Movie #66: X-Men (2000)

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Director: Bryan Singer

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, and Anna Paquin

As I’m sure I’ve stated before, I did not grow up reading comic books.  I knew, and probably still, don’t know a whole lot about the X-Men.  I get subtle references like when Cyclops (Marsden) asks Wolverine (Jackman) if he’d prefer yellow spandex (Wolverine’s comic book outfit) to the outfits they wear in the movie, but as far as back story goes, I was more or less in the dark going into viewing X-Men the first time.

In the not to distant future, mutants live within society.  Humans fear them and their abilities.  A law is about to be passed that would require a mutant registration.  This has a mixed reception within the mutant community.  On the one hand, people like Erik Lensherr/Magneto (McKellen) is opposed to it.  He thinks that mutants are the wave of the future and humans will become extinct.  He also opposes the law because he was in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.  A much smaller number of mutants like Charles Xavier (Stewart) believe both human and mutant can live alongside each other.  He holds out that there is hope.

X-Men introduces the audience to a number of major characters in the X-Men franchise, and sets the stage for the war that Magneto says is coming.  Though this is without a doubt an ensemble primary cast, Wolverine is the main character that the story revolves around.

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It’s difficult with the first film in a franchise, and there just isn’t enough time to give each individual character justice.  While Wolverine is without a doubt the main character the story revolves around, other talents and character potential goes to waste.  The filmmakers do a good job with the future movies of the franchise in developing some of those other characters, but I was disappointed to a degree with how little is explored in this one.

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There is a good balance of long-established actors (Stewart and McKellen) along with a number of up-and-coming prospects (Jackman, Marsden, and to a lesser degree Berry).  Stewart and McKellen act as leaders of good and evil, and their age and wisdom shows in their respective roles.  They are old friends, though each sees the world through a different lens.  They act as facilitators, and the younger generation in the cast does the bulk of the action and story development.

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The relationship between Wolverine and Rogue is touching.  Also interesting to see the misdirection and mistakes made by Xavier in thinking Wolverine was the one Magneto was after.  It was nice to see the caring and genuine concern Wolverine and Rogue had for one another.  Their significant age difference (even if we don’t know exactly how old Wolverine is) helped this be more of a caring relationship between friends.

The one miscast, in my opinion at least, is with Anna Paquin.  Maybe this has more to do with her character development in future films, and also just because I’m not too familiar with Rogue’s character.  Still, she just didn’t seem to work well with the other cast.  James Marsden was also a little difficult for me.  He just seems a little too spiffy-clean for my liking.

Visually speaking, the film is decent for the time that it was released.  As with Spider Man, there are clearly some moments with the animation that it’s very distinctly CGI, but that’s what the filmmakers had to work with, so I can’t fault them too much.

X-Men does a great job introducing a widespread superhero story to the big screen.  Though not too many characters are developed here, the groundwork laid in this film is developed nicely in the films that followed.  I enjoy watching X-Men, but it’s one of those I have to be in a certain mood for.  Without a doubt I’ll be reviewing all the other X-Men films before X-Men: Days of Future Past next summer.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Movie #65: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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Director: Baz Luhrmann

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Harold Perrineau, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Rudd

A television anchorwoman reports on the tragic death of two star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.  The reports of the gang wars between the Montague and Capulet families escalate and ultimately doom the two lovers who meet by chance and instantly fall in love.

I found it somewhat appropriate to review this movie following Shakespeare in Love since it’s another version of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and I hadn’t ever seen it before.  I remember when it came out, but I was too young to see it and just haven’t ever gotten around to watching until now.

Needless to say, I was surprised, confused, a bit put off, but ultimately enjoyed parts of this movie.  It took some time to adjust to the Shakespearean dialogue in a modern context.  While I didn’t like it at first, I got used to it.  It also didn’t help that the beginning involved mostly the supporting cast and not the two leads, Romeo (DiCaprio) and Juliet (Danes).romeojuliet1

Romeo and Juliet’s first encounter was charming.  The young love and the fact that they were immediately smitten with each other was nice.  I liked the filming as they looked at each other through the fish tank.  As their love developed. they do a good job of showing the young love and breaking through their families quarrels.  The balcony scenes were nice, but I feel they could have been better.  It just seemed like something was missing.

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Mercutio (Perrineau) was not what I expected.  Maybe I need to go back and see what kind of character he was in the original play.  The flamboyant entrance he had before the party was, well, weird to say the least.  He redeemed himself, though, as he put the curse on both households right before he died.

