Category Archives: Fantasy

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) 3.9/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.9
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Duration: 132 mins
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender

Director Bryan Singer brings an assured and classy touch back to the franchise he helped forge in this surprisingly gripping fantasy sci-fi in which two versions of the same X-Men are united across time in an epic showdown to save the Earth against a future army of robot “Sentinels”. Superbly balancing the multiple threads to the story so that the main plot pulses steadily and clearly from start to finish, X-Men: Days of Future Past counts as a rather impressive feat of story-telling. With Patrick Stewart’s “Prof. X” and Ian McKellen’s “Magneto” on one side of the temporal divide, their successors (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively) on the other, and Hugh Jackman’s “Wolverine” straddling the two, we move between a nicely realised 1970’s and a desolate future as the older X-Men attempt to alter their own history and preclude the invincible Sentinels from ever coming into being. On the technical front, this movie is pillared by some genuinely striking action set pieces opening with an elegantly edited showdown between mutant and robot and peaking with an acutely impressive prison-break in the bowls of The Pentagon. This latter sequence, wryly soundtracked to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”, involves Evan Peters’ delightfully impish “Quicksilver” making a high speed mockery of the famous building’s security in a whirlwind of smile-inducing not to mention brilliantly conceived mischief-making. Alongside this brief cameo of what very well might prove to be the franchise’s most lovable character, what really sets Days of Future Past apart from the myriad of modern superhero movies is the sophistication of its construction. Though most of the future mutants offer mere cameos, Singer makes the most of their personalities and powers, deftly interweaving their trials and tribulations with those of their past counterparts and culminating in a suitably rousing finale. Given how uninspired and formulaic the genre has become, it’s genuinely refreshing to come across a simply well made movie.

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Man of Steel (2013) 1.9/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 25
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Duration: 143 mins
Director: Zack Snyder
Stars: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner

Zach Snyder’s groaningly familiar Superman reboot in which the kid from Krypton finds himself all grown up on Earth and battling his space daddy’s enemy, General Zod. Along the way he….argghhhhhhhh, seriously, why bother? One could simply label this “thing” as nauseating drivel but so obvious is such a comment that there’s a frustrating feeling of redundancy to such critique. Instead, maybe it’s time we realised that these movies are not well…movies. They are a peculiar product in the guise of a movie but not meant to be critiqued on those terms. Not at all! Artistically speaking, superhero movies have been a fatuous affair for a while now but since their recent explosion in popularity it has become ever clearer that they are no longer even aiming to tell stories. Rudimentary plots, water thin characterisation, stiff dialogue all point towards a concerted lack of interest and investment in the writing of these films. In the mind of the studio execs, they appear to be nothing more than modules for delivering cost effective CGI action to young boys. Kind of like a very long CGI cartoon with big name actors prancing around in front of a green screen. Man of Steel is perhaps the most comprehensive illustration of this. A hectic rush to get a cliched backstory out of the way and then a breathless lunge into a series of mindless CGI battles unfettered by plot and linked together by their mere contiguity. And on the other side of the battle, not one of the main characters comes out any different than they went in. The main players simply dust themselves off and wait for the next adventure which instead of being an “episode”, will be packaged as a “sequel”. There’s no attempt to tell a story here. Lip service is paid to its signature premise in a manner that amounts to the central character’s brief and oh so tiresome consideration of his responsibility as a hero. But once that’s out of the way, it’s time for a long winded antiseptic showdown to unfold – one that will no doubt involve a lot of throwing of one’s enemy across streets, into buildings, on top of cars, across streets, on top of cars, into buildings, across streets……….

Any marks this one gets, is for spelling “Man of Steel” correctly in the opening credits.

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The Village (2004) 4.29/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 66.8
Genre: Horror, Fantasy
Duration: 108 mins
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Joaquin Phoenix

An isolated old time village of people, hiding from the cruelty of the towns and cities, share an uneasy truce with a species of carnivorous creatures living in the surrounding woods. When one of the young folk breaches the border, the creatures begin entering the village to seemingly offer a fresh warning. However, when that same man is injured, his fiancée decides to cross those same woods in the hope of reaching a town and bringing back medicine, an action that challenges the village elders’ reasons for their isolation in the first place.

