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Friday, May 26, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand (**)


Take a Stand Hike

Watching X-Men: The Last Stand was a frustrating ordeal, trying desperately to connect with the characters, to care about anyone or anything. This proved X-tremely difficult when the characters are cardboard cut outs of themselves and the movie shows so much contempt for everyone, the X-Men and the audience.

When Cyclops, the X-Men team leader, is killed off by his lover Jean Grey, it shouldn't have happened clumsily off screen. His death shouldn't be treated with such callous indifference that the audience doesn't even know if he's actually dead or not for a good 20 minutes. Why, his closest friends don't bother to investigate his disappearance, even when they find his ruby quartz glasses yet no other trace of him. Later, it's casually mentioned Cyclops is dead. No one was particularly hurt by his loss.

When Dark Phoenix murdered Charles Xavier in cold blood, when she peeled the flesh from his bones and then burst him into Xavier stew – when the founder of the X-Men is murdered in cold blood – my reaction should not have been laughter. But the execution of the death was so garish and amateurish it was actually hilarious to see old man Xavier bite it. There were Xavier bits all over Jean Grey's walls! Gross!

To top it all off, they hold a funeral for Xavier (“Of all the mutants I've ever known, he was the most… human …) and not for Cyclops, even though by that time, they already knew Jean Grey had killed Cyclops. Cyclops got a headstone later, along with Jean when she died. Since Storm was gonna close the school and no tuition money would be coming in, I guess the X-Men were just being economical and trying to save on funeral costs by that point.

Rogue, the heart and soul of the first X-Men, is wantonly written out of most of the movie. Her job was to stand around and glare at her boyfriend Iceman in a romantic misunderstanding the CW regularly handles with more grace and style, and then disappear. She's “cured” now, but then returns to Xavier's school, which she no longer belongs in because she's no longer a mutant. Rogue's goodbye scene with Wolverine, insultingly underwritten and hamfisted (“Be good.” Be good?! ), was an affront to their relationship, which was the highlight of the first X-Men movie.

Mystique, the coolest, most competent character in the previous films, was depowered and kicked aside like a bag of crap. But the movie made sure to get Rebecca Romijn as naked as PG-13 will allow before she's carted off to the home for discarded X-Men movie characters.

Wolverine, who never met a smug one liner he didn't love (“Don't get your panties in a bunch.”) when he wasn't bawling like a lovesick teenager over Jean Grey, had the most to do, including things he had no business doing. With Xavier dead, why was Wolverine leading the X-Men? Why was he mapping out the plans, drafting the X-Kids Iceman, Kitty Pryde, and Colossus, and barking out orders in battle? Note that they made damn sure Hugh Jackman had his shirt off in his emotional denoument with Jean Grey.

The person who should have been in charge, Storm, whom Xavier made leader before he died, followed Wolverine's orders. Storm was more interested in getting to finally fly around like Halle Berry keeps harping about and then getting her cape and white wig handed to her by Callisto (Dania Ramirez).

Of all the new mutant characters crammed into the movie, Kelsey Grammar as the Beast probably acquitted himself the best, but as far as animalistic blue mutant characters in these movies, he paled in comparison to Nightcrawler in X2. Oh, but the dialogue!

"Wolverine. I hear you're quite an animal."
"Look who's talking."

Someone gut me with an adamantium claw already. The dialogue in The Last Stand was just atrocious.

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scored!”
“By any means necessary!”

No cliché was left un-mined. And that was just the President talking. The mutants were just as lame-brained:

“If you're with us, be with us!” Inspiring.
“You of all people should know how quickly the weather change.” Ho ho. Get it, ‘cause Storm controls the weather…? Ho ho ho.

The worst was the brilliant name calling from the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones). “I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!” Nice. Kitty Pryde didn't take that lying down and called Juggernaut a “dickhead.” Actually, that helmet is kind of shaped like a dick. Ho ho ho.

Did I like anything? Yeah, it wasn't all bad. There were moments. I got excited when the X-Men took the Brotherhood on at Jean Grey's house. I liked Callisto being totally intent on whipping Storm's ass and I wouldn't have minded if Callisto killed that white-haired dope. I liked Juggernaut bouncing Wolverine all over Jean Grey's house. I thought the final battle at Alcatraz had its moments: I liked Magneto tossing cars and Pyro lighting them on fire.

Kitty Pryde had two cool moves, when she phased past a Brotherhood member and then gave him the Edgematic, and then when she phased the Juggernaut into the floor. For that matter, underwritten and perfunctory a character as she was, I liked Kitty Pryde a lot because of Ellen Page, who is both little and did a lot with a little.

