First Mutations (X-Men, 2000)

x-men-2000-PosterX-Men kind of set a template for Marvel films that they have stayed fairly close to and it has served them well.   Get a director with some real film cred, and the rest will follow.  X-Men is certainly proof that it is an effective approach.

Really, it was the hiring of Bryan Singer (then most recognized for the Usual Suspects) that got actors to take notice.  Most of the actors admitted no familiarity with the comics, and Bryan was not a fan of the series when he came on board.  While having a non-fanboy running the show ruffled some feathers (especially when it was revealed that none of the X-Men would be wearing costumes), it really seemed to miss the point.

A good storyteller need not be a fan to tell a great tale about these characters.  Patrick Stewart’s lack of interest in Sci-Fi did not stop him from becoming a beloved Star Trek Captain or Professor X.  And many of the actors opted to research their characters by reading the comics.  Sir Ian McKellan devoted an extensive section of his website to Magneto, he found simple ways to connect the characters to real life.

Of course, the big issue was Wolverine.  Hugh Jackman was way to tall to play the runt.  Oh, the frustrations comic fans are forced to deal with.  Along with the previously mentioned news that Singer was ditching the costumes in favor of leather uniforms.  So, things were stacking up against it in the eyes of fans and creators.

The film begins in the early 1940’s.  A concentration camp to be specific.  Weakened and fearful Jewish families are herded through an iron gate.  The Nazi soldiers begin to separate out children. One young boy and his parents reach for each other, and as the young boy becomes more frantic, we notice little things.  The metal in the gates starts to reach back towards the boy-and he and the soldiers holding on to him are dragged towards the warping gates.  After knocking the boy out, the soldiers stare in confusion at the mangled gates before them.  Next is an introduction to Rogue (Anna Paquin).  She is in her room with a young man and they start to kiss…suddenly, he starts to appear sickly, veins seeming to grow across his face.  She starts screaming as the boy convulses before her.  These are dramatic starts for a very ambitious film.  A few years earlier Batman and Robin crashed the comic book movie boom.  And yet, Singer was taking the X-men seriously.

The film quickly works to bring all the characters together.  and there is little time wasted in creating the team, tying it around Wolverine and Rogue.

The film, despise an easy premise, suffers from the problem from so many first films for a franchise…”Introductoritus”.  It is a large ensemble, and I get wanting to put in all sorts of stuff for the die hard fan to get excited over.  But it is a big cast and that means some folks will get glossed over.  Halle Berry’s Storm is flat and pretty lifeless.  Some of it is the writing, some is the performance.  Hugh Jackman does a terrific job as Wolverine.  He is convincing as a loner, yet the (sibling like) bond with Rogue is believable.  As his his friction with Cyclops and the magnetism with Jean Grey.  Unfortunately, Marsten’s Cyclops is often kind of boring when not interacting with Wolverine.  Their verbal sparring is definitely a highlight of the film.  It often feels like the film really is not sure how they want to portray Storm and Cyclops.

But in the end, Storm gets the biggest shaft in character development.  Some of the film’s worst lines come from Storm.  There is the scene where she and Wolverine are discussing the coming war between mutants-those who wish to peacefully co-exist with homo sapiens and those who wish to rule as homo-superior.  She tells Wolverine at least she has chosen aside.  As if merely choosing a side gives you some nobility (hint-it does not).  I mean, yeah, she chose Professor X’s side…but what if she had chosen Magneto’s side?  There is also the infamous “what happens to a toad when struck by lightning” gag.  It falls flat.  It was a contribution of Joss Whedon, who swears that it was all Halle Berry’s delivery that resulted in it being so ridiculed.

Both Patrick Stewart and McKellan give rousing performances, while Hugh Jackman proved that he could embody Wolverine even though he was of average height.  Stewart and McKellan really provide a sense of a longstanding friendship that is needed as the foundation of the story.  The effects were solid for the time, many mutant powers from the comics really came to life.

