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Entanglements

On the brilliant Spider and entertaining X-Men.

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In 1979, David Cronenberg released what was then and may still be his best film, The Brood. A relentlessly personal horror film about a vicious custody battle, the film is also something of a black comedy to the degree that one sees it as an unintentional answer film to that year's Oscar winner, Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep's far more respectable scenery-chewer about a custody battle.

Well, Cronenberg has done it again. There's absolutely nothing funny about his latest film, the brilliant Spider, but it does act as a (presumably) unintentional corrective to another overblown Oscar winner, Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind. Both films are examinations of schizophrenia, but there is no calculatingly heartwarming ending to Spider, no platitudes about "beautiful heart[s]." And, where Howard's film featured a powerfully showy performance from its lead, Russell Crowe, Cronenberg's film is driven by an even more audacious yet understated performance from Ralph Fiennes.

Yet, despite the subject manner, Spider is not a clinical treatise or disease-of-the-week movie --not a film about schizophrenia, rather a film about a schizophrenic. And it's a poetic, fairy-tale-like film suffused with a sense of existential dread. (It is set in the '80s but seems to exist entirely outside of time.) Cronenberg has done Kafka before (see The Fly), but this is Kafka as told through the Brothers Grimm.

The film opens at a train station, with a shot of disembarking passengers that echoes the very earliest of film images --the Lumière Brothers' turn-of-the-century shorts. But after this sprawl of humanity (and, thus, sprawl of possible protagonists and possible narratives) passes, the camera focuses on one lone figure hesitantly stepping off the train. This man -- a shaking, nervous wreck in tattered clothes --is Dennis Cleg (Fiennes), aka "Spider," a nickname given to him by his mother for not-quite-explained reasons, who has just been released from a mental asylum and sent to a halfway house in the same London neighborhood in which he grew up.

The halfway house itself is a gray, barren, sad place, governed by a stern caretaker (Lynn Redgrave). A full 15 minutes into the film, Spider utters his first, and one of his only bits of dialogue, telling a fellow tenant, with great effort, "I will not be here that long." And he won't.

Given a set of linens and assigned to a stark, mostly empty room, Spider spends most of his time standing in the corner of the room, scribbling into a small notebook, using a language presumably only he understands. He begins to revisit his childhood, and gradually the (very Oedipal) mystery of what happened to Spider and why he was committed to the asylum begins to unfurl. Spider returns to old haunts -- his childhood home, with his gruff, menacing father (Gabriel Byrne) and gentle, put-upon mother (Miranda Richardson); the pub down the street where his father drank away the workday --and bears witness to his own life, standing in a corner, watching his younger self.

Cronenberg films these scenes in a very direct, economical style, conveying Spider's schizophrenia with very little trickery. The look of the film is as drained of color and as minimalist as Fiennes' shocking performance, with a web motif --a broken mirror, a giant, indeterminate metal structure outside the halfway house, a self-made system of strings and threads that Spider constructs in his room which is a manifestation of Spider's internal imprisonment. Every bit as great as Fiennes is Richardson, who excels playing three roles in a bit of dream-logic reminiscent of Mulholland Drive or That Obscure Object of Desire.

The result is an intensely controlled, slow-paced but ultimately engrossing character study that stands with Cronenberg's best work. Cronenberg has had his shot at Hollywood's brass ring --a Stephen King adaptation (The Dead Zone), a big-budget sci-fi flick (The Fly), a glossy (though entirely uncompromising) prestige film (Dead Ringers) -- but has lately seemed to withdraw back into the film-buff-fave semi-obscurity of his '70s and early-'80s work. The difference is that he's come out on the other side of this journey a far more accomplished filmmaker: Crash was a palpably disorienting glimpse into the taboo which many took for a masterpiece; the vastly underrated eXistenZ was a sort of low-tech yet superior answer to The Matrix, and it introduced a modest, organic style that Cronenberg continues here. Spider may be even more impressive, a film whose absolute virtuosity may be imperceptible at first precisely for how self-contained it is. On first viewing, the film peaked for me about half an hour after it was over, when the extent of Cronenberg's achievement settled in. And it was even better on a second viewing.

