MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: X-MEN and X2: X-MEN UNITED

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With X-Men: Days Of Future Past having just opened, I thought it would be fun to look back at the first two flicks that started this comic book-based film series, one that is still ongoing…

 

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X-MEN  (2000)

I never read the X-Men comics though, I am familiar with some of the characters but, as far as the mythos, I take the films for what they are and rate them as movies and not in comparison with the story-lines from the comics.

The first film opens with a scene set in a concentration camp during WWII of a young boy who shows extraordinary power when separated from his mother. Decades later it is revealed that beings with special abilities of all kinds, dubbed mutants, have evolved among us and some government officials, especially a Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), are proposing to make mutant registration a law. Fighting against this form of discrimination are two factions. One, Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) a powerful telepath who wants nothing but, peace between human and mutant alike, and the other, Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), also known as Magneto, a man who has the power to manipulate metal and feels that humans are inferiors who are meant to be ruled and dominated, not trusted. Magneto was the boy we saw in the opening scene and his experience in a concentration camp is what paints his refusal to trust humans ever again. Magneto and his fellow mutants Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Toad (Ray Park) and the massive Sabertooth (Tyler Mane) have hatched a plan to turn a group of world leaders into mutants themselves at a crucial summit at Ellis Island. Xavier and his own team of mutants, Storm (Halle Berry), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) have been trying to stop Magneto and his plans of conquest and with the arrival of the rebellious and quick-tempered mystery man Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the power absorbing Rogue (Anna Paquin), the odds may have shifted… but, in who’s favor?… as one of these new recruits may be crucial to Lehnsherr’s success.

Director Bryan Singer not only creates a fun superhero flick from David Hayter’s screenplay but, adds some very nice dramatic intensity and emotional resonance along with the underlying themes about tolerance and respecting each other for who we are. He gives the film a more down-to-earth look and setting, choosing to present a more grounded approach as how such a story might transpire if it occurred in the modern world and not a more comic book-style fantasy world. And it works very well integrating some fantastic characters into a real world setting and makes these characters very human and identifiable despite their unique powers. Singer takes his material very seriously and let’s it’s moments of unobtrusive humor come from the witty dialog and script and the talent of his cast to deliver those lines and moments. And it’s blend of intensity and subtle wit is what really makes this work so well. Add to it a very fitting score from Michael Kamen and some crisp cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and you have a superhero flick that ranks among the best.

As for the cast. Singer has a really good collection of actors to work with from veterans Stewart and McKellen who bring nobilty and strength to the roles of Xavier and Magneto respectively. Powerful men from two opposite views who are both friends and opponents at the same time, which creates a very intriguing dynamic on screen. Jackman, in my opinion, makes a great Wolverine, giving him a sort of super-powered Snake Plissken vibe that makes the character very cool and endearing. And despite his harsh exterior, Jackman gives him a soul that peeks through enough to give the character some dimensionality. Rounding out are Berry, Paquin, Janssen and Marsden all giving some nice personality to their heroes as Romijn-Stamos, Park and Tyler Mane create worthy adversaries giving weight to their villainous turns. A good cast having a good time with their characters and it helps make this film work all the more better.

I really enjoy this flick, it has a bit smaller scale then some of the superhero epics that have followed but, that works in it’s favor by introducing a few of the more popular characters and letting us get to know them before steadily expanding the universe in future installments. It has a solid cast, a lot of action and some well executed SPFX but, also some emotional depth and nice character development too. Thus making it solid popcorn entertainment with a more substantial center. Like having a fine meal and a delicious dessert at the same time.

3 and 1/2 X-Men.

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X2 ONE SHEET A • Art Machine Job#5263 • Version A •  02/28/03

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X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

With Magneto (Ian McKellen) behind plastic bars the humans feel safer until an attack on The President Of The U.S. by a teleporting mutant named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) provokes drastic measures allowing mutant hating Black Ops operative William Striker (Brian Cox) to receive permission to raid Prof. Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school. But, Striker’s plans run deeper and has a far more sinister goal in regards to the world’s mutants. With Xavier in Striker’s clutches, it’s now up to Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and the rest of the X-Men to stop Striker and rescue Xavier before he succeeds in wiping out all mutant kind but, to do so they may have to join forces with their greatest foes… Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos)… and it’s a good bet Magneto has his own agenda. Can they succeed with serpents in their own den?

