erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2000s posts

Saturday October 15, 2011

Movie Review: Winter in Wartime (2008)

WARNING: OORLOGSSPOILERS

Have we reached the point where we can only view World War II through the prism of melodrama? Or do only melodramatic foreign-language films about World War II get released in the U.S.? See recent entries: “City of Life and Death,” “John Rabe,” “Le Rafle.”

See also “Oorlogswinter,” or “Winter in Wartime,” which is about a young Dutch boy, Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), living in a small town in Nazi-occupied Holland. The movie begins in January 1945 so we know, as he doesn’t, that only a few months are left in the war. The Allies are coming. Just hold on, lie low, and you and yours will be fine.

He doesn’t lie low.

Poster for "Oorlogswinter" or "Winter in Wartime" (2008)His father, Johan (Raymond Thiry, looking remarkably like Sam Neill), is the mayor of their small town—the “Burgermeister” in German (which unfortunately flashed me back to the old Rankin-Bass special “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” and its Burgermeister Meisterburger character). While the position has its privileges, it also has its responsibilities, which Johan takes seriously. He sees himself as a bridge between occupiers and occupied. He makes what friends he can with the occupiers in order to protect the occupied. Early in the film, Michiel, through binoculars, watches his father shake hands with German soldiers to protect neighbors. Michiel thinks him a weakling and a coward as a result.

Little shit.

Seriously, can someone live half their life in occupied territory and still be such a little shit? It’s obvious what his father is doing. It obviously takes courage to do what he does. So we wait for this realization to come over Michiel. It takes most of the movie.

There’s also an uncle, Ben, Oom Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), who returns, bigger and larger than life, to stay with them. He lets Michiel take his suitcase up to the attic, where the boy rifles through it, finding evidence that Ben is with the resistance. At one point, he hears his uncle and father arguing over the matter. Ben wants to start a resistance movement in town; Johan is resistant. He doesn’t want to draw Nazi ire. Michiel can barely abide his father at this point.

My immediate thought: Since the boy is wrong about his father, might he be wrong about the uncle? Surely the uncle isn’t a Nazi collaborator. Surely it’s not one of those kinds of movies.

It’s one of those kinds of movies.

Pity. There’s some good stuff here. Michiel finds a downed Allied pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), hiding out in the woods, and brings him food and information and eventually medical attention in the form of his good-looking older sister, Erica (Melody Klaver). Erica is infatuated but no less than Michiel. The film could be retitled “Winter of my British Soldier.”

Jack had killed a German soldier upon landing, or crash-landing, and when the German body is found the Germans take three prominent Dutch officials, including Johan, prisoner. The plan is to execute them unless the true culprit is found. Michiel, of course, knows the true culprit. But he’s been told by Ben that his father will go free; so even when Jack offers to give himself up, Michiel tells him, no, his uncle is handling it.

Except his uncle doesn’t handle it, and, at the last instant, Michiel bikes through the snow to stop the execution. Cue: people holding him back. Cue: Michiel running in slow motion. Cue the order given and the rifles blasting and the officials falling.

Oh, slow motion. How many movies have you ruined?

This should be what the movie's about. Michiel had the knowledge to save his father and didn’t. He even waived off Jack’s attempt to save his father. His father is dead now because of his actions. One wonders how he can ever tell his mother. One wonders how he can tell himself every day for the rest of his life. That’s a heavy weight for a kid to carry.

But we merely get a sense of that weight. Then the plot kicks in, Jack must be saved, Ben is brought in to help save Jack, etc. At one point, Oom Ben says something he couldn’t possibly know, unless ... Michiel rushes up to the attic, rifles through his suitcase again. Nothing. But wait: There’s a false bottom. His uncle is a Nazi collaborator. Cue another bike ride through the snow to try to save Jack and Erica from Ben’s inevitable betrayal.

“Oorlogswinter” is based upon a novel of World War II by Jan Terlouw, a Dutch scientist, politician and author, who would’ve been around Michiel’s age in 1945. He writes children’s books mostly, with various moral dilemmas, and “Oorlogswinter” is one of them. It was made into a mini-series for Dutch TV in 1975.

In most movies, people are what we think they are, but here they’re the opposite of what we think they are—or what Michiel thinks they are. Does anyone think this is a deep commentary on human nature? It’s the adolescent commentary on human nature. So Johan is really a hero, Ben is really a traitor, and the fat bike-shop owner, who has to sponge off the “Nazi” signs written on his shop, is really a loyal Netherlander. Some of the Germans are even nice. When Michiel falls through the ice, it’s a German soldier who pulls him out. When the wheel of a horse cart comes off, with Jack inside, it’s German soldiers who rush to fix it. The world is so complex that way.

