Daniel Mumby's Profile - Rotten Tomatoes

Want-to-See Movies

This user has no Want to See movie selections yet.

Want-to-See TV

This user has no Want to See TV selections yet.

Rating History

X-Men: The Last Stand
28 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

In my review of Return of the Jedi, I spoke about the baggage that comes with threequels and their tendency to be the runts of their respective litters. Often the drop in quality - whether perceived or actual - stems from a lack of new ideas, or an abandonment of the principles and/ or personnel which made the series so successful. That being said, the same person being in charge is not in itself a guarantee of quality, as Spider-Man 3 and Evil Dead 3 firmly demonstrate.

X-Men: The Last Stand has accrued a similar reputation in comic book circles in the 11 years since its release. Whenever this offering is mentioned, fans of the first two films tend to either start foaming at the mouth, disgusted by some deep betrayal, or sigh dejectedly and make some resigned comment about Hollywood. One could be forgiven, as a casual fan of X-Men, for assuming that this is the 2000s' equivalent of Batman and Robin. Rest assured, it's isn't - but it is very much the Batman Forever of the series, representing a huge climbdown from the heft and skill of old.

A lot has been made about Bryan Singer's sudden departure from the series, with debate raging over how much of the resulting disappointment is his fault. Singer left the project in July 2004 to helm Superman Returns, at a time when only a partial treatment of the story existed. Singer had intended to focus the third film around Jean Grey's arc leading on from X2, culminating in Jean committing suicide but her spirit surviving as something akin to the Star Child from 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Singer jumped ship, he took with him X2 screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty, leaving 20th Century Fox with little to work with.

Over the ensurng six months, the project was offered to numerous directors who turned it down, including Joss Whedon (who was busy on his Wonder Woman project) and Alex Proyas, who refused on account of the bad experience he had endured on I, Robot. Matthew Vaughn, who had then just finished Layer Cake, signed on to direct in February 2005, but even with the release date being pushed back Vaughn felt he did not have the time he needed to make the film he wanted. Having had some say in the casting - including Kelsey Grammer and Vinnie Jones - he backed out before filming was set to begin in July, paving the way for Brett Ratner to come in.

Whether or not you think that Singer was right to jump ship (Superman Returns being the indecisive stodge that it is), much of his influence remains in at least the first hour of this film, just as Tim Burton held some sway over Batman Forever. His fingerprints are all over the Jean Grey storyline, fleshing out the character and turning her into something truly dangerous. Her arc is very reminsicent of Amy Irving's character in The Fury (itself heavily X-Men-inflected), being as she is a young woman struggling to channel and contain enormously destructive powers that to a large extent she doesn't want. There's even a sequence where Jean disintegrates people with her power - although it's not as bloody as The Fury's 18-rated version.

If all the good parts of X-Men: The Last Stand lie in whatever Singer managed to contribute before departing, all of the blame for the bad aspects can be laid firmly at Ratner's feet. The main problem lies in his sensibility - or, to be more precise, the complete lack of it. While Singer worked hard to build a compelling visual world to explore complex themes about racism, identity and alienation, all Ratner really wants to do to make knob gags and blow stuff up. Despite having been in the running to helm the first X-Men film, he displays no deep knowledge or love for the mythology, being too obsessed with spectacle and cheap humour to put in the hard yards which this kind of story needs.

As a result of both Singer's influence and Ratner's laziness, the film ends up being deeply conflicted. The first hour has some of the substance of old, especially in the opening flashback and some of scenes involving discussions of the cure. But Ratner doesn't delve as deep as Singer did, introducing the concept and then leaving it as a mere McGuffin. The dialogue is more aggressively macho than before, and talky scenes are more readily broken up with needless editing. And then there is the needlessly yandere-ish love scene between Jean and Logan, which feels like someone copy-pasted the sauna scene from Goldeneye into their fan fiction. Building up their relationship is necessary for the pay-off, but this isn't an erotic thriller - you don't have to approach every conversation like it's a prelude to 12A rumpy-pumpy.

