77. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Like most people in my age group, I grew up a Tim Burton fan.  He’s always had his own unique brand of filmmaking.  He brought us Beetlejuice.  He put Pee-Wee Herman on the big screen.  He redefined Batman for live-action.  He re-popularized stop-motion animation with his Frankenweenie short and then by producing (not directing) The Nightmare Before Christmas.  And he made Johnny Depp a mainstream star whether we wanted it, or not (most people did).  His movies are almost always instantly recognizable to everyone – hardcore and casual fans alike.  Tim Burton has had a truly legendary career and is one of only a handful of directors who are legitimately household names.

But then something happened.  I’m not going to quite say that he lost his touch as he’s made some quality films in recent years (Big Eyes was pretty darned good, though out of his wheelhouse) but he kind of seemed to get lost in the shuffle of bigger, more high-profile films and filmmakers.  Outside of his two Batman films, Planet of the Apes, and the 2008 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Burton has been less about big-budget spectacle and more about quirky, creepy mood and atmosphere.  And with the industry shifting more towards movies with large scope and safe, four-quadrant appeal, Burton’s smaller, darker films haven’t been getting the attention they once enjoyed.

Perhaps part of the issue is that, while most of his recent projects have maintained the macabre aspects of the work that put him on the map, he seemed to become a bit complacent.  The originality he was so renowned for felt muted.  The visuals weren’t as striking.  The stories weren’t as haunting.  The characters weren’t as memorable.  Burton’s heart seemed to be out of his work.

When I first saw the original trailer for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, my kneejerk reaction was that it looked a lot like old-school, classic Tim Burton.  I got the same vibe that I got from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.  Seeing all of the bizarre visuals, a majestic setting, a sensation of mystery and wonder, and a charismatic star as the face of the project (Eva Green) gave me the distinct impression that the Burton we’ve missed was back!  Other than having heard the title, I was (and still am) unfamiliar with the book series by Ransom Riggs on which the film is based, but I had no doubt that Burton was the one to adapt it to film.

I have to say that the film wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but I was in no way disappointed with what I saw.  The visuals and atmosphere that Burton has become so beloved for are present through the majority of the film.  But we don’t start there.  The transition from the chilling opening credits into the first scene of the film, proper, is deliberately both jarring and tongue-in-cheek.  Right off the bat, it’s clear that Burton is having fun, again.  I relaxed immediately.

As mentioned, the character designs are typically (for Burton) unsettling.  But, again in typical Burton fashion, these disturbing visages are often juxtaposed with the endearing characters with which they are paired.  At its core, as odd as this might sound, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is essentially X-Men.  The stories are different, but the core themes, concepts, and structures are nearly identical.  That’s okay, though, as it’s so well-executed with a Tim-Burton flair that most people aren’t even going to notice.  They’ll be too busy being sucked into the world and having a good time.

My two noteworthy issues are pretty short and to the point.  For one, there is a time travel component to the story and the rules of it are never fully explained or explored.  The process just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  It’s not such a big deal that the story shouldn’t be told due to the details being too tough to hammer out, though.  In this case, the ends justify the means.  My second issue is even smaller, and it’s something I’ve mentioned when speaking about other films: the propulsive event takes a long time to get to.  A very long time.  For well over an hour, we’re essentially just hanging out with the characters as they wander throughout their day(s) aimlessly and simply live their lives.  Eventually the event happens that gives the story something to work towards, but I got a little restless waiting for it.

But only a little.  The characters are strong enough that they were fun to hang with until that propulsive event occurred.  And it’s simple: the protagonists are likable and sympathetic while the antagonists are unpleasant and vile.  There are no shades of gray, here, but that fits this particular story.  It’s basically the complement of Edward Scissorhands.  That film was about an extraordinary character adapting to the mundane world; this one is about a seemingly-unremarkable boy being introduced to a fantastical place.  It just works.

Something that really took me by surprise is the climax.  Once the film starts building, it crescendos into a wild, wacky, and inventive conflict where everybody gets to shine and – from the looks of it – have a blast as well.  (I know I did.)  I won’t single anyone on the cast out, but they all hold their own (well, except for Finlay MacMillan, who plays Enoch and utterly fails to convince me that he’s capable of feeling love of any kind) and step up their game when asked.  The collective joy that they seem to be feeling just from starring in this film is infectious and really helps make up for the film’s shortcomings.

Overall, I’m very pleased with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  It’s not going to crack my Top Ten for the year, or anything, but I feel like Tim Burton is back to doing what he does best and – maybe even more importantly – having fun at work, again.  My hope is that this is the beginning of another hot streak for him (creatively, at least, if not financially.  We’ll see how it performs.) and that he can rise back to the top of the industry.  Regardless of what happens in the future, here in the present, I feel like other Burton diehards, and hopefully general audiences alike, will be pleased with Miss Peregrine, as well.

