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X-Men Origins - Wolverine
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I'm not sure if there was ever much demand for a Wolverine origins story. After X-Men: The Last Stand disappointed so many people, I doubt many were interested in returning to the X-Men franchise. What's more, Wolverine isn't a particularly interesting character to begin with (and he became increasingly less interesting as the franchise continued). I have a lot of difficulty believing that an entire movie revolving around this fairly bland character was an appealing idea for anybody. At any rate, it certainly didn't make for an appealing movie.

Taking place X amount of years before the first X-Men film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens with the unexpected murder of several individuals related to a boy named James. James and his older brother Victor run away from home. Both of them are mutants. James later changes his name to Logan, and of course, he is the Wolverine. Both of them are later recruited as part of a special forces team, but Logan abandons the group because he disapproves of their violent acts. Years later, Logan discovers that Victor has been murdering members of the group, and it is suspected that Logan might be killed next. There's some talk of revenge, some tragedy, and then we inevitably get to the part where Logan becomes Wolverine.

To put it mildly, X-Men Origins is a messy movie. The plot doesn't make much sense, the motives of the characters are usually confusing or vaguely explained, and of course, there are loads of undefined mutant powers. And yet, the film is really nothing more than a typical run-of-the-mill, turn-off-your-brain, blockbuster action movie.

Like the previous X-Men films, X-Men Origins has a plethora of plot contrivances, plot holes, power-related oversights, and just general idiocy. Even by X-Men standards, this is a stupid movie. The first two X-Men films found a balance between stupidity and the self-aware. X-Men: The Last Stand struggled with this, and X-Men Origins is even more deterred by it.

While the other X-Men films had their share of interesting characters, X-Men Origins lacks any. Wolverine is the wise-cracking protagonist, though he's unlikable and boring. The primary antagonist, Victor is also completely uninteresting. Most other characters get about 5 minutes of screentime or less, and almost all of them are completely unnecessary. Director Gavin Hood seems so intent on providing fan service and comic references that he forgets the importance of making a tight, entertaining film. As a result, we get unnecessary characters like Gambit and Fred J. Dukes that only serve to bloat the run time (which is admittedly fairly modest at 107 minutes).

The CGI looks fine, but it's fairly unconvincing at times. The action sequences are generic and forgettable. The script is atrocious, the ending is a mess, and character development is nil. On top of all that, X-Men Origins has some massive continuity issues. It would be bad enough if they were restricted to continuity problems within the film. But X-Men Origins seems to go out of its way to contradict events and plot points from the previous X-Men films as well.

The performances are mediocre. Hugh Jackman is just going through the motions as Logan / Wolverine, while everyone else seems to be on auto-pilot as well. Performances range from forgettable, to annoying. Liev Schreiber and Dannu Huston fit the former. Ryan Reynolds and Taylor Kitsch fit the latter.

Harry Gregson-William's score is forgettable and at times, intrusive. The opening of the film is in the 1800's, but if you had only heard Gregson-William's score for that scene, you never would have known. It clashes with the film, and does nothing to help itself or the picture.

As I was watching this X-Men Origins, I was constantly reminded of all the things that the previous X-Men films did right. Interesting characters, good performances, fun action scenes, etc. None of that is evident here. Even X-Men: The Last Stand had a few of those elements. X-Men Origins is just unengaging and forgettable. It's not quite unwatchable, or even painful, but it lacks notable qualities or memorable scenes. The whole affair is bland and uninteresting. The only thing I took away from X-Men Origins was just how much better X-Men: The Last Stand is than this. And if that's not an indicator of a bad movie, I don't know what is.

X2: X-Men United
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

After Brian Singer directed the silly, stupid, but reasonably fun X-Men, he returned to direct the sequel, entitled X2: X-Men United. Like the first film, it's silly and idiotic, but still oddly enjoyable in spite of its flaws. It lacks the self-awareness that the original possessed which made it a bit easier to digest, but X2 makes up for it with sharper directing and a story with more depth and weight.

After the X-Men discover that the genocidal William Stryker is in the process of unleashing a plan that will destroy every mutant on the earth, the X-Men even their enemy, Magneto, must temporarily team up to stop this monstrosity before it's too late.

Like the first film, X2 seems to have more cons than pros, but it still manages to succeed because of its sheer entertainment value. The characters are just likable enough, the story just engaging enough, and the performances just strong enough to support a film that would have otherwise been unbearable. On top of that, the action sequences are great fun, and the special effects look great.

