> Volume 2 > Number 28

Volume 2, Number 28

This Week's Reviews:  X-Men, Grand Illusion, The Filth and the Fury.

This Week's Omissions:  Asunder, A Piece of Eden, West Beirut.


(Dir: Bryan Singer, Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Bruce Davison, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Shawn Ashmore, and Matthew Sharp)



The X-Men comics have been around for over 25 years, getting larger with every passing year.  Yet I've never read it, that's the simple truth.  I've heard of The X-Men, that's for sure, but I was never the biggest fan of comic books and never opened a cover.  But now, having seen what promises to be a film franchise based on the comic book, I'm interested in catching up on some reading.

Stan Lee introduced The X-Men as a venture away from in-born superheroes of yester year.  The X-Men are not a group of the Incredible Hulk and Spiderman rip-offs, as created by Lee and Jack Kirby.  Where the older heroes happened onto their powers by accident, these men were born with it.  The X-Men are mutants, born with powers that they must live to work with.

And that is the real problem.  In the near future, according to the comic books and movie, mutants will be segregated and hated by the masses.  They incite "normal" humans because they are both different and, possibly, fitter to survive.

When the film version of The X-Men (which drops the article "The" for some unknown reason) opens, there is a gathering in the Senate, where Jean Grey (Janssen) speaks on behalf of the mutants.  It seems that the Republican Kansas Senator Robert Jefferson (Davison) has started a push to get legislation passed to keep tabs on the mutants in fear that their powers might stifle other human's Constitutional rights (the thought of a mind-reader breaking someone's freedom of thought makes me grin).

Senator Jefferson seems to have swayed the American public to his side, much to the chagrin of Eric Magnus Lehnsherr (McKellen), a mutant with the ability to produce and manipulate magnetic waves.  Lehnsherr has taken the name Magneto and brought together evil mutants to stop Jefferson called the Brotherhood of Mutants (bringing to mind names of other alliances like The Skulls and The Axis Powers) -- there's the shape-shifting Mystique (Romijn-Stamos), the muscle covered Sabretooth (Mane), and the amphibious Toad (Park; the Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow and Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace).

And, of course, there has to be the good mutants.  In fact, there are many of them, most living in a private school owned by wheelchair bound Professor Xavier, the world's greatest telepathist.  His school has brought out the best in many mutants including laser-eyed Cyclops (Marsden), weather creating Storm (Berry), and struggling telepathist Jean Grey.  They are together the X-Men.

Enter Logan (Jackman), a mutant that has lived his life outside of civilization as well as he can.  Logan occasionally stops in small towns and fights under the name Wolverine, making a little cash on the side.  His ability is to heal miraculously quickly.  For this reason, he was experimented with at one time, having retractable metal placed in his body.  Now, when he is so induced, metal claws come out of his knuckles.

En route from a little altercation in Canada, Logan happens upon Rogue (Paquin), a young girl with the much despised ability to suck the life out of people with the slightest touch of skin, without the ability to make it stop.  The two find themselves under the attack of Magneto's Brotherhood, turning to Professor Xavier as their only choice.

X-Men is a smart action film, which is one thing that is very much to its credit, but also an indirect debit.  Intelligence means that the film allows the audience to really grasp what is to be shown, therefore having much setup.  This is all well and done when the film only has two or three characters to introduce or two and half hours of length, but this film has 11 major introductions in an hour and a half.  This is all good in the grand scheme since these 11 will not have to be setup in the sequels, but right here and now it causes the film to lag.

By the time the film finally gets to the events that have been setup throughout, the film is two-thirds done.  Screenwriter David Hayter has worked so hard to make sure that every little thing comes off perfectly (which they do, for the most part) that the story has nearly knocked the action out of the way.  It's like Con Air mutating into an Orwellian think-piece.

However much I may complain about the neverending story, the biggest problem in the film is the score by Michael Kamen.  The last two films from Bryan Singer have featured great scores from John Ottman, who is terrific about touching up scores with allusions to other scores (there are hints of the Psycho theme in Halloween: H20 and music from The Sound of Music in Goodbye Lover).  I can only imagine the slight chord of the Batman theme in the deep background, or even some Schindler's List.

What Kamen brings, unfortunately, is homogenized action film music.  It is riled when it needs to be riled; it is flushed when it needs to be flushed.  They might has well have asked Trevor Rabin to do the score.

Bryan Singer is a very gifted director.  Few directors have been this consistent in making good films.  The work he did on The Usual Suspects (the best film of 1995, by the way) is comparable to some of his aged cohorts.  And I did not think that Apt Pupil was half bad.

