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X-Men (2000) [Review Re-View]

Released July 14, 2000:

Take a storied franchise that has long been the backbone of Marvel comics and develop it into a feature film where the last superhero movie was the purple-spandex-in-the-jungle The Phantom and you’re just asking for trouble. A nation of fans is breathing down the neck of the film crew nitpicking every fine detail. Studio execs want the film done as fast as possible and under budget regardless of the numbers of effects needed. Despite what would seem like a cataclysmic set-up, X-Men proves that Hollywood can occasionally take a comic book and get it right. For the most part.

X-Men is basically the pilot for a movie franchise. It sets up characters, conflicts, origins, but periodically forgets its audience. Numerous people are introduced and then given a grocery list sized amount of dialogue to read. Some even have atrocious John Watters-like wigs they are forced to wear. It’s a good thing then that the film centers mainly around Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), the three most interesting characters.

Often times the action in X-Men is surprisingly lackluster and contained. The battle royale finale atop the Statue of Liberty might induce more than a few eye rolls. I can’t help but hope that with all the groundwork laid out with this film that the eventual sequel will be more efficient with its action set pieces.

For the most part the dialogue in X-Men is passable and it even has a few rally snazzy sound bites. However, there is that ONE line delivered by Ms. Berry (“You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightening? The same thing that happens to everything else.”) that is groan-worthy and destined to be notorious.

It may sound like I’m coming down hard on X-Men, but for a comic adaptation it got a whole hell lot more right than wrong. I want to congratulate director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) for the amount of pressure he had looming over his head and what he pulled through with. X-Men is no campy nipple-plate festival but an attempt at possibly serious drama with tortured characters. The whole mutant/racism metaphor may be a little bludgeoned at times but for the most part is handled very well. The best aspect X-Men has is its patience. The film is in no rush and takes its time even if it is only like an hour and 40-some minutes. Still, it’s a welcome change in the summer action.

Singer’s direction is smooth and well executed. The casting of the movie is near perfection with some minor exceptions. Stewart and McKellen were born to play their dueling think tank leaders. Jackman is an exciting breakout in a role that was supposed to be occupied by Dougray Scott (thank you MI:-2 delays). I look forward to more from this actor. And does anyone know when young Oscar recipient Anna Paquin became so attractive? Someone buy this casting director a fine steak dinner.

X-Men may have its flaws, one of which is an absolute mundane score, but the film is one of the better summer entries into the world of explosions and noise. I just hope the sequel(s) will be a tad better.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

It’s hard not to understate just how eventful the first X-Men movie was back in 2000. Beforehand, the public’s conception of super heroes was that they were kids’ stuff, fed by recent duds like Batman and Robin and Steel. Then came X-Men and it changed everything. There wouldn’t be a Spider-Man without X-Men. There wouldn’t be a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), arguably the defining cultural franchise of the twenty-first century, without X-Men. It was an immediate hit with audiences and would go onto spawn two sequels, four prequels, three direct spinoffs, and two indirect spinoffs (Deadpool) over the course of 19 years. It’s a franchise that has made over $6 billion dollars worldwide and will soon be intermingled into that MCU, re-imagined with new actors filling out the famous names for the first time in decades. I can recall the importance of the X-Men in my own maturation and love of comics. I grew up adoring the animated series in the early 90s, and this began my relationship with the Marvel universe. I have boxes filled with old comics and I even started one of my own in my junior high school years (it’s unfinished and about 160 pages). I fondly recall seeing X-Men opening weekend with my pal Kevin Lowe and both of us just being relieved. A big studio had done it justice. They got it right.

Twenty years later, one must remember how different X-Men was with the super hero landscape. The more grounded, more political, and more reverent take on splash pages and spandex was in direct contrast with the cheesier, dumber, and more slapstick-heavy comics movies. Sure, you’d have your occasional hit like Blade, but the vampire genre inoculated it from larger scrutiny as a “comic book venture.” Director Bryan Singer wanted to make a brooding, serious version of the X-Men, a fact bolstered by his opening a summer super hero blockbuster with a Holocaust flashback. The mutant metaphor inherent in the X-universe has always lent itself to broad social commentary, easy to apply to any disadvantaged and targeted group for simply being different. It had men and women, and aliens and robots and more, doing amazing feats of derring-do, but it also featured these same characters fighting for equality with a public that increasingly feared and despised them for their gifts. Singer recognized this greater political allegorical relevancy and wanted his foray into blockbusters to be more meaningful than another disposable punch-em-up to consume mass quantities of popcorn. The X-Men franchise might not have ever been as successful without Singer’s early vision, and of course, many years later upon its demise, the producers might wish differently given the director’s righteous career reckoning.