Unfortunately, X2 suffers from many of the flaws that the first film dealt with. Most problematic is how undefined the X-Men's powers are. Some have the ability to control other objects and people, one of them can teleport, etc. And yet, they never seem to use their abilities to their full advantage. Sometimes this is explained later through sloppy exposition. More often, it's just poor scripting. If you were ever bothered watching Star Wars when the Jedi wouldn't simply force-blast their enemies out of the way, you could go mad watching X2.

In addition to this, there are at least two endings too many, and the film runs about a half hour too long. The first film carried a compact 104 minute run time, whereas this sequel is a lengthy 134 minutes.

The cast remains impressive. Ian McKellan's role as Magneto is slightly expanded, giving him even more time to be delightfully wicked - even when he's forced to help the X-Men. Unfortunately, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier has a significantly smaller amount of time on screen compared to the first film. Hugh Jackman is still solid as Wolverine, as is newcomers Brian Cox and Alan Cumming, though the characters for the latter two are fairly bland.

John Ottman's score is more traditional than Michael Kamen's score for the previous film - which is a good thing. Unfortunately, within the film, it's just as unmemorable. It's a serviceable score, but I can't recall a note.

While it's just as stupid (if not more so) than the first film, X2 is still entertaining and delightful to watch. If you can ignore the problems with the script, you will certainly have a good time. But if you have no tolerance for the strange and nonsensical -especially in a straight-faced package - then run.

X-Men (2000)
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Before Hogwarts - the school for wizards and witches - there was Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. These Gifted Youngsters are mutants look just like us, but have incredible powers that some believe to be an endangerment to those around them. This first entry in the X-Men film franchise kicked off a commercially successful film series, though their critical reception varies greatly. Simply titled "X-Men," this was among the first successful comic-book films, and more or less ushered in Marvel's eventual reign over the super-hero genre. And to be honest, I'm a bit surprised that this film was such a mainstream success.

X-Men focuses primarily on Wolverine who has the ability to self-heal, and can also extend huge, claw-like daggers from his knuckles. He doesn't remember anything about his past, but perhaps Charles Xavier - a mutant himself - can help him.

X-Men is really silly, and really stupid. But the film seems to know that it's really silly and really stupid. Whether its self-aware and almost parody-like environment was an intentional factor or not, the X-Men is a solidly entertaining super-hero film, despite its multitude of problems.

Even though Wolverine is the primary protagonist of the film, there's a massive array of other characters that the film tries to give ample screentime to. As a result, X-Men is cluttered and despite quite a bit of exposition, nothing really gets explained. The direction is all over the place, and the opening scene (a bit of backstory for the antagonist, Magneto) seems completely unnecessary.

And yet, X-Men is an enjoyable film thanks to solid performances and (mostly) interesting characters. Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine with just the right amount of heroism, frustration, and sarcasm to avoid falling into obvious cliches or stereotypes. The highlights of the cast are undoubtedly Ian McKellan as the evil Magneto, and Patrick Stewart as the wise Charles Xavier. They bounce off of each other brilliantly. Every scene they're in truly brings the film to life.

Unfortunately, there are several less impressive cast members. The worst of the bunch include Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, and Anna Paquinn - the latter of which occasionally uses a strong Southern accent, and at other times, forgets it.

Michael Kamen's score is less enjoyable than the film itself. While it has a smattering of tongue-in-cheek fanfares, it also contains dated synthetics, and unmemorable themes. It works well enough in the film, but I'm not inspired to seek any of it out elsewhere.

It's far from perfect, but it's a lot better than many other super-hero franchise-starters. It's got plenty of interesting action sequences, likable characters, and fresh ideas. I'm surprised that audiences have taken to it so much considering its many inconsistencies and notable problems, but it's an excellent time waster.

The Boxtrolls
The Boxtrolls (2014)
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

The Boxtrolls upholds a fine tradition of stop-motion animated films. Beginning with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (critically NOT directed by Tim Burton), and followed by nearly a dozen other notable efforts, the genre of stop-motion films have been consistently released to critical acclaim. And so, it's something of a testament to the strength of the genre that The Boxtrolls is the least well-received film of its kind, despite favorable reviews. Indeed, like the many stop motion films that have preceded it, The Boxtrolls is charming, funny, and visually stunning.

Every night, a race of creatures called boxtrolls (named for the boxes they wear as clothes) come out from hiding and plunder the streets of garbage and anything they happen to find that strikes their fancy. Among them is a boy named Eggs who thinks he's a boxtroll (his name comes from the label on his box). Unfortunately for Eggs and the boxtrolls, an evil man is in charge of exterminating every one of them, so the race begins to go into decline. But there's something strange about all of this, and Winnie - a young girl - is going to get to the bottom of this, along with Eggs.

