Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt
swashbuckler332

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X2: An Appreciation

This entry contains spoilers. See the film first, then read this. Better yet, rent the first one, watch it, then see the first one and then read this.

The Empire Strikes Back is hailed as a film that redefined sequels. In a way, the unheard-of success of Star Wars contributed to the fact that it is daring in both content and structure; because of the previous film had done unparalleled business at the time, its creators had, by the time of the production on the second picture, the freedom to experiment. The result was unique, a startling blend of narrative, character and spectacle that has rarely been equaled in cinema.

Star Wars was so successful that the assumption could be made that the audience at large had seen the first, and were familiar enough with it that re-explaining things to the viewer was unnecessary. Irvin Kershner then had the ability to concentrate more on the characters inhabiting this exotic world, rounding them out and giving them very human impulses. The architecture of the film is groundbreaking as well, with a major climax occurring early on in the movie, and everything being downhill from there. Furthermore, it does not have a beginning, a middle and an end, rather it sort of picks up a little while after Star Wars and just sort of ends at a certain point, several traumas later. Sequels have a tendency to be exercizes in commercial appeal; rarely do they add anything to the first film, and almost never do they deepen the concerns expressed there.

This new type of sequel remains rare because of the fact that the juggernaut of industry doesn't really understand them. George Lucas, Larry Kasdan, Leigh Brackett, Gary Kurtz and Irvin Kershner took the thrills of an escapist fantasy and pulled them down to earth without losing the magic of discovery that made the first film so popular. The result ingrained itself so deeply into American pop culture that it is difficult to imagine the past two decades without those touchstones, so many of which came not from Star Wars, but from Empire (these abound from Yoda to John Williams' "Imperial March [Darth Vader's Theme]". Unfortunately, George Lucas the moneymaker decided that Return of the Jedi would not reflect this infinitely more complex and dark vision of the Star Wars saga, but rather return to the more primary colors and simpler morality of the first film.

To see a film that has so many parallels with this classic would be so invigorating. I don't know if it would mean that the film industry would be beginning to see that genre films can be more than just opening weekend grosses if they are made with an attention to detail and internal logic that would lend itself to repeated viewings, or if a bunch of artists with a great love of the possibilities inherent in the fantastic genre (read: geeks) have just happened to have the chance to helm bloated "event movies," but certainly the success of the first two The Lord of the Rings films is very much attributable to the fact that these films offer audiences the thrills of the standard summer and winter fare but also so much more that the films demand multiple viewings.

Well, I have seen a film that strongly parallels Empire, one that I have found addicting, actually. It is X2, and I will let time tell whether or not it is as repeatable as that illustrious forebear, but I will say that I truly appreciated this film and will attempt to explain why.

The first, and most obvious element common to both films is how much more serious they are than their respective predecessors. Both Star Wars and X-Men seem naive in comparison with their sequel. I saw X-Men several times on its initial release, and found it to be marvelous escapist entertainment. Any absurdities in the premise was balanced by the investment of the actors, a breezy pace and a very tightly constructed story (this is one of the few films that it is difficult to think of alternatives to the way that the characters deal with their conflicts).

Of the many pleasures to be found in X-Men, perhaps the most noteworthy is the characterization of Magneto; the film opens with him as a boy narrowly avoiding being herded into a Nazi death camp in Poland. It is this experience which defines, to him, how humanity deals with its differences. His motivation is soundly rendered by Bryan Singer and Sir Ian McKellan, and his power is one that is the most cinematically impressive. One of my favorite parts of that film is when Magneto, Toad and Sabertooth go to see their prisoner, Senator Kelly; Magneto is confidently striding across a bridge being formed in front of our very eyes out of metal panels from the rear wall of a huge chasm. A truly grand moment, both in appearance and concept.

Furthermore, the characters relate to one another in ways that are quite fun, with the animosity between Scott and Logan being a constant source of amusement; Logan's attraction to Jean Grey never seems too convenient (actually, most men I speak to have a similar reaction to Famke Jannsen as Logan) and generates some very entertaining sexual tension; Logan's near-adoption of Rogue is nicely matched by her crush on him. The coup, of course, is the casting of Patrick Stewart, whose ability to generate a genial trust makes him the perfect Professor X.