But let’s talk about the movie first before we get into the controversy of the man in the director’s chair. I haven’t watched the original really since the superior X-2 came out in 2003, and I was amazed at how patient and assured the movie plays. For a super hero action movie, there really isn’t that much action until the final act. There are confrontations and what I would call “action beats” but nothing lasting longer than a minute in conflict. In its place is a patient movie that takes its time to establish its world, its ideological counterpoints, and its characters and their relationships. We have two entry point characters with Wolverine (High Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) being hunted and taken in by Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Even though the final movie is barely longer than 100 minutes, it doesn’t feel rushed in its pacing. It has a lot to do in establishing a new world but by grounding it with a scared runaway and a lonely drifter followed by trouble, the movie taps into Western archetypes to act as a helpful surrogate guideline. Fortunately, screenwriter David Hayter (and un-credited writers Ed Solomon, John Logan, Christopher McQuarrie and a heavily rewritten Joss Whedon) anchors us with the most interesting characters who have the most to fear and rebel. Wolverine and Rogue are an excellent pair and Jackman and Paquin have a real nurturing onscreen connection that provides an emotional investment. By taking its time to set up characters and their internal conflicts, X-Men makes a wide audience care about what’s to come.

When it does transition to action, you can see the beginnings of something great tempered with the growing pains of staking out new territory. The special effects are still relatively good, especially Rogue’s life-draining powers on the human body. That’s another thing the screenplay does well is finding ways to demonstrate and then incorporate every mutant’s special ability. We learn about Wolverine’s metallic claws through him being antagonized, and his healing ability from going headfirst through a windshield after Rogue admonishes him about wearing his seat belt. Later Rogue uses her powers to tap in Wolverine’s healing ability to save herself, setting up the Act Three climax where she is the key to Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) evolutionary-charged scheme. One more note on that (I apologize for the deluge of digressions) because Magneto’s big evil scheme is really about empathy. He plots to turn the world’s leaders into fellow mutants so they can understand the plight of a subjugated minority class, and yes, sure, some of them will not survive the genetic re-calibration, like the prejudiced firebrand Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), but it’s not like Magneto wants them all dead. He wants them to understand (at least until the next sequel where he welcomes an opportunity to kill all non-mutant humans). Thanks to Singer, the movie has plenty of dynamic visual compositions and a few wow-moments to pack a trailer. I was reminded what an excellent visual artist Singer can be as he stages his scenes. The placement of figures, the depth of focus, the fluidity of his camera movements. He was certainly one indie darling ready for a bigger stage, at least in an artistic sense and not necessarily a personal one.

It’s impossible to think of any other actor than Jackman as Wolverine but it almost never happened. Dougray Scott was in place but because of Mission: Impossible 2 delays which themselves were previously affected by Eyes Wide Shut delays, the role had to be recast already weeks into filming. Jackman entered the picture per a suggestion from Russell Crowe, to our collective pop-culture elation. Jackman is rugged, rebellious, funny, gruff, secretly warm-hearted yet clearly still the enjoyable F-You anti-hero, and watching him inhabit what, in comics lore, was a short, stout, hairy Canadian grump is a reminder that you can still recognize star-making performances when you see them. He fully inhabits the character and brings him to startling life. Jackman would become indispensable to the X-Men franchise and earn three spinoff movies, culminating in 2017’s R-rated and Oscar-nominated neo-Western, Logan. It’s only a matter of time before the MCU reboots this character because he, like Batman, is simply too valuable an IP to keep on the sidelines. It feels like heresy to consider another actor in this role, much like it will if anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. steps into the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man. This is a role defined by its signature actor where possible early choices now seem offensively wrong (like Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, or Christopher Walken as Harrison Ford, or John Travolta as Forrest Gump).

The ensemble was extremely well cast with Oscar-winners and nominees past (Paquin, McKellen) and future (Halle Berry, Jackman). Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) was born to play Professor X, enough so that when he first viewed X-Men comics he said, “What am I doing on this cover?” McKellen brings a gravitas to his villainous role as well as a smirky flair that makes him hard to hate. He had his shooting schedule re-arranged to accommodate the Lord of the Rings shoot in early 2000. Most people can only hope for one generational, pop-culture defining role, and McKellen had two after the age of 60. Paquin was making her transition from child-actor to adult, which was further solidified with HBO’s bloody and steamy vampire series, True Blood. Marsden was filling out his fledgling leading man potential, though he’s always been more appealing to me as a charming comedic actor (27 Dresses, Enchanted). Supermodel Rebecca Romijn (Femme Fatale) made a favorable impression as the shape-shifting Mystique thanks to low expectations and a costume made of 100 scales covering her nearly nude body that took nine hours to apply. The only real miss for me was Berry (Monster’s Ball) because I always envisioned Angela Basset (Black Panther) as my Storm. This is also the only X-Men where Berry adopts her character’s Kenyan accent.

Looking back over 19 years of movies, the wonky timelines of the X-Men world begin to break apart if given even cursory contemplation. Given what happens in the prequels set in the 1970s and 80s, including Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) launching all of the world’s nuclear missiles, it certainly seems like the worldwide perception of mutants would be more pronounced. Then there’s characters being alive, like Mystique, when she dies in the 1990s in the last X-Men film, 2019’s Dark Phoenix. The back-story of Jean Grey (first Famke Janssen, later Sophie Turner) and her Phoenix powers got two big screen showcases that also happen to be two of the worst movies. The biggest issue was the prequels arbitrarily following a movie-a-decade model, hopping from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 2011’s X-Men: First Class to the 1990s three films later. That means that somehow within less than ten years that Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and James McAvoy (Split) were going to resemble old men McKellen and Stewart. Do they get exposed to radiation? The conclusion of X-Men: Days of Future Past was meant to rewrite the timeline miscues, erasing the bad X-Men movies at that point from existence (2006’s Last Stand and 2009’s first solo Wolverine). Instead, the producers then followed with two more of the worst films of the franchise. You tried.

