actor Toby Kebbell, I have to admit that he made a convincing John Wilkes Booth.

I cannot deny that Robert Redford and screenwriter James Solomon made a few missteps with the plot and at least two characters for “THE CONSPIRATOR”. But as I had stated earlier, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Both director and screenwriter provided moviegoers with a fascinating and frightening look into the abuse of power during a famous historic event. And they were backed by excellent performances from the likes of James McAvoy and Robin Wright. I only hope that one day, audiences might overlook Redford’s current negative reputation as a filmmaker and give “THE CONSPIRATOR” a second chance.

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (2011) Review

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (2011) Review

Recently, I came across a comment that the last “X-MEN” movie, 2009’s “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE”, had been a failure. I found this opinion surprising, considering that it actually made a profit at the box office. Failure or not, Marvel Studios decided to continue the movie franchise with a fifth entry called “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is, like the 2009 movie, another origins tale. Only it traced the beginnings of the two friends-turned-adversaries, Charles “Professor X” Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr. The movie began in a scene straight out of 2000’s “X-MEN” – at a concentration camp in 1944 Poland. While young Erik Lensherr was being separated from his parents by Nazi guards, he displayed an ability for magnetism manipulation by tearing at one of the camp’s gates. This ability attracted the attention of the camp’s scientist, Dr. Klaus Schmidt, who tried to coerce Erik into using his ability again by threatening his mother with death. Unfortunately, Erik failed and Dr. Schmidt killed Mrs. Lensherr. At an estate in Westchester, New York of the same year, young Charles Xavier awakened from a deep sleep by a noise from the kitchen. He investigated and found his mother searching for something to eat. However, being a telepath, Charles was able to discover that he was facing a stranger. The stranger turned out to be a young, blue-skinned shapeshifter named Raven “Mystique” Darkhölme. Charles invited the young stranger to stay at the Xavier mansion and the two became close friends.

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” jumped another eighteen years forward to 1962. Charles Xavier has become an instructor on genetics at Oxford University. Raven has remained his close companion in a sibling-like capacity. Erik Lensherr has spent the last decade or so, hunting down Nazis that escaped prosecution by the Allies – especially those who had served at the concentration camp where he had been imprisoned. He has especially become interested in finding and killing Dr. Schmidt out of revenge for his mother’s death. The story shifted to Las Vegas, Nevada; where one Moira MacTaggart and other CIA agents are investigating the Hellfire Club, a social organization led by Sebastian Shaw (aka Dr. Schmidt). After infiltrating the club as an “escort”, Moira discovered that Shaw and his mutant followers – Emma Frost, Azazel, and Riptide – are intimidating a high ranking Army officer into relocating military missiles to Turkey. Moira sought help from Charles and Raven to provide information to her CIA bosses about mutants. They also met Erik, during a trip to Miami to track down Shaw. After preventing Erik from drowning during an attempt to kill Shaw, Charles became close friends with the Holocaust survivor; as they work with Moira and the CIA to bring down Shaw.

Personally, I do not believe that “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” deserved its low reputation. I thought it was a pretty damn good movie – not perfect, but entertaining. However, I do believe I could say the same about “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. I would add that it might be better than the 2009 film. Despite its flaws. In fact, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”turned out to be a cleverly written movie that managed to weave two historical events – the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis – into its plot. Director Matthew Vaughn did an excellent job in maintaining an even pace for a movie not only filled with exciting and occasionally exaggerated action sequences and dramatic scenes. But aside from the director, the movie’s main virtue proved to be its first-rate cast.

Someone once pointed out that the X-MEN movie franchise did an excellent job of using the topic of “mutation” or psychic abilities to reflect upon the themes of bigotry and tolerance in our society. This theme became even more relevant, considering the movie’s setting of 1962 – a period that reflected the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I can go further and commend screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Vaughn for daring to explore all aspects of the bigotry experienced and engaged by the characters.

Some of the movie’s main characters experienced intolerance at the hands of others. Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr not only suffered under the Nazi regime as a Jew, but also endured the U.S. government’s (in the form of C.I.A. officials) wariness and contempt toward mutants, as did fellow mutants such as Charles Xavier, Raven Darkhölme, Hank McCoy and the group of young mutants they had recruited. C.I.A. officials Director McCone and William Stryker Sr. (father of the villain from the second and fourth movies) were ready to imprison Charles and Raven upon discovering their mutations. Fortunately, one C.I.A. man in particular – the nameless Man in Black – prevented this from happening. The script also focused upon the two mutants regarded as “odd men out” because their mutations were reflected physically. Raven’s natural blue skin led her to maintain a “human” form that allowed her to blend with other humans and mutants. And C.I.A. scientist who constantly wore shoes to hide his mutation – animal-like feet. Their desperation to blend with the others on a regular basis led Hand to create a formula that eventually backfired.

