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King Kong (2005)
Return of the King
There are several reasons why "King Kong" shouldn't work. It's a remake of an iconic film, one indelibly etched in the popular culture. The director just came off a franchise that had been so massively successful artistically and financially, nearly anything else would pale by comparison. The plot, with its giant animals, fearful natives, and damsels in distress, could easily feel dated. It clocks in at a posterior-numbing three hours. Yet "King Kong" works, against the odds and beyond expectations.
It is fitting that Peter Jackson has kept the Depression-era setting of the original film, as the story is ultimately set in motion by desperation and by hopeless dreams. Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker who waxes poetic about bringing a sense of wonder to people (and making a lot of money on the way), but his latest project is about to be scrapped for stock footage. In a last-ditch effort to salvage his film, he quickly recruits out-of-work actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and playwright Jack Driscol (Adrien Brody) and hustles them aboard a tramp steamer bound for Skull Island. Denham hopes to shoot on-location in the last untamed wild on earth--realizing too late that this means dealing with things like violent natives, dinosaurs, and an enormous silverback gorilla that takes a shine to Ann.
If nothing else, Jackson has proved he can be trusted with this sort of high-risk venture. As in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, he creates a new vision of a well-loved story that, while it won't melt the hearts of purists, will at least appeal to everyone else. He does so by delivering a film that covers a broad dramatic spectrum, delivering epic action sequences and then surprising us with moments of tenderness and intimacy. How many directors, after all, would pause in Kong's rampage through the streets of New York to allow him to discover the joys of a frozen pond? It seems like an odd choice, yet Jackson makes it work, providing a gentle grace note that makes the final climactic downbeat resonate even more.
The special effects team works overtime on this film, creating ancient ruins, dinosaur stampedes, and an arsenal of creepy-crawlies that make Frodo's battle with Shelob look like "Charlotte's Web." And the human cast is quite good, with Watts standing out as the vulnerable, tender-hearted Ann. But the real star of "King Kong" is, of course, the title character. The CGI Kong is based on the performance of Andy Serkis, who did similar duty for "Lord of the Rings'" Gollum. Though Serkis is completely covered by special effects, his performance is evident in Kong's expressive body language. He makes us believe there is a brain and a soul in the character--and that, more than anything, is the reason why "King Kong" is one of the best films of the year.
A doorway to magic
Those who go to "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" expecting another "Lord of the Rings" or "Harry Potter" will be disappointed--but it's their own fault if they are. Just as C.S. Lewis' fairytale kingdom is a different animal entirely from Tolkien's culturally and historically complex Middle-Earth or Rowling's strange-yet-familiar Hogwarts, so the films based on these three landmark fantasy series differ in style and tone and must be taken on their own terms. And on its own terms, "Narnia" is a delight.
Like many stories in which denizens of our reality are thrust into another one, the opening scenes of "Narnia" are dark and dreary--it's World War II, the Germans are bombing London, and children are being sent to the countryside to ensure the future of the nation. The four Pevensie siblings find themselves relocated to a dusty mansion owned by a reclusive and eccentric professor (Jim Broadbent in a brilliant cameo) in a tiny backwater. The housekeeper tells the kids they are not to run, or touch anything, or in any way behave like normal children. It looks like they're in for a dull time--until youngest sister Lucy (Georgie Henley) discovers a wardrobe that opens up into Narnia, where animals and trees talk, centaurs and griffins roam freely and the entire country is on the brink of its own war between the evil White Witch (a chillingly cruel Tilda Swinton) and the lion-messiah Aslan (voice by Liam Neeson).