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77. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

#ThrowbackThursday – Girl Happy

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Original US release date: April 14, 1965
Production budget: Unknown
Worldwide gross: $3,100,000

I might just happen to be a big Elvis Presley fan.  My mom has always been a huge fan as she was growing up when Elvis hit it big.  Her fandom was passed down to me.  I’ve spent many hours listening to his Sirius radio channel and would say that I have anywhere from a moderate familiarity to an intimate knowledge of most of his songs.  A lot of people consider themselves too cool for school when it comes to the King but make no mistake – he’s the reason for everything that came afterwards in popular music, including the Beatles.

Something else that was all the rage in the ’60s was the beach movie.  I’m not going to pretend to understand how the appeal of a movie was suddenly elevated just because a large portion of it took place at a beach.  Maybe because “the beach = fun”?  Or perhaps the puritanistic lifestyles of Americans at that time might have been cultivating a deep-seated need for debauchery and young audiences were hoping to catch some bare Elvis chest or Shelley Fabares midriff?  I can only speculate (it’s the second one) but, whatever the reason, beach movies were a rage and the marketing made sure to communicate that this film was, in fact, a beach movie.

Just look at that poster.  Swimsuits everywhere!  And “Elvis jumps with the campus crowd to make the beach ‘ball’ bounce!!!”  I’m not even sure what that means!  And I’m doubly-unsure of why “ball” is in quotation marks!  And I’m even more unsure why it says that because I don’t recall an actual beach ball anywhere in this film!  But I’m entirely sure that this is a beach movie that stars Elvis!

If you’re unaware, Elvis was a bona fide movie star in his day and made a huge number of films to help sell his music.  Some were awful.  Some were actually pretty good.  And, of course, many were somewhere in between.  But Elvis was a draw and Girl Happy is exactly the type of film that his target audience wanted to see from him.

I actually really like this movie, as silly as it gets at times.  It’s a musical comedy that works better than it probably should.  The music, of course, stands out with one catchy song after another for the duration of the movie.  “Spring Fever”, “Puppet on a String” (which becomes a leitmotif for Fabares’s Val), and the title track are my personal favorites, but all hit the spot and are well-placed throughout the picture.  Elvis is one of the two greatest musical performers of all-time and it all just comes so naturally to him.  It really shows, here.

The movie, itself, follows Elvis’s Rusty, a club singer who is heading to Fort Lauderdale with his friends for spring break and is tasked by his boss Big Frank  to keep watch over Frank’s daughter (Fabares), who is also headed to Fort Lauderdale.  Frank wants to make sure she isn’t impregnated by a stranger, or something.  They really dance around the implications behind Frank’s fears as they weren’t too comfortable just coming out and saying what they meant, back in 1965.  Still, I was surprised to hear them actually say “sex” three times!  This movie came out before I was born, so I can’t speak from experience, but I have always been under the impression that even saying “sex” in an Elvis movie would have been fairly shocking in 1965.

Nonetheless, the aim of the picture is to show a lot of attractive people in skimpy (1965 skimpy) clothes as they enjoy dancing, singing, and making out.  And it’s harmless fun.  One has to remember that the film is definitely a product of its time.  Many today would be offended by some of the portrayals of stereotypes and certain actions by a couple of the characters, but no harm was meant.  These things just weren’t considered to be hurtful or insulting back then.  It was a more innocent time when many of the larger issues behind these smaller occurrences weren’t the omnipresent, hot-button topics that they are, today.  If anything, it plays like a bunch of people making fun of themselves and not taking themselves too seriously.  And if I’m not going to be offended by the token geek in the movie, then nobody else should be offended by anything, either.

The comedy aspect is surprisingly effective.  It’s not nonstop, laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it’s consistently amusing and many of the jokes and gags actually land pretty solidly.  And even when the jokes aren’t particularly sharp on paper, the cast delivers them so perfectly, that they usually work, anyway.

And the cast deserves a mention.  The film simply wouldn’t be anything without these specific people in these specific roles.  Elvis knew himself well and comes off as being totally comfortable in his role.  Shelley Fabares, after rising to fame in The Donna Reed Show, made the transition to film and this was the first of three films she would star in with Elvis.  She comes off as any guy’s perfect girl next door and serves as the heart of the film (even if Val might actually have a bit of a drinking problem.  I hope they dealt with that after spring break.).  The others perfectly fill their supporting roles, being just over-the-top enough to be entertaining without being disingenuous.

Girl Happy isn’t technically a “great” film, from an artistic perspective.  But it’s great at accomplishing its goals and being a fun, entertaining diversion from real life.  And who doesn’t need that, sometimes?  I hadn’t watched this movie in quite a long time and it was actually one of the more enjoyable re-watches I’ve done for my weekly #ThrowbackThursday feature.  I’m sure nostalgia and my Elvis fandom helped with that, but it was also nice to watch something that exists solely to entertain and do nothing else.  Plus, I couldn’t stop singing “Spring Fever”.  Actually, I might never stop singing “Spring Fever”.  Elvis . . . still the King.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Girl Happy

Interlude: 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About!

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2016 is flying by and here we are, with just three months left.  Sometimes, after the huge summer films have come and gone, it feels like there’s nothing left to look forward to.  But never fear!  Here’s a list of the ten films, both big and small, hitting theaters from October through December – in order of release – that I feel have the most potential!

