Tag Archives: Ian McKellan

“X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” Review (✫✫✫)

How can you “cure” what was intended as a gift?

There’s an obvious danger with the production of second sequels made with planned trilogies: how do you keep things fresh and interesting and make sure none of the material isn’t stretched out or forced? For many trilogies, the third entry is the one filmmakers are usually least concerned about. Why should they be? They’ve already made their biggest impact with the first two films and people will go and see it anyway, so why should they extend any effort? I like to call this “the trilogy curse,” and it explains why so many second sequels end up letting down their entire franchise (*cough* Terminator 3 *cough*).

The best thing that can be said for X-men: The Last Stand is that it does a good job avoiding the trilogy curse. While some may be frustrated by the liberties it took and the deviations it made from the source material, I for one found it to be very liberating. It changes things up a bit, made things different, and did one huge thing that many comic book movies can’t do: it made it unpredictable. Because of this, the stakes were higher, the action was more involving, and it made you invest yourself more in the characters rather than waiting for everyone to hold hands in the end for that “happily ever after” ending many films get trapped into. X-men: The Last Stand accomplished something important: it proved that comic-book movies can deviate from their source material and still be good.

After saving both human and mutantkind at the shrouded site where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gained his metal claws and lost his memory many years ago, X-men: The Last Stand takes place as the X-men still try to cope with the death of their beloved Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save her friends as she became engulfed by a sea of raging waters. Most affected by this is her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), who can still hear her voice in his head as he sits in their bedroom reminiscing about her.

The X-men, however, have a much more pressing issue at hand: a company called Worthington Labs has recently invented a mutation antibody that basically attacks mutant cells and nullifies them. The public dubbed it as a “cure,” and it essentially turns mutants into regular human beings, forever granting themselves the life of normalcy they’ve so long desired. Of course, this new invention stirs up quite a controversy among the mutant community, especially regarding Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his extremist brotherhood of mutants. When mutants come to terms with this cure and what it means for all of them, they must make a decision of whether or not to fight against the cure, or fight for humanity’s survival at all.

The first out of the X-men series not to be directed by Bryan Singer, filmmaker Brett Ratner (The Rush Hour series) steps in to fill in the reigns of Singer’s mostly definitive first two installments. How does he do? Well, the good news is that he holds his own pretty well, and makes a movie that he can call all his own. Ratner poses an important question here that I think the other two films mostly sidesteps: if you have an unwanted gift, should you keep it? For me when I watched the movie, I saw an image deeper than that of a mutant standing in line to take a shot that would take away their powers. I saw a pregnant teenager waiting in line for an abortion for that baby that she never intended to have in the first place, or an image of a man going in for a gender change because he doesn’t feel comfortable in his current body.

Controversial? Yes, but that’s how the film intends for it to be. Much like its predecessors, The Last Stand handles its political side well, and is being more ambitious by taking a different spin from the standard supremacist/racism themes that they explored in the earlier installments.

The cast is good, but that’s standard at this point. We expect Jackman to be good as Wolverine. We expect Patrick Stewart and McKellan to be convincing as the leaders for their own specific causes. We expect Storm (Halle Berry) to be the strong female hero that she is, and we expect Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) to be the kind-hearted, considerate teenager while Rogue (Anna Paquin) remains the estranged and desperately shy mutant who continuously questions keeping her abilities. The one we should notice more than anyone else is Janssen as Jean Grey. Yes, she’s back, and she has a much more villainous spin on her that comic fans may or may not be happy to see. She’s much more versatile in this movie, bouncing brilliantly in between angry and hateful to scared and grief-stricken. Without giving too much away, I really liked her role in this movie as both a protagonist and antagonist, and I think X-men fans will be just as pleased with her performance as well.

The only thing I don’t like with this movie is its climax. The buildup earlier in the film was so much better, with the backstory of Jean Grey, Professor X and Magneto culminating so ingeniously into a plot where all the danger was real and there was no way to predict who lived and who died. Another great scene with excellent buildup was when Wolverine went searching for Jean, fighting a small group of mutants within the confusion of a lush, maze-like forest. The final fight, however, could not have been more standard and one-note if it tried. It plays out exactly as you would predict it to, dragging out into a disarray of violence and loud noises until finally it ends in explosions and agonizing screams. Enough already. The rest of the movie did a good job building up anticipation: did you really have to give in right before the end?