Lewis was vocally opposed to a live-action film of his vision--but in his day, this would have certainly meant people in animal suits and puppets. It would be presumptuous to speculate whether or not he would have approved of this Narnia, but for my own part I found it enchanting. From the moment Lucy backs her way through a sea of fur coats and is startled to brush against a snow-covered evergreen, director Andrew Adamson and his production team strike all the right notes visually and emotionally, while avoiding almost all the inherent stumbling blocks. A key example is the scene where Father Christmas (James Cosmo) enters Narnia, after the Witch's magic prevented the holiday for a century despite an endless winter. This is a moment that could have easily been dull or ridiculous, but it works here, with Cosmo providing a ideal physical embodiment of the hope and joy that has languished under the White Witch's rule. Humor abounds--Lucy's first encounter with the faun Tumnus (James McAvoy) is wonderfully light-hearted--but chases and battles pack the necessary punch, and the climactic scene where Aslan fulfills a dreadful bargain with the Witch is perfectly chilling. The visuals are splendid, and the computer-generated characters are mostly convincing--Aslan in particular is rendered with the right amount of quiet majesty and dignity, which compliments Neeson's restrained yet authoritative vocal performance.
Much has been made of the Christian parallels inherent in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," but ultimately the religious undertones of the movie depend on the viewer. The allegory is clearly drawn for those who seek it, but it is not so obtrusive as to alienate those simply looking for a good family movie. With the wonders of "Narnia" playing right next door to the marvelous "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," young moviegoers and their parents have an embarrassment of riches this holiday.
Falling a bit short on "Rent"
The movie version of "Rent" is neither as bad as it might have been, nor as good as one would hope. It's a film that flirts with greatness, and may actually achieve it in some places, but can never seem to do so with any consistency.
Jonathan Larson's musical, an update of "La Boheme," is basically a series of vignettes that follows a year in the lives of several starving artists and rebels, living in the face of poverty and AIDS and trying to avoid selling out to corporate conformity--which, if you were a college kid in the late 90s when "Rent" premiered, really did feel like the worst thing that could happen to you. Of course, much worse befell the world on other end of the millennium, and in 2005 the material feels almost innocent in spite of the alternative lifestyles and seedy living. But the cast knows how to sell it, and well they should: six of the eight principal players originated their roles on Broadway. (The newcomers, Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, fit into the group seamlessly) This means, of course, that they are no longer the fresh young faces they were back then (Jesse L. Martin and Taye Diggs have carved out screen careers; Idina Menzel has a Tony award), but frankly this doesn't bother me much. I'd rather watch this group of talented performers play a little under their age than suffer Brittney Spears or Justin Timberlake--or any wannabe clones thereof--any day.
It goes without saying that the cast knows how to give a song dramatic impact, and when director Chris Columbus gives them the tools to do their job, "Rent" is very good indeed. "Out Tonight," the exotic dancer Mimi's (Dawson) call to the nightlife, carries the right balance of liberated joy and desperate longing. A duet where filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) and lawyer Joanne (Thoms) lament being wrapped around the fingers of bisexual flirt Maureen (Menzel) is staged and performed effectively, and segues into a delightful dream-sequence tango. And when one of the central group of friends succumbs to AIDS, the resulting memorial service is every bit as moving as it should be.
Unfortunately, Columbus doesn't always know how to channel the talents of his cast. For example, there's the non-conformist anthem "La Vie Boheme," in which a gathering of the young and rebellious celebrate a life of "going against the grain, going insane, going mad" and "being an 'us' for once, instead of a 'them'." If ever there was a song in music theater that begged for high-energy, kinetic camera work, it is this one. Yet Columbus films it in static shots and slow pans, which almost deaden the energy from the cast--there's just so much dancing on tables that one can take before it starts to feel stale. At other times, Columbus makes the same mistake Joel Schumacher did in "Phantom of the Opera" of having movement without purpose. Mimi and Roger (Adam Pascal) step out into an alleyway to share a love duet. They stand and sing for a while, move a few steps down the alley, stand and sing again, then walk back. Why did they move at all? If the answer isn't immediately obvious, then the blocking needs to be rethought.
Ever since the financial and Oscar success of "Chicago," studios seem to be searching for the next big movie musical. "Rent" tries, and it comes tantalizingly close, but doesn't quite get the brass ring. Here's hoping next month's "The Producers" nabs it.