And now it’s time we discuss the controversy that has followed Singer for decades from film set to film set. There have been uncomfortable rumors and allegations that have surfaced ever since 1998’s Apt Pupil when Singer filmed a high school shower scene and insisted two underage actors be physically naked during the onset filming. Seems pretty questionable, right? This was eventually settled out of court, as were other allegations of abuse. According to a revealing Hollywood Reporter article, the teen who played Pyro, Alex Burton, was personally flown from L.A. to the Toronto X-Men set. This is quite bizarre considering he doesn’t have any lines and the part is a glorified cameo. Burton said he was held hostage by Singer and his wealthy friends for months and was repeatedly raped. Singer has been out as a gay man in Hollywood early into his career, and he would host regular all-male parties that reportedly descended into lurid bacchanals. Ironically, his status as a prominent and out gay director in the industry might have afforded him an aura of perceived protection, the idea that any journalist snooping too closely would be accused of homophobia or a double standard. It wasn’t just Singer but also the company he kept. Several associates of Singer have been accused of sexual abuse and against underage men that have led to undisclosed settlements.

These allegations of abuse continued when Singer rejoined the X-universe again in 2014’s Days of Future Past but he weathered it out, and then again during the filming of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and this time he wouldn’t be able to weather it out. He was fired with a month left to film and Dexter Fletcher (Rocketman) was brought onboard to finish directing the eventual Oscar-winning and shockingly successful Queen blockbuster (nobody seemed to cite Singer by name in their acceptance speeches). Singer also built a reputation of showing up to his sets extremely late, sometimes impaired, and for sudden and unknown disappearances. It’s amazing that with all of this chronic misbehavior he was still getting big studio offers, but the man kept producing hits, including the long-running TV show House, and so his shady behavior was overlooked until, finally, it wouldn’t be in a post-Me Too world. Even after he was attached for a Red Sonja remake for a time until another round of accusations made him too radioactive for the time being. I would not be surprised if in a few years some production company happily offers him another project. Singer seems like a new test subject as far as what can be forgiven for the hitmakers.

So, what do we as viewers do with this damning profile of Singer? It’s become a regular habit now of re-examining an artist’s legacy in light of new or old allegations of wrongdoing. I personally have no interest in ever listening to a Bill Cosby comedy album again or watching any of his many heralded TV shows. I feel different listening to Michael Jackson’s music now. I wince when I watch Kevin Spacey in performances now and try to only see the character instead (Spacey won his first Oscar for 1995’s Usual Suspects, directed by… Bryan Singer). Can you watch the early X-Men films, or the later sequels, and still enjoy them knowing that Singer has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct including against minors? I have no answer. This is a deeply personal call for every person. I have too much personal attachment to 1999’s American Beauty to cast it aside, and that’s a movie that prominently features Spacey lusting after an underage girl. I’ll never look at the film the same but I cannot discard the whole. X-Men might mean too much to too many to disregard as well.

Looking back on my original review in 2000, I’m genuinely a little stunned because it’s almost word-for-word my assessment upon re-watching in 2020. It does feel more like a pilot to a franchise, laying the groundwork for the world and character relationships. The action is surprisingly contained. The “toad struck by lightning” dialogue line did become notorious. The casting was marvelous. The score was weak, greatly improved by the addition of John Ottman as editor and composer in the sequel (that Nightcrawler assassination attempt scene is a matserclass of editing and shot design). I even note the patience. I even think my original grade is fair. The original X-Men is a perfectly good movie but it led the way for great movies to come.

Re-View Grade: B

The Irishman (2019)

In 2018, Netflix crashed through Oscar biases with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal epic Roma and this year they have their sights set on even bigger prizes. The streaming service has built an empire of original content (and debt) and put up the $150 million budget for Martin Scorsese’s decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It’s a fitting reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino on top, well it all makes for one supremely entertaining and occasionally striking movie experience. However, I think some critics are getting a bit too carried away with their plaudits. While entertaining throughout its mammoth 3.5 hours, this is much more Casino than Goodfellas.

We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, it’s Frank Sheeran who says he pulled the trigger killing Hoffa (is this a spoiler?).

There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it can feel exhilarating. There’s a rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and mob politics, and once Hoffa comes onscreen the movie becomes something more and better. It’s just as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment. Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating. It makes a difference on its running time, making 3.5 hours feel more mercifully like 2.5 hours. Of course, once it’s released onto Netflix, I feel like its size and scope will become less unwieldy for viewers.

