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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

X-Men: The Last Stand

Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Zak Penn (X2),
Ratner delivers a mostly fun movie, but also one not given the full
emotional room to breathe that it has over the course of the trilogy
earned
.

Picking up where the last film left off, X-Men: The Last Stand
centers around both the introduction and widespread manufacture of a
gene-altering, so-called cure for mutancy
and the reincarnation, in a
more powerful and purely instinctual form, of Jean Grey (Famke
Janssen
), now known as Phoenix. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick
Stewart) and his loyal cadre of otherwise gifted X-Men, including
Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, charmingly roguish) and Storm (Halle Berry,
finally given a decent hairstyle), are perhaps dismayed by the
introduction of this gene suppressant, but committed to a policy of
personal choice and nonviolence.

The X-Men are aided in their efforts at measured diplomacy by Hank
McCoy, or Beast (Kelsey Grammer), who serves on the president’s cabinet
as the Secretary of Mutant Affairs. They’re all drawn into a fight by
Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his opposing Brotherhood of evil mutants,
who advocate mutant superiority and see the introduction of this choice
as an attack on their very being. When Magneto’s captured henchwoman
Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) is felled by an antibody-loaded gun, he
seizes this as the perfect clarion call — a rallying moment and the
necessary excuse to unleash violent retribution on humanity, starting
by destroying the cure. Former Xavier disciple Phoenix is the X-factor
in all of this, a telekinetic being full of pained rage
. Where she
chooses to aim it may sway the existent power dynamic and in the end
decide the fate of both mutants and humanity alike.

By now in the series, the actors are all fine custodians of their
characters
, and anyone who’s seen either of the previous movies has at
least trace, informal memories of the interconnectedness of their
relationships. That leaves plenty of room for action, which Ratner
obliges
, including a fine scene where Magneto springs Mystique from an
armored fleet, and another sequence where Xavier and Magneto each make
a pitch for Phoenix’s allegiance. This propulsive pace works fine in
dashing through the first act, but paradoxically bogs down the more we
learn about the particulars of the narrative.
Nowhere is this more
evident than during two significant death scenes, when the respective
actors share a clinch and the first glimmer of a humanizing connection,
only to have Ratner quickly jerk us off to another setting. Singer’s X-Men
films were much more dense, and if there’s to be substantial emotional
payoff then the final film in the series
— excepting the inevitable
character-centric spin-offs — shouldn’t run just over 90 minutes minus
credits
, no matter a brief post-crawl goosing.

The faintest traces of leitmotifs established by Singer are still
here
, including a love triangle between Rogue (Anna Paquin), Iceman
(Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) that highlights the
inherent difficulty in making a fundamentally altering choice that at
the same time makes life undeniably easier. This is difficult enough to
ponder on a personal level, but could or would you make this choice for
your child, either adolescent or unborn? It’s a somewhat slippery
slope
. It’s easy to glimpse, too, in the setting of at least one scene,
parallels to the passionate debate over abortion, and even genetic
engineering.

Ratner’s style, though, undercuts all of this subtext. It’s ripcord
filmmaking, with paint-by-numbers emotionalism
. While his preoccupation
with surface thrill still makes for a generally pleasing comic book
movie, it shortchanges the depth we’ve come to expect from the X-Men
franchise. Part of the underlying success of the first movies, a key
part of their emotional mooring and tension, was in the potential
fluidity of its protagonists and antagonists, and the care given to the
difficulty of their individual choices. One could make out discernible
intellectual arguments and rationalizations on each side
of the fence.
We feel precious little of that here.

Then there’s the infuriating slackness and inattention to detail of
a scene like when Magneto uproots and moves the Golden Gate Bridge to
Alcatraz Island, where the young mutant, Leech (Cameron Bright), who
provides the source of the antibody, is being housed. As Magneto sets
down the bridge and prepares to loose his minions in an attack, one
minute it’s light, the very next shot it’s dark…
perhaps easier to
render the myriad special effect shots that await in the finale.
Galling, certainly, but tellingly emblematic of a film that doesn’t
pause to think
— or particularly want its audience to, either — about
underpinnings it’s previously labored to establish. (20th Century Fox, PG-13, 98 mins.)

