Archive for May 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

May 26, 2006

xmen3publlSix years ago, I had hopes that the X-Men series would become the most relevant and emotionally centered of the comic-book-movie franchises. Guided by the thoughtful Bryan Singer, the first two X-films, despite some inevitable summer-flick stumbles, were first-rate of their kind. Singer has since departed the world of mutants to kick-start another comic-book concern — Superman Returns — leaving the reins in the hands of the transparent Brett Ratner, who can copy the style of his betters but has nothing in particular on his mind or in his heart. X-Men: The Last Stand, duly hyped as the final panel in the saga, resolves little and satisfies neither fans nor newcomers. Mainly it’s because the movie has a fatal case of overpopulation: There are simply too many mutants, with too many distinct powers, to allow any one fantastic hero or villain to shine.

Suicidally, X3 attempts to take on two premises that could each fill its own lengthy movie. Premise #1: The government has concocted a “cure” for mutants; some are eager to submit — better living through chemistry — while others, such as the militant mutant Magneto (Ian McKellen), see it as an insult bordering on genocidal. Premise #2: Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the X-person who died heroically in X2, has returned from her watery grave as a wildly powerful telepath with near-limitless destructive abilities. This second premise, in the comic books, was the basis for a multi-story arc that took many issues to spin properly. On top of all this, scripters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn treat the film like a mutant two-for-one sale, introducing at least a dozen, all of whom fight in vain for screen time.

The idea of the government trying out a (voluntary) “cure” for genetic deviance is an occasion for more debate and cogitation than the movie has room or space to offer. What was once a slyly subversive gay subtext — mutantphobia equalled homophobia — now becomes a rather plastic conflict that, in any event, never goes much of anywhere. It leads to a spectacularly nonsensical moment when Magneto uses his metal-controlling powers to uproot and move the Golden Gate Bridge over to Alcatraz Island so an army of mutants can march there (can’t he just pack a few planes full of mutants and levitate the planes over there?). X3 never settles for logic where special effects will suffice.

There are charming moments of subtlety, as when the younger Magneto and his former friend Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) visit the young Jean Grey at her home and she idly levitates all the cars parked on the street outside; this is glimpsed out of the window in the background, and it’s about the only time the spectacle takes that literal back seat to the characters. Even the fan favorite and putative star mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is reduced to pining for Jean and being the gruff big brother to the conflicted Rogue (Anna Paquin). Ratner has corralled an excellent cast (Anthony Heald, Bill Duke, Olivia Williams, Michael Murphy, Shohreh Aghdashloo), all of whom do little or nothing. Newly introduced mutants Angel (Ben Foster), Beast (a blue-painted Kelsey Grammer), Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), and many others get mere scraps. The shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), perhaps the most interesting of the “evil” mutants, is callously brushed aside after a fun scene wherein she gets to show off some of her powers.

Yes, there’s something here to disappoint everyone, except perhaps those who don’t expect something of the same quality as the previous X-films or, God forbid, the original comics. Casual viewers may let the whole insensate mess wash over them, though even on the level of dumb concussive summer entertainment it’s far too busy and hectic to sustain much excitement. Major characters die weightlessly (or do they?), and others lose their powers (or do they?), giving the impression that there will probably be more X-movies. At this point, though, the only reason to make more would be to claim a summer slot that isn’t dominated by Batman, Spider-Man, or Superman. This series once had a point, and a point of view. Now it just has stockholders.

An Inconvenient Truth

May 24, 2006

an-inconvenient-truth-stillEven the liberal-minded, the film’s most receptive audience, may approach the Al Gore presentation An Inconvenient Truth with something of a heavy heart and a weary step. The melting ice caps, the factories belching toxins into the sky, the hotter summers and stronger hurricanes … Oh, God, this again? Many people may go to the film (or not go at all) expecting a hectoring guilt trip, the piercing sound of alarmism. But Al Gore, in his slide show and in the film that documents it, does not shout at us. He speaks quietly but firmly, and he has nothing of the wild-eyed doomsayer in his demeanor (which made George H.W. Bush’s frantic 1992 denunciations of Gore as “wacky” and “Ozone Man” sound as ridiculous as they were). Gore is too straight — and often, in the past anyway, too dull — to entertain fanciful notions about environmental catastrophe. He just knows what he knows, and he talks to us about it.