Franchise on Fire
Coming at the exact center of a seven-book series, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" represents a turning point for both its hero and Rowling's writing in general. Harry's youthful innocence is replaced by the moody complexities of adolescence, even as his arch-nemesis Lord Voldemort transforms from a vague, shadowy threat to a very real evil presence in the wizarding world. The moral issues hinted at in "Prisoner of Azkaban" become even more prominent: good people die, heroes are flawed, and even the saintly Dumbledore proves to be only human. The film version of "Goblet of Fire" reflects this, and, like all movies that capture the essence of its source material, is a delight to behold.
Mind you, when I say "essence," I mean the underlying thematic material, not strict adherence to the written text. Weighing in at 700-plus pages, "Goblet of Fire" would be impossible to render completely faithfully on film, even if one were allotted double the two and a half hour running time of the finished product. Screenwriter Steven Kloves has his most difficult assignment to date, taking the story down to its essentials while still maintaining a sense of dramatic coherency. Several plot points and sidebars have been condensed, shifted, or left out entirely, which will no doubt irritate the more adamant purists. But if you're willing to give Kloves and director Mike Newell the benefit of the doubt, "Goblet of Fire" works wonders.
It works because, like last year's "Prisoner of Azkaban," the movie is true to what really drives Rowling's series: the coming-of-age of its title character. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, giving his best performance of the character yet) may be surrounded by magical creatures, eccentric supporting players, and mighty portents, but for all that he remains a growing and often confused boy who doesn't quite know how to talk to girls and is more than a little embarrassed by all the attention he receives. Take, for example, the sequence where Harry is selected to compete in an inter-school competition known as the Triwizard Tournament, despite the facts that a) Harry is three years too young to compete and b) Hogwarts already has its official representative. That dirty work is afoot is obvious to Harry, Dumbledore, and the audience, but everyone else believes Harry must have cheated to get into the tournament, even his best friend Ron. So Harry walks down the school corridors alone, trying to ignore the virtual hail of insults and slights from his classmates. Anyone who's dealt with the short end of the teenage social order knows his pain.
Of course, the eccentric supporting players and big set pieces are still in abundance. With each installment, the Hogwarts roster becomes a little more crowded, and it's remarkable that the movie has room for as many cast members as he has. The majority of the returning and new adult playersMaggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, Timothy Spall, Miranda Richardson, and David Tennant among themare limited to short bursts of screen time but make the most of what they have, as if trying to prove that old adage about small parts vs. small actors. Brendan Gleeson, as a mysterious and slightly disturbing new addition to the faculty, gets a bit more to do and enjoys himself doing it. Newell delivers on the story's key sequences: a Quidditch World Cup that looks like the Super Bowl crossed with the biggest SCA event on record, encounters with a dragon and merpeople, Hogwarts' first school dance, an enormous hedge maze that would make the Goblin King in "Labyrinth" weep with envy, and Harry's confrontation in a graveyard with the newly emerged Voldemort (Ralph Finnes, whose elegant malevolence calls to mind Emperor Palpatine in the "Star Wars" movies).
The movie stumbles a bit at the end, where things wrap up too quickly and some set-up for the next installment is left out. But its hard to complainthe film of "Goblet of Fire" is everything the Harry Potter books are at their best: exciting, humorous, heart-tugging, and magical.
Batman Begins (2005)
It seems odd that a character who has been brought to the screen so many times in so many different manners as Batman has never had a proper "origin story" until now. True, several earlier film versions sketched in the basics--little Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents' murder, inspiring a one-man crusade against evil--but none of them struck at the heart of the matter, namely: how and why exactly does a wealthy child of privilege decide to not only devote his life fighting crime, but to do so dressed as a flying rodent? Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" answers that question along with a few others, but even more remarkably, it renews a franchise that had been driven into the ground by its own excesses.
And make no mistake, it is a rebirth, not a continuation--Nolan wisely rebuilds Batman from the ground up, rather than pick up where others had left off. This is a Gotham City far removed from the Gothic grandeur of Tim Burton's vision, and even farther removed from the gaudy camp of Joel Schumacher's. Nolan's Gotham is a sprawling urban nightmare of a city, with cold industrial towers looming against the sky while beneath the poor struggle for survival in the Narrows, a decaying skid row where even the police fear to tread. Most of the city officials are in the pockets of crime lords or are in fear of them. The few who aren't, such as honest cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, radiating weary nobility) and idealistic young attorney Rachael Dawes (Katie Hudson) lack the clout to fight back. With such an example, it's easy to see why Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) would become disillusioned with society's normal method of justice, and embark on a personal quest to understand and combat crime.
