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Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Where exactly did this go so wrong? The rebooted Charlie’s Angels is based on a property that the general public has little investment in 2019 and it seems like nobody was aching for another movie. The early 2000s Angels movies were fun and had some big names attached and it was the debut for music video director McG, a guy who knew his way around visual decadence. I think the first wrong step was hiring Elizabeth Banks to both write and direct. Banks has been a highly successful actress and recently directed Pitch Perfect 2, but a fizzy spy thriller is another matter entirely, and the end results of the new Angels doesn’t help. Scene to scene, timing and shot selections just feel off, and there’s one sequence I’ll use as an example of the whole. Sabina (Kristen Stewart) is chasing after a bad guy. He’s in a car and she’s on a horse. You would naturally think, given that dynamic, you’d want to showcase the speed and fluidity of the horse with wider shots, the horse getting closer, and yet the camera jumbles between awkward close-ups, clumsily edited together, sapping all energy from the action and making me wonder if there were logistics challenges to cut around. The action is so lackluster but the story is also needlessly convoluted and unclear, with things meant to be revelations that I thought were obvious, and things that the movie thought were explained that were very much inexplicable. Sabina and Jane (Ella Balsinka) just assume Elana (Naomi Scott), a tech engineer roped into an adventure, will just pick up on things without explanation. They leave her a package of mints that aren’t really mints but she, and we, don’t know what they’re for. The rules are unclear and there are so few setups and payoffs. At no point does the movie give me anything to grab onto, whether it’s a interesting set piece, a villain with a colorful personality, or some surprise turn. This is a very thoroughly bland movie that seems to serve its empowerment message above all else, sacrificing action, comedy, and good plotting along the way to beat the drum. I’m on Banks’ side here, but there were moments that just made me roll my eyes with how heavy-handed the “girls can do it too” message was, like a montage of women across the world doing things like science and sports and friendship; it felt like I was watching a hacky campaign commercial. I will say there is a refreshing lack of male gaze even as the Angels are dressing up in sexy outfits to entrance weak men. The cast is the real highlight and they have a charming chemistry together, enough that given a stronger script or a more adept director I could envision this trio really succeeding. The end credits present Elana going through a series of Kingsman-style trials to enter Angel Academy, and that’s when I yelled, “This is the movie I should have been seeing! Angel Academy!” The 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot is a wash. The humor is strained, the high-tech gadgets and spy set pieces are so haphazard, the plot is convoluted without being intriguing, and there just isn’t a feel for the genre material from Banks as its leading creative vision. It doesn’t fail because it’s too woke, or whatever the self-pittying Men Rights Activists of Twitter claim, but because it didn’t know how to be the movie it wanted to be. Turns out everyone can do mediocrity.

Nate’s Grade: C-

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine has been slashed from all sides. First, the movie has not been able to shake bad buzz, from extra reshoots to rumors about conflicts between the studio and the director. There was even one rumor that the head of 20th Century Fox Studios ordered a wall repainted a happier color. Then in early April it got even worse. A DVD-quality print of Wolverine was leaked onto the Internet and spread like crazy, and once something finds itself inside the realm of cyberspace it cannot be put back. The reaction to the leaked copy was mixed, at best. The studio went into damage control mode, stating that the leaked copy was an unfinished work print, that they too were not thrilled with this version and paid millions for reshoots, and the final version that would be released in theaters had 20 minutes of new stuff and 10 minutes additionally edited out. But guess what? The wolverine’s out of the bag, it’s the same exact version minus some completed special effects shots. What amuses me about this whole situation is that the studio is on record trashing the movie, saying they were unhappy with this version, and yet this is the final release. After having seen Wolverine, at least I can say that those Fox execs know mediocrity when they see it.

We get to witness the storied history of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), which goes all the way back to the pre-Civil War era. Born James Logan, and a mutant, the kid had the unusual ability to produce three jagged bone claws from his knuckles. Logan also had the ability to miraculous heal like his older brother, Victor “Sabertooth” Creed (Liev Schreiber). The two of them make use of their primal, animal instincts and near invulnerability by fighting in every major U.S. war, from Civil to Vietnam. Eventually that kind of thing gets noticed, and General Stryker (Danny Huston) recruits the brothers to be apart of a mutant mercenary group. The group also includes the likes of William “Deadpool” Wade (Ryan Reynolds), “The Blob” (Kevin Durand), and some other unimportant mutants (one of them played by a Black Eyed Pea, will.i.am). Wolverine walks away from the group when he decides that he isn’t cut out for a cutthroat life.