On the other hand, the film is so busy introducing the concept and the characters, the plot seems under developed.  It is a pretty herculean task to try and bring a single character with over forty years of backstory to a finite two hour movie.  Trying to bring the X-Men-full of hundreds of characters together cohesively?  You have to choose who you want to focus on, knowing you will deal with complaints either way.  Singer, Tom Desanto and David Hayter struggle valiantly to bring together character and story, but really, it fell mostly on the side of character development.  Understandable, as the X-Men have a rich cast to choose from.

Toad and Sabertooth come off as pretty bland and one dimensional for most of the film, not contributing much until the end.

For Singer, this was easily his most ambitious film to date.  Not so much in story, but in cast size, and general scale.  But he does a pretty solid job with the film overall.  He seems to understand the sense of scope a film like this needed-in spite of his background in smaller films, he seemed to transition quite well to the grand scale needed for the X-Men.

The film’s overall plot is probably less memorable than it’s various character moments, and in that sense, the movie is hurt.  What could have been a terrific film is simply a good start…it is just a set up.

What a Scrooge Part 6 (A Christmas Carol, 1999)

 Today, I am writing about the 1999 TNT television movie starring Captain Pickard, er Professor X…um…Patrick Stewart.

The film opens slightly differently than the others. It opens on the day of Marley’s death. Scrooge is rather dispassionate, simply signing off on Marley’s death in the Church ledger as the only guest. He then walks the foggy streets of London. He reaches his store front, enters and we see the passage of time as the sign is eaten away by the elements, devouring Marley’s name. When Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant) asks if Scrooge intends to remove Marley’s name, Scrooge merely grumbles. He doesn’t leave it there out of sentimental memory of a friend. Rather, he doesn’t want to spend the money on a new sign, and feels the elements will erase Marley’s name just fine.

Scrooge is visited by his nephew Fred (Dominic West). This Fred clearly loves his uncle, never mocking him, but clearly having some fun in the hopes of lightening his dour uncle’s mood. Ebenezer has no interest in accepting Fred invitation, even threatening to fire Cratchit after a fiery speech from Fred about the goodness of Christmas.

Scrooge is then visited by men seeking donations for charity. He mocks the men, asking if there are no prisons or work houses, after all, his money goes to the upkeep of those through taxes. Finally, when one of the men suggest people would rather die than face those options, Scrooge heartlessly suggests they should die and decrease the surplus population. And with that, he takes his leave. When he gets home, Ebenezer briefly sees Marley’s face upon the door knocker and once inside him home hears strange noises about his house. He tries to comfort himself by eating next to the fire, he is startled as he looks at the ornate designs of the fireplace. One shows a man clubbing another man…suddenly, the attacker turns and looks at Scrooge! It’s a brilliant and simple effect. Then the design forms the face of Marley. Scrooge shakes his head.

Then the bells start to ring, and Scrooge hears the sound of clanking metal coming up the stairs toward his room. Marley (Bernard Lloyd) walks through the door (I kind of missed the creepy unlocking of the locks and the door slamming open like the 1951 and 1984 versions had). Once inside, he unties a cloth around his head, dropping his jaw. Again, in a nice subtle use of digital technology, his mouth opens frightenly wide, like a cavern. This Marley is on par with the 1984 in fear. He is tired from dragging his chains, frustrated by his hell. Interestingly, Marley seems thrilled by his opportunity, since, for once, he is able to interfere in Ebenezer’s life, to spare Scrooge his own fate. And he promises a visit from three spirits. Scrooge attempts to be humorous, suggesting that time is precious, could they not just come at the same time. But Marley has no patience for his friend’s frivolity…he wants to save his soul.

And so the first ghost comes, the Spirit of Christmas Past (Joel Grey). At first, it’s hard to see the Spirit, as the light is so intense. Scrooge tries to stay confident sounding, though the Spirit is clearly outside of his comfort zone. This is an interesting take on the ghost, as it blends the variety of choices before. Joel appears much younger and more androgynous than the 1951 version, but has the long blonde hair, and certainly older than the 198 or Muppet version. Grey brings a certain undercurrent of mockery towards Scrooge, which is entirely appropriate for the Ghost.