Finally, the movie also focused on those mutants that viewed their mutation as signs of their superiority over non-mutant humans. Characters such as villain Sebastian Shaw and his Hellfire Club followers, and eventually Erik and Raven allowed their dislike toward humans to manifest into a bigotry that encouraged them to engage in plots of genocide that made the Nazis, North Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries and other bigoted societies look like amateurs. One such plot served as the background of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. The movie revolved around Sebastian Shaw’s efforts to use his connections to the U.S. and Soviet military to start a third world war between the superpowers. Such a war would bring humanity to the brink of extinction, allowing mutants (with Shaw as the leader) to dominate the world. This plot eventually resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The producers of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” chose the right actors to portray the younger versions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. James McAvoy perfectly captured all of Charles’ intelligence, talent for leadership and subtle wit. He also delved deeper into the character’s idealism and occasional naivety. And McAvoy gave audiences an audacious peek into Charles’ penchant for little seduction with pick-up lines that were both charming and wince-inducing. Michael Fassbender portrayed all of the intensity and anger of the vengeance-seeking Erik Lensherr. Every once in a while, an actor comes along with the ability to perfectly walk the fine line between heroism and villainy. Fassbender certainly achieved this in his portrayal of Erik. And looking at the screen chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender, it seemed a pity that they had never shared a scene when they appeared in the 2001 miniseries, “BAND OF BROTHERS”. Because they were dynamite together.

The supporting cast also proved to be top-notch. The X-MEN movieverse has always provided first-rate villains. Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of the villainous Sebastian Shaw/Dr. Schmidt was no exception. If I must be honest, his Shaw may prove to be my favorite “X-MEN” villain. Aside from intelligence, wit and a taste for grandiose plotting and gadgets that rivaled a Bond villain, Bacon injected a joie de vivre into Shaw’s character that I found very entertaining. Some critics and fans have criticized January Jones’ portrayal of Shaw’s consort, Emma Frost, accusing her of being “wooden”. I am sorry, but I do not agree with this opinion. Yes, Jones portrayed Emma as Miss ‘Cool Hand Luke’. But she also did a first rate job of conveying the character’s strong attraction to Shaw and dislike of his occasional sexist attitudes. And thanks to her subtle comic timing, she provided the movie’s funniest moment in a scene that featured Emma having ‘telepathic’ sex with a Soviet general. Her reaction to being caught had me laughing in the aisle. Instead of Rebecca Romijn, the film’s producers chose Jennifer Lawrence to portray the younger Raven Darkhölme aka Mystique. And I thought she did a pretty damn good job. I have nothing against Romijn’s portrayal of Mystique, but I believe that Lawrence was given a better opportunity for a deeper exploration of the character . . . and she made the best of it. The movie also featured fine support from the likes of Rose Byrne as C.I.A. agent and ally Moira MacTaggart, Nicholas Hoult as the young Hank McCoy, Jason Flemyng as the frightening teleporter Azazel, Oliver Platt as the C.I.A. ‘Man in Black’, and Zoë Kravitz’s subtle and passionate performance as mutant Angel Salvadore.

As I had earlier hinted, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is not perfect. I believe it has two major flaws that prevented it from potentially becoming the best film in the franchise. The movie’s biggest flaw proved to be its lack of continuity with the other four films. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” included the beginning of Charles Xavier’s paralysis and the end of his partnership with Erik Lensherr. Yet, Charles was still walking and working with Erik in a flashback set around the beginning of the 1980s in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. I am aware that Raven’s cells allowed her to mature very slowly. But did the same happen to Dr. Hank McCoy? He was in his early-to-mid 20s in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. Yet, he looked somewhere in his 40s in the third “X-MEN”, which was set some 40 years later. And the Emma Frost portrayed by actress Tahyna Tozzi in “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” looked at least five to ten years younger than January Jones’ Emma in this latest film. And “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is supposed to be set 17 years before the 2009 film. Charles began his school for young mutants in this movie. However, he told Wolverine in 2000’s “X-MEN” that Scott “Cyclops” Summers and Jean Grey were his first students. They are no where to be seen and quite frankly, I could have done without this early edition of the Xavier School of Mutants. I found it annoying.

Another major problem proved to be the film’s costumes – especially for women. The movie is set mainly in 1962. Yet, Sammy Sheldon’s costumes reflected the late 1960s, not the early years of that decade. Just to prove my point, look at the following photographs:

1962 Fashions For Women

January Jones in “MAD MEN” Season Two (set in 1962)

January Jones in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (set in 1962)

In fact, the costumes and hairstyles for other female characters DO NOT reflect the year 1962, as well:

 

Both actresses Rose Byrne and Zoë Kravitz are wearing knee-high boots, which WERE NOT in fashion in 1962.