The man finds a quiet place to live along the Canadian Rockies. He’s found a hard-working job, lumberjack, and a good woman, Kayla (Lynn Collins), who loves him. All of this is ruined when Sabretooth comes back around, intent on eliminating the former mercenary members one by one. Stryker appeals to Wolverine to apply for the Weapon X program. He says he can give Logan the tools for his revenge. Wolverine then undergoes the famous procedure that bonds his skeleton with adamantium, an unbreakable metal, and his bone claws become extra sharp metal. Stryker has other plans, naturally, and Wolverine breaks out of the facility. Stryker tells his assassin, “Bring me back his head.” Sorry pal, but you’re the one that just spent half a billion dollars giving Wolverine an unbreakable spinal column.

Is this origin tale worth telling? Short answer: no. The mysteries behind Wolverine’s back-story aren’t too involving and the answers make the character less interesting. I don’t really care why Wolverine got his metal skeleton or how he came to be an amnesiac, I just accept that the man has some mystique to him. I care even less that one of the answers to those mysteries is a murdered lover. The plot is incredibly thin; Wolverine meets one mutant who tells him to meet another mutant who tells him to meet another mutant, etc. Eventually the film heads for a mutant showdown that plays out like a lame video game, specifically the mid-90s Mortal Kombat (the Final Boss super villain resembles the blade-handed Baracka). What are Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and Emma Frost doing in this? That?s not the end of the mutant cameos, either. I feel like the only thing we learn about Wolverine is that his super sense of smell cannot detect the difference between real blood and stage blood. The filmmakers think character development involves someone saying no to slaughtering innocents, and then other characters keep telling him, “You’re not an animal.” The movie meanders from one unimaginative special effects set piece to another, stopping at points to shove in various mutants that serve little purpose to the story other than diehard comic fans will be more forgivable.

Oh, but what to do when your main character is indestructible, your main villain is also indestructible, and your other lead villain cannot be killed because he?s due for an appearance in X-Men 2? Why you bring in a third, nigh indestructible being into the stakes, however, this being doesn’t already play into the established X-Men onscreen mythos, so this guy’s okay to kill off, that is, until he too gets a movie built around his character and then that movie has to backtrack to fill in on time before its capped ending. We already had a healing ability mutant with super claws vs. a healing ability mutant with super claws smackdown in X-Men 2, where Lady Deathstrike fought Wolverine. That fight was brutal and well staged. The fights in Wolverine’s big show are uninspired; how much stabbing can you watch between people who instantly heal? Also, apparently another side effect of the Weapon X program is that these metal claws are self-cleaning, because every single damn time Wolverine stabs someone there isn’t a droplet of blood to be found on his claws. It?s hard to get emotionally involved in characters that are fearless and have little at stake. Which, of course, is why Logan had to be given a cruddy romance where he gets to hold his dead lover?s body in his arms and bellow to the heavens for what feels like the 80th time. Seriously, twenty percent of all the dialogue in this movie is some combination of growling, spitting, and bellowing.

Wolverine isn’t a terrible movie but it’s rather shoddy and thoroughly mediocre. I never thought I’d see this character do the beyond-cliché action movie motif of strutting in slow-mo while an explosion sizzles in the background. This is the kind of film that involves a super team standing shoulder-to-shoulder to walk down like they’re from The Right Stuff. This is the kind of movie that opens with a needless family squabble about Logan finding out the pointless identity of his real father. What was that about? (After killing his father, I remarked to myself, “I guess that he gets that whole healin’ thing from his mother’s side of the family.”) This is the kind of movie that hires Ryan Reynolds and then disarms the man of his greatest asset, his smart mouth. This is the kind of movie that theorizes the only thing to kill an adamantium-skeleton man is with an adamantium bullet, like a sort of werewolf. This is the kind of movie that sends a super assassin, with super bullet-bending powers, out to kill Wolverine but does not arm the super assassin with those special adamantium bullets. Why not shoot this guy in the eye? That is an open body cavity. This is the type of movie where the final super villain is controlled by, get this, key commands like “Engage.” This is the kind of movie where an assortment of characters refrain from killing super bad murderers out of the morally pretentious idea that they, too, would be no different from the super bad murderers. Excuse me, executing super bad murderers would be doing the world a favor here. This is the type of movie that fills the running time with pained dialogue like, “You wanted the animal, you got him,” and, “Nobody gets to kill you but me,” and the best line of them all: “I thought you were the Moon and I was your Wolverine. Turns out you’re the Trickster and I’m just the fool who got played.” Top that, screenwriters.