Bryan Singer on Superman Returns

With more than 1,400 special effects shots and a final budget —
according to its director — a bit over its green-lit figure of “exactly
$184.5 million, but still well south of $200 million,”
you might expect
the hard sell from Bryan Singer on Superman Returns, Warner’s
reboot of its venerable superhero franchise. You might expect lots of
wonkish talk about advances in CGI and eye-popping spectacle. You would be wrong. For the full interview feature, from summer preview coverage for CityBeat, click here.

John Heffernan on Snakes on a Plane

John Heffernan wrote the script for a movie called Snakes on a Plane. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. “I hate to even say it, but the one thing that September 11 did that
really worked for us favorably was that it made it more feasible, I
guess
, that someone wanting to do something bad on a plane would have
to think outside of the box, as it were,” says writer John Heffernan.

Yes, the unintended boon that Osama bin Laden provided for American
B-movie fans
has taken a while to materialize, but it will finally come
to fruition — take that, terrorists! — in the dog days of summer, in
the form of the forthrightly titled Snakes on a Plane. For a chat about the genesis of the project, in a summer preview piece from CityBeat, click here.

The White Countess

occasional prostitute who saves
him from lurking criminals one evening. Devastated by the loss of his
family, Jackson shares much in common, in the form of an emotional
void, with Sofia, a former aristocrat whose husband’s passing left the
family in financial ruin. With no one else to care for them, Sofia
supports her elderly Aunt Sara (Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave) and
Uncle Peter (John Wood), her spiteful mother-in-law Olga (Lynn
Redgrave) and sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter) as well as her
own young daughter, Katya (Madelein Daly); certain parallels to the
story of Cinderella are obvious if not overly telegraphed. The White Countess
climaxes with the botched Japanese and Chinese bombings of Shanghai
that in real life touched off the Sino-Japanese War; here they serve as
a dramatic corporeal reminder that even the best wishes and plans are
subject to influences and circumstances beyond our control
.

Like many of Ivory’s films, The White Countess is suffused
with issues of class consciousness, and here the further sub-category
of racial divide
. The movie’s proper plot, including a mysterious
figure named Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), who befriends Jackson, is
alternately plodding (at 136 minutes) and full of dense alleyways that
sometimes hold more interest than the main narrative arcs. What
liberates the film to a small degree is its painstakingly detailed
production design
(courtesy of Andrew Sanders) and accompanying sense
of place
; patient audiences more forgiving of The White Countess’ inertia will find welcome return in these elements.

Housed in a regular Amray case, The White Countess is
presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a transfer that
preserves the lucidity of cinematographer
(and frequent Wong Kar Wai
collaborator) Christopher Doyle’s vivid, tightly composed frames.
Special features include a nice, shared audio commentary track with
director Ivory and Natasha Richardson, along with a brief making-of
featurette
that highlights the film’s detailed production technique. A
tribute to Merchant and a second behind-the-scenes featurette are also
included, though these are less fully formed than one might hope. C (Movie) B (Disc)

An Inconvenient Truth

The hazard of global warming is a less than glamorous issue as far
as problems go. In the clamorous, cable-news-cycle-fed race for public
attention — where the issue of immigration can race up the polls like a
hopped-up hare — it’s the tortoise of societal troubles, real and
enormous but full of sometimes hard-to-impart quantitative data
. So
it’s perhaps fittingly ironic that former Vice President Al Gore — an
alternately sanctimonious and stiff figure once famously derided as
“not dead, just appearing that way” — has made it his own personal
cause célèbre, most recently as the subject of the town hall
documentary
An Inconvenient Truth.

Its very name a nod to this issue’s status as a nuisance, An Inconvenient Truth is directed by Davis Guggenheim, whose credits include the feature Gossip as well as work on 24, ER, Deadwood, The Shield and Alias.
It’s basically a churched-up version of the same lecture that Gore has
personally given more than a thousand times
in cramped school
auditoriums and hotel conference rooms all around the country, and
indeed the world. In highlighting our collective constipation and
sounding the drumbeat of the moral imperative for action, though, the
film has one hell of a natural arc
, pulling viewers from doubt and/or
slumber through despair all the way through to, hopefully, a place of
roused consciousness.

