June 10, 2011

X-Men: First Class (06/10/2011)

Lettergrade: B

X-Men: First Class is the fifth chapter in the exciting X-Men trilogy. I should admit up front that I'm a sucker for these movies, even the shitty ones. I find the overall X-Men premise to be pretty damn cool and its characters to be endlessly intriguing... and all that clouds my judgement.

It's a better picture than the last one, 2009's TV movie-ish X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I know that much. I'd probably place it well above the original X-Men movie from 2000 too, which was alright at the time, but feels kinda short-sighted and limited compared to where the series went later. I might put it on par with 2003's X2: X-Men United and 2006's fan-reviled X-Men 3: The Last Stand, actually, in that both films, like this one, deliver some exciting action set-pieces, a little bit of philosophical fat to chew on, and several neat scenes where mutants do cool shit. Is it a great movie? No. None of them are, but if all of the popular Marvel superheroes have their roots in various aspects of 60s counter-culture, the specific X-Men characters are the most nuanced and interesting of the bunch.

This one is a prequel to the existing movies, filling in some of the series' under-explored details like how Charles Xavier (later Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (later Magneto) met, became friends, and then decided to go in very different ideological directions - one of pacifism and the other of radical violence, a sci-fi play on two of the most prominent civil rights leaders of the 60s. The look and feel of the movie is surprisingly retro, drawing a lot of set design (and plot) inspiration from 60s classics like the early James Bond movies, North By Northwest, and the Batman TV show that starred Adam West. They even faithfully recreated the war room set from Dr. Strangelove that never existed in reality. Additionally, the film is a conspiracy theorist's delight, providing - for the first time! - concrete video evidence that evil mutants were trying to start World War III by aggravating the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it took a much nicer set of mutants to stop them.

As the film begins, young Charles (now played by the über charismatic James McAvoy) still had hair, and could walk, and looked nothing like Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. From a wealthy family, he's just finishing his doctorate in genetics, and is the sort of randy young cad who uses his secret mutant power, his vast intellect, and the frequent use of words like "groovy" to chase women in bars in a way that would make Austin Powers proud.

Erik has had a very different life. You may remember that at the beginning of the original movie, he became aware of his power while watching his parents get dragged away in a Polish concentration camp in 1944. If you don't remember that, you're in luck: The movie replays the exact footage for you, and then goes a bit further, treating us to an especially sinister scene wherein Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw attempts to unleash the boy's full power by killing his mother in front of him. Shaw is played by Kevin Bacon (so he's connected to every goddamn X-Men character now too), and in the 60s, the older, vengence-driven Erik is played by the wonderfully dark Michael Fassbender, who has become obsessed with hunting down and brutally killing his Nazi captors-in-hiding around the world, in hopes that one of them might point him to Shaw. Weirdly, this part of the movie is almost exactly like Sleepers, which featured Bacon in a very similar, albeit non-mutant, role.

Elsewhere, a sexy CIA agent played by Rose Byrne (recently of Bridesmaids fame), becomes aware of an escalating plot involving nukes, Russia and Cuba, and she enlists Charles for help... yadda, yadda... first mutant school... etc. While Charles delights in finding new mutants and helping them to explore and control their gifts so they might join society at some point in the future, his new BFF Erik grows increasingly resentful at the notion that mutants should have to try to fit in at all, setting the stage for the key divide that has driven pretty much all the other movies.

A number of familiar mutants (Mystique, The Beast, et al) from the earlier ones are recast with younger actors here, and the picture has all sorts of characters knocking around in the background who mean little to me, not being a reader of the X-Men comics, but whose appearances, I'm sure, will make the casual Marvel fan spontaneously ejaculate due to their importance in the overall X-Men universe.

There are previously unseen mutants, too, of course, but I'll be dammned if I know their names, or who they are, or even what they can do most of the time. On the "bad" side, there's a red devil guy who looks like Hellboy's dad, but who has the same powers as Nightcrawler from X2: X-Men United. I don't know what the hell that's about. Oh, and January Jones is on the bad side too, playing a character who can read minds, and who then grows a thick diamond exterior when she wants to for some unclear reason. My guess is that she arrived with the 60s sets that the delivery guys brought over from the Mad Men soundstages, so the director quickly came up with a James Bond style subplot for her to participate in.