The early part of "Batman Begins" establishes this background, intercut with Bruce's training with the ancient and mysterious League of Shadows. His mentor (Liam Neeson) describes the society as being devoted to restoring justice, but Bruce soon comes to disagree with their methods. The League thinks society is past repair and wants to eradicate it; Bruce would rather help those trying to fix the problem. Perhaps if he acted as a source of inspiration, a figurehead in the battle against evil
"Batman Begins" follows the recent trend in comic-book films, creating a story that is as much driven by charactersspecifically the central characteras it is by action. Bale is an ideal choice for the title role: handsome enough to be convincing as a millionaire playboy, and talented enough to convey the shadows in Bruce Wayne's soul. He also does something with Batman that has been seen all too infrequently: he makes him genuinely frightening. With the possible exception of Michael Keaton, no Batman has ever credibly established himself as someone who could strike terror in the heart of even the most hardened and cynical criminal. Bale, speaking in a harsh growl and moving with almost inhuman speed and silence, is naturally intimidatingno wonder both the police and the thugs hesitate to confront him. Nolan has surrounded Bale with brilliant supporting playersin addition to Oldman and Neeson, we have Michael Caine exuding quiet loyalty and dry British wit as faithful butler Alfred, and Morgan Freeman making the most of the scientist who supplies the fledgling Batman with most of his toys. The bad guys' side is rounded out by Tom Wilkinson as Gotham's reigning crime boss, and Cillian Murphy as twisted psychiatrist Dr. Crane. Crane, whose disturbingly serene manner carries echoes of Norman Bates, experiments on his patients with a panic-inducing drug that proves central in tying the various story lines together. In the thankless role of the love interest, Hudson adds a personal dimension to Bruce's crusade but never induces much romantic tensionwe know Wayne's bachelor status is never in any real jeopardy. But if that's as bad as it gets, then "Batman Begins" is very good indeed. Would that all major "event" movies turned out so well.
The Lord of the Rings (1978)
Clumsy, dull, and laughable
If there had been any doubt in my mind that Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was a remarkable achievement of film-making, this tepid animated version of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic (or rather, the first two parts of said classic) would have erased it. This "Lord of the Rings" gets it all wrong in as many ways as Jackson got it right, and the result is an overlong, underbaked epic that tests even the most determined patience.
There are few by now who don't know the story--little hobbit gets evil ring and has to toss it in a huge volcano to save the world--which is a good thing, since the screenplay tends to throw plot points and scenes together at random. Looking through the credits, I find that one of the writers was none other than Peter S. Beagle. Peter, what happened? You not only wrote "The Last Unicorn," one of the best fantasy books ever written, but you also converted it into an animated film as touching and beautiful as this one is bland and dreary. Did you panic on being asked to whittle down Tolkien's lengthy prose while still maintaining a sense of dramatic flow and coherency, or were you simply too distracted with other projects to even try? Then there's the animation, which is devoid of any sense of wonder, fear, or basic charm. There's no grandeur or glory, nothing to fire the imagination with its vision of Middle-Earth. It should be noted that although all the characters are rotoscoped (live actors used as models, which the animators draw over), the style of the film is not consistent. The main players look like cartoon characters most of the time, while the extras look like live-action actors (occasionally in gorilla masks) who've been roughly sketched over. Everyone flails their arms and leaps about in a ridiculous manner (sometimes in complete contrast to the emotional content of the scene), as if the live actors were afraid the animators weren't getting enough work. Fight scenes are particularly ludicrous, as it's obvious that much of the "killing" just involves one actor slapping another with the edge of his sword. Three of the characters--Gandalf, (S)Aruman, and Theodin--look so much alike as to make no difference. Legolas is cross-eyed, Boromir looks like a Viking, and the few female characters all have over-large eyes that look drenched in mascara. The voice acting is pretty bland, and inconsistent to boot--Tolkien was a linguist among other things, and was very specific about the pronunciation of Middle-Earth tongues. Bashki was nowhere near as specific. It has been already pointed out how the evil wizard is referred to as both "Saruman" and "Aruman," but in both cases the characters can't seem to decide if the last syllable is pronounced like the word "man" or like the first syllable of "Montana."