As things roll on towards the inevitably explosive conclusion, many of the interesting character arcs which are either introduced or carried over from X2 are left unfinished. Grammar is a half-decent fit for Beast but is wasted in the role, and Rogue gets an especially tough break; while in X-Men she was arguably the central character, here all she does is go off, get the cure and then come back. While in the previous two films the action felt like an interlude to or progression from the character development, here everything serves the need for everything to blow up at the end.

If X2 was said to have been modeled after Road to Perdition, then X-Men: The Last Stand's main point of comparison would be with Die Another Day. Aside from possessing a general contempt for the audience's intelligence, and a number of similar scenes (the training simulations, the X-Jet's 'stealth mode' standing in for the invisible car), they also feature really dodgy CGI in the places that it's least needed. It's not so bad when Logan is having his flesh ripped apart when Jean is in Dark Phoenix mode, but the sequence with the bridge is every bit as ropey as Pierce Brosnan windsurfing over the CGI wave.

Building up to the big battle at the end would be fine if it actually had scale, context and above all meaning. But while Peter Jackson pulled it off spectacularly in both The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Ratner's battle is as aimless as a video game raid. Where Jackson's battles went through given motions, ebbing and flowing to build character and generate tension, the final act of this film is uninvolving, bland and often ridiculous. Vinnie Jones make the whole thing feel like a cut scene from Gone in 60 Seconds, and the actual ending involving Magneto at the chess board is both unashamed sequel bait and a huge anticlimax.

In spite of all its poor qualities, the cast of X-Men: The Last Stand do just enough to make the experience tolerable. Famke Janssen is the stand-out, having a commanding screen presence which manages to pierce through the effects and hold our attention; in the scene in the woods, she even upstages Sir Ian McKellen. McKellen and Patrick Stewart are both fine, though both have settled into 'established actor cameo' mode by the end, and Hugh Jackman continues to make his case for being the definitive Wolverine. Had Days of Future Past never happened, this would have been a bittersweet farewell for the cast, but you can't blame any of them for not trying in spite of the poor script.

X-Men: The Last Stand is a disappointment denouement to the original X-Men trilogy. While it makes for watchable viewing during the Jean Grey sequences, there's ultimately too little meat on the bones and too few thoughts between its ears to either satisfy committed fans or compete with its two predecessors. It id the worst of the original X-Men films, but had Brett Ratner been involved from the very beginning, it could have been even worse.

X2: X-Men United
46 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

It's easy to forget that in the so-called dark ages before the Marvel Cinematic Universe existed, comic book film franchises were not always planned out in infinitesimal detail before the first instalment had a chance to break even. The mid- to late-1990s were a dark time for superhero films, with everything from Tank Girl and The Phantom to Batman and Robin and Steel pointing to a tired genre and an increasingly spandex-weary public. In this context the success of X-Men was a pleasant surprise, with a sequel being given the go-ahead shortly after its release.

It's completely logical that Bryan Singer would want to use X2 to expand the X-Men universe on screen; with less time being needed to set up the world from the first film, there is more scope for introducing some of the more complicated elements of the X-Men mythos. But while this film does deepen the existing relationships between the characters established in the first instalment, it ultimately becomes a little too cluttered and lacking in focus to either equal or exceed it.

The big mistake that Singer makes with X2 is trying to introduce too many different characters or aspects of the canon at once. The film's alternative title, X-Men United, should be taken with a hefty slice of irony, since while the characters are uniting against a common goal, our attention is getting endlessly sidetracked by the new characters and sub-plots, some of which aren't given the room they need to grow. While The Two Towers incrementally brought in new characters by working hard to explain the culture in which they found themselves, X2 gives us lots of people we are supposed to care about but not enough individual conflicts to justify our attention.