Because of that surfeit of detail, I think The Irishman would have better benefited from being adapted into a miniseries than as a single movie that happens to be 15 minutes longer than Titanic. The finished film feels rather episodic, like three movies attached into one; the introduction into a life of crime and rising in the mob, the friendship and fall of Hoffa, and the finale as an old man. All of these segments have genuine interest and compelling drama but I think they would have been even more compelling with a larger narrative canvas to play out upon. That way each episode could have its own beginning/middle/end and play its part adding to the larger whole, which is essentially what scenes should be doing anyway for a story. The problem is that The Irishman gets a little lost in its own minutia in the middle and the plot stalls. It feels a little too taken with itself. It feels like we’re experiencing the same information just in more settings. How many moments do we need to show Hoffa pushing away sound advice, making enemies of allies, and dooming himself? Admittedly, the Hoffa portion of the movie is the most compelling, and longest, segment of the movie. It’s the best because of Pacino’s spotlight and from the personal involvement in Sheeran, pushing his loyalties to the test when he genuinely grows close to Hoffa and realizes he’ll be the one that has to eliminate his friend. It’s the most dramatic and harrowing and most interesting part of the movie (and no, not the somber final 30 minutes). I think it would have had even more punch over the course of multiple episodes of material and momentum. By going the miniseries route, the film could have also stripped its second and entirely unnecessary framing device, having the men drive their wives across the Midwest to attend Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) wedding. The short scenes fail to lead to any import until it’s revealed late what also happened during this fateful weekend. It’s a long wait to justify its placement, and even after that it doesn’t feel like the occasional road trip updates were worthwhile.

Much has been made from several dazzled film critics and online pundits about the movie’s concluding half hour, which follows the “after” of a mafioso’s life. We got a taste of this in the conclusion of Goodfellas after Henry Hill and family were relocated to schlubby mundanity through witness protection, implying the boring life that awaited, but The Irishman dedicates its conclusion to demystifying these mob men. Few of them live to old age, so already Sheeran is the exception (he died at age 83 in 2003) but he’s also incapable of introspection. That gives the final half hour a change of pace and an air of contemplation but it’s stagnated. Frank’s family wants nothing to do with him, everyone from his earlier life has passed away, and he shows little regret for his life’s actions, shocking a priest, his only regular visitor. I suppose one could surmise the self-deluded and sad existence of this man who refuses to accept accountability, but I found this final thirty minutes to be interesting, yes, but far from revelatory. I think critics are doing a fair amount of projection by searching for some kind of tidy, accumulative meaning, as if Scorsese is providing some wise, decades-earned statement on his own famed works highlighting the flashy lives of very bad people doing very bad things. People are a little too desperate for The Irishman to provide that neat hook, that definitive statement, and it’s just not there. It may have been too “movie land convenient” but I was begging for a final confrontation from Peggy.

The de-aging CGI is the source of much of the film’s gargantuan budget, which was why studios balked before Netflix welcomed Scorsese with eager arms. The first display of the de-aging effect is jarring and jarringly bad. We see Pesci and De Niro as 40-year-old men and it’s initially horrifying. The effect looks wrong, like somebody drew over their faces to provide some degree of cell-shaded dimension (think of the video game Borderlands). There are also elements that will just never look right, namely the elasticity of the skin, which looks overly smooth and polished, reminding me of the doll faces of the stop-motion film, Anomalisa. It gets better from there. Interiors and lower-light environments are better at masking the unreality. After a while you simply grow accustomed to it and the characters are aging anyway, which means the effect is rarely used after the first half of The Irishman. It’s impressive at parts but even with the digital facelift, these are still 70-year-old men moving their 70-year-old bodies with new shiny faces. There’s a moment when a younger Sheeran beats and stomps on a grocer and it reminded me of professional wrestling with the stiff movements of one participant followed by the extravagant physical overreaction of the recipient. Captain Marvel is still the champ at actor de-aging.

There’s also the fairly strong possibility that Sheeran made all of this up. Well into his twilight years, he reportedly recounted his amazing tale to a medical malpractice lawyer before he died, and that became the 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. An August 2019 article by Slate.com writer Bill Tonelli (“The Lies of the Irishman”) gives a pretty thorough rundown of the facts of the case, which align in one direction. All of the FBI agents during Sheeran’s time, as well as the local officials, and surviving criminal actors, all come to the same conclusion that Sheeran has grossly overstated his role in mob matters and outright fabricated his most sensational claims. According to Tonelli: “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged, or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency, even though officials were presumably watching him for most of his adult life. To call him the Forrest Gump of organized crime scarcely does him justice. In all the history of the mafia in America or anywhere else, really, nobody even comes close.” It does seem far-fetched, but the next question is whether the enjoyment of the movie matters at all if the story it’s based upon is ninety-nine percent hooey? While I think the impact of the movie is slightly blunted with a fictional account, it plays larger into a self-aggrandizing theme and the first framing device of the movie, having Sheeran narrate his life experiences as an old man, left to rot in a nursing home. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to make himself feel more important and grant himself something of a legacy that is denied to him by a lifetime of self-serving choices that have left him abandoned by family. In this regard, there’s a strange meta-textual level that even helps support the larger tragedy and loneliness of these men, in case you needed it underlined.

