Archive for June, 2011
YATES: More character depth with minor character would make ‘Bad Teacher’ better
Perhaps it is my advancing age, but it seems like these sugar-coated mindless comedies are appearing more frequently these days, each with less substance than the last.
For every “King’s Speech” it appears there are five “Bad Teachers.” Nonetheless, films are entertainment as much as art, so I took in the latest silly comedy at a Saturday morning showing at my local AMC cineplex. That’s right, I said Saturday morning. It struck me as odd when searching movie times that a 10:50 a.m. option was listed on the screen of my iPhone, so I rallied up the troops and asked, “Who’s in for a Saturday morning movie?” I was accompanied by a friend we’ll simply call “Stubs” because of his recent joining of AMC’s rewards program they constant push on you during your movie going experience. I responded to the concession clerk’s question about joining the rewards program with an inquiry of my own regarding the Saturday morning movies. None too happy about being at work on Saturday morning she replied, “Apparently AMC thought it was a good idea to show movies in the mornings on the weekends.” Despite the touch of sarcasm, I tend to agree with her, finding that the movie theatre was the best place to be during the recent stormy Saturday morning. There was something charming about being in the theatre while the thunder rolled and the rain pattered on the cinema’s roof. The movie, unfortunately, was not quite as charming.
“Bad Teacher” follows the exploits of gold-digging, foul-mouthed middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) after she is dumped by her rich fiancé. Determined to win the heart and wallet of a fellow teacher with family money (Justin Timberlake), Elizabeth pulls out all the stops to get what she wants while taking on beloved teacher of the year and rival love interest Mrs. Squirrel (Lucy Punch, “Dinner for Schmucks”).
Typically, my synopsis of a movie is much longer, but to be honest, there’s not a lot more to sum up. The movie is a whole lot of Cameron Diaz’s character being a jerk to everyone around her. Too much of Diaz, one might argue (as I currently am). Timberlake diversifies his character portfolio with an impossibly squeaky clean schlep, and Punch will likely reflect back on “Bad Teacher” as her breakout role, but despite their standout performances, there are simply not enough of them onscreen. The solid cast is rounded out with TV standouts Jason Segal (“How I met Your Mother”), Phyllis Smith (“The Office”) and classic that guy John Michael Higgins (“Fired Up!”). Unfortunately the stellar comedic cast is wasted as ancillary characters that appear flat and only there to appease Elizabeth. Director Jake Kasdan (“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) and sophomore screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Year One) seem to struggle to branch out from the main storyline to offer any type of substance for the rest of the cast. Jason Segal is completely wasted as the gym teacher pining after Elizabeth. His character is basically reduced to one-liners constantly reminding Elizabeth that no matter how much of a jerk she is, he’s going to keep asking her out on a date.
The anti-hero protagonist is nothing new to Hollywood. In fact, some of cinema’s best characters have come from this type of character — Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” and Leonard Shelby from “Memento” immediately come to mind. However, when a protagonist’s every move is driven by the desire for…wait for it…a boob job, it comes off as uninspiring, no matter what the genre classification. Most anti-heroes have a set of redeeming qualities that are slowly revealed in order for the audience to emotionally connect with. Elizabeth Halsey lacks any real redeeming qualities even through the film’s denouement, where she continues to insult the gym teacher for his chosen profession while finally giving in to his advances. There is a somewhat muted attempt toward the film’s climax to show that Elizabeth has learned the error of her ways, but it feels like it was added at the last minute to prevent audiences from throwing tomatoes at the screen. Ok, Halsey doesn’t come off quite that evil, but she does rank up there with some of cinema’s most unlikeable characters.
I’ll stop short of saying “Bad Teacher” should be called “Bad Movie” as it is filled with laughs and snarky one-liners — mostly short lived and coming from the little used cast outside of Diaz. The film’s biggest failure is that it lacks any sort of verisimilitude — even for a flighty comedy. Because of her good looks, the world created in the film revolves around Elizabeth Halsey, despite the fact that she treats everyone around her like dirt. Hmm … on second thought, maybe there is more truth in this film than at first glance. Regardless, a little more depth with the minor characters and less screen time for Diaz would go a long way in making “Bad Teacher” a better cinema experience.
WIEGENSTEIN: ‘Bad Teacher’ goes for broad-based humor leaving few memorable scenes
In the wake of summer’s previously released adult comedies “Bridemaids” and “The Hangover II,” director Jake Kasdan brings us “Bad Teacher,” perhaps seeking to create some form of foul-mouthed trifecta for the year.
His tactics seem sound: “Bad Teacher” stocks itself with an impressive roster of comedy veterans from the well-known (Molly Shannon in a bit part) to those with less name recognition, but a long history of character acting (Thomas Lennon, one of the kings of “hey, it’s that guy!” in the movie world). But the large pool of talent forming the foundation of Kasdan’s film is unable to hide that Cameron Diaz’s titular character is a void at its center, holding it back from joining the ranks of 2011’s R-rated comedy crop.
Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, the ill-qualified educator in question (whether she actually studied education before jumping into the junior high world is an issue left noticeably unmentioned by the film), who returns to an English teaching position she hates after being dumped by the man who she intended to take care of her for the rest of her life. Miraculously, a potential replacement appears in the form of Scott (Justin Timberlake), a substitute teacher poised to become the empresario of his family’s designer watch business. Timberlake tackles his dweeby character with glee, and a scene in which he showcases his original songwriting skills is a film highlight (don’t expect another “Sexy Back,” let’s just say).