The film ends abruptly, as if everyone involved suddenly gave up. Since it took three tries before I could actually sit through the entire movie, I can understand how they felt.
Long ago, Euripides wrote a magnificent play called "The Trojan Women." In it, he reveals what happened after the Greeks snuck into Troy via that wooden horse and sacked the city--the women who mourned the dead even as they were taken as slaves, the children murdered for no crime other than being born to the wrong parents, the cruelty of war and man, and the enduring power of the human spirit. Though thousands of years have passed, it remains a drama every bit as powerful and relevant as it was when it was first performed.
I was thinking about "Trojan Women" a lot while watching "Troy"--not because Wolfgang Petersen's movie evoked the same emotions as Euripides' classic drama, but because I couldn't help but think of how much the movie failed to accomplish or even reach for. This is epic-lite, a bunch of decent battle sequences interspersed with soap-opera dialogue which tries in vain to convince us that some of these characters are worth rooting for or against.
"Troy" is a de-mystified, toned-down version of Homer's classic epic "The Illiad," which in and of itself isn't entirely a bad thing. You want to do the Trojan War without all that intervening by the gods, fine. You want to change it so at least some of the characters don't meet with a fantastically tragic death, I can play along. But for mercy's sake, let me at least care what happens one way or the other to the characters, okay? As everyone who's sat through their high school lit class knows, the Trojan War gets sparked off when Paris (Orlando Bloom) decides to make off with the Spartan queen Helen (Diane Kruger, pretty but lacking the je-nes-sais-quois that would help us believe she's capable of inspiring this sort of passion). Not surprisingly, this annoys her husband Menelaus, who immediately applies to his brother Agamemmnon (Brian Cox) for help. The war-mongering Agamemmnon has wanted to get his hands on Troy for a long time, so he takes up Menelaus' cause, rounding up the usual gang of mythological heroes, including Ajax, Odysseus (Sean Bean), and Achilles (Brad Pitt).
Achilles gets the most screen time during "Troy," which is one of the movie's biggest problems. The lead character of a film doesn't have to be perfect (in fact, it's best when he/she isn't), but they at least have to be interesting or appealing enough that we care about them. Achilles isn't. He comes off as a violent, self-centered prima donna who doesn't know how to do anything other than kill people, and is played by Pitt with such smug blandness that I was rooting for him to injure that heel and get it over with. This is probably not the reaction Petersen was hoping for, and it doesn't help that Achilles is one of the few characters to inspire any reaction at all. However, veteran actors Cox and Peter O'Toole as Troy's king Piram make the most of their situation, and Bean's too-brief turn as Odysseus is done with such charm and cleverness that I wanted the war to be over with so I could follow his equally epic journey to get back home.
There are some good fight scenes in "Troy," both between individual characters and between armies, but they are not enough to hold interest. Petersen may have tried to condense the ten-year siege of Homer's epic, but it still ends up feeling about that long.
Entertaining--a word which here means "not perfect, but containing enough good stuff to make it worth watching"
If your childhood was anything like mine, at some point you whined to your parents or another adult, "That's not fair!"--at which point the adult blithely retorted, "Life's not fair." A hard lesson, sure, but one we all learn eventually--life isn't fair; people die, bad things happen to good people, and justice isn't always served. Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books, in which siblings Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire start off being orphaned by a fire and then having things go downhill from there, embraces that philosophy with a dark, sly humor that is irresistible. Fortunately, Brad Silberling has kept the spirit of the series mostly intact with this film translation.
