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…

SUPER: The Film Babble Blog Review

SUPER (Dir. James Gunn, 2010)

Add The Crimson Bolt to the growing list of superheroes that aren’t really superheroes.

Just like KICK ASS, this movie wonders out loud ‘why don’t people actually try to be superheroes,’ gives us an ordinary schmuck who dons a costume, and has him get his ass kicked before he ultimately saves the day. However, the tone of SUPER is completely different. 

Rainn Wilson is our ordinary schmuck here, a short-order cook whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a slimy drug dealing kingpin played by Kevin Bacon. Rainn takes us into his deprssing existence by way of dry narration (“People look stupid when they cry” he says over a shot of him sobbing), with the film starting off darkly, but a blaringly bright cartoon credits sequence seems to announce that the film is going to be an outrageous romp.

It is and it isn’t – there are some funny bits here and there, but once Rainn takes up bashing people’s heads in with a wrench, the film’s laughs get fewer and fewer.

As a comic book store clerk who is implausibly infatuated with Rainn, Ellen Page overacts like crazy, as if she’s trying make us forget her graceful performance in last summer’s INCEPTION. Page makes her own costume, which she poses in creepily, and despite Rainn’s insistence that he needs no sidekick, asserts herself as “Bolty” – her Robin to Rainn’s Batman.

  In one of many unpleasant moments, Page forces herself sexually on Rainn – why on earth did the film makers feel they had to go there? The pathetic duo arm themselves with heavy weaponry to take on Bacon’s thugs, and the movie’s final act is a ultra-violent shakily-shot shoot ’em up in which the film beats its premise into a bloody pulp. It’s an unamusing assault on the senses with a flimsy conclusion. 

The only strength is Rainn’s unwavering commitment to character. This guy definitely has more layers to him than Dwight Shrute, and Rainn fleshes them out intensely. It’s a character that deserves a better more rounded narrative, not these worn out conventions.

On the sidelines Liv Tyler doesn’t have much to do but look drugged out, Bacon seems to be having a ball probably because he could’ve done the role in his sleep, and as one of the heavies Michael Rooker just looks uncomfortable. Oh, I almost forgot the odd cameo by Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle) as a Christian superhero named the Holy Avenger that Rainn is inspired by when watching him on an religious cable channel. 

Really don’t know what the point of that means either. SUPER is a tired take on superhero pipe-dreams that has nothing new to say satirically. I rolled my eyes more than I laughed, and I cringed more than I smiled. 

I guess those are fitting reactions to a film written and directed by the guy who wrote the live action SCOOBY-DOO movies. 

More later…

FROST/NIXON: The Film Babble Blog Review

FROST/NIXON (Dir. Ron Howard, 2008)

Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Tony Award winning stage play moves briskly as it opens with a montage of early ’70s archival footage and period news reports of the Watergate break-in leading to the first impeachment of a sitting President in history.

Seemingly derived from the sweeping intro to Oliver Stone’s JFK, this capsule of video and sound bites gives newcomers to this material ample back story while plunging those who lived through it back into the feeling and tone of the era.

Once that is established, it is summer 1977 – Ex President Richard M. Nixon, disgraced and in self imposed exile in his beach house in San Clemente, CA is approached by ambitious British broadcaster David Frost to make an expensive deal for a series of extended television interviews.

Nixon, portrayed grandly by Frank Langella, sees this as an opportunity to redeem himself in the public’s eye while Frost, given a quirky but still suave demeanor by Michael Sheen, sees opportunity of a different sort – a career breaking, star making spectacle sort, to be exact.

Though it contains nothing but men (and a few women) talking in hotel rooms, cars, and the living room set where the interviews were conducted, this is compelling stuff from start to finish.

Paced like many boxing movies with back and forth training sessions up to the final round in the ring, the momentum never lags. Frost struggles to finance the endeavor, insulted by those who blow him off as a “talk show host” while still allowing time for a new love interest – Rebecca Hall (Vicky from Woody Allens VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA) who doesn’t have much to do except sit on the sidelines looking pretty.

Frost’s team includes Sam Rockwell as passionate anti-Nixon author James Reston Jr. and Oliver Platt as journalist Bob Zelnick who together provide considerable comic relief. Nixon’s corner is dominated by Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s fiercely over-protective post Presidential chief of staff, who both turns in one of his best performances while narrowing down the number degrees of separation between him and everybody else in show business.

“Even Richard Nixon has got soul”, Neil Young once sang and the final third of this movie seems to suggest just that. First presented as a shady money grubbing player disguised as an elder statesman, Langella’s Nixon betrays hidden levels of dark conscience in his home stretch showdown with Frost which would make even Hunter S. Thompson tear up for the man.

If Langella isn’t nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award I’ll be royally shocked. Howard thankfully retained both Langella and Sheen, from the 2006 stage play written by Peter Morgan. Sheen, who had played British Prime Minister Tony Blair in THE QUEEN (also written by Morgan), has the definitive “deer caught in the headlights” look when first sitting down with Tricky Dick but over time assumes the prize fighter Rocky’s “eye of the tiger” – to bring the boxing analogy back into it.
FROST/NIXON is a tightly focused and deeply pleasing film, certainly one of Ron Howard’s best as director. Whether or not Nixon was redeemable or remorseful doesnt matter; layered reflective takes on history like this make for the best art regardless (see Shakespeare).

More later…