Still, I had fun with this movie. I know “fun” is a very loose term that can be used within the film community, especially when you’re speaking about a potential deal breaker such as this. Still, I’m going to say it: this movie was fun. Why am I saying that? Because I enjoyed it, that’s why. I genuinely liked it. I liked the big, boisterous action scenes orchestrated on a grander scale in which I don’t think would have been possible six years ago. I liked the darker, more thematic moments between characters where they took time to build up the stakes and what was on the line here. Mostly however, I liked how it humanized the mutants, and made them genuine flesh-and-blood human beings that could be killed and harmed. It didn’t immunize them from death because of their fans’ love for them: it made them mortal, and it presented a real, legitimate threat in the film because of that.

I know many people who are going to disagree with me, and that there will be many who love these characters too much to be able to see them get killed off and just be okay with it. Let me set the news down with you easily: if you’re that bothered by seeing a character’s death in a movie, maybe you shouldn’t be watching that movie in the first place. These filmmakers set out to make a convincing movie where the threat was imminent and real: not to please the comic-book die hard who gets frustrated if a comic book character’s hair isn’t the right color. Maybe that was Ratner’s second goal beyond making a good sequel, to see how many changes he could make before the fans starting writing death threats to his home mailbox.

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“X2” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

A social commentary disguised as an action blockbuster.

X2 is science-fiction brilliance, a sequel that is relentlessly exciting, smartly written, intelligently designed, and jam-packed with so many involving action scenes and stunning visual effects that it could potentially work as a stand-alone movie, rather than a direct sequel to its predecessor X-men. Like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, this movie serves as an expansion for the universe that it is in and as an opportunity to provide fan service to its dedicated readers and lovers of the iconic source material. I’m not very much for sequels, and I definitely don’t want this to become a superhero monopoly, but if we have to have sequels packaged with every superhero installment in the near future, more filmmakers should pull inspiration from X2.

X2 picks up just short of a few months after X-men originally left off. After the combined efforts of the X-men defeated Erik Lenshurr, a.k.a. “Magneto” (Ian McKellan), and imprisoned him within a special plastic cell (Countering his ability to manipulate metal), the X-men go about their (ab)normal lives as teachers at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, educating mutants on how to control their powers and not be afraid of who they are. Only Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) sets out to Canada to seek out answers for his long-forgotten past, and even then he comes up empty: the lab where he was supposedly experimented on has long since been abandoned.

Soon, however, a new figure from everyone’s past re-emerges: William Stryker (Brian Cox), a government official who has experimented on mutants for as long as mutants existed. After pitching his program to the President and revealing that Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters is a front to the X-men operation, the X-men and the Brotherhood of Mutants must band together to save each other from Stryker’s plot, and quite potentially the rest of mutant kind with them as well.

Directed and co-written by Bryan Singer, who also directed X2’s predecessor X-men, X2 is a highly involving, irreverently fascinating superhero epic. Functioning just as much as a political thriller as it does a superhero action flick, Singer is careful to deliberate and balance everything effectively in the movie, from its themes of xenophobia and racism to its highly-exciting action sequences where mutants go flying, flipping, and teleporting in every which way and under.

Funny, the first time Singer tried X-men, balance was a problem for him. He put a greater emphasis on the action and the visuals of the mutant’s powers more than what they meant for them individually, quite possibly because that’s more of what the audience wants to see anyway. Here, balance is not an issue. He does a great job at both not only giving us a healthy dose of action-packed sequences of grandeur and excitement: he also does a great job giving us heartfelt, genuine emotion, showing these character’s internal reactions just as much as their external.

Example: After escaping from an attack on themselves and the rest of the X-men earlier in the movie, Wolverine takes himself and a small group of mutants to Bobby “Iceman” Drake’s (Shawn Ashmore) home, where he’s forced to essentially come out to his family that he is, in fact, a mutant. After seeing the emotion and disparity of his family reeling in with the shocking revelation of Bobby’s abilities, the police pull up to the house, and an explosive battle results between these X-men and the officers.

