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X-Men: Insert Pun Here

By Jason Comerford

To a non-comic-book enthusiast such as myself, the relentless hype surrounding the release of the new X-Men film has been largely cryptic and mystifying. Many of the early teasers and trailers contained a lot of vague imagery, flashes of stylized costumes and makeup, and the occasional dollop of nifty-looking visual-effects work. To an enthusiast of the comic book, this approach apparently paid off in spades, given the film's hefty opening-weekend take, but to the layperson, it was more frustrating than anything else. So much has been written about the rabid fan-base that's ready and waiting to disembowel anyone and everyone involved with the film, should it fail, that it takes away credence from the central question: Is the damn thing any good?

The comic-book fans around the FSM office (read: everyone but me) saw the movie before I did, and liked it, so that set a good precedent for me when I sat down over the last weekend and gave myself over to it. And I liked it too, despite some sloppiness and slow spots and occasional incoherence. Director Bryan Singer also helmed The Usual Suspects, and his skill at juggling multiple plotlines and characters remains admirably consistent. Singer knows his way around meaty material, and the surprising depth of character that X-Men yields provides him with enough to work with. It's too bad that the schedule of the film was so compressed, because the preproduction cutting is, at times, painfully apparent (the result of a 160-odd- minute rough-cut being trimmed down to less than 100 minutes). One hopes that Singer is given more leeway with the inevitable sequel(s), to let the material breathe and to let the drama inherent in many of the characters come into full fruition.

I think the greatest success of X-Men is its main characters (Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman, and Rogue, played by Anna Paquin), which provide some of the most tangibly emotional scenes in any film released this year. Any one scene between Jackman and Paquin has more electricity than anything in The Patriot and The Perfect Storm combined; I think it's all the more satisfying (and surprising) that such affecting moments have come from a film whose fictional world is deliberately removed from the ostensibly realistic one that those two purport to depict. Jackman has a magnificent, coiled-spring energy to him that made me fervently wish that he'd go mano a mano with Russell Crowe sometime. Wolverine is written as a Ludlumesque amnesiac with a penchant for the occasional deprecating wisecrack, and Jackman deserves a lot of credit for carefully reining himself in and not letting the character become condescending. As for Paquin, she's marvelous to watch; she's lovely, for one, and for another, she's harnessed an economical performance style that lets you into her character's underlying hesitancy and anguish without wallowing in it self-righteously. Their scenes together have a wonderfully complex feel to them; a barely- harnessed sexual attraction combined with each of their heavily-loaded emotional baggage. Both Wolverine's anger and frustration at his unclear past and Rogue's fear and loathing of a power she can't understand or control come through, clear as a bell, and Singer guides these two fine performers along that tightrope without ever letting them take a misstep.

As good as these scenes are, it's almost always a disappointment when the film hurriedly cuts away to the other plot strands, particularly those involving Magneto (Ian McKellen). The film front-loads itself very heavily right away, with an opening sequence set in a Polish internment camp in WWII that's supposed to set up Magneto's ostensible misanthropy. Unfortunately, the throughline of the character gets lost somewhere, and McKellen is reduced to spouting needlessly silly lines about the power of mutants over normal humans. McKellen certainly has the chops to show us a tormented bad guy, as he showed in Apt Pupil, but here his role is too thin for even an actor of his range to have any success with. Most of the other actors seem to be going through the paces much of the time; Halle Berry wanders around looking lovely, and occasionally whipping up a nifty little ruckus of a storm, but she has little else to do, and her diction is so stiff and precise that you wish she'd let one of her own storms blow her over to loosen her up. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos looks nice, slinking around in a full-body makeup job that looks like it was no fun at all to get into, while Patrick Stewart buzzes around on a wheelchair, doing a pretty good job of holding all these disparate characters together, while occasionally letting himself in on the film's nicely-calibrated sense of humor ("Well, I am psychic, you know," he grins at one point). But the subplot involving the attraction of Wolverine to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is written in a slapdash, third-grade manner, and suffers under the almost-overwhelming chemistry of Jackman and Paquin.

The success of the film's technical sheen extends to the contributions of the costume and set designers, as well as from the great cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel (Three Kings), but unfortunately not to the orchestral score by Michael Kamen. There have been many rumors floating around about the difficulties experienced between Kamen and Singer in the scoring process of the film, and it's doubly disappointing given the wealth of emotional material that the score could have capitalized upon. If anything, Kamen's music seems watered-down and superficial -- flailing away in the orchestral-bombast idiom that he's been stuck in ever since Lethal Weapon 2. There are themes -- an A-theme characterizing the X-Men as a team, and a B-theme for Rogue and Wolverine -- but everything has a tired, bloodless feel to it. Everyone probably has his or her own idea as to how the score to X-Men could/should have been used, and how John Ottman or Danny Elfman or whoever would have done it. Those questions are, of course, irrelevant (but in a fanboy kind of way they're always fun notions to entertain). Kamen was on the right track, but he seems to have stopped just short of real success; the score feels like the first draft of what could have become a great idea.

The X-Men are, after all, outcasts that have only begun to band together for their own protection and survival, but the score characterizes them too broadly, using an overly broad central theme that paints their exploits in strokes that makes them seem like amateur-hour Superman-type heroes; it's so self-consciously pompous that it misses the point of the characters. There's plenty of minor-key elegiac writing, where Kamen takes a stab at emotional connection, but he misses the boat there, too. The piano riff that opens the album ("Death Camp") is also a near note-for-note lift from parts of The NeverEnding Story; for a movie such as this, it's definitely unwise to take material from one fantasy and use it in another so blatantly. Kamen tries to characterize Magneto economically, by twisting a two-note progression into various harmonic permutations, but his gambit runs out of steam almost immediately, and he starts leaning on his stock slush-orchestration techniques to carry the rest of the music. The subtheme introduced in the album's final track, "Logan and Rogue," is nice, and works fairly well in the film, but one wishes that it were more prevalent on the album. Even with this more successful material, though, the music seems reined-in and almost-there; it's not quite as compelling and wrenching as it could have been, and it throws the momentum of both the film and the album out of whack. And while there are plenty of stabs at up-to-the-minute instrumental techniques (electric guitar, techno loops and backbeats), nothing seems harmonious or even merited. The score is stuck in the same gear, scoring the most obvious elements to the film without delving into the dramatic territory that the script has to offer.

Oh, well. It reminds me of that funny Lipton's Ice Tea commercial with a claymation Burt Young: "Save some a that for the sequel!"

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