There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema. There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep things straight as we zip through decades, de-aging, framing devices, Boardwalk Empire supporting actors, prison time, nursing homes, and Jim Norton as a young Don Rickles. I wish the story had been parlayed into an epic miniseries rather than a movie. The finished film is certainly long and imposing but also compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and quiet role of his career. I wish he would continue acting. De Niro is suitably gruff and has a few scenes of trying to hold back a cascade of emotions, but he’s more our impassive face into a world of crime and vengeance. I don’t think the final conclusion has the power that others have claimed and is a result of projection. The Irishman is an entertaining deep dive that I only wish could have gone even deeper.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Margaret (2011)

The behind-the-scenes story of Margaret could make for a compelling feature all its own. It began filming in 2005. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan had spent two years on the script. It was the follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2000 film, You Can Count on Me. The only requirement was that Lonergan turn in a cut of the movie that was under 150 minutes. His first cut was three hours. The producers paid their own editor to chop the film down to two hours. Then came the flurry of lawsuits and countersuits between the producers and Lonergan. No less a cinematic statesman than Martin Scorsese was asked to take a look at the movie and edit it down to 150 minutes (Lonergan labored on the script for Gangs of New York). Several protracted years later, Fox Searchlight dumped the 150-minute Scorsese cut in a handful of theaters. Then a funny thing happened. The rare critics who got a chance to see Margaret flipped for it. Lonergan’s initial three-hour cut is now available on Blu-ray. It’s a happier ending than any of the participants might have imagined only a couple years ago. I’ve been eager to see Margaret for myself, to see if all these arty critics were being a bit overzealous in their praise. Days later, I can’t get it out of my head and I’m sure others would suffer the same wonderful affliction.

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a privileged New York City teenager who usually gets what she wants. She’s on the hunt for a cowboy hat when she spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) with one. She runs alongside the bus, trying to ask him about the hat. It’s just enough to distract the driver. He runs a red light and plows into a pedestrian, Monica Patterson (Allison Janney). As a crowd forms and help is called for, Lisa holds the broken woman during her final, hellish moments. Afterwards, she lies to the police to protect the driver. The guilt eats away at her. She lashes out, she hurts others, she butts heads with her stage actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron), and she’s looking for anything to cope. Eventually Lisa decides to come clean and seek justice but it just might be too late.

Margaret is a messy, imperfect film, over-indulgent and cluttered, but man does it stick with you. It sits in your stomach. You can’t shake it. You just keep thinking back on it. And after a while, the flaws itself start to transform into virtues themselves. The film is messy and all over the place but my God does it excel at recreating, in startling spasms of uncontrollable emotion, the life of an American teenager. There is no off switch when it comes to emotions, and when you’re young everything seems like the end of the world. Like Lisa, you alternate between self-involvement and idealism, and you haven’t hardened to the way the world works just yet. The movie, thematically, latches onto the same wavelength as its heroine. Lisa is a flawed creature, deeply hurting and trying to come to terms with her own responsibility and guilt for the accident. It just so happens that she makes mistakes trying to deal with that pain, and innocent people get hurt, and people we once thought were noble reveal their own impulses and vulnerabilities. Whether she’s sympathetic as a protagonist doesn’t matter, though even when she hurt others I never found her less than fascinating. She feels everything so intensely, and those intense feelings bleed into other areas of her life. She can be woefully self-involved and callous at times, but she can also be self-possessed and fearless in a moral quagmire. At one point, a character argues that teenagers would govern better than adults because teens are still idealistic and proactive, even if their actions are dismissed as naive. Lisa wants to find justice in the world somehow, so she can make sense of this random tragedy. She still clings to the belief, even as the film becomes a messy legal battle (one of its many genres Lonergan dabbled in).

There are plenty of storylines and themes and messages that Lonergan wishes to weave into a seamless patchwork version of our intolerable, detached, self-involved culture. The film is something of a time capsule, way back in 2005, and the post-9/11 anxieties and civil insecurity is also dealt with in interesting ways. Lisa’s social studies class repeatedly descends into shouting matches, debates that reduce the opposition in the simplest terms. After a while, all we’re doing is trying to out-shout the other and no one is listening anymore. Lisa comments that our culture feels so disconnected and that people have stopped relating to one another. Of course this also extends to her as well, as she confuses her feelings and those around her. The mother-daughter dynamics are a fascinating character insight and one of the better onscreen relationships I’ve seen in years. You can clearly see where Lisa gets some of her showboat tendencies. Both mother and daughter have stopped being able to relate to one another, and Lisa can wield sarcasm like a weapon, as teenagers are wont to do to their parents. Mom is dating a man she doesn’t particularly connect with, and yet she enjoys the company and the desire to be wanted. Is that enough to fulfill her gnawing sense of loneliness? Lisa’s father is the type to run from conflict, and yet the man is just as self-absorbed and hurtful as anyone else in the film. Except he’s an adult and, theoretically, should know better. In that regard, the movie reminds me of the excellent Little Children; this is a movie of mitigated personal responsibility from people of all ages. If this is the way the world works, then why not give teenagers a chance?

The opera is a reoccurring motif for the film, and it’s a strong artistic association for the film because Lonergan sort of gives his characters arias with which to work. The emotions are sent to overdrive, the arguments are full-blast, and the dialogue lands in that articulate, hyper-verbal territory but isn’t self-consciously snappy. It’s hard to quantify but it’s dialogue that’s painful and revealing and, while beautifully crafted, can come across as genuine. The entire movie is the same way. This is a drama where, in Spinal Tap terms, the emotions go to eleven. It’s a big bleeding heart of a movie, but it’s not corny or maudlin or mawkish or TV movie sentimental. It’s fearlessly emotional and takes you on a journey with many stops. You’ll likely be horrified, thrilled, precarious, elated, angry, saddened, and frustrated.

