For once, the trailers don't lie. X2: X-Men United is a really good sequel --- better than the first, actually, and maybe even in the same company as Spider-Man (both are based on comic books, hence the comparison). The action sequences are some of the finest I've seen, and you couldn't ask for much more from a story that features and gives adequate screen time to the many unique characters. Director Bryan Singer brings a refreshing change to the arid landscape with the rare summer sequel that not only doesn't just rehash the same situations as the original, but flat-out breaks ground in sheer entertainment value.
X2 takes off like a rocket and doesn't think of letting up for a second --- save during the obligatory "romantic tension" scenes --- until the final credits start to roll. It's set not long after the first film, with the Mutant Registration Act still being bandied about Washington. Its creator, Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), is now dead-set against the act, the passing of which seems imminent after X2's opening scene, in which a mutant named Nightcrawler infiltrates the White House and comes within an inch or two of killing the president.
(In case you're completely unfamiliar with the whole mutant thing, a small percentage of the world's population has special powers obtained through various forms of mutation. It's a thinly veiled attempt to show the plight of the outcast minority of your choice: black, gay, Japanese, or, more timely, Arabic.)
The first X-Men film concentrated on a battle between two different groups of mutants. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), or the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the equation, runs a school for gifted children in Westchester County, in hopes of helping mutants eventually integrate themselves into society. Meanwhile, The Brotherhood of Evil, led by Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), wants to physically punish the humans who refuse to accept his kind. As the title suggests, in X2, the mutants unite to battle a common human enemy, General William Stryker (Brian Cox).
One of the things that made the first X-Men picture so entertaining was the decision its creators made not to bog the story down by showing the origin of each character. In fact, aside from a brief opening depicting a young Lehnsherr becoming Magneto, we don't really learn the genesis of any of the other dozen or so mutants. Part of X2's story revolves around Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) trying to regain enough of his memory to learn his own origin, but that's about it. While each character from the first flick is back (except Toad and Sabretooth, of course), we see more of minor players Pyro, Iceman, Jubilee, Colossus, and Shadowcat, in addition to a whole lot of Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) and Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming). The latter's scenes alone are worth the price of admission. Bamf!
Before he captured the top prize at Cannes for A Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami made three films, set in the northern Iranian cities of Koker and Poshteh, which became known as his "Earthquake Trilogy." All three screen on successive nights, beginning May 7, at the Dryden Theatre, and this week we're going to focus on the first: Where Is the Friend's Home?
Home? opens in a dingy Koker classroom, where we witness an overbearing teacher belittle young Nematzadeh (Ahmed Ahmed Poor) because he didn't do his homework in a notebook. It's the weeping Nematzadeh's third warning, and the teacher promises that if he screws up one more time, he'll be expelled. As if that weren't enough hanging over an eight-year-old's head, Nematzadeh takes a spill on the way home, drops his books, and messes up his pants. His deskmate, Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor), helps the boy up, gathers his books, and dusts off his pants. Ahmed also accidentally picks up Nematzadeh's school notebook and takes it home.
When he realizes the mistake he has made, as well as the potentially devastating effect it could have on Nematzadeh, Ahmed pleads with his mother to let him return the notebook. But she's not interested in his predicament, despite her son's concerned and repetitive begging. When he realizes arguing with his mother is futile, Ahmed decides to take a chance and, when Mom isn't looking, cheeses it up the winding road to Poshteh.
As the title suggests, Ahmed has some difficulty finding Nematzadeh's house, and the rest of Home? is all about his journey, which reminded me somewhat of a Greek myth. Ahmed's adventure pits him against numerous adults, each of which is more unhelpful than the last. When they aren't ignoring Ahmed and his questions, they're ordering him around like a slave.
Ahmed, on at least some level, sees Iranian civilization as being trapped in a stagnant loop, and believes his selfless act might be a step toward building a stronger and more caring community. Kiarostami helps bring this point home by showing Ahmed attempting to get help from two very different door-to-door salesmen. One is old, wise, and very experienced (he helps Ahmed as much as he can), while the other is young and crass (he ignores Ahmed, like nearly everybody else does). This plays as a knock toward the generation of Iranians that came of age during the Islamic Revolution.
Kiarostami, who wrote, directed, and edited House?, uses the screen and various sounds to make Ahmed's expedition into the unfamiliar Poshteh real. Thanks to some careful camera placement and Wellesian shadows, we discover what's around every dark corner at the same time Ahmed does. Babek looks genuinely upset throughout most of House?, but he's not nearly as entertaining to watch as Amin Maher, who also lights up the screen in Kiarostami's Ten (which will screen at the Dryden this summer).
Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.