Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Christine has a doting boyfriend a good job and much promise until she refuses to extend the overdue home loan of Mrs. Ganush a strange one-eyed Gypsy woman who literally begs to keep her residence of 30 years. The ambitious Christine doesn’t budge and the woman unleashes the horrendous curse of the Lamia on the unsuspecting banker turning her life into hell on Earth. When she goes to a psychic to reverse the curse her entire existence is turned upside down becoming a living nightmare with no light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
WHO’S IN IT?
As Christine Alison Lohman gets to chew the scenery like there’s no tomorrow. Living an actor’s dream Lohman gets under the skin of this wickedly cursed girl and gives it her all in one harrowing sequence after another. Justin Long has the standard thankless role of her understanding but perplexed and confused boyfriend. Playing it straight he basically stands on the sidelines watching his girlfriend go slowly mad. As Christine’s boss David Paymer is all business while Dileep Rao as the all-knowing seer Christine turns to in her most dire time of need is quite effective in a handful of scenes. Stealing the show lock stock and barrel though is unquestionably the veteran TV character actress Lorna Raver who is aptly named Mrs. Ganush she is stark-raving mad. The character is blissfully over-the-top (and then some) and Raver under mounds of scary-as-hell makeup hits it out of the park.
Returning to his celebrated roots in horror Spider-Man director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) is clearly in his comfort zone as he delivers one of the best examples of the genre seen in many years. Although some CGI trickery and puppetry is employed to full effect Raimi manages to get his best jolts with expert use of camera angles creeping shadows blowing wind strong visual flourishes amped up sound effects and a brilliantly vivid musical score from Christopher Young. Raimi shows today’s purveyors of “torture porn” you don’t need graphic violence to scare the crap out of an audience — just talent. Hitchcock would have approved.
The PG-13 rating probably forced Raimi’s hand in turning on the juice and REALLY dragging us through hell in a couple of scenes so we’re hoping there’s an uncut DVD special edition coming along eventually.
There are many to choose from including a classic dinner scene with the boyfriend’s parents but for pure intensity the initial bank and parking garage encounter between Lohman and Raver has lots of teeth (so to speak) and is still sending chills down our spine. Also the creepy use of a "nosey" fly pays dividends through the entire film for the ultimate audience freakout.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Drag yourself to a multiplex. A fright flick that is this much fun deserves to be seen in a packed theater.
Attractive college co-ed Casey (Odette Yustman) finds herself the target of the diabolical Dybbuk a spirit which has bided its time since her birth to make its nefarious presence known. Is it perhaps a manifestation of her twin brother who died in the womb all those years ago? Since dear old Dad (James Remar) is away on business -- seemingly for the entire length of the movie -- concerned Casey seeks answers from Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander) a survivor of the Holocaust who may hold the key to Casey’s past. Needless to say those to whom Casey confides her fears often find themselves in danger of being offed in gruesome fashion. (Misery may love company but the Dybbuk doesn’t.) In a last-ditch effort to rid herself of the evil spirit Casey turns to Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman) who finally agrees to perform an exorcism after he too sees the signs. Aside from acting terrified (and looking good doing it) Yustman (Cloverfield) is totally at the mercy of the story which shows little mercy when it comes to providing any concrete (or even shaky) answers to the questions it raises. She’s attractive but there’s not much else to the character. As Casey’s respective boyfriend and best friend Cam Gigandet (Twilight) and Meagan Good (Saw V) are merely functionaries offering the typical mixture of skepticism and support before learning for themselves -- too late of course! -- that maybe Casey’s suspicions have validity. Adding a (misplaced?) touch of class to the proceedings are Oldman who doesn’t embarrass himself and Alexander who isn’t so fortunate. It’s also a wonder why Carla Gugino seen occasionally in flashback as Casey’s deceased mother even bothered. It’s a nothing role which might explain why the actress has no billing other than in the end credits. There’s no question that writer/director David S. Goyer has a deep love and appreciation for horror and science-fiction given his previous credits which include the scripts for Dark City Blade and The Dark Knight but as a director his work (which includes Blade: Trinity and last year’s The Invisible) leaves much to be desired. There are some good ideas here and some individual scenes are reasonably effective but the parts don’t add up to a satisfactory whole. The Unborn suffers from a botched delivery.
A Los Angeles apartment building falls prey to something very nasty--won’t you come along for the ride? A TV news crew accompanies a fire company to a Los Angeles apartment building where something has gone wrong. VERY wrong. For the next 90 minutes the characters--and the audience--embark on a grimy gritty shock-filled rollercoaster ride through the hallways of an apartment building that is soon under siege by both a threat inside and the obligatory threat (i.e. the authorities who are always interested in keeping the lid on things) outside. It’s never really explained what the pesky pestilence is that kick-starts this horror thriller nor does it really matter. As seen through the lens of the TV cameraman (Steve Harris) the audience gets a good jolt of high-concept horror in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield--but certainly more effective and better-rendered than the latter. It’s a pure edge-of-the-seat horror-fied (and horror-fried) adrenaline rush which should find great favor with fans of the genre. This is not a movie about acting unless acting is determined by how well people play under pressure. This is a concept movie a gimmick movie. The actors are merely there to fulfill their functions--show up scream and die--which they do with solid dispatch. Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter as the TV reporter-cum-heroine-by-default looks dynamite and screams even better. Jay Hernandez as a friendly fireman portrays manly panic quite well. He’s a hero and he’s a hunk but oh boy are the odds stacked against him! The majority of the ensemble cast ends up as fodder but they manage to make a positive impression that hurries this film along. This is not an actor’s movie but the actors most certainly do their part to keep the proceedings moving along. The real star of the show is Minnesota-born filmmaker John Erick Dowdle who maintains a relentless pace that serves this story--and the intended audience--very well indeed. If the intent was to make a gory paranoid rollercoaster ride that never lets up then the director has succeeded. You want to read more into it? Go ahead. I’m going for a drink to settle my nerves!
Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.