The Village is a deeply curious film that arguably defies its ultimate betrayal thanks to remarkably polished direction and a story that bears all the texture and resonance of a hardened mythology. First thing that needs to be said here is that M. Night Shyamalan initially concocts an elegant fairytale that comments on society and its traditions with the same grace and primal fear that has defined the classics. Strongly influenced by the folk tales of his Indian background, his creatures in this film are inspired devices in both conception and depiction. The sounds they make and the half glimpses that we are treated to all promise to add richly to the lexicon of horror, a genre in desperate need of new form lest we be left with the continued flogging of the vampire, werewolf, and zombie staples. Being savage and monstrous, yet possessing the outward trappings of a society or culture that has emerged in parallel to human culture, these creatures play so delicately on our archetypes of terror and so deeply in the recesses of our minds that they invigorate in a manner that recalls the chills of Harryhausen’s Medussa. All clicks and unbearable hideousness. The corners and bends to the mythos realised in striking colour contrasts upon Roger Deacons’ otherwise starkly painted canvas. In the haunting violins of James Newton Howard’s softly beautiful score. A remarkablly visceral piece of filmmaking.

The screenplay struggles (even contrives) to live up to the weight of this singular achievement but Shyamalan’s cast, the kind of that would normally bedeck a Spielberg epic, still manage to act their socks off. Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Adrien Brody are all excellent, Howard and Brody especially. They are helped ably by the director’s extraordinary ability to capture subjectivity in dialogue not to mention frame significant moments or build to powerful crescendos. There are also more of those lovely moments of innocent humour that have marked Shyamalan’s previous movies.

Unfortunately, at the final hurdle this undeniably talented filmmaker falls victim to his reputation and quite literally undoes the entire fabric to his film. In the end, storytelling is paramount and he appears to betray that for no other reason than to add a fairly insipid twist. It’s feels like a body-blow to the audience, counting surely as one of the more disappointing reversals ever and if you’ve managed to avoid hearing of this twist, you’ll probably guess it far in advance.

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Wanted (2008) 3.19/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 60
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Duration: 110 mins
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Stars: Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman

It might seem redundant to state that a movie about a secret cult of weavers turned assassins is at best a guilty pleasure but so derivative is this one that it really does need saying. With its comic book premise that itself was cobbled together from dozens of better sources and with a sprinkle of madcap mayhem, James McAvoy stars as a painfully ordinary nobody who, after Angelina Jolie shows up to repeatedly beat the crap out of him, discovers his birthright is to be a super-assassin and avenge his similarly employed father. Absurdly obscure superpowers considered and colourless bad guy aside, this one kind of skirts along of the far boundaries of tolerance thanks to the rollercoaster of fun it serves up. So detached is it from making sense that you’ll gladly just give in and absorb the bullet-bending, car-flipping carnage and chuckle at the few decent jokes they manage to cram in between. McAvoy’s boyish charm helps a lot and when Jolie isn’t doing her smug “I-know-something-that-you-don’t” face, she cuts another fine action heroine. Together, they are fine but don’t expect the chemistry of Ford and Fisher. Noteworthy in his presence is Morgan Freeman who pops up in a (not atypically) curious cameo too but to little effect because Wanted is McAvoy and Jolie’s bag.

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) 2.5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.4
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Duration: 121 mins
Director: James Gunn
Stars: Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Benicio Del Toro

Yet another comic book blockbuster from the Marvel stable of sci-fi fantasy. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel are the eponymous heroes whose self-interests bring them together against a common foe who, like every other super villain these days, will settle for nothing else but the destruction of the galaxy. What saves this film from the black hole pull of a mind-numbingly familiar genre is the fresh sense of fun James Gunn brings to the script and its direction. The characters are drawn and played out with a care-free irreverence that drives the movie as a whole. There are no erroneously earnest pauses in tone to allow for some heavy handed emotional button pushing – well, none that aren’t cleverly rescued in time. Guardians of the Galaxy is a joke and everyone’s happy to play it that way. It all lays the groundwork for some genuinely side splitting humour, most of which, involves Cooper’s talking and brilliantly mental space rodent.

