Friday, June 23, 2006

A Few (But By No Means All) Of The Reasons Reasons Why X-Men 3 Is Such A Bad Movie

1. What Bryan Singer understands, and what stunningly few other directors of Hollywood action films have yet gotten wise to, is that onscreen carnage is not, in and of itself, exciting. The fact of an explosion is not what's exciting about an explosion. The best scene in Singer's X-2, as most people who like the movie will agree, is Magneto's escape from his plastic prison, which begins with him sucking the iron out of his guard's body (the force of his magnetism lifting and arcing the guard's body upwards as the iron bursts through his skin), and continues with his choreographing swirling metal discs as he flies out of his chamber. It had the excitement of rising action (helped by the editing, patient for the genre) and the kick of visual grandeur (Singer's crane shots were, if anything, an appropriate reflection of the triumph of his character's ego), despite the fact that only one person died and nothing blew up. Brett Ratner's X-3, like almost every other recent summer blockbuster I can recall, goes about its business in the apparent belief that cinematic excitement is directly proportionate to body count. Action scenes are editing hecticly, the too-fast-to-follow cuts creating the illusion of kineticism, and covering up for Ratner's inability to stage a sustained moment of visual engagement. Action scenes need to convey to the viewer a sense of accomplishment—that the mayhem onscreen is building to a moment of consequence. Singer, who has an adult's eye for composition and set of timing, knows how to do this: action scenes in X-2 were thrilling because each shot seemed to promise a direct relation to the climax of the sequence. This is shockingly rare in movies like this; they mostly try to overwhelm the audience. And so in X-3's myriad action scenes, particularly the clusterfuck climax, there's CGI fireballs, extras getting trampled everywhere, and it's all happening so damn fast... the only thing I remember seeing with any clarity is the pale, sagging flesh of the emperor's ass.

2. Somebody apparently compiled a list of every pseudo-heroic bit of inane clunker dialogue any actor has ever unwilling tried to sell in the service of an insufficiently doctored blockbuster script. And then the screenwriters tried to see how many of the lines on that list they could find ways of giving Halle Berry.

3. There is a scene in which Vinnie Jones, playing Juggernaut, a mutant whose apparent power is his ability to build up an enormous head of steam (as if this movie didn't have enough characters already), has his progress momentarily halted when Kiyy Pryde, who can move through walls, drags his lower body down into the floor and leaves him there. And then he bursts out of the floor, and shouts, "I'm Juggernaut, bitch!" When I saw this movie in a theater after work this week, that line got the biggest laugh. Which I found appalling, because it was obviously so nakedly misogynistic and what kind of person finds it amusing when a big burly man overpowers a little girl and calls her a bitch? It occurred to me a few hours later that it was actually a Chapelle's Show reference. Should this reassure me? I don't think it should. Because apparently this movie was written by people who a) think that simply making reference to a currently popular catchphrase counts as humor, and b) are either unaware of or unconcerned with the corruption of meaning that occurs when a boast originally made by one man (in silly 80s dress-up) to another is crowed by a roided-up Guy Ritchie cast-off to a quavering teenage girl. And apparently this movie was enjoyed by an audience that agreed with them on both counts. It's possible I'm getting too worked up over this, but I hope that someday, in a few years, when "I'm Rick James, bitch!" has gone the way of "Where's the beef?", somebody sits down, cringes at this scene, and realizes that maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all. (A man can dream.)

4. The gay thing. Specifically, that Singer's first two X-Men movies had a gay subtext that was pretty much, uh, text, very clearly treating the social abnormality of mutancy with the same language used for homosexuality. The mutant characters' difference was met with debates about choice vs. innate nature, and the dueling solutions of repressive "cures" vs. acceptance from society at large. And X-3 continues under that assumption, with the development of a vaccine for mutancy. (Its well-meaning developer is blandly handsome, Ivy League wishy-washy baby boomer Michael Murphy, who's made a career out of embodying everything people hate about Democrats the way Chris Cooper has made a career out of embodying everything people hate about Republicans.) And so we get all the talk about mutancy being natural and them fighting for acceptance from the rest of the country and forming their own supportive, sometimes exclusive subcultures. And then, when Jean Grey returns as Phoenix, it turns out that mutancy is dangerous, and aspects of it, in fact, do need to be suppressed. And so all the "good" mutants join up with the government to help contain the "bad" mutants, even going so far as to forcibly cure some of them. (I. Cannot. Fucking. Believe. That Ian McKellen agreed to do a movie that treats the unwilling stripping-away of his difference as an unambiguous victory.) We even get Rogue having her powers removed because they were getting in the way of her relationship with her boyfriend.

Which is not, remotely, the worst of it. Because somewhere in there, the dominant metaphor becomes terrorism, with all of Magneto's rebels undertaking a violent insurgency against the government, committing acts of domestic disruption. (He even destroys a national monument, the Golden Gate Bridge.) And so it falls to the good mutants to turn on the bad ones, and help the government end the reign of terror. The President says things like "God help us" while flanked by American flags. And Magneto, played by McKellen as the queenly advocate for unashamed enjoyment of his socially marginally deviance, is seen via a (Fox) news broadcast publicly delivering a threatening video message to the administration, a message apparently recorded in a hideout that looked (to me at least) not unlike a cave.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

After Long Silence: The Undercover Man (Joseph H. Lewis) and The Brothers Rico (Phil Karlson)

So, no, I haven't exactly been blogging much these past few months. Suffice to say that blogging and writing about movies in a semi-professional capacity really drains one of the desire to see movies in one's spare time, let alone write about them. Yeah, boo hoo. Anyway, today marks the start of a renewed effort to at least jot something down (mostly notes, rather than full reviews; I don't have the discipline necessary to bother with plot summary or organization in my spare time) on every movie I see, starting with Monday's B Noir double feature at Film Forum...

