Sunday, July 3, 2011

Review: X-Men: First Class and Super 8

X-Men: First Class is the fifth film in a franchise, but you wouldn’t know it to look at it.  True, it has several in-jokes that depend on knowledge of earlier movies, but it has a freshness, fun, and vitality to it that none of its predecessors were able to muster, and that makes it a rare thing in the world of big-budget blockbusters,  It is questionable whether it is the best film in the series so far--though it’s a photo finish--but a franchise that can maintain and even improve itself this far into its run without a complete reboot is almost unheard-of in Hollywood (Harry Potter is the only example I can think of off-hand).
Leaving behind “The not too distant future” of the first 3 X-Men films, First Class goes back in the time to the 1960s to tell the origins of the two patriarchs of the original trilogy, Professor Charles Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr.  In the future they were enemies, but they began as friends, and the story of that friendship and how it broke over the irreconcilable differences in their philosophies.  In the ‘60s, the existence of mutants is not widely known, but a few of them are soon recruited by the CIA to aid in the Cold War.  In fact, it turns out that the Cuban Missile Crisis was almost entirely caused and ended by mutants.

The film gets off to an intriguing but rocky start, setting up the characters of Erik, Charles, and Raven (“Mystique”) with scenes from their childhoods and only gradually bringing them all together.  The scenes following Erik are excellent--especially an early sequence showing him hunting down ex-Nazis in Argentina--but the child actors are pretty weak, and they prevent the opening from achieving all it could have.  Eventually, though, director Matthew Vaughn pulls all his strands together and proceeds through a remarkable series of plot developments, action scenes, and retro-style montages, all staged and paced with no little precision.  I especially liked the recruitment montage and the scene of beast’s transformation.  Unfortunately, there are quite a few flaws along the way.  The film was rushed into development, with only 10 months from start of shooting to premiere, and it shows.  The script, while very well plotted, could use better dialogue and more character development throughout.  Nearly every minor character feels under-served, and there are far too many lines that are awkward and/or on-the-nose.  While the film never lacks for energy or action, it does suffer from lack of depth and emotion in most of its (numerous) subplots.
This is what ultimately separates it from the first two X-Men films, directed by Bryan Singer.  Singer’s films were unusually ambitious for superhero flicks, attempting to engage with complex political and philosophical questions in ways that approached hard science fiction.  They didn’t always succeed, but the attempt was admirable, and it is almost totally absent here.  World-political power games are obviously dealt with, but the more delicate and personal politics of mutant rights and obligations as a persecuted minority are reduced to a couple sentences and the trite slogan “Mutant and proud.”  This is not wholly missed, though, for it frees the films up to be fun again, something that Singer’s films too-rarely were.  Vaughn is a much more confident action and effects director than Singer, and his scenes always move, popping with color and never resorting to Michael Bay-style superfast cutting.  Singer’s films also had the benefit of brilliant casting, with virtually every role embodied perfectly by its actor (for an action movie, I mean).  Singer put the focus on mood and character development, and even his minor characters emerged as genuine people, even though we were often denied a chance to get to know them better by plot and time constraints.  He was also able to juggle a remarkable number of characters and plot threads, and this combination is what makes X2: X-Men United one of the finer superhero films of the past decade.  But as I mentioned before, those movies suffered from a distinct lack of fun, and while some of their action sequences were excellent (the mini-setpiece of Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison, for instance), others were awkward and boring (such as Nightcrawler’s attack on the White House).  Vaughn’s film is never boring.
It comes close a couple times, though, mostly because of some miscasting that one hopes could have been remedied with a longer production time.  January Jones is wooden and boring as Emma Frost, one of the most complex and interesting characters in comics, and she drags down the scenes she appears in.  The young X-Men other than Mystique and Beast are not necessarily miscast, but they are uninterestingly-cast, with pleasant-looking kids who never emerge as anything other than their powers.  The evil mutant henchmen also never receive characterizations beyond that description.  I also feel that Sebastian Shaw’s ability to influence world events was greatly exaggerated--unless I missed something, he convinces people to do what he wants just by threatening them with death by mutant powers.  Surely he must have been offering/threatening with more leverage than that?
Nevertheless, there are too many things the film does right to get too uptight about these issues.  Michael Fassbender is brilliant as Magneto, and James McAvoy holds his own as Xavier.  Their relationship is the heart of the film, and these two actors make it compelling and emotional all the way through.  Kevin Bacon is surprisingly excellent as the evil Sebastian Shaw--gleefully overacting in half a dozen different languages, but remaining a scarily seductive voice in all of them.  Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult are pretty good in their roles, too, though they needed better lines to say.  And it all builds up to such wonderfully epic conclusion, juggling multiple characters and lines of action in spectacular fashion, and finishing with tragedy and a well-earned emotional climax.  In the end, depending on how you feel about Watchmen, this is probably the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight.  Which isn’t saying that much, considering the competition, but is significant nonetheless.
*   *   *