The film charts rising world carbon dioxide levels (of which the
United States is responsible for more than 30 percent), and their
effects on everything from the melting polar ice caps and the snow on
Mount Kilimanjaro to other changed weather patterns. With a vast
spectrum of data that runs from macro to micro
, An Inconvenient Truth
tips into didacticism on occasion — it disappears up its own ass for a
moment in charting the migratory patterns of birds in the Netherlands
without even a good-natured shrug of acknowledgment — but for the most
part the movie is solidly measured. It connects the dots between
events, and presents a clear, causal relationship between our
collective behavior and habits, and the consequences for Earth
, and
does so with aplomb.

Most galling is the evidence, both anecdotal and specific, of how
stubborn and largely unwilling to engage on the matter our political
bureaucracy is, and how a stealthy smear campaign against the fact of
global warming has been waged by those that would seek to reframe it as
opinion, if only to further the interests of Big Oil
and/or avoid
action and the difficult but entirely necessary choices that come with
it.

There’s an interesting element of revival tent salesmanship to An Inconvenient Truth,
albeit with Gore cast as the reluctant, chastised martyr. Walking
silently through airport security checkpoints — carrying his own
luggage in Everyman fashion, with a Philip Glass-like score by Michael
Brook swelling at his back — the film touches on, with humor, his
failed 2000 presidential bid, and at times plays as a reprimanded
child’s self-effacing attempt at reconciliation
. Still, lest anyone
view Gore’s bell-ringing cynically, his concern is as legitimate as it
is deep; he’s been interested in the issue since college, an
environmental hawk since his days in Congress, and has authored several
best-selling books on global warming and related matters.

Though generally presented in a fawning, overly obsequious style,
the film also has a heartening degree of candor, with Gore opening up a
bit about himself and his family, from his tobacco-farming roots to how
his priorities changed when his son almost died at 6 years of age,
leaving him thinking more and more about the world he wanted to help
leave behind for his children. A fuller portrait of the man emerges
perhaps one that couldn’t have developed without his humbling
presidential defeat, but a revealing portrait nonetheless. Regardless
of personal politics, Gore is a true statesman, and angling genuinely
to make America and the world a better place.

Accompanied by a strong Internet and viral campaigns, An Inconvenient Truth
will nonetheless face an uphill battle on the summer box office playing
field, where noise and color often go over better than substance. Its
triumph, though, is the manner in which it highlights the notion of
political will as a renewable resource
. Is the film the cinematic
equivalent of a vegetable medley? Yes, more or less. But everyone needs
some green in their diet. (Paramount Classics, PG, 98 mins.)

Three Nuts in Search of a Bolt/Promises! Promises!

Pity the poor randy male teenagers of yesteryear, who had to turn to National Geographic
and newspaper bra advertisements for sexual self-gratification
stimulus. Without an Internet and the complete proliferation of overtly
sexual material to provide them piping hot topless ladies on demand,
younger audiences were forced to turn to titillating nudie screwball
fare like 1963’s Promises! Promises! and the following year’s Three Nuts in Search of a Bolt.

Mansfield’s chances at the legitimacy she so craved, but it does
feature some decent zany laughs here and there. Oh, and plenty of the
writhing, buxom, bubble-covered (and just as frequently not) Mansfield
,
of course.

Three Nuts in Search of a Bolt, meanwhile, was spawned from
the considerable financial success of its predecessor
, and in terms of
watchability and/or its own merits, it’s the better film of the two, if
not necessarily always the best acted. Written and directed by
frequently bespectacled comedy performer Tommy Noonan, also a
producer-actor on Promises! Promises!
, the movie trades further
down in starlet scrip, starring Mamie Van Doren as nut-job stripper
Saxie Symbol
. Along with an equally kooky used car salesman (Paul
Gilbert) and male model (John Cronin), Saxie hires an unemployed actor
(Noonan, double-dipping) to play out all their personalities since they
can’t afford a therapist. (I kid you not.) Alternating between
black-and-white and color for some of its flashback sequences, it’s
interesting to view Promises! Promises! as a bouncy, blithe, independent-minded forerunner to more incendiary, latter ’60s fare like Easy Rider — perhaps more interesting in that theoretical realm than the actual one, but interesting nonetheless.