Michiel keeps falling in the movie. He falls off his bike in the beginning and is captured by the Germans. He falls through the ice. The horse cart wheel comes off. And as he and Jack are escaping the Nazis on Caesar, Michiel’s horse, they fall in the woods, Caesar breaks his leg, and the horse must be put out of its misery. But Michiel can’t do it. Jack has to do it for him.

This sets up our end. Ben is exposed and tied to a tree. But while Jack is escaping, with Erica’s help, Ben sets himself free and walks off despite the gun in Michiel’s hand. Will Michiel use it? Will he kill his uncle? Oh, will he?

Cue: Slow motion.

Posted at 07:45 AM on Oct 15, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s, Movies - Foreign
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Tuesday May 31, 2011

Movie Review: X Men: The Last Stand (2006)

WARNING: THREE-MAIN-CHARACTERS-ARE-KILLED SPOILERS

When he took over the reigns of the “X-Men” franchise, director Brett Ratner promised that he and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn would put nothing on screen that hadn’t first been in the comic books.

X Men: The Last Stand posterIf so, they must’ve panned the entire “X-Men” oeuvre for stupid shit. Because that’s what’s on screen.

Here. These are the first words we hear. It’s 20 years ago, we’re in a nice suburban neighborhood, a car pulls up to the Grey household (1769) and Professor X and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen), emerge, airbrushed creepily, for this bit of exposition:

Magneto: I still don't know why I’m here. Couldn't you just make them say yes?
Professor X: Yes, I could, but it's not my way. And I would expect you, of all people, would understand my feelings about the misuse of power.
Magneto: Ah, “power corrupts” and all that. Yes, I know, Charles. When are you going to stop lecturing me?

Let’s take a moment to distill that conversation:

Magneto: Hey, do X.
Professor X: I don’t do X. You know that.
Magneto: I know you don’t do X. Quit lecturing me on how you don’t do X.

The movie keeps doing this. It keeps giving us supposedly intelligent people having inane conversations.

The storyline is fine. You could argue the storyline is an improvement. In the first movie, Magneto tries to turn all humans into mutants (a dumb idea, since he despised humanity), and here humans try to turn all mutants into humans (a smart idea, since humans fear mutants). Dr. Henry McCoy, the Beast (Kelsey Grammar), who is now Secretary of Mutant Affairs, arrives at Xavier’s school with the news. “A pharmaceutical company has developed a mutant antibody: a way to suppress the mutant X gene,” he says. “They’re calling it a cure.” Everyone in the room is appalled. Then Rogue rushes into the room:

Rogue (excited): Is it true? Can they cure us?
Professor X (resigned): Yes, Rogue. It appears to be true.
Storm (angry): No, Professor. They can't cure us. You want to know why? Because there's nothing to cure. [To Rogue] Nothing's wrong with you. Or any of us, for that matter.

The X-Men series is often seen as a metaphor for the civil rights movement, or for homosexuality, but this is where that metaphor breaks down. Black is black, gay is gay, but not every mutation is created equally. No one mentions this in the film but here would’ve been a good spot. When Storm gets in Rogue’s face, Rogue should’ve stared back, taken off a glove, grabbed Storm’s wrist; and while Storm gasped in excruciating pain, while her face got all veiny, Rogue should’ve said:

Rogue: I can’t touch anyone. Ever. Because this happens. Get it?
[Lets go and Storm collapses on the ground.]
Maybe if I could control the weather I wouldn’t want to be cured, either. But don’t tell me there’s nothing wrong with me.

Instead we get what we get. Magneto recruits from “the Omegas,” underground mutants who dress goth-style and sport tattoos as if they were disaffected suburban kids. They gather in woods for speeches and lead an assault on Alcatraz Prison, where the mutant, Leech, who is the source of the antibody (mutants temporarily lose powers around him), resides, bald, silent, and vaguely concerned. But Storm leads a team of six mutants (Wolverine, Beast, Colossus, Iceman, Shadowcat) to defend Alcatraz and beat back this army of mutants. It’s a good battle sequence, I’ll give Ratner that, but it doesn’t make up for the stupidity we’ve already been subjected to.

And that’s only one of the movie’s two main storylines. The other deals with the resurrection of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) as the Phoenix.

We knew this was coming. If we’d read X-Men #s 101-108, in which Jean Grey dies and is resurrected as the super-powerful Phoenix, we knew this was coming.

What I didn’t know, since I stopped collecting comics soon after that adventure, and went on to, you know, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth and E.L. Doctorow and Norman Mailer, was the huge powers of the Phoenix weren’t the result of her death/resurrection. Apparently she’d always had them. Thus that opening scene at the Grey household. Thus the conversation between Professor X and Wolverine after Jean’s body, along with Cyclops’ glasses, are recovered from Alkali Lake. Here’s what we learn in that 30-second conversation:

  1. When Jean Grey was a little girl, Professor X created a series of psychic barriers to make her think she wasn’t as powerful as she was.
  2. Because of this, she developed a split personality: the Jean Grey we’ve known for two films; and the superpowerful, superangry Phoenix.
  3. Professor X isn’t sorry he did this.
  4. He dismisses, belittles, anyone who questions him on the matter.