In order to psyche myself up for the release of X2 (that is its on screen title, even if the ad copy varies from X-Men 2 to X-Men United) I picked up the “1.5” edition of the DVD of the first film, which, like the earlier release of the film, has an astoundingly vivid picture, but also adds a thunderous DTS track that is much more detailed, richer and deeper than the (already excellent) Dolby Digital audio track. The film held up wonderfully; I even had a minor epiphany about the score (see below).

With the original film fresh in my mind, I went happily to the theater to see X2, expecting a decent piece of filmmaking on par with the first film, an nice, rousing bit of escapism.

What I got was X2.

The brief title sequence has the kind of ludicrous electronically created imagery that is so much fun to watch in a film of this type, but then the film opens, and the stage is set for an adventure that is as epic as anything that can be seen in a movie theater. This film makes no attempt to familiarize the uninitiated viewer into the world that these characters inhabit, but rather just starts the story rolling and its forward momentum is so intense that one can not help but drop any sense of disbelief

The stakes are raised in this film, both in terms of the scope of the threat and in the personal involvement the characters have with one another; this film builds so well on the relationships established in the first movie that even formerly annoying characters... okay, Storm... have a definite place here.

The film contrasts sharply with X-Men in many ways; where X-Men made several mistakes in terms of one-liners (“Do you know what happens to a toad when it gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” Groan), the dialogue in X2 is crackling with wit and drama. While X-Men was slick and shiny, X2 tends more towards the dirty and grainy (Thomas Newton Sigel is one of the few cinematographers shooting in Super 35 to actually compose in widescreen... see The Usual Suspects). The tone of the original was quite chipper, while the new one is harsh and in-your-face. This is seen best when considering the body count each film has; the first movie kept the deaths to a minimum and they are generally caused by Magneto's forces, while the second doesn't bother with such niceties. Yes, Mystique kills a lot of people, but so does Logan.

The relationship between Xavier and Magneto is very well developed here. Magneto feels genuine guilt over his part in Stryker's plan, and his apologetic response to Xavier's questioning is a moment that is indicative of the many subtleties that McKellan infuses into the character. Magneto has a sharp, hard sense of humor; his escape scene is the same manner of triumph that the bridge over the chasm sequence in the first film; the shot of Magneto standing on a flat disc with a pair of iron balls spinning about his head is effective beyond belief.

Logan's quest for his past is blended into the storyline in such a way as so to make his own self-discovery one that raises as many questions as it does answers without slowing the plot down. The more he knows, the less he likes whatever it was he may have been before; his killing spree during the mansion attack certainly seems to fit Stryker's frequent assertion that Wolverine was an animal. His attraction to Jean Grey has, of course, not diminished; his reaction to her “death” is (the way Hugh Jackman plays it) divine. He keeps saying to Scott that "...she's gone..." and as Scott openly bawls, there is a cut to a reverse angle of Logan in which we see that he is not saying that to Scott at all, but that he is trying to come to grips with the event himself.

Xavier's powers are briefly outlined in the first film, but in the second we see how truly powerful he really is; and the images used to depict Cerebro's tracking program are beautiful and evocative; because of the spacious nature of the representation, during the climax of the film it is not hard to see that five billion humans were suffering, even though we only see a few. It seems that Jean Grey's dalliance with Cerebro in the last film has had dire effects on her mental abilities. She is not getting weaker, but stronger, but she is still only learning to control her power. So, too, is Rogue finally coming to terms with the practical applications of her abilities.

Mystique is used to marvelous advantage here. Whether Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is enjoying being nude and painted blue all morning for a grueling afternoon shoot is anybody's guess, but one thing is for damn sure, and that is that Mystique is sure having fun. She's bad and loving it, and not above flipping Stryker the bird. Alan Cummings plays the lovable Nightcrawler with a convincing earnestness, whose serenity gives the film a nice counterpoint to all of the high adventure. Brian Cox turns in another very naturalistic performance as the ruthless Stryker.