Digitally re-mastered, Three Nuts in Search of a Bolt and Promises! Promises!
both arrive on DVD in a regular Amray cases. Each film features two
different versions of their respective original theatrical trailers, a
“hot” version for international audiences and a more demure version.
There are also self-scrolling, behind-the-scenes photo montages from
the set and cast biographies, which are a welcome touch. In the best
extra, though, Van Doren herself sits for a 45-minute interview on the Three Nuts
disc
, revealing that Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss was an early
backer of the project (they dined, but didn’t seal the deal, it seems).
She also talks about quitting high school at 15 to make movies at RKO
for Howard Hughes, of whom she says, “He only liked me from the waist
up.” While Van Doren is the textbook definition of an unreliable
narrator
, contradicting herself on several occasions, it’s still a
fascinating chat
. Both Promises! and Three Nuts may succeed only as curios, but they do wholeheartedly fulfill at least the faintest of their pictorially stated promises. C (Movies) B- (Discs)

Real Sex in Cinema


In a world of receding taboos, actual sex in mainstream cinema is still one
,
though a number of notable French imports — including the incendiary Baise
Moi
and Catherine Breillat’s Romance and Anatomy of Hell
have over the last half dozen years made erosive inroads here, alongside Vincent
Gallo’s divisive The Brown Bunny
. The latest film to draw attention for
such content is maverick director Carlos Reygadas’ challenging, elliptical
Battle in Heaven, arriving on DVD fresh from an arthouse theatrical run
last year, and I took some time to speak with star Ana Mushkadiz on occasion of
its release.

As with The Brown Bunny, the frank depiction of sexual fellatio
in Battle in Heaven is decidedly at odds with a stylistic mode that might
charitably be described as meditative
. Those looking for cheap, streamlined
thrills would for several reasons be advised to look elsewhere — not the least
of which is because Reygadas (Japón) likes to work with
non-professionals. Ergo, there’s no offshoot titillation of familiarity here, as
there might be for American indie fans with Chloe Sevigny in The Brown Bunny.

An intimate dual character study (for which the colloquial expression
“two-hander” might be appropriate under other circumstances)
, Battle in
Heaven
tells the story of Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), the middle-aged
chauffeur of Ana (Mushkadiz), the adult daughter of a Mexican general.
Although a child of privilege, Ana leads a double life as a prostitute in a
high-end brothel, as much to amuse herself and stave off boredom as anything
else. Marcos is the only one to know her secret, but when he picks Ana up one
day he too is burdened by a terrible secret that he eventually confesses to her
— the fact that he and his obese wife (Berta Ruiz) kidnapped a baby for ransom,
a baby that has subsequently died in their custody. From here pity, fanciful
crush and fleeting affection commingle in expressionless, straightforward
fashion, building to a shocking climax book-ended by sexual whimsy.

If Battle in Heaven is an unlikely blend of elements — locating
intimate, and sometimes even charged, but non-traditional erotic angles and
holding firm on them, as well as panning outside and around a courtyard during
one sexual encounter — erstwhile freelance art designer Mushkadiz is an equally
unlikely star. Neither a professional actress nor someone even necessarily
looking for a break in film
, she says a mutual female friend gave Reygadas her
phone number, and she went and met with the director not knowing in advance why.
“We just talked about life, that’s it,” she says matter-of-factly. “He told me
about the story and the sex scenes. He described it in about two sentences. I
saw his other movie, Japón, and so I got a sense of where he wanted to
take it. But he talked about it with so much confidence and in a really natural
way, so it never seemed obscene or like porn or anything.”

“It’s so natural to him that he didn’t even really need to explain it,” she
continues of the film’s explicitness. “We talked a lot about sex in real life
and sex in movies
, and we share many ideas about this — how taboo it is to show
sex in movies, and about how simply he wanted to show this, with no sheets or
covers.”

Battle in Heaven was filmed with a spare, 10-person crew, and when it
came time for exterior shots, of which there are a decent number of extremely
long takes, Mushkadiz recalls affectionately how everyone “just (told) people
we’re shooting a film, don’t look at the camera.”