It may be best described as a series of potent, powerful scenes rather than a traditional screenplay with a clear through line. The most memorable scene also happens to be the one that sets everything in motion – the accident. It is horrific and awful in ways that movies rarely deal with. The first image we see is a leg pinned under the bus. Oh no, we think. But then the camera continues to pan down and we see… the rest of her in a heap. Oh no, we say to ourselves again, even more aghast. We’re there for the harsh reality, the sad realization of Monica that she’s going to die (“Are my eyes open? I can’t see…”), and the shock and confusion of the situation. There’s blood shooting everywhere, no sign of help, and the woman is fading away, confusing Lisa with her deceased daughter of the same name. Lonergan makes us stay in this traumatic scene for a long time, an uncomfortable amount of time, enough that the horrible incident is burned into our memory as well, and when Lisa crusades for justice or looks for some physical or emotional escape from the trauma, we know why. It’s one of those one-scene marvels, a byproduct of near-perfection on every technical level.

This is pre-True Blood Paquin and boy does she deliver when it comes to the dramatic feats of her character. She’s convincing as a coy, too-smart-for-her-own-good teenager, she’s devastating as a lost, dour soul lashing out at the world, looking for anything to ease the pain, and even when she stumbles, she’s fascinating. Paquin goes through a variety of moods to suit the variety of tones and storylines for the film, and her performance never falters. I’m amazed at how fast she can spit out the verbiage, while crying her eyes out, and all without gasping for breath. She’s nothing short of amazing.

The rest of the movie is filled with recognizable actors in small parts, from Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) as a nice guy math teacher with his own weakness, Matthew Broderick (Election) as a pompous English teacher, Jean Reno (Couples Retreat) as the off kilter suitor to Lisa’s mother, Kieran Culkin (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as the bad boy druggie who deflowers Lisa, John Gallagher Jr. (TV’s The Newsroom) as the nice guy with the unrequited crush on Lisa, Rosemarie Dewitt (The Watch) as the bus driver’s wife, Lonergan himself as Lisa’s neglectful father, and the triumphant return to screen of Jeannie Berlin (The Heartbreak Kid) who hasn’t appeared in a movie since 1990. Berlin has the juiciest part as Monica’s closest friend and eventual confidant for Lisa. She takes on Lisa’s mission for justice, but she’s still wary of Lisa and her hyperbolic nature. She accuses Lisa of making up a garish detail (the Lisa name confusion in Monica’s last moments): “This isn’t an opera! And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life!”

The title of the film comes from a poem called “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins addressed to a grieving subject named Margret: “Ah! as the heart grows older/ it will come to such sights colder/… /It is the blight man was born for/ It is Margaret you mourn for.” When you come down to it, Lonergan’s film is about the awareness of mortality, the shock of death, the realization of the end, and our pitiful attempts to turn off the feelings more fully felt. Adults, Lonergan argues, have become hardened to the world to the frailty of life, and you question if that hardening, a natural process, is a good thing. Perhaps the dubious claim that teenagers should take a chance running the world is not without some sliver of merit. Margaret is a movie that’s hard to pin down; there’s so much going on, not all of it fully realized or satisfying I freely confess, but it’s a thrill to witness an artistic vision that’s bursting with things to say, so many things that life cannot contain them all. The 150-minute running time will be a stumbling block for some, but honestly I never felt the film drag like I do most Hollywood action thrillers of that length. When you step away, and take the film’s messiness into context, then Margaret stops being an ambitious but erratic artistic miscue and starts coalescing into something bolder, richer, and thought provoking. It took a long strange journey to get here but Margaret is a movie that deserves to be savored and debated.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Scream 4 (2011)

What do you do when your satiric self-aware take on pop culture becomes the MO for a generation? Back in 1996, Scream was a breath of fresh air by sending up dusty horror staples and having highly literate characters, with exceptional vocabularies, deconstruct genre elements while ironically falling victim to them as well. In 2011, Scream 4, an obvious paycheck grab, is showing its age. After a rather nifty series of opening fake-outs, which gave me hope that returning writer Kevin Williamson was going to finely skewer the conventions of horror since Scream last went dormant in 2000, but sadly this is not the case. “New decade, new rules,” one character says, but it’s all so much of the same. People run, they get stabbed, only the locations are truly different. There are a few witty jabs about the obsession with reboots and remakes, and Williamson does secretly work a crafty symmetry to the first film as far as characters go. The body count is much higher but the scare quotient is low. And then brining back the original cast (Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox) seems like a waste if they cede almost all screen time to a bunch of fresh-faced high school kids who were learning to walk when Campbell was learning to run for her life. The satirical elements feel so lazy; if you’re going to introduce technology-obsessed characters and the narcissism of social media, then do something with it. Don’t introduce an element like a webcam and then barely use it. The scares are about as flimsy as the commentary. The reveal of the killer(s) is stupid enough, as is the cracked motivation, but the ending just piles one absurdity onto another. It doesn’t know when to stop, and Scream 4 flirts with some daring possibilities to wrap up its bloodshed. Scream 4 is a drifting vehicle, wasting potential at every opportunity. The weight of all those red herrings, genre riffs, ironic twists, and self-aware characters has gotten to be too much. The Scream franchise has morphed into what it once parodied.