See, this is what I’m talking about: there isn’t a single moment in the movie where the action outweighs the drama, or the drama outweighs the action. For every scene where something emotionally weighty or significant is revealed, there is another scene where something exciting or thrilling happens that jump-starts your interest all over again. Whether it’s a scene involving dialogue between characters, a narrator giving exposition on a conniving plot, or another scene where some sort of grand, explosive battle takes place doesn’t matter. It’s always moving, it’s always doing something different, it always keeps up its interest and it is never boring.

I’m very happy with this movie. In a world where so many sequels make the mistake of replacing genuine emotion with an overdose of action and visual effects, X2 is a clear standout. While not necessarily perfect, and still incapable of escaping from some of the cheesy, ham-fisted moments that I rued in the first movie, it definitely stepped up its game as a far as drama goes, and has deeper contexts to offer regarding the xenophobia/racism issue that inspired the series as a whole since its comic book creation. In that sense, X2 is more than a superhero blockbuster. It’s a social commentary on judging another person for who they are and the destructive consequences that can come from it as a result.

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“X-MEN” Review (✫✫✫)

Racism, xenophobia and too many super-mutants to count.

We open on a quiet, haunting frame of a familiar image. Poland, 1944. As German soldiers stand on top of brick rooftops with rain pouring down their uniforms and gun barrels, soldiers at ground level file Jewish citizens from one line into another. One soldier separates a young boy from his aging parents. The mother screams out in agony, aggressively pushing against the flow of the crowd just to get to her son. Soldiers block her path, her husband trying to hold her back while desperately trying to hold back tears. The son, who is kneeling in fear as both tears and rain pours over his cheeks, rushes through the mud to get to his parents. It’s too late: the gate has already closed.

Frustrated in grief and agony, the young man reaches out to the fence as soldiers hold him back, as if he’s wishing the bars to bend so he can escape and save his parents. Before a soldier comes up and knocks him out, his desires becomes his reality: the metal fence is left as bent and tangled as a twisted paperclip.

This is how Bryan Singer’s X-men starts off, with a visual metaphor for bigotry and discrimination where we don’t quite understand what happened, but its emotional power retains itself regardless. The plot goes from the dramatic to a much more stranger turn when we’re introduced to the film’s premise: a new form of species is identified as “mutants,” who are superhuman beings who develop extraordinary abilities through a biological change in their DNA. There’s nothing they do to forcefully trigger the change: it’s as natural as a teenager going through puberty.

What does society choose to do with these mutants? They scrutinize them, convict them and force them to submit to their mutant registration program where they will be forced to reveal themselves, otherwise they will be considered enemies of the state.

The plot goes much deeper than that. The mutant race has been mostly split in between two factions. One of them is the Brotherhood of Mutants, an extremist group led by the gray-haired and calculative Magneto (Ian McKellan), who you will notice was the little boy we saw in the earlier-mentioned credits. The other organization is hidden under the secrecy of a preparatory school called “The X-men”, a group of mutants who train other mutants to control their powers rather than be afraid of them, led by the passively-oriented Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

There’s too many other mutants in this movie to keep track of, and even a short roll call won’t cover all of them either. There’s Rogue (Anna Paquin), a teenage mutant who absorbs the life energy out of any being that she touches. There’s Storm (Halle Berry), a silver-haired centurion who can summon lightning bolts and powerful winds through her ability to control the weather. There’s Jean Grey (Famke Jennsen), a telepath who lives with her boyfriend Cyclops (James Marsden), who can obliterate anything with a laser beam simply by looking at them (makes you wonder how they take care of their evening business in the bedroom…). Perhaps the most recognizable mutant here is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who came into the X-men with Rogue after spending years trying to remember who he was and where he came from. Wolverine has the most unique ability out of these X-men by being able to heal at a faster rate and protrude claws out of his fists when threatened. So there’s that.

Long story short, the Brotherhood of mutants hatch a scheme against the human race, and the X-men must rise up to stop them. Doesn’t sound like any other superhero team-up action flick out there, right?

