Wednesday, August 10, 2011

1.5 Double Dip, 1/2 Quickie: X-Men Trilogy

Yes, it's a mashup of two site features, mixing a half-length Movie Review Quickie (only 3 films) and a really unusual Double Dip. I wrote a hefty X-Men review a while back. It was longer than I needed it to be, but I was setting up coverage of X2 and The Usual Suspects. & I guess it’s easier for me to praise or trash a pic than for me to call it “so-so.”

I'm going back to the well, but differently. This time, I'll briefly cover all the films, meaning I’ll tackle X-Men again, if quickly – and I’ll still reserving my long-form X2 review for later. So, it’s sort of a "1 & 1/2" or possibly even a "double-reverse" double dip. Confusing? I call it a bold, elegant, and startling act of symmetry; trust me on that.


In two sentences: Good people with powers spend their time learning about themselves and being constructive while bad people with superpowers try to scare humanity into not killing or "tracking" them. An untouchable runaway girl and a rugged man who heals anything get involved in an on-going struggle between 2 charismatic older Englishmen, a kind wheelchair-bound telepath and a brutal rebel who controls magnetism. Yes, that's an actual story.

You will believe a man can rock that hairstyle.

X-Men is at times hollow, weak, effective, heart-felt, cool, clever, dull, exciting, and dumb. The title's misleading, as the film zeroes in on mega-talented Hugh Jackman and his charms and rarely goes beyond him. Hugh's presence sells the pic, but he neither gets the whole film nor allows time for the rest of the cast, so he dilutes its purpose; at least he gets a proper arc.

This is why I call part 1 "a decent attempt that's mediocre." Stewart and McKellan head a cast full of people that can at least act well sometimes. Romijn is a surprise, not because you see her in garish skintight blue pasties, but because she’s a strong actress. The cast is attractive, and the effects are more hit than miss.

"As you might imagine, we kick ass at intramural sports..."

Little things plague the film, tho. Some roles or actors are a bit bland. Not being harsh - some parts are just not given enough to do because of the size of the cast and the focus on Jackman. & anybody should see that Halle Berry is completely wasted here.

X-Men has a lot of work to do, and carries most of it, but can't quite stick the landing; it's a heavy burden, being the first in a series, much less the first big budget superhero team film. It inspired the revival of super-hero films, so revel or curse at it, as you prefer. Many aspects of this flick are actually dull, yet even the generally dull soundtrack doesn't diminish the effort behind this pic. Nor does anything take away from the moments where the film is genuine and emotionally-effective. I'd still say you can skip it; read a book instead.


A top-notch effort that I love, love, love. If you ever wanted to see a good movie with a whole ton of special effects and super-powered emotional angst, this is it.

Everything established in the first picture is revived, distilled, and reused in a smart way. The humor is better, as is the direction and fx-work. The performances are greatly improved as well, though Berry is continues to get the shaft. The film loses it's totally Jackman-centric eye, but keeps him at its heart.

Every one in this film is so stressed out! The trailer music gets bad after the 1m mark

It also opens with one of the best action sequences ever. The scene establishes the basic conflict of the movie - the government is scared about this whole "mutant thing" and is mobilizing against special people regardless of whether they're malevolent or not. Really, the action that kicks off the movie is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen; it risks undermining itself by not supplying more of the same.

The downside of X2 is that it moves so quickly. Anything that doesn't make much sense just gets run over by an onslaught of character interaction and exciting moments. Among the problems: Wolverine's enemy is OTT and under-motivated/developed; the film has 2 blue-skinned roles - 1 is a horrible seductress while the other is kinda creepy and initially super-powerful, but then becomes weak for no reason; the main villain, played by Brian Cox, is too familiar in his OTT, despicable part.

Words would only cheapen this.

There big plotholes in the "mutants vs government" concept. In films, aliens are often treated as having been to Earth before, with a handful of people outside the military knowing about them; every new President gets briefed, too. Here, we've got a government that knows about mutants, and maybe did stuff with them before, and last movie world leaders were almost killed.

How is it that they're keeping a guy in a metal-free prison, yet are so unprepared to deal with or consider mutants that they have to rely on the shady plans of an obviously-crazed-Southern-general-type?

These problems exist without being much of a roadblock. As with many fun, well-constructed action films, X2 is so entertaining that you'll largely gloss over the flaws and soak up the rest. Also, its subtitle is X2: X-Men United, which is really great if you're a Manchester football (aka soccer) fan.