And first he brings Ebenezer to his school, and Scrooge is overcome by his emotion at seeing young friends. Years pass and Scrooge is joyous upon seeing his young sister, until the Ghost reminds him of how fragile she was, and Scrooge becomes withdrawn. As if taking pity on Scrooge, the Ghost brings him to his youth at Fezziwig’s. There we are introduced to the short and round man, Albert Fezziwig (Ian McNeice). He a jovial and happy man, in love with his wife and family…loves a good celebration. He cannot close up the shop fast enough to start his party. Even here, Scrooge finds a moment of joy, taking offense when the Ghost chastises Fezziwig as a silly man. But his mood quickly turns as Belle (Laura Frazier) enters the room. This is the woman he loved, and the love starts to grow inside on sight. But the Ghost is cruel at times, and the next thing it shows Ebenezer is the day Belle set him free. Scrooge pleads with his younger self to go after her. But even as Belle pauses to look back a final time, young Scrooge does nothing. Scrooge demands to be taken home. The Ghost honors the request, but the harsh truths he has witnessed are too much. Scrooge grabs the cap carried by the host and uses it to cover and smother the Ghost’s light.

But it is hardly over. Scrooge awakens to a light under the door. He walks into the room where Marley met him to find a giant of a Ghost…the Ghost of Christmas Present (Desmond Barrit). He shrinks to Scrooge’s size and takes him into the city.

The Ghost walks from person to person, casting water on them as a mystical blessing. They go first to the Cratchit Household. Scrooge expresses surprise that Bob has a boy who is crippled, and the Spirit gruffly replies “You should have asked him.” The Spirit seems to have far less patience for Scrooge’s attempts to sound innocent of his attitudes and actions. Again, this Ghost has no tolerance for excuses from Scrooge, much as Woodward’s in the 1984 version. He is abrupt, brash and yet joyful and boisterous. After Scrooge asks if Tiny Tim will die, the Ghost sorrowfully states that if things remain unchanged, there will be an empty seat when he brother shows up next year. As Scrooge starts to feel sadness about the prospect, the Ghost casts his own words about the surplus population back in his face, stunning Scrooge.

The Ghost then brings Scrooge to his nephew’s house. There he watches as they sing and chat, only to hear them talking about him. And Fred defends him. When asked why, Fred’s wife explains that his mother loved Scrooge. And Fred elaborates that he believes there is something good in Scrooge for his mother to have loved him so much. The Ghost tells Scrooge it is time to leave, but as they leave, Fred starts a round of games, and we see Scrooge light up. He has not played games in so long; he requests that the Spirit and he stay awhile. The Spirit grants the request. Then the Spirit takes Scrooge on a whirlwind (literally!) tour of the earth, to see people in every nation and of every class celebrating Christmas. As they return to London, Scrooge notices the Spirit is getting older. Then he sees movement under the Spirit’s robe. The spirit reveals two emaciated and sickly looking children, Ignorance and Want. They terrify Scrooge to the point that he asks the Spirit to cover them. But when Scrooge looks back, they are gone. He now stands along on a cold street.

Scrooge starts to run down the street blindly as the bells chime. But he is stopped in his tracks as a large hooded figure. He instantly recognizes it as the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, who will show Ebenezer shadows of things that have not yet come to pass. By this time, Scrooge realizes time is at a premium for him, and he is on the edge of change. And he knows he is on the edge, no less. For the first time, Scrooge asks the Spirit to take the lead, no fighting or attempts at bravado. You can see the change taking over him.

And yet, as I have noted in the other reviews, the Spirits all have a somewhat wicked sense of humor. Bringing Scrooge first to the Stock Exchange, where they eves drop on some men laughing about the death of another man, Scrooge winces. He is troubled by the callousness. The Spirit whisks him to a dark and seedy looking pawnshop where they find people selling the dead man’s things, all laughing how they took things as the body was still growing cold. One of the women even stole the shirt off the dead man’s body, feeling it was a waste of money to bury him in it. This all troubles and even angers Scrooge. He suddenly finds himself before the body, which is covered by a sheet. The Spirit points to the body, and Scrooge realizes that he is being asked to pull the sheet back. He reaches for it, but cannot, instead asking the Spirit to show him someone showing emotion about the man’s death. And so it does…we see a young woman looking distraught, suddenly, her husband comes up to her. We learn they were not able to make a payment and feared losing their home…until the husband explains the person who held their debt has died. So now they will have time to get the money they needed to pay it. The couple embraces, and Scrooge is left frustrated, he wanted to see that someone cared and was saddened by the man’s death. But there is no one. So he asks to see some emotion connected to a death. The Spirit brings him to the Cratchit household. Sadly, Scrooge stand’s behind his clerk Bob Cratchit, who kneels by the body of Tiny Tim as Bob tries to offer comfort to his son’s soul.