This is the tail-end of their conversation:

Professor X: She has to be controlled.
Wolverine: Controlled? Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.
Professor X: You have no idea. You have no idea of what she’s capable.
Wolverine: No, Professor. I had no idea what you were capable of!
Professor X: I had a terrible choice to make. I chose the lesser of two evils.
Wolverine: Well, it sounds to me like Jean had no choice at all.
Professor X: I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you.

I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you? Really? That’s the moral exemplar of this series? The man who didn’t want to misuse his powers in the opening scene? The teacher who wouldn’t even tell Wolverine his own story in the second film—who said, channeling Glynda from “The Wizard of Oz,” that Wolverine had to figure it out for himself? Least of all you? Wow.

When I first saw this scene, back in 2006, I assumed that this Professor X, spouting such idiotic dialogue, was a hologram, or maybe Mystique, or was being controlled by some nefarious force, and I remember being confused when the movie kept going on and on until it became clear, no, this was Professor X spouting such idiotic dialogue.

It would’ve been so easy to fix, too. Keep most of the above dialogue—I like the “Sometimes when you cage the beast” line, for example—but give us the mea culpa:

Professor X: I know, I know... Maybe if I hadn’t... But it seemed the only way... God help me, it seemed the only way.

Or scrap this conversation and give us the big reveal in a conversation between Professor X and Magneto:

Magneto (amused): Charles, you’ve always accused me of not living up to your moral standards. You’ve even accused me of evil. Now look at you. Your beloved protégée is a monster. You ... [smiles wider] ... are a Dr. Frankenstein. In trying to do good, you’ve done more evil than someone like me could hope to do in a lifetime.

Instead we get what we get.

Don’t even get me started on the loutish dialogue between Rogue and Bobby (“You're a guy, Bobby; your mind's only on one thing”) or Mystique’s awful lines (“I don’t answer to my slave name”), or how Jean kills both Cyclops and Professor X—really kills them—and then just hangs back, crackling with power, as battles rage, or how Magneto, normally a smart man, sends mutants to kill Leech when their powers won’t work around Leech, or how the good X-Men neutralize Magneto with the mutant antibody, rather than Jean, who’s much more dangerous, or...

“X-Men: The Last Stand” posits Jean Grey as the most powerful, destructive mutant in the Marvel universe, but surely that title belongs to director Brett Ratner. He took a popular series, gave everyone stupid lines, killed off the main characters, then smiled like a chubby three-year-old expecting accolades. What a surprise for him when the world turned angry.

Or is there someone else? Someone more powerful and nefarious? The first two “X-Men” movies, in 2000 and 2003, helped reboot the superhero genre. Since then, the studio that produced and distributed them, Fox, has given us the following: “Daredevil,” “Elektra,” “Fantastic Four,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” So maybe Fox is our most powerful and destructive supervillain. The corporation that would make idiots of us all.

Storm and Kitty Pryde contemplate the gravestones of Jean Grey, Scott Summers and Charles Xavier in "X Men: The Last Stand"

Death of a franchise.

Posted at 07:02 AM on May 31, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Friday May 27, 2011

Movie Review: X2 (2003)

WARNING: ONCE AND FUTURE SPOILERS

Does any superhero movie have as many good scenes as this one? Let’s count ’em off:

  • In the opening, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), to the pulse-pounding grandeur of “Dies Irae” from Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, poofs in and out of existence, climbs walls, swats secret servicemen with his tail, and comes within seconds of killing the President of the United States with a knife on which a note is tagged: MUTANT FREEDOM NOW!

Nightcrawler and JFK in the White House in "X2" (2003)

  • The forces of William Stryker (Brian Cox) lead an assault of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, in which most of the students, even those with powers, flee, but Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the lone adult in the joint, takes out half the special forces. Snkt!

Wolverine and Stryker in "X2" (2003)

  • Magneto (Ian McKellen), incarcerated in a plastic prison, discovers that—thanks to his partner-in-crime, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn)—his slovenly and brutish guard, Laurio (Ty Olsson), has metallic particles in his bloodstream. But what can Magneto do with a little metallic dust? Everything. He levitates Laurio, pulls the particles out of him—killing him painfully in the process—and manipulates the dust into three small metal balls with which, zinging and pinging like bullets, he destroys his plastic prison. Then flattening one metal ball into a platform, he rides it out of his prison while the other two orbit around him as if he were the sun. Brilliant.

