MOVIES, MOVIES, MOVIES

Saw three movies recently. Actually, I’ve seen more than that, but I only want to talk about three: X-Men-2, Matrix-2 (ie: Reloaded), and 28 Days Later, which I saw at an advanced screening. In order, they are The Good, The Bad and the Really Good.

I’m assuming most of you have already seen X-2 and Reloaded so for those who haven’t, this is the SPOILER WARNING!!! SENSITIVE PLOT GARBAGE IS ABOUT TO BE REVEALED. RUN! DON’T HIDE.

Ahem. Now that I’ve done my civic duty, let’s move on.

X-2, called “United” in the movie posters, but not on the film itself, is both an improvement on the first X-film, which in itself was quite good, and, at the same time, a small disappointment in sections that should have been very easy to fix.

First the good. Actually, first the best: Nightcrawler: Alan Cumming was brilliant as Kurt Wagner. I haven’t read the comic in, well, decades, so I had to ask Nightcrawler co-creator Len Wein (Dave Cockrum being his co-conspirator) if Kurt is actually religious these days, and Len confirmed he was. I liked the idea; it made this very obvious monster into a very moving character, making him more an Elephant Man like freak than a science fictiony mutant. If you dragged your grandmother to the movie she’d understand Nightcrawler, whereas some of the other characters might be a bit hard to swallow. Of course, Granddad would be spending his time staring at Mystique, but then who wouldn’t? Cumming, who’d be great reading the phone book, made Nightcrawler sympathetic and caring, all the while looking like a blue-skinned devil. He wasn’t playing down to a comic book character; he was an actor doing what he does best.

Once again Hugh Jackman shined as Wolverine; he’s got the part nailed. Ian McKellen was excellent as Magneto, and, like the first film, Patrick Stewart was fine as “this guy’s too powerful so let’s get put him down fast” Professor Xavier. Everyone else was as least good if not better, with the sole exception of Halle Berry, probably the most beautiful woman in Hollywood today, reciting her Storm lines with amazing flatness. Berry is a good actress; great in Bullworth and Monster’s Ball, but it’s obvious she can’t bring something to the screen that isn’t on the page. The character of the movie Storm is bland and her dialogue forgettable.

Singer’s direction was, again, excellent. He understands what a comic book is and understands there should be a solid mixture of drama, melodrama and fun, and X-2 has it all.

The basic story, if I understand it, is also fine. Nothing we haven’t seen a million times, but it worked. What also worked was the very easy to follow introduction to a dozen new mutants in a way that shouldn’t confuse most of the uninitiated.

X-2 stands as one of the very best comic book movies ever, which is why its failures hurt so much. Singer strove for greatness and missed it by thismuch. [Ed’s Note: Marv tells me the concatenation of “this” and “much” is deliberate.] If there was nothing there –as in, say, Batman 4 – then we could dismiss it. But a film that was so good, well, it hurts that it wasn’t great. Yes, I’m splitting hairs here – this is a really good movie, and it’s faithful to the comic which is a plus – but…

What’s wrong: Too many plots. I kept feeling we were going here and there and then there and here again. I was never quite sure what the story was about until the end, and even then. I would have liked to see a slightly easier to follow plot, or at least a less convoluted one.

Too many characters to service in 2 hours and change. Again, we kept going from one character to the next and back again, giving the film a disjointed feel. It doesn’t matter how many characters appear in the story, it matters how you decide to split your focus, and they tried, and succeeded, in giving every X-Men their due – which is a major plus – but in so doing they didn’t focus on anyone, which leads us to…

