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Rumblings from the Boudoir: Alexandra DuPont Levels a Gimlet Eye, Maybe Two Gimlet Eyes, at X-MEN

Father Geek just got back from his second screening of X-Men, I sat between an adult, school teacher (art) who has read EVERY issue of the comics and their various spinoffs... and an unrelated nine year old kid who had a stack of CABLE comics in his lap. I loved the 2nd viewing even better than my 1st! And more important the viewers on either side of me were raving about its greatness afterward. People were standing around in front of the theater talking about how much they liked it for 30 minutes after the screening. Another note of interest: My first viewing of X-MEN was at a PRESS SCREENING a couple of days ago. At todays public preview screening I saw nearly all the pros of the press back to see it again. This seldom happens! They must have seen something they really enjoyed? Now here's the view of our respected commentator, Alexandra DuPont...

(Apologies in advance to Moriarty....)

Rumblings from the Boudoir: Alexandra DuPont Levels a Gimlet Eye, Maybe Two Gimlet Eyes, at "X-Men"

I know, I know: You loyal AICNers need another "X-Men" review like you need shingles. But nevertheless.

Many of the advance reviews I've read of "X-Men" thus far (the non-bogus ones, at any rate) seem upbeat, but tinged with a certain ... ambivalence. When I kept reading variants on "It's a damn fine film," I started to worry, quite frankly; "damn fine" sounds like it should star Susan Sarandon and/or Sam Shepard, be directed by Stanley Kramer and feature a divorcee contracting an illness while discussing Important Issues.

So but anyway, I finally caught a screening of "X-Men" -- and now I think I understand where that perceived ambivalence was coming from. Because the best way I can sum up this particular Marvel adaptation is to write the following: If this film had been a TV-movie pilot launching an "X-Men" television series, it would be one of the greatest TV-movie pilots ever produced.

I mean that as a compliment. Really.

Allow me to explain. The best television makes up for its (relatively) skimpy budget with solid writing and characterization. "X-Men" the movie does the same, albeit on a more epic scale. Director Bryan Singer does extremely solid work with his team -- pulling a character-driven, occasionally moody film out of his hat where other filmmakers might have pulled out something deeply, thoroughly silly.

However, the television analogy ALSO holds in the sense that there's no truly relentless Woo-Ping-choreographed blockbuster of a fight sequence that laser-etches itself onto your retinas -- which, I must admit, we've been conditioned to expect these days. (GAD, we are spoiled little consumers. "Entertain me! Top the last movie I saw! Blow my mind! WAAAH!") There are fight scenes, to be sure, and they are perfectly well-done and easy to follow, but they are not relentless Woo-Ping-choreographed blockbusters, and they do not appear in the first half-hour-plus of this film.

I fear younger audience members in this post-"Matrix" era will slag "X-Men" due to this absence of "mind-boggling" action, which is a real shame -- because in every other sense, this is the comic-book adaptation that highly vocal sectors of the geek community have been clamoring for: the first flick since "Superman: The Movie" to take the notion of super-powers (and the responsibility they entail) really, really seriously.

What struck me most about the first third of the movie was its almost weighty sense of loneliness. (Try to remember that shot of Bill Bixby wandering down the highway with his rucksack during the opening credits of "The Incredible Hulk," and you're starting to get an idea of the vibe I'm talking about.) A lot of that has to do with color, I think. Key introductory and meeting scenes are shot in somber, wintry tones; for a good minute, I honestly thought the prologue, set during the Holocaust, was filmed in black-and-white.

This prevailing tone is aided by the actors, who almost uniformly underplay their roles as if they were on a mission from God (or, at any rate, a mission from Bryan Singer) to prove that comic-book adaptations don't have to feature comic-book acting. Of course, when you have Royal Shakespeare Company vet Patrick Stewart calmly strapping on a silly-looking headset to monitor all mutant activity on Earth, underplaying is perhaps a moot point. But still. Nothing and no one in this film insulted me, and in today's summer-blockbuster climate, that's saying something.