That kid could've just filed a civilian complaint, y'know?

X-Men: The Last Stand 3

Some company announces it has a "cure" for being a mutant. Magneto, apparently the only real enemy or crisis that the X-Men ever deal with, raises an army to attack... the pharmaceutical company specifically, and humanity in general. The X-Men, however, are shaken by this development and approaching human/mutant & mutant/mutant fighting. Also, a good X-person who died at the end of part 2 is back, possessing vast new powers and some serious emotional problems.

The first 2 parts of this series have separate "story" and "screenplay" credits. Director Bryan Singer partly wrote the first installments and had no part of the resulting screenplays. Although he had help in crafting the stories, in the minds of film fans this trilogy “belonged” to Singer. But he was seduced by the blue tights of Superman and left.

And so Fox hired Brett Ratner for part 3. Bryan directed The Usual Suspects, whereas Brett directed Money Talks, The Family Man, and (shudder) the Rush Hour films. On the other hand, Ratner did direct Red Dragon, which was overrated but well-made. No matter what, he's the sort of man who directs shallow popcorn pieces. X-Men: The Last Stand was written by one of the X2's story writers and another guy who's worked on super-shallow projects; I guess no one worked on the screenplay.

You see where I'm going with this? The 3rd run is intended to "close" the series, and you imagine they got that idea once they were most of the way through filming and screened the dailies. Many of the character choices and actions don't make much sense. The action isn't so much integrated into the story or plots as it is required. Many "big things" happen, because when you can't write emotions well, you just make people die or something...

The third X-Men film is rough, loud, and senseless. It still (a) doesn't use Halle Berry well, and (b) retains a focus on Wolverine, but doesn't use or develop its characters very well. And Vinny Jones appears as one of the lamest characters in a film ever.

Actually kind of disturbing if you think about it.

I'm encouraged to be merciless because it has bad special effects again, and the action scenes are not especially good at all. You can debate the quality of the story and acting all you like, but this movie doesn't look as good as what came before it, and it had a budget of $210 Million dollars. Every element should've been better, and the visuals should've been the last thing to suffer.

The Whole X-Men Film Franchise

You don't need to see any of these films, but watch the 2nd when you're in the mood for action. The first two pictures had a “literary feel” - there were clear flaws, and one part was stronger than the other, but each cared about trying to competently tell a good story. It’s not so common for blockbusters. Singer's presence almost assured quality and attention being paid to the movies' themes and construction.

The final film was, like Superman Returns, ill-judged and a whole lot of boring/pointless noise. Then the X-Franchise sorta died. There was a Wolverine film that was 1/2 "nice-try" and 1/2 "colossal screwup." Finally, we had this year's X-Men: First Class; I know an awesome woman named Rebecca who thinks it was very good. I trust her enough to recommend X:FC, too.

What could've made this series better? Well, the actual characters should've received more time for development. There isn't much to the roles of Ororo Monroe (Storm), Jean Grey (Marvel Girl?) or Scott Summers (Cyclops). All of them can carry a story, and all deserve extended attention or real development. The X-Men should've had more than 2 or 3 different enemies. The FX should've either been used less or much more.

And, the general ideas could've been more fully developed and integrated into the stories. Basically, an X-Men story is about bigotry, most directly comparable to race relations circa the American Civil War or the 1960's - or, especially considering Magneto, the Jews in WWII. It's potentially-heady material wherein society attacks a part of itself because it's different and possibly threatening, then taken to a sci-fi logical extreme. This is, as Shakespeare put it, f'ing awesome.

Unfortunately, the main villain (Ian McKellan's Magneto) has a cause, but not much of a plan. He seems to want to make a world where no mutant would be rounded up like an Israelite in Nazi Germany, but he gives no thought or comment on what he'd do if one mutant decided to (e.g.) drain all the water out of Chicago . The good guy believes that everything will work out ok, and that sometimes you have to fight for it, but he's not making the sort of big moves that will change society. And, no matter what you tell me, I can't believe that having real people who can control all metal wouldn't end up changing society.

If you're into "classic" sci-fi, look at this way: Blade Runner raises questions about the soul, slavery, artifice, and what humanity is. The X-Men films have that same material to mine, yet mostly stick to "bad man makes bad things happen; good people stop bad man; good people have tough lives but try to be good." Homophobia, racism - the parallels were all there. Most of this human drama was absent in the X films, and X2 survived this flaw better than the rest.

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