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Saturday, December 7

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X-Men: The Last Stand

A series of warnings before I begin: If you have any affection for the X-Men series of films up to this point, one of the elements of this third film that makes it so different than the previous two is that no character's power or life is sacred. Another important aspect to X-Men: The Last Stand is that, much like many of the mutants in the film, your allegiances may shift during the course of the story. Finally, if you have any affection for the Dark Phoenix storyline from the original Uncanny X-Men comics, you may find yourself ripping your hair out at this highly condensed version of that tale. This third trip down X Lane is the most jarring, troubling and uneven of the three, yet there are aspects that made me smile.

The enemy in Last Stand is not Ian McKellen's gloriously hammy Magneto. If anything, Magneto may be considered the true hero of this tale, as he attempts to stop the U.S. government from using a recently developed chemical "cure" for mutantkind as a weapon against his homo-superior race. The developer of the drug is Worthington Labs (if the name Worthington means anything to you, that may tell whether or not you enjoy the film), whose headquarters on Alcatraz Island initially serves as a place where mutants can come to be vaccinated voluntarily. However, when soldiers policing evil mutants begin shooting the serum into them using specially designed guns, Magneto uses this development as an excuse to rally his mutant troops and take the offensive.

So what are Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the X-Men doing while this is going on? Not nearly as much as you'd hope, and part of the film's problem comes from the fact that we never quite understand what stance the X-Men are taking in this war on mutants. Clearly, they don't want their kind exterminated, yet they fight against Magneto & Co. as if they're defending their oppressors. Still reeling from the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) at the end of the last film, Xavier's School of Gifted Youngsters carries on under a cloud. Team leader and Grey's lover Cyclops (James Marsden) is barely functional; Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who also had a little thing for Jean, drifts in and out of the school; and Halle Berry's Storm becomes the school's reluctant de facto leader. By the way, Berry is still the weakest link in these films, and she's in The Last Stand a lot more than she is in the other two films; I pray she does not return if the series does.

Perhaps in an attempt to prepare us for future installments of X-Men films, Last Stand spends more time than the other movies emphasizing its newer and younger characters, including the power-draining Rogue (Anna Paquin); Iceman (Shawn Ashmore); the strongest addition to the film, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page from the recent Hard Candy), who can walk through walls; the metal-skinned Colossus (Daniel Cudmore); Angel (Ben Foster), who just happens to be the son of the man who invents the mutant cure; and the agile and blue-furred Beast (the perfectly cast Kelsey Grammer), the government's Secretary on Mutant Affairs, whose allegiances are tested when the cure is introduced.

As a long-time fan of the X-Men comic books and films, I'll confess several geek-out moments most casual fans just aren't going to get. The presence of villainous characters like Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) and Callisto (Dania Ramirez) certainly piqued my interest, but it was the transformation of the resurrected Jean Grey into her all-powerful and wholly destructive Phoenix alter-ego that really brought it all home (despite the fact that we never see her trademark Phoenix bird flame up from the comic books). This is a legendary storyline from the comic books (albeit, a far more elaborate one than the version presented on film), and to see it brought to life was both exciting and disappointing (if that's possible).

Director Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour films, After the Sunset, Red Dragon) has received a lot of unwarranted shit from the film geek community in general over the years, but he deserves large amounts of praise for his handling of the X-Men universe. Taking his cues from the director of the previous films, Bryan Singer, Ratner has assembled some of the best action sequences of any superhero film to date; a sequence involving the Golden Gate Bridge is particularly jaw-droppingly good. But more importantly, this film shows us that with so many (sometimes too many) characters at the filmmakers' disposal, the possibilities for this franchise are endless (especially when you consider that spin-off films are being developed for both Wolverine and Magneto). And let's not forget the cardinal rule of all comic book storylines: just because a character dies or loses his/her power doesn't mean they can't mysteriously come back to life or regain their abilities.

But Ratner's work is far from flawless. Important characters' deaths are delivered with the emotional weight of a cheese sandwich. And as much as I enjoyed seeing all of these great characters come to life, there are so many that everyone gets screwed out of anything resembling emotional development. The few moments of humanity (or is that mutanity?) that are present are quite nice. Rogue's struggle with whether or not to receive the cure just so she can hold hands with her boyfriend, Iceman, is honest and moving.

For better or worse, X-Men: The Last Stand is perhaps most like the comic books. The world (or at least the United States) seems focused entirely on the struggle to cope with the growing mutant population, which doesn't seem particularly likely but I wouldn't have it any other way. The overt parallels between the prejudice against mutants and similar treatment of Jews or homosexuals over the years is still firmly at the heart of this story, and this adds a layer of importance to the proceedings that you just don't get in the Spider-Man or Batman films. Although I haven't watched the first two X-Men films in a while, The Last Stand feels like it features the most dialogue. There are many issues at stake here, and I appreciated the exposition, if only as an excuse to slow things down a bit and get used to all the new characters.