Though Pratt is a wonderfully unassuming lead with lots of self-deprecating charisma and Bradley is in rich vocal form, most of the credit must still go to Gunn. Making a funny movie doesn’t just require you to write funny but to direct funny and armed with his anthology of vintage pop tracks and a very wry sense of editing, he rocket propels the humour in his script. Okay, so a few of the jokes are taken a step too far but most are delivered with polish. And when we’re not laughing, the simply astounding visual effects ensure that we have something impressive to look at too and, while it never escapes the CGI look, the movie remains an immaculate piece of visual artistry. On this canvas, Gunn (particularly early on) crafts some dazzling action sequences and the ceaselessly fantastic gadgetry and conveyor belt of amazing aliens adds handsomely to their enjoyment.

Where the movie inevitably falls flat however, is in the wearingly repetitive plot that seems no different to that which the likes of Thor, The Avengers, or any number of the endless comic book adaptations (that we’ve been utterly plagued with these last five years) have offered up. Plots that seem to serve no other purpose than to provide a platform for endless battles and flashy explosions. For all the good this movie does with its character construction and comedic dialogue and for all the ingenuity of Gunn’s action, the brain eventually just switches off during these protracted sequences because the premise is too flimsy to support them. It’s part of Hollywood’s magic formula so it won’t soon change but anyone who doesn’t have the hormonal constitution of a 14 year old boy, is liable to find this movie’s visual narrative veering towards 3rd act tedium. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy wraps up at just under two hours and while still perhaps 15-20  minutes too long, it’s a damn sight shorter than most other modern comic adaptations. Alongside its richer character and dialogue base, that saving grace, gives Gunn’s movie a significant edge on  the generic horde of superhero vehicles.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) 2.72/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 69.6
Genre: Fantasy
Duration: 169 mins
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

After the success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he was always going to find The Hobbit a tougher project not simply because of the difficulty in living up to the reputation of the earlier movies but because many a critic was just waiting for him to slip up. Not surprisingly, therefore, his decision to stretch the adaptation of that one book into another trilogy of three hour movies left those critics salivating and some would say with good reason. After all, what are you going to fill the movies with?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey picks up decades before the events of The Lord of the Rings, and follows the adventures of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo and his efforts to help a motley group of wandering dwarfs reclaim their old kingdom from a nasty dragon Smaug who, years earlier, decimated their people and forced them to flee their homeland. This first installment is dedicated to the necessary exposition of the backstory and the early stages of the journey and, as a movie in its own right, it’s reasonably enjoyable if taken on its merits. Yes, there’s an extremely protracted buildup but if such a buildup is dedicated to the construction of character and relationships then it can be eminently watchable. Jackson and company make a modest attempt to do just that although it’s nowhere near as in-depth an introduction as we were treated to in The Fellowship of the Ring. Part of this is down to the source material which lacks the backbone and rich characterisation of the Rings trilogy. Simply put, it’s too lean a book and not as inspired to support the same class of story telling.

However, the real concern when it came to The Hobbit was whether or not Jackson could imbue this new film with the same magic and sense of distinct mythology that The Lord of the Rings trilogy was imbued with. In this respect, he was considerably more successful. An Unexpected Journey very much feels like the Middle-Earth we were introduced to 10 years earlier. There is of course a prevalence of more child centric manifestations of danger and wonder but this is an extension of Jackson’s integrity concerning the material because the book was aimed at younger audiences in the first place. But whereas many predicted this is where The Hobbit would fail, Jackson and his team of effects wizards (no pun intended!) use the more fairy-tale like material to give the movie a distinct personality and strengthen its connection to its audience. The concept design behind the various nasties and the visual effects are so rich and original in imagination yet governed so implicitly by archetypes that one can envisage them not only resonating with younger generations’ nascent notions of evil but coming to flesh out and further define those notions as they evolve through adulthood. Few films in the history of motion picture have done this and so, The Hobbit could even join the original Star Wars trilogy and the likes of Harryhausen’s ingenious incarnations in the echelons of keystone fantasy for this achievement alone.

But like Harryhausen’s films in particular, An Unexpected Journey also caters to the appetites of older audiences for there is much darkness implicit in the actions and words of the characters. Actions and words that skirt the edges of cannibalism and subtly disturbing indications of murder (the shot of Sting losing its glow as Gollum dispatches the Orc off-screen is particularly uncomfortable and must surely count as one of the more chilling devices to the depict something that Hollywood has – if truth be told – immunised us to). And actions and words that plumb more sophisticated ideas of inner torment and personal damnation.