One of the best things about this film is a hold-over from Apt Pupil.  Ian McKellen plays Magneto with such pizzazz that one can only wish there was a spot for him in a Batman film.  The man can play everything from Richard III to James Whale to Magneto, what can't this guy do?

Singer and cinematographer Thomas Newton Sigel create some impressive shots.  Admittedly, I've been spoiled by The Matrix and Gladiator, but this is still respectable.  The visual effects are at time incredible, with a New York set piece late in the film that will please your eyes.

Of all the showing-off scenes for various character's powers, nothing, and I mean nothing, can compare to what the film opens with.  With drained colors that would make Janusz Kaminski proud, the Holocaust introduction of Magneto still makes my hair curl -- it is that impressive.

But, with the action pushed to the side, the film is best when it is a political topic.  The touchy subject of race relations and segregation is well done here.  Yes, it does lean towards campy at times, pertinent at others (or both, like when Senator Kelly hold up a paper and says "I have here a list of known mutants"), but it never fails to work.

The last time that the race issue was spun around that worked as well (and actually even better, if you ask me) was Pleasantville, in which the mutants were those that became color in a black and white world.  The different being shunned by the monotonous?  It's the new Hollywood story.


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Grand Illusion

(Dir: Jean Renoir, Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo, Werner Florian, Sylvain Itkine, Gaston Modot, Jean Dasté, Julien Carette, and Georges Péclet)



When Jean Renoir made Grand Illusion, Europe was in the thickest of clouds before a storm called World War II.  The film, a pacifistic look at the struggle of the classes in Europe during the first World War, was so politically hard stepping for its time that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels named it the "cinematic public enemy number one."

Grand Illusion is not necessarily a straight out piece against the German establishment of the time, as many have accused it of.  The film is really a look at what struck Renoir at the time -- the change of power between the masses.  Here the "grand illusion" is that the upper class is above the working class, even when the working class has worked themselves higher than the upper class.

There are four major characters in Grand Illusion, two upper classmen, two working classmen.  Each has their own part of the story documenting the change of power.

When the film opens, Lieutenant Maréchal (Gabin) and Captain de Boieldieu (Fresnay), airmen in the French army during World War I, are shot down by German hotshot Captain von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim).  The German officer is so entranced with the idea of those in command that he invites his new victims to have dinner with him.  Why in the midst of war would he do so?  To him, an officer in the army means family ties and great lineage -- exactly what he has and adores about the world he believes is running the war.

Very soon von Rauffenstein comes to understand that only one of these men is an old time leader, de Boieldieu, and quickly takes him into his arms, a connection that will payoff later in the war after they meet again in another POW camp.  The difference between these two old guards is that the Frenchman knows that the world run by the upper class is near over, the German will not admit to it.

Maréchal and de Boieldieu survive their way through POW camps together, making friends along the way.  One of these friends is a Lieutenant Rosenthal (Dalio), who strikes a chord with Maréchal since they both come from the gutters of France.  These are the children of the revolution, and they are now receiving the power that they fought for some 120 years earlier.

Rosenthal has been through much in life as both a working classmen and a Jew, but now he has the last laugh.  Not only has the power changed to his group, but his family has gained in the process. In fact, the Rosenthal family now owns the château that the de Boieldieu family can no longer afford.

This is not the only time that Renoir touched on this subject.  Two years later he would work with a comparison of the aristocrats and the servants in The Rules of the Game.  The comparison of the two films, both politically and artistically, has lived on for decades.  Some will tell you that The Rules of the Game is the better in both fields, other would side with Grand Illusion, others would touch each in some camp.  But what holds true no matter which side is that both are great as propaganda and cinema.

Renoir was the son of famed impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, whose style remains true in his son's work.  Where the father's paintings were drawn back moments, the son's filming is a roving vision.  Renoir pulls the camera around without intercutting, making the audience almost feel like a silent observer.

There are moments in this film that still to this day hold on as great memories for those that have seen it.  Some are so because of their later homages (i.e. the digging of the tunnel in The Great Escape) others for their places in film history (i.e. the image of von Rauffenstein in a neck brace following his accident).

Then there are those moments that are both.  For me, there is no moment in this film that can compare to the singing of the "Marseilles" following a song and dance show in the camp.  And few moments in other films can compare to that moment -- except maybe when Rick's Café's denizens break into the singing of the "Marseilles" in Casablanca.

Though most of the screentime is spent on Maréchal, it is the two upperclassmen that really take the film.  During the moments in the camps, de Boieldieu is a loving officer for those that were once commoners in his mind.  But when von Rauffenstein hits the scene, there is no question who is the most interesting character of the moment.