My cousin saw the movie before I did, and commented that it had way too much going on... too many characters are introduced and under-utilized, and the picture buckles a little in trying to service them all. I didn't have that problem with it, really, but again all I know of the X-Men universe is what I learned at the movies. Since I haven't read comics where these characters are handled differently (possibly better?), I have no real sense of what opportunities are being missed. The brief peeks we get at lesser mutants aren't necessarily frustrating to me because I don't know how cool it might be to see them doing whatever it is they do in the comics.

Matthew Vaughn (2007's charming Stardust, and last year's awful Kick-Ass) co-wrote and directed the movie. Fans who pay attention to behind-the-scenes stuff might remember that he was originally set to direct X-Men 3, but pulled out about eight weeks before production began, clearing the path for screen auteur Brett Ratner to step in. In a weird sort of way, this picture plays with several elements that 3 did too... Both films feature Dr. Hank McCoy / The Beast in prominent roles, both have scenes of Erik and Charles recruiting younger mutants, and there's even a substitute for part 3's The Cure at one point, and a moral discussion about whether or not mutants should even contemplate using a serum that would reduce their mutation, at least in appearance.

But much like the Highlander and Evil Dead movies, First Class is both intended to be an extension of the other flicks in the series while simultaneously revising and contracting them. Charles and Erik are firm adversaries at the end of the movie, but in the prologue of 3 we see them as much older men... still friends, still recruiting mutants for their school. In part 1, Professor X mentions that Magneto helped him build Cerebro originally, but that's not really possible within the events of this picture. And so on and so on...

That kind of stuff doesn't really bother me either, I must say. Different comic series are known for telling (retelling) their origin stories over and over again, changing the details and relationships pretty much whenever it suits them, and so this semi-reboot is essentially doing the same thing. Sabertooth is Wolverine's brother in Wolverine, but in the original X-Men, he's played by a different actor, and neither seems to recognize the other. Whatever.

My only real beef is with the ending section of the flick, which somewhat succumbs to "prequelitis" in that it quickly puts a lot of elements into place that are already present in the later movies. You can almost see the producers going down the list... Okay, the government's uneasy relationship with mutants, check... Beast blue and hairy, check... Charles in a wheelchair, check... Erik rejecting humanity and making a big dogmatic (and corny) speech about mutantkind, check...

If this X-movie is anything like the other ones, it's won't be long before 20th Century Fox tries to sequelize it as well, possibly as part of a new trilogy. In all likelihood, I'll happily throw down some cash to see the next one too when the time comes, but wouldn't it have been a little more interesting to save some of the connective tissue for future installments than to blow through it all in the last 5 minutes here?

June 4, 2011

Beginners (06/04/2011)

Lettergrade: A

Writer / director Mike Mills based much of Beginners on the period of his life after his mother had died and his father told him he was gay. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, Mills' fictionalized stand-in for the movie, and Christopher Plummer plays the dad. "I loved your mother very much," Plummer quietly says early in the flick, "but... I'm gay, and now I want to explore this side of my life."

He loves his father as much as he ever did, but the news, of course, is a major paradigm shift. Much of movie is almost like an inside-out view of Oliver working through his feelings... The scenes fluidly move forward and backward through time, circling around the years and months after his dad came out, leading up to his death from lung cancer, and then the months that followed wherein he meets a pretty actress played by Mélanie Laurent and begins a kind of sad, wounded romance. Betwixt, Oliver replays memories from his childhood again and again... which seem a little different with each pass now that he has a better understanding of why his parents' relationship seemed so dispassionately cordial, with mom looking sad much of the time and dad mostly absent altogether.

I liked the movie a lot, pretty much right from the first scene. An interesting thing is that the style is mostly earnest and somber, but with a constant dusting of playful imagination, almost like an extremely muted version of what you'd find in a movie like L.A. Story, Amélie, or 500 Days Of Summer. Oliver is a graphics artist (like Mills, before he got into filmmaking), and throughout the picture he narrates little vignettes that are almost like his journal / scrapbook of how the world was and how it has changed now.

It all works... I normally think that movies which try for this kind of mixture of whimsy and sentiment wind up a bit stiff and artificial-feeling, much like the last several Wes Anderson movies have. Beginners doesn't bend over backward to wring a lot of drama or sadness out of some of the key scenes, but Mills has confidence that those elements will shine through on their own without a lot of pushing, and they do.

