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.
Disney's new movie Mars Needs Moms suffers from a classic mistake: focusing too much on one aspect of a production -- and in this case it's the visuals. The result is an unbalanced mess that looks terrific but doesn't have enough substance to leave the audience with anything more to "ooh" and "ah" at other than all the pretty colors. As we all know from that one really really hot girl/guy in high school who's now overweight and working a dead-end job looks can only go so far.
Adapted from the children's novel by Berkeley Breathed and directed by Simon Wells Mars Needs Moms follows Milo (acted by Seth Green voiced by Seth Robert Dusky) as he chases after his mother who's been stolen by Martians just a few hours after he told her he'd be better off without her. Once he arrives on Mars (by sneaking on the ship) he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler) who informs him of his problem: the Martians are ruled by a ruthless queen-like Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) who's decided that the hatchlings (babies who sprout from the ground like vegetables) must be divided: all males are thrown away into the dump and the females are raised by "nanny-bots" -- robots programmed by the "discipline" energy of good moms like Milo's from Earth. Milo and Gribble buddy-up and with the help of a rebel Martian named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) the three of them venture to save Milo's mom before it's too late.
And venture on they do. Coming from producer Robert Zemeckis and utilizing the same motion-capture technology as The Polar Express A Christmas Carol and Beowulf Mars Needs Moms rushes forward embracing its visually stunning universe without taking a moment to stop and breathe. The characters never have a chance to do anything significant that would make the audience think they're substantial or important -- especially Gribble whom the filmmakers really really want us to care for. On top of that it relies on a plot line that we've all seen before and instead of diving into the parts that made it interesting (like the question of why men were thrown in the garbage and not women) it skims safely along the surface doing its best to avoid anything deeper than basic themes.
But that may be a little too picky. After all the movie is just supposed to be a fun little child's tale right? In that vein it succeeds. We feel like we're on an amusement park ride thanks to Ki's vibrant '60s flower-power paintings and the adventures on the Red Planet's surface. Even the moments that aren't super fast-paced present environments that are beautiful. Plus Fogler's performance as Gribble (as Jack Black-esque as it was) gives us some fun enjoyable moments and one-liners that kids will no doubt love.
Yet at the same time Mars Needs Moms' visuals aren't all glorious. In fact some hurt the plot because frankly the humans aren't animated very well. There's no life in their eyes. Simple movements like walking look awkward and too often characters facial expressions don't match the urgency found in their voices. Instead the animation just turns all the characters into weird cartoony versions of themselves that look so "almost human" they appear fake. And as always it's difficult to care for fake people.
Children will definitely enjoy Mars Needs Moms but from a filmmaking standpoint Wells really missed an opportunity to deliver something other than neat visuals and one-liners.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
Looking like it was ripped from the headlines The International focuses on the corrupt dealings of a fictional bank that will go to any means possible to serve as a conduit for illegal weapons sales to people who shouldn’t be getting them. Enter an Interpol agent (Clive Owen) who is teamed with a New York assistant District Attorney (Naomi Watts) to go after a network of suave crafty Europeans bent on carrying out their dirty business as they always have. Following their trail around the world in such locales as Berlin Italy New York and Istanbul the two become targets in an unending high stakes game of murder and intrigue.
Looking more unkempt and unshaven than ever Owen totally connects with the role of an eccentric agent who stumbles on to a worldwide conspiracy which eventually leads to a group of corrupt bankers. Who knew? It makes you realize what an ideal James Bond he would have been. Unfortunately Watts just isn’t his match. She comes across as bland and lost never able to get a beat on this lawyer who is caught up in an international scandal. Forced to utter obvious lines like “This isn’t over” at the 80-minute mark she has zero chemistry opposite Owen. German director Tom Tywker who broke out with the riveting and stylish Run Lola Run 10 years ago has his best outing since that film carefully navigating the numerous and colorful locations with just enough pacing and attention to detail to keep this from turning into yet another Bourne ripoff. He seems totally in control of the complicated and dense storyline pulling off a sensational set piece at New York’s Guggenheim Museum (actually meticulously re-created in a Berlin warehouse) where Owen gets involved in a shootout to end all shootouts with numerous bad guys. It’s a stunning scene running about 15 minutes -- and a textbook example of how to shoot an action sequence. It’s reminiscent of some of the best cold war spy thrillers of the ‘60s and ‘70s and that’s a high compliment. See it.
The movie tagline sort of sums it up: "Four guys from the suburbs hit the road...and the road hits back." The four middle-aged friends who like to jump on their motorcylces and go riding around once a week are: Doug (Tim Allen) a dentist embarrassed by his job; Bobby (Martin Lawrence) a henpecked husband who wants to break away from being a plumber; Dudley (William H. Macy) a mild-mannered computer programmer and resident geek; and finally Woody (John Travolta) an entrepreneur with seemingly the most going for him. In actuality Woody is about to hit rock bottom but rather than be honest with his friends he convinces them all to hit the open road with him--to feel the wind in their hair so to speak. And as they go looking for adventure they soon find that they’ve embarked on a journey they will never forget. Uh-huh. Who would have thought these four actors would make a movie together? Casting Wild Hogs looked like the best part about making the movie as the producers probably sat around coming up with different variations (wonder who else they considered--Tom Hanks? Steve Carell?) Comedy veterans Allen and Lawrence have fun riffing on one another doing their shtick here and there while Travolta (the only real biker of the bunch) and Macy easily keep up with the antics. For the most part these guys click but I’m sure everyone did this purely for the money—and the Harleys. Ray Liotta gets to play the menacing villain once again as the leader of a motorcycle gang who has it out for our hapless quartet. Of course this time Liotta plays it for laughs and does a nice job with it. Even Marisa Tomei makes an appearance as a small town denizen who falls for Macy’s Dudley as the boys end up defending the town from Liotta and his thugs Magnificent Seven-style. You can see every plot point coming a mile away plus a few director Walt Becker probably didn’t even know were in there. But honestly from the guy who directed Van Wilder what did you expect? Becker is handy with a camera and totally knows where the film’s bread is buttered focusing all his energy and attention on his four stars. Unfortunately in doing so Wild Hogs mostly misses out on the poignancy of say a City Slickers even though it tries real hard to get us to connect with these middle-aged men trying to recapture youth--or whatever. But listen this isn’t supposed to change the world; Wild Hogs is just pure dumb fun about a group of guys wearing leather and riding hogs. Period.