From the Archive — Friends with Money

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On the occasion of Nicole Holofcener’s latest film making its debut in theaters and on Netflix this weekend, I’ll reach back to the review I wrote of her third feature. Friends with Money is arguably the writer-director’s weakest film, and it still has a lot to like in it. Others can hop onto their soapboxes and offer anguished diatribes about the harms inflicted by the Netflix model on art house theaters. They’re not entirely wrong. But as far as I’m concerned, if the streaming service has an approach that allows creators like Holofcener to keep plying their trade at an increasingly inhospitable time for smaller films in the theatrical marketplace, there is heroism at play. 

I don’t think Friends with Money is actually about having friends with money. While the film is largely designed as an ensemble, Jennifer Aniston is pretty clearly the lead. She plays a thirtysomething woman who is working as a maid to make ends meet after quitting her job as a prep school teacher, perhaps in part because of the wounded pride that comes from toiling away for teenagers driving cars that are worth more than an educator’s yearly salary. On top of it all, her financial struggles aren’t reflected in the lives of her three closest friends, all of whom are successful enough to do things like erect a pricey addition on the top of their house or openly debate which charity is most deserving of that extra two million that’s lying around the house. The set-up definitely feels like it’s leading up to film in which schisms created between people with vastly different bank statements are a central driving theme; class warfare on a personal level.

But that movie never really emerges. There are some nicely drawn scenes scattered throughout, such as when Aniston talks to one of her friends about the investment required to take classes that could lead to a new career path, but it rarely feels like the film is digging as deeply as it could. Maybe that’s because Aniston’s character usually comes across as little more than directionless: there’s no weight to her problems, no sense of the day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck struggles that come from working on the front lines of the service industry. She cleans strangers’ homes for money and that’s enough to make us feel her pain, or so it seems. Maybe it’s because there’s so much other ground to cover, so many other corners of the film’s various stories to dig into. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener creates compelling, deeply considered characters, and it must be tempting to follow them wherever they lead, whether or not it adheres to the overarching idea that’s being conveyed.

Holofcener’s previous film was 2001’s smart Lovely and Amazing, which may have skewed expectations for how effectively this new film would cohere. While packed with characters, Lovely managed to continually return to female self-image, particularly body image. It may have seemed a little aimless at times, but every element actually enhanced and enlivened Holofcener’s points, and she demonstrated a dramatist’s skill to keep the proceedings from turning into an awkward op-ed piece on celluloid.

To be fair, I admired Lovely and Amazing far more in retrospect than I did right after walking out of the theater. Holofcener’s lack of bombast or arty inclinations can dull that initial impression, but the intellect of her writing proves more resonant. Maybe that will happen with this film, as well. There certainly is plenty to like. Giving meaty roles to Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack merits applause right off the bat, and Holofcener’s dialogue remains as sharp as razor-wire (here she shows a special skill for constructing the escating pettiness of an argument). Yet, while praising the script, it’s worth noting that her writing suffers from a newfound flaw of concocting endings that are too cutesy and pat.

So, what is the film about? Whether or not it’s Holofcener’s intent, it seems to be about the judgments people casually make about other people, the speculation about everything from marital stability to personal hygiene choices. In Holofcener’s view, no one forgoes this unseemly guesswork. It’s the same if you’re driving away from a friendly dinner in a battered old Honda or a big, new, top-of-the-line S.U.V. In that respect, it doesn’t really matter whether or not your friends have money.

From the Archive — All the King’s Men

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As we are about to slip from the boom-boom-boom of the summer movie season into a fall stocked with awards hopefuls, allow me to offer a gentle reminder that sometimes even sterling source material, a skilled filmmaker, a cast stocked with tremendous actors, and the best of intentions can add up to a dreadful couple hours of cinema. This review was original written for and posted at my former online home.

The new film version of All The King’s Men is a bad movie. Whenever a movie aspires to something more than just the latest piece of junk off the Hollywood assembly line, the temptation is to celebrate it despite its shortcomings. Writer-director Steve Zaillian is clearly trying to craft something deep, meaningful and resonant here, and while that is more admirable than, oh say, filming a bunch of dolts performing idiotic stunts and assembling the wreckage, it doesn’t automatically means the end result will be worthy. Indeed, it is that very sense of heavy importance, the telegraphed value of what’s been created, that most damages the film. It smothers itself in self-veneration.

