None the Wiser

"Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think." --J.S. Mill

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Saturday, May 24, 2003
A Quick Movie Review

Before I fled from my blog duties, I promised a couple of topics would be covered here. One was the new X-Men movie.

I must confess that I was, as a youth, something of a comic book geek. Although I tended to follow dark horse publications like Dave Sim's ingenious Cerebus the Aardvark (whose creator is not to be confused with Dave Sims of Clubbeaux fame), I was of course an avid reader of Marvel and DC comics also. Of these, The Uncanny X-Men was my uncontested favorite. This was probably for the very reasons that the comic was so popular in general. It, like The Amazing Spiderman before it, appealed to that childhood agony of feeling different, and alone. It also gave its readers an outlet for the elaborate revenge fantasies that so often occasion such feelings, and as its readership began to age these themes could easily be grafted onto the more complex issues of conflict and difference faced by adults. As one friend of mine recently put it, "When you scrape everything else away, it's about different people trying to get along." As mundane as this observation seems, it pretty much encapsulates what has made X-Men such an enduring forum for social commentary.

There is an underlying assumption in the X-Men stories that this basic human inability to get along, whether our differences lie in looks, values, or anything else, is a real tradgedy. But while there are good guys and bad guys who are easily discernible, the line between hero and villan is routinely blurred by complex moral questions--questions that one can find in topics from gay marraige to the Arb-Israeli conflict. So X-Men retains a dear place in my heart, mainly because it doesn't beat the reader over the head with answers or solutions that are pollyannish and inhuman in their sententious simplicity. At no point does humanity blithely set aside its concerns for its own safety and pass some Mutant Civil Rights Act; at no point do all the characters wake up and realize that we really can get along, if only we try; at no point does the University of California open a Mutant Studies program that gives students the opportunity to obsess over the contribution that mutants have made to American history, which is itself nothing more than the sad narrative of of country built on the backs of Gifted-Americans. Not only would this put an end to the comic, it would be a poor representation of how the world really works (except, unfortunately, for that last example), and Marvel always made its reputation on being the grittier of the Big Two comic companies.

But I don't have the time or inclination to write yet another Really Deep Contemplation of somebody's favorite comic book heroes. At the end of the day the comic book, like the movie, was created because someone wanted to make money doing something they enjoyed and did well. I dig that phenomenon. So I'll just hit the high points of the film.

First, the drawbacks. X-2 suffers from some of the same infimities that every comic book film has to overcome. First and foremost is the fact that most of the audience will not have been ravenous consumers of X-Men comics as children. As a fan, I enjoy the inside jokes and subtle hat tips to Old Skool collectors. As a movie-goer, though, I can see why (for example) Wolverine's casual use of the name "Bub" (as in, "You picked the wrong school to mess with, Bub!") might seem campy and awkward. For that matter, I can see why the use of nick-names like "Wolverine" and "Cyclops" might seem stupid. So X-2 was never destined to reach the dizzy heights of great filmmaking. 2001 it ain't. In short, it's a little silly, because the source material is so very escapist.

Secondly, playing more than one love triangle into any story is tricky, and it's probably a little too ambitious for a script like this one. Add to that the fact that Logan (a.k.a. Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman) was at the center of both of them, and you have a recipe for some pretty predictable and redundant moments. When Logan walks into the foyer of the mansion (which doubles as a school for super-powered mutants), he has not one but two encounters with jealous boyfriends whose transparently duplicitous lovers fall girlishly all over him. First one, then the next, all without his ever stepping more than a few feet from the front door. It seems awfully contrived, and definitely gives the impression of a heavy-handed plot device rather than a genuine interaction between real people. As such, the actors carry it off like androids.

Because the very premise of the movie is so fantastical, it's difficult to get a real performace out of your actors in a film like this one. It isn't their fault, but it certainly comes through on more than one occasion, especially during a sort-of-tragic death scene near the end (no spoilers here). One does get the impression that each of the actors (with the exception of Ian McKellan, who is brilliant throughout) is all-too-aware that they are on a movie set. It can't be helped, really. The final half-hour of the movie, much of which takes place in the confines of a supersonic jet, is especially wince-inducing in places.

In fact, most of the problems with X-2 can be found toward the movie's end. The story begins to drag a bit, but in fairness this is in part owing to its complexity. There are so many loose threads that have to be sewn up in the closing minutes that the editing becomes a problem as well, leaping from place to place so quickly that it's a little disorienting to watch. And this also gives rise to the rather abrupt ending of several intriguing plot lines--by now, the movie has nearly hit two hours in length and the adventure is becoming tired. Fortunately more than one of these has obviously been left fallow for more development in the near-certain X-3 sequel.

On the up side, X-2 has pretty much taken the heavyweight championship in its genre. Overall, I have to say I really, really liked this flick. Long-suffering comic fans know what I'm talking about here when I say that it's about damned time somebody got one of these films just right. There are frames of this feature that are not just reminiscent, but blatantly lifted from the pages of X-Men--and that's what we want. In fact, I think were owed that.

