Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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X+Y (A Brilliant Young Mind) 3 out of 4 stars

First, let us note that the original UK title X+Y is much better than the longer title that was presumably tagged on for American consumption and which makes it sound like some sort of prequel to the similarly named Ron Howard movie of 2001. The ethereal mophead Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game, 10,000 Saints) gives further evidence of his knack for sensitive portrayals as Nathan, an autistic teenager who is something of a math prodigy. Make no mistake, this is not Rain Man junior. Directed by documentary filmmaker Morgan Matthews, it is a lovely ensemble piece where the supporting characters are all so interesting that you wish they could all have their own movies. Sally Hawkins is the mum who is at a loss after the death of her husband—the one who had a firm bond with Nathan. Rafe Spall steals the show as a kindly teacher dealing with his own medical issues with both humor and self-pity. Jo Yang, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies and Jake Davies create distinct and memorable characters as Nathan’s fellow math whizzes en route to the International Mathematics Olympiad. And Eddie Marsan seems to have morphed into Simon Callow as the jolly mentor/guide to the group. The film doesn’t entirely escape all the tropes of family dramas and autism/Asperger’s stories, but it makes a respectable effort at not bending the reality too much. And fair play to screenwriter James Graham for resisting the temptation to end the movie with a big cathartic competition-winning feel-good moment. (Seen 3 November 2015)

The X-Files 2 out of 4 stars

The Seattle Times divided people who would see The X-Files movie into two categories: 1) die-hard fans of the TV series and 2) their friends who got dragged along. Just so you know where I fall, I have seen all of two (count ‘em, two) episodes of the TV show, which really surprises a lot of people who know me. But hey, life is too short to be addicted to more than one cult TV series at a time, and for any thinking person that simply would have to be Babylon 5. But back to this movie. It’s not all that difficult for newbies to catch up to the storyline because a) The X-Files has pretty much permeated the popular culture and b) its premise can be summed up in about 25 words, which is precisely what a stinking drunk Agent Mulder does in an expository scene where he bends the ear of a disinterested bartender. Basically, The X-Files is Chinatown, except that, instead of Jack Nicholson investigating political corruption in L.A., we get UFOs, aliens, and nefarious plots by FEMA. In the end The Grand Conspiracy here is a bit like the relationship between Mulder and Scully: you’re constantly teased that something is about to happen, but it never really does. The best part of the movie is the opening homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, featuring cameos by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as cavemen. Okay, it wasn’t actually them, but I thought that would have been really funny if it was, and one of them did kind of look like Tommy Lee Jones. Anyway, the flick doesn’t even touch on the very darkest of all hidden government secrets, which is that years ago David Duchovny was cloned to create Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Note for trivia fans: The X-Files joins 1952’s Here Come the Nelsons (Ozzie and Harriet) and 1966’s Batman as a handful of movie tie-ins to hit TV series made while those series were still on the air. (Seen 7 September 1998)

X-Men 2 out of 4 stars

Now that scientists have finally cracked the human genome, I can’t wait for them to explain to us which chromosome has to get switched so that we have blue skin and can instantly alter our form to look like anyone or anything else. No, I’m not one of those spoilsports who have to point out the illogic of movies like X-Men. Heck, I even bought (and still have) the very first X-Men comic book, which came out a very long time ago. No, comic books have a logic all their own, in which it actually makes sense to put on a costume to fight against crime and evil geniuses and in which superheroes and super-villains always manage to find and become obsessed with one another. The problem with film adaptations has always been that things which look cool on the page, when drawn by a great artist like the late Jack Kirby, look really silly when duplicated by live actors. But technology has been slowly but surely chipping away at the difference between images from the rampant imagination and what looks cool on celluloid. Christopher Reeve’s Superman made us believe that a man could fly, and Michael Keaton’s Batman made us believe that fitted hard rubber could be comfortable to wear. This movie makes us believe a whole lot of things that shouldn’t make any sense. The flick is slow to start, opting for a lot of human interest, but that’s okay. Any flick that stars both Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen is going to be extremely watchable, no matter how much exposition we have to sit through. In the end, the action scenes (as well as attractive young heroes and villains in great physical form) are worth the wait. In his third directorial outing, Bryan Singer isn’t quite as inventive as he was in The Usual Suspects, but he is definitely provides a bigger payoff than in Apt Pupil. Fans of the comic (which I stopped reading before it hit is popularity peak) should be pleased. Two choice moments: a debate on the efficacy of wearing seatbelts is resolved abruptly, and Wolverine aptly establishes his identity to Cyclops’s satisfaction. Watch for legendary X-Men creator Stan Lee as a hot dog vendor. (Seen 14 July 2000)