Singer returned to the director’s chair for the sequel and working with a script by Michael (Trick R Treat) Dougherty, Dan Harris and David Hayter, from a story by Singer, Hayter and Zak Penn, ups the ante with more action, more mutants but, without sacrificing the depth and characterization he brought first time around. We not only get the dynamic of  foes having to work uneasily together against a common enemy but, we learn more about Logan/Wolverine’s past and watch as the human/mutant relationship is crumbled even further. Our heros not only fight to save themselves here but, their place in the world and how it views them. There is a lot at stake as they battle an enemy who seeks to see them destroyed but, will oddly employ mutant against mutant to get his goal accomplished. It makes for an interesting dynamic and furthers the X-Men cinematic universe without cluttering it up. We get some interesting new characters and get to know the familiar ones a little better. Sigel returns as cinematographer and John Ottman provides a suitable score to the action and drama.

The cast who return all fit into their roles nicely again with McKellen especially having a good time with his second go round as Magneto. We get to see a bit more of what makes them tick, as some try to come to terms with who they are and others who are comfortable with themselves, face change and adversity. We meet a few more mutants such as Cumming’s religious German mutant Nightcrawler and he makes for an interesting and eccentric character. We get teens Shawn Ashmore as Iceman, a kind hearted young man who takes a liking to Paquin’s Rogue and the rebellious Pyro played by Aaron Stanford. On the side of evil, Cox makes a strong villain with his slimy and hateful Striker and the villainous Lady Deathstrike is played with an ice cold exterior yet, a definite lethality by the beautiful Kelly Hu. And there are also some some fun mutant cameos peppered throughout. Again, Singer makes good use of a good cast. Even those with minimal screen time are used well in the screen time they have.

With his second X-Men flick Bryan Singer gives us both sequel and equal as we have a film that once again gives us a healthy dose of superhero action and a good story as well. It’s a fun movie that finds our heroes challenged by not only their villain but, some by the choices they have to make and a world that is ever increasingly hostile towards them. Another strong superhero treat from Bryan SInger and a nice step forward for this series that stumbled somewhat when Singer left and didn’t really regain it’s footing till the delightful First Class.

3 and 1/2 X-Men.

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REVIEW: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

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THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

I’ll start off by saying that J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth are among my favorite books and, understandably, Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy are among my favorite films. That being said, I still feel there is no reason to take a single book and stretch it out into three movies despite how much I love the story and characters. And with THAT being said, there is no reason then for each of those three movies to be almost three hours long. And it is exactly that reason that I feel something’s missing from Jackson’s Hobbit films… or should I say there’s something too much as there is a lot of filler added to turn one book into three movies… and it’s obvious. And this filler, as well as, middle film syndrome is exactly what keeps The Desolation Of Smaug from shining despite some sumptuous production design and some really fun action sequences. There is a lot of filler in this middle installment and sometimes it’s tediously obvious as once it’s over, you realize the story hasn’t really gone very far. The film picks up where the last left off with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the band of Dwarves on their way to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the vile dragon Smaug. They are still being hunted by a band of Orcs and not only clash with them continually but, battle giant spiders and suspicious Elves as well. Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) goes off to investigate his fears of a great evil returning… and we know exactly who, since we have already seen The Lord Of The Rings… and even the Dwarf party are split as they near their destination and their showdown with Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Can they succeed or shall they fall before the onslaught of the Orcs and the mighty dragon? Even if you haven’t seen The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, this is a middle film in a trilogy so, it’s no spoiler to tell you to expect not only an open ending but, a cliffhanger as well. And it just leaves one a bit unsatisfied. The first Hobbit film at least ended at a satisfying point and while I felt it took way too long to get going (again, a lot of filler) it was really fun and moved very quickly once it did. Smaug feels like a 90 minute film stretched into almost 3 hours as there is just a lot of dialog sequences and scenes that really don’t advance the story… the sequences in Lake-town are especially tedious and accomplish little and even the sequences that do matter, seem drawn out. And the fact that the tone here is a lot more somber, also darkens the proceedings. But, there are some saving graces that elevate the film from being an outright disappointment. There are some really fun action sequences such as the battle against the giant spiders and a thrilling chase involving river barrels and pursuing Orcs and Elves, not to mention the climactic confrontation with Smaug himself. There is the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and with him a new character who is an invention of Jackson’s named Tauriel who is played with equal parts fire and foxy by the beautiful Evangeline Lilly. Tauriel is one of the film’s real treats and Lilly creates a very endearing and strong character. She caught this fanboy’s attention instantly. I have never seen Lost but, I am impressed now. Sadly, I cannot say the same for Luke Evan’s Bard whose character really doesn’t make an impression and hopefully the talented Evan’s has a bigger impact in the next film as Bard didn’t have much to do here but look dour. The same goes for Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) who’s appearance is barely… or should I say bear-ly… more then a cameo. The SPFX are spectacular as are the visuals, thought the 48 fps can look a bit off at times especially with the barrel chase sequence. Smaug is very impressive and is greatly aided by the vocals of Cumberbatch who also voices The Necromancer. Jackson gets good work from all his cast with Freeman making Bilbo as endearing as Frodo and Sam in the previous trilogy and Mckellan is a delight as always. Richard Armitage is strong and noble as Thorin and the rest of the actors performing the dwarves all do nice work giving their characters personality despite performing as a group with little spotlight on them individually. Bloom is welcome back as Legolas though he is a bit more serious here and, as stated, Lilly gives nice life to a character created solely for the film. The score by Howard Shore obviously evokes his LOTR score but, to be honest, I don’t think it has the same resonance in the Hobbit films as it did there. So, in conclusion, Smaug is plagued not only by the added and unnecessary filler needed to make this one book tale a trilogy but, also suffers from middle trilogy syndrome in that it doesn’t have a satisfying ending and comes across as exactly that, the middle part of a bigger story. But, it’s saving graces are some really fun and exciting action sequences, some stunning visuals and  the continued good work of the cast and director Jackson at making the characters endearing… not to mention a sassy and sexy she-Elf who will be an instant fanboy favorite. I did like it but, didn’t love it as I wanted to.

