Dumb summertime thrills 

Last ‘X-Men’ may top its predecessors; Undressing ‘Bettie Page’

X-CITING: 'X-Men,' with Hugh Jackman.
  • X-CITING: 'X-Men,' with Hugh Jackman.

While many of the current comic-book-to-film blockbusters have the bad habit of taking themselves a bit too seriously, a refreshingly light exception to this has been the “X-Men” movie franchise. Quippy, clever, even funny, but with more than enough action to keep the heat on, the two previous “X-Men” films have been personal faves of the comic book genre.

Add to that the newest “X-Men” flick, “X-Men 3: The Last Stand.” Sharp and sophisticated, full of dumb summertime thrills, it’s a nice way to kick off what promises to be a rather lousy season of funny-book screen adaptations.

Continuing on the track that has been building in the two earlier films in the series, “X-Men 3” finds the evil mutant master of metals Magneto (the always pitch-perfect Ian McKellen) once again plotting to overthrow the human world. Standing against him once again are the X-Men, a group of mutants with various powers, led by the telepathic scientist Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). With America terrified of the powers of mutants (some can teleport, others can change their skin into metal, and so on), a scientist with a mutant son develops a “cure” — an injection that can permanently suppress their powers. After a mutant-rights terrorist infiltrates the White House and attempts to kill the president, the government starts rounding up those with the X-gene for injections. This includes an assault on the school Xavier has established for mutant children.

Soon, America is embroiled in near civil war. Magneto sees the turmoil as an opportunity to take control. Standing in his way are Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin), Storm (Halle Berry) and the other X-Men.

While “X-Men 3” isn’t going to win any Oscars, it’s still a good time at the movies — maybe even good enough to appeal to those who wouldn’t normally watch an action flick like this.

As in previous “X-Men” films and the comic book title as a whole, there is no black and white here — the “bad” guys seem as right in their beliefs as the “good” guys for most of the film, especially when arguing about the nobility of “curing” someone who was born different than the norm. Playing characters that conflicted while keeping them sympathetic is a tall order, but the entire cast pulls it off nicely, leaning heavily on the themes of suspicion and racism (with the consequence that one can’t help but remind the viewer of modern, terrorist-obsessed America). At the same time, everyone involved seems to remember to not take it all so damned seriously; remembering, perhaps, that the delivering material written for 14-year-olds as if it were passages from “King Lear” has been the death-knell for similar films in the last couple of years.

“X-Men 3” might be the best installment of the trilogy. A nice match of brain and brawn, it’s sure to keep the attention of even those who have avoided the genre in the past.

Not so ‘Notorious’
While some lives seem made for a big, splashy, alcohol-soaked bio-pic — Johnny Cash comes to mind — the truth of the matter is, some lives that seem like they’d be film fodder just aren’t. Take, for example, the life of pin-up queen Bettie Page. During the mid-1950s, when America was at the highest ebb of prudery since the Victorian era, Page made a name for herself as a glamour and bondage model, posing in and out of black stockings, corsets and ball gags, in photo sets depicting domination, submission, spanking and other taboo subjects. Though Page’s girl-next-door looks have since turned her into a kind of rockabilly goddess, at the time she was derided as a detriment to youth, going so far as to be called before a Senate committee on pornography.

While that sounds like the perfect line for a movie, the truth of Page’s life — like Page’s pictures — was that most of the bad-girl stuff was all fantasy. As depicted in the new film “The Notorious Bettie Page,” Page was the straightest of straight arrows — no smoking, no drinking, and apparently no extra-marital sex. That she just happened to make her living getting tied up and gagged — with the rare nudie shot in between — was beside the point for her.

All this is not to say that “Notorious” is a boring film. On the contrary, it is a fine bit of cinema, riffing heavily on the absurdity of shame about our bodies and the even greater absurdity of persecuting consenting adults for what they do or look at in the privacy of their own homes.

Gretchen Mol plays Bettie, a small-town Tennessee girl who ventures to New York City to become a model. After working a dead-end job for awhile, Bettie falls in with a number of local glamour-mag photographers of the day, and slowly swimsuit pics lead to strapping on the bondage gear. It isn’t until she meets the kindly brother/sister photographer duo Paula and Irving Klaw (Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer) that she finds the surrogate family she has needed all along. The government soon comes calling with subpoenas, however, and mucks up their happy home.

Mol is excellent as the often naive Bettie, perfectly mimicking Page’s smiling come-hither glare that still enamors her photos to millions today. Equally as good is Taylor in the role of Paula Klaw, Bettie’s stand-in mother.

While this is serious subject matter, the whole cast plays it with the absurdity it deserves. Sexy, touching, even sweet at times, “Notorious” is a cool window into the chilly sexual climate of the ’50s, and an interesting tag-along on one woman’s trek — in 8-inch heels, no less — from the hills of Tennessee to the Mount Olympus of pop-icon status. Fans of Bettie, and everyone else, should see it soon.



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