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.
If there’s one thing about film festivals that I enjoy most it’s the opportunity to watch actors accustomed to lavish sets personal trailers and assistants work in a more practical environment and with decidedly more dangerous material. Thanks to the wonderful programmers at the annual Tribeca Film Festival I got to see Matthew Broderick and Brittany Snow get delightfully debaucherous in 2008’s riotous Finding Amanda and Chris Klein and Elijah Wood question their patriotism in the 2007 existential drama Day Zero taking risks and showing audiences sides of themselves that Hollywood rarely allows.
This year there’s no shortage of name recognition on the TFF schedule. I was particularly excited to see J. Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed primarily because of its cast of bankable performers but also because of its intriguing -- if familiar -- premise about a pair of ex-cons who kidnap a rich man’s daughter only to get entangled in a web of lies and double-crosses before they can cash out.
Unfortunately I re-learned the hard way that you cannot judge a book by it’s cover. Mr. Blakeson was incredibly lucky to catch Gemma Arterton (Clash Of The Titans Prince of Persia: The Sand Of Time) and Eddie Marsan (Hancock Sherlock Holmes) in between super-sized productions because without performers of their caliber inhabiting two of the three roles in the film it would’ve completely crumbled as a result of his formulaic and predictable screenplay. It’s not the dialogue that ruins the movie; it’s the forced twists thrown into the narrative that unearth more weaknesses than revelations.
The film begins with a procedural look at Vic (Marsan) and Danny (played with tense insecurity by Martin Compston) as they prepare for the coming kidnapping meticulously sorting out every detail in cold silence. Blakeson leaves the actual abduction of Alice (the stunning Arterton) to the imagination probably because the cruelty and horrific nature of the events that follow are traumatic enough to his audience. As we learn more about Vic’s all-too-common plan the aforementioned twists begin to unfurl handicapping the suspense by making this heightened cinematic situation a victim of plausible but cheap coincidences. From this point on The Disappearance of Alice Creed becomes a rather conventional crime thriller; I guessed my way from scene to scene all the way through the end credits.
The film’s victims in fact are its most endearing aspect. Though Alice’s broken relationship with her wealthy father serves as the catalyst for Vic an Danny’s actions don’t assume that she’s just another rich damsel in distress. Arterton gives the character resourcefulness and an inner strength that should be noted by aspiring young actresses. The 24-year-old Brit is a fearless performer who despite her blockbuster status shows that she isn’t afraid to get gritty in the harshest of scenarios. With her facial features and body language she conveys the primal terror that Alice experiences with total sincerity. Even more impressive is Marsan who is frighteningly fierce as the brains and brawn of an operation that he hopes will provide him enough cash to start a new life. The stakes are high and he never loses sight of the finish line or breaks from his character’s terrifying persona even in the face of deceit and defeat.
Though the film’s sharp cinematography and coarse production design will keep you visually engaged The Disappearance of Alice Creed falls short as a casualty of cliché. It borrows generously from other works within the genre be it Ron Howard’s Ransom or Rob Reiner’s Misery and sadly doesn’t give anything in return making for an awfully average and prescribed moviegoing experience.
Like most American families the Grombergs are a little dysfunctional despite their amazing loft apartment sensational Apple computers and successful family law firm. Middle-aged Alex (Michael Douglas) is what his son Asher (Cameron Douglas) calls a "soggy cracker": a corporate attorney who's always worried about something he works in a soup kitchen and takes pro bono work to assuage his middle-class guilt over his day job. He also struggles to understand his oldest son who's a failure in college but does well enough as a drug dealer and DJ. Alex's father Mitchell (Kirk Douglas) meanwhile is your standard powerbroker-cum-bored-retiree; he founded the law firm where Alex now works and if Alex's whining is to be believed spent most of his time there while his son was growing up and definitely didn't do much understanding. These three main characters are so self-absorbed that it's not surprising the story of their lives comes off about as interesting as a soup-soaked Saltine; thank goodness for mom Rebecca (Bernadette Peters) who manages at least on occasion to be something other than tolerant and uptight second son Eli (Rory Culkin) a karate champion with a crush on the class runaway a sixth-grade goth girl.
Interestingly it's young Culkin of that other famous Hollywood clan who steals the show with a deadpan delivery that would make Jerry Seinfeld proud. His performance aside It Runs in the Family is notable for its four-for-the-price-of-one special on Douglases: There's grandpa Kirk his ex-wife Diana as the grandmother of the clan son Michael and grandson Cameron in his first role. If you thought it would be creepy watching a family of Douglases play a family on the big screen you were right. It's beyond creepy--it's uncanny in that is-this-real-or-is-this-a-movie kind of way and the acting style is eerily familiar too. Everybody wants to be the good guy everybody wants to say the punch line and nobody wants to take any chances. Still the Douglases seems to take great joy in their own movie and in working together and that brings a certain joy to the audience; despite its pervasive cherish-your-family theme there are moments when it doesn't go over the top and these are charming--if few and far between.
Director Fred Schepisi makes ubiquitous use of several generations of Douglas family photos to punctuate various scenes in the film--usually the ones where we're supposed to realize how much they love each other and learn what family really means. The audience is meant to come away with a nice smarmy sense of the quirky little realities of this "everyfamily " but just in case you didn't get it the characters--like the actors--don't take any chances that might make you question just how "nice" they really are; they resist any real rebellion or risk and there's always someone willing to try to understand if they do occasionally screw up. Aside from making for a pretty dull film it doesn't ring particularly true. For all the actors are really a family they don't seem very comfortable with one another on the screen so their characters' squabbles and heartfelt admissions come off stilted and forced their reactions seem too controlled and their relationships ironically don't give the audience a sense of any real bond between them.