Yes, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS” had some major flaws. But I cannot deny that I still managed to enjoy the movie very much. Screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn wrote a flawed, but very entertaining and epic story. The movie also boasted first-rate performances from a cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. And Vaughn brought all of these factors together with some fine direction. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”has made me an even bigger fan of the franchise and I would heartily recommend it for anyone’s viewing pleasure.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Four “Replacements” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Four “Replacements” CommentaryIn the last episode, ”Carentan”, yet-to-be-announced First Sergeant Carwood Lipton announced to Normandy veterans Easy Company that they would be returning to France. Instead, a conversation between Sergeant Bill Guarnere and a group of replacements reveal that Easy Company never did. Eventually Easy Company did return to the Continent when they were deployed to the Netherlands to participate in the doomed Operation Market Garden campaign. ”Replacements” centered on Sergeant Denver “Bull” Randleman and his experiences during Operation Market Garden and with the replacements in his platoon. One of them included Edward “Babe” Heffron, who hailed from the same Philadelphia neighborhood as Guarnere (this was established at the end of Carentan”). The other three include Antonio Garcia, James Miller and Lester “Leo” Hashey. Through both his and their eyes, viewers get to experience Easy Company’s trouble-free jump into Holland, the Dutch citizens’ joyous reaction to their presence in Eindhoven and their disastrous encounter with battle-hardened S.S. troops – one of many encounters that led to the failure of Operation Market Garden. Following Easy Company’s retreat from Eindhoven, a wounded “Bull” Randleman finds himself trapped in the German-occupied town and is forced to find his way back to Easy Company and the American lines.

”Replacements” turned out to be a decent episode, but it was one that did not knock my socks off. It featured a terrifying battle in which Easy Company was forced to retreat in defeat. And it also gave viewers an interesting view in the mindsets of replacement troops like Garcia, Miller and Hashey; who seemed to regard Randleman and the other Toccoa trained men with awe. In scenes that featured Easy Company’s brief liberation of Eindhoven, the episode revealed the cruel fates inflicted by the Dutch citizens upon local women who had collaborated (had sex) with some of the occupying German troops. And viewers got to enjoy more scenes featuring some of the men engaging in small talk that revealed more of their personalities. The episode also had interesting scenes that featured Lewis Nixon’s brief brush with death (a bullet in his helmet) and Winters’ reaction, Easy Company’s brief reunion with Herbert Sobel, who had become a supply officer; and David Webster, Don Hoobler and Robert Van Klinken’s humorous encounter with a Dutch farmer and his son. However, ”Replacements” belonged to one particular character, namely Denver “Bull” Randleman. Screenwriters Graham Yost and Bruce C. McKenna did a solid job in both his characterization and the Holland experiences of the Arkansas-born sergeant. One of the episode’s more harrowing scenes featured a violent encounter between a wounded Randleman and a German soldier inside a barn, while the owner – a Dutch farmer – and his daughter look on.

But Randleman’s experiences during Operation Market Garden would have never been that effective without Michael Cudlitz’s subtle performance as the quiet and imposing Randleman. With very little dialogue, Cudlitz conveyed the veteran’s battle experiences and emotions through body language, facial expressions and the use of his eyes. He made it easy for me to see why the troopers of First Platoon and even the company’s officers held with such high regard. Cutdliz was ably supported by the likes of Dexter Fletcher’s sardonic portrayal of First Platoon’s other NCO, John Martin; Frank John Hughes’ amusing performance as the verbose Bill Guarnere; and Peter McCabe, who turned out to be one of the few British actors who perfectly captured the accent and speech patterns of an American combatant in his portrayal of the aggressive Donald Hoobler. Also, it was nice to see David Schwimmer again as Easy Company’s much reviled former commander, Herbert Sobel in a more subtle performance. Portraying the inexperienced replacement troops were James McAvoy (James Miller), Douglas Spain (Antonio C. Garcia) and Mark Huberman (Lester “Leo” Hashey). And each actor did a solid job in portraying their characters’ inexperience, awe of the veteran Toccoa men and their determination to prove themselves in combat.

However, ”Replacements” had its problems. One, the opening scene at the English pub featured Walter Gordon revealing Carwood Lipton as the company’s new first sergeant. And this moment really seemed out of place, considering that Lipton was already acting like the new first sergeant at the end of ”Carentan”. Aside from the battle scene, I must admit that this was not an exciting episode. Like ”Day of Days”, it featured a major historical event – in this case, Operation Market Garden – that had exciting moments, but lacked an epic quality that would have suited such a topic. Allowing the episode a longer running time would have been a step in the right direction. And if I must be honest, I got the feeling that not much really happened in this episode, in compare to ”Day of Days”.

But, ”Replacements” turned out to be a decent episode. Although it lacked an epic quality for a story about Easy Company’s experiences during Operation Market Garden, it did feature an exciting battle that resulted in defeat for them. And Michael Cutdliz gave a subtle and first-class performance as the episode’s central character, “Bull” Randleman.