Whatever the budget was for this movie, well, apparently it wasn’t enough. The adamantium effects looked perfectly reasonable in the first X-Men film and that was nine years ago, so I cannot understand why the claws look astoundingly fake this go-round. They look like direct animation, like Wolverine is holding cartoon claws a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit? When did they become so thick too? These claws are like the size of the steak knives you get at restaurants.

Jackman deserves some of the blame here since he is listed as a producer and he hand selected director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition) who does not have the interest or the eye for this kind of material. Hood lacks the finesse and vision to stage exciting action sequences, which explains why he falls back on tired genre tropes like the slow-mo strut in front of fireballs. I am dead certain that this stupid super assassin was pushed into the movie after film producers saw how much money the bullet-curving Wanted made the previous summer. The movie borrows heavily from recent Marvel Origin comics, or so I’m told, which is where the whole “Wolverine through the ages” storyline comes from. Personally, I don’t much care for the idea that Wolverine’s healing ability also deters aging until you hit that agreeable, desirable Hugh Jackman age range, but fine, whatever. The movie takes great effort to showcase Jackman’s flawless physique, and this dude is ripped to the point that you can see bulging veins. I just wished Jackman made more use of his acting muscles in this movie. He snarls and glares, and even has a softer moment or two with Collins, but rarely does Wolverine get to prove why he is such a beloved comics character.

Thank goodness for Liev Schreiber (who actually also co-starred with Jackman in the forgettable romantic comedy, Kate & Leopold) because this man entertained me from start to finish, which is more than I can say about his movie. Schreiber has fun with his role and totally buys into the character’s animal instincts. He relishes the kill. The bizarre sibling rivalry between he and Wolverine is the best part of the movie, and the interplay between the two actors is when the movie has its few moments of life. Like Watchmen, the film finds its creative peak during the opening credits, as we watch Jackman and Schreiber claw and bite their way through American battlefields.

Here’s an easy solution to the Wolverine amnesia issue that doesn’t involve the use of admantium bullets. Kayla (Silverfox) has the power of hypnosis through touch, so why not in the emotional climax have her touch her dear lover Wolverine and wish, “Forget me. Forget all about me.” There, problem solved, and this way it works emotionally and organically with the story. It took me an hour after seeing X-Men Origins: Wolverine to come up with a better ending, so just imagine what more time will allow. Jackman and company are lost thanks to a mediocre script that sacrifices character for action beats, and even then the action is fairly mundane. There are a handful of cool moments, like Wolverine propelling himself onto a helicopter from an exploding car, but after four movies nothing has come close to producing the adrenaline rush that was the X-Men 2 sequence where Logan unleashes his berserker rage on the commandos in the mansion. By the end of his first solo outing, Wolverine is left without any memory. I won’t say we should all be so lucky but the X-Men filmmakers would be better off paying little attention to this origin tale, unless they want to bring Schreiber back, which they should do at all costs.

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+

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

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

Holy Moses, a Bible story made for a mass audience? The first animated feature from the folks at Dreamworks is ambitious, and crazy enough… it just might work. I’ll start right off by saying hands down this is great animation. The scenes are constructed with beauty and at certain times I did had something stirred inside me from the wondrous eye-candy. People look like people, not sketched cartoons. The animation and movement are so lifelike and fluid that you’ll easily be lost inside it and forget you are indeed watching a film people drawn by hand.

But while the visuals are lavish and splendid and just about every other adjective you can think of, the story suffers. The head folks had difficulty using the story of Moses because three separate religions use that story for their own purposes and beliefs. The trick is not pissing off any of the religions, and the end product is a very vague and gentile Sunday School lesson. They give you the message to believe, but believe in what? It’s never explained. The main characters tread over the thin ice of religious ire, and because of that intimidation they are often vague in descriptions and purpose. The idea of faith is pretty much gagged and taken away to be replaced with the supposedly more noble (and note; more universally agreed upon) issue that slavery is bad. You can’t help but feel a little like the producers chickened out with the material and hid behind the idea of slavery to not rise anyone’s blood pressure over a cartoon tale.

By making Ramses (Ralph Fiennes actually getting his second chance this decade to persecute Jews in a movie) and Moses (Val Kilmer, who also surmises the voice of God, but if God were Kilmer don’t you think he would’ve passed on The Saint?) not so black and white you have established that they are indeed people and both have their reasons for what they each do. You can see the motives and understanding for each, plus the tension and drama gets a shot in the arm.

While the music and message can be easily passable they can’t detract from the greatness that this movie projects with its simple and marvelous visions. You may gasp when the Red Sea is parted. I must confess though after multiple viewings on DVD the story and songs are indeed growing on me as is my impression of the film. This movie is more effective on your TV screen than the big screen.

Nate’s Grade: B

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