A young woman of finely balanced contrasts and contradictions — she one
moment says she doesn’t consider herself a big film fan, but later declares a
love of cinema — Mushkadiz has a bit of the dreamer’s disease. “I went to circus
school when I was younger,” she says. “I was really into performance, and clowns
— juggling and the rope and trapeze.” Later she says, “I studied photography in
Mexico, a bit of painting and drawing, and then (writing) and poetry at
Massachusetts Art Institute. And then I studied philosophy. I like mixed
technique very much.”

She doesn’t necessarily think analytical application or parsing study yields
singular insights into Battle in Heaven
, though. “When you do painting…
it’s a feeling, an instinct,” says Mushkadiz in accented English. “It’s hard to
change or (translate) the creative process into a fully intellectual process.
When a movie is finished (and) people start asking questions, you (arrive at an)
idea to give lots of explanations, but in a real sense art is a creative process
that one goes through without thinking — just doing and being sensible about
one’s way of believing and feeling.”

For Mushkadiz, Ana is a bit of a place-holding cipher. “I think one of the
beautiful parts of Ana is that she’s a really open character. For some can be a
real bitch, for others very tender, and for others very manipulating. But she’s
really just the feminine side of the movie, she represents a woman,” Mushkadiz
stresses. “The reason there’s not much background on her is because it’s not
important if she’s there because her father is a bastard. What’s most important
is what you get from the idea of, ‘Why not?’ Why not a girl who is rich
and of good social position — why wouldn’t she prostitute herself? Why does
having money and coming from a high class family mean that life should be
perfect? So she represents that; she’s just a girl, any girl.”

Having already completed one other film, Alex Infascelli’s yet-to-be-released
Hate 2 O, Mushkadiz seems somewhat conflicted about a career in front of
the camera, and in fact charmingly emits a big, unselfconscious yawn when
discussing such a proposition
. “Yeah, I think so,” she says when asked if she
wants to continue as an actress. “I’m really into doing what I do also. I think
art is a really demanding career, in that it requires time and energy and
patience to one day finally become a real artist for yourself, where you
consider your work valuable and prestigious. But I still think acting is quite
an amazing experience. So if I keep having the opportunity, I’ll be very happy.”

Laffit: All About Winning

A half dozen years ago, Sports Illustrated
and ESPN both caught no small amount of crap over their respective
“athletes of the century” retrospectives, wherein Secretariat, a horse,
was mentioned alongside sprinters, boxers and ballers like Jesse Owens,
Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson.

It’s an issue of which I’m
able to see both sides: Secretariat was, after all, a dominant presence
in his field, pulling in over $1.3 million in winnings and setting new
track records at the Triple Crown venues, while also gracing the cover
of Time. (Even today, more than 15 years after his death, he
still has his own Web site, for God’s sake!) On the other hand, he was
a friggin’
horse, people! How cognizant was he of his own
training regimen? Taking this all a step further, if horses aren’t
athletes — or even if they are — what does this make the little people
that train for years to ride them?

One interesting answer comes in the form of Laffit: All About Winning.
Released right in the middle of the 2006 Triple Crown — which includes
the already-run Kentucky Derby, May 20’s Preakness and June 10’s
Belmont Stakes — the film chronicles the career of Hall of Fame jockey
Laffit Pincay, Jr., who posted an astonishing 9,530 career wins
,
including three Belmont Stakes and a Kentucky Derby title. Directed by
Jim Wilson and narrated by Kevin Costner, the film is a lean,
streamlined examination of one of the sport’s diminutive giants
, chock
full of interviews with peers, trainers, owners, sportswriters and
celebrities.

Laffit: All About Winning starts by documenting its accented
subject’s humble beginnings in Panama, and his incredible track record
at such great venues as Churchill Downs, Del Mar, Hollywood Park and
Santa Anita. The latter, in fact, is where Laffit famously won seven
races in a single day on March 14, 1987. From fellow jockey Luis
Jauregui and uber-fan Dan Carlton to celeb admirers like Burt Bacharach
and Dick Van Patten, all the talking heads here cumulatively do a good
job of explaining the inherent difficulties in negotiating so many
different horses to wins in races of different lengths. The movie jumps
around a good bit, but other unforgettable moments include Laffit’s
duel with fellow legend Bill Shoemaker, an early tragic fall that might
have cut short his career, a glorious Kentucky Derby comeback and of
course his induction into the Hall of Fame.

