Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Mutants and Madness

Blessed with an abundance of paid leave over the holidays, the missus and I rented not one but two DVDs over the weekend and actually managed to watch both before they were due back. In hopes of jump-starting a movie-watching spree the likes of which haven't been seen since the birth of the youngest member of the Shallow Center household, we've also opened a Netflix membership, so don't be surprised if you start seeing thoughts on months-old films popping up here.

For example, the weekend's viewings were of the not-so-recent X-Men and A Beautiful Mind, which on the surface would appear to have little in common. Viewed back-to-back, though, they resonate with themes of paranoia and the dangers inherent in accepting things at face value.

Bryan Singer's X-Men is a trim, lively, and conventional comic-book movie. The presence of mutants -- humans with various genetic alterations -- at a point sometime in the near future is a given; the problem for the mutants isn't escaping discovery, but a growing fear among the rest of the population of their potentially harmful powers. As Congress considers legislation that would require mutants to register with the authorities, a splinter group of outcasts, headed by Magneto, unleashes a destructive plot meant to defend all mutants from what he perceives as repressive, fascist government oversight. Equally concerned about governmental consequences but much more confident in human's ability to do the right thing are the good mutants, headed by Professor Xavier and including Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Dr. Jean Grey, and Rogue. After several scenes of fisticuffs and derring-do, the film reaches its tidy, inevitable conclusion, with Magneto behind bars and the various X-Men dealing with the fallout of their new relationships with each other.

X-Men's heavy-handed approach -- xenophobia is, like, bad -- is hardly atypical for a comic book, and just to make sure his audience gets where the picture is coming from, Singer begins it in a Polish concentration camp. Still, he and fellow writer Tom DeSantos earn points for making Magneto's position defensible, even if his tactics are anything but. The good mutants are also human and fallible, and it's fun to watch them grapple with their conditions without the benefit of the moral superiority that can make conventional superheroes unbearably smug at times. The film includes some nice moments of humor and a thoughtfulness absent from most of its genre (see Daredevil; or, rather, don't). Regardless of its strengths and limitations as Cinema, as entertainment the movie is a dandy -- swift and funny and bursting with seamless special effects. And, whaddya know, it's sequel-ready, too! Last summer's X2: X-Men United, praised by many as being superior to the original, just arrived yesterday from Netflix. More on that later, after I see it.

As for A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard's biopic of Nobel-laureate mathematician John Nash copped a ton of Oscars a couple of years back, but I felt betrayed by the hype. It's not a bad movie -- it just didn't seem, I don't know, special enough to warrant all of the applause. For all of the talk in the picture about the immense strength of Nash's intellect, the bulk of the film is spent on characters who turn out never to have existed except as schizophrenic delusions concocted by Nash's damaged psyche. Yes, yes, I know, it's a love story -- Nash himself claims at the end of the movie to have been saved by the love of his wife, Alicia. But the young Nash, before being beset by his personal demons, is such an antisocial dork that it's hard to imagine anyone falling for him. Well, maybe for his mind, but Howard gives us precious little to work with there, to explain what made Nash tick. What, exactly, about his mind was so beautiful? The theory that would win Nash the Nobel in economics a decade ago is offered up almost as a throwaway scene, an effort on Nash's part to increase his chances of getting laid. There's no sense of how his theory was applied in the real world, nor is there any depiction at all of Nash even conducting research on it.

As Nash, Russell Crowe is fine; I'm not a huge fan of Academy Award nominations for playing handicapped characters, but he does a nice job getting inside Nash's head as best as the script will allow him. His performance as the elder Nash, played with appropriate understatement and gravity, is particularly striking. Even better, though, is Jennifer Connelly, whose performance as Alicia earned her a completely deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Connelly and Howard could have been content to let her jaw-dropping, dark Irish looks carry the day, but instead she infuses Alicia with the heartbreaking humanity of someone who must suffer almost unbearable pain as she watches a loved one spiral into madness. Props to Howard for drawing such a performance out of her. If only the rest of the film had been as dazzling as Connelly.


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