I don’t know how I feel about John Leguizamo as Tybalt.  While I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head that would do better, there was just something about him that I didn’t like.  Maybe it was his role in the opening to the movie, or how confusing the film was prior to Romeo and Juliet meeting.  Either way I was somewhat surprised by his performance, and not in a good way.

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Of all the supporting cast it was Father Lawrence (Postlethwaite) that I enjoyed the most.  I feel that he had the best grasp of the Shakespearean timing and remained truest to the original play.

A lot of the dialogue seemed rushed throughout the film.  I’ve gotten used to watching most movies with subtitles.  It’s a habit I took up after my Masterpieces of Film class in college.  It was incredibly beneficial for this movie.

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Romeo + Juliet is a modern take of Shakespeare’s original play, and in certain ways it’s refreshing and different.  However, it has become horribly dated since its release, and was a little off-putting for me.  DiCaprio and Danes definitely show their acting talents at their young age, but in the end that makes this movie tolerable and occasionally enjoyable for me.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Movie #64: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

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Director: John Madden

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, and Colin Firth

A young William Shakespeare (Fiennes) is struggling to make a living and finish his current playwright, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.  He meets and falls in love with Viola de Lesseps (Paltrow), who first poses as a male actor trying to take part in the new production.  Many themes and elements of his relationship with Viola, a woman of nobility who is pledged to Lord Wessex (Firth), come forth as he re-writes and modifies his work that becomes Romeo and Juliet.

 

 

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In this film John Madden takes two young and relatively unknown performers and provides a fresh perspective.  Paltrow had done Emma the year before, and Fiennes also starred in Elizabeth in 98.  Joseph Fiennes does a good job in these types of films.  Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, and Luther are probably his three most successful films.

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The supporting cast provides a lot of good-natured humor and help anchor the film.  Geoffery Rush is a delight as well as Tim Wilkinson as Philip Henslowe and Hugh Fennyman.  The opening scene was particularly entertaining, and at times the two seem to be out of the loop just enough for the humorous elements.  Ben Affleck, though he has good stage presence, seems out-of-place in this film.  Perhaps it is because I don’t really like him, but honestly I can’t think of who could have done better.

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When I first heard that Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film.  Though she only appears in three scenes (the first two of which I didn’t care for), this viewing of Shakespeare in Love helped me to realize why she received this award.  Her stage presence, especially at the end of the film, provided a lot of finality and resolution to the questions of Shakespeare and Viola’s relationship and the role of women in the theater.

I’d be interested to watch this alongside Elizabeth, starring Kate Blanchett and released the same year as Shakespeare in Love.  Both films were successful, and nominated for Best Picture.  The differences between Blanchett and Dench would make for an interesting comparison.

I’ve always been fascinated with history, and while the era of Elizabethan theater isn’t one I’ve looked into a lot, it’s charming and interesting to see it played out on the big screen.

Another strength of Shakespeare in Love is how much it humanizes Shakespeare.  He had struggles, he wrestled with the common themes throughout his work, at least through the eyes of this story.  Yes, it’s fiction, but it’s believable at the same time as something that realistically could have happened.

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Shakespeare in Love tells a story of how Shakespeare wrote one of his most famous plays.  Yes, the story itself is fiction, but it’s charming and just light enough to be enjoyed by the masses.  While I probably won’t watch this one again, it was enjoyable this time around.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie #63: Memento (2000)

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Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Guy Pierce, Carrie Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Stephen Tobolowsky

Leonard (Pierce), a former insurance investigator, has a condition where he cannot create new memories.  His wife was murdered, and he is out to find the guy who killed her.  Because of his condition, it’s very difficult for him to trust new people, and he carries a number of Polaroid pictures with notes he writes himself.  He also has a number of tattoos with key evidence in his investigation.

The story alternates and ultimately meets in the middle in the film’s finale.  One side starts with a phone conversation he has where he describes Sammy Jankis (Tobolowsky), a man who has the same condition as Leonard.  The other begins where he shoots Teddy (Pantoliano), a cop friend who’s helping him in his search, and works in reverse.

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Guy Pierce does a great job in the lead role.  He can be hit-and-miss on his performances (I didn’t care for him too much in Iron Man 3), but here he carries the film.  He’s a guy you can root for, even if you end up finding out his hunt for justice this time is just another in probably a long line of self-created vendettas.  He describes Sammy Jankis’ condition and circumstances in such a way that it’s believable that Jankis’ life is actually Leonard’s.