(Okay, let me houseclean, first.  This is not an exhaustive list!  Other films look like they could be good!  Other films will make a ton of money!  And other films will pop up with little to no fanfare as always happens during Oscar season!  These are the ten movies that we know about that seem most likely to me to be good, successful, and crowd pleasing.  It’s not a guarantee!  I thought Suicide Squad was going to be all three of those things, too, but it was only 1.5 of them!  Don’t come back complaining to me if you see one and don’t enjoy it!  Especially after everyone ignored me (thereby giving my theory more credence) and refused to see Kubo and the Two Strings.  Okay, are we ready, now?  Let’s look into the future!  All the way into the fourth quarter of 2016!

1. The Girl on the Train

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October 7 – Based on the popular novel of the same name, The Girl on the Train tells the story of a girl (Emily Blunt) who witnesses a crime from the window of a train.  From there, she becomes more involved in the issue than she expected and the mystery begins to unravel around her.  I haven’t read the book, but Emily Blunt has a habit of picking excellent projects and she’s one of my favorite stars in Hollywood.  This seems like an excellent, sophisticated adult thriller to kick off the fall.  (Official Trailer)

2. Inferno

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October 28 – This is the third film adaptation from Dan Brown’s series of books featuring fan-favorite character Robert Langdon.  The first two, you may know, were The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons.  Ron Howard is back in the director’s chair and Tom Hanks returns as Langdon, this time joined by the fantastic Felicity Jones (we’ll see her again, later) as Sienna Brooks.  Casting doesn’t get better than Hanks and Jones (I maintain that she deserved an Oscar for The Theory of Everything).  And, unlike the initial film on this list, I have read this book and the story is thrilling, intelligent, shocking, and frighteningly relevant.  I’m going out of town on the weekend this comes out but I’m going to find a way to see it without waiting until the next weekend, believe me.  (Official Trailer)

3. Doctor Strange

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November 4 – This is one reason I don’t want to wait until the following weekend to see Inferno.  I’ll be otherwise occupied with this one!  Marvel Studios is back with a brand new character (not counting the name drop in Captain America: Winter Soldier) for movie audiences and they’ve brought along the longtime fan pick of Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous Doctor Strange!  This is going to be completely different from anything else we’ve seen in a comic book movie and, while I’m hoping the otherworldly dimensions aren’t limited to the Inception-esque folding cityscapes we’ve seen in the marketing, it’s hard not to be excited to see what Marvel has in store for us, this time around.  Though some of Marvel Studios’s films have been lesser than others, they’ve never truly let us down and I don’t expect they will here, either.  (Official Trailer)

4. Hacksaw Ridge

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November 4 – Some people won’t be happy about this one.  Mel Gibson continues his attempted comeback after his very public meltdown and, doggone it, Hacksaw Ridge (which Gibson directed) looks really fantastic.  I, like most everyone, was disappointed in Gibson’s words and behavior, years ago.  I personally believe in second chances and, after seeing the trailer for Ridge, I’m even more inclined to give him one.  Andrew Garfield plays pacifist World War II medic Desmond T. Doss who refuses to pick up a gun in Okinawa and uses his skills to save lives, not take them.  Upon seeing the trailer for this, it was the first time I’ve ever been actively excited about a war movie.  And then I saw that Gibson was directing it, which admittedly was a bit of a punch to the gut.  But, sorry, folks.  I’m seeing it.  My $7.50 will be split among hundreds of other deserving people, anyway.  (Official Trailer)

5. Arrival

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November 11 – Based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, Amy Adams stars (alongside Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker) as a linguist hired by the military to work as a translator between America and a recently arrived alien species in an effort to ascertain their true intentions.  This looks like a massively different angle on the alien invasion tale and Adams always brings the goods.  I could be misreading the trailer, but I get the feeling we’re in for something mature, thoughtful, and poignant, three days after Election Day.  (Official Trailer)

6. The Edge of Seventeen

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November 18 – Hailee Steinfeld has been doing pretty well for herself on the pop music scene, as of late, but I’m glad she’s still pursuing her acting career, as well.  After initially making a huge splash in the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit at the age of thirteen (she got an Academy Award nomination out of it), Steinfeld is now dealing with the growing pains of high school in The Edge of Seventeen and luckily (or maybe not?), she has Woody Harrelson as teacher Mr. Bruner to help guide her along.  Seventeen is a coming of age tale by a fresh voice on the scene in the form of writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig.  The trailer is full of more wit, humor, charm, and heart than many entire movies and the film looks likely to be a huge winner when it hits theaters near Thanksgiving.  (Official Trailer)

7. Moana

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November 23 – It’s becoming pretty clear that November is going to at least be a big month, if not a great one.  But I’m still betting on it being great, and Disney’s Moana is a big reason why.  Disney’s animation department is experiencing a creative renaissance under John Lasseter and there’s no reason to expect the streak to end, now.  Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson lays down the People’s Voiceover as demi-god Maui, who joins the titular Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) on her journey to reach a legendary island.  All the sailing reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and if the film is as enjoyable as that game was (and I feel confident that it will be), then Disney will once again walk away with much of our holiday money.  (Official Trailer)