Based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren (which was made into a film once before), the film follows a Louisiana politician named Willie Stark as he climbs from discarded local office holder to the most powerful man in the state, a governor who breeds enemies as he employs the nastiest back-room tactics to do the people’s work. Warren’s story means to convey the ways in which the American political system corrupts even the most honest of men. His Willie Stark is a self-described hick, a simple man who drags himself upwards through the system motivated by a persistent need to refute the power-brokers who underestimated him and others like him. As Stark reaches higher office, his morals become just a slippery as those of his predecessors. This doesn’t really come through in Zaillian’s film version.

Part of it may be that, in playing the lead role, Sean Penn seems disconnected from the smaller life of Willie Stark. It’s almost as if he’s biding his time, simply waiting until he can tear into the big stump speech monologues and glowering duplicity that will come. He’s not alone on the list of misfiring actors. Across the ticket, a strong cast is wasted or wandering. Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Mark Ruffalo barely make impressions with their pivotal characters. Patricia Clarkson tries to wring some life out of the role of political consultant Sadie Burke (although, I’m not sure you’d really be able to even define the character’s role with only this film as reference), which was juicy enough in the 1949 film version to earn Mercedes McCambridge an Oscar in her film debut. We get only glancing exposure to the character and there’s little recognizable from scene to scene; Clarkson may as well have been cast in multiple different roles, given how much consistency is built into the character. And then there’s Anthony Hopkins. Around the time of 1998’s dread-inducing Meet Joe Black, Anthony Hopkins announced that he was quitting acting. You could present his performance here as evidence that he followed through on that pledge; he simply didn’t stop appearing in films.

Zaillian’s screenplay and film show little commitment to developing the characters. There are there and the plot moves around them, but there’s little personal impact, there never seems to be anything at stake for any of the people onscreen. Instead, Zaillian lathers James Horner’s typically bludgeoning music score over repetitive scenes of contrived import. He re-uses footage to a tiresome degree, perhaps believing that the audience needs extra reinforcement of certain points, perhaps wanting to remind us of the elegance of the filmmaking. Regardless of the reasoning, I’d trade the redundant glimpses of a lazy lakefront conversation or clenched jaw plotting in a parked car for some different moments that actually enriched the movie.

Everything about the way the film is put together gives the impression that the filmmakers were deeply respectful of the gravity of their material. All of that leaden seriousness only serves to show us that really, sadly they have nothing to say.

From the Archive — Children of Men

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There are times in the process of seeing, writing about, and, yes, ranking films, when the best feature of the year is immediately evident upon first viewing of it. For me, that was the case with Children of Men. That’s not such a feat in some respects — it was a December release, after all — but it was also a movie that was at least somewhat off the radar, having missed the screening deadline for many critics to include it in their year-end tallies, since that ritual had already moved up to a place on the calendar well before the midnight countdown of New Year’s Eve began. The film is set in 2027, less than ten years from now. If anything, it appears Cuarón and his collaborators were overly optimistic about how long it would take us to get to this broken version of society. I wrote and published this review at my former online home, with the experience of seeing the film still recent and raw.

Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Children of Men is set twenty years in the future and begins as society mourns the death of the world’s youngest person, an 18-year-old male. A generation of unexplained infertility has thrown the world into chaos. England seemingly stands as one of the few intact countries, and it has become a brutal, totalitarian police state, rounding up immigrants (referred to as “fugees”) for confinement and deportation. This information is not delivered with clunky exposition or other tired film contrivances. We know this because we are absolutely immersed in the world of the film. Cuarón skillfully lets the details be revealed by the day-to-day challenges the characters face and the central quest which ignites the plot.