X-Men: Days of Future Past 3 out of 4 stars

Here’s a take you probably haven’t heard on this movie yet. I love it for more or less the same reason I loved Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie. It does a fun job of recreating the early 1970s when I was still enjoying these characters the first time around. Besides, I’m a sucker for time travel movies. That doesn’t mean that I’m oblivious to the flaws in this flick or, for that matter, in Burton’s. There is way too much going on (but, hey, you have to admire Bryan Singer’s completist approach when it comes to the sprawling cast of characters) and the story doesn’t always hold up to the bright light of logic. (Why did they have to break Magneto out of prison again and how did that help?) It’s hard to believe there have now been seven entries in the current X-Men franchise, but they don’t quite wear out their welcome because each one is so different. In the end, isn’t it really more of a Wolverine franchise than an X-Men franchise? Despite the teeming numbers of superheroes, the story basically comes down to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, James McAvoy’s young Prof X, Michael Fassbender’s chilling Magneto and the battle for the soul of Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique. The rest is high-class window dressing. But the show is pretty much stolen by Evan Peters’s young Quicksilver. He brings the youthful swagger and attitude that Jackman brought to the first X-Men movie. And the tour de force sequence involving a super-speed ballet in a Pentagon kitchen sets a bar that the rest of the movie struggles to match. The ending is particularly satisfying, although it does leave us to deal with the fact that much of the previous movies have been effectively wiped from history. (Seen 31 May 2014)

X-Men: First Class 2 out of 4 stars

It must be a generational thing, but when my kid first saw the title for this movie, she thought it was about X Factor contestants who didn’t have to fly coach. But, as most of us know, it is another X-Men origin movie (following the one about Wolverine). If we judge this one a bit rigorously, we are in our rights since it was not directed by some Hollywood hack but by the cool English director Matthew Vaughn, who gave us Kick-Ass (as well as Layer Cake and Stardust), working again with Jane Goldman (among others) who co-adapted Kick-Ass. So there is a bit of disappointment that Vaughn seems content merely to tick the boxes of doing a comic book origin story rather to surprise us. The best origin stories keep you wondering how they will ever get the characters to the point we know they have to get to. This one lays a clear, well-lighted, straight path. But in fairness, the story of the X-Men is so well known to fans that to do otherwise could alienate many of them. On the other hand, there have been so many variations and re-boots and re-workings of these characters over the decades that the story is not exactly carved into a stone tablet either. For someone like me who actually read the comic books in the 1960s, it is kind of cool to see this set in that era. The movie is even a bit reminiscent of the James Bond movies of the time, with Kevin Bacon (of all people) as a super-villain borrowing from Dr. No’s playbook. The main problem with this sort of movie is trying to make all the characters full-blooded when there are so darned many of them. Vaughn does reasonably well, but it is strange to see such notable actors as Matt Craven, James Remar, Ray Wise and Michael Ironside as little more than set dressing. (One brief, well-judged cameo makes up for it though.) People who know actors like Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence only for hard-edged performances in films like Hunger and Winter’s Bone, respectively, will particularly have some adjusting to do. Frustrations with the movie can best be summed up by citing two special effects moments. When Caleb Landry Jones, as Banshee, first takes flight it is amazingly real and thrilling. But when Nicholas Hoult transforms into the Beast, he looks like, well, a character on a toddlers TV show. (Seen 1 June 2011)