The focus: The first movie was about Wolverine and, to a lesser extent, Rogue. This movie wasn’t about anyone. It almost wasn’t even about the X-Men. As I said, there were too many characters and because the movie wasn’t about any of them it really wasn’t about anything. Wolverine’s here, Rogue’s there, Cyclops is down, Jean Gray has more to do, but the story isn’t about her and her sacrifice at the end (do we smell Dark Phoenix stage left?) made no sense, but more on that later. Storm does some nifty stuff but we learned nothing about her, and once his intro was over, Nightcrawler just bamfed around in a really cool effect. I really wish we had told the story through one of the characters while using all of them. The ideal character would have been Nightcrawler which would have allowed the writers to use him as our POV character and play point and counterpoint between him and Stryker’s son, both monsters in a way, but treated very differently and acting very differently, too. Speaking of Stryker’s son (Jason? – I think) was I the only person who wanted to see him either resist his father at least once, or be more integral to the ending? He was merely a gun, a weapon, and not a person. I wish Professor X had been able to reach him, even for a moment, and through him helped defeat Magneto. As it stands, the character made no sense.

As stated, Professor X does nothing. Again. Others even have to save him. Why couldn’t he have helped himself break free, at least mentally, or partially so. Why couldn’t he merge in a sense with Jason? That would have made a powerful solution to the story and created a focus for the leader of the team. Instead, for two movies in a row, he’s taken down without problem. Also, I can’t believe the writers and director, not to mention the actor himself, failed to see the similarity between Professor X’s dream sequences where he is put into a world of happiness and joy and Picard’s dream where he is put into a world of happiness and joy within the Ribbon in Star Trek:Generations. Did Jason create the Ribbon without realizing it? Was this another X/ST team-up? Do I have too much time on my hands?

Jean’s sacrifice, as well as the mandatory last big action scene, in this case the dam breaks – literally (didn’t we see that in Superman 1?) seemed forced into the story which, up until then, was fairly organic. This sequence also pointed out another problem in the movie; fluctuating powers. My wife, Noel, not a comics fan, pointed out immediately that Storm is powerful enough to create multiple tornadoes that can knock out jets, but she doesn’t even think to create a wind storm or tunnel to, say, put an air pocket around the X-jet. Jean can levitate anything but doesn’t levitate the jet – with her in it – out of harm’s way, or even levitate the other X-Men, sans jet, to safety. There was no reason for her sacrifice and nothing set up in the story that would make us care that she did this, or believe her death was anything but a plot point, so it failed emotionally. If Jean had CLEARLY been the central character, then we would have cared more here. For non X-Fans this was just a secondary character dying. We know, of course, that it’s a prelude to the third movie. As it stands, I watched her die and I didn’t care.

Which is the main problem with the film. Despite any number of really good character scenes, there was a certain detached coolness to this film which wasn’t in the first X-Men. Perhaps because Singer didn’t have to set up the characters as he did before he spent less time on them as people and more on them as super-heroes fighting bad guys. But that was never the point of X-Men, or any good comic. We need to care about the characters more than the action.

Nonetheless, kudos to Director Bryan Singer and writer David Hayter for trying to do more than a typical summer action movie. This was a solid film, and a really excellent super-hero movie. It takes itself and the super-hero genre seriously, and yet enjoys what it is. Even with its weaknesses, I’d give it an 8 on a scale of 1-10. If all super-hero films were this good we would have no problem convincing anyone that super-heroes aren’t just for 8 year olds.

When Matrix came out I thought it was the best super-hero movie ever made. Period. It was original, breath-taking, and beautifully put together. I bought every line of psychobabble and was dying to see Chapter 2. I bought the DVD as well as the extra making of DVD released last year. I was, and remain, a fan of the movie.

But not of Matrix-2, Reloaded, or Matrix, Shooting Blanks as I prefer. Yes, the two main set-piece action scenes; the Neo/Agent Smith times one hundred fight was mind-boggling and the Trinity motorcycle chase was, in my mind, the best chase scene ever filmed. But action scenes don’t make a movie, at least not a great one. The action scenes in Matrix 1 were organic; they actually forwarded the story, and the special effects were, amazingly enough, actually part of the plot. It was like Raiders of the Lost Ark where the action scenes and plot flowed together perfectly. But like Temple of Doom, the action in Reloaded is merely set pieces. We go here, then there, then here again. Many of the fights are identical to previous battles. They don’t change. They don’t grow. Just more of the same. Also, they don’t advance the story; they are just pauses for action. Great pauses. Spectacular pauses. But most of them could be taken out without affecting the film one iota.