That artful assembly of the building blocks of the story is only the beginning of Cuarón’s accomplishment. Children of Men is a parade of astonishing scenes, notable for their simple wisdom, thrilling confidence, and, in a few key instances, bravura technique. Cuarón inserts some extended tracking shots that are absolutely mind-boggling, holding scenes for long stretches as action unfolds at a heart-racing rate. Whether doing this in the cramped confines of a small vehicle or across blocks of a city transformed into a war zone, he enhances the splendidly offbeat shot choice with perfectly choreographed action in the frame. The image is thick with movement and detail.

This isn’t indulgent technical showboating, like sending a camera through a coffee pot handle just because it’s achievable. Cuarón’s cinematic wizardry has a real purpose: plunging the audience as deeply into the action as possible. Jean-Luc Godard famously said “every edit is a lie,” and Cuarón proves the truth of that statement with these elegant, energized continuous shots. The tension of the scenes is accentuated because we feel completely in the moment, watching action unfold as if we were embedded into the scenes. We are there for the horrors and the momentary surges of hope. Some directors take approaches like this because it is cool, superficially enlivening due to mere difference; Cuarón does it because it’s the absolutely, unequivocally the best way to stage the roiling trauma of the film’s most fraught, compelling segments.

It is also a film fiercely alive with ideas. As in the best science fiction, Children of Men is set in the future to better evaluate the here and now. The socio-political commentary throughout is understated enough to avoid becoming didactic but rich enough to give the film a rewarding relevance. Corollaries can be drawn to multiple ideological battles raging across the Yahoo! news page with the film standing as equal parts cautionary tale and bleak predictor of the inevitable.

While the gifted cast yields no shortage of performers and performances worth celebrating — Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Claire-Hope Ashitey, and the uncommonly rascally Michael Caine among them — lead Clive Owen is given a complex, internalized character and the necessity of holding the film together, and he responds with deceptively quiet and soundly sensational work. He carries the pain and strain of his character with precious few opportunities for overt emoting. It’s simply not the sort of film that will gift an actor with scenes of showy grandstanding that can readily garner awards attention, but it demands a control and focus that is, finally, far more impressive.

It is another thing to for a film to have something to say, to have a message or a worldview to convey. It is another, more elusive achievement to construct that film so it carries its ideas with the added weight of great artistry. That’s precisely what Cuarón has done with Children of Men.

From the Archive — Stranger Than Fiction

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On the occasion of Marc Forster ushering into theaters a new film that plays with the idea of famed fictional characters intermingling with the real world, I’ll rustle up my old review for this earlier effort with some superficial similarities. Stranger Than Fiction is a film I found more ingratiating on subsequent viewings, and not just because the “Whole Wide World” scene haunts me as the precise experience I’m sure I missed out on because I never learned to play guitar. 

Director Marc Forster has an oddly toneless quality to his work. His directing is smooth enough, obedient to the writing and allowing room for the actors to bring their own personalities and approaches to the material. And it’s not as if his choice of shots is limited to plain vanilla choices. In his latest, Stranger Than Fiction there’s some occasional elegant shot construction, and a few trick shots (from inside a shower head, for example) that are actually a little off-putting. He’s not a bad director by any means, but across three films of significance (like the rest of America, I never saw Stay) the common characteristic of his work is a lack of that little surge of spirited creativity that can make the end product into something truly remarkable.

In this case, though, the end product is still pretty good. Stranger Than Fiction is the sort of film that Charlie Kaufman made safe for Hollywoodland. In the film, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an I.R.S. auditor who suddenly finds his mundane life being narrated by a voice only he can hear. This development quickly transforms from a maddening annoyance to a matter of some urgency when the disembodied voice promises Harold’s impending death, sending him on a quest to find the narrator and urge her to reconsider.

The metafictional elements are the most obvious tie to Kaufman’s beloved screenplays, but the film also shares his wry romanticism. What it has that’s unique is its literate nature. This manifests itself most obviously is some of the conversations Harold has with a literature professor played by Dustin Hoffman. Getting to the bottom of his situation and finding the author of his life means determining the nature of the story being told, leading to some nicely constructed exchanges that hinge on the trappings of different forms of fiction. But Zach Helm’s script is also filled with warmly witty turns of phrase or simply drawn but nicely eloquent character moments. Here, Forster’s seeming fidelity to the words on the page pays off. Letting the screenplay carry the film proves an effective approach, even if it falters a bit at the end. The problem with writing something so Kaufmanesque is that the same pitfalls he struggles against are likely waiting, and endings are especially difficult to pull off in these existential fantasias.

