Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Movie / X-Men: The Last Stand

Think of a comic book, about 3/4 inch thick, targeted at boys 9-12 years old, with many characters (the mutants) having a wide assortment of super powers, a whole army of them in fact. Judging from the record Memorial Day box office gross, that audience might include about half the world.

Critics fume that the plot has little meaning, but I enjoyed it. Many stars (led by Ian McKellen and Halle Berry), dozens of characters, hundreds of extras, mega-millions worth of CGI effects, and ample comic book level sex and violence. It confronts all the issues of life, love, psychology, politics, law and order, etc. when humanity evolves to having super powers -- and resolves none of them -- but who cares? Just take a team of great screen writers, milk every comic book plot device to the max. The super-hero comic book genre is very mature, so there is plenty to work with.

The mutants' problem is that their super powers come with no instructions, so many of them are weirded out by and/or ashamed of their magic abilities, and want to live a normal life. But rather than directly address the philosophical, scientific, or ethical problems posed by super-powers, these simply spin out of control, causing lots of destruction. Then a drug company comes up with a cure, which turns rampaging mutants back into normal humans.

You are not going to this movie for its profound plot, but rather to see an animated comic book with great special effects and many decent comedic takes on super hero issues. I was later told there is a bonus scene after the lengthy credits. I did not see it, but you might want to sit through them to the bitter end.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Movie / The Da Vinci Code

Tom Hanks and a pretty French girl in high heels on a quest for the Holy Grail in the churches and museums of France and England.

See also my very similar IMDB review.

Interesting and worth seeing, but not as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Star Wars, or the first Ghostbusters, and hence somewhat over-hyped. I agree with the SF critics that while the characters are in constant danger, people keep getting shot, and a centuries-old mystery is about to be revealed, it's not all that thrilling. Maybe Ron Howard's directing is too conservative, or the book is a glorified Agatha Christie novel.

For those who haven't read it (myself included) "The Da Vinci Code" is a Grail-Quest novel, set in France, featuring a renegade Catholic sect (with some Opus Dei members) who want to wipe out all traces of the Grail, versus another ancient secret society (The Priory of Zion) who are sworn to preserve it. The quest involves a series of clues, like an Easter Egg hunt. There are many mysteries and reversals as characters are revealed to be part of one group or the other, and engaging in gangland style warfare.

Despite the religious controversy, few would (I hope) mistake this for serious history. The list of what-ifs goes on and on, the plot is driven more by hunches and coincidence than evidence, and the underlying premise of a secret that will shake the foundations of Catholicism might have been electrifying 50+ years ago, but is ho-hum today, at least in the West.

(In particular, since Christianity didn't exist in France in 43 AD, any descendants of Jesus would have lived in total obscurity for centuries. Also during the Middle Ages many European monarchs tried to claim descent from the Caesars, Jesus, King Solomon, or whomever, to bolster their claims to the throne. So there was ample motive and opportunity to fabricate such a romantic legend in Merovingian France, perhaps including still-existing secret societies.)

This movie needed a director who realized he could not coast on the bestselling book. Just narrating the story isn't enough. Why is the Grail such a big secret? How will the Church 's foundations be shaken? What was the rich meaning handed down through the centuries?

Even just some eerier music, more portentous scenes and lighting, or a few miracles could have made a big difference. Plus the idea that this is a "millennial revelation" of an ancient secret (with current news value) is not leveraged at all. "The Bridges of Madison County" did a much better job of faking authenticity for emotional impact.

Many in the audience, and anyone who's seen or read "Possession," will guess the secret at least 40 minutes before the end, so how suspenseful can that be? Author Dan Brown did a nice job of borrowing themes from "The Celestine Prophesy" (ancient religious quest with violence) and "Possession" (self discovery via historical research) and weaving them with some old French legends. But that's it -- it's a decent novel, not a major cultural event.

Rated PG-13. No sex, not even a kiss, but brutal killings, some nudity, drug references, and disturbing images.