As a docu-narrative, An Inconvenient Truth isn’t as cartoonish or as antic as Michael Moore’s jabs from the left can often be. Gore and his director, Davis Guggenheim, aren’t trying to persuade us with politics but with science. Guggenheim takes up the considerable challenge of making an hour and forty minutes of a fifty-eight-year-old man talking about carbon-dioxide emissions visually varied and interesting. Photographed against giant screens, Gore is rendered small, inconsequential, which is part of the filmmaking’s point: Forget the messenger (whom much of the country is predisposed to dislike and ignore) and listen to the message. And Gore’s voice doesn’t sound anything like it did on the campaign trail; he’s working with material he’s honed over many years, and the facts and figures slide out naturally. This is not Al Gore the conservatives’ punching bag; this is Al Gore the person, Earthling, father, son, bereaved brother.

Occasionally, Guggenheim breaks away from Gore’s presentation to show Gore in a more intimate, reflective mode. He talks about almost losing his son, about losing his sister to lung cancer, about losing the 2000 election. These are not gambits meant to soften us up for a Gore run at the presidency in 2008 — he’s made it pretty clear he’s not interested. No, these are examples of how a man who’d had a fairly easy life was changed by misfortune and came out of it determined to be more engaged in policies that can improve the quality of life. Gore refers to his father, who’d had a prosperous tobacco farm but then let it go following his daughter’s death. We get the point: sacrifice is needed for the greater good.

An Inconvenient Truth rattles off the statistics, many of which you may have heard before, though here they have the accumulating quality of a nightmare. We are slashing our own throats, the film says, and not only is it not good ecology, it’s not good business. Our industrial might has brought us to a do-or-die point. For many, the idea is too large to process; the impulse is to move immediately to denial, skepticism. Gore knows this, though I wonder if he will ever find a way to reach those who simply, steadfastly, won’t attend his slide show in person or on film. A completely uncontroversial and universally loved and trusted persona might be a better vehicle for the message — think of James Stewart in his prime, or the Walter Cronkite who swayed a nation’s thinking about Vietnam. But there is no one like that now; there’s only Al Gore, hoping that people can get beyond their own fears and the very fact of who he is and listen to him.

What Gore does do, and just when we need it, is to offer some hope; he doesn’t leave us with the ashy taste of despair. He ends with a list of great achievements made at great cost by Americans in history, and implies that we are of the same sturdy stock and can easily do our bit to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. In terms of sacrifice, using better lightbulbs or driving only when necessary don’t seem nearly as significant as having one’s brains blown out in the Civil War to end slavery. Maybe, though, we’ve reached a point where we feel entitled to go on wasting, to go on having children and toting them around in SUVs. Hurricane Katrina sent a pretty extreme message that we are no longer so entitled. Gore delivers his message much more calmly but no less powerfully.

The Da Vinci Code

May 19, 2006

Dan Brown’s mega-bestseller The Da Vinci Code presents some fairly radical ideas inside a standard puzzle-box thriller. To make the medicine go down even smoother, the film version reunites the whitebread couple Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard, both of whom you would trust to help your grandmother across the street. Their presence guarantees a safe and unobjectionable evening at the movies. What it doesn’t guarantee is any excitement. In 1993, director Sydney Pollack made the dire mistake of adapting John Grisham’s potboiler The Firm as a shadowy and serious melodrama, and Ron Howard has duplicated that error here: Whereas Brown’s novel has been described as dumb fun, the film is no fun at all.

Sporting a ghastly medium-long haircut that suggests a man with little time to look in the mirror, Hanks mainly phones it in as noted symbologist Robert Langdon, who becomes a suspect in the murder of a Louvre curator. Langdon inspects the corpse, and the elaborate self-inscribed codes and symbols on and near the corpse, and concludes that it means something. But what? Ultimately, the plot’s litany of hidden messages leads to shocking evidence that Jesus Christ was not the son of God, that he married Mary Magdalene, and that the church was supposed to be pagan and goddess-centered, not monotheistic and paternalistic. Have I lost you yet? There’s also a self-flagellating albino assassin (Paul Bettany) who kills people on orders from the ultra-strict Catholic sect Opus Dei, which wants to keep that evidence secret at all costs. Still with me?

Any movie with a skulking albino assassin begs for campy, self-aware treatment, but Howard and scripter Akiva Goldsman serve it all up straight-faced. The studio has corralled what used to be called an international cast — Audrey Tautou, from Amelie, plays a “police cryptographer” who helps Langdon; Sir Ian McKellen limps into the film as some sort of historical expert and delivers great chunks of exposition with wry aplomb; Jean Reno and Jurgen Prochnow (oddly playing a Frenchman — did Howard decide that two French film stars were enough?) turn up; Alfred Molina chews some scenery as a shady bishop. They all look lost in the wind produced by all the dead-serious theologizing and philosophizing. The Da Vinci Code bids fair to be the talkiest, least engaging number-one box-office hit since, well, The Firm.