Will Ferrell fiercely tones down his overwired presence in the title role, proving that his comic timing doesn’t need excessive volume and go-for-broke mania. Indeed, he proves to be an especially charming straight man, wringing laughs from quietly pained reactions to the strangeness of his situation. Hoffman continues his late-career tendency to winningly futz around with the details in performances that hardly test his limits, but are no less winning for it. Emma Thompson apparently chatted a lot with Hoffman on the set, as she basically takes the same approach as the acclaimed novelist who unwittingly presides over Crick’s life, and it proves equally charming for her.

It sometimes seems as if Stranger Than Fiction is striving for bigger, deeper points than it’s really capable of making. It’s not much more than a little, clever entertainment. Sometimes, of course, that’s enough.

Then Playing — Four Impossible Missions

Given that he emerged as a movie star in the nineteen-eighties, the era when sequels emerged as Hollywood’s favorite toy, it’s remarkable that Tom Cruise was a solid twenty years into his screen career before he appeared in a film with a roman numeral in the title. Only The Color of Money qualified as a second installment, and that was hardly an eager cash-in on a recent hit. Cruise instead built his filmography like an old school cinematic icon, playing endless variants on his signature persona without ever actually repeating a role.

Whatever kept him from signing on for sequels, it wasn’t until he had a greater stake in the production that he opted for a project that was transparently an attempt at launching a series. The first Mission: Impossible film was also Cruise’s first producing credit, though he surely didn’t foresee that he’d still be donning Ethan Hunt’s masks over twenty years later.

I’m certain I will write about the sixth installment in the Mission: Impossible series in the coming weeks, and I at least touched up the prior entry in this space. The mission I now choose to accept is to complete the set.

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Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996). The introduction of Ethan Hunt and the team within the U.S. government’s Impossible Missions Force arrived when studios were ransacking the big bin of old TV concepts with vigor, inspired in part by the surprise success of the big screen take on The Fugitive, released in 1993. Employing a distinctive director like Brian De Palma suggested a commitment to making the film a little more interesting than the average generic action outing, even if the filmmaker was still recovering from his consensus career nadir (he was coming off a minor comeback hit with Carlito’s Way, but The Bonfire of the Vanities was still visible in his rear view). No matter the hopes and intent, the finished product is shockingly drab. Characteristically, De Palma is only enlivened by his few set pieces, and the film’s script (credited to David Koepp, Steve Zaillian, and Robert Towne) is devoid of wit, unless Emilio Estevez capping an explanation of the detonation of a explosive device by saying, “Hasta lasagna, don’t get any on ya” counts. (Note: It does not count.) Worse yet, the implausibilities peppered throughout play like lazy storytelling instead of a delight in the physically absurd that would someday be the most endearing hallmark of the series.

 

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Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000). A curious trait of the first few Mission: Impossible films is that the personnel involved hint at aspirations towards grand action lunacy that somehow didn’t quite make it to the screen. John Woo was presumably hired on the strength of Face/Off, in which characters played by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage undergoing and entirely convincing surgical transplant of their respective visages might be the least delirious bit of invention among the kinetic loop-the-loops. Again, though, so little of the final effort is actually compelling. There’s a biological weapon at play, along with the inevitable antidote that must be secured to keep the world — and a lovely thief, played by Thandie Newton — out of peril. The script again isn’t good, but Woo’s direction is more problematic, relying on visual symbols and hyperbolic editing techniques that were already growing tired.

 

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Mission: Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006). The third volume of the cinematic set serves as the big screen directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, who had just wrapped five seasons of the TV spy romp Alias. Accordingly, he sometimes packs a few weeks worth of gotcha twists into the film without realizing he hasn’t got the time to develop the characters and situations enough to make the surprises impactful. Even so, this is the first film that burbles up with some of gonzo energy to come, with why-the-hell-not details like an stealth excursion into Vatican City and bombs as brain implants. Nabbing Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the chief villain seemed like a major coup at the time (it’s technically his follow-up to Capote), but the acting great signals his disinterest throughout.