The movie encompasses Snicket's first three books, in which Violet (Emily Browing), Klaus (Liam Aiken), and Sunny are foisted off on several guardians by the dimwitted executor of their parents' estate (Timothy Spall). The first and worst of these is Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a thorough scoundrel who's after the kids' immense inheritance. The children manage to escape, and over the course of the film encounter a kindly snake enthusiast (Billy Connolly) and an ultra-hypochondriac (Meryl Streep), each of whom try to look after the children in their own way. But mostly the Baudelaires look after themselves, each resourceful in their own way--Violet invents contraptions with whatever is at hand, Klaus is a reference desk unto himself, and baby Sunny practices her teething on whatever (or whoever) is convenient. The trio share the sort of unique bond that can only come from having survived a long string of misadventures. Olaf pursues them throughout, aided by disguises which he considers brilliant and which fool everyone except, of course, the ever-observant Baudelaires.
Most of the elements which make Snicket's books so appealing are present here: the entertaining characters, the cleverness of the children, Snicket's delightful black humor (given voice by Jude Law), and even the cunning reverse-psychology promotional scheme of the series (in which the reader/viewer is told, no really, you DON'T want to hear this story, go find something more cheerful, etc.). Carrey gleefully gnaws the scenery as Olaf, and indeed with such a character he can do no less. Browning and Aiken are quite appealing, but the real scene stealer is Sunny (played by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman). Sunny does not actually speak, but her coos and gurgles are translated via subtitle in a dry and witty manner (another inspiration taken from the series). The production design (combining the best parts of Tim Burton and Edward Gory) creates a fanciful but accessible world which modern inventions like remote car-keys are wielded by characters who dress like they just stepped out of a Victorian melodrama.
It is perhaps too much to ask that the film could have avoided a Hollywood-style attempt to soften its delightfully dreary outlook, or that Carrey could have gone the entire movie without having at least one sequence in which he's just required to be Jim Carrey. But this is kept to a minimum--as Violet herself says, there really is more good than bad here.
Movies like "Catwoman" are the reason why I'm sad "Mystery Science Theater 3000" no longer airs. This is the type of material that begs to be talked back to--misguided at its best, and utterly laughable at its worst. I almost wish there were more of it--say, for example, a scene in which Patience Phillips (Halle Berry), the newborn Catwoman, comes up with her costume. A scene which justifies the existence of the ripped leather pants, S&M bra, bullwhip, and mask would almost have to be as delightfully ridiculous as the outfit itself. But hey, there's still plenty of silliness to go around.
This is what comic-book experts call an "origin story," so we first meet Patience before she starts getting into leather and whips--a quiet graphic artist whose cubicle is flanked by a sex-obsessed friend and a man who's the most over-the-top gay caricature since Jack on "Will and Grace." Director Pitof (isn't that a rice dish?) dresses Berry in baggy clothes and long curly hair in an attempt to convince us that one of the great natural beauties of the screen is a mousy wallflower, and has her working for that good-old standby villain, the Unethical Corporation. How do we know it's unethical? Because her boss (Lambert Wilson) speaks with a condescending British accent, and is accompanied by a shrewish wife (Sharon Stone). And indeed, it isn't long before Patience overhears the news that her cosmetics company's new anti-aging cream causes illness and scarring but (gasp!) they're going to put it on the shelves anyway, despite the protests of the resident lab rat who declares he can't support a product that turns women into "monsters." (I think he's overreacting; the woman in his file looks no worse than the "before" picture in an average dermatology clinic ad.) Patience is drowned to ensure her silence, but she washes up on shore where a bunch of fake-looking CGI cats crowd around her, and one breathes on her, causing her to open her eyes. That's cat-food breath for you--enough to wake the dead.