8. La La Land

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December 16 – Come on.  Who can resist the pair of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling?  Oh, some of you think you can?  Well, La La Land is also written and directed by Damian Chazelle – the man who brought us Whiplash.  That’s all I need.  And, like Whiplash, this one centers around music, but as a full-on musical, this time.  The trailer, itself, is simultaneously fun, whimsical, light, emotional, and chock full of talent.  I really don’t know how this one can go wrong, but I’ll be there on opening weekend to see for sure!  (Official Trailer)

9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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December 16 – Duh.  While we wait for Episode VIII to continue Rey’s story in 2017, we get Rogue One to hold us over.  Starring the very busy Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, Rogue One tells the story of the Rebellion’s attempt to steal the Empire’s plans for the Death Star during the timeframe of the original beloved trilogy.  Directed by Gareth Edwards, Disney seems to have a firm grasp on what audiences want from Star Wars, so I expect to be blown away, yet again – especially with Jones taking the lead.  I look forward to seeing what new insights we gain into the larger mythology and how modern special effects allow for new ideas to be incorporated into this era of the universe.  (Official Trailer)

10. Passengers

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December 21 – There are no two hotter stars in Hollywood at the moment than Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.  Put them in a movie, mix in a unique premise of “love in space”, add in a healthy dose of action and suspense, and you have a giant hit in the making.  After being put into cryosleep along with thousands of others for a distant journey to colonize a new planet, Pratt and Lawrence’s Jim and Aurora are accidentally awakened 90 years before everyone else on the ship.  And then . . . well, we’ll see.  But it looks like a blast with two stars who can virtually do no wrong under director Morten Tyldum, who brought us one of the more important films in recent memory, The Imitation Game.  This one looks like a gift to any who celebrate the holiday season, and those who don’t, as well.  (Official Trailer)

And there are my picks for the 10 most promising films for the final three months of 2016!  We’ll see how it plays out and how other films like The Birth of a Nation and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fare, as well at what surprising Oscar contenders pop up.  I hope you’ll join me in checking them out!

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Interlude: 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About!

76. The Magnificent Seven

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The latest from director Antoine Fuqua is The Magnificent Seven, the remake of John Bridges’s 1960 classic starring Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, and Charles Bronson. That, in and of itself, was an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai (so I guess Hollywood was “out of ideas” even back in 1960, huh, message board trolls?).  The 2016 version features an equally dynamic cast, boasting Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and Vincent D’Onofrio (the chameleon of Hollywood.  Am I the only one who finds him virtually unrecognizable from role to role?).  Fuqua himself is best known for gritty, mostly well-received, and moderately-performing ’80s-era style action films (often starring Washington).  This is probably his highest profile project to date.

I’ve seen the original version of this film (the Bridges film, that is), but it’s been a number of years and it was during a time when I was going back and watching a large volume of classic films, rapid fire.  In retrospect, that wasn’t the best way to do it because a lot of them didn’t stick, and The Magnificent Seven was one of those.  So, this won’t be a compare/contrast column.  I’m looking at this one through mostly-fresh eyes, for all intents and purposes.

While I wouldn’t quite say that westerns have experienced a full resurgence in recent years, audiences have seemed more open-minded to them if the ingredients seem to be to their taste.  The Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake was amazing and extremely lucrative  .  The Lone Ranger severely underperformed in relation to its unnecessarily monstrous budget but in most cases, that one would have been considered a relative success.  Quentin Tarantino’s locked box mystery The Hateful Eight was a little bloated but still pretty darned good and it did well enough for itself.  And the recent Hell or High Water is still doing good business in theaters and is a legitimate contender for the best film of the year, so far (even if the best film of the year, so far, is actually Kubo and the Two Strings).  So, combine the allure of a western that’s a remake of a beloved classic with an irresistible cast and the timing just feels right for The Magnificent Seven.

MGM and Columbia are well aware of all of this and chose to release the film after the summer movie season came to a close.  In reality, this is exactly the type of film that belongs in the summer but it simply would have been ignored in favor of more contemporary blockbuster fare.  Having moved past much of that for the year, The Magnificent Seven gets that core audience mostly to itself and truly gets to shine.  Nicely done.

And it certainly  shines.  I’ve already mentioned much of the cast, and I could really harp on them for a thousand words or more, but I’ll resist.  To keep it short, I’ll say that they all go above and beyond and are the primary reason people will enjoy this film.  Denzel is Denzel: cool, confident, subtle, and commanding.  Pratt is a genuine movie star.  He’ll get lots of younger audiences to give this one a try and will keep them entertained with his unmatched presence and comedic timing, bolstered by something deeper as an anchor.  And D’Onofrio just continues to be a human Transformer.  It was a couple of minutes after he arrived onscreen before I even realized it was him!  He is an underrated master of performance (where’s his Emmy for Daredevil?!  Tatiana Maslany finally got hers for Orphan Black but all won’t be well until D’Onofrio is recognized, too!) and he gives a supremely memorable turn as Jack Horne, even with somewhat limited screen time.  If for no other reason, pay your money just to watch these three guys do their thing.