 

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Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011). When Ghost Protocol arrived, the inclusion of Jeremy Renner made it seem as if Paramount was easing Cruise out in favor of the younger star, who was already an Avenger and was tapped to take over for Matt Damon in the Bourne films. Instead, Cruise is positively rejuvenated. For the first time, Ethan Hunt is a distinctive character rather than a cipher. And he has flashes of fallibility — not quite making it cleanly through an open window of a daring swoop from the outside of a skyscraper, for instance — heightening the thrill of the stunts. It’s a basic and yet underused strategy in action films. Watching Indiana Jones nurse his wounds in a ship’s cabin or John McClane painfully pick shards of glass out of his feet serves to make the adventure more exciting, not less. Largely putting aside the projection of gleaming invulnerability found in his earlier action performance, Cruise favors a weariness that makes him significantly more interesting. Brad Bird, making his first live action film after a trio of animated triumphs, proves as adept with action staging when he’s working with human beings rather than cels or computer programs. The closing scramble for a metal suitcase that can disable a launched nuclear missile, staged in a massive parking garage with constantly moving car elevators, is a joyful marvel. It took four tries, but finally everyone involved figured out that these movies, above all else, should be relentlessly fun.

From the Archive — Thank You for Smoking

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Jason Reitman has a new movie out this week, reportedly an effort that finds him back on track following a couple widely derided cinematic disasters. When I was first applying my resharpened film critic pencil, I wrote about Reitman’s feature debut as a director. I was clearly still finding my way (like Reitman at the time, I suppose), as evidenced by the oddly truncated quality of this piece. It feels like it’s missing at least one whole paragraph, but this is what I put out into the world at the time. Also, please do note this was published in 2006 and adjust the “Ten years ago” opener accordingly.

Ten years ago, Thank You For Smoking might have been a helluva movie.

When Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel first saw the light of bookstore new release tables back in 1994, the story of a tobacco company spin doctor had real bite. For example, Buckley’s expert recreations of Larry King appearances and press conferences on the printed page snapped with freshness, the precise manipulation of these supposed extemporaneous events revealed through the simple accuracy of Buckley’s prose. When the fictional version feels so real, it makes it easier to start spotting the fiction routinely infused into the reality. The book felt sly and even a little daring as it exposed the insidious media messaging perpetrated by America’s deadliest industry. Years later, not only do the cigarette companies feel more toothless than the scruffy fellows watching the river in Deliverance, but our cultural cynicism has reached such nosebleed-inducing heights that each new instance of callous disregard for intellectual honesty is greeted with an amused shrug as we return to the most pressing matter of texting in our vote for Katherine McPhee. Do Buckley’s once potent points about political and social decisions being based on rearranged truths carry any resonance anymore?

Even without the intervening decade-plus robbing the story of its timeliness — and, arguably, relevance — first-time feature director Jason Reitman has rolled out a pretty shaky product here. To his credit, he seems to have toiled in the filmmaking trenches for a while, making a string of shorts instead of cashing in on his father’s well-established place in the movie biz. Then again, when your pop’s last three directorial efforts are Evolution, Six Days, Seven Nights, and Father’s Day, nepotism may actually become a hindrance. Mean jokes aside, all those short films haven’t necessarily helped Jason Reitman achieve the sort of command that helps hold a 90-minute film together. In particular, most of the performances suffer from an off-putting unevenness, as if Reitman was having the actors try individual moments several different ways (“Now a little broader! Now really draw it back!”) and pulled all his favorite takes without bothering to shape unified performances. The only scenes that work with any consistency are those with the least amount of range or plotline burden, specifically those involving the restaurant confabs between the self-anointed Merchants of Death, lobbyists for the most detested industries in America.

That leaves a good cast to go to waste, although it looks more and more like Aaron Eckhart is better served by supporting roles than leads, one corrosively brilliant turn in a Labutian poison layer cake notwithstanding. And it’s worth noting that Katie Holmes is about as convincing as a seductress reporter as she was as a crusading young Assistant District Attorney, making two straight films that she’s stopped dead through sheer force of miscasting. She’s also reached the point where the psychotic swirl of her real life is at such a constant crescendo that it’s a distraction ever time she pops up onscreen.