The Hobbit scores big on the technical front too. As it was in the previous trilogy, Jackson’s action direction is superb, juggling fast and slow zoom and tracking shots into a whirlwind aesthetic which seem to ebb, flow, and grow intuitively to Howard Shore’s magnificent score. Needless to say, the tapestry of visual effects (and sound effects) are equally astounding and while not coming close the pinnacle of those served up in The Two Towers or The Return of the King, criticism should be reserved because this is the first story of a new trilogy and The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t defined by any major set piece extravaganzas either.

Thus, for all the negativity surrounding its release, An Unexpected Journey isn’t nearly as bad as most have suggested. There are a few contrivances towards the end, their sole purpose to manipulate us into big emotions and it’s true that such cheap tricks were not typical to the first two instalments of The Lord of the Rings. They were however a feature of The Return of the King and this raises a salient point for those critics who fulfilled their latent ambition to take Jackson down a peg or two with The Hobbit. The final installment of the LotR’s was the one that garnered all the awards and most acclaim yet it was by a distance the weakest of the set. An Unexpected Journey with all its problems isn’t deserving of mention in the same breath as Fellowship or Towers but it’s certainly good enough to be compared to The Return of the King. At least as far as telling a story goes.

 

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Donnie Darko (2001) 3/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 81.1
Genre: Mystery
Duration: 112  mins
Director: Richard Kelly
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell

Writer/director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery is easily one of the most affecting and originally conceived science fiction movies to address the issue of time. It follows (literally) the troubled yet highly intelligent young Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) through a period of time when his strange visions and conversations with what seem to be an 6-foot imaginary rabbit have alarmed his parents and seen him sent to therapy. As the visions continue however, Donnie begins to see a pattern that ties into events which are occurring in the real world and ultimately leads him to a key choice that will define his future.

Donnie Darko is a superb film that effortlessly balances the more weighty conceptual content with a cheeky wit and dark humor. There are some delightful exchanges between the various characters which make the whole experience a treat to the ears. But of course, there is much more going on beneath the surface and Kelly switches tone almost instantaneously at times but also seamlessly. The film is coloured with an intense but appropriate film-making style and there are some truly beautiful moments of cinematic self-reference that feed perfectly into Darko’s story such as the sequence in the theatre where images from The Evil Dead bleed into the narrative. The twist is not so much a twist as it is a methodical unveiling which requires the audience to step up and see it (it won’t come to more passive audiences).

Gyllenhaal is extraordinary in a title role that required a lot from its actor and there are a host of other top actors rounding out the supporting cast. The film’s soundtrack gives the proceedings a nice era-specific bedding and the politics of that era become an interesting and informative backdrop to the turmoil (both inner and outer) which is defining the various characters’ lives.

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Beetlejuice (1988) 4.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.4
Genre: Fantasy
Duration: 92  mins
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis

Tim Burton’s imaginative and authentically quirky tale of a young married couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who after dying in a car crash become trapped for an eternity as ghosts in their own home. When a somewhat unwholesome family (led by the always excellent Catherine O’Hara) move into the dead couple’s house, the two ghosts hire a professional exterminator of the living called Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to get rid of them. Burton’s magical eye helped create one of the most distinctive looking films of the 1980′s and as a work of pure fantasy, it is arguably his most well-rounded work. Initially, the movie depicts two very incompatible worlds (mirroring the confusion of the young couple): the near-incomprehensible world of the afterlife set against the more familiar and comfortably framed world of the living. The real feat of genius, however, lies in how he subtly transforms the latter into the former as the film progresses only to rapidly invert that process at the end. If Burton is making magic happen behind the camera well then he is matched every inch of the way by what Keaton is doing in front of it. Keaton is simple astounding as the “ghost with the most” as his timing, delivery, and improvisation collide to form a whirlwind of comedy-horror and one of cinema’s most memorable characters. “You’re working with a professional here!”. You better believe it!

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All that Jazz (1979) 5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 90.1
Genre: Musical
Duration: 123 mins
Director: Bob Fosse
Stars: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer

Bob Fosse’s autobiographical existential musical is an astoundingly profound and honest exercise in self confrontation not to mention one of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite films! It’s also a veritable masterclass in choreography, music, and story telling. All that Jazz tells the compelling tale of a musical director whose drug fuelled life is steadily disintegrating as he struggles to balance the demands of his ego with those of his family, girlfriend, and ultimately his body. Roy Scheider is nothing short of mesmerising in the lead role, giving the performance of his career, but he is ably helped by a strong supporting cast including Jessica Lange.