Magneto escapes his plastic prison in "X2" (2003)

  • The cops surround the house of the family of Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore), called there by his brother, Ronnie, and proceed to shoot Wolverine in the head, and order the others, Bobby and Rogue (Anna Paquin) and John (Aaron Stanford) onto the ground. Bobby and Rogue comply. John, also known as Pyro, doesn’t. Breathing heavily, looking at his hands, assessing the situation, he says, “You know all those dangerous mutants you hear about in the news? I'm the worst one.” Then he shows them.

Pyro erupts in "X2" (2003)

As I was writing these scenes down, all favorites, I realized they have something in common. They are moments when mutants let loose; when they no longer hold their powers in check and instead strike back against an unjust world. In each, we, the weak, popcorn-munching audience, who deal with unjustness all the time in our day-to-day, get to thrill at seeing unbridled power used against 1) an unjust government, 2) an unjust army, 3) a sadistic guard, and 4) an unjust world—a world where brothers turn you in to the cops and the cops shoot first and ask questions later.

What else do they have in common? They all involve either a hero who’s almost a villain (Wolverine), a hero duped into villainy (Nightcrawler) or actual villains (Magneto, Pyro). They don’t involve the main X-Men heroes: Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Storm (Halle Berry), Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) and Cyclops (James Marsden), our first, fourth, fifth and sixth-billed stars.

Why? Because these characters are dull. Dull dull dull. Professor X was always dull. Cyclops, too. It’s a problem as old as Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” in which Satan is a fascinating character and God is a bore. But does it have to be so? Professor X has the power to kill everyone on the planet with his mind. We see this power utilized in the film. So how about giving us some of that tension, the weight of that awful power, instead of Patrick Stewart’s bland benevolence?

I remember Storm having a fascinating backstory as a pickpocket in the “X-Men” comic books. That backstory was blown off in “X-Men” and only vaguely alluded to here. On the X-Jet, Storm goes back into the hold to try to draw out their new companion, Nightcrawler, whom they’ve picked up in a run-down church in Boston, and they have the following conversation:

Nightcrawler: You know, outside the circus, most people were afraid of me. But I didn't hate them. I pitied them. Do you know why? Because most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes.
Storm: Well, I gave up on pity a long time ago.
Nightcrawler: Someone so beautiful should not be so angry.
Storm: Sometimes anger can help you survive.
Nightcrawler: So can faith.

When I first heard this conversation, in movie theaters in 2003, I thought Storm was implying that feeling pity was beneath her, that she had a larger spirit than that. No. She’s actually saying “Pitying humans is too good for them.” But that’s backwards. When you’re angry with someone it’s because they’re not living up to a certain standard you expect. When you pity someone it’s because they’re not living up to a certain standard ... and you know they never will. You’ve given up on them. Plus her anger, her contempt, comes out of nowhere, as if the filmmakers suddenly realized, “Oh yeah, Storm,” or as if Ms. Berry, post-Oscar, demanded a bit more screentime and wound up with this. But she doesn’t sell it. She never seems angry. She never seems Storm. She just looks slightly sad and way, way beautiful.

Storm, "angry," in "X2" (2003)

Storm. Angry. So angry.

And, hey, is Nightcrawler really implying that most people only know what they see because they don’t have faith? As if most people around the world don’t believe in something unseen? As if most don’t believe in God?

Despite that, and despite “X2”’s loutish, truncated title, designed to appeal to all the exxxtreme dudes playing their Xboxes and watching “XXX,” it’s still a great superhero movie, not only for the scenes above but for the quiet moments before the scenes above. It luxuriates in the language and embraces the mystery. I’m thinking Wolverine and Bobby in the kitchen before the attack; Wolverine and the cat in the Drake household; Rogue looking at Bobby’s old room in the Drake household; and Bobby’s “coming out” conversation with the Drakes (“Have you tried ... not being a mutant?”). There’s that beautiful visual, Bobby’s ice wall coming between Wolverine and Stryker, and the two men, seeing the shadow of the other on the other side, putting their hands on the wall.

I’m a fan, in particular, of the conversation between Magneto and John/Pyro on the X-Jet hurtling toward Alkali Lake. John begins poorly, dissing Magneto’s helmet. Then we get this:

Magneto: What's your name?
Pyro: [staring at his lighter in Magneto's hands] John.
Magneto: What's your real name, John?
Pyro: [summons lighter's flame to his hand] Pyro.
Magneto: Quite a talent you have there, Pyro.
Pyro: I can only manipulate the fire. ... I can't create it.
Magneto: You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.

It’s that last line. The way McKellen sells it. The scene is our first indication of Magneto’s recruitment technique. What does Professor X offer young mutants? Sanctuary. Safety. Companionship. Tutorial. He helps mutants control their powers, tamp them down. Magneto offers the opposite. All that power you feel within you? Let it loose.