The story and themes are typical western fare, but that’s not a bad thing.  It’s a little safe, but giving audiences what they expect rarely turns out badly for those with money to lose.  I will say (again, having essentially forgotten entirely how the 1960 version plays out) that there were several events that took me by surprise.  I thought it was going to be predictable and I’m happy to say that I was wrong.  Keep in mind that the film is representative of a bygone era and the characters are portrayed as such.  Judging them using modern sensibilities is a foolish thing, though I can only recall one specific moment that could possibly upset people who just love to get upset at entertainment.

There are some action clichés, such as magical protagonists that avoid flying walls of bullets for long periods of time, but I paused to think about that and came to a surprising – but simple and logical – conclusion: In the actual massive shootouts that happened, oh so long ago, there were inevitably people who avoided kill shots to survive and win the day.  So, I suppose, really, it’s not all that unbelievable.  But, even if it was, so what?  Sometimes, it’s okay to just have fun with a movie and stop taking things so seriously.

Really, though, it’s pretty easy to have fun with The Magnificent Seven.  Whether you’re dealing with scenes of dialogue or all-out action, the entertainment level never drops and neither does the quality.  Mix that in with the fact that American audiences don’t truly want original films, and I expect that this one is going to do pretty well, as it deserves to.  For me, the Washington/Pratt/D’Onofrio trio steal the show (helped out by some sharp dialogue) and are enough on their own to give this one a hearty recommendation.  Add to that the excellently-staged action pieces, wonderful set design, and effortless escapism and The Magnificent Seven is a winner on all levels.

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76. The Magnificent Seven

#ThrowbackThursday – X-Men

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Original US release date: July 14, 2000
Production budget: $75,000,000
Worldwide gross: $296,339,527

Ahh, the good old days.  Don’t get me wrong.  I thoroughly enjoy the landscape of comic book movies, these days.  But when Bryan Singer’s original X-Men was released in 2000, the film was the realization of a lifelong dream for comic book fans of all ages all over the world.  Despite the fact that this was actually the third theatrical film to come along that was based on a Marvel Comic (after 1986’s Howard the Duck and 1998’s Blade.  There were also failed attempts at theatrical films based on The Punisher, The Fantastic Four, and Captain America.), it was the first based on one of their better-known properties.  The much-revered 1992 X-Men animated series made the team a household name and introduced them to a new generation of fans.  In addition, they had existed in comic book form since 1963 (as a brand, at least.  Wolverine, for instance, wasn’t created until Incredible Hulk #181 in 1974.  Storm came along the next year in Giant-Size X-Men #1.) and, after a rough start, had amassed a loyal fanbase thanks to the Claremont/Byrne era of the ’70s and ’80s.  So, while most expected a Spider-Man or maybe a Hulk movie to introduce the general moviegoing public to the Marvel brand at large, the X-Men were more than worthy of being the pioneering property to bring that long-held fantasy to fruition.

And what fun it was!  In those days, every casting announcement was huge, exciting news!  Every image from set was salivated over!  There was no viral marketing or online reveals so we had to buy tickets to other movies just to see the trailer(s) for movies like X-Men . . . and we did!  Nothing was taken for granted.  Today, everybody thinks they know better than the people making these movies and nobody seems happy about anything.  But back then?  Back then, it was wonderful and we were all so elated just to finally be getting a major Marvel Comic in (relatively) big-budget live-action (though a few armchair filmmakers whined about Hugh Jackman’s height or the lack of the comic book costumes)!  I personally saw this movie seven times in the theater (I have since broken that record with a handful of other films) including three times over opening weekend.  It was a true event.

It still holds up, for the most part.  Sure, visual and special effects have come a long way in the last sixteen years.  The wire work is dated.  But that was never what made this movie click and, outside of that, it never shows its age.  Regardless, it was the characters and the story that resonated with audiences and allowed this movie to click.  And, oh, the characters!  This is classic X-Men!  Cyclops, Jean Grey, Professor X, Storm, Rogue, and Wolverine vs. Magneto, Sabretooth, Mystique, and Toad?  This is what I wish we were getting in the comics, these days!  While there are other characters that could have also been expected while maintaining that classic X-Men feel, director Bryan Singer and the crew from Marvel and Fox chose the ones they could afford (so, no Colossus, Nightcrawler, Beast, Juggernaut, etc., and only cameos from Kitty, Jubilee, and Iceman) until the property proved that it could justify a higher budget by delivering at the box office.  And we even got Senator Kelly and Henry Peter Gyrich (kind of)!  We fans felt truly respected by the filmmakers so, yeah, no complaints about the choice of characters.

If you read my thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse, you’ll remember that I wasn’t a fan.  That was largely due to Singer’s insistence on remaining “grounded” in a world that has since passed that notion by.  But in 2000, a more grounded take was necessary to ease the general audiences into this mythology.  That was another advantage in choosing the less visually-dynamic characters; the film could present as being less fantastical while staying true to the characters and not feeling as though the film was only going halfway with them.

There were some things I’m still not crazy about.  I maintain that Cyclops deserved to lead the team, rather than putting Wolverine front and center.  In fact, Cyclops really got the shaft in this entire film series, and as a Cyclops fan, it always bothered me that he never got his due.  But that’s a personal preference and has no legitimate bearing on the actual quality of the film.

