Tag Archives: Ian McKellen

Eight That Were Great: Underrated Gems of 2015

The lull between Hollywood’s big Christmas releases and the whirlwind start of Oscar season is a great time to catch up on flicks you may have missed in 2015.

Or maybe you’re just sick of watching “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” for the 20th time. (Who am I kidding? Go see it for the 21st time already.)

If you’re wondering what you should add to your Netflix queue, here are some underrated films from last year that definitely deserve your viewing time.

(And it wouldn’t be a year-end list from me if it didn’t include at least one vampire movie. This list has two. And zombies.)

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1. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: I guarantee you have never seen a movie like this before. It’s a highly stylized German Expressionist/Western romance, directed by an Iranian woman (Ana Lily Amirpour), set in a fictionalized Persian town dubbed “Bad City,” starring a burka-wearing vampire (Sheila Vand) who is both adorable and creepy, and it was filmed in Bakersfield. If your mind isn’t already blown, it will be.

2. Maggie: On the surface, this thoughtful horror flick sounds like a bad direct-to-DVD thriller. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a concerned father whose teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) comes down with a zombifying illness in a plague-ridden U.S.A. This is actually one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances of late. It’s like “The Walking Dead,” if America managed to contain the outbreak before it consumed the nation.

3. Slow West: For its violent, punch-to-the-gut of a twist ending alone, this revisionist Western is worth a look. As leisurely paced as its name would suggest, it stars Michael Fassbender as a morally ambiguous wilderness guide facing one increasingly absurd dilemma after another in a striking deconstruction of the romance of the American frontier.

4. The Walk: You really should have seen Robert Zemeckis’ playful high-wire act when it was showing in 3-D. It was hands down, the best use of the format all year. The comedy-drama is still relevant, thanks to its mischievous, experimental vibe. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s terrible French accent aside, it tells the gripping true story of Philippe Petit’s epic stroll on a cable stretched across New York’s now absent Twin Towers. The 2008 documentary “Man on Wire” is still better, but this comes close to replicating its ebullient spirit.

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5. What We Do in the Shadows: The utter unlikeliness of the setting is the primary source of humor in this vampire comedy, made by and starring New Zealanders in the capital city of Wellington — not exactly a recipe for the sexy, darkly thrilling horror offerings audiences are accustomed to. The akwardly hilarious film was written and directed by Jemaine Clement, the goofier looking half of comedy duo Flight of the Conchords and it’s actually one of the most original vampire movies in recent years.

6. Mr. Holmes: Director Bill Condon’s exquisitely acted drama manages the seemingly impossible — contributing something new to the ubiquitous legacy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary British detective. And of course, the film stars Ian McKellen, at the height of his powers, reinterpreting the great Holmes as something we would never expect — an aging, embittered, beekeeping recluse haunted by past tragedies.

7. Z for Zachariah: Post-apocalyptic thrillers are all the rage right now, from “The Hunger Games” to “Insurgent,” but this drama explores the decline of civilization and humanity’s propensity to destroy itself from a much more adult, intriguing and quiet perspective. Margot Robbie demonstrates surprising versatility as the lone survivor of a wordwide nuclear disaster caught in an unlikely triangle between Chiwetel Ejiofor’s rational scientist and Chris Pine’s mysterious stranger. It’s like “The Last Man on Earth,” but all serious and stuff.

8. Crimson Peak: The films of Guillermo del Toro are an acquired taste and “Crimson Peak” is no different. Though it was lavished with publicity, it still managed to flop, but that’s probably because it’s not the type of horror movie mainstream audiences prefer. However, if you’re of a literary persuasion and prefer macabre tales steeped more in mood and mystery than cheap gimmicks, this sumptuously grotesque thriller will be just your bitter cup of tea. Or if you happen to love Hiddles … er, I mean, Tom Hiddleston.

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McKellen’s Holmes Is One We Haven’t Met Before

Mr. Holmes
Three stars (out of four)
PG (thematic elements, some disturbing images, incidental smoking)
104 minutes
For Antelope Valley moviegoers, the film will continue playing through next week at the BLVD Cinemas in Lancaster.

Few literary figures have existed in as many incarnations as the world’s most famous detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the shrewd solver of mysteries to readers in 1887. One hundred and twenty eight years later, Holmes retains a tenacious grip on our imaginations.

Benedict Cumberbatch is celebrated for his antisocial portrayal of the detective for the BBC, while Jonny Lee Miller plays a contemporary, post-rehab version of the character, opposite Lucy Liu as Watson, on the American series “Elementary.”

Meanwhile, there is apparently a third movie in the works to cap off director Guy Ritchie’s franchise featuring a manic Robert Downey Jr. as a Holmes engaged in comedic bromance with Jude Law’s Watson.