The major characters, and the performances of the actors playing them, have already been reviewed in some detail at this site, and I generally agree with the assessments. A few additional notes:

(1) I have a memo for the naughty-minded Talk Backer "Lickerish": You'll be delighted to read that Mssr. Jackman makes for an extremely charismatic, hairy-chested Wolverine. Jackman speaks for the audience (or, rather, for whom the audience wishes it could be when it's having a bad day at the office), making fun of the code names and the uniforms and pretty much every other superhero trope even as he quietly relishes the fantasy heroism. It's a star turn, methinks; the first time Logan's claws shoot through the skin of his knuckles, it packs a thrill akin to one's first viewing of the T-1000 morphing his hand into a blade.

(2) Also: You fellows raging over the merits of Halle Berry's wig and accent need to take a peek at the forest. The famously ungrateful-in-print Ms. Berry has one line in the first 45 minutes of the film.

(3) I have to hand it to Ray Park: He made "tongue-fu" look pretty dynamic. And I am now struck by the overwhelming knowledge that I will never write the preceding sentence again in my entire life.

THINGS I LIKED ABOUT "X-MEN":

(1) Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart lending, as if from on high, gravity and class and intelligence to the scenes they shared.

(2) The fact that cliched right-wing boogeyman Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) gets a chance to make his case -- and to grow during the course of the film.

(3) Also, the ultimate fate of Senator Kelly.

(4) Logan getting a tour of the school with Prof. Xavier. Watch the students at play.

(5) The interplay between Logan, Cyclops (James Mardsen) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). A romantic triangle, just like in the comics -- only without the I-speak-in-pseudo-erudite-paragraphs-even-as-I'm-flying-across-the-room-to-hit-you stylings of writer Chris Clairemont.

(Parenthetical remark w/r/t geek purists and C. Clairemont defenders: I'll try to resist a profound urge to swing a Fungo bat at anyone who tells me that Magneto's mutant-conversion-machine in this movie is dumber than anything in the comics. I read me some "Classic X-Men" comics in preparation for this film, and in one of them, our heroes found themselves aided by leprechauns. That's right, leprechauns.)

(6) The prevailing sense of sadness in the first third of the film.

(7) The bit where Magneto says "by any means necessary" -- making subtext text with regards to the movie's groovy (if simplistic) Malcolm X vs. MLK Jr. social commentary. (Granted, this social commentary is seriously clouded by the fact that people on the MLK Jr. side are fairly hell-bent on maiming people on the Malcolm X side, but you've got to admire the filmmakers for trying.)

(8) Wolverine vs. the blue-skinned shape-shifter Mystique (Mrs. John Stamos); Wolverine vs. Sabretooth (Tyler Mane); Wolverine vs. anybody, really.

THINGS I DIDN'T LIKE SO MUCH ABOUT "X-MEN":

(1) Patrick Stewart strapping on a silly-looking headset while underplaying.

(2) Michael Kamen's score -- a veritable cornucopia of tuneless white noise. The release Tuesday of the "Jaws Anniversary Collector's Edition" soundtrack CD only served, by comparison, to make Kamen's hurried effort sound even more pathetic. Head Geek Mr. Knowles is right: With a truly grand score, this film might have soared higher.

(3) The absence of a 10-minute, Woo-Ping-choreographed blockbuster of a fight sequence that laser-etches itself onto your retinas. Entertain me! Top the last movie I saw! Blow my mind! WAAAH!

CONCLUSION: The good seriously outweighs the not-so-good here -- though some may mark the absence of a certain "oomph," a certain adrenaline rush, from the proceedings. Still, this is (ahem) a damn fine comic-book movie. Bryan Singer has crafted something with well-sketched characters, a watertight plotline and genuine thematic weight; if the lack of a truly wicked fight scene keeps you out of the theater, wouldn't that be terrible?

Alexandra DuPont

dupont@dvdjournal.com

P.S. Should there be a sequel, and should Bryan Singer direct it, the notion of Benicio Del Toro as Nightcrawler sort of boggles the mind.

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