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.
The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
Louis Leterrier’s remake of Clash of the Titans the 1981 cult favorite that fused Greek mythology with sci-fi theatrics is a grand experiment in the ancient art of alchemy a big-budget attempt to spin fanboy nostalgia for a 30-year-old novelty into contemporary box-office gold. The main ingredients in this ambitious concoction are a potent arsenal of CGI weaponry and the star of the biggest movie ever Sam Worthington who inherits Harry Hamlin’s role as the heroic Perseus. But it’s what’s missing from the formula that ultimately dooms this remake.
Clash of the Titans redux mimics the original film’s epic ethos and preference for spectacle over all else but its storyline differs dramatically. Perseus is still the half-breed product of a one-night stand between the god Zeus and a human hottie and he still must to defeat the monstrous Kraken in order to save the lovely Princess Andromeda. Almost everything in between however has been altered — and not necessarily for the better.
The new version casts the Greek city of Argos as the primary battleground in a proxy war fought by dueling Olympian superpowers Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes). Born of a god but raised by and partial to humans Worthington’s Perseus battles not for the hand of Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) — as Hamlin’s character did — but instead for the people of Argos who stand to perish along with their princess at the hands of the dreaded Kraken. The film’s love story if it can be called that consists of the briefest of flirtations between Perseus and Io (Gemma Arterton) his self-appointed spiritual guide. (Cursed with immortality by the gods Io’s been secretly watching him all his life — which ostensibly makes her a glorified stalker.)
This detail is a small but crucial one. Strong-willed Perseus braves an obstacle course of giant scorpions gorgons and other horrors laid out for him by the wheezy fiend Hades but it’s never quite clear why he bothers with it all since what’s at stake is a princess he isn’t particularly interested in and a community of people he doesn’t really know — and who frankly don’t seem all that worth saving. His deadbeat dad up on Mount Olympus certainly isn't worth dying for nor are the battlefield compatriots he met barely a week prior. And while I’m sure that a few inviting glances from Gemma Arterton are positively delightful I wouldn’t risk being doused in flesh-eating scorpion venom for them.
This narrative oversight triggers a drain in enthusiasm that persists throughout the film. For a movie so epic in scale Clash of the Titans makes for a disappointingly bland ride. Leterrier’s CGI set pieces are at times magnificent but they’re proffered in the service of weak story filled with characters whose motivations are either unclear or unconvincing. During the film’s climax when Neeson’s Zeus utters the portentous words “Release the Kraken ” what should be an emotional high point instead feels perfunctory and anticlimactic. The only excitement it spawns comes from the knowledge that the end is mercifully imminent.
Although most Holocaust-themed works present the Jews as victims this true story shows there were small bands who did manage to fight back no matter how difficult the challenge. Starting near the beginning of World War II the film focuses on three Jewish brothers who lead a small but effective resistance against the surging Nazi presence in the forests of Belarussia. Eldest brother Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) returns home to find most of his family murdered. His only surviving siblings are his wild quick-tempered brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) prone to shoot first and ask questions later and his youngest brother Asael (Jamie Bell) whose gentle nature allows to him to act as a buffer between his two older siblings. Crux of the film is the conflict between Zus’ quest for revenge at any cost and Tuvia’s more measured desire to save lives. As they round up more and more Jewish outcasts the Bielskis form a community deep in the woods. But soon Tuvia must rise to the occasion and lead the 1 200 strong group deeper into hiding in order to survive the winter and the lurking Nazi threat. Daniel Craig gets back to his acting roots after two high-profile outings as 007. He’s strong resilient and complex as a man with a criminal past whose mettle is tested when he chooses to become an advocate for life over the prospect of turning into a killing machine. Schreiber is superb as well as the toughest of the brothers -- at least on the outside. His primal urge to survive at all costs by using whatever preemptive force is necessary is apparent throughout his well-detailed portrayal. And finally Bell who more than holds his own as the most innocent of the bunch and the one with the most to learn. Alexa Davalos Iben Hjejle and Mia Wasikowska add needed warmth and emotion as the three very different women or “forest wives ” with whom the brothers romantically bond during their years in hiding. Stand out in the enormous meticulously chosen cast is Mark Feuerstein as an intellectual and Viktor Panchenko as Isyyanov the leader of the People’s Army. Edward Zwick is known for intelligent historically based films like Glory The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. Defiance follows suit shot on a rather large scale with lots of impressive action sequences buffering an intimate story. Zwick’s co-writer Clayton Frohman stumbled upon the Bielskis’ story while reading a newspaper obituary on one of them. Armed with exhaustive research and an unerring eye for authenticity the director does not present any of these characters as saints. They were flawed conflicted human beings caught up in a extraordinary situation which only highlights their indomitable determination and fortitude to walk out of that forest alive. James Newton Howard’s brilliant score with haunting violin solos from Joshua Bell deserve special mention among the talented artists who made Defiance come to life. This is a must-see movie and another towering cinematic achievement for Zwick his best since Glory.