I liked the moment on the X-Jet when the three kids were gripped with fear at their first mission and Beast taking notice (not that he said or did anything to alleviate their fears.) I liked Iceman making the ice skating rink for himself in Kitty in the stupid same way I like Lex and Lana's stupid romance on Smallville.

Iceman and Pyro finally going at it was cool for like two seconds before it ended lamely with a fucking headbutt. And I thought Magneto's stunt moving the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz was neat. Although in the scene before, the Brotherhood of Emo Mutants bitched and moaned about how they were supposed to get to Alcatraz. How did they even get to San Francisco from Alkalai Lake? Did they all walk?

Just about everything else sucked in various levels. Dark Phoenix blew. She didn't do anything for 90% of the movie except stand around next to Magneto in a waking coma. She killed Cyclops and Xavier for no reason and then went nuts at the end with little provocation. What did it feel like to die and be reborn with omnipotence? What does one do with all that power? The movie's answer: Stand around. Kill people. Repeat. Yawn. Who gives a damn?

What a hideous mess X-Men: The Last Stand was. A better title for this debacle would be X-Men: Inglorious Endings. For this merry band of mutants, this was no way to go.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Getting "Would?"


May 23, 2006

Alice in Chains is back together and last night at Avalon, it was 1993 all over again.  To their credit, they found a lead singer for this reunion tour who sounds a lot like the late Layne Staley.  We missed Layne, but the black guy they brought on board did a pretty credible replication of Layne's vocals the whole night.   Jerry Cantrell introduced him to the crowd and I made it a point to remember his name.  Then seconds later, I completely forgot it.  He'll always be Black Layne to me.

With Black Layne filling in for Dead Layne, the reunited Alice in Chains didn't miss a fucking beat.  They played about maybe a dozen songs in their set and encore, mostly the older stuff from “Dirt”, “Facelift” and “Sap.”   There was nothing from “Jar of Flies ” and I wanted to hear “Got Me Wrong”.  (Come to think of it, they didn't play “Grind” from “ Alice in Chains”, either.)  

The lack of “Jar of Flies” was a little disappointing but made sense; it would have required the band to go acoustic and for Black Layne to sing exactly like Layne as opposed to just scream like Layne.  Helping Black Layne out on the vocals was the crowd, doing half the work singing along with the big hits.  The set was heavy but slowed down the hard stuff like “Them Bones”, “Junkhead” and “Dam The River” with the moodier big hits like "Would?", “Down in a Hole” and “Rooster.”  The big Layne Staley tribute songs.

Of course, the whole night would have gone to shit and been for nothing without “Man in the Box.”  Christ, they made us wait for it.  All night long, all Jeff and I kept screaming for was “Man in the fucking Box, goddamn it!”  Finally, the last song of the night we got it.  “Man in the fucking Box”!  It was the only way to close the show and goddamn, it was worth the wait.  Jerry Cantrell will probably never know how much we equate that song with a doughy, goateed pro wrestler in a black T-shirt and black nylon workout pants getting his bloody balls split open with a kendo stick.  That's probably for the best, actually.

It was a really good set that really took us back to the old glory days of grunge, but if they asked me, I'd have planned the set out a little differently:  Open with “Man in the Box,” then “Man in the Box”, slow it down with a little “Man in the Box,” then just when you're expecting “Man in the Box,” play “Would?”, then “Rooster”, then “Man in the Box” and say good night.  For the encore, “Man in the Box” three times.  No, four.  Four. ...Seven.

While the music was brilliant and as close as you can get to how it sounded back in the early 90's, the audience wasn't quite the way I remember when I was a teenager.  I don't recall quite as many enormous, thick-necked, lacrosse T-shirt wearing, crew-cut meathead jocks back in the day.  They were big, loutish, drunk, and they were all over the place.  They felt the need to constantly chant “Jerry! Jerry!” as if they were at a Jerry Springer taping.  Also, for some reason, when "Down in a Hole" played, a few of the jocks hugged each other.  What the fuck was up with that?  Do they even know what the lyrics mean or are they like the guy Kurt Cobain described in "In Bloom," someone who sings along to all the words but has no idea what the song is about?