Sticking with The Lord of the Rings for the moment, there is the issue of the different mutants' powers. One of the great successes of both X-Men and Peter Jackson's trilogy is that it introduced its characters' fantastical capabilities very gradually. Once the opening sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring is out of the way, we have a sufficient understanding of the power and threat of the Ring to see us through, with more information being built upon this firm foundation. In the case of X2, we are effectively told to assume that everyone we meet will be in some way magical, with less effort being expended into not defining them around their powers or abilities. Put simply, there's only so many people with special effects coming out of their hands that we can take before it all feel like sub-par Harry Potter.

Introducing a new band of mutants would be all well and good if we were given sufficient time to understand their motivations and see their flaws, in the way that the first film did with Wolverine and Rogue. The most egregious shortfall in this regard is Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), who gets a couple of good action scenes before his characterisation is boiled down to that of a stereotypical religious fanatic who physically self-flagellates, like Paul Bettany's character in The Da Vinci Code. Notwithstanding the laziness of the writing - most Catholics and Protestants grew out of that sort of thing long ago - his arc is resolved by Storm in a very unsatisfying way.

After a somewhat chaotic start, X2 does eventually settle down into being more of an ensemble piece, with the plot being held together by the MacGuffin of the second Cerebro device and Wolverine's ongoing quest to discover his creator. The film becomes much more comfortable from thereon in, blending elements of Frankenstein in the latter plot strand with the tension generated from the uneasy alliance between Professor Xavier and Magneto - both of which would be subsequently revisited in X-Men: First Class. There are still false steps here and there - such as Wolverine's utterly overhyped showdown with Lady Deathstrike - but it's a more rounded and confident package once its character introductions are out of the way.

Where X-Men saw one group of mutants try to manipulate Rogue's powers to mutate humanity, the central idea of X2 is that of humans going on the offensive and using mutants' powers against them. The first film saw humanity completely on the defensive, faced with the prospect of forced mutation by Magneto and with the talk of mutant registration being a knee-jerk response to something that they didn't fully understand. With Stryker, we have someone obsessed with the science and technology that mutation offers, but with a more overtly malignant message. While Magneto at least believed that he was doing good by making all mutants like him, Stryker is a genocidal maniac who is driven purely by fear and hatred of those different to him.

The film in general, and Stryker's character in particular, reflects Singer's ongoing interest in the dynamics of fascism, and the inherent contradictions present within its adherents. The psychoanalyist Wilhelm Reich, in his seminal 1933 work The Mass Psychology of Fascism, argued that fascism was characterised by sadomasochistic desires. It combined, he reasoned, the sadistic desire to suppress those who were weaker and less desirable with the masochastic need to submit to the control of a greater power - whether that be the leader or the perfect Aryan image they promoted.

Comparing Stryker to Adolf Hitler may seem trite and adolescent, but it's a comparison that holds water because both man are driven by this internal contradiction between hubris and self-weakness. Just as Hitler wanted to create a society of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryans while being anything but that himself, so Stryker hates mutants and wants to wipe them out despite the fact that his own son is a mutant. Brian Cox was cast on the basis of his performance in Manhunter, and he does a great job at creating a man who is at turns repulsive and perversely fascinating.

Away from its heady political themes, X2 also does a good job of moving on the love triangle between Jean Grey, Wolverine and Cyclops. The latter still doesn't get as much to do as he may have liked, spending much of his time under the control of Stryker with less resistance than you would expect. But the writing is generally solid, with Hugh Jackman doing particularly well during the tenser moments where he has to suppress his growing desire to work for the team's goal. Famke Janssen again puts in a fine performance, which sets things up very nicely for the character's more dominant role in the third instalment.

X2 also looks pretty decent, though despite scaling up the set-pieces it occasionally lacks the grandeur of its predecessor, which was filmed with anamorphic lenses. Frequent Singer collaborator Newton Thomas Sigel returns following his work on the first film, and offers up an intriguing colour palette with murky shadows and intimidating blues. Singer and Sigel are said to have used Road to Perdition as a reference point, and there is evidence of this in the scenes on the alkali flats, which have a somewhat distant, existential quality to them.

