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 no "giant sea pods" this time? Instead The Invasion skews the Body Snatchers scenario by making the alien invasion a virus rather than plant life. Said virus which comes to Earth via a mysterious crash of a space shuttle is transmitted by some form of bodily fluid-to-bodily fluid connection. For example throwing up into people's faces or coffee cups is a fun way to spread the disease. The end result however is the same: Once the infected person falls asleep they undergo a transformation and wake up looking the same but are unfeeling and inhuman—and ready to organize. As the infection spreads and more and more people are altered there are a few humans left fighting for their lives including psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her doctor friend Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). Carol’s only hope is to stay awake long enough to find her young son who may hold the key to stopping the devastating invasion. But we won’t tell you how. OK it has something to do with an immunity but that’s all we are going to say. Nicole Kidman has had a string of bad luck since winning that damn Oscar for The Hours. One wonders if maybe the golden statuette might actually be a curse (Cuba Gooding Jr. anyone?). Still regardless of the movie--be it Bewitched The Stepford Wives or Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus--Kidman manages to turn in a decent performance. The same goes for The Invasion. Her mother bear act is quite believable as she races to find her son (played with spunk by Jackson Bond) while trying to stay awake and pretending to be cold and unemotional among the pod people--oh excuse me the virally infected people. You root for her all the way. Craig doesn’t have as much to do but still delivers when it counts. In a supporting role Jeremy Northam does a nice job as Carol’s ex-husband a CDC doctor who is one of the first to get infected. As does the always good Jeffrey Wright as a very clever genetic scientist. Even Veronica Cartwright one of the survivors in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers makes a cameo as one of Carol’s patients who tells her “My husband isn’t my husband!” Famous last words. Body snatching must be a popular water-cooler topic at the movie studios. Starting with the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which Kevin McCarthy barely escapes his small town with his life running into highway traffic screaming “They're here already! You're next! You're next You're next...” there have been at least two other versions including the above-mentioned 1978 film and the 1993 film Body Snatchers. To its credit The Invasion switches things up a bit nixing the pods and making it more relevant to our current socio-political climate. It even begs the question: Could we be better off if we didn’t have emotions? But the movie is still mired by its derivativeness and too-pat ending—and it also apparently had problems getting off the shelf. Originally wrapped in early 2006 rumor has it the studio didn’t like German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut and brought in Matrix’s Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski for rewrites and James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) to direct the new scenes. Again to its credit The Invasion surprisingly feels cohesive despite all the different influences. Let’s just say whoever came up with the tense car chase in which Carol tries to throw off the pod people (it's just more effective calling them that) draped all over the car kudos to them.
Think Mean Girls meets High School Musical meets whatever other high school teen scenario you can think of. Here four teenage girls make up the Bratz contingency each come from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds—just like the dolls they are based on. There’s Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos) a quiet Latina beauty with a great voice; Sasha (Logan Browning) the outgoing black cheerleader who loves to dance; Jade (Janel Parrish) a lovely Asian fashionista who also a wiz in chemistry; and Cloe (Skyler Shayne) the tall Caucasian blonde who despite being a klutz is a star on the soccer field. They’ve been best friends forever (or BFF as they lovingly refer to it) but once they hit high school they drift apart and into respective cliques organized by the narcissistic class president Meredith (Cheslea Staub). Still these BFF’s—who live for clothes make-up and hair products—won’t be pushed down. They’re gonna shake things up and prove it’s always best to just be yourself and stick together. You can’t really blame the unknown girls—each very cute in their own way—for wanting to bring the Bratz dolls to life. It’s a big deal! They get to sing and dance and wear all these cool clothes! They get to throw food in a cafeteria lunch fight! They get to serve sweets at Meredith’s Sweet 16 party dressed as clowns and still look fabulous! All the young girls in the audience will idolize them and wish they were a Brat too (perhaps to their parents’ chagrin). No it’s the adults in the movie you have to scratch your head about and ask “Do they really need the money that bad?” Character actors such as Lainie Kazan who plays Yasmin’s wise grandmother and Jon Voight as the inept high school principal and Meredith’s father just embarrass themselves over and over again—especially Voight who along with his mediocre appearance in Transformers has become the go-to guy to star in movies based on toys. And what’s with this latest trend to make live-action flicks based on toys? You can understand Transformers because they already had their own cartoon show and you know the movie would at least be action-packed full of cool visual effects. But a Bratz movie is a little too much. Even though it tries really hard to send positive messages there’s really nothing redeeming about turning little dolls—who frankly dress a little on the trashy side—into flesh-and-blood teenagers obsessed with how they look and dealing with high school politics. Bratz really only distinguishes itself from other Mean Girls-type movies because of the toy franchise. It would have been easier to take had it aired on the Disney Channel.
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all...hell is about to break loose! It starts when a snowstorm grounds all planes at Chicago’s fictional Hoover International Airport. Nobody’s happy to be potentially spending Xmas at an airport but least of all are the Davenport siblings Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) and his little sis Katherine (Dominique Saldana) as well as airport security boss Oliver (Lewis Black). The two kids are escorted to the airport’s “Unaccompanied Minors Lounge ” where kids run wild and terrorize pushover Zach Van Bourke (Wilmer Valderrama) who acts as chief airport babysitter. One look at the madness is all it takes for Spencer and Katherine to bust out along with fellow kiddie anarchists Charlie (Tyler James Williams) Timothy (Brett Kelly) Donna (Quinn Shephard) and Grace (Gina Mantegna). They embark on a pratfall-heavy game of cat and mouse with Oliver who is the Grinch to their collective Santa Clause as they try and salvage Christmas--and their families. Unaccompanied Minors makes some odd but admirable choices when it comes to the cast with virtually every single actor attempting a “Frat Pack” mutiny--Daily Show mainstay Black is joined by “correspondent” Rob Corddry as the Davenports’ Hummer-hating dad not to mention parts from The Office’s B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling Arrested Development’s Tony Hale and Jessica Walter SNL’s Rob Riggle and Kristen Wiig Paget Brewster David Koechner and a rare Kids in the friggin’ Hall (Kevin McDonald Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney) sighting. But the “Who’s that?” cameos aside the screen time is hogged by Black Valderrama and the children. Black the notoriously vulgar curmudgeon of a comedian shows great range and skill by dulling his shtick down but not so much that the kids watching won’t crack up while Valderrama’s performance is the same as his role--that of a bumbling easily overmatched lackey. With all the proverbial child actors in the mix it can seem a little Star Search-y but Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) steals most scenes with his amazing overall talent while Mantegna (Joe’s daughter) fares well too. Kelly (the bullied kid in Bad Santa) is exploited for his physicality and Christopher will likely go on to be a great actor even if he seems too seasoned at such a young age. The reason for the off-the-beaten-path cast is simple: director Paul Feig. The occasional actor has in the past directed episodes of The Office and the late Arrested Development Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks. It also might explain why he fell for a script--by Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark--that takes a few stabs at grown-up comedy (i.e. Corddry’s character has a car that runs on vegetable oil). Such jokes will be lost on the exclusively preadolescent audience but almost all else will reel them in. Feig also seems adept at making the oft-unfunny (physical pratfalls) somewhat funny and he does so with little mention of bodily functions. Of course he stays true to the formula but all kid flicks are the ultimate exercises in contrivance--Feig just chooses to treat the viewers like kids instead of idiots.