Bobby and Rogue have a tentativeness to the physical aspect of their relationship that goes beyond the threat of Rogue's touch; as my friend Ryan in Boston pointed out, the scene in which they kiss works so well because of the fact that they both know very well that they are teenagers and they are in Bobby's room when Bobby's parents are not home. The danger that Rogue represents is great, but so are the effects of their hormones and emotions (in which order, you decide). The visible exhalation Rogue breathes out after their kiss turns a fairly standard scene about teenagers exploring their sexuality into a sequence full of wonder. Logan and Bobby's relationship is a nice touch; Bobby is initially moderately hostile to someone whom he perceives to be a prospective competitor for Rogue's affections. As soon as he sees Logan's reaction to Jean, he realizes there is no threat here. The scene in which Bobby has explained to his parents that he is a mutant gives the film even more resonance. His parents' reaction is an allegory for homosexuality ("Have you tried not being a mutant?") and is quite laudable for its awkwardness.

The scene in which Mystique comes into Logan's tent disguised as Jean is one which sends the male members of the audiences I have seen it with shift uncomfortably in their seats. This type of scene could only appear in this film, but it is one that you would generally not see in a genre film. It is great to be seeing the film deal head on with the kinky possibilities inherent in that character and her abilities.

The film is in many ways a tribute to the skills of John Ottman, Singer's regular editor and composer whose work on The Usual Suspects in both categories won both of them quite a bit of attention. The pace of X2 is so perfect that, even though it is almost a full half-hour longer than the original movie, and has many more characters, it feels shorter. The forward momentum of the storyline is never compromised, no matter how complex and intricate it gets. Furthermore, Ottman showcases the subtleties in the actors' performances (something he and Singer did to such great advantage on The Usual Suspects, allowing the roles to come through as being highly detailed.

His score has been drawing quite a bit of mixed reviews from the film music community; I love it as it appears in the film, but I think that the album presentation is severely compromised by excessive abridgment and restructuring. It is richly thematic, but those themes tend to be quite low-key. Of particular note is the old-school Jerry Goldsmith-style action writing heard in the Wolverine/Deathstryke fight, Mystique's slinky theme and the epic strains for Alkali Lake and Jean Grey. It is also nice that, while he did not use any of Michael Kamen's thematic material in his score, the music does not pretend the first film's score didn't exist at all, with a few minor textural references (the easiest one to notice is the solo violin heard briefly in the "Sneaky Mystique" cue when she sits down at Stryker's computer).

Jean Grey speaking Xavier's prologue from the first film at the end of this one is a nice tip of the hat to Nick Meyer's masterful Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but her saying those lines, specifically, and their content, is foreshadowing the future development of her character.

I have seen this film way too many times in such a short period of time not to have started picking it apart, but each time I have seen it I have found myself being drawn again into the film again. It is truly an amazing cinematic experience on several levels for me, and one that I think is worth at least one good look at. Maybe more. It is really nice to see a film that goes through the trouble and spends the money on an N'Sync song only so that they could make fun of them (did you know that Cyclops listens to boy bands, Jean?).


K-Men

The original X-Men was scored by Michael Kamen, a wonderful composer who has composed many wonderful scores, including The Dead Zone for David Cronenberg (the only Cronenberg film since The Brood not to be scored by Howard Shore), Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen for Terry Gilliam, Highlander, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon (where he collaborated with Eric Clapton and David Sanborn), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Mr. Holland's Opus, What Dreams May Come and many others. He has also composed many less-than stellar scores for quite a few forgettable films.

When I first saw the film, Dave Klahr warned me that the score was awful. Upon seeing the film for the first time, I agreed with him. The music is very odd-sounding, and initially quite unattractive. Kamen had to write several different scores for the film, as he was getting conflicting reactions from the producers and the director; the result is the complete mishmash that appears in the movie. The soundtrack album is not a decent representation of the score as it appears in the film because much of it sounds very different from what appears in the film.

Over time, however, with repeated viewings, the score began to grow on me. While every critical bend in my brain protests, frankly, I have to say that I really like the music from the first film now. Kamen's slick, silvery sound and nervous synthesizer passages (similar to certain elements of Highlander which remain unreleased) create a unique experience within the film itself. There are several nice motives, such as the relentlessly dark string figures with French horn that Kamen uses for Magneto, or (what sounds like) an electric violin for Mystique.
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