X2 is a solid if somewhat cluttered sequel which carried on a lot of the good work of the first film. It's a great deal baggier than its predecessor, even once it has moved on from its shaky start, and newcomers to superhero films may continue to find it over-stuffed even as things come together. But in other aspects it builds on the characters and strengths of the first film, tackling mature subjects in a thought-provoking way - something you can't say about every comic book film being made in this period.

X-Men
X-Men (2000)
2 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

In my now-archaic review of The Usual Suspects, I postulated that all Bryan Singer films have a confused sense of identity; they "attempt to marry several conflicting elements while never quite deciding what they want to be." Superman Returns can't decide whether it wants to directly follow the campy tone of the early Christopher Reeve films or be a more emo, Smallville-esque story; Valkyrie flits between a serious drama about betrayal and an old-school B-movie about blowing up Hitler; and even his best-known work can't make up its mind whether it wants to focus on the characters or the ornate mechanics of the heist genre in which they find themselves.

The X-Men films have always been at least a partial exception to this rule. Coming after the disappointment of Apt Pupil, this first film in the now-burgeoning franchise finds Singer with very clear intentions with regards to both the key themes of the story and how they should be executed. While it is very much a product of the pre-Christopher Nolan era of superhero films, much of it still holds up extremely well and it is the best of the original X-Men trilogy.

It doesn't take too much brain power to see what would have attracted Singer to the X-Men franchise. As an openly bisexual Jewish man growing up in late-20th century America, Singer's life resonates strongly with the struggle for acceptance and equality faced by the mutants in the original comics. In a BBC interview, he stated that he was drawn to the morally ambiguous world which the comics inhabited at their best, describing them as "a step beyond simple crime-solving, superhero action." Singer has always been fascinated by how evil can manifest itself in humanity, and if nothing else this film does a better job at exploring this notion than Apt Pupil ever did.

One of the main successes of X-Men, and to an extent of all the franchise instalments involving Singer, is that it has political and intellectual heft. While it doesn't put its brain as far front and centre as Nolan's Gotham trilogy, it's still a far cry from the simplistic, adolescent rendering of good vs. evil which we are often forced to endure with summer blockbusters. Even if the ideas are not to your taste, you always get the impression that the film is wanting to use its high-tech, skintight trappings to explore complex notions of identity, alienation, racism and the abuse of political power.

Singer understands that X-Men is less about the powers with which the mutants are blessed or cursed, and more about the people who are trapped within the circumstances of having said powers and how they decide to use them. He brings the theme of alienation to the foreground and keeps it there, focussing on how easily society rejects and turns on those who do not fit into convenient pigeon-holes, or those who refuse to stay quiet.

One of the biggest problems with superhero stories, particularly ones involving Superman, is that they are afraid to show the characters' vulnerabilities, living under some delusion that having any form of fear is cowardly. Singer gives us heroes riddled with insecurities; they feel like people that we could come to know, or who could live among us, not just other-worldly beings playing police with their special, sci-fi friendly weapons.

Proof is this is found in the delightfully naturalistic way in which said mutants' powers are introduced. Superhero films often go to great lengths to draw attention to said powers as something extraordinary, so that it either defines or dominates the character and they risk becoming less three-dimensional as a result. Singer, by contrast, treats the characters' mutations just as he would treat a character's sexuality; it's just something that's there, and we are called upon to accept it. Instead of giving us a bunch of mutants and asking us to care about them as people, X-Men gives us people and lets us grow to accept their more unusual characteristics.

Equally as important is the manner in which X-Men humanises its villains, working hard to show the shades of grey between the differing moral positions of Professor Xavier and Magneto. Singer described their relationship as being akin to the difference between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: two men who were forged in the same conflict against racial injustice, with one choosing to embrace 'the enemy' while the other turned to violent retribution (albeit, in X's case, disavowing it in the end). Casting Shakespearean giants like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen means that we are unlikely to get pantomime performances from the outset. But both still benefit from a script in which both are utterly convinced that their approach is correct, both for their close circle of friends and followers and for society as a whole.