Let me start off with the positives. To put it simply, X-men is just a big ball of fun. Whether we’re laughing from a line of scathing dialogue between Wolverine and Cyclops, or watching a thrilling action scene between two mutants fighting on top of the Statue of Liberty, there’s so many memorable moments to look at and enjoy regardless of how hammy or preposterous they might be. Because of this, I think I have a good idea of who this movie was made for: it’s made for the comic-book die-hards, the kids that would freak out in glee and excitement when they get their never-before-opened copy of The Uncanny X-men #141 in the mail for the first time.

For me, my experience with the X-men comes from the 1990′s saturday morning cartoon, the one that included these characters and more in a colorful, energetic and fast-paced ensemble that had much more time and episodes to introduce these characters and delve a little more into their backstories and motivations. For me, this movie hits a few notes on that feeling of nostalgia and then misses on others. I like a lot of what this movie had to offer, from the exciting and uniquely-packaged action scenes all the way to the more dramatic, tensely-driven moments, such as when a mutant argues with a U.S. Senator on mutant rights.

Again, I know where this feeling comes from. Earlier in his career, writer and co-creator Stan Lee created the X-men as a response to the civil rights movement, as an allegory to how people are afraid and hated by other people just because they are different from them. With this movie, I was hoping it would delve into those themes as deeply as Spider-man did with his themes regarding love, guilt and responsibility. Instead, it chooses to make the makeup and visual effects the stars of the movie, showing us cool, flashy effects of people in black leather costumes instead of making the story and themes itself the focus. The movie is a playground to show off what kind of cool tricks these kids can do: not a serious drama about why the two kids are fighting on the playground in the first place.

Here’s the critical factor that saves this movie from just being another standard action flick: the cast. I’ve already mentioned how this movie touches up on some of the nostalgia from the original cartoon. This cast is the reasoning behind that nostalgia. McKellan was conniving as Magneto, a torn and hateful man who sees only one outcome in the human-mutant conflict, an extremist not too dissimilar from that of Malcolm X during the civil rights movement. If he’s Malcolm X then, Professor Xavier is Martin Luther King. Jr., a patient, kind-hearted and wise man who wishes to co-exist with the human race, and defend both of their rights for the sake of that future. I especially liked Hugh Jackman as the feral and vicious Wolverine, a man who definitely has that hardened, rough edge to him, but also that soft spot where he feels protective over those who can’t protect themselves, almost like a papa bear over his little cubs. The script is the transgressor for the silly, generic plot: the cast is what elevates this film above its mediocrity and makes it more than what it actually is.

Overall, I liked X-men. I wish it could have been better, being that the source material is among the most original and influential comic books ever conceived in print, but I’m willing to let that pass for the sake of the franchise’s potential future. If the movie aimed to be nothing else except for visually-splendid eye candy to fill the gleeful hearts of comic book nerds, this movie succeeded. Hey, at least Stan Lee’s Marvelites will be satisfied.

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“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” Review (✫✫)

Pretend G-men trying to skip out of class.

The very first shot of X-men: First Class is the exact same scene of the Holocaust, frame-by-frame of the very first X-men movie directed by Brian Singer. Not a good way to start off your movie by copying another one, isn’t it? The very next scene after briefly skipping through that one is a young Charles Xavier’s encounter with a young, hungry blue-skinned mutant named Raven who was trying to steal food from his refrigerator. Talking to her in a very sincere, comforting voice, he assures her that she doesn’t have to steal, and reaffirms it by saying that she’ll never have to steal again. Touching. I wonder how this conversation went over with his mother?

Years pass, and we’re reintroduced to the characters we’ve come to know for the past few movies now. Erik Lenshurr (Michael Fassbender), the man soon to become Magneto, is out on the hunt, looking for the man who killed his family and tortured him as a child back when he was a Jew in the concentration camps. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now in college with the now much more mature Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who is pursuing his masters degree in psychology.