Flailing to make Brown’s art history cinematic, Howard inserts grainy black-and-white flashbacks, sets our heroes wandering through a town square filled with murky historical figures, and repeats his A Beautiful Mind gimmick of visualizing the lead’s unique way of deciphering numbers. For the most part, though, you could safely close your eyes and get the same experience you would from listening to the audiobook. Your eyes may close anyway, though, as the characters scurry around, doing Google searches aboard a bus or escaping in the backs of vans or cars. An action director Ron Howard is not, Exhibit A being the incomprehensibly staged and edited car chase backwards through a crowded Paris street. Howard made his name in comedies, and The Da Vinci Code plays to none of his strengths — aside from a few bits from McKellen, there isn’t a laugh (not intentional, anyway) to be found in the film’s yawning two hours and twenty-six minutes.

Not having read the book (I gave up on it after about fifteen pages, insulted by the fifth-grade reading level it appeared to be pitched at), and having no particular team to root for in the great theological Super Bowl, I approached The Da Vinci Code solely as a movie. I wasn’t concerned with how faithful an adaptation it was, or how credible its thesis was; the many recent magazine cover stories on the alleged flaws in Brown’s premise have gone ignored by me. I just don’t care. The movie failed to make me care. At the very least, what The Da Vinci Code says about Jesus and the Church makes for fun speculation, and when Ian McKellen comes on and shows the supposed hidden messages in “The Last Supper” the movie comes close to being the cracking good yarn it should’ve been.

The Da Vinci Code needed a rousing, controversial director like Oliver Stone, who would’ve stirred things up and shaken some foundations. What we get here is very much in the Ron Howard mold — a movie scared of its own shadow, afraid to stand up for its beliefs, and apparently deathly afraid to be entertaining. 2

Mission: Impossible III

May 5, 2006

tom-cruise-michelle-monaghanThose who’ve seen 1999’s Magnolia, where angelic Philip Seymour Hoffman pleaded with demonic Tom Cruise to reconnect with his dying father, might watch the two of them in Mission: Impossible III with a trace of amusement. Here, Cruise is the angel — secret agent Ethan Hunt — and Hoffman, fresh from his Oscar win for Capote, is the blandly contemptuous weapons dealer Owen Davian (sounds like Damien — anti-Christ?). As the movie kicks off, Ethan is in shackles and Davian, his gun pointed at the head of Ethan’s wife (Michelle Monaghan), demands to know where “the Rabbit Foot” is. We don’t, at first, have any idea what the Rabbit Foot is. We don’t, when the film is over, have any idea either.

Despite the presence of Hoffman (who more or less phones in Davian’s flaccid megalomania) and the usual slick cast — returning M:I vet Ving Rhames, plus Laurence Fishburne for Matrix cred, Jonathan Rhys Myers for indie cred, and Simon Pegg for Shaun of the Dead fans — this is easily the weakest of the missions impossible. Which is saying a lot, since I didn’t care for the previous two, either. But at least the first one (1996, Brian De Palma) and the second (2000, John Woo) seemed to be following an interesting template: hire a flamboyant action/suspense master and let him loose on a big-budget spy flick. Here, Cruise and his coproducer Paula Wagner have hired J.J. Abrams, creator of such appointment TV as Lost and Alias (and Felicity, whose star Keri Russell dutifully puts in ten minutes here as one of Ethan’s rookie agents).

Abrams can assemble sleek entertainment and tell a story cleanly, but I found myself oddly nostalgic for the previous entries, which were proudly incomprehensible but at least had style — De Palma’s split-screen paranoia, Woo’s doves fluttering above fiery explosions. Mission: Impossible III hustles well and, to use a David Denby trope, “moves the metal” — but without an outsize directorial vision it looks even more like sub-007 than the others did. Ethan’s mission is to secure the Rabbit Foot to save his wife, but we don’t believe in their love any more than we bought Cruise and Emmanuelle Béart or Cruise and Thandie Newton. Abrams attempts to ground their relationship in the convivial reality of an engagement party, but that only underscores the absurdity that she thinks he “studies traffic patterns” instead of covertly looking for Rabbit Feet.

There’s a nice, quick little fight scene in an elevator that makes dynamic use of the tiny space. It’s the only moment we sense any real physical engagement with the thrills. Elsewhere, it’s all kaboom and CGI. Once again, Cruise dons a cutting-edge mask to pose as his nemesis, though Hoffman can scarcely be bothered to act like Tom Cruise acting like Hoffman. Give Cruise credit — he works hard in these movies, like an extremely conscientious quarterback making sure all his teammates get a good piece of the play. But this is still a star-quarterback movie, though it makes a little more of an effort to abide by the original TV show’s ensemble format. In the end, Ethan’s mission is the only one. There’s never a moment where we feel the movie could easily branch off and follow, say, Ving Rhames’ character arc — poor, thrice-underused Ving Rhames — and the film’s halfhearted nod to equal-opportunity mayhem, in the form of an agent played by Irish-Vietnamese actress Maggie Q, ends up as equal-opportunity uselessness.