The opening scene involves an attempt on the President's life by Nightcrawler, the teleporting blue acrobat with a tail. It's such a genuinely exciting sequence because Bryan Singer has managed to brew up a perfect cocktail of cinema kung-fu and digital smoke and mirrors. It's easily the best two or three minutes of action I've seen in a movie in years. Once Singer has your attention, he manages to pace X-2 in a positively brilliant fashion, raising and lowering the level of tension like a conductor. It's a lot of fun to watch, though I can't speak for the X-Men initiate. (My wife certainly never read comic books, but she liked the film a lot.)

Character development is a critical piece of the pie in X-2, and it's a success here as well. What impressed me was the three-dimensional nature of each role, fleshed out with human motives and a reasonable dollop of complexity. Enemies find common cause, villains show their soft sides, and each character teeters visibly between heroism and depravity. It's a lot to ask of a comic adaptation, and Singer does the dead tree version proud. Again, it isn't Les Miserables, but it's nice to see the subject taken as seriously as is possible.

While the script has some weaknesses and there are places, as I said, where the actors' delivery is poor, on balance the acting is pretty impressive. I was especially taken by Aaron Stanford, who plays the "troubled young teen" (in the person of Pyro) flawlessly, and without resort to that cliched air of roguish irony that says, "Hey, I'm troubled, and I'll squint my eyes at you and pout if you don't believe me!" What could have been a throw-away character manages to add some depth to a film crowded with warm and likable protagonists.

Of course, the special effects are terrific, but this isn't a special effects piece--that's what's so great about it. The storyline isn't driven, at least in any glaringly obvious way, by the need to cram in this or that visual effect. Indeed, anyone who has ever read a comic book will tell you that this plot is very much like what one could expect from roughly a six-month to one-year string of comics, with all the fluctuations between action, suspense, intrigue and romance that can possibly be shoved into one concise package.

Nevertheless, the visual impact is what stays with you. Most importantly, the action is presented in such a way as to make the rest of the story make sense (for example: Pyro's reckless and sadistic attack on a set of police cruisers, wherein he gleefully throws sheets of flame in every direction, makes the Mutant Registration Act moving through Congress seem like a more plausible subplot). There is the obligatory cheesy hijink or two, like the little boy sticking out his forked, purple tongue--but that's Hollywood. X-2 does not rely on the kind of rapid-fire rat-maze video-game style that has become so incredibly tiresome and distracting. It's enough to see Shadow Cat run through walls, and Singer (or whoever) wisely decided not to bang us over the head with a lot of first person point-of-view camera work just to make sure we knew that we were watching something visually impressive.

Plus, the film is kinda gory, with lots of cool fight scenes.

There's a lot more I can say, but this has run rather long. Rest assured, X-2 is worth the price of admission, and it's rare that I go see a movie twice in the theater, which I gladly did. With everything I'm hearing about the new Matrix film sucking ass, I'm tempted to predict this will be the best film of the summer.

OK, So I Lied

I wound up taking an extended vacation from the blog, but readers of NTW should feel somewhat comforted by the fact that I've taken a vacation from just about everything except my job lately. The blogosphere has been a little slow anyway, and I'm with those who have hypothesized that there is a post-war malaise that a lot of bloggers are only now climbing out of. So, sorry about that.

Speaking of the blogosphere, I just heard Tony Snow on Fox make a reference to--and I'm not making this up--"the power of the blogosphere." Once we hear the same words from Juan Williams the culture wars will be all but won, but I'm not holding my breath.

The story Tony was referencing was the row that has been circulating about Maureen Dowd's blatant misrepresentation and distortion of a quote from President Bush. (Spinsanity has the goods here.) I suppose the worst thing about that whole episode is the fact that she managed to really make waves and do measurable damage to Bush's credibility, and the Times refuses to run a correction (so far). They're much too busy digging up white guys to punish for relatively minor journalistic trangressions so as to rescue the image of their racial preference system. Consider it odd that a major newspaper--the major newspaper, in fact--is sacrificing its own credibility further just for the sake of their misguided committment to newsroom "diversity"? Then you must be a devotee of the Eric Alterman school of media analysis.

In any event, it says a lot about American pundits and journalists that a single fabricated quote by Maureen Dowd--who has degenerated into nothing significantly more serious than a gossip columnist--has been incredulously picked up and whispered around the leftist campfire over and over. Alan Colmes, Bill Press, et al have been playing "gotcha" ever since Dowd's column ran, without ever stopping to read the actual text of the President's words, even though for him to have actually said that al-Queda was "not a threat anymore" would have been wildly out of tune with everything else he's ever said on the issue. Now they are reduced to insulting our intelligence by trying to manufacture a debate over how those words ought to be interpreted, as though their meaning would be ambiguous in the absence of Dowd's obviously partisan and counterintuitive spin.

Anyway, I'm glad to see that the 'sphere got credit for this one, and Fox seems to be having a field day gutting the Times' integrity at this point. Kudos to Spinsanity and Andrew Sullivan (who is responsible for drawing so much attention to Spinsanity's article) for staying on top of this one. "Power of the blogoshpere" indeed. (It makes you wonder how soon the campaign is going to start, on the part of every leftist institution from the Democratic party to the universities, to impose heavy-duty regulations on internet publishing. Not long, I'm sure.)