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Weird Science (1985) 3.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.9
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 94  mins
Director: John Hughes
Stars: Anthony Michael Hall, Kelly LeBrock, Bill Paxton

“Not having a good time? Well, do you think they’re having a good time being catatonic in the closet?” “Weird” is not the word to describe this behemoth of movie madness. John Hughes’ seminal teen comedy is as purely and authentically eccentric as we’ve seen on screen and so it’s a testament to the genius behind it that so many moviegoers of all ages have still found it so irresistibly funny. John Hughes regular Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith star as two dorky teenagers who program their computer to create the perfect woman (don’t ask) who once alive and kicking, promptly begins to give them a wild and madcap series of life lessons.

There are too many standout moments to speak of but those involving Bill Paxton as Mitchell-Smith’s older brother are particularly memorable. Funny as Hall and Mitchell-Smith are, the star of the show is undoubtedly Kelly LeBrock as the mysterious woman who can bend reality to her will. She carries the barely graspable concept on her shoulders with a charming ease and improves every scene she’s in. Watch out too for a young Robert Downey Jr making a decent contribution to the comedy quotient.

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Highlander (1986) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.3
Genre: Fantasy, Action
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Stars: Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Clancy Brown

Great fantasy films are usually grounded in gripping concepts, the different elements to which usually drive the key scenes along the way. Highlander is a case in point. The story is based on the idea of immortals living secretly among humans for centuries, who instinctively battle each other through the ages until there is only one remaining. Christopher Lambert plays the 400 year old Highlander who becomes the subject of a police investigation after a man’s body is found decapitated. Gregory Widen’s script quite cleverly uses the progression of that investigation to present us with the uniqueness of the central premise and it is through the eyes of its forensic investigator, Brenda (Roxanne Hart), that we are tied into the story.

To say that Russell Mulcahy’s direction is superb is to completely understate the case. The level of innovation he demonstrates in sewing this story together and the sense of pacing he shows in balancing the savage momentum of the battle sequences with the more pensive emotional scenes are the hallmarks of a truly great director and one is left wondering how he didn’t rise to the lofty heights this effort promised. Coming from the music video business, it’s no surprise that he builds the film around its sound and when that sound is largely provided by Michael Kamen and Queen that’s no bad thing. In fact, when combined with its excellent sound production, Highlander is not just one of the most uniquely looking films of the 80′s but also one of the most uniquely sounding films.

Despite the muddling of who had what accent, the acting is first class with Lambert in top form and Sean Connery stealing the show as his ancient mentor. Furthermore, Clancy Brown is thoroughly menacing as one of the nastiest bad guys the medium has offered up. The action is phenomenal and thanks to Mulcahy’s seminal direction, it’s head and shoulders above anything delivered today. In fact, the training sequence alone would put most martial arts films to shame, such is its power and grace.

There are too many highlights to mention but one to look out for is the scene where Brenda learns the truth about Lambert’s character. No “Oh, so he’s immortal then” moments. Just a dull refusal to accept what she’s hearing and a seriously annoyed computer technician who (we are left to infer) either thinks he’s the subject of a joke or doesn’t like what she has made him face. Immortal? Definitely!

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X-Men (2000) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 65.8
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Duration: 104 mins
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen

Bryan Singer’s X-Men is an above average comic book drama due to a smart script, some stylish direction by Singer, and good acting all round by an ensemble cast of scene-stealers. The story follows a group of mutants who not only fight prejudice against their own kind but other other mutants who feels that such prejudice warrants violence against the rest of the human race. While the action is first rate and Singer captures it with an assured hand, the major strength of X-Men is without a doubt the witty script and the actors who seem to be enjoying every word of it. On that note, Hugh Jackman is the standout player as his Wolverine is both bad-ass and genuinely funny. Patrick Stewart makes an obviously good Professor X while Ian McKellen puts in a delicious turn as Magneto. Overall, X-Men stands apart from most of the comic-book films which were springing up at the time as Singer and co. employ a more restrained and clever use of the subject material and make the most of the opportunity to draw not too subtle comparisons between the anti-mutant prejudice of the story and real life prejudices.

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