Nate’s Grade: C

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The story behind the making of X-Men: The Last Stand is more interesting than most. Bryan Singer had directed the first two X-Men films and had done a fine job establishing many loveable characters and the universe that housed them. Warner Brothers has been trying to get their Superman franchise flying for so long, going all the way back to 1996 when Kevin Smith wrote the script, Tim Burton was to direct, and Nicolas Cage was going to be the man in tights. Since then directors and drafts of screenplays have come and gone, including Brett Ratner, best known for directing both Rush Hour movies and a slate of mostly mediocre movies. Then Warner Brothers poached most of the X-Men 2 team to make Superman Returns, hiring Bryan Singer as director, plus X2‘s screenwriters, cinematographer, editor/composer, and maybe even the cat that licked Wolverine’s claws. Fox was left without a captain for X-Men 3. They daringly picked Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) but then he dropped out for family reasons. Then Fox went with their second choice … Brett Ratner. Both directors had essentially switched projects. Hollywood’s funny like that.

It’s been a few months since the events in X-Men 2. Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden) is still mourning the loss of his love, Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save the rest of the X-Men. He’s tormented by her voice, whispering all around him and pleading with him to return to Alkali Lake, the site of her death. Miraculously, Jean returns from the dead but she’s much different. Her persona has broken and the Phoenix has taken over, a destructive killing force unparalleled on earth.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) has great use for such a force. There’s been news of a new drug that suppresses the gene that causes people to be born as mutants. This discovery has been dubbed a cure. The question persists, is should being different be curable and what would that even mean? Magneto sees the writing on the wall, knowing that any cure would only be voluntary for so long. He collects new mutant fighters along with his stalwarts the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and fire starter Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a former student at Xavier’s School for the Gifted.

Over at Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school, the mutant students are each questioning life with a cure. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is considering it so she can finally touch her boyfriend, Bobby “Ice Man” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) without killing him. Plus, so he’ll stop spending so much time with Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (Ellen Page), a girl who can walk through matter. Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are left to run the team after some disastrous setbacks. Henry “Beast” McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) is a man covered in blue fur and appointed as head of Mutant Relations for the president. He senses the growing danger and anxiety the administration has with mutants and joins the X-Men to do what he feels is right.

It feels like that in a rush to production that character development, subtlety, and subtext were chucked out the window to make time for more boom-boom action. The first two X-Men flicks juggled the characters and introductions but still managed to squeeze in one great moment for the characters we cared about. The plot moved at a mature pace, insightful and touching on elements of psychology, politics, and personal struggles to fit into a society that fears you. There was some sophisticated, relevant stuff bandied about this franchise in between the kick-ass action. But with X-Men 3, you basically have Halle Berry doing less with more. She’s got more screen time, in part to her demands, and now she can use that extra time onscreen to show us how perfectly bland her character is as the film’s most laughable moral ideologue. The idea of a cure for the mutant gene is vastly interesting with all kinds of great avenues for character introspection and socio-political debate. But X-Men 3 renders all of its debate to be merely superficial, another in a series of plot points to get the action moving quicker.

The X-Men franchise was already overpopulated with lots of characters vying for screen time, so I don’t understand the decision to add even more characters to the ensemble and cut down the running time to a brisk 100 minutes. As a result, certain characters sit out for long stretches of the film, are inactive during key moments, some are mostly forgotten, or some meet unjustifiably hasty ends. If I was still an ardent comic book fan, and a follower of the X-Men, I might view the third film as heresy. Why even bother bringing the character of Angel into the movie if he’s just going to be on for two minutes, including a forehead-smacking deus ex machine moment? The Dark Phoenix storyline is the most pivotal storyline in the comic’s history, so why even bother dragging it into X-Men 3 if it’s just going to be Zombie Jean Grey? It feels like Ratner is off screen with a pole poking Janssen whenever the story needs her to wake up and stir up some stuff.

I hope comic fans enjoy the brief glimpses of some of their favorites, because X-Men 3 does a good job of throwing characters into a meat grinder. I had to check online to just to find out who they were, and even then my realization was followed by, “Her? Him? What?” And what the hell is up with Porcupine Face? That has got to be the worst mutant ability of all time. What’s he going to do to his enemies? “Hey, will you come a little closer. I have a secret to tell you. Closer … closer … closer still … that’s right, now please lean against my face.”

The movie trades character for action, so is the action even good? Ratner is a workmanlike director devoid of any personal style, which further brands X-Men 3 as ordinary. The action sequences aren’t anything extraordinary, there just happens to be more of them. The climax pits mutant against mutant in short-lived bursts. A battle between Ice Man and Pyro should be awesome, but Ratner stages the showdown like he was choreographing his neighbor’s kids. This battle lasts a whopping 45 seconds. The climactic end battle, the “war to end all wars,” is rather sloppy. Ratner keeps cutting back and forth between his pairing of Good mutant vs. Evil mutant (why do the two black girls seem forced to fight each other?), but his showdowns are all too quick to quicken the pulse. Wolverine’s brawls in the woods never rise up to the adrenaline-soaked fights in X-Men 2. The special effects and make-up are just as good; they’re just not being put to as good a use. If Ratner is going to dump character for action he has to make his action exceptional. The movie feels on autopilot.