I wanted a more bombastic Rogue, as well.  But, again, both the budget and audiences probably wouldn’t have allowed the classic, post-Ms. Marvel Rogue that comic and cartoon fans always loved.  So, compromises have to be made, and I understand that.

Singer and Fox have always been hit-and-miss with their X-Men casting.  In the original installment, it was significantly more hit than miss.  I don’t think I need to go into Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.  But I will, anyway.  Jackman and Wolverine have a symbiotic relationship, with each feeding off of the other and becoming stronger for it.  As I mentioned, some fans were concerned that Jackman was too tall to play the traditionally-diminutive Canuck but Jackman showed them all that size doesn’t matter.  He’s synonymous with the role and it’s hard to believe that he was the backup after Dougray Scott was cast but then dropped out to co-star in Mission: Impossible II with Tom Cruise.  (I never cared much for Scott so I was relieved when he dropped out, even if I didn’t know what to expect from Jackman at the time.)

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan had a similar hold over audiences as Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto, respectively.  McKellan was significantly older than comic book Magneto but he needed to be a Holocaust survivor in order to create a storyline parallel between his childhood and his adult experiences.  Ultimately, his performance made his age just a number.  And Stewart as Xavier had long been a fan fantasy casting, so he had extraordinarily lofty expectations to live up to and he easily cleared the bar.

The rest of the cast ranges from very good (Famke Janssen as Jean Grey) to shaky-at-best (Halle Berry as Storm) with Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique probably being the coolest of the entire bunch.  But, all-in-all, it’s a strong cast that found themselves permanently enshrined in geek history thanks to their contributions to this historic film.

 The narrative remains true to the classic X-Men themes of prejudice and discrimination that made it so easy for comic book audiences to relate to them.  As I re-watched the movie, I found it to be even more relevant today than it was sixteen years ago.  It feels very much rooted in day-to-day America and there is a poetry to the climax playing out at the Statue of Liberty.  (I remember reading a long time ago that the filmmakers originally wanted the final battle to occur at Walmart, of all places!  That would have been unique and more grounded than anyone could have ever expected.  I could have gotten into it but a lot of people would have inevitably mocked that decision.  I think I remember where I read that over a decade ago, but I don’t want to say without evidence in case I’m misremembering it.  I wish I could find a link to someone – anyone – who reported that, back in the day, but if it was who I think it was, it was a popular, reputable outlet.)  The dialogue is generally witty and natural (though, I have to ask: Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?  If not, re-watch the film to find out!) and the film is just well-paced and -written in all ways, beginning to end.

Bryan Singer’s X-Men isn’t the over-the-top, large-scale spectacle that we’re used to from comic book/superhero films, these days.  Since then, we’ve had bigger films.  We’ve had better films.  But it paved the way for everything to come.  There’s a heart to the movie that can’t be denied and often can’t be (and hasn’t been) replicated in other attempts at this and other franchises.  The endearing nature of the cast and their characters combined with the socially relevant themes provide the film with a sincerity that belies its science-fiction origins.  A lot of care went into getting this film right for all audiences and I enjoy watching it now as much as I did during my seven voyages to the movie theater in the summer of 2000.

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#ThrowbackThursday – X-Men

75. Blair Witch

blair-witch

The original The Blair Witch Project was the very epitome of a success upon its release in 1999.  On a shoestring budget of only $60,000, that film went on to gross over $248 million worldwide.  Generally speaking, a movie makes a profit and is considered a success if it grosses 2.5 times its budget.  The Blair Witch Project made a gross slightly below a practically unheard of (maybe even literally unheard of outside of that film!) 4144 times its budget!  Films don’t get more successful than that.

Most audiences and critics loved the film, as well.  It popularized the Found Footage style of filmmaking which works particularly well for horror films.  And, whether it was due to the lack of funds or to a level of perception far beyond that of most on the part of writers/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, that film showed exactly why what one doesn’t see is far scarier than what one does.  It felt visceral and it felt like it could happen to any of us.  In fact, many people believed it was real and that the three stars of the film were all actually dead and gone (even though they made the rounds doing promotion once the film started gaining steam).  The town of Burkittsville, Maryland, quickly became a tourist destination for horror buffs as well as ghost hunters and true-crime lovers, alike.

For me, The Blair Witch Project was a milestone as it was the first film I traveled more than 30 minutes to see.  I drove 90 minutes with several of my friends, my sister, and several of her friends to see the movie.  I loved the unique experience and I actually recently re-watched the film when it came out on blu-ray, not all that long ago.  I think it freaked me out then more than ever before.

A sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was released the next year but the lightning successfully avoided the bottle, that time.  Not wanting to simply copy the original, Myrick and Sanchez along with new director Joe Berlinger made a more traditional film that failed to capture the imagination of its intended audience.  I liked it, myself, due to the understated implications of its story revelations but it never truly felt like a Blair Witch movie.