And finally, Scrooge finds himself in a graveyard. The Spirit forcefully points to a specific grave marker. Ebenezer starts to plead with the Spirit, asking why he must see these things if there is no hope for change…or if there is hope, he already knows he will be a new man, why must he continue. The Spirit says nothing, instead continuing to point at the grave marker. And so he finally relents and kneels by the marker. He brushes away the snow to reveal his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge, carved in the stone. Scrooge stands and starts begging for the Spirit’s understanding. Suddenly, the earth shakes and the marker cracks open to reveal the cold dead body of Scrooge. The ground gives way at the feet of the living Scrooge and he finds himself face to face with his corpse. Suddenly, the ground gives way beneath the coffin and Scrooge (clutching his corpse) is hurtled downwards, screaming.

And suddenly, he nearly falls out of his bed. He pauses for a moment. And a grin crosses his face. He is safe! Scrooge starts to feel the curtains around his bed, and then looks at his hand. He pinches himself. He is real! Scrooge starts to choke, or so it seems. But the truth is, he has not laughed for so long, it starts out feeling unnatural. But soon he is laughing and excited. He cheerfully extols just how little he knows. Ebenezer hears the bells and runs to the window. He sees a young boy and asks what day it is. The boy seems a little shocked, but says that it is Christmas. This excites Scrooge all the more. He has not missed Christmas!!! He asks the boy about the butcher shop down the street, wondering if the prized Turkey is there still. The boy says yes, and Scrooge asks him to bring the butcher back with the turkey.

When they return, Scrooge asks that it be delivered to the Cratchit home-anonymously. Scrooge then gets into his best “going out” clothes. He greets everyone with a smile, startling many who never have seen the man smile, much less say Merry Christmas. He runs into the two men who had approached him about a donation and, to their shock, makes a generous offer. Scrooge even pauses briefly for a snowball fight with some children. A very nice touch, that underscores his new heart, is Scrooge stopping off at a Church. He steps politely into a pew and starts to belt out, in that booming voice of Stewart’s, a holiday standard with the rest of the congregation.

Stewart then goes to his nephew Fred’s place. While he hears the party going on inside, Scrooge become scared and apprehensive, the expression on his face suggesting maybe this is too much at once. Finally, he forces himself up the stairs to the door. Quietly, Scrooge opens the door, so quietly, no one notices until Scrooge clears his throat. Everyone looks to him. Like a frightened child apologizing to a parent, Ebenezer asks Fred if he is welcome to dinner still. Looking first stunned, then thrilled, Fred stands and cheerfully invites him in. But Scrooge is not quite done. He humbly walks up to Fred’s wife, Emily (Annabel Mullion) and asks her forgiveness for his cold ways, and will she welcome him? Emily shares Fred’s warm heart and welcomes Ebenezer to their table with a warm embrace. Later, Scrooge is in the office, waiting for Bob Cratchit. When Bob arrives a little late, Scrooge takes a moment to play with Bob, pretending to be stern and upset regarding such an infringement. But he cannot contain himself for long. He breaks down and tells Bob he is giving him a hefty raise and will help him with Tiny Tim…and then demands he put more coals on the fire.

Honestly, I love this version almost as much as the George C. Scott version from 1984. Patrick Stewart captures Scrooge as a complex character. His conversion is thoroughly convincing and his joy and excitement in the end are contagious. This deserves to become a classic, watched every year for years to come. And as Tiny Tim said…

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