Carrie-Anne Moss was a good strong supporting cast member.  Though suspecting at first when Leonard shows up in her now dead boyfriend Jimmy’s clothes, she still helps Leonard and I think cares for him.  Joe Pantoliano does great as a guy you are always skeptical of, but can still enjoy watching.  When he’s shot at the beginning of the film, then appears in the next scene, it keeps the audience on edge and paying attention to what happens next.

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This was Christopher Nolan’s first major motion picture, and although the film only made about $40 million at the box office, it’s $5 million price tag left a lot of room for profit.  More importantly, it received wide acclaim from numerous critics.  It was also nominated for two Oscars, Best Original Screenplay and Film Editing.

Memento is a film you can only watch once, in my opinion.  I found the second viewing to be far less enjoyable because I already knew what was going to happen.  I realize this is the case with virtually every movie, but this one lost a lot of its allure, mystery, and misdirection after the first viewing.  With that said I probably won’t watch this one again.

The only way I could watch this one again is to see the scenes in chronological order, which I guess is a feature on the DVD, though I couldn’t find it when I watched it on DVD.  However, this is a great early work from Christopher Nolan, and his subsequent success should have come as no surprise after seeing a film like this.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Movie #62: Rocky (1976)

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Director: John G. Avidsen

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, and Burgess Meredith

Rocky Balboa could have been a good fighter.  Instead, he became a leg breaker for some two-bit loan shark.

Rocky is the story of a good-hearted man who makes his living collecting money for a loan shark and boxing when he can get a fight. He’s interested in his friend Paulie’s (Young)  sister Adrian (Shire), and has very little direction in life.  He’s recently been lost his locker at a local boxing club because the owner, Mickey (Meredith), has found someone with a more promising fighting career.

He’s given the opportunity to fight Apollo Creed (Weathers), Heavyweight Champion of the World, on January 1, 1976, five weeks after when the film begins. From there he goes from no name nobody to Philadelphia’s favorite son to the man who went the distance with the World Champ.

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The primary story line for Rocky is based on  Chuck Wepner, who nearly went the distance with Muhammad Ali (the fighter Apollo Creed is largely based on) in 1975.  ESPN did a documentary on it called 30 for 30: The Real Rocky, which is available on Netflix. If you’re a fan of the film or series, I’d strongly recommend watching it.  Carl Weathers does a great job bringing that character to life.  A loud-mouthed man who knows he’s great and wants to build his own glory.  He is arrogant, probably one of the reasons Rocky is successful against him, but not just cocky but good at what he does.

While the primary story line of the boxing match with Apollo is for the most part predictable and cliché, there are plenty of other elements that help make this a well-rounded film.

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One of the things that stands out to me in these films is how much time is spent away from the boxing elements.  The evolution of his relationship and eventual marriage to Adrian really gets to the heart of the franchise.  The fighting is great, without question, but adding Rocky’s relationships with Adrian, Paulie, Mickey, and eventually Apollo gives the franchise far more depth and a lot more content to explore.

It’s interesting to see how different Adrian is from the beginning to the end of Rocky.  She’s incredibly shy, mostly just keeping to herself.  She loves her brother, and ends up taking the brunt of his aggression, but it’s good to see her stand up for herself towards the end of the film.  One of my favorite scenes in the entire series is in Rocky III when she confronts Rocky on the beach.  Rocky asks how she got so tough, to which she simply replied, “I married a fighter.”

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I hadn’t realized how little Burgess Meredith was in the original Rocky film.  Yes, he plays a big part, and has phenomenal stage presence.  However, since he is primarily in the fighting story line, he doesn’t have as many scenes as the other minor characters.  He is more central in Rocky II and the first part of Rocky III.

Stallone, Shire, Meredith, and Young were all nominated for acting Oscars, though none of them won.  The film did win Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing.  It made the American Film Institutes Top 100 films of all time in both lists, landing in the mid-70s both times.

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Rocky is a nice feel-good film where it’s hard not to root for the little man.  At the same time though, you get the sense that everything will turn out okay.  The additional love story and social status (Rocky has to deal with being a bum by societal standards, especially given his untapped potential) make this a well-rounded story that can appeal to more than just the sports-film fan.  I enjoy watching this movie, and will probably continue to enjoy it for many years to come.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.