X-Men: The Last Stand 2 out of 4 stars

Of course, everyone who was interested in this movie saw it a long time ago already. Just to refresh your memory, this is the one in which property values took a real hit in Jean Grey’s childhood neighborhood and the San Francisco Bay Area experienced one of its worst traffic days ever. Some critics have ragged on poor Brett Ratner (who is, after all, mainly known for the Rush Hour movies), comparing him unfavorably with Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies. Frankly, I can’t tell much difference. If anything, I kind of liked this one better than the first two because, at least, it had a definite and memorable ending. (Note to those who saw this movie but who did not stay until the last bit of film had spooled out of the projector: ha!) By its nature, X-Men had to have a large cast, and each new sequel adds hordes of more actors. Even at the rate that they keep trying to kill characters off, the salaries must be getting really out of hand. Even the hot dog vendor from the first film is back, and it turns out he is the Grey family’s neighbor. (Okay, it’s Stan Lee in his obligatory cameo.) As usual the best things in the flick are Patrick Stewart (even though he has to say lots of inane things) and Ian McKellen (even though he has to wear a really dorky helmet). But one gets the feeling that even the filmmakers are forgetting which Patrick Stewart film franchise is which. Wasn’t the holodeck a Star Trek thing? Any serious review, however, has to grapple with the question: exactly what is this an allegory for? Do the mutants represent a racial minority? Or gays? At various times, those metaphors both work. But only one metaphor works consistently. The mutants and the non-mutants are, at the end of the day, tribes. And McKellen’s Magneto is an unmitigated fascist, inciting tribal hatred. Good job that he’s been forced into retirement (for now?). (Seen 28 June 2006)

X2: X-Men United (X-Men 2) 2 out of 4 stars

When the X-Men comic book came out a quarter-century ago, it was one of Marvel Comics’ secondary titles. But it later sprang to cult popularity, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Its very premise was guaranteed to appeal to an adolescent audience. Teenage mutants with amazing powers but who are hunted by fearful humans plays perfectly into youthful feelings of alienation, persecution, and being underestimated. As the saga of mutants in a New York state prep school gets transferred (a second time) to the screen, it is an entertainment that essentially comes off as Harry Potter meets Beverly Hills 90210—with Hugh Jackman (as Wolverine) in the Luke Perry role and James Marsden (as Cyclops) in the Jason Priestly role. As usual, the bad guys get the best parts. The great Ian McKellen dominates as the evil Magneto, who this time more or less gets to recreate Hannibal Lecter. He even gets to play it against the movies’ original Hannibal, Brian Cox as a dastardly renegade general. McKellen even overshadows Patrick Stewart but, in fairness, Stewart is not only immobile throughout but must also spend much of the movie in a trance. Moreover, Stewart’s presence can’t help but remind us of Star Trek, which is not a good thing when we get to the movie’s climactic scene, which seems lifted from a Star Trek movie. Keep an eye on Aaron Stanford (the precocious teen from Tadpole) as Pyro. (Seen 1 May 2003)

xXx 2 out of 4 stars

Another reason that the US government deficit is ballooning is the fact that CIA honchos have enough money in their budget to have an entire opera performed in the Prague opera hall for one man’s benefit, when all he really wants to do is mess with the mind of a single agent. But we’re not supposed to dwell on details like that, and the movie does its bit by keeping the pace fast enough that we don’t have too much time to think about anything. The idea of this spy action/adventure yarn from the Fast and the Furious guys is, as every review has long since mentioned, that it’s time for a different kind of secret agent. This conceit is made quite explicit in the opening sequence, in which a James Bond-like agent is hunted down by the bad guys as he tries to disappear into a rave club but sticks out like a sore thumb in his 007-esque tuxedo and thus doesn’t have a prayer. The new savvy, international spy guy needs to be different, says this movie, and that requires someone younger and more with it. You know, someone who shaves his head, does extreme sports, downloads pirated music from the Internet, and has tattoos all over his body. Otherwise, the film follows the Bond formula pretty darn closely. It’s mindless fun—with the emphasis on mindless. A lot of the attraction of James Bond for us guys was that we wanted to be James Bond. I’m not sure how many guys, even really young ones, want to be Vin Diesel. Still, his good-natured smirk reassures us that he isn’t taking any of this too seriously and that we shouldn’t either. What’s interesting is the fact that, when you get past all the posturing and neo-hip trappings, Diesel’s character is one more patriotic American giving his all in the war on terrorism. But he better watch out. When you define yourself as what replaces the old, you are only setting yourself up for being replaced yourself. (Seen 23 October 2002)

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