Sticking with the characters, it was a deft decision on the part of screenwriter David Hayter to focus the story around both Rogue and Wolverine (brilliantly played by Anna Paquin and Hugh Jackman respectively). To the casual observer, the X-Men universe and its fanbase seems to often worship Wolverine at the expense of the other characters; he is one of the most interesting people therein, but it isn't right that every story should be driven by him. Here the script manages to strike a good balance between Rogue's slow acceptance and growth into her powers and Logan's inner conflict regarding his role in the team, his feelings for Jean and his own nature.

The cast of X-Men is pretty strong all round, even if not everyone gets a fair crack of the whip. Famke Janssen is ideally cast as Jean Grey, bringing the same combination of glamour and steely reserve from Goldeneye and dialling things back for a more understated performance. James Marsden, by contrast, is dealt an unfair hand as Scott, whose role in the plot is largely being threatened by Logan's testosterone, but he does make up for his initial douchiness with a solid third act.

There are a couple of shortcomings with X-Men which prevent it from being a classic on the level of Batman Begins. Despite Singer's best efforts, there are occasionally jarring shifts in tone which make us wonder what kind of film we should be watching. For the most part we accept the balance between grittiness and humour for which Singer and Hayter have opted - but then we see Wolverine skidding across the snow early on in an unintentionally hilarious fashion, and it's not that easy to get straight back in the saddle.

Equally, while the male members of the Brotherhood of Mutants come off reasonably well, the female members in this instalment are not so lucky. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is a fine actress but she is given far too little to do; while Magneto and Sabretooth handle the important plot points, she is reduced to the odd action scene in which she acts as eye candy for the predominantly teenage audience. Admittedly, however, her sex appeal isn't over-egged as much as in The Last Stand, nor is this kind of double standard exclusive to Singer's films (watch First Class if you don't believe me).

X-Men is a very solid introduction to both the comics and the characters which proves if nothing else that good Marvel films could be made long before Disney came along. Despite a few odd tonal decisions and a few slip-ups with certain characters, Bryan Singer has still delivered a film which is intriguing, intelligent and entertaining, with a tightly wound plot and set-pieces which avoid being overblown. Nolan's work on Batman may have since eclipsed this as a genre benchmark, but leaving aside the Caped Crusader, this is a good way to bring someone to comics for the first time.

Stick It
Stick It (2006)
3 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Female characters in sports films are often dealt a very poor hand. At best their narrative journey is frequently depicted as ancillary and largely complimentary to those of the male participants, and at worst they are reduced either to eye candy or to bitchily carping from the sidelines. Sports films which focus primarily on women are rare and often tackle a particular sport or discipline in a much more patronising way than if the same sport were being practised by men.

All of this makes Stick It such a refreshing piece of filmmaking. Jessica Bendinger, the writer of the cult classic Bring It On, steps behind the camera to deliver a film which rises above its more conventional aspects to give a valuable, impressive insight into a sport often reduced to empty stereotypes. It remains a hugely underrated teen comedy-drama with a young lead who deserves much greater recognition.

In my review of Gregory's Girl, I spoke about how coming-of-age films are "better remembered for the careers they launched rather than their artistic merits." Because the structure of coming-of-age stories is so predictable, we often find ourselves relying on the performers to help us through a story we could tell in our sleep. It's a blessing and a curse for the performers in question, who achieve immortality through a given role but at the cost that they can never escape being associated with it.

Like Phil Davis from Quadrophenia before her, it's fair to say that Missy Peregrym has yet to shake off the mantle associated with Stick It. Part of this could be attributed to her superficial resemblance to other actresses: from a distance you could easily mistake her for Kristen Stewart, and her toothy smile is very similar to that of Hillary Swank. In any case, Peregrym's lack of subsequent success is wholly unfair; she is a highly charismatic performer, with attitude, mischief and believability to spare.