It was as obvious as the white on their baseball caps that while these meatheads are fans of Alice in Chains, they are not veterans of the mosh pit.  Mosh pits are treacherous; they can open up at any time.  The crowd will sway back and forth, elbows and shoulders pushing you from several directions, and seconds later a hole will open up with a few bodies slamming into a hastily-made circle, pushing the moshers back towards its center.  The rules are very basic and simple:  When the circles form, pull back into the circle.  If you're shoved, you sway and then shove back, but not aggressively.  Let the people who want to dance dance.  Always protect the girls in the vicinity (the pussies hide behind the girls).  Stay alert at all times – an elbow or head butt can come from any direction.  It's best to keep an arm across your chest like a boxer on guard, both arms during the more violent bursts.  Anyone crowd surfing; get your arms up, push them aloft and move them along.  Let anyone who wants to leave and move to safety do so immediately.  Most of all, don't be a dick.  Stay cool and enjoy the music.  And if you're Jeff, somehow continually find the hottest girl in the vicinity, press up against her and smell her hair.

It's been a decade since I'd been in a mosh pit, Foo Fighters in Worcester back in 1995 if I recall correctly, and I'd forgotten the etiquette.  But if I had forgotten how to mosh and stay relatively safe in the pit, the meathead jocks never knew how at all.  When Alice in Chains started playing, a couple of teenagers who were probably 10 at most when the band broke up went nuts and began pushing and moshing.  The jocks in the vicinity got pissed off and shoved back angrily.  I was kind of annoyed too at my limited personal space being invaded, and also with the douchebags who were continually jostling past us to get closer to the stage (another point – the mosh pit is a modular thing and when it gets moving and flowing, there are numerous opportunities to move closer to the stage without being a douchebag about it).  When the jocks glared at the kid, he said, “You're gonna get pushed.  It happens.”  And the kid was right.  That's how it works down here.  Reminded of that, I remembered what to do and jumped into the fray.  The jocks also did their share of moshing but they didn't last very long.  They were all gassed up and were blown up pretty quickly.

The last time I saw Alice in Chains was at Lollapalooza 1993 at some air field in Rhode Island .  I'll never forget what I remember of that – a crowd surfing skin head was dropped on top of me and his steel toed boot collided with my external occipital protuberance. (The back of the head, what I named this very website for.)  I know I was groggy for most of the set, but I remember making it all the way to second row in front of the stage and staring up at Layne as he sang “Would?”  He was wearing a horizontal stripped shirt, his black wrap around shades, and he had his long King Tut goatee.  He wore black gloves but the puncture marks on his forearms were visible.  I never saw Layne again, and he died a few years later, but at least I saw him in his prime.  I don't remember how I got out of the mosh pit but I ended up lying on the top of my van recovering while Primus closed the show.

I'm not quite as beat up today as I was then.  Just a little banged up, as the Red Sox announcers repeatedly described the Yankees line up last night.  Self-preservation was more important to me than it was when I was 18.  Slight ringing in my years, hoarse voice, and some minor shoulder and neck pains aside, I'm fine.  I feel great.  Alice in Chains was a great fucking time.

Jeff's review of last night's show:  Black Layne was good enough.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Da Vinci Code (***)


So Dark The Con of Man

Ron Howard's been kicked around a lot this week. The critics and media, momentarily tired of Tom Cruise bashing, have unleashed their claws at Howard's The Da Vinci Code. I'd say the malice towards the movie, which is by no means a masterpiece, is largely undeserved. Listen, the movie ain't great, but it was never designed to be either. Like the novel, The Da Vinci Code feature film is disposable entertainment. The movie's crime is supposedly being slavish to the novel, but having read the book and now seen the movie, I can't savvy any way to interpret the material differently and still maintain the preposterous story that sold 40 million books worldwide and enraged the Catholic Church.

The movie's problems lie directly with the source material. Dan Brown is a crap writer. His storytelling is boneheaded and repetitive. His characters are stock. His ability to concoct a thriller plot is TV movie-of-the-week caliber at best. His idea of a cliffhanger is to end a chapter with a character in mid-lecture and then pick the lecture up in the very next chapter. And yet, his novel manages to be entertaining and the subject matter at the heart of The Da Vinci Code is a fascinating one to imagine.

Creatively, Ron Howard and his filmmaking team were in an unenviable no-win situation. They had to dramatize a book that basically was about people lecturing each other for dozens of pages, and then dashing off to another location for even more lectures. At the end of the day, given what he had to work with, Howard did a damn fine job. The Da Vinci Code carries most of the flaws of the novel, but then at its best, the movie improves upon and transcends its source material.

Ways Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code drastically improves upon Dan Brown's novel:

Instead of opening with Robert Langdon being woken in his hotel room, Howard condenses and visually illustrates Langdon's career as a lecturing Harvard professor of symbology by introducing him in mid-lecture, deftly easing the audience into how symbols have been co-opted and corrupted throughout time. This was a very engaging and effective departure from the novel and one of several innovative ways the film managed to convey the material of the endless lectures found in the book. 

Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, and Sir Ian McKellan rise far above the material with their performances. The critics complained Hanks was an uncharismatic bore. Bullshit. Hanks did exactly what he was supposed to do: he took Robert Langdon, a character that was nothing more than a cardboard lecture machine, and humanized him. It didn't happen right away; the first hour of the movie forces the characters to hurtle along the checklist of events set by the novel, allowing the actors precious little time to work their magic.

When Langdon and Sophie Neveu arrive at Sir Leigh Teabing's estate, the actors are able to breathe a bit more life into their roles. McKellan's entrance delivers an instant jolt of energy and humor that Hanks and Tautou were able to play off of. McKellan was the most entertaining actor in the entire movie. It was evident he was having a jolly old time, and the movie practically reset its tone and became much more interesting once Teabing came into the picture.

A crucial masterstroke here was to alter Langdon's character to be skeptical of Teabing's conspiracy theory about the Holy Grail and the alternate history of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdelene. In the novel, Teabing and Langdon spend hours tag teaming Sophie with their lecture. Just pages and pages of the two of them blah blah blahing; about interesting stuff, sure, but dramatically, it's impossible to play two men taking turns talking at a woman in a living room. With Hanks countering Teabing's rants with skepticism and pragmatism, it creates a balance and puts the audience on Sophie's side, sharing her disbelief and confusion as to who is right. Plus you could see Hanks and McKellan were having a ball.

Audrey Tautou is really fucking beautiful, but beyond that she has one of the best moments in the movie on Teabing's plane when she slaps Silas the albino monk twice for killing her grandfather. When Silas says that every breath she takes is a sin, Sophie fires back that his God doesn't condone murder, he punishes it. This was an awesome moment, especially if you already know Sophie is the descendant of Jesus Christ's bloodline. Think about it, this is the Sion of Jesus who slapped this monk and told him he was going to be punished. I don't recall if this moment is in the book, but regardless it's fantastic and works even better when one is aware of the vital information about Sophie.

At the end, when Langdon is forced to decipher the cryptex while Sophie Neveu is held at gunpoint by Sir Leigh Teabing, Howard makes brilliant use of Langdon's pre-established photographic memory and creates a CGI representation of Langdon's memory of Sir Isaac Newton's tomb. I don't recall if Langdon had a photographic memory in the novel, but this was an ingenius way for the audience to literally see Langdon break the most important code in the movie.

Unfortunately, the novel has three endings: the reveal and capture of Teabing, Langdon and Sophie at the church in Roslin, and Langdon back in Paris discovering the Grail's final resting place. The best of these, and the shining moment for Hanks and Tautou, was at Roslin after Sophie has discovered the truth about her royal bloodline. Langdon and Sophie's talk about faith and what Sophie should do with the knowledge of her heritage was just terrific. And it was capped off with a nice gag about Sophie testing to see if she can walk on water. Did she cure Langdon's claustrophobia with her hands? Can she turn water into wine? Does Sophie have Jesus' superpowers? It was all handled sweetly and beautifully, with deft humor and grace. To me, this was the scene that made the movie and was superior to anything found in the novel.

The story plays like an art history episode of 24 set in Europe. Langdon and Sophie are on the move for more than full day and night straight, traveling across France and Great Britain. They stop to eat once only briefly, they never have a chance to sleep, shower or change clothes, and are constantly running from the police and from a gay cripple and a monk trying to kill them. Critics accused Hanks of being lethargic in his performance, but his character was tired.. When he wasn't lecturing or running for his life, he was busy trying to decode puzzles and anagrams.

Certain ideas and scenarios from the novel were condensed or excised altogether, all of it a wise move. Frankly, we didn't need to see the sordid details of Sophie's grandfather having hot and heavy secret society sex in a flashback. And thanks, Ron, for not showing the dead grandfather's genitalia. Another director might have, but not you, Ron. Good man.

Is the movie flawed? Quite so. Is the source material flawed? You'd better believe it. Did Ron Howard and company do a great job? I'd say they sure did. At the end of the day, The Da Vinci Code is an occasionally tedious, occasionally thrilling, but largely successful piece of pop filmmaking entertainment. A worthy cinematic adaptation of a truly wretched, if popular, book. If Ron Howard had chosen to act as the narrator, and if a one-armed man appeared at the end to say, “And that's why you don't go looking for the Holy Grail!” it would be a four-star masterpiece, but the way it is, it's a solid three.