"You are a God among insects. Never let anyone tell you different."

“You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.”

How does Magneto not have more acolytes? And shouldn’t there be a greater tension between the two camps? Young and scared, they flock to Professor X, but as they mature, as they come into their own, as they abandon the need for safety for the need for power, how can they not throw off the bland father figure, Professor X, for the completeness, the absoluteness, and the absolution Magneto offers? You are a god among insects. Who wouldn’t want that?

So if “X-Men,” the first movie, was about learning and combating Magneto’s plan to turn humans into mutants, “X2” is about learning and combating William Stryker’s plan to kill all mutants via Cerebro and a duped Professor X—who, despite his monumental psychic powers, never seems to see it coming. The final big battle takes place in an old military facility beneath Alkali Lake in British Columbia, and it is, well, a final big battle, with many moving parts, which director Bryan Singer handles well. But I’m a little tired of final big battles. You know there’ll be this, and that, and in the nick of ... and the final escape as ... and then (whew) safety. Did we all make it out OK? Here, Jean doesn’t. But anyone who knows the “X-Men” series knows she’s not just Jean Grey; she’s the Phoenix.

Poster for "X2" or "X-Men 2" (2003)Is it a coincidence that all three patriarchs in this movie—Professor X, Magneto, Stryker—have powerful female sidekicks? Of course Stryker’s sidekick, Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), is there against her will, making her death at the hands of Wolverine all the more poignant. I guess Professor X’s sidekick, Jean, is there against her will, too, isn’t she? We find that out in the next movie. Only Magneto’s lady is hanging with him because she wants to. Let’s hear it for the villains.

I could’ve done with a different final White House scene. Stryker dupes Professor X into using Cerebro to almost kill every mutant on the planet (including himself?), but Magneto, maintaining the dupe, has him target every human on the planet instead. It almost works. Does every human on the planet crouch in pain like Stryker does? What a story! ALL OF HUMANITY ALMOST KILLED BY LONE MUTANT. You’d think then, when presenting himself before the powers-that-be, in this case the President of the United States, who was nearly killed by Nightcrawler before he was nearly killed by Professor X, you’d think Professor X would be a bit more ... apologetic. Abashed. Sheepish. No. Professor X freezes time before POTUS’s speech to the nation and the other mutants arrange themselves around the room in dark, stormy, threatening postures. They present evidence against Stryker, who instigated the attempted Nightcrawler assassination, but offer no mea culpa for the near-global genocide. Instead Professor X says, “We're here to stay; the next move is yours.” Wolverine adds, “We'll be watching.” Oh, and about killing nearly everyone on the planet? Sorry. Won’t happen again. Pinky swear.

The saddest part of the movie, though, is the knowledge that it's the last one with this director. Bryan, we hardly knew ye. And look who you left us with.

Posted at 06:28 AM on May 27, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Monday May 23, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men (2000)

WARNING: XAVIER’S SCHOOL FOR GIFTED SPOILERS

Just as “Fantastic Four #1” ushered in the Marvel Age of comics in November 1961, “X-Men,” the movie, released in July 2000, ushered in the blockbuster age of cinematic superheroes. Indeed, it’s fascinating how much movie musclemen followed the path of their comic book predecessors. The whole crazy superhero parade began with Superman in 1938, picked up with Batman a year later, then became bigger than ever under Marvel in the early 1960s. That’s Hollywood’s pattern, too. Superhero blockbusters began with “Superman: The Movie” in 1978, picked up with Tim Burton’s “Batman” a decade later, then became bigger than ever under Marvel in the 2000s.

So why was “X-Men” essentially the “FF #1” of cinema? Why—besides CGI—does the movie work so well?

Movie poster for "X-Men" (2000)It’s partly the director. Just as Marvel superheroes were reluctant superheroes, Bryan Singer was a reluctant director. He didn’t know from mutants and didn’t want this thing on his plate. But Fox Studios wanted him, the wunderkind who had directed “The Usual Suspects,” and Singer handled the assignment smartly. As he explored structural ideas for the movie, he realized there was something serious in the material. “It's actually about prejudice,” he told The New York Times in 2000.

Let’s hear it for casting director Roger Mussenden, too. Patrick Stewart was an obvious fanboy choice for Professor X, while Sir Ian McKellen, who had starred in Singer’s “Apt Pupil,” was an inspired choice for Magneto, who had always been drawn taller, darker, younger and stronger. Famke Janssen, literally perfect in a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode, was, again, hubba-hubba perfect for Jean Grey. Anna Paquin, best known for “The Piano,” made a vulnerable Rogue, Rebecca Romijn made a sexy Mystique, James Marsden a straight-arrow Cyclops. Hugh Jackman, the back-up choice for Wolverine, became a star. Really, the only miscast was the best-known cast member. Storm is African, tall and powerful, and Halle Berry, unlike McKellen, can’t make up the deficit. Her Storm always feels like a drizzle.

