Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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(Reviewed July 16, 2000, by James Dawson)

"X-Men" hits the spot even though its action segments are badly directed and nowhere near state of the art. I'm not the biggest "Matrix" fan in the world, but that movie set a new standard for over-the-top fantasy violence, and "X-Men" looks pretty sorry when stacked up against the marvels of bullet-time.

Unexpectedly, the scenes at Professor X's school for mutants are more enjoyable than the big action beats, because of the entertaining interactions of the team members as characters (as opposed to combatants).

If Fox had any brains, the studio would make a "90210"-type TV series set at Professor Xavier's academy that would follow the daily travails of the super-powered student body. (A not-bad made-for-TV movie along those lines called "Generation X," in which nobody showed up in costume until the final scene, aired on Fox several years ago and seemed to be intended as the pilot for a series that never materialized.) (2014 Update: It still would be a good idea, especially in an era when even a god-awful show like "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. apparently pulls in good enough ratings to get picked up for a second season.)

Back Row Grade: B

X2 (X-Men 2)

(Reviewed April 15, 2003, by James Dawson)

The best way to sum up what a huge disappointment this flick is: I have absolutely no desire to see it again, even though I liked most of the first "X-Men" and have been a comics collector most of my life.

Remember how the best parts of the first "X-Men" all took place BEFORE the wham-bam-biff action started on Liberty Island? Getting to know the characters and seeing them interact as people was more fun than watching the tedious, badly directed slugfest finale.

Well, "X2" is pretty much ALL "tedious, badly directed slugfest." While the prospect of wall-to-wall action might sound appealing, it ends up being watch-checkingly boring, not to mention campy. No kidding, I couldn't help groaning "Jesus, will this ever end?" about a half-hour before the credits rolled, as the fight scenes went on and on and on. (This sucker clocks in at well over two hours, so make sure you take your Ritalin ahead of time so you don't accidentally miss a dose, kiddies.)

There's also the fact that the presence of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' Mystique character once again makes the entire proceedings idiotic. I'm sorry, but having a character who can morph into an exact replica of anyone--in the person's clothes, too, no less!--is even stupider than Tom Cruise wearing a fake face in "Mission Impossible." (I do have to give her points in the costume department, though. I mean, she essentially is stark naked and dipped in blue paint. In one memorable scene, she is positioned to treat us to a full boob-profile, showing the entire outline and undercurve of one of those sweet, sweet melons. But I digress.)

Yes, I realize that a movie featuring characters who are telepathic, adamantium-clawed, eyebeam-equipped, etc., is not exactly realistic to begin with. But some things just go over the line...

Halle Berry seems thoroughly uninvolved and zombified as Storm, whose hair color switches from yellow-blond to white from scene to scene. James Marsden as Cyclops is given just about nothing to do (and apparently will have even less to do as Jesse Custer in the "Preacher" movie, since it looks as if that project is never going to get off the ground). (2014 Update: It didn't!) Anna Paquin (Rogue) looks kind of puffy and embarrassed. Famke Janssen is still pretty hot as Jean Grey, lust object for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, but the soap-operatics between the two are strictly by the numbers. Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Ian McKellen as Magneto once again do a pretty impressive job of slumming, but both of their roles seem very underwritten. (Also, it looks to me as if the frames of Stryker's glasses are made of metal, which raises the question of why Magneto doesn't manipulate them when he is imprisoned.) (Nerd alert! Nerd alert!)

Kelly Hu looks yummy as Magneto's business-suited henchwoman with a secret, but her throwdown with Wolverine is so senselessly, annoyingly violent that impressionable little kids in the audience will be asking their mommies, "Sheesh, is this a snuff film, or what?"

I never would have imagined two weeks ago that I would be so bored by "X2" that I would want it to end sooner...and that the concurrent-release movie I would want to see again would be the completely-out-of-left-field fantasy "Holes." Sometimes, life truly is stranger than comic books.

Back Row Grade: D

X-Men: The Last Stand (X3, X-Men 3)

(Reviewed May 23, 2006, by James Dawson)

Brett Ratner -- whose previous directing jobs have included the disposable "Rush Hour," the insultingly cloying "Family Man" and the dreadful "After the Sunset" -- was supposed to direct the next Superman flick. Apparently he was pretty psyched about the prospect, too; I read that the guy even put his head on Superman's body for his Christmas cards. Then he and Warner Bros. parted ways, and the Superman job was handed to "X-Men" and "X2" director Bryan Singer.

So imagine how delicious the prospect of helming the latest chapter of the X-Men franchise must have seemed to Ratner when he got the call from Fox to come aboard. If you were in his position, wouldn't you do your damnedest to make sure that your X-Men movie blew away both of Singer's efforts, and try to give Singer's "Superman Returns" a run for its summer box-office money to boot?

Whether or not that's what Ratner had in mind, he definitely pulled off the feat. "The Last Stand" is easily the best of the three X-Men chapters. It's fun, it has an interesting premise, its characters are comic-book heroic without being too tongue-in-cheek, and the pull-out-all-the-stops, hyper-dramatic climax is positively operatic. I haven't seen "Superman Returns" yet, but I can't imagine it being more flat-out enjoyable and entertaining than "X-Men: The Last Stand." (2014 Update: "Superman Returns" turned out to be one of the most egregiously awful superhero movies ever made.)