3 Dwarven axes!

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Evangeline Lilly’s sexy and deadly Turiel.

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REVIEW: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

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THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

For this Sunday night’s entertainment, I’ve chosen to revisit the first in Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit trilogy!

I will start off by saying that there is no reason to spread a single book into 3 movies (actually there is, greed.) and since you are doing so, there is no reason for any of those 3 movies to be almost 3 hours long. And this overindulgence and it’s effect on the film’s pacing is the only problem I have with the first of this new trilogy of movies based on Tolkien’s The Hobbit as it would have been better served and better paced if kept well under 2 and 1/2 hours. That being said, I did enjoy the film quite a bit once we get past the slow first half set up and get to the adventuring. The film is based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit which is set 60 years before The Lord Of The Rings saga and tells the story of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman in younger days and Ian Holm as the older Bilbo) as he is given the task by Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) to aid a band of dwarves in retaking their kingdom from the dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s a simple story that would have made a great single film but, director Peter Jackson and crew have overindulgently chosen to pad the story and drag it out over 3 apparently long movies and the first half of this flick suffers for it. It’s 40 minutes before Bilbo even leaves his home. But, Jackson still packs the film with enough visual majesty and pulse pounding thrills to win us over, despite making a mountain out of a molehill. His Middle Earth is still a wonder to behold and we get to visit new places and meet a horde of new characters. The second half picks up speed and we get the action and adventure we came for and it doesn’t disappoint. The last act in particular never stops moving and has some spectacular action sequences as our band meet some of Middle Earth’s more fearsome inhabitants and make some nasty enemies. It’s all well staged and as with the last series of films, the special effects are spectacular and the visuals are breathtaking. Despite the negatives, there is still a lot to enjoy about this story which by nature is lighter in tone then the trilogy it precedes. There are also some appearances by now favorite characters and it was nice to see them back especially since we know where they are headed. Maybe now that the set up is over and the quest has begun, the pacing will be much more in line with the Rings trilogy for the next two movies. Overall I enjoyed the first segment of this Hobbit trilogy and anxiously await the next part, The Desolation Of Smaug but, hopefully Peter Jackson spends a bit more time in the editing room and cuts some of the overindulgent fat and sticks to the lean meat of this classic tale for the final two installments.

3 and 1/2 generous Dwarven war axes as the second half of this flick more then makes up for the slower pace of the first half!

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