The Undercover Man
(Joseph H. Lewis, 1949)

Unmissable shades of Capone, with the unseen racket-running Big Fellow taken down for undeclared info. The lead T-Man's Glenn Ford, who has a healthy sense of humor about the whole thing, maintaining a lightly ironic off-the-cuff delivery even when he and wife Nina Foch sit down in the shade of an oak tree for the obligatory is-it-all-worth-it? talk. (As for the bucolic interlude: I'll piggyback on what others have said about urban and rural spaces in film noir—most notably On Dangerous Ground—and note that in Undercover Man, the city is overheated, cluttered, violent; the countryside is spread-out, peaceful, and a place of mental clarity. Is it a coincidence that the peace Ford finds in wide open spaces, or that Ryan finds in Dangerous Ground, is also associated with the stabilizing influence of femininity?) Lewis is far less at home with the material: he shoots from low angles with a lot of ceiling over the characters' heads, like he's waiting for them to walk into his trademark looming, juicy closeups, but they rarely do. He doesn't quite connect with the script, which takes a morally uninquisitive procedural route, and doesn't provide him with a chance for any Freudian money shots a la Gun Crazy or Big Combo. When something does happen, he overreaches: Ford's primary adversary is the Big Fellow's mercenary accountant (his opposite), and when he slips an ominous "how's your wife" in at the end of a conversation, Lewis repeats in on the soundtrack, synced with a racing train engine, until the moment is run completely dry. Then there's the part where Ford is convinced to stay the course of his investigation by an Italian grandma's impossibly lengthy "I believe in America" speech, translated by her big-eyed granddaughter for extra sap. There are few things as uncinematic as watching somebody speak through an interpreter; that it's the single worst scene in the movie getting the start-stop treatment doesn't make it go down any easier. At least Lewis's assistants (I'm guessing) did some terrific work on the Little Italy exteriors: the sets are built up with an unusual amount of texture, and the deployment of the extras, in establishing shots and especially in a foot chase, is full-scale and impressively fluid.

The Brothers Rico (Phil Karlson, 1957)

Soft-spoken, eerily smooth-faced Richard Conte is wasted as the good guy, a former gangster (he was only the accountant when he was in the racket, so delicate audience sympathies aren't in danger of being compromised) enlisted by his old connections to track down his younger brother, who the Syndicate fears may be about to go straight. It's your standard two-kinds-of-family thing, with Conte's loyalty to the syndicate expressed in terms of kinship—his old boss is "Uncle Sid," and his mother once took a bullet for him—and the morally pure bonds at the polar opposite, to his blood relations, are expressed through domesticity. The younger brother ran out on the syndicate because he wanted his virtuous bride to have their baby away from the sullying taint of the mob life (they run away from New York and set up on a farm in SoCal, I note in light of an observation made above); Conte buys his grandmother a TV and his mother a fridge; he even runs a laundry business that cleans diapers. Conte, meanwhile, is called away from his wife on the day they were to adopt a baby; as written (and as played, with rather off-putting aggressiveness, by Dianne Foster), his wife represents one of the more grating reminders of both his domestic obligation, and the wife's need to stay out of the way while the husband does what needs to be done.

That said, The Brothers Rico at least does something interesting with the standard domestic morality of its genre (cf. Undercover Man in addition to every other movie that posits wifely submission and masculine reliability as the gateway to a worthy existence): it twists it into an almost parodic demonstration of marriage as a dom/sub power dynamic. I knew something was up early, when the husband slips out of bed to answer a secret phone call, the wife comes into the room, is assured that the call is none of her concern, and then drops down to both knees in front of her husband, head at optimal b.j. level, to slip his shoes onto his feet for him. Then there's the part where he jokingly calls her "peasant" and she mock-resists him as she yanks him into the shower with him, ot the way she bites his shoulder (in keeping with Foster's overly voracious performance, perhaps), giggles mischievously, and awaits retribution. I'm not sure if this is better or worse than the standard subservience, but it's definitely something.

It's the first Karlson I've seen, and there's definitely something to him. The location exteriors ("semi-documentary" is a term that's often thrown around with him), picked up in unremarkable corners of the country, are sparse in a way that keeps the material appealingly unpretty. And wow, must it have been done for cheap. Most of the one-on-one dialogue scenes are shot in one take, presumably because Karlson didn't have the time to use multiple camera set-ups. From the looks of it, he didn't even have the wherewithal to do multiple takes: Conte trucks through the line flubs and slipping accents of a series of scene partners (his "ethnic" mother and former boss/father figure—who bears, it should be noted, a distracting resemblance to Bob Hope— are the worst offenders), and the flow of the dialogue misses far too many beats on the way to its emotional highs. But when the timing clicks (especially in the scenes with Harry Bellaver as the small-town bigwig running the show from Conte's hotel room), Karlson has an almost claustrophobia-inducing control over the inexorable plot twists. That this tawdry low-budget number isn't afraid to kill sympathetic characters off also helps.