Housed in a regular Amray case, Laffit: All About Winning is
presented in full screen, and includes both English and Spanish audio
tracks. Supplemental extras include only a photo gallery of 20 random
images, but the program itself is robust enough to generally satisfy
more casual viewers. B- (Movie) C- (Disc)

Napoleon Dynamite

I’ve written voluminously about the peculiar magnetism of Napoleon Dynamite. Suffice to say that if for some reason you haven’t yet seen the film, then jumping with two feet into the middle of its rapturous cult reception can be a bit overwhelming. Jon Heder plays the squinty-eyed title character, and even if every future role he ever does demystifies or devalues slightly the wonked-out uniqueness of his grade-A nerd petulance on display here, it still won’t diminish the idiosyncratic charm of the movie as a whole. Napoleon Dynamite, like all lasting comedies, locates its humor in universal conditions and circumstances told from a very specific and canted point of view.

Through the Fire

The story of diminutive Portland Trailblazers point guard Sebastian
Telfair’s journey to the National Basketball Association straight from
the hyped high school courts of Coney Island, Jonathan Hock’s Through the Fire
is a documentary short on authorial insightfulness but long on subject
matter fascination
. The result is a movie that will engage if not enthrall most
college basketball enthusiasts, but leave others feeling only the
glancing warmth of Telfair’s pleasant if somewhat restrained
personality. For the full DVD review, from IGN, click here.

The Da Vinci Code

Amélie’s Audrey Tautou)
comes to Langdon’s assistance, and together they wriggle free of
Fache’s custody; she also eventually reveals herself to be Sauniere’s
estranged granddaughter. At issue for the duo are a series of coded
messages
that Sauniere has left. These messages lead to a key, and the
key in turn to even more clues that all point to a secret about the
mythical Holy Grail and Jesus Christ of Nazareth
— a secret that a
shadowy Opus Dei council, led by Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina),
will stop at nothing to destroy. Wanted by Interpol, Langdon and Neveu
manage to stay one step ahead of Fache and solicit the assistance of
Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan), an old colleague of Langdon’s.

The labyrinthine conspiratorial mysteries that unfold in jet-setting
fashion all over Europe and neatly unravel in the movie over the course
of 36 hours or so are, of course, wildly improbably condensed, but to
get hung up on that is to miss the point. National Treasure and
any number of other historical thrillers are based on equally
implausible or fancifully ridiculous turns, but nowhere near this
dramatically inert; lightness afoot is the key to their success.

Howard and Goldsman, however, seem to fundamentally misread the
appeal of Brown’s book — its sugary surface touch with intricate
conspiracies
, its savvy commingling (and co-opting?) of history and
religion with more traditional elements of the thriller genre. It’s the
literary equivalent, I assume, of sugar-free dessert; one reads it and
feels like they’re somehow smarter or healthier than before they
started. The big twist of the movie centers around “the greatest hoax
perpetrated on mankind,” or whatever they’re calling it, yes, but the
filmmakers and every member of the cast save McKellan seems to be
ground into the shoals of dullness by the weight of that quote-unquote
obligation. Howard attempts to ratchet up the profundity of it all by
shooting dark, dour frames and working in some transposed backdrops to
help “connect” present and past
, but what this chiefly means is long,
chunky passages of didactic exposition. What does pass for character
development — say, Neveu taking Langdon to a park and buying drug
paraphernalia off a lingering junkie so that they then “have a moment
to think” — is frequently downright laughable.

Hanks soldiers through this muddled affair as best he can, but
evidences no discernible chemistry with Tautou, who is a charming
actress out of her depths here. Only McKellan breathes some quirky,
sardonic life into his role
as Teabing. Everyone else seems to be
solemnly intoning from one of the various narrated guidebooks for the
cottage industry of Da Vinci Code travelogue tours. (Columbia/Sony, PG-13, 148 mins.)