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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.