Plummer as the dad is outstanding, and Laurent, in what is really her first American picture since Inglourious Basterds in 2009, pretty much steals every scene she's in. I tend to think of McGregor as a good actor, but weirdly one who disappears into the background a lot. There's a little bit of "blankness" to him, which means that he's the right kind of guy to appear in pictures like the Star Wars prequels (where he's intended to evoke a younger Alec Guiness) and in Tim Burton's Big Fish (where he's playing a younger Albert Finney), but he doesn't always make the most memorable lead on his own. Look him up on IMDB... With a lot of the pictures he's "starred" in, it's easy to forget that he was even in those films at all.

But you know, I think that kind of anonymity is right for what this film is too, kind of a filmic memoir of something that happened to the director which had a profound impact on him. We're in a weird age where movies like this rarely get made (or seen) unless a cast member of Twilight agrees to be in them, like in 2009's excellent Adventureland, or by some chance it gets a lot of Awards season attention the following spring, which is typically good for DVD and Blu Ray sales, but not so much for encouraging media companies to finance similar projects in the future. Beginners is an excellent example of this sort of thing done well all around, and I hope that between the Super 8s and Transformers 3s of this summer, a decent amount of people actually get around to seeing it.

June 2, 2011

Midnight In Paris (06/02/2011)

Lettergrade: B+

I tend to run a little hot and cold with Woody Allen movies, to be honest with you, but I found Midnight In Paris, a fantasy in which present-day Owen Wilson steps back into a romanticized version of 1920s Paris and cavorts with famous writers and artists of the day, to be unusually charming, engaging, and most surprising of all, focused.

While Woody's movies universally have a great deal of wit and playfulness, I often find them to be a bit rambly at the same time. He tends to write and direct one film per year, and frankly they sometimes feel like he either decided to shoot his first draft without revision or he was just kind of making it up as he went. Midnight In Paris is a little different: It feels a bit more thought-out, and something about Wilson's wide-eyed enthusiasm as the Allen substitute really makes the high-brow material a bit more relatable and breezy than his last several movies have been.

Wilson's character is a burnt-out Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his reptilian fiancé (Rachel McAdams). He's desperately trying to reinvent himself as a novelist, but is having trouble revising his first attempt into something he can sell. They're there with her ultra right-wing parents, and at breakfast one day, they discover that they're sharing their hotel with McAdams' old grad school professor (an extra slimy Michael Sheen) who considers himself an expert on every imaginable subject, and delights in demonstrating such whenever possible.

While out for a walk one night, Wilson discovers that if he happens to stand in a certain side-street... at just the right spot... exactly as the clock chimes midnight... a vintage car will appear and take him back through time to his own personal golden era. Once he arrives, he first meets Zelda Fitzgerald, before being introduced to her husband F. Scott, who then takes him over to the dark and moody Ernest Hemingway, who in turn agrees to show his novel to Gertrude Stein, who happens to live down the street with her house-guest Pablo Picasso... and so on, and so on. During the day, McAdams and her parents grow suspicious of what he's been up to, whilst he himself feels increasingly detached from the present, biding his time until he can slip out for another midnight walk. It's sort of like Allen's version of Avatar, with great artists of the Depression era substituted for the Na'vi.

Like several of Allen's earlier movies, it's the kind of thing that could easily have been a tight short story appearing in Playboy or The New Yorker had it not been made as a film instead. There's a clear thematic point that the movie gets at in a number of ways about how being in love with the nostalgia of yesterday can sometimes inhibit your appreciation of what's great about today, which is oddly moving when it begins to pay off. I'm not an Allen expert by any stretch, but I can't really remember anything quite like this from my random sampling of his films over the last 10 years or so. Although you can argue that the sentiment is a little corny, I think it's one of those instances where a familiar idea done with grace and vigor is perhaps a little stronger than one that might be more original, but also oblique and unclear.

My buddy Eric once commented that in the 90s, characters in Allen's movies started to behave less like real people and more like characters from other movies. I don't know if I see that exactly, but I do find it curious that his stories often seem to be farces about a leisure class which I'm not really sure exists anymore, if it ever did. No one seems to have a job in Allen's stories, and if they do, they're ones that you can either take lengthy vacations from or that you don't have to show up to very often, if at all. People go to art galleries, discuss philosophy and classic cinema, and sample vintage wines on the roof tops of world-famous museums at sunset.

All those things happen in Midnight In Paris, of course, but I think it's Wilson who somehow makes it all relatable to common-folk like me. If you're not a Woody Allen guy in the first place, this movie probably won't change your opinion much, but if you're usually on the fence about him (as I am), this is about as pleasurable and as accessible as he gets.