Ratner and company have produced a worthy successor in this series, and the film's flaws are largely forgivable (although not by some, apparently). I only found myself laughing at the film's bloated sense of self-importance a couple times, and that's not bad. X-Men: The Last Stand will probably be embraced by the world at large and scorned by many a comic and film geek, if only because Ratner pulled this one off with some authority.

Lady Vengeance

I first saw this third part of South Korean director Chan-wook Park's loosely connected "Revenge Trilogy" (along with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy) back in December, so forgive me if my memory on certain plot points is fuzzy. But plot isn't always the most important element of Park's controversial and uneasy works. The man exists on pure, sometimes competing, emotions. When he carries out acts of violence on screen, they are accompanied with great thought and contemplation, and he has the uncanny ability to make you uneasy by testing your limits about what is right and wrong and just. Oldboy is still my favorite in this trilogy, but Lady Vengeance is a very close second.

Chan's focus is on Lee Geum-Ja, who, at age 19, is wrongfully convicted of kidnapping and murdering a young child. Lee believes she knows exactly who set her up and committed the crime, and spends her entire 13-year sentence plotting her payback. As the film jumps back and forth between present and past, we see Lee manipulate and win the hearts of her fellow female inmates to carry out their own brands of justice on people who did them wrong. Lee allows herself to appear rehabilitated by the prison's preacher, and her eventual release is seen as a great victory for the power of religion in jails. It's a short-lived victory. Once Lee and her fellow inmates get released, they engage in a wildly elaborate series of revenge acts that culminates in an unimaginable confrontation between Lee and the man who framed her.

Park never misses an opportunity to maximize the emotional impact of any scene. In Lady Vengeance the feelings overflow when Lee reunites with her now-adopted daughter Jenny, who was an unknowing pawn in Lee's allowing herself to be framed for the murder 13 years earlier.

But so much of the film's plot vanishes from memory once the method of Lee's revenge becomes clear. Actually, more becomes clear than you may be willing to handle. How many child victims were there at the hands of this murderer? And who exactly has the right to seek justice upon him? Perhaps better than any other film in recent memory, Lady Vengeance delves into the minds of those who seek revenge, as they contemplate how they feel about committing an act as brutal as the one committed against a loved one or themselves. Will their rage before the act be as strong and untainted after? The movie will undoubtedly shock you, not necessarily for its violent content (it gets a bit bloody at times), but for its struggle with morality and the souls of its characters. Few survive Lady Vengeance without some blood on their hands, but the work isn't about the act of violence; it's about the consequences. This is the year's first soul-rattling film.

Street Fight

Leading up to this year's Academy Awards, I was absolutely, no-questions-asked rooting for Murderball to win in the Best Documentary category. Those little freezing penguins were cute, but nothing touched me more in this category than the big-hearted quad-rugby players featured in Murderball. On the day of the Oscars, however, I managed to squeeze in a screening of the one nominated documentary I had not seen of the five nominated, and my entire perspective changed. The film was screening at a small art gallery in the city, and if you paid me $1 million, I couldn't tell you where it was or take you there. The film was called Street Fight, and it exposed a side and ferocity of politics that you hear rumors about but never think you'll see laid out in front of you so blatantly and with such precision and conviction. Street Fight is playing one time only as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival tonight (Friday, May 26) at Facets Multimedia at 7pm. And if you've ever pretended to care about quality documentaries, you'll make a point of catching this screening.

Street Fight chronicles the absolutely cutthroat mayoral race of Newark, New Jersey, where young, Ivy League-educated Cory Booker throws himself into the arena with four-term incumbent and absolute bastard Sharpe James. Clearly director Marshall Curry has his favorite (probably because he has unlimited access to Booker, whereas every time he attempts to get his camera close to James, he gets roughed up by bodyguards), but he still manages to present a fairly balanced look at process, which is about as dirty and ugly as it gets. This is democracy at its worst, and James and his followers use every under-handed trick in the book, from ripping down Booker campaign posters to harassing local businesses that support him, breaking into Booker's campaign headquarters, and accusing the light-skinned black candidate of being the white devil out to destroy the mostly black population.

A quick search of newspaper headlines during James' career as mayor shows a blatant pattern of corruption and greed, but the voters keep picking him because there have been no viable opponents until Booker, a sensible candidate with clear, healthy ideas for Newark. There are moments in the movie that I was almost sick with disgust at the dirty tricks played by the usually unseen faces of James' supporters, but as the election draws closer, even anonymity seems irrelevant to these immoral button-men. Many of you might already know the outcome of this race, but that never stops Street Fight from being one of the most riveting documents of how far we have let ourselves stoop as Americans. With James essentially in control of the police force (who went practically door-to-door and harassed anyone with a Booker poster in their window) and often making veiled threats against media outlets, the fact that his campaign went largely unchecked and without restraint is an embarrassment on every level. With the Karl Roves of this world rewriting the book on dirty tricks during a campaign, Street Fight exists as a microcosm of American politics and makes you very nervous about our future as a nation.

P.S. Four years after this film was shot, Booker is now the incoming mayor. Eventually, all things straighten themselves out.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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