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'S IT ABOUT?
Jennifer Check and Anita "Needy" Lesnicky are lifelong best friends and high school students in tiny Devil's Kettle Minnesota. Needy is the practical bookish counterpart to small-town sexpot cheerleader Jennifer who controls most everyone around her — Needy included — with knowing relish using her hypnotic good looks. After Jennifer and Needy escape a grisly fire at the local dive bar Jennifer is whisked away in a creeper van by the band that was playing there despite Needy's pleas not to. In a "sell your soul for rock and roll"-style move the fame-hungry indie rockers Low Shoulder kill Jennifer in an occult virgin sacrifice ceremony which goes awry because Jennifer isn't one. After being left for dead Jennifer shows up at Needy's house covered in blood spewing black bile and grinning wickedly.
The next day amidst the fire tragedy aftermath Devil's Kettle's star football player is found disemboweled and half-eaten in the woods adjacent to the school. Jennifer of course did it and after the vixen kills a sweet emo boy she confesses to Needy (after a too-brief girl-on-girl makeout session complete with heavy tongue close-ups) that the botched sacrifice turned her into a demon and that she becomes happier and more beautiful — and thus deadlier — after she feasts on the blood of horny high school boys. Needy does some research in the occult section of the high school library and discovers her best friend is indeed a pawn of the devil. Needy warns her boyfriend Chip to watch out for Jennifer and consequently finds herself covered in bile with Chip dead in her arms at the prom because he doesn't. Then she seeks revenge.
WHO'S IN IT?
The ever enjoyable Amanda Seyfried takes the lead as plain jane Needy and Johnny Simmons is her sweet doting boyfriend Chip. Adam Brody doing a spot-on Brandon Flowers impression is the killer front man of Low Shoulder. Amy Sedaris makes a too-brief cameo as Needy's mom and Juno's dad J.K. Simmons is a high school teacher with an unexplained hook for a hand. Megan Fox is in it too.
Diablo Cody's script is smart funny and infinitely more interesting than the typical teen slasher swill. The movie revels in its gory moments without being gratuitous and employs a healthy amount of sex without coming off like it's pandering to horny teens. Rather Jennifer's Body is the perfect template for the incomparably hot Megan Fox to use her looks as a plot-forwarding mechanism. This is a professionally signficant departure from her eye candy turns in the Transformers movies and lets Fox prove that she can actually act. There's no one else in Hollywood right now better suited to this role. Fox's performance is unhinged and charming and she makes good use of all the Diablo Cody-isms ("You need a mani bad. You should find a Chinese chick to buff your situation.") that devil-may-care Jennifer gets to utter. The love/hate best friend relationship is interesting and there's a load of good-girl-gone-wrong catharsis in Seyfried's revenge-fueled rampage. Cody and director Karyn Kusama are adept in skillfully if a bit condescendingly creating a convincing depiction of a small Midwestern town which serves as the perfect ultra-real backdrop for the story.
Cody's unique style adds the perfect quirk factor to what could otherwise be run-of-the-mill cinematic garbage.The Cody-isms however sometimes come off as cloying when they aren't being uttered by Fox. Also hopeful Fox worshippers might be disappointed that the sexually radiant actress despite her character's penchant for using sex to lure her victims doesn't actually bare anything that necessitates the film's R-rating.
With its surprising plot twists a snarky bff vs. bff subplot and Cody's flair for linguistics Jennifer's Body is a smart horror flick for anyone who enjoys jolly gore or Megan Fox in a mini-skirt.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
At his high school’s commencement ceremony socially awkward class valedictorian Denis Cooverman uses his graduation speech to declare his love for hottie head cheerleader Beth Cooper a girl with whom he’s never actually had a conversation. When Beth unexpectedly shows up at his graduation party — followed shortly by her sadistic coked-out Army cadet boyfriend -- Denis is swept up in a series of escapades he won’t soon forget. That is if he makes it through the night alive.
WHO’S IN IT?
Hayden Panettiere star of NBC’s Heroes goes bravely against type to play — you guessed it — a cheerleader. In the role of her geeky onscreen counterpart is relative newcomer Paul Rust.
Not much unfortunately. Teen comedies in the post-Superbad era — even the PG-13 ones — can’t survive on merely playing to tired high-school cinematic stereotypes which I Love You Beth Cooper does in spades. Panettiere is appealing as a bright-eyed cheerleader whose perky exterior hides a bad-girl streak but she doesn’t quite project that unattainable quality the role seems to call for. She’s more like the superhot girl-next-door who you think is attainable but probably isn’t. Rust meanwhile attempts to compensate for the flat material he’s given by overplaying virtually every joke — to the point at which you’ll actually root for his antagonists to pummel him without mercy.
With its promising opening scene Beth Cooper shows the potential to be something sly and clever -- a high-school comedy in the vein of Alexander Payne’s Election — but instead develops disappointingly into a bland turgid knock-off of an ‘80s John Hughes flick.
The opening valedictorian speech in which Denis cooks his own goose by singling out various dysfunctional classmates — including a bully an anorexic and his closeted best friend — for public acknowledgment is achingly funny.
A saucy shower scene later in the film in which a side view of Panettiere’s naked breast is briefly revealed should at least keep the boys around until the third act. Maybe.