And that finally brings us to now, with another sequel that seems to take the story back to its roots.  Simply titled Blair Witch, this film pulled a 10 Cloverfield Lane and marketed itself as a completely unrelated movie called The Woods until its true nature was revealed through a trailer to a surprised audience at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, just a couple of months ago.  I love it and I wish we could be surprised like that more often.  Kudos.

The film has also had a lot of buzz around it, so this has been one of my more-anticipated films in a while.  I sat down excited and optimistic!

The story is simple; James, the brother of Heather Donahue from the original film, sets out to find his sister in the Black Hills Forest, where she famously disappeared.  His friends Lisa, Ashley, and Peter come along to document the search and we’re off and running.

The film is a fun enough ride, but the filmmakers involved here have picked up on what I ranted about recently – that audiences aren’t interested in original ideas.  So, Blair Witch gives audiences much of the same of what we got in The Blair Witch Project.  Now, to be fair, this makes a lot of narrative sense.  The characters are in the same place and dealing with the same entity as the original group, so they should naturally share some of the same experiences.  So, had I been writing this film, I would have taken that same approach.

The problem therein is that audiences have been desensitized to these specific events over the last seventeen years.  So, while it’s logical from a storyline perspective, much of the scare factor is lost for those who are intimately familiar with the first film.

As the film progresses, this is somewhat counterbalanced with some fresh ideas that are brought along by further insight into the lore as well as newer technology that the group has access to when compared to their predecessors.  The climax is longer and more satisfying than that of the first film, though it also covers some familiar ground.  Most will probably be entertained by it, though.

What I wanted as much of anything from this film was further expansion of the mythology.  I just mentioned that there is more insight into the Blair Witch, herself, and that’s true.  But it’s very minimal.  I have no problem with sequels.  And I have no problem with getting more of the same from a sequel.  After all, we want sequels to feature the things we liked so much about the films that came before them.  But a sequel should only come along if it’s able to add significantly to the universe it inhabits and become a worthy companion piece to whatever preceded it.  We get very little – some – but very little of that in Blair Witch, so I can’t help but wonder what compelled them to move forward with the film in the first place

Besides that, I also had a very hard time making out what was happening.  Found footage films, as I said, work well for horror.  But there needs to be a balance between maintaining that illusion and communicating the story to the audience.  The Paranormal Activity series conquered this issue brilliantly.  But in this film, there are frequent occasions in which we hear a loud noise, see a camera jerk, and then there’s screaming and running, with no information provided regarding what the characters see or what motivates them to react the way that they do.  At points, characters even suddenly die and I still don’t know exactly what happened to them.

Blair Witch is not a “bad” movie, but I walked away feeling underwhelmed.  I actually think it might be a more effective experience for people who are less familiar with the original The Blair Witch Project.  For them, it will be all uncharted territory and hit them with thrills that are completely foreign.  For longtime fans, I think it might be hit-and-miss.  It feels like a Blair Witch movie, but it feels a little too much like a remake and not enough like a sequel.  I want to walk away from a sequel feeling like I learned something new.  About any aspect of the world, at all.  I didn’t get that, here.  So, while it’s an okay film, and will probably scare the daylights out of some of the uninitiated, and while I definitely applaud the marketing department, I’m not entirely sure why Blair Witch exists.

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75. Blair Witch

#ThrowbackThursday – The Wrestler

the-wrestler

Original US release date: December 17, 2008
Production budget: $6,000,000
Worldwide gross: $44,703,995

I make no secret of being a lifelong wrestling fan.  Hulk Hogan was my hero as a kid and Bret Hart was my hero as an adult.  I’ve been to two WrestleManias, traveled 850 miles just to meet A.J. Lee, was just last week blocked by Vince Russo on Twitter for challenging his raging misogyny, and sat front row in Pittsburgh on that fateful night when the Undertaker flung Mick Foley off the top of the Cell.  I don’t simply watch it, I study it.  I learn about it.  About what works and why.  About the true art of it – and there absolutely is an art to it.  That’s something that people who don’t watch it – and even many people who do – don’t realize.

Something that comes along with being a longtime fan is that we often eventually see the heroes we grew up watching become broken shells of themselves.  Sometimes on the outside.  Sometimes on the inside.  Sometimes both.  So often, the wrestlers who truly love what they do beat themselves up for decades (“predetermined” is not “fake” for you uninformed out there) and then get pushed to the side and replaced.  They’re forgotten by the industry.  And many of them know nothing else.  They’ve developed no other skills.  And if they weren’t good with their money, this can lead to a rough end to a life that was once full of fame and fortune.

Obviously, besides studying wrestling, I also study film and filmmaking.  And with The Wrestler, those two interests collide.  But they collide in a truly artistic way, not in a silly, impossible-to-take-seriously way like a No Holds Barred or a Ready to Rumble.  And when it comes to directors, they don’t come much more artistic than Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan). This particular film gained much praise on its own merits as well as due to the performance of star Mickey Rourke (though many credited this film as being his comeback when that truly occurred a few years prior in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City), although Marisa Tomei got some critical love, as well.

Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a wrestler who hit his prime during the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling boom of the mid-eighties.  After being a huge main-eventer and draw for years, his time in the limelight is long gone and he’s forced to find his way in a world that has passed him by.

