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.
When Platinum Dunes the production house created by Michael Bay Andrew Form and Brad Fuller first came into being it took on the father of modern horror films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's safe to say everyone expected it to be a total failure given who was involved; when it turned out that it actually wasn't too bad of a film fans were justifiably surprised. A few mid-level misfires later Platinum Dunes raised their aim at iconic horror franchises even higher bringing back TCM's director Marcus Nispel to tackle Jason Voorhees. Again people weren't expecting much so it was another pleasant surprise that 2009's Friday the 13th turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining respectful recombination of the cabin-in-the-woods slasher. From there the studio didn't even bother to go back to lesser franchises they notched their crosshairs as high as they could go; Freddy Krueger.
Fast forward twelve months. The main thing anyone will want to know about A Nightmare on Elm Street is whether it is at the very least a worthy remake of the original Wes Craven film about a slain pedophile who resurrects in the dream world to kill teenagers in their sleep. The short answer is a resounding yes. Samuel Bayer's film is the best remake in the Platinum Dunes stable; Jackie Earle Haley is an excellent successor to the original's Robert Englund; and Freddy Krueger isn't just scary again he's the most disturbing he's ever been. The long answer is of course a little more complicated and requires plenty of qualifiers.
Yes A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best remake Platinum Dunes has produced but the reason behind that is also the film's handicap. For the most part Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer's screenplay hems incredibly close to Craven's original. There comes a point in the film however where staying faithful to the source material becomes a bit too problematic. Mainstream audiences particularly those who didn't grow up with Krueger will be unaffected but horror fans may soon grow bored with the lack of individuality in the scripting department. And then just as the film threatens to overthrow its predecessor by changing (for the better) Krueger's origin story it backs off once again sacrificing innovation for tradition.
It would appear to be a contradiction but that adherence to tradition in turn becomes the remakes' greatest strength. Bayer and company dive even deeper into the Elm Street mythos giving the audience in the process two crucial looks at what Krueger was like before the parents of the molested preschoolers delivered their gas-can brand of mob justice. Haley's astounding amount of talent makes profound use of every second of these brief glimpses into a pre-burn Freddy. Then once the kind soft-spoken kid-loving mask of the pedophile-in-hiding has been literally burned off the true monster underneath emerges. This contrast between the Freddy the kids knew and the Freddy they now know as teens makes for some legitimately bothersome bedroom nightmares toward the film's end.
As for the teens they too are marked improvements this time around. Johnny Depp may have emerged from the '84 classic but he was about it. Rooney Mara Kyle Gallner Thomas Dekker and Katie Cassidy all do an admirable job with the at times thin characterizations they're given. It's a testament to the talent of each of them that they overcome the limitations of the script to warrant some investment in their fight against their dream killer. And as for that dream killer...Haley is the perfect replacement for Englund. His take on the voice may be indistinguishable from his work as Rorschach in Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation but considering it fits Haley's commanding presence as Krueger as snugly as the iconic bladed glove whose newly stylized dragging across the pipes in Freddy's dream boiler room sounds skincrawlingly likely a cross between nails on a chalk board and an arc welder that's not too much of a complaint.
A little more worthy of complaint are a few failed attempts to reinact iconic moments from the original most notably Freddy's emergence from the wallpaper above Nancy's bed. It's inexcusable that a special effect in the year 2010 should look worse than the effect from the 1984 film it's imitating but CGI the perpetual enemy of the horror fan once again rears its ugly head. That embarrassing failure aside this film could not look better. Bayer did a tremendous job of altering the reality of the dream world with subtle visual distortions (a lot of straight lines are skewed obtusely outward while the edges of the frame curve oh so slightly inward) when necessary. And the effects work on Krueger's face is appropriately gruesome in all the right spots. One can even forgive the terrible wallpaper CGI scene in exchange for inspired touches like a partial singed cheek that flaps slightly when he exhales or moves too quickly.
While this rebirth of Krueger no doubt boasts a number of glorious kills (the bold opener sets the gore precedent quite nicely) its biggest strength in the fear department is this new far more disturbing structuring of the character as a joyless disgusting psychopath. Craven's original used Krueger's actions mainly as the logistical justification for why he would be killing these teenagers whereas Bayer's handling of the material leverages the origin story beyond just physical torture and into mentally disturbing psychosexual territory. The original franchise gradually acclimated to the idea of Krueger as a sexual threat but this iteration makes no qualms about it. It's not just the burns to Krueger's face that have been updated for realism; his motivations have as well — and that makes this new Nightmare on Elm Street scary as hell.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.
David Callaway (Robert De Niro) is having a tough time dealing with the apparent suicide of his wife (Amy Irving). His young daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning) also has taken her mother's death very hard retreating into her own little world. As a psychologist David decides the only way to help Emily is to move from the big city to a house in the country. Sure that kind of thing usually works like a charm. Emily does perk up a bit when she finds a new "friend " Charlie who likes to have fun and play hide and seek with her. Of course we can't actually see this new friend but that's beside the point. The imaginary Charlie is still a powerful force in Emily's life instructing her not to talk about him much and hating pretty much everyone else in her life including her dad. In short order bad things start happening--yes the family pet gets whacked--which Emily blames on Charlie. This leaves David wondering how his little girl could have turned so psychotic. But wait. Maybe Charlie isn't imaginary after all but actually a flesh-and-blood malevolent presence. Oh god do you think so?
Why you may ask would an acting icon like Robert De Niro star of such classic movies as Raging Bull and Goodfellas choose such a cheesy film as Hide and Seek? Very good question. Maybe he was drawn into the project based on the premise like the rest of us without realizing how derivative the story would get as things progressed. Of course De Niro plays the confused father--dealing with what could possibly be a demonic child--with a fair amount of finesse. But he's a pro that's what he does. Fanning (I Am Sam) too does the best she can as the sunken-eyed pasty-faced Emily. She sulks around rarely smiles and draws scary pictures of people dying horrible deaths which has now become a prerequisite for any child in a scary movie. In the supporting roles Elisabeth Shue Famke Janssen and Dylan Baker are all pretty much wasted. Shue who hasn't acted in anything major since 2000's Hollow Man makes a brief appearance as a potential paramour for David. Janssen (X-Men) playing David's colleague and Emily's confidante thinks living in isolation is a bad idea (and she's right!). Veteran character actor Baker (Kinsey) takes on the predictable role of the hapless town sheriff who never quite gets he's about to be in a world of hurt.
It is always disappointing when the promise of something potentially creepy turns out to possess the same old tired plot points and scare tactics seen countless times before. Director John Polson--best known for helming Swimfan another predictable stalker-gone-mad thriller--and novice screenwriter Ari Schlossberg don't have the necessary skills to take Hide and Seek above and beyond its conventional trappings. To its small credit the film does build a bit of tension in the beginning as David and Emily skirt around each other trying to grasp onto some kind of normalcy. Then when Emily introduces Charlie you continue to hold out hope that somehow the filmmakers will channel some of M. Night Shyamalan's aura and start really scaring the bejesus out of you. But alas it isn't meant to be. Instead you're sitting there pretty much guessing every move the film is going to make before it happens. When the twist finally comes around--you knew there was a twist right?--it doesn't really surprise you whether you've guess it or not.