There’s a mutual enemy that unites these three individuals together: Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a menacing and conniving mutant with the ability to absorb and redistribute energy. That means a grenade can explode in his hand and he can transfer the explosion straight into you with a touch of his finger. Shaw is the man who tortured Erik back when he was a young child, and Xavier discovers a sinister plot that Shaw is setting to unveil upon the world. Erik and Charles combine their resources and their efforts to form a mutant team to work together and stop Shaw.

And how exactly does Shaw plan to carry out this giant, dastardly plan? By conspiring and coercing the Cuban Missile Crisis among nations, that’s how. How original. I wonder if these guys considered overthrowing the Chinese government while they were at it?

Hypothetical question. If you hear the term “prequel” being used, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For me, its the word “beginning”. Beginning, as in, the start of the story. Beginning as in, the start of a legacy. Beginning as in, filling in the holes of all the ambiguous stuff we were told in the original trilogy, and beginning as in making sure everything fits into a nice, nifty little package by the time the end credits roll.

As a superhero blockbuster alone, X-men First Class succeeds. It’s exciting, it’s visually stunning, it features everyone’s favorite X-men that they’ve come to know and love, and it has enough comic book lore in it to make even Kevin Smith giggle with glee. As an action movie meant to please summer movie lovers, it is fine. As a prequel to the critically-acclaimed series that it is based on, however, it is utter and absolute failure.

Three of the biggest goofs that completely and utterly frustrated me. 1) There were flashback scenes in X2, X-men: The Last Stand, and Origins: Wolverine where Xavier is clearly seen as to being able to stand. Yet at the conclusion of First Class (spoiler alert!) Erik deflects a bullet into Xavier’s spine, permanently paralyzing is legs. 2) In the first X-men, Professor X audibly said to Wolverine that him and Magneto helped build Cerebro together, while in this movie it is very clear that a mutant named Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) was the one who built it instead of them. Magneto’s helmet also didn’t exist prior to X-men, whereas here it already does. And lastly 3) a cameo appearance of a certain three-clawed mutant meeting Xavier and Erik about halfway through the movie at a bar. Wouldn’t they have remembered him thirty years later, especially since one of them is a telepath?

These ignorances to the plot show me that instead of providing an accurate prequel to a highly-revered superhero series, the filmmakers were more interested in letting loose and having fun rather than making something straight-laced and refined. I’m all for fun and high-octane action movies, but if you go in ignoring everything else that happened in the movies previous to your own, you’re being disrespectful to the franchise.

Oh, the cast was more than exceptional, I won’t deny that. McAvoy portrays the younger Professor X wonderfully here, passing himself off as a sort of young Patrick Stewart that’s more reckless and immature than his older self. Bacon is smug and charismatic as Shaw, and even though his role wasn’t as compelling as Ian McKellan’s was in the original trilogy, it still served its purpose in the film.

I especially enjoyed Fassbender’s performance as the angry, relentless, and grief-stricken Erik Lenshurr. The staple performances in the series overall belong to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, there’s no doubt beyond that. Still, Fassbender gives it his all here. You notice the effort he extends here, the passion and the fire he instills in this character. McKellan’s rendition of Magneto was calm, collective, and calculated, a great foil to the equally intelligent but more morally aligned Xavier. Here, Fassbender is neither calm nor calculated. He is simply a raging, hateful man, a mutant who has been in pain and alone all his life, desperately seeking some sort of way to fill the emptiness within his cold, solemn heart. I genuinely liked and appreciated his take on the character, even though he bends missiles in one scene that look about as realistic as a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

“But wasn’t it fun?” is a common argument I get from a lot of moviegoers. “Fun” is such a subjective word, and can mean any one of different things. In the aspect of simple, plain, straightforward blockbuster fun, I guess this movie satisfies. The problem is I didn’t go into X-men: First Class expecting a brainless blockbuster. I went into this expecting this to be exactly what it claimed to be: a start to the X-men’s journey, an insightful and hot-blooded prequel that showed perspective on how their story began. This wasn’t even close to being a prequel, ending with more questions where there should have been answers. Fox has already announced that a sequel is currently in the works to be released sometime in 2014, and here I am, thinking that these kids need to go to summer school before even thinking about going into the second semester.

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