X2: X-MEN UNITED
Most reviewers disliked the original X-Men, Bryan Singer's Marvel Comics adaptation that earned money but little critical respect in the summer of 2000. I, on the other hand, loved the original, so much so that, three years later, it still merits regular rotation in my DVD player.
So when I heard that reviewers were claiming X2: X-Men United to be not only superior to the original but really good, I was a bit apprehensive. It was nice to know that fellow reviewers were finally jumping on board, but did that mean the things I adored about the first film - the moodiness, the depth of character (particularly regarding Wolverine, Rogue, and Magneto), the shocking gravitas of the work - would be sacrificed in favor of Pure, Ass-Kicking, Summer-Blockbuster Spectacle?
Well, for the most part ... yeah.
Just to be clear: X2: X-Men United is a great deal of fun, and it does feature a rather ingenius plot, where mutantkind faces annihilation at the hands of uber-evil Army commander Stryker (Brian Cox, in a thrillingly malevolent performance), forcing the heroic and villainous X-Men to team up against him. As before, Singer directs the proceedings with gusto and wit; his work is especially fine during Magneto's clever prison break and the great opening scene of Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming, a marvelous addition) terrorizing the Oval Office. The effects, though not seamless, have just the right magic for a "Bam! Zowie!" spectacle, and the series still features the most ridiculously talented cast a comic-book flick will probably ever land; who could possibly miss the opportunity to see anything starring Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, and the prodigiously gifted Hugh Jackman?
The new movie is sleek and confident and enjoyable. It's also something 2000's X-Men was not - soulless. In the previous installment, the mutants' drama was interrupted by action scenes, making them all the more vibrant and memorable (which is why sequences like the train-station attack and Magneto's showdown with the cops - where he turns their own weapons against them - linger in your mind the way traditional action scenes don't). By contrast, X2's explosiveness gets interrupted by character drama, so these sequences - Wolverine's identity crisis, his love triangle with Jean Grey and Cyclops, Rogue's inability to touch her boyfriend without inflicting harm - begin to feel like a drain on the fun, even though they were the heart of the original film. As sequels go, X2: X-Men United is a beaut, and as summertime entertainment goes - yup, Hollywood's summer began on May 2 - it's terrifically crafted, but I can't be alone in wishing there was a bit more meat on its adamantium-covered bones.
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
Not to be rude, but is there no one in Michael Douglas' camp able to tell him that, although he did indeed woo and wed Ms. Catherine Zeta-Jones, he's no longer viable as a sexy romantic lead? I had expected to dislike his latest offering, It Runs in the Family, because it looked saccharine beyond measure, a family-counseling session for the big screen. (In addition to Michael, the cast features Papa Kirk, Mama Diana, and Baby Bear Cameron.) Well, it's not nearly as sickly or maudlin as I feared, though Michael does his damnedest to make it so. It is, however, depressingly contrived and formulaic, and awfully vulgar for a film of its type; I almost felt badly for the offended seniors at the screening I attended, who had to endure masturbation jokes, disruptive flatulence, pre-teens ogling a porno magazine, a pot bust, little Rory Culkin asking for a definition of "69," and the embarrassing sight of Cameron Douglas' underwear sliding halfway down his ass.
Yet the film's biggest detriment is Michael himself, who, in It Runs in the Family, corners the market on embarrassment. All throughout, he reminded me of nothing so much as a frenzied party host rushing from room to room to make sure everyone's having a good time, oblivious to the fact that his party sucks. The film's director, Fred Schepisi, has done some astounding work in the past - The Devil's Playground, A Cry in the Dark, Six Degrees of Separation - but it's obvious that Michael is the true ringleader of this work; you can feel it in the forced, ersatz energy of his every scene. It's as if this role was shaped for the Michael Douglas of the mid-to-late '80s, especially when he has a near-adulterous kitchen dalliance with a hot young co-worker; Mikey's a little long in the tooth for Fatal Attraction 2. (It's also a little unseemly that this actor, who'll be 60 next year, spends so much screen time kvetching about not receiving enough love from his daddy. Get over it, already.) Bernadette Peters, Rory Culkin, and the lovely Diana Douglas emerge from the work unscathed, and God knows it's inspiring to see Kirk so game and feisty, but It Runs in the Family is a mess, a glorified home movie that'll make you grateful that Michael Douglas isn't a member of your family.
THE REAL CANCUN
In a staggering show of collective intelligence, the American public voiced a resounding "No thank you" to The Real Cancun, the first so-called "reality movie" by the producers of MTV's The Real World, in which 16 collegians spend a spring-break week in a swanky Mexican hotel drinking, dancing, and hooking up. The only lure for this R-rated enterprise - let's be honest - was in the promise of getting some female nudity for your reality-entertainment dollar, so it's no wonder the movie tanked: Do you know any straight men who are reality-TV addicts? (The film will probably be a big hit when 13- and 14-year-old boys catch up with it on DVD.) After you've been treated to the bare breasts, the discreet humping beneath the sheets, and the liberal profanity, all you're left with are 16 vapid, interchangeable dips who, in a just world, would all be voted off the island.
What some of us hate most about programs of this ilk is the preening self-awareness of the "casts." Having been steeped in reality shows such as The Real World and Big Brother, these teens and post-teens know exactly how to behave at every given moment: when to smile coyly at the camera, when to tear up, when to stage a fracas with a housemate. Everything these youths say and do is preordained and phony; there's not a trace of reality left in them. (And they're never so fake as when being "sincere.") In The Real Cancun, there's not a one of them you'd want to share anything but a meaningless, one-night encounter with, which I guess might be the point, but the film's spectacular box-office failure proves that P.T. Barnum's famous dictum might not have been completely accurate.