There are several reasons why I think The Boxtrolls has been received less warmly than other stop-motion films. For one, it's more childish. It's louder and sillier. There's lots of slapstick and an unusually high amount of gross-out gags. The premise isn't developed much, and there's a surprising lack of heart. Also, the finale consists of a great, big action sequence that's more loud and silly than satisfying or engaging. With all that being said, The Boxtrolls is still a delightful picture; allow me to explain quite why.

The visual appearance of the film accounts for much of its charm (as is typically the case for stop-motion films). It's (needless to say) gorgeous, some sequences are unbelievably beautiful. And the character designs are hilariously fun. The overall art direction makes it look like it's come right out of a storybook. The Boxtrolls packs loads of visual splendor that's so strong, it could carry the movie if the script wasn't already enough to do the job.

That's not to say that the script is great, but it's very good. There's a bit of substance here (but not too much), and the gags usually find their mark. Even the gross-out gags work pretty well, never seeming too gratuitous or grating. Of course, the premise itself is very loosely explained. It's never understood why the boxtrolls must come out every night, other than desire for other people's junk. Surely the reason must be very important since they're risking their night each time they leave their habitat.

And as I mentioned, there's not as much heart as one might hope. The Tarzan-like origin for Eggs would suggest a more emotional, family-oriented storyline, but the film is low on profound moments. Most of the time, it aims to be a wacky adventure/comedy, and it works well in that respect. Still, one can't be faulted for being at least a little disappointed that it didn't embrace its more emotionally charged potential, especially after some very sweet opening moments.

The characters are generally more distinctive and interesting than other animated films. While the boxtrolls themselves are more or less the same (they play out like ickier versions of the minions from Despicable Me), the human characters are fairly diverse, though not always intricate. Eggs is very likable, and his youth and naivety makes him feel a little different from other bland, heroic protagonists. Likewise, the spunky Winnie differs a little bit from the feminist crowd by suggesting a curious interest in grim stories and violence (fueled by malicious rumors of the boxtrolls).

Various side characters are characterized by their lack of interest in younger children and their fondness for cheese. They never pay attention to our protagonists, no matter how important their discoveries are. Depending on the person, this will either be funny or frustrating. Likely both.

By far the strongest character in the film is the villain, Archibald Snatcher. A sort of cross between Syndrome from The Incredibles and the title character from Wreck-It Ralph, Archibald is determined to earn himself a white cap (a sign of prestige), and is forced to be a wicked person (by killing the boxtrolls), so that he can be perceived as a respectable person. Though the character's resolution is a bit anti-climatic, the depth of this character exceeds that of many other animated villains.

Likewise, Ben Kingsley's vocal performance as the villain is the standout of the cast. He's absolutely riotous at times, and one of the disguises he often dons - though completely unexplained - gives Kingsley a chance to be even more comedic and memorable. Isaac Hempstead-Wright and Elle Fanning are surprisingly strong in starring roles as Eggs and Winnie respectively. Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, and Simon Pegg are also wonderful in small roles.

Dario Marianelli's score is very much like the film; a little wacky, but utterly charming. The main theme's strong similarity to a primary theme from Danny Elfman's Frankenweenie is not the only resemblance to Elfman's work, but the sound is suitable for the picture. It's enjoyably quirky and contains some colorful instrumentation to brighten things up. Definitely a noteworthy step into animation, as this is Marianelli's first score for the field.

Yes, it's not as delightfully adult as Laika's Coraline (nor likely as much as ParaNorman which I have not yet seen), but it's a wonder all the same. I suspect The Boxtrolls will actually perform better with audiences in general, due to its less mature nature - and therefore, broader appeal. And yet, it still retains that edge that has made Laika releases such an occasion. It's not the strongest stop motion film to grace the silver screen, but it's absolutely worth a trip to the cinema.

The Golden Compass
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

In the flurry of generic YA novel adaptions currently on the market - a newly created genre that shows no clear signs of stopping before 2017 - one would have to look several years back to remember the book-to-film trend that preceded these. This much more rewarding niche genre was the children's fantasy novel adaptations. Starting with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 2001, dozens of other books/films have attempted to duplicate the boy wizard's box office. And while many such attempts were fairly entertaining (such as Spiderwick Chronicles and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events), disappointing box office returns (or lack of interest) prevented many would-be franchises from getting off the ground. The Golden Compass suffered the same fate, making very little profit due to overseas rights being sold and lukewarm reception in America. However, in this case, it's more of a blessing than anything that any sequels to The Golden Compass never came to fruition.