It had been evident since the Super Bowl TV Spot that Super 8 was attempting to recapture the magical feel of early Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment.  What wasn’t clear until watching the full movie was how completely the film lives in those films’ debt.  Super 8 is an unabashed homage to Spielberg that attempts to ape his style throughout its entire running time.  It is bathed in that familiar otherworldly and focused on young characters who would be at home in E.T. or The Goonies, and individual shots and scenes continuously reference Spielberg movies, from Jaws to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. to Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park.  It is a wonder, therefore, that Super 8  still emerges as an excellent movie in its own right, one of my favorite movies of the year so far and likely to be the best overall blockbuster of the summer.
It is able to do this because its homage is not of the jokey insider type, but completely sincere imitation, an attempt to create another classic Amblin movie like those of old.  Director JJ Abrams was age as these kids in 1979, and this film is obviously very personal to him--about as personal as summer blockbusters get.  Abrams loved Spielberg and George Romero just like these kids do, and made his own Super 8 mm films at that age.  In fact, he owes his career to Spielberg, who gave Abrams and his friend Matt Reeves the job of restoring his own first Super 8 movies when they were 17.  In light of that, this film can be seen as Abrams’ love letter to the films of his youth, and an attempt to inspire a new generation of young people just as he was.
The plot centers on Joe Lamb, a (roughly) 13-year-old kid in the small town of Lillian, Ohio, and his group of friends.  His mother has died in a mill accident, and neither he nor his father have recovered from their grief.  This tragedy, and the pain it caused, hangs over the entire film.  Joe and his friends, who are making a zombie movie together, are all very well played by unknown child actors.  Abrams clearly has a touch with them, and they interact wonderfully--and hilariously.  It is their performances that suck us into the film.  The stand-out of the group is the lone girl,  Alice Dainard, played by Elle Fanning.  She is quickly becoming a wonderful actress, and appears quite a bit older than her 12 years.  The relationship between Joe and Alice is the heart of the film, and their awkward/sweet tweenage romance is beautifully observed.  This, perhaps surprisingly, is what Abrams does best throughout the film: bring out the best in his actors and make us care about these very human characters.
Of course, all this gets complicated  by an absurdly massive train crash the kids observe one night, and the monster that is unleashed on the town.  The monster stuff is pretty good, too, but it works best when the creature is just a shadowy threat, dragging people off into the night.  The creature’s backstory is underdeveloped, and attempts to give it motivation and audience identification never quite come off.  The military shows up to corral the creature--which had been imprisoned on a military base--and commences stonewalling the local authorities, evacuating the town, and arresting anyone who gets in their way.  This is the part that annoyed me most about the film--the lazy and insulting villainization of the American military.  It seems almost impossible to have a monster or disaster movie these days without blaming it on some sort of secret military experiment, and the trope has become tired beyond belief.  Aside from this, the depiction of American servicemen as cruel, murderous, and tyrannical in our popular entertainment when these same men and women are fighting and dying for their country overseas at this moment, is an offensive and all-too-common Hollywood trend.  Fortunately, Abrams never has the military turn completely evil or kill civilians--they are just attempting to clean up a potentially dangerous situation as quickly and quietly as possible.

As I said, the monster plot is undernourished, its background glossed over too neatly, and motivations one-dimensional.  Nevertheless, it all builds to quite a climax, which unfortunately reaches for an emotional catharsis it doesn’t quite earn.  If the third act plotting had been a little stronger, it would have worked.  As it is, though, it comes very close, and the emotionality it was reaching for is an audacious enough touch that I’m willing to give it a pass.  Would that more films could show characters learning forgiveness rather than ending in violent conflict.
I could see Super 8 becoming a minor classic--its certainly better than The Goonies, and we all know how popular that film remains.  Ultimately, though, the film doesn’t reach greatness because Abrams simply isn’t The Master.  Spielberg has an instinctive understanding of images, shots, and camera movements that you just can’t teach.  With Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., he tapped into something elemental, creating masterpieces that were beautiful and full of wonder as well as thrilling and accessible to all.  Time and again, Abrams quotes him, and achieves some reasonable effects.  His characters carry the day with heartfelt performances and excellent, naturalistic dialogue.  But Spielberg worked in images of iconic power, communicating everything important in those films without using words.  Despite his many followers, none since have been able to do that in the same way.
*   *   *
Both Matthew Vaughn and JJ Abrams reach far with their newest films, and they each deliver their finest achievements yet.  They each deliver exemplary popcorn entertainment, filled with well-executed thrills and homages to their influences.  Neither, however, can reach the level of their idols. They remain too wedded to silly stylistic tics, like Abrams’ overuse of lens flares, or clumsy camera moves in important scenes, like Vaughn’s awkward cutting in Magneto’s first encounter with an ex-Nazi, which undercuts the tension.  They also remain too dependent on the quality of their scripts, which too often have weak dialogue and confused climaxes.  Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino remain the gold standard of modern blockbuster entertainment, and no one looks ready to challenge them yet.  There remains a second tier of popcorn directors, however, who are sometimes inconsistent, but nevertheless capable and nearly always worth watching.  This tier includes Robert Zemeckis, Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, and just maybe Zack Snyder.  I think both Matthew Vaughn and JJ Abrams have now made convincing cases to join it.

X-Men: First Class Rating: 7/10
Super 8 Rating: 8/10

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