Friday, May 5, 2006

Mission: Impossible III (**)


Impossible Man

The Tom Cruise Stunt Show Spectacular is a tough gig for the action hero always on the go, but it does come with built-in breaks:  See Tom rappel from a building in Berlin, blow up a helicopter, take a five minute break to go to a funeral, teach a seminar on the finer points of rubber mask making, dress up as a priest and break into the Vatican, get married in a hospital, bang his new bride in a supply closet, fight off helicopters and fighter jets and get blown into a car on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, pause for a moment of reflection and male bondage, escape from IMF headquarters after being double crossed, put on a funny hat and wig, get double crossed and captured again, run the Shanghai Marathon, fight off a migrane, kill the villain, and creep out half the guests at his engagement party.  Maybe not in that order; Tom tends to make things up on the fly.

Third time around for watching the Tom Cruise Stunt Show Spectacular, otherwise known as "Mission: Impossible III" and I'm officially tired of it.  I'm tired of rappelling, of rubber masks “fooling” everyone, of switcheroos and double crosses, of Marcellus Wallace as the funny black sidekick.  I'm tired of “impossible” missions.  Most of all, I'm tired of Ethan Hunt, whoever he is. 

Seriously, who is this guy?  Three movies over ten years and all we know about Ethan Hunt is he likes to jump off of buildings while wearing tight black T-shirts to show off his biceps and pecs. I thought this time around the point was to find out what makes him tick.  We find out he has a pretty young wife, Michelle Monaghan, at home in Virginia who he lies to all the time.  They don't talk about anything.  He has no conversation and neither does she.  His response to every person, problem, or situation is either a steel-jawed glare of death or a big goofy grin of death.  

Any time he actually has to talk to or deal with another human being, you can see all Ethan Hunt is thinking about is how he can end the conversation as quickly as possible so he can jump off the nearest building and shoot someone. And then he ends the conversation as quickly as possible, jumps off the nearest building and shoots someone. He's an adrenaline-junkie/cipher.  He's a lousy secret agent.  He's not a person, he's nobody.  Worst of all, he makes other people who could be interesting into nobodies. 

On this impossible mission, Ethan Hunt has a team of people helping him out, including Jonathan Rhys-Myers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg  and Keri Russell.  They find the long shadow Ethan casts and fight amongst each other to stand in it.  Ving Rhames has had his spot in Hunt's shadow staked out for three movies, so there's not that much room left for the new kids.  Keri Russell is the only one killed off, but she makes sure to thank Ethan before she goes. I miss her right away.  

These characters might be interesting; they're trying to be.  They have stuff they want to say.  Ethan doesn't want to hear it.  For instance, in the Shanghai leg of the Stunt Show, Maggie Q and Rhys-Myers are sitting around in their van waiting for Ethan to jump out of a building.  (Ethan Hunt is the only guy in the world who climbs to the roof of a building so that he can jump off it into another building.  Then he exits the second building by jumping out of it.  Even Spider-Man thinks it's excessive.)  Maggie Q starts praying in her native language, something Asian, probably.  Rhys-Myers finds it interesting and so do I.  He asks what she's praying.  She agrees to teach him.  Before anything else can happen -- 


Ethan Hunt:  What're you guys, doing?  Praying?!  No time, man!  No time!  Look, I'm jumping out of a building! 

Listen, IMF noobs, Ethan Hunt isn't a real character, so don't you try to be either.  You're better off following Ving Rhames' route and wait for the eleven seconds in between Ethan's killing people or rappelling to crack some jokes.  

The villains aren't much better off.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman isn't a real character, either.  Even though he's barely in the movie, Hoffman looks tired all the time, like he just spent fourteen hour days shooting Capote and now he's gotta go do this shit where half his dialogue is asking about a rabbit's foot.  This villainous arms dealer is so bad ass, he gets captured like a punk in the middle of one of those black-tie cocktail galas the Vatican is world-famous for throwing.  

Right after he gets captured, Hoffman goes into his “I'm gonna kill you and the person you love most, your mirror” speech.  Then he gives another later on, same speech, but this time, he means it.  Then he is dead.  Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls survived being hit by a bus but not evil Capote. Doesn't matter anyway, he wasn't the real villain.  He's not a Golden God.  Ethan Hunt might have figured it out sooner if he weren't so busy shopping for nylon-fiber lines that can hold his weight while he plummets.

All of the rappelling and shooting and explosions were executed well; there was just so much of it and it was numbing and un-memorable.  The women in the movie were largely wasted.  Ethan's wife asked a lot of questions at the end when he freed her.  They were good, logical questions.  “Why are we in Shanghai ?” “Why did Capote try to kill you?”  The hundred million dollar question: “Who the hell are you?” she chose to omit.  Maybe she married the right guy after all.