My fear was that the film would be an insult to an industry that I grew up loving and to the many performers that I grew up respecting and will continue to respect to my last day (unlike the aforementioned Vince Russo, who only respects the males, natch!).  And I imagine that at least some of my wrestling fan friends and followers may take a look at this post and wonder how wrestling is presented in the film.  I want to be careful to keep this a movie post and not a wrestling post, but I’ll take a paragraph to say that this is the only film I’ve ever seen that presents wrestling with respect, while also taking a brutally honest look at its consequences.  Either Aronofsky is a fan, he surrounded himself with fans for the making of The Wrestler, or he did a lot of research.  There are photoshopped Pro Wrestling Illustrated covers that feature Randy.  The insider jargon is there (my favorite line, as a group of independent wrestlers are backstage, discussing their match: “Don’t work the leg, man, come on.  Everybody works the leg.”). The fan chants are authentic.  Recognizable faces pop up, including R-Truth/Ron Killings, Necro Butcher, Ernest “The Cat” Miller, and my personal pick for the best male wrestler in the business today, Antonio Cesaro/Claudio Castignoli.  In addition to all of this, the Ring of Honor promotion is heavily featured.  So, wrestling fans can rest easy.  This film isn’t an insult to you, the wrestlers, or the business.

The film itself is, much like this past weekend’s Sully, a deep character study.  It almost plays like a documentary.  It takes nearly a full forty minutes before we get what I’ve come to refer to as a film’s Compelling Event – the event that sets up an unresolved story element that the film then proceeds to build towards.  This happens when Randy is booked for a small local show against the aforementioned Necro Butcher.  The generation gap is evident as Randy has to ask Butcher to repeat himself when Butcher brings up the idea of using a staple gun in their match.  This isn’t wrestling to a guy from the eighties like Randy (or to me, to be honest).  This style has earned the name “garbage wrestling” within the industry and fan communities.  All thought and storytelling is thrown out of the match in favor of brutality and shock value.  But Randy goes along with it.  And it takes a toll.

So why go along?  Because the business has become his life.  It’s his home.  His family life is in shambles.  He has no friends to speak of, except for a stripper named Cassidy (Tomei).  The irony in this relationship is that Randy has spent his life in a business that’s famous for working people into thinking things are real when they aren’t (which is a thing of the past, by the way.  Fans are now wise to the business, just as movie lovers know that movies aren’t “real”.), yet here he is, believing that he has a real relationship with this stripper who sees him as a customer.  But sucking Randy in is never Cassidy’s goal.  (Some might claim she falls into the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché but referring to that as a cliché requires the intrinsic belief that most strippers, by definition, are bad people.  I just refuse to subscribe to that way of thinking.)  She sees a wounded soul in Randy and pulls back the curtain enough to give him some support but tries to remain true to the essential professional/client relationship.  She’s a complex character and Tomei delivers an appropriately subtle and layered performance.

But without Cassidy, Randy has basically nothing.  He’s entirely stuck in the eighties, when he was at his peak.  He listens to eighties music.  He plays the original Nintendo Entertainment System.  He’s still rockin’ the mullet.  And, yes, Randy “The Ram” actually drives a Dodge Ram.  So, after the Ring of Honor promotion asks him to participate in a huge rematch of his pay-per-view classic from 20 years prior against his longtime rival, the Ayatollah (played by Ernest Miller), Randy sets out to also improve his personal life and finally live in the present with an eye towards the future.

When it comes down to it, though, the wrestling business is his family.  It is his personal life.  When his true family, his friends, and his day job reject him, he knows the fans will still love him.  So breaking away from that is easier said than done, because we all crave to be loved.  There’s a great scene where Randy is walking the halls of the supermarket in which he works, heading towards his new position as the deli counter worker.  The halls of the supermarket remind him of the halls of the arenas in which he wrestled and he imagines hearing the fans as they anticipate his arrival.  He stops behind the curtain of the deli as if it’s the gorilla position, right outside of a wrestling auditorium, and then he parts the curtain and morosely steps out into the deli, resigning himself back to his unwelcome reality.  It’s sad and haunting and touching and real.  It was easily my favorite part of the film.

Rourke really immerses himself in the role of Randy.  He maintains his tough exterior but the pain underneath is all too real.  How do let a world that loves you go in favor of a world that rejects you?  A world you don’t understand?

While wrestling fans should absolutely see this film (you should have seen it long ago, really), one doesn’t need to know a thing about wrestling to appreciate it.  It’s a movie about a wrestler, it’s not a wrestling movie.  In fact, I most suggest it to those who are big fans and also to those who have had a lifelong negative opinion of the business.  It’s an informative look at what the guys and girls who do this for a living sometimes go through.  Things are thankfully different, now.  They take better care of themselves both physically and financially, generally speaking.  The current crop seems to have mostly learned from the mistakes of their predecessors.  But they still sacrifice their bodies and their relationships to do what they love and to entertain the fans.  They’re real people, just like anyone reading this and Aronofsky’s The Wrestler treats them with the respect they deserve while also offering up a heart-wrenching cautionary tale that so many of them have unfortunately experienced firsthand.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Wrestler