Does it help that the X-Men aren’t traditional superheroes? They don’t wear masks, don’t “fight crime,” don’t acquire superpowers through some absurd Atomic-age means: cosmic rays or gamma rays or radioactive whatchacalms. They’re mutants, freaks, outcasts. In this way they better represent the latter part of the 20th century. If the metaphor for Superman, the first superhero, is one of melting-pot assimilation, of hiding among the masses in plain sight, the metaphor for the X-Men is one of segregation, of removal from society, of identifying yourself with the maligned subgroup (mutants) over the group (humans). It’s a post-Civil Rights metaphor, and the leaders of the two mutant groups, Professor X and Magneto, can be seen as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X figures, counseling either non-violence and integration or violence and segregation. Magneto’s last line is even one of Malcolm’s more famous lines: He plans to fight the enemy “by any means necessary.”

The first conversation between Prof. X and Magneto, outside U.S. Senate hearings on “the mutant phenomenon,” contains echoes of this philosophical difference:

Professor X: Don’t give up on them, Eric.
Magneto (weary): I’ve heard these arguments before.
Professor X: It was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.
Magneto: Yes. Into us. .. We are the future, Charles, not them. They no longer matter.

One of the strengths of the film is that Magneto actually makes sense. Sure, Professor X is nicer, but is Magneto more practical? Does he see the world more clearly? Wolverine echoes this thought halfway through the film. “There’s a war coming,” he tells Storm. “Are you sure you’re on the right side?”

Singer and screenwriter David Hayter even take the unprecedented step of beginning the film with its ostensible villain, Magneto, in a sympathetic role. It’s 1944, Poland, and Eric Lensherr, a mere kid, is being herded with his parents and hundreds of others into concentration camps (for the strong) or extermination camps (for the weak). Eric’s parents are separated from him, to be executed, and he tries to save them. (See: Jason White, piano, Lois Lane, in Singer’s “Superman Returns.”) It takes six Nazi guards to hold him back and even then he is able to completely warp the large metal gate to the camp. You could say the experience warps him, too. It makes his later hatred of mankind understandable. Hell, you know who he’s like here? Bruce Wayne. Batman. The two have the same story. After their parents are killed, right in front of them, they spend the rest of their lives going after the killers. They just define “killers” differently.

In this manner, in modern-day North America, we’re introduced to the various mutants: Rogue, who can’t touch anyone without killing them; Wolverine, an amnesiac, cage fighting in a dead-end Alberta bar, and whom Rogue serendipitously (a bit too serendipitously) runs into; Cyclops and Storm, who aid Wolverine and Rogue, in battling Sabretooth, Magneto’s envoy.

By this point mutants are known, they’ve been outed in some fashion, so Dr. Jean Gray addresses the U.S. Congress to quiet people’s fears. She doesn’t. The movie lets us believe she’s upstaged by a grandstanding, reactionary politician, Sen. Kelly (Bruce Davison), the Joe McCarthy or Jim Inhofe of this world, but she’s actually just a lousy debater. She even begins wrong:

Ladies and gentleman, we are now seeing the beginnings of another stage of human evolution. These mutations manifest at puberty, and are often triggered by periods of heightened emotional stress.

Advice: If you’re attempting to win people over, it may not be a good idea to suggest that they are at an earlier stage of evolution: homo erectus to your homo sapiens.

Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) loses the debate in "X-Men" (2000)

Losing argument: “Don't fear us: we are simply more evolved than you.”

It’s actually Sen. Kelly who gets to the point: “You’ve failed to address the issue that is the focus of this hearing: Are. Mutants. Dangerous?”

Gray, despite the glasses, flubs it. She says the question is unfair, that cars in the wrong hands are dangerous, but Kelly reminds her that we license people to drive. Then, though she’s at the podium, he continues framing the debate as he wants it framed. A shame. They could’ve wound up at the same point in a smarter fashion. Something like:

Kelly: Are mutants dangerous?
Gray: Are human beings dangerous? I think it depends upon the human being.
Kelly: But individual human beings can only be so dangerous.
Gray: Unless they have a weapon: a gun, a plane, an atom bomb.
Kelly: Are you saying there are mutants as powerful as atom bombs? [Glances around the chambers.] How does that make you feel? Safe? Would you like to be living next to someone who has the power of an atom bomb? Who could blow up your neighborhood, your city, your country, like that? [Snaps fingers.] Ladies and gentleman, this is a matter of public safety...