Ratner is not fully to blame for the shortcomings of X-Men 3. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zack Penn (Elektra) have crafted an overly rushed story that is more tailored for getting the job done than telling a good story. They present some big ideas and interesting elements, like a love triangle between Rogue-Ice Man-Shadowcat, but then most of the promise is either skipped over or dropped. They’re trying to juggle too many balls at once, and it just makes me miss Singer and the X2 screenwriters and how effective they were in defining character even in the smallest of moments. Some of the X-Men 3 dialogue is awfully stilted, like “You of all people know how fast the weather can change” and “Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.” There’s also a silly subplot about Storm teaching Wolverine what it means to be responsible. Try and count how many times you roll your eyes with that one. How many times are they going to have the president look blankly at a TV screen and gasp, “My god”? There’s some clever use of mutant powers during battles (mostly involving Shadowcat) but there’s just as many routine moments as well.

The acting is all over the map. Jackman owns his role as Wolverine. McKellen and Stewart bring a needed dose of grandeur to the proceedings. The X-kids are enjoyable, and Ellen Page (knocking ’em dead in Hard Candy) makes a very nice addition to the fold. I’ve likely enjoyed Paquin the most in this series, next to Jackman of course, so it’s so frustrating that she just plays Jealous Girlfriend at Window. I think it’s criminal how little she’s examined in the movie, especially since the supposed cure has the most questions and ramifications for her. Grammer is essentially Frasier in blue fur, but that’s essentially what Beast is so it works. He has a very nice moment when he sees what life would be like minus his mutant likeness. It’s really hard to judge most of the performances because of how short they appear in the movie.

X-Men: The Last Stand is far from boring but it’s more serviceable than special, and lacks the maturity and imagination that its previous films held. This was a franchise full of limitless potential, so to see it drop to something ordinary is sad, especially if this is the rumored end of the franchise (a record opening gross over Memorial weekend says otherwise). This franchise feels dumbed down; yes it’s still entertaining on a mass market level but it doesn’t have the creativity and precision that Singer’s movies had. X-Men 3 is fast-paced and not without its great geek moments, but it’s also the least emotionally involving of the films. When the deaths and departures come you’ll probably shrug your shoulders because of how the film presents them. X-Men 3 is fine, but I expect better from this franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

X2: X-Men United (2003)

Rollicking entertainment until they reach the dam and things get really bogged down. However, still the action film to beat this year. I heart Bryan Cox. X-Men 2 shows the promise of the X-Men world after the somewhat dull first film. Thank God we got the jumping point out of the way because now we can have fun with these characters and their world. And X-Men 2 is great fun. This is how sequels should be.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Almost Famous (2000)

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.

Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15 year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.

The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.

The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.

Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.

Nate’s Grade: A

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

 

X-Men (2000)

Take a storied franchise that has long been the backbone of Marvel comics and develop it into a feature film where the last superhero movie was the purple-spandex-in-the-jungle The Phantom and you’re just asking for trouble. A nation of fans is breathing down the neck of the film crew nitpicking every fine detail. Studio execs want the film done as fast as possible and under budget regardless of the numbers of effects needed. Despite what would seem like a cataclysmic set-up, X-Men proves that Hollywood can occasionally take a comic book and get it right. For the most part.

X-Men is basically the pilot for a movie franchise. It sets up characters, conflicts, origins, but periodically forgets its audience. Numerous people are introduced and then given a grocery list size of dialogue to read. Some even have atrocious John Watters-like wigs they are forced to wear. It’s a good thing then that the film centers mainly around Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), the three most interesting characters.

Often times the action in X-Men is surprisingly lackluster and contained. The battle royale finale atop the Statue of Liberty might induce more than a few eye rolls. I can’t help but hope that with all the groundwork laid out with this film that the eventual sequel will be more efficient with its action set pieces.

For the most part the dialogue in X-Men is passable and it even has a few rally snazzy sound bites. However, there is that ONE line delivered by Ms. Berry (“You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightening? The same thing that happens to everything else.”) that is groan-worthy and destined to be notorious.

It may sound like I’m coming down hard on X-Men, but for a comic adaptation it got a whole hell lot more right than wrong. I want to congratulate director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) for the amount of pressure he had looming over his head and what he pulled through with. X-Men is no campy nipple-plate festival but an attempt at possibly serious drama with tortured characters. The whole mutant/racism metaphor may be a little bludgeoned at times but for the most part is handled very well with care. The best aspect X-Men has is its patience. The film is in no rush and takes its time even if it is only like an hour and 40-some minutes. Still, it’s a welcome change in the summer action.

Singer’s direction is smooth and well executed. The casting of the movie is near perfection with some minor exceptions. Stewart and McKellen were born to play their dueling think tank leaders. Jackman is an exciting breakout in a role that was supposed to be occupied by Dougray Scott (thank you MI:-2 delays). I look forward to more from this actor. And does anyone know when young Oscar recipient Anna Paquin became so attractive? Someone buy this casting director a fine steak dinner.

X-Men may have its flaws, one of which is an absolute mundane score, but the film is one of the better summer entries into the world of explosions and noise. I just hope the sequel(s) will be a tad better.

Nate’s Grade: B

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

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