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 a major motion picture studio gave you $50 million to make the movie of your choice what would it be like? If you’re producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost it’d be a loving lampoon of geek culture and an homage to the films of the Spielberg/Lucas revolution but nostalgia is both an advantage and disadvantage in director Greg Mottola’s Paul.
Pegg and Frost star as a pair of nerds from across the pond who fulfill lifelong dreams when they fly to San Diego for the annual Mecca of nerdom Comic-Con. The doofy duo extend their trip to tour America’s extraterrestrial hot spots including Area 51 where they pick up an unexpected alien hitchhiker on the run from the proverbial men in black. Across the country they go getting into trouble picking up more passengers and building bromantic bonds as the little green man Paul inches closer to his escape from planet Earth and the shadowy government official who has been exploiting his knowledge of the universe since he crash landed in Wyoming over 60 years ago.
Fan-favorite filmmakers since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead Pegg and Frost have been making geek chic for years now and continue to create identifiable roles for themselves while finding humorous ways to write their like-minded friends into their movies. Their collection of wacky characters is charming if incredibly derivative but for better or worse they are the heart and soul of the film. Jason Bateman Kristen Wiig Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio turn in fun performances but I expected a bit more from the Jane Lynch David Koechner and Sigourney Weaver cameos. Still Seth Rogen’s vocal performance as Paul adds significant layers to an already adorable alien and enlivens the adequately rendered CG character.
The comedy is surprisingly sweet and doesn’t bite like Mottola’s Superbad though there are enough religious jabs and signs of anti-establishment fervor to call it mildly subversive. Lack of laughs isn’t the issue here; lack of originality is. Mottola is too dependent on pop-culture references and inside jokes pertaining to E.T. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so much so that the film ultimately becomes a parody of itself as its storyline mirrors that of Steven Spielberg’s massive 1982 blockbuster (in this world the movie mogul actually consults the incarcerated alien for inspiration for his beloved family film). While these nods are all amusing they’re not enough to carry the film and Mottola/Frost/Pegg offer little else. At its worst Paul will give you a reason to revisit those classic sci-fi staples and remember the good old days. At best it provides a few mindless chuckles and gives you good reason to give the geek next to you a great big hug.
A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.