It's a rare treat to go into a theater expecting disappointment and seeing something this good instead. (The last time that happened for me, the movie in question was the excellent "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events." That movie was directed by Brad Silberling, whose previous "Moonlight Mile" received a well-deserved "F" grade from Your Humble Critic.)

What makes the accomplishment even more impressive with "X-Men: The Last Stand" is that Ratner's involvement wasn't the only reason I had low expectations for this movie. Its surprisingly good, simple-but-well-plotted screenplay is by Simon Kinberg ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and Ice Cube's "XXX: State of the Union") and Zak Penn (writer of the lousy and dumb "Fantastic Four" and the critically savaged "Elektra"). Sheesh, talk about a dubious pedigree.

Things here get off to a terrific start with an amusing flashback of then-compatriots Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) visiting the home of young mutant Jean Grey. As followers of the series know, Xavier will go on to become X-Men leader Professor X, Magneto will turn extremely bad and (as seen at the end of "X2: X-Men United") the adult Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) will end up dead at the bottom of Alkali Lake.

But is she really gone for good? Devastated boyfriend Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden) keeps hearing her voice in his head. He journeys back to the scene of her apparent demise, where he encounters a changed and vastly more powerful incarnation of Jean.

Meanwhile, an injectable "cure" has been discovered that can transform mutants into just-plain-folks homo sapiens. This development splits the mutant community into those who like the idea of becoming "normal" (such as Anna Paquin's Rogue, whose mutant power prevents her from touching anyone without absorbing their life force) and those who have no desire to lose what makes them special and different. Violent confrontations ensue between the X-Men, Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the US military, with one heck of a lot of civilians caught in the crossfire.

New characters this time around include Kelsey Grammer as the brainy, blue-furred Beast, who has a cabinet-level Mutant Affairs post; Ben Foster as the white-winged Angel; Vinnie Jones as the relentless but not-too-bright baddie Juggernaut and Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, who can walk through walls. Although Page was unattractively psychotic in this year's nasty "Hard Candy" castration-revenge flick, she is sweetly charming here as the most junior member of the X team. (Acting. Ain't it great?)

Hugh Jackman is back as sensitive tough-guy Logan/Wolverine, who slices and dices opponents with his metal claws. In fact, there's quite a lot of outright killing on both sides in this movie, although it never feels as gratuitously sadistic as the brutality in "X2."

One of the best things the screenplay does is sideline Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), a character from the first two X-Men movies who can transform herself into a perfect duplicate of anyone and, rather preposterously, their clothes. Her presence always felt like a ridiculous cheat, in the same way that Tom Cruise's ability to impersonate anyone of any body type in the "Mission: Impossible" movies seems silly. Granted, we're talking here about a movie in which a guy can turn an outdoor fountain into an ice rink by putting his pinky in the water, but still.

(Also, don't expect to learn more details about Wolverine's mysterious background, or his relationship to the last movie's Sabretooth, who does not appear here at all. That stuff is being saved for a Wolverine spinoff.)

Some of the dialog is hokey, which is kind of a given, considering the subject matter. But any laughs that (for example) Professor X gets when explaining how he mentally walled off Jean Grey's good and bad personalities are the affectionate type.

The only inexcusable dialog clunker occurs when the Beast, observing a scene of monumental devastation and violence, exclaims, "Oh my stars and garters!" There's comic-book precedent for the character using that line on occasion, but here it comes across as awkwardly as if the Thing shouted "It's clobberin' time!" while witnessing the fall of the Twin Towers.

Also, I didn't believe that Magneto and his followers would hole up in tents in the woods. And Magneto seems to have forgotten that he can kill humans by removing all metals from their bodies (as he did in the last movie).

Things to like about "The Last Stand" more than compensate for those kinds of quibbles, though. Best of all, the movie has not one, not two, but THREE great endings.

Which reminds me: Whatever you do, DON'T LEAVE THE THEATER WHEN THE CREDITS BEGIN! STAY IN YOUR SEATS! There's an extra scene after all of the credits finish that is such a "whoa" moment it made what was left of the audience APPLAUD WITH JOY at the screening I attended.

(If you are reading this review after seeing the movie, and you were too impatient to stick around and see that final scene, send me an e-mail and I'll let you know what happened.)

Back Row Grade: B+


(Reviewed July 27, 2002, by James Dawson)

What a major, major disappointment. I was hoping this series would be the "next generation" James Bond, with a badass hero (Vin Diesel) who actually looks like he could kick some serious ass. (As opposed to that pursed-lips wimp Pierce Brosnan, who wouldn't intimidate a nervous preschooler.) Instead, "XXX" is a jokey, pointless, shockingly dull exercise with a couple of good stunts and a moronic plot. Sound familiar?

Also, Diesel somehow manages to look less bulky and nasty than he does in the horrendous "Knockaround Guys," a movie made last year but shelved for release this fall (possibly because it stinks to high heaven).


Back Row Grade: D