Honestly, the premise itself shows quite a bit of promise. The film takes place in a world like ours, where every person's soul actually lives as an animal creature called a dæmon that follows you everywhere you go. The plot itself, is much more convoluted, and honestly, it's very difficult to describe. Here's all you really need to know: The main character is a girl named Lyra. Her uncle believes that there are alternate worlds. The wicked Mrs. Coulter wants control of the universe. And then there's something about child kidnapping that doesn't really get explained.

There is nary a scene in the film that makes much sense. Every single one leaves some kind of puzzling question or hole in the screenplay. I suspect that Philip Pullman's book (which I have not read) gives a lot more detail regarding some of the curious character decisions and confusing plot devices, but the movie explains nothing.

And yet, at the same time, it seems to explain everything. At least, that's what you would think considering that 95% of the dialogue in this film is exposition. That is not an exact percentage, but I'd venture to say it's not too far off. Needless to say, the script is bad. If the dialogue isn't giving some form of backstory or information you'll need to know later, it's just plain cringe-worthy.

What's worse is that just about every scene is crammed with as much talking as possible, which wouldn't be a problem if the script was significantly better. As is, though, the screenplay is an atrocity, meaning that there's very little here that will remain in memory. The whole film is a tedious and forgettable experience - a waste of two hours.

But problems with the script don't stop there. The film has some major continuity issues. When enemies are killed in this film, they explode in a flurry of gold, sparkly dust. Needless to say, this effect disappears at several intervals, and reappears at later ones. Also, when the dæmons are hurt, the owners are affected as well (and vice versa). And yet, this is contradicted at several intervals.

The visuals are a frequent target of praise for this film, though I can't imagine why. The movie looks incredibly cheap. At times it seems like a made-for-TV production. When characters pick up and/or pet their CGI
dæmons, it always looks laughably phony. And the film has a limited number of special effects shots compared to other fantasy films. Also, several shots appear to be re-used, and while the polar bears do look pretty great, we unfortunately have to endure about a dozen shots of them roaring at the camera (this is approximately 11 more times than needed).

The art direction is also terribly misguided. The Golden Compass alludes to a steampunk-esque world, but outside of a few inventions and airships there isn't much "steampunk" here. Besides, most of the film takes place in the snow, anyway.

The cast is full of big names, though the characters themselves are thinly drawn and uninteresting. The protagonist is a spunky young girl named Lyra, who spends the entire film getting rescued by other people - often because of her stupidity and rash decisions. Dakota Blue Richard's performance of this character is adequate, but unremarkable. Child actors Ben Walker and Charlie Rowe fare much better in supporting roles.

Nicole Kidman portrays the films primary antagonist, Mrs. Coulter. It's never really clear if the character is entirely evil, or perhaps could be reformed (she has very strong feelings about Lyra). Unfortunately, that means the character itself is completely dissatisfying, and there is no resolution for this either. This is not a tastefully ambiguous artistic choice. This is weak writing.

We also have Daniel Craig who has all of three or four scenes (despite being featured prominently in promotional material), and is entirely forgettable (thanks to a bland character). For some reason, Christopher Lee is in this movie in one short and almost unnecessary scene in which he gets one (or perhaps two) lines of dialogue. Eva Green shows up to give more exposition and Sam Elliott is surprisingly tolerable as a Texan airship pilot (which is as strange as it sounds).

The voice cast, thankfully, is quite a bit better. Freddie Highmore voices Lyra's dæmon (a meerkat) and his performance is charming enough (though the character is forgettable). Ian McKellan is especially good as Iorek Byrnison (a polar bear), though once again, the character itself is extremely weak.

Alexandre Desplat's score is surprisingly restrained. While there were several scenes that were ripe for an explosion of grand fanfares or bold theme statements, they don't really show up. The score is pleasant enough, but completely unmemorable in the context of the film.

The Golden Compass is tedious and numbing in an irritatingly persistent manner - I liken the experience to getting eaten by a toothless camel. Nothing happens in this movie. The script is awful, the visuals look cheap, and the storyline is so loose and almost non-existent that the audience loses interest before it even gets off the ground (which it never does). It's a surprising disaster that fails to entertain or engage. If you're looking for a solid fantasy flick, The Golden Compass can only lead you astray.