Monday, June 05, 2006

FINAL CUT: Wolverine Spins Plates For Your Amusement

To cap off my week-long vacation from the blog (and I'm sorry I didn't warn you about that; I didn't know it would get away from me that long, to be honest), me and the missus took in one of those delightful Hollywood blockbusters that they're always throwing so much money and so many screenwriters at. In this case, the flick of choice was the ominously titled X-Men: The Last Stand. Oh, we heard the verdict of the naysayers. Even my colleague Padriac, who usually opts for brilliant eruditon in his analysis of current popular culture, began his commentary with the august words, "What a turd." But I said, "What the hell? I paid for the first two."

As I write those words, it occurs to me that this same logic did not persuade me to see either Lethal Weapon 3 or 4. So you could argue that I apply my standards inconsistently. The defense stipulates.

I had to consider the possibility that my friends were just too deep into the world of comic book geekdom to appreciate the movie on its own merits. I have never cracked an X-Men comic book (does one crack open comic books), so I consider myself relatively free of preconceived notions. Ah, how good it is to have an open mind.

But no. It just wasn't a very good movie.

It started out promisingly enough. The film begins with a flashback, and the most subtle and remarkable use of special effects I've encountered in quite some time. The story takes us back 20 years, so the visual effects gurus cooked up some nifty age-reducing software to make the film's stars look two decades younger. And damn if the program doesn't work. My jaw dropped when Patrick Stewart stepped out of a car and looked like he was fresh off the set of Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And beside him, Ian McKellen, looking, Yul Brynner from Westworld. Okay, Ian looked kind of weird. What the heck was on his head? But okay, whatever. I'm with you, movie.

The reason we've taken this little trip back in time is to meet a young Jean Grey, the enormously talented mutant who, when all grown up and inhabited by Famke Janssen, gave her life for her comrades at the end of the second film. So you can bet they're setting up something really big for her character. Oh, boy, this is gonna be good.


So then we get another flashback, this only 10 years ago, to an adolescent boy who is horribly maiming himself because of his own mutancy. Ah, okay, another crucial character whose backstory we need to know to understand the momentous events about to unfold. I gotcha, movie. Thinking cap is on. I'm ready to follow.


I could easily go through the introduction of every character in the film and pull this same gag. It doesn't take long to realize that director Brett Ratner and screenwriters Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn have more story than they know how to tell. Granted, it's a lot of story. And there's a lot of characters, many very compelling. But I believe, in my heart of hearts, that it can be done. These guys just aren't up to it.

Let me try and give you an example to make my point. I don't think it's too big a spoiler to say that Jean Grey is not, in fact, dead. There's a tiny piece of technobabble exposition to explain away her resurrection, which is really all I need. So she's back, but we discover that she had extraordinary powers heretofore unknown to us. She is potentially very dangerous. And it is quite possible that there is nobody on earth who can stop her.

Wow. That's heavy stuff. I mean, we've always thought that Professor Xavier (Stewart) had the strongest mental powers of any mutant. Or that Magneto (McKellen) was stronger than everyone. So Jean Grey is more powerful than them? Than anyone? Damn, that's gonna be some fireworks. Can't wait to see how that's dramatized onscreen.

Will it shock you to discover that this isn't really dramatized onscreen at all? In fact, a huge battle will come and go before we see Jean Grey do much of anything. There's an old maxim of dramatic writing that a gun shown to the audience in Act I must be fired before the end of Act II. It's a simple matter of expectations raised. Kinberg & Penn evidently never got the memo on that old maxim.

And so it goes with nearly every character in the story: interesting plotlines are introduced, only to be cast aside to set up more interesting plotlines. Essentially, Ratner & Co. are like really bad plate spinners on the Ed Sullivan Show, and they're really proud of the two plates they can keep going, and then somebody points out that several more of their plates are falling, and they freak out and rush to keep one of the other plates aloft.

To carry that analogy further, every now and then Kinberg & Penn will purposely break a plate, just because they're so overburdened with characters. Several characters are killed, others are neutered, and maybe we're supposed to have a sense of the gravity of the situation because of all the death and stuff. But all I really felt was that they were killing characters just to get them out of the way. Either that or there's gonna be three discs of deleted scenes on the DVD.

The real tragedy of X-Men: The Last Stand is that they still managed to affect me, despite all their best efforts. The fulcrum of the story balances on a "cure" for mutants, which suits unaffected humans just fine, but is a true quandary for mutants, for whom their oddness has become their true selves. This is rich, emotional ground, and when contrasted with one character's background as a Holocaust survivor, threatens to delve into hard issues of morality. But the filmmakers can never commit to it. Or won't. You can see that the actors are playing the subtext, but the story can't give them the time.

It's silly to judge the acting in a film like this, but it should be said that the cast really outdid themselves. Consider that Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin really only have one scene to convey the nature of their relationship, and aside from one dud of a line, the scene turns out really sweet. Give it up for Ellen Page, whose character is crammed into the film like a sperm whale into a coach airline seat, and still comes across as charming and delightful. Kelsey Grammer is...well, he's Kelsey Grammer in blue makeup, but why not? Ian McKellen does his usual fine work with bad dialogue, but is unsurpassed in his quiet scenes, particularly the shot that ends the film, which does so much to convey the loss of his character. And who knew that Rebecca Romijn could be so moving, in a powerful scene of pain and betrayal. The cast brought their A-game. Their script and their director let them down.

Is all the acting good? Hmm. Well, let's just say that when you have two Academy Award-winning actresses in your movie, please choose carefully which one you choose to give all the lines to. If you're not careful, you could end up nearly cutting Anna Paquin out of your movie entirely, while you end up with Halle Berry delivering your "moving" eulogy. Ugh.

So does it work as an action film? I guess. Everything is competent, well-produced. But it's like a circus: one act is rolled out after another. Roger Ebert used to complain about Steven Seagal movies because a group of ten thugs would approach Seagal, but then they'd each attack him one at a time. X-Men 3 is staged like a Steven Seagal film: one set piece at a time. That is most definitely not a compliment.

Note: if you go, you must stay after the credits. The movie pulls off a very audacious stunt at the end, and while not everyone I've talked to is that impressed with it, I thought it was fantastic. If the whole film had demonstrated that kind of spunk, the moviegoing world would be a much happier place.