The characters fail to be remotely human this time out. No longer having a POV character, all we have are iconic stone faces. Nobody is warm or caring and except for the oracle, I frankly don’t care about them. Neo hides behind his sunglasses and stoic one-word responses. If that’s the case, if being free turns you into an unemotional automaton, the machines have already won. But then we know they do, until The Terminator goes back in time and destroys them.

I don’t care about Neo this time. I don’t care about Morpheus or even Trinity, though as least she had some small degree of warmth in her. Everyone else was merely spouting lines of dialogue.

The plot: Huh? There was nothing here. I learned nothing more than I knew from the last film. We get to see Zion, and it’s Sodom and Gomorrah meets the Krell lab from Forbidden Planet, complete with a down shot and a million levels of bridges. Now, I love Forbidden Planet as well as the next guy, better maybe – hell, I stole that down shot scene for a Fantastic Four issue back in the 70s – but I don’t expect to see retreads in a Matrix movie.

The movie was also talktalktalk. Again, in the first movie, the psychobabble all helped to create a mythology, mood and place. It was all about the world we had been thrust into. In Reloaded, characters we meet for one scene blahblahblah on and on and on with nothing at all to do with the movie. What was that pseudo French guy talking about anyway? What does it have to do with anything? Why should we care? All I know is I listened to him drone on for what seemed about an hour and it never had anything to do with anything else in the movie of any import. Or the guy at the end, the one who was supposed to have the answers? Their dialogue wasn’t about plot. Or character. It was about themselves, and even if they turn out to be important next movie, that isn’t enough. They needed to make sense – or at least make us believe they made sense – so even though this is a middle movie we feel we’re getting something that moves the story, and character, forward. None of the dialogue accomplished that. Dialogue doesn’t have to be real, movie dialogue, in fact, never is, but we need to believe it. This was just words for words sake and didn’t help us understand the world of the Matrix which, by all accounts, should be amazing.

Unfortunately, so much of what was great in the first movie was missing from this one.

Will I see Matrix-3? You bet. I pray it’s good. I pray it’s original. I pray it makes me feel the way I did after seeing Matrix 1. But Matrix-2, which is well on its way to gross an absolute fortune, was a disappointment.

Finally, 28 Days Later. Directed by Danny Boyle, who directed Trainspotting, is a wonderful film that reminds you that character is essential, that action can come out of character, and that a movie doesn’t have to feature expensive, well known actors or cost north of a hundred million dollars to be good, suspenseful and surprising. I believe 28 Days Later cost somewhere in the six million dollar range and was shot on Digital Video. I had no idea who any of the actors were, nor did I care. The movie was the star, as it should be.

Because 28 Days Later won’t be out until the end of June, I don’t want to talk about plot other than what has been written up in different movie magazines. 28 Days Later is, essentially, a zombie movie. Or that’s how it’s being sold. In point of fact, it’s a psychological action story about survival in a kind of post apocalyptic England, and it is both riveting and horrifying at the same time. Again, I don’t want to reveal plot, so all I’ll say is go see it. And remember, you could have at least 20 movies like 28 Days Later for the cost of one Matrix-2.

By the way, I lied. I said I’d talk about only three films. I’m going to mention a fourth. A Mighty Wind, by Christopher Guest, is probably the best film released so far this year. Like all his other movies, it’s hilarious, well acted, and about people. Weird people, but people nonetheless. If you have a chance to see it, do so. Then rent The Big Picture, Waiting for Guffman and Best of Show. They are all great.

There was a time when the movie business was about making movies. Big movies. Small movies. Soap opera movies. Character movies. Movies, and lots of them. Somewhere in the 80s that changed and all the bean counter MBAs cared about was the potential bottom line. Business completely overwhelmed the show part of it. 28 Days Later and A Mighty Wind reminds you that you can do a big genre SF story, as well as a small comedy, on a budget, make it fun, powerful and different, and, one hopes, make lots of money. Movies don’t need zillion dollar special effects if they have a story.

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