It’s a shame “X-Men” came out when it did, in the summer of 2000, a year before 9/11, when we hadn’t been debating civil liberties/civil rights much, when we’d forgotten how reactionary we could be. The movie gives us one loud-mouth senator and a few people with placards (“Human Rights,” etc.), when, let’s face it, if there were mutants among us, with such powers, the legislation to combat them, the time and energy spent in searching for them and incarcerating them in Gitmo-like facilities, would be overwhelming. Look what we did after a few Muslim fanatics hijacked a few planes.

But that’s the set-up. Mutants have been outed, Professor X counsels caution, Magneto prepares for war. He and his crew are plotting, and Professor X and his crew try to figure out the plot, and Wolverine, our eyes and ears in this world, tries to figure out which side he’s on. There are subplots, of course, notably the love triangle between Wolverine, Jean Gray and Cyclops, but this is basically the movie: What’s Magneto’s doing?

The answer to that question, unfortunately, is the lamest part of “X-Men.” Magneto is waging war on humans ... by turning them into mutants.

On one level this makes sense: He’s neutralizing the enemy. He’s turning them into what they fear.

On a deeper, more personal level, it makes no sense at all. If Magneto truly believes that human beings no longer matter, that mutants are the next step in the evolutionary process, then he’s basically giving the enemy a gift beyond compare. “You are a god among insects,” he tells Pyro in “X-2.” So why give insects the power of gods? It doesn’t fit with his personality, it doesn’t fit with his philosophy. It makes no sense.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) in "X-Men" (2000)

Losing strategy: “Humans are less evolved than mutants; so to punish them I will turn humans ... into mutants.”

Worse, the movie stacks the deck against him. First, he’s willing to kill Rogue, a fellow mutant, to make his enemies powerful. Then his device doesn’t actually work. It transforms humans, yes, but in an unstable fashion, and they wind up dying a painful death. So the X-Men have to stop him for this reason.

“X-Men” is a good movie, eminently watchable, always entertaining. There are several great scenes: the intro of Wolverine, the train station battle, the climax atop the Statue of Liberty. There’s a star turn by Hugh Jackman. He’s a bad ass, but with a sense of solicitude for Rogue that's charming, and a sense of heat for Jean Gray that's palpable. He gets all the good lines.

But imagine a good revisionist take of the movie, in which human beings are as paranoid as we know human beings to be, governments are as cowardly as we know governments to be, and with a FOX-News-type organization spreading fear and propaganda, governments all over the world, and certainly in the U.S., crack down on the moderate, mollifying forces, Professor X and his students, who are captured, incarcerated, tortured and experimented upon. And in the wings, Magneto, our Batman figure, wearing a cruel smile, waits to save the day.

Posted at 07:00 AM on May 23, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Friday February 25, 2011

Movie Review: “Oswald's Ghost” (2007)

WARNING: MAGIC SPOILERS

Norman Mailer gives us the title. “Oswald is the ghost that lays over American life,” he says, with his usual twinkle, near the end of this well-made documentary. “What is abominable and maddening about ghosts is you never know the answer. Is it this or is it that? You can’t know because the ghost isn’t telling you.”

Yet “Oswald’s Ghost” tells us plenty—because it’s less conspiracy theory, or conspiracy debunker, than conspiracy history. It takes us chronologically, and cleanly, through events, and delves into why we began to believe there was a cover-up, and what it means that we now believe there was a cover-up, and how we now act as a result. It sees the Kennedy assassination as the great dividing point of the American century, the break from which we never recovered. John F. Kennedy began his administration with the pro-government rhetoric of his inaugural—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—and yet the mystery surrounding his assassination, along with the lies of Vietnam and Watergate, set the stage for the anti-government rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and all of his acolytes, from which we still haven’t recovered.

Is there a story of the last 50 years that’s been told more often than the Kennedy assassination? Yet filmmaker Robert Stone, working for PBS and “The American Experience,” finds footage, and photos, I’ve never seen before. Here’s Oswald in the Dallas police station professing his innocence so matter-of-factly that I began to believe him:

Oswald (in glare of TV lights): I'd like some legal representation, but these police officers have not allowed me to have any. I don't know what this is all about.
Reporter: Did you kill the president?
Oswald: No, sir, I didn't. People keep asking me that. ... They are taking me in because of the fact that I lived in the Soviet Union. I'm just a patsy.

One suddenly wonders: Hey, how did they trace him to the murder of Officer Tippit? How did they find him in that Dallas movie theater? How did they make him the focal point of the worst American murder of the 20th century?

Newsman: Was this the man that you believed killed President Kennedy?
Dallas police: I think we have the right man.

You think?

Dan Rather: Confusion reigned inside the Dallas police station.

Confusion?

