X-MEN: FIRST CLASS: The Film Babble Blog Review

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (Dir. Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

Right off the bat it’s clear that Matthew Vaughn is a much better fit for the X-MEN movies than the previous directors (Brett Radner and Gavin Hood respectively). A strong opening sequence set in a concentration camp in Poland in 1944 shows Vaughn getting the edgy tense tone right in introducing a captured kid (Bill Milner) who has untrained telekinetic powers.

A sinister Kevin Bacon plays German Scientist Sebastian Shaw who recognizes the powers the boy has, and kills his mother (Éva Magyar) in an successful attempt to unleash them. Meanwhile, a young boy (Laurence Belcher) encounters a young girl (Morgan Lily) who’s broken into his Westchester County, NY mansion’s kitchen. She can morph her form into anybody’s with her true body being all blue and spiky, while he can read people’s minds.

They live together as brother and sister, growing up into James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence as the movie shifts to 1962. After witnessing supernatural activity in Las Vegas involving a never aging dapper Bacon and his crystalized co-hort Emma Frost (January Jones), CIA Agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) seeks out McAvoy, because of his expertise on mutation.

So the mutants hook up with the CIA (who take a little convincing), and are stationed in a facility to train under the supervision of Oliver Platt who’s never given a character name. The concentration camp kid, now grown up into Michael Fassbender, tracks down Bacon to his yacht at the same time McAvoy does, but Bacon escapes in a souped up submarine.

There’s an amusing recruitment montage with McAvoy and Fassbender rounding up other mutants which is slickly cut with ’60s style and a Burt Bacharach-esque bounce to the soundtrack.

A sizable stable of characters is assembled including Nicholas Hoult, Álex González, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoë Isabella Kravitz, and Jason Flemyng, with the film juggling them capably. The film’s second half concerns the crew confronting the Cuban missile crisis with Bacon’s sinister Shaw, who’s a mutant himself, being the one responsible for the missiles’ transportation from Russia.

Like in all these comic book epics, the climax is an overblown battle. It’s an explosive spectacle with battleships filling the sky full of warheads.

Oddly, it feels like the influential touchstones of this movie are the STAR TREK reboot, and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS; it’s an origin story intertwined with an alternate history scenario, and I was surprised at how much of it worked.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is a better than average summer sequel (actually prequel) that despite being cluttered with clichés, cheesy moments, and bad dialogue (Bacon even says “come with me, and you’ll live like Kings…and Queens” at one point) offers a fair amount of fun.

The CGI is consistently top notch, as is the set design (I loved the complete replica of the War Room from DR. STRANGELOVE), and there’s a satisfying sweep to the storyline.

Particularly in the passion of Fassbender’s performance, the confidence of McAvoy, the angsty energy of Laurence, and Bacon having a ball with his Bondian villain of a role, it’s an incredibly effective cast.

On the minus side, some of Hoult’s mannerisms as Laurence’s possible love interest are annoying and his origin as “Beast” is undercooked, the young recruits are obnoxious, and January Jones never seems to be all there, but as she’s clad in white lingerie when she’s not crystalized, she obviously wasn’t hired for her acting ability.

Regardless this breathes fresh air into the franchise, especially after the lackluster X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE.

With this classy and exceedingly entertaining effort, consider the series rebooted.

More later…

THE CONSPIRATOR: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE CONSPIRATOR (Dir. Robert Redford, 2010)

Robert Redford’s 8th film as director finds him again mining the political mechanics behind a well known controversial event. This time, it’s the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with the focus being the lone female charged as a co-conspirator.

James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, a fresh out of law school lawyer who Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) suggests should defend the woman, boarding house owner Mary Surratt portrayed by Robin Wright.

McAvoy isn’t interested in taking the case on because he thinks she’s guilty, but as he gets enveloped into the back story, he begins to see the woman as a possible scapegoat.

Unfortunately the viewer doesn’t get enveloped, as this is stiff glacially plotted material. It was first difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with this film as surface-wise it’s a handsome looking, well acted, and noble intentioned piece of work, but somehow it’s a extremely dull experience in which history never comes alive.

Redford must have thought he was coming on too strong in LIONS FOR LAMBS (which he was), so he decided to delicately dramatize the proceedings here. Sadly so delicately that nothing has any weight to it, and all the player’s parts are blandly rendered.

As Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Kevin Kline is the only one who carves out a convincing character, but he too is cornered inside this undercooked contraption of a non-epic.

As a by-the-numbers history lesson, THE CONSPIRATOR does put forth some undeniably important points about Constitutional rights and gives us a new angle on an ages old story, but Redford’s hands off execution is too distant and dismal for the film to do anything but ultimately disappear.

More later…

THE LAST STATION: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Michael Hoffman, 2009)

Considering his fine lengthy career, it’s amazing that the distinguished actor Christopher Plummer has never before been nominated for an Oscar. Well, here as Leo Tolstoy in this mostly strong historical drama about the famed Russian author’s final days, Plummer simply could not be ignored by the Academy.

He and his much celebrated co-star, Helen Mirren as Tolstoy’s acidic wife Sofya, both scored nominations which I believe many audiences will find are well deserved. The imprint made by their volatile chemistry will last long after Awards season hype was died down.

Opening titles tell us that Tolstoy is the most acclaimed writer in history and other things we could easily Google, and the ending features ancient footage of the real man – an inescapable cliché of seemingly every biopic – but in between is an emotionally complex examination of a stubborn man’s ideals.

These are no ordinary ideals you understand – this is a man who is thought by multitudes to be a genius or even a holy figure. “You think he’s Christ!” Mirren exclaims in exasperation at one of many points. “I don’t think he’s Christ,’’ responds Tolstoy’s doctor (John Sessions). “Christ is Christ. I do believe he’s a prophet, though.’’

Mirren believes that a society of sycophants is forming around her dying husband with the moustache twirling Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) heading the pack. Wandering innocently into the middle of Mirren and Giamatti’s fight for Tolstoy’s fortunes (she believes the family should get the copyrights, he thinks the property should go to the masses) is a wide eyed James McAvoy (maybe a bit too much like his role in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) hired to be the ailing author’s private secretary.

McAvoy relishes his position enough to let his celibacy slide when another Tolstoy disciple (Kerry Condon) slips into his chambers, but the real titillation comes from Plummer and Mirren playful bedroom banter.

In the company of others, Mirren is an angry defensive verbally abusive animal; alone with her venerated husband she is infested with an infectious silliness. She is truly a woman in love – in all its irrational selfish glory.

This all makes the last third of the film all the more painful. Plummer and his loving entourage travel by train across country ostensibly so the great man can get some final peace away from his wife. His final destination – that of the title – is soon surrounded by concerned citizens and guarded by his followers. Mirren tries in vain to get through them but as the saying goes, that train has long left the station.

Like last year’s brilliant BRIGHT STAR, which dealt with a dying John Keats, THE LAST STATION is concerned with the limits of love and literature. It has a sort of reserved passion boiling under its Masterpiece Theater/Merchant Ivory-ish surface that sizzles when Plummer and Mirren share the screen. The movie suffers sorely when they are absent as Giamatti has a one note villain role and McAvoy’s romantic subplot is tiresomely typical.

That those and other shortcomings can be overlooked is testament to the purity of Mirren and Plummer’s performances. In Plummer’s case it’s nice that the Academy finally took notice.

More later…