On television and in film, Holmes has appeared in countless variations, from iconic portrayals by Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett to Steven Spielberg’s “Young Sherlock Holmes.” He’s been played by the likes of John Cleese, Jeremy Irons, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Rupert Everett, Buster Keaton, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cushing and John Barrymore.

So this brings us to the question: Is it possible to bring anything new to the great Holmesian universe created by Conan Doyle more than a century ago?

Hasn’t it all been done? Is it finally time for Holmes to hang up the old deerstalker?

The answer is “no,” judging by the detective’s most recent exploits in director Bill Condon’s thoughtful, surprising, exquisitely acted drama, “Mr. Holmes.”

Of course, it is an immense advantage that the famous investigator is played by Ian McKellen, who has made it his specialty to capture the volatile, enigmatic essence of men with keen minds and hidden demons.

At 76, the actor is at the height of his powers, and his seemingly contradictory gift of communicating playful, twinkly eyed wit alongside brooding cantankerousness is perfectly suited to a role this intimidating and irresistible.

McKellen, Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (“The Duchess,” “Stage Beauty”) present to us a very different Holmes than the one we are familiar with. Gone are the instantly recognizable hat and coat, the pipe, the violin, the Baker Street address.

There is no sign of Dr. Watson or Mrs. Hughes, and there will be no disguises or uttering of such signature catchphrases as, “It’s elementary!” or “The game is afoot.”

Instead, we meet Holmes in retirement, sequestered in a picturesque but solitary cottage on the Sussex Coast, where he tends bees instead of solving riddles. The sunniness of the setting boldly belies the stereotypical image of a fretful figure peering from an upstairs window on a fog-bound London street.

It’s just after World War II and the former detective has returned from a secretive errand in Japan to the company of his begrudging housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her curious son, Roger (Milo Parker). (Both McKellen’s co-stars are excellent.)

Holmes likes to keep to himself, but Roger is fascinated by the cloistered celebrity who bears little resemblance to the sensational portrait depicted in a series of popular novels by his longtime companion, Dr. Watson.

When the detective catches the boy snooping in his upstairs study, an awkward friendship is sparked as Roger tries to coax the details of an unfinished manuscript from the reluctant Holmes, whose memory is showing signs of the disorienting illness then known only as “senility.”

Condon previously directed McKellen in the intriguing 1998 drama “Gods and Monsters,” earning the actor an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of horror movie director James Whale.

Watching “Mr. Holmes,” you’d never know he was also the director of the musical “Dreamgirls” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” Parts 1 and 2. This latest film certainly marks a return to a more subtle form of cinema.

With the patience and discipline of a painter, Condon slowly and delicately — too slowly for some tastes, perhaps — applies layer upon layer of mystery, gradually revealing an emotional landscape as lovely as it is bittersweet.

One layer tantalizes us with the reason for Holmes’ self-imposed exile to Sussex, while another teases us with the explanation to his surreptitious quest to find a rare Japanese plant. Still yet another tempts us with the true story behind the detective’s final case, involving a haunting, grief-stricken young mother (Hattie Morahan) who dresses all in gray.

The film’s cunning structure actually allows McKellen to dazzle us with two versions of Holmes, the regretful, deteriorating old man and the younger, more debonair detective, glimpsed in flashback on the case of the “woman with the dove-grey glove.”

“Mr. Holmes” is at its best when Condon cleverly plays with ideas of legend and the divide between fact and fiction. The film’s most priceless moment occurs when Holmes sneaks off to the cinema to watch a fictional, black-and-white version of himself on screen. That actor just happens to be played by “Young Sherlock Holmes” star Nicholas Rowe.

Condon and McKellen have weightier things on the brain as well, heavy ruminations on mortality, loss, missed opportunity and memory, but the movie ends on an uplifting note with an idea especially pleasing to lovers of stories.

Facts and logic have their place but sometimes what life calls for is fiction.

Photo: spinoff.comicbookresources.com

‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ Delivers Best of Both Worlds

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Three and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (some sci fi violence and action, suggestive material, nudity and language)
131 minutes

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” could be the best chapter yet in a comic book franchise that has been going strong for the last 14 years. That’s because this seventh entry offers the best of all possible worlds, allowing the seasoned mutants of the first trilogy to appear alongside the excellent young cast of recent reboot “X-Men: First Class.”

“Days of Future Past” preserves the fun historical revisionism of “First Class” while simultaneously heading into darker, more emotionally wrenching territory, literally jumping between a world we recognize – the turbulent 1970s – and a world we don’t – a bleak and violent dystopian future.