Sentient moviegoers will note distinct similarities between this scene and the origin of Catwoman in "Batman Returns"--and indeed, much of what follows has been cribbed from other, better comic book movies. Patience discovering her new cat-like abilities, crouching and twitching her head like a road-company Rumpleteaser and downing sushi at an alarming rate. The random thugs who get beat up by the new costumed vigilante, accompanied by R&B ululations that sound as if Mariah Carey has stubbed her toe. The woman who explains that Patience is now the latest in a long line of catwomen, accompanied by some badly touched-up pictures of women in cat masks. The love interest who complicates the protagonists double life--in this case, a cop blandly played by Benjamin Bratt. All of this could have been fun on its own terms--guilty pleasure fun, yes, but fun nevertheless. But Pitof doesn't know how to put it all together in an exciting or involving manner. Scenes feel like they're shot and edited at random, with the camera refusing to linger anywhere for more than a few seconds. I have no problems with quick cuts in the right place, but Pitof doesn't know how to use them effectively--a quiet scene between Patience and her friend (who's been hospitalized thanks to the Unethical Corporation's latest product) features the same frenetic cuts as the earlier fight scenes. Berry, bless her heart, tries to do what she can, but she's overwhelmed by the paint-by-numbers script and clumsy direction.
There's more, of course, much more. But three scenes in particular stand out in my mind: 1) During a date between Berry and Bratt's characters, it starts to rain, and Berry dashes for cover--her cat side, of course, doesn't want to get wet. This begs the question: how is she keeping clean now? Does she still use the shower? The thought of Berry washing herself as felines do is one I prefer not to think about in great detail. 2) While trying to find her "killers," Patience confronts Wilson's character--not in an empty office or deserted alley, but in a crowded theater featuring some sort of Cirque du Soleil-ballet hybrid. The police show up, and a chase scene ensues backstage--all while the performance continues. If there was a potentially dangerous criminal in the theater, don't you think the cops would stop the show? 3) Later on,Patience is imprisoned (for a crime she didn't commit, of course), but this doesn't stop her--she uses her cat-like flexibility to slide in between the bars of her cell. Mystic powers or no mystic powers--unless cats have the ability to shrink their skulls, this should be impossible.
The first "X-Men" movie had plenty to recommend it--good action sequences, strong cast--but it was, ultimately, a set-up for a franchise. While the film was on the surface about a group of super-humans fighting external prejudice and internal threats, it was also establishing the world and the characters for future installments--at least for those who have little to no experience with the comic books on which the franchise is based. But it's hard to complain, as "X2: X-Men United" fully justifies the effort.
We pick up where the first movie ended: telepathic Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) presides over a private school where budding mutants can nurture their minds and talents away from the cruelties of humanity, the renegade Magneto (Ian McKellen) languishes away in a plastic cell (his mutant powers, as indicated by his name, would render metal bars an insufficient restraint), and lone wolf Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is still trying to piece together his past. But an attack at the White House stirs up anti-mutant sentiment in the public, and it isn't long before the usual assortment of government thugs are after our heroes. All of this ends up tying into one General Stryker (Brian Cox), a militant who's made it his goal in life to subdue and destroy mutantkind, forcing the mutants who were enemies in the first movie into an uneasy alliance.
This sounds like a lot for one movie to handle--and there are several subplots we don't have time to go into now--but Bryan Singer is more successful at keeping the various characters and story lines in play than he was in the first film. Part of this, of course, is due to the fact that a large majority of the characters were established in part one, but "X2" on the whole is a tighter and more cohesive screenplay, resulting in a more satisfying film on the whole.
The ensemble cast is, once again, very good. McKellen has the opportunity to take Magneto and run with him, and unsurprisingly creates a character both sympathetic and reprehensible (considering Magneto was established in the first movie as a Holocaust survivor, his actions towards the end of this one are the height of irony). Likewise, Cox's Stryker is a vile man, but one whose actions spring from a very understandable place. Jackman reminds us why Wolverine proved to be his break-out role, playing a fine balance between the character's feral strength and rage and his carefully concealed inner turmoil. Strongest among the newcomers is Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler, the mutant who attacks the president in the opening sequence but who soon proves a useful ally to the good guys. He also has the distinction of being one of the few openly Catholic characters I can recall who is neither a hypocrite or a self-righteous bastard, and his deep but unforced spirituality is very refreshing.
The end for "X2" contains what is blatantly a set-up for a third film, but who's complaining? If they can keep up the good work like this, I'm more than happy with the implied "To Be Continued."