Erich von Stroheim was a Hollywood martyr by the time he made this film.  Even though he would not be taken in by the establishment for another thirteen years, von Stroheim's fight over pictures was very well known.  His Greed had been butchered, his Queen Kelly had been stolen, and he would never direct again.  It was with this performance that he became the Erich von Stroheim image.  The hulking characters with as much heart as brawn were his strongest assets, which he best showed as Max von Mayerling in Sunset Blvd.

Renoir, himself, nearly lost this film, á la von Stroheim, when World War II broke out.  Banned in Germany, Italy, and Belgium, the film luckily made way to Russia before German officials could destroy the original negative.  Renoir did not survive to see his original print brought back to bring the film to restoration -- it was over a decade after his death before the treasured print was discovered in Toulouse, France.

The artist remaining the sole benefactor of a film?  Ask von Stroheim or Renoir, that's the real grand illusion.


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The Filth and the Fury

(Dir: Julien Temple, Appearances by John Lydon, Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Flen Matlock, Malcolm McLaren, Nancy Spungen, and Sid Vicious)



"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

Johnny Rotten yells out as he finishes up a concert in San Francisco, the final time the Sex Pistols would perform together.  It had been a long road to this, an abrupt end to one of the most influential bands ever.  As he says now:  "Like a Harold Pinter play it shouldn't work, but it does."

They were there causing havoc to the British public for barely over a year when the band split apart, the pro-McLaren side and the anti-McLaren side.  That McLaren being Malcolm McLaren, the often overstepping manager of the band.  McLaren was tight with the little money that the Sex Pistols brought in during their hey-day, not even giving the bandmembers money for taxicabs, much less for security.  Johnny Rotten, now back to his birthname John Lydon, is the main narrator here, and his hatred for McLaren is very present in what he has to say.

Rotten was, of course, in the anti-McLaren group, joined by the band's most well known member Sid Vicious.  Vicious spent his short tenure in the band as the bass player after initial player Glen Matlock quit, becoming the face for the band.  Though he could not sing (as proven in his horrendous solo attempt with a cover of Sinatra's "My Way") and could not play the bass (as all of the band members agree on), he stood out over his singing friend because he was the one that would go the furthest.  He would cut himself, ask for bottles to be thrown at the band, and even hit audience members with his guitar.  Yes, Rotten missed the attention, but he was more hurt by Vicious growing drug addiction.

All this seems like the perfect fodder for another VH1 Behind the Music special, but it is instead the second attempt by documentarian Julien Temple to tell the story of the Sex Pistols (plus, think of what censoring would be done to meet the VH1 television codes).  Temple did this before with the less successful The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle from 1980, just two years after the band broke up.  There he seemed more interested in how the band worked as opposed to what the band did.  Of course, it may have taken twenty years for the true impact of the band to show.

It is easy to tell that Temple is a trusted person for the band, this is the second time he has brought their story to the fore.  Thanks to that, The Filth and the Fury does not have the stifled feel of Chuck Workman's The Source or one of those VH1 specials.  These guys really do have feelings for Temple and are not weary to let everything be known to him. They even ask him questions in a first name basis while they're being interviewed.

I had actually seen much of the footage before, in various pieces on the band and, especially, in the supplementary material for the Sid & Nancy DVD.  But that did not hurt the impact of much of what was shown to me again.  The interview with Sid Vicious in which he falls asleep countless times is still bittersweet to this day.

Though McLaren does have the chance to tell his side of the story (in a S&M type inflated black mask, of all things), this is really the story through the words of the bandmembers.  Lead singer Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and original bass player Matlock look at how the band began, grew into an evil entity, and went into flames.  Each one remembers their biggest mistakes -- ranging from being dropped from a record label within 24 hours of signing the contract to the mistake of agreeing with McLaren, the choice that ended the band.

Sid Vicious does get to tell his story through an interview filmed a year before his death of a heroin overdose.  Vicious' story has already been brought to the screen, and the lack of his major presence here is not as bad thanks to having another form of its telling.  The 1986 Alex Cox film Sid & Nancy chronicles the love affair that killed Vicious and, in a way, the band.  Nancy was the Yoko Ono of the Sex Pistols -- if there was one thing that McLaren, Cook, Jones, and Rotten agreed upon it was in hating Nancy Spungen.

With all the things that came in the way of the band's growth, it is surprising that their presence is still felt.  They were not the first punk band, but they created the punk image -- a fact that Rotten regrets, there really should not be a mass image to showoff punk, a movement of individuality.  The churches tried to stop the concerts, the press tried to make them enemies to the public, but that never stopped the production of songs like "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen (She Ain't No Human Being)".  But, really, who else could inspire a church leader to say "most of these guys would be much approved by sudden death"?


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Reviews by:
David Perry