Peregrym is helped in this regard by the writing, which is an improvement on Bendinger's previous work. In Bring It On, all of the female characters had a bitchy quality, and it was sometimes difficult to know whether said bitchiness was a satire of cheerleading or a lazy representation of it. While Stick It has its fair share of cattiness and name-calling, the women are much more varied in their make-up and motivations.

Writing convincing, three-dimensional female characters is one of the hardest things to do in fiction. Because men (or more specifically white, straight, English-speaking men) have long been the standard foundation for any given character, the obvious pitfall is to write women as 'not men', defining them entirely in terms of their relationship to men rather than treating them as people in their own right. This is a trap that male writers often fall into, but women can often be just as guilty.

This trap can partially be avoided by writing women as 'people who just happen to be female' - in other words, to ignore or dilute any aspects of their character which involve their gender or sexuality. But while this is preferable to writing women as 'not men', ultimately it is not enough to make them completely believable. Women, like men, are constantly interacting with the culture around them, and their identity is partially defined by a reaction to gender and social expectations derived from said culture. In other words, you have to reference their womanhood, even if only to challenge the expectations of how a woman should behave or be written.

What is so refeshing about Stick It is that is a film driven primarily by women which deals with their relationships to social standards without preaching or whinging. Even though its main character has a tendency to mope or run from her problems, it treats her like a complex, difficult human being rather than a trope for men to shape at will. Jeff Bridges may be the main big-name star but he's on screen for a relatively short amount of time, and even then he doesn't play as active a role as you might expect.

People often talk about women in film in terms of empowerment - the writers or directors getting women to do things that are either not normally associated with women or which they have been traditionally denied by men. A lot of the time this is presented in a clunky or confused way, such as the Bride in Kill Bill: it may be a woman doing all the fighting, but she's still fulfilling male fantasies about powerful women as much as being a strong, independent lady.

Stick It succeeds because it doesn't try to shove any message about women down our throats. It gets across a message about the absurdity and hypocrisy of professional gymnastics just as effectively as Smile did for the world of beauty pageants. But throughout its running time it is more interested in allowing women to speak for themselves and demonstrate their talents than it is about using them to make a point. In short, it's empowering because it doesn't constantly shout about empowerment.

Purely as a piece of physical spectacle, Stick It is pretty remarkable. Most of the main cast had little or no experience of professional gymnastics, and yet they vault, pirouette and twist like they had been rehearsing for the Olympics all their lives. Bendinger's visual style is less conventional than Bring It On's, relying much less on slow-motion or montage than most sports films. Even when it comes close to anything resembling a training montage, the film confounds our expectations by focussing on the painful failures of the characters rather than building up to any one success.

Stick It has a welcomely rough and funky edge to it, which at least makes it appear less conventional than similar coming-of-age stories. The film is shot by Daryn Okada, whose work is generally more plastic and mainstream: in amongst the very fine Mean Girls, he also lensed Lake Placid and American Reunion. The soundtrack compliments this vibe, ditching classical accompaniments usually associated with floor routines in favour of Missy Elliott, Green Day and Blink-182.

For the most part, Stick It is a film that refuses to play by the rules and more often than not pleasantly surprises us. But it does have some sequences where it comes up short, settling for convention when just a small step further would have made it truly great. While most of the character development is well-played, the film loses its step when one of the gymnasts gets a boyfriend; while it makes sense in terms of her character arc, the relationship isn't written as well as the rest of her character.

Likewise, the relationship between the lead character and her mother is underdeveloped. Many of the parents in the film are pushy stereotypes, reduced to unintentionally belittling their children and providing some rather forced comic relief. Ultimately it is not their story, and including them mainly for comic purposes is rather an underwhelming or cheap trick. This doesn't detail the drama, but it is a distraction.

Stick It is a hugely underrated slice of comedy-drama with some of the best-written female characters that the sports genre has to offer. Missy Peregrym shines in the lead role, with Jessica Bendinger maturing as a writer and proving that she has quite a bit to offer as a director too. While not quite groundbreaking enough to be considered great, it is a great deal more inspiring and surprising than many sports films you'll find, and comes with a very hearty recommendation.