A confession: I may be the only person I know who has no interest whatsoever in the upcoming Matrix movies, but I couldn't wait to see X2: X-Men United, and I haven't purchased a comic book since I was in elementary school.

Discounting something like Ghost World, director Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie a couple of years back may have been this non-comic-book-fan's all-time favorite comics-based movie, and X2 pretty much continues the first film's charms: It's a little grander and has a better finale but is perhaps a little less poetic.

The reasons these films work for me where so many other similar ventures don't are many: The basic story that drives the series is more believable (within the realm of the unbelievable) than most of its ilk and is rife with more metaphoric richness than most (encompassing everything from the Holocaust to our present-day "Patriot" acts). The X-Men saga is predicated on a leap in the evolutionary chain, which forms a new race of mutants with special powers. These mutants are viewed with fear and hatred by many (as X2's opening voiceover observes, "Sharing the world has never been humanity's defining attribute"), and the story of their attempt to find their place in the world and of the resistance they encounter is applicable to all of world history -- any time and place in which "the other" has been feared and oppressed, which means anytime anyplace. And a vision of the ostracized fighting back with superhuman powers is no small part of the concept's allure.

The contemporary relevance of this concept is made plain by the new film's opening sequence, in which a mutant terrorist attack on the White House provides an excuse for mutant-hating human General William Stryker (supporting player extraordinaire Brian Cox) to suspend due process and sic the full power of the military industrial complex on the supposed evildoers. The addition of Cox's Stryker completes a gravitas-lending triangle at the top of the film's story-arc, alongside X-Men leader Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), an integrationist who wants mutants and muggles (to borrow a term from a different fantastical blockbuster) to live together peaceably, and nominal baddie Magneto (Ian McKellen), a Holocaust survivor who's prepared to defend the mutant population against human aggression by any means necessary.

Thankfully, Singer and Co. respect the film's story, allowing none of the jokey self-referentiality that might mar the film in other hands. This makes the X-Men movies the rare summer "escapist" series that cares about plot and character as much as action and pyrotechnics -- and it doesn't hurt that the film's copious action scenes aren't the kind of noisy, dull, disjointed, special-effects-driven set pieces that populate so many other contemporary popcorn movies.

Most of the previous film's cast returns, including X-Men Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), an outlaw-hero type and mysterious self-healing mutant who can produce indestructible metal claws from his knuckles; Storm (Halle Berry), who can control the weather; Cyclops (James Marsden), who can shoot a concussive laser blast from his eyes; and Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whose telepathic and telekinetic powers seem to be growing. This group is shadowed by a new generation of teen mutants, most prominently the love triangle of Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), who can emit and control extreme coldness; Pyro (Aaron Stanford), who similarly controls fire, though he can't create it; and the tragic Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose very touch robs other mutants of their powers and eventually kills them. On the opposite side of the mutant ledger, Magneto's brood has been downsized to shape-shifting assistant Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). The wild cards this time are a couple of new mutants not initially affiliated with either group: pious teleporting German Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) and Wolverine's female doppelganger Deathstrike (Kelly Hu). Got all that?

The real reason these movies are so unexpectedly good may be that they're filled with as much "business" as a Howard Hawks movie and directed with almost as much care. For all the allegorical weightiness of the story, much of the appeal here lies in how these mutants -- with their unique powers and personalities -- interact with each other and with non-mutants. To this end, the display of individual mutant talents is almost always wittily presented, and the film is rife with small grace notes and winning moments: Iceman and Wolverine's testy relationship softening when Iceman cools his new friend's cola by blowing on it; Iceman, aka "Bobby," coming out as a mutant to his uncomprehending parents (Mom: "But, Bobby, have you tried not being a mutant?"); Mystique using her shape-shifting ability to play on Wolverine's conflicted sexual desires; Iceman and Rogue's comic yet truly sad attempt to physically manifest their romantic relationship despite incompatible powers.

Marvel comics changed the superhero genre by bringing these kinds of (super-) human moments to the fore, and last year's Marvel adaptation of Spider-Man worked in much the same way whenever Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were interacting. But when the mask went on and the webs came out, it was just another action movie. The X-Men series gets it right all the time. You don't need to be a 14-year-old (literally or figuratively) to enjoy this movie.

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