At one point, Simon Pegg (also wasted as the standard-issue dithering Brit) speculates that the Rabbit Foot might be some deadly bit of tech known as “the Anti-God Compound.” Whoa! A MacGuffin that can actually take down God. No, it’s really just something that can lay waste to everything — “buildings, children, ice-cream parlors,” as Pegg explains. It rides around in a glass tube marked by a nuclear symbol. It’s implied that Davian wants to sell it to Middle Eastern terrorists, but then he visits the Vatican — to meet with contacts, we’re told. So … the Pope wants the bomb? As before, Mission: Impossible III is geopolitically loopy, but it’s also the first to come out post-9/11, and its apolitical blitheness — some terror must be stopped, y’know, somewhere — doesn’t play as well as it did in 1996 or 2000. Maybe it’s time for spy movies to go the way of westerns and musicals. I for one wouldn’t miss them much.

Art School Confidential

May 5, 2006

pragmatistEven though film critics aren’t directly attacked in Art School Confidential, the movie’s paltry 37% (as of this writing) approval rating at the Rotten Tomatoes collected-reviews website makes me wonder if a lot of critics feel stung by it in some way. In part, the movie presents art as a scam, and the various satellites of art (dealers, professors) as even more pathetic than the would-be artists. That may hit a little too close to home for film critics who like to think of themselves as more than barnacles on the side of an industry. Maybe, too, they were expecting something more like 2001’s Ghost World, the previous collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes. That would be the age-old fallacy: If a director gives the critics more of what they liked, he’s rehashing himself; if he does something different, it’s not as good as what they liked before. I feel like writing Movie Critics Confidential.

In any event, you’re reading one critic who enjoyed Art School Confidential quite a bit, and part of the credit has to go to professional misanthrope Daniel Clowes, whose four-page comics story of the same title is a tiny masterpiece of vindictive venom sprayed at all the phonies and wannabes he observed as an art student. The film version, which necessarily expands on the comic and shackles it to a murder mystery, is possibly Clowes’ comment on movies based on comics. Some critics feel the film derails itself by engaging in a lurid mystery plot — the Strathmore Strangler haunting the streets near a scraggly art school. But Clowes does lurid like no one else (flip through his graphic novel Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron), and even the plot’s conventional aspects bring out a crime-is-art subtext that might make John Waters smirk in recognition.

Max Minghella is the Candide-like lead, Jerome, a freshman who idolizes Picasso and wants to be “the greatest artist of the 21st century.” Jerome is the only person onscreen with any particular talent or passion for art; most of his classmates are poseurs — already masters of academic doublespeak — and most of his professors (including John Malkovich as a fey life-drawing teacher) care more about securing gallery showings for themselves and justifying their budgets. Art School Confidential, it must be said, is a pretty harsh argument against supporting the arts — an insider’s sneer at the pomposity and self-regard of the system. Zwigoff and Clowes obviously have nothing against art itself, though — they just can’t abide the people who try to turn it into plastic and profit off it.

If the movie has a genuine voice, it’s that of Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), a washed-up alcoholic painter who reminded me of Robert Crumb’s housebound brother Charles in Zwigoff’s great documentary Crumb. Being taken to see Jimmy, and hearing his withering negative take on art school, art itself, and life itself, is a freshman’s rite of passage. Moldering in his squalid city apartment, Jimmy is the voice of Zwigoff, assuring us that it’s all hopeless and meaningless and there’s no sense even trying. He’s one of several suspects in the strangling case, as is a jock type (Matt Keeslar) whose primitive renderings of cars and tanks are praised by professor and students alike as a refreshing gesture away from the usual pretentious art-school fumblings.

Art School Confidential has contempt for the fake and for those who deal in it and fall for it. Zwigoff’s send-up of artsy film-student stuff (courtesy of wannabe director Ethan Suplee) is pitch-perfect, a bookend piece for his “Mirror, Father, Mirror” in Ghost World. The filmmakers do honor the truthful artistic impulse to render a thing of beauty — Jerome is transfixed by life model Audrey (Sophia Myles), herself a product of the art system who yearns for honest art and not just an ironic appropriation of art, like her father’s pop art. Jerome represents unfaked talent and artistic sensibility, so of course everyone in the movie looks at him as if he were from Mars. In the end, the film has placed him in the perfect position to succeed on the system’s corrupt terms. Art School Confidential is a finely honed work of misanthropy that all but a few art professors and easily offended film critics will enjoy.