Abraham Zapruder didn’t help. Instead of showing his film to the American people, he hired a lawyer and sold the rights to Life magazine, which printed individual frames. The film itself wouldn’t be shown on television until 1975.

Oswald’s mother didn’t help. She said her son was being framed, which one expects, but she also said her son was a government agent, which raised spectres.

Jack Ruby certainly didn’t help.

Did Mark Lane? The New York lawyer became the first man to openly question whether Oswald acted alone, in a December 1963 article in The National Guardian entitled “Lane’s defense brief for Oswald.”

Did the Warren Commission? Shouldn’t its hearings have been public? Shouldn’t we have taken our time with the matter instead of rushing out a verdict before the 1964 elections?

Yet, at the time, most Americans accepted the lone-gunman theory. That would quickly change as conspiracy books began appearing, then proliferating, two and three years later: First Lane’s “Rush to Judgment,” then Edward Jay Epstein’s “Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth.” Then it was off to the races.

Initially outsiders were blamed. It was Castro or the KGB. It was the South Vietnamese government, responding to the Diem assassination. Eventually we began blaming ourselves. It was some rogue CIA element. It was some right-wing element that wanted to stay in Vietnam just as JFK was getting ready to pull us out. “And like all those theories,” Mailer says, “it had a certainly plausibility and a depressing lack of proof.”

That didn’t stop New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, wild-eyed and bug-eyed, and the worst of the conpiratorialists, who went after Clay Shaw, a prominent, closeted businessman. Stone (Robert, not Oliver) includes a fascinating 1967 news report critical of Garrison:

Garrison’s investigation has seemed to concentrate on homosexuals. That of course is an old police trick, and homosexuals have been a particular target of Garrison’s over the years. Even members of his staff have been privately critical of his emphasis on men whose deviation makes them vulnerable.

1968 didn’t help. Both MLK and RFK were assassinated by “lone gunmen.” Both were progressives. How could it not be conspiracy? (But did it have to lead to the inaninities of “The Parallax View”?)

Post-Watergate, the Church Committee detailed all of those early 1960s CIA assassinations of foreign leaders. Was Malcolm X more right than he knew? Was the JFK assassination a case of the chickens coming home to roost?

It’s the Ruby factor that’s always bugged me. He had mob ties. He was a strip-club owner. Yet he killed Oswald, effectively silencing him, out of respect for Jackie? Out of sudden anger? Tie that with the difficulty of Oswald's shot, of squeezing three bullets out of the 6.5 mm Carcano rifle in the time allotted, and of the whole back-and-to-the-left thing, with that final shot, the kill shot, looking, in the Zapruder film, like it’s blasting him from the front, well, you know, maybe there was something to it.

It's Jack Ruby's dog who pushes us back from the brink. Oswald was scheduled to be moved at 10:00 a.m. that Sunday morning. Here’s Hugh Aynesworth, a Dallas reporter:

Ruby slept 'til probably 9:30 or 9:20 something of that sort, and then he drives with his dog down to the Western Union and sent a telegram at 11:17 that morning. Came out and he looked one block up and he saw the crowd there at the police department. Jack Ruby was always on the scene of action, whether it be a fire, whether it be a raid, whether it be a parade, whatever. He had to be there. And he knew some of those cops. The fact that he left the dog in the car indicates to me that he thought he was going down to send a telegram and go back home. He took that little dog everywhere with him.

Few have assumed conspiracy longer and more vocally than Norman Mailer—yet even he comes around. “The internal evidence just wasn't there,” he says. “There were too many odd moments that just didn't add up.” Instead he focuses on Oswald’s mindset:

I think what Oswald saw was that if he committed the crime, if he assassinated Kennedy and he got away with it, then he would have an inner power that no one could ever come near. And, if he was caught, well then, he was quite articulate, he would have one of the greatest trials in America's history, if not the greatest, and he would explain all of his political ideas. He would become world famous and might have an immense effect upon history ...

When he shot Tippit, I think at that point he knew he was doomed because he could no longer make the great speech. If you shoot a policeman forget it, you're a punk. And so after he was caught he did nothing but protest his innocence and say, “I'm a patsy.”

“If you shoot a policeman, forget it, you're a punk.”

“This is not a whodunnit,” says Stone (Robert, not Oliver) in a DVD special features interview. “This is what a whodunnit has done to us.” He adds: “Conspiracy theory is part of the human condition; and it always will be.” Think of the doc as one Stone to correct another.

Is conspiracy the new American religion? The notion that we exist as small nothings for a short span of time in a cosmic eternity is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. The notion that this small nothing brought down the most powerful, glamorous man in the world is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. It was our enemies—foreign or domestic. It was the left or right. It was anything—please, God, let it be anything—other than little Lee Harvey Oswald.

Posted at 07:12 AM on Feb 25, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s, Politics, Movies - Documentaries
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