From the Archive — X-Men: Last Stand

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I thought by now I’d already transferred any and all writing I’ve done on superhero movies into this space, but it turns out I was mistaken. Perhaps it was a internalized defense mechanism preventing me from even taking a moment to to think about director Brett Ratner’s dreadful outing with the students and alumni of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. I wasn’t precisely correct in my dread predictions about X4, but my theory about this misbegotten outing setting the muddled tone for the mutant movies that followed holds up, at least until the odd miracle of Logan. This was originally written and posted at my former online home.  

Since I’ve recently been tagged twice by people with a certain cartoon, I’ll specifically refrain from citing any knowledge derived from the four color exploits of Marvel’s Merry MutantsTM in making my case on X-Men: The Last Stand. It’s not like the printed adventures of the X-Men are some parade of pitch-perfect stories that should be exempt from tampering, anyway. It might be helpful to look at what made the original comics successful to help contextualize the flaws and strengths (okay, mostly flaws) of the new film, but since we’re talking about the third film installment we’ve already got prior films to draw on. And when you’re writing about a sequel, those earlier outings are fair game.

And, in the case of this film, they’re absolutely necessary viewing. Maybe the home and portable viewing technology has reached such a point that it’s no longer reasonable to expect that individual films representing big studio franchises have some capability of standing on their own, but I don’t recall ever seeing a film that tried less to bring potential newcomers in the audience up to speed. Not sure why Magneto is telling Wolverine he can smell his adamantium? Sorry. Try checking Wikipedia when you get home, I guess. That problem extends to elements and characters that are new to the films, so anyone who doesn’t lean back in their theater chair with a working knowledge of the quite convoluted make-up of the mutant-driven corners of the Marvel universe is likely to still be in the dark when the auditorium lights come up at the end of the film’s important post-credits coda. This is just one of the issues with the dismal script by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, who between them have left word processor tracks on Catwoman, Fantastic Four, and Elektra, so they’re apparently Hollywood’s go-to guys for mucking up superhero movies. The dialogue is routinely flat, the characters are underdeveloped and the plot has more holes than Juggernaut puts into the converted prison where they manufacture the anti-mutant serum that drives the plot.

The flagrant missed opportunity with that piece of the story might not be Exhibit A against the film and the filmmakers, but it certainly helps lock in the verdict against their efforts. An antidote of sorts has been developed, a serum that counteracts the gene that causes mutations, stripping individuals of their special powers, but also clearing away any pesky physical manifestations that cropped up. Not a big deal if you generate ice or walk through walls, but probably a lot more enticing if blue fur and fangs were included in the power package. Rather than really wrestle with the moral dilemmas raised by this new pharmaceutical, the film makes only a few cursory stabs at enriching the material thus, preferring to use it as just something to drive the plot along and provide a handy escape hatch here and there. One of the appeals of the X-Men in the first place is the way they stand in for any outsider group, oppressed by those who fear them. That’s the subtextual pull of the greater story, and it seems to be utterly lost on the people behind the new film. This serum isn’t just a MacGuffin; it’s something that completely upends the dynamic that drives the rushing undercurrent of the story. Here it’s treated as just another piece to put in place. Another frame of film, marginally different from any other.

That’s the special skill of director Brett Ratner, who has an uncanny ability to deliver utterly pedestrian directing jobs. They’re never all that bad or muddled, simply desperately undistinguished. It’s hard to spot a baldly mishandled sequence, but the entirety of it is hopelessly bland. It’s a beautifully cooked meal, completely devoid of any of the seasoning that would actually give it flavor.

This has long been rumored to be the final film in the franchise, a decidedly welcome close given the sputtering rewards offered by Last Stand. Too bad the box office tally made a forceful counterargument. Not only is X4 likely back in play, it will most assuredly follow the lead of this film, by far the weakest in the franchise. I doubt the folks at the studio can smell Wolvie’s adamantium, but I’m willing to bet they can smell the money it helped generate.