Director Bryan Singer smoothly juggles an unwieldy ensemble of mutants old, new and even newer and succeeds in keeping the film’s focus on the characters. The movie’s brain-cell-melting concept is clever and the visual effects are superior, but “Days of Future Past” isn’t about that. It’s about people coming together despite epic personality clashes, the very thing that made the X-Men so relatable when they made their comic book debut in 1963.

It’s almost as if Singer and writer Simon Kinberg are atoning for letting the fans down with the much reviled third X-Men movie, which Singer produced and Kinberg penned. “Days of Future Past” niftily erases “The Last Stand,” while cunningly opening the door to an alternate reality with lots of tantalizing possibilities for the franchise.

They achieve this improbable feat with the help of “First Class” co-writer Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn, who contributed to the mind-bogglingly complicated story. It begins with a glimpse of an inky future in which mutants, who boast unique super powers thanks to their evolved genes, are hunted by high-tech killing machines known as Sentinels. Haunting images of bodies and mass graves set the tone for a film that is often grim and, parents should note, not always kid friendly.

Despite the dismal outlook for their future, the X-Men continue the fight for the survival of their species. In a spectacular opening sequences, a young band of mutants engages the eerily faceless Sentinels in combat. It’s clear they’re outmatched by their relentless mechanical foes, but they manage to stay a step ahead of them thanks to Blink (Fan Bingbing), who can open up portals to transport her comrades from one space to another.

The X-Men’s other secret weapon is Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) who apparently has a gift for … take a deep breath and try to stay with me now … transferring an individual’s consciousness back in time to their younger body. She and the surviving X-Men, including Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his old nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen), who have temporarily buried the hatchet, concoct a plan to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the past. His objective? Stop shape-shifting, blue-skinned Raven, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), from committing the fateful act that will trigger the mutants’ impending extinction.

Because of his quick healing powers, Wolverine is the only one whose mind can withstand the traumas of such rigorous mental time travel. It’s not long before he wakes up in his youthful, pre-adamantium-enhanced body in an era still reeling from the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination.

To get to Mystique, Wolverine must appeal to Professor X and Magneto at the very point in time their friendship evaporated, back when they were still going by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender).

This is no easy task because Charles, awash in self pity after the climactic events of “First Class,” has shuttered his school for gifted youngsters and hunkered down in his mansion, blocking out the mutant voices in his telekinetic head. Eric is imprisoned in the Pentagon, due to his participation in a particularly notorious crime. A solitary Mystique continues Eric’s militant pro-mutant sabotage, zeroing in on maverick weapons developer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

“Days of Future Past” presents us with an X-Men universe gone topsy-turvy, occupied by a Wolverine who still flashes claws of bone, a Professor X who can walk but whose powers are diminished, the only thing he shares now with the metal-manipulating Magneto.

McAvoy and Fassbender basically pick up where they left off in the finale of “First Class.” Their highly charged chemistry remains the rebooted franchise’s greatest strength. McAvoy is particularly intense as a Xavier whose optimistic humanism has been replaced with despair — there are allusions to drug addiction in his suffering – and Fassbender is all cool, controlled rage, magnetic in his malevolence.

There are so many other mutants to love in “Days of Future Past,” too. Chief among them is newcomer Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a kleptomaniac teenager who delights in his speedy gifts and presides over the best sequence in the film, using his supernatural swiftness to bust Magneto out of his plastic prison. This may be the film’s most entertaining moment, but it’s just one of many in which Singer and Kinberg bring the mutants’ gifts to vivid life in uncannily crafty ways.

Also new to the club are the energy-absorbing, dreadlock-sporting Bishop (played by Omar Sy, charismatic star of French film “The Intouchables”) and strong and fast Warpath (“Twilight’s” Booboo Stewart).

Reprising their roles from “First Class,” Lawrence transforms the increasingly empowered Mystique into a much richer character and Hoult provides much of the film’s humor and heart as Xavier’s right-hand man, the furry, blue Beast.

Patrick Stewart and McKellen bring a veteran gravitas to the film and while we all have to suspend disbelief a bit to imagine that Jackman still looks like the young Wolverine, he’s so comfortable and confident in the role, we’re willing to go along with the charade.

If you haven’t seen the previous films in the X-Men franchise, the plot of “Days of Future Past” could be near impossible to follow. Actually, this could be the case even if you have seen them. By time the credits roll – and you’ll want to stick around until the very end for an apocalyptic teaser – you may have a Cerebro-sized headache.

It’s a small price to pay, though, for the satisfaction of viewing the most compelling team of comic book characters ever to grace the big screen. An unforgettable bunch of freaks and weirdos, they speak to the disenfranchised, the misfit, the loner in all of us.

The Avengers may get more attention these days, but they’re not nearly as cool.