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.
Nearly a century and a half after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland first acquainted readers with the Mad Hatter the Cheshire Cat and the rest of the peculiar inhabitants of author Lewis Carroll’s fertile imagination filmmaking technology has finally developed the tools capable of properly rendering Carroll's exquisitely twisted world on the big screen. And who better to oversee the translation than Tim Burton Hollywood’s foremost mass-market purveyor of dark quirky fantasy? If there’s any director working today who can lay claim to Carroll’s creative inheritance surely it is him.
His creation Alice in Wonderland is fashioned not as an adaptation of Carroll’s two Alice-centered books but rather a kind of sequel to them its titular heroine (Mia Wasikowska) redrawn as the mischievous 19-year-old daughter of English aristocrats. Given more to chasing small animals than attending society functions Alice is the kind of adventurous free-thinking Victorian renegade who thinks nothing of drinking suspicious beverages found at the bottom of rabbit holes.
If only she were more interesting. Burton’s Alice isn’t so much a character as she is a tour guide leading us through the director’s $150 million museum of digital delights. Virtually everything on display in the film from the giant mushrooms of the Underland forest to the bulging eyes of Johnny Depp’s (literally) mercurial Hatter was either created or enhanced inside a computer presumably one with a direct connection to Burton’s cerebral cortex. (Interestingly the enhanced Depp bears a more than passing resemblance to Elijah Wood who the producers could have gotten for a lot less money.) Much like Alice herself it’s gorgeous to look at but never particularly engaging.
Were he alive today — and reasonably coherent — Carroll himself would no doubt marvel at the visual grandeur of Alice in Wonderland its CGI world as detailed and immersive as the most vivid of his migraine-induced hallucinations. But he might frown at the short thrift given to his characters. Esteemed cast members like Anne Hathaway (The White Queen) Crispin Glover (The Knave of Hearts) and even the mighty Depp can’t hope to compete with the beauty of their surroundings — instead of actors chewing the scenery the scenery devours the actors. (A notable exception is Helena Bonham Carter the cast’s lone standout as the screeching acerbic Red Queen.)
Alice in Wonderland is really designed to function as an inoffensive family flick and in that regard it boasts more than enough pretty fluff to keep the minds of most pre-teens occupied for the duration of a Saturday matinee. But afterward they might be hard-pressed to recount details of the story which involves Alice having to find a magic sword so she can slay a giant dragon and unlock the Legend of Zelda. Or something like that.
Filled with moments of fleeting exhilaration and empty whimsy Alice in Wonderland never really grabs the viewer in any meaningful way its overall experience more akin to that of a theme park ride than a movie. Which I half suspect was Disney’s intention all along.