Convinced that a new pair of breasts will be her ticket to another sugar daddy, she begins a series of low-level scams that include embezzling from a school car wash and charging for non-existent tutoring sessions. Low-key love interest Jason Segel (whose own gym teaching methods often seem like they might make for a funnier movie) watches her tactics with amusement, something that can’t be said for Elizabeth’s tightly wound “across-the-hall-mate,” history teacher Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch).
The runtime of “Bad Teacher” is largely taken up by montages of Elizabeth being, you guessed it, a pretty awful teacher. She smokes pot in her car, sleeps at her desk, and when she finally gets around to discussing her reading assignments, she chooses to pelt her students with dodgeballs to encourage better performance. Kasdan’s work becomes increasingly repetitive the longer the film drags on, hindered by a similarly rote script. There are moments of detail that provide real humor (a character’s fixation with dolphins, the weariness that field trip guides exhibit when constantly quizzing students on Abe Lincoln), but the movie at large goes for broader-based humor, leaving almost no memorable scenes.
Diaz has proven herself more than capable of comedic acting, most memorably in 1998’s “There’s Something About Mary,” and she’s able to deliver many of the script’s best lines with the acidity they deserve. But Elizabeth remains a single-note character in a field of funnier co-stars, a fact that all the sexy car wash scenes in the world can’t get rid of.
YATES: “Swamp Thing” rushes to the finish line in plot
This week Anna and I decided to pay tribute to the superhero film genre by putting a couple of the classics under our own x-ray vision. As a fan of the obscure, I flew right by the typical crime fighters and opted to go with Wes Craven’s 1982 film “Swamp Thing.” Two years before Craven would write and direct his most well-known work in “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” he put his own spin on the DC Comics creature that battled evil amidst the swamps he lived in. Although it is one of the lesser-known comics, the brand would go on to spawn a film sequel, television series, animated series and video games.
Part superhero movie, part horror film, “Swamp Thing” is the story of a scientist who is turned into a plant-like creature that clashes with enemies attempting to use his work for evil. Deep in the swamps of Louisiana in a secret government lab, biochemist Alec Holland (veteran TV actor Ray Wise) creates a formula which allows plants to survive in harsh climates such as the desert. Evil doctor Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan, “Octopussy”) has been searching for Holland’s formula in his quest for immortality, and infiltrates the swamp with a band of militants to acquire it. During a raid of the government compound, Holland is doused with his own formula and set on fire, inducing his mutation into a plant-like creature with super powers. Government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) escapes the raid but not the swamp, and a deadly cat-and-mouse game begins between Arcane, Cable, and the Swamp Thing for ultimate control of the powerful formula.
The plot of the film falls in line with so many other superhero movies, where an unlikely protagonist is given great power through some sort of mutation. Where “Swamp Thing” differs is that Holland is given the permanent façade of ghastly creature typically reserved for the enemies of superheroes. Because of the jarring atypical nature of the creature as a superhero, horror master Wes Craven was the obvious choice to write and direct the project. Unfortunately, the grotesque nature of the creature is never explored despite the creature re-establishing his relationship with his former flame in the swamp. This element certainly would have added some much needed character development and another layer to the film.
The film is wrought with archaic effects (this was the early ’80s after all) and cheesy one-liners, but that isn’t what defines “Swamp Thing.” The kryptonite in this film is how all the major plot lines are rushed. The romance between Holland and Cable appears out of nowhere, culminating with an awkward kiss when Holland realizes his formula works — playing out something like, “Yes, my life’s work is a success, let me grab this woman I just met and kiss her passionately!” When Holland is covered in his own formula and set on fire, he retreats to the swamp, only to appear as the creature just a few minutes later. Considering the horror genre’s use of suspense and buildup, it was a bit surprising to see Craven rush through the details — leaving you to wonder about outside influence from studio producers.
“Swamp Thing” ultimately plays out like a campy Roger Corman-style film. Not surprisingly, Corman’s nephew Todd Corman is credited as the movie’s first assistant director. The film focuses on the exotic swamp locale and the thrill of the chase rather than the characters and complexities of Holland’s work. The actors are almost over the top in their delivery, and it feels like Craven wanted to have fun with the movie. There is talk of an upcoming remake of the film, and given today’s ecological concerns, it will be interesting to see how a new incarnation of “Swamp Thing” will compare to the 1982 version. Perhaps the creature will team up with Al Gore to save the environment, all in 3-D! With eco-friendly glasses, of course.
WIEGENSTEIN: ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’ a stellar watch
Travis and I decided to go for a superhero-themed classic week, in the spirit of “Green Lantern.” My pick was “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.”
As unenthused as I was (and still am) about seeing “Green Lantern,” I didn’t originally intend to choose a classic that’s basically its inverse. But in picking “Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” to praise — that’s the end result — rather than a massively financed summer tentpole film, I went for an Internet-released musical miniseries funded entirely by its director Joss Whedon (of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” of course) and filmed in the midst of the 2008 Writers’ Guild strike. And while “Green Lantern” devotes itself to the origin story of one who vows never to let evil escape his sight, this show’s protagonist earnestly proclaims in the first scene that “the world is a mess, and I just need to rule it!”
This is Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), whose webcam confessionals provide both the title and numerous breaks throughout the plot. He’s been working at the whole supervillain thing for some time now, with some significant hiccups along the way — transmatter rays acting up, you know how it is. The Doctor yearns to rise to the top of his kind by getting accepted into the E.L.E. (Evil League Of Evil, obviously), which already includes such luminaries as Dead Bowie, Snake Bite, and Bad Horse. They need proof that his horribleness is all that bad, and luckily enough, he just happens to be working on a great new heist.
But as usual, love and loathing derail his best-laid plans significantly: here, they come in the forms of Penny, the cute girl from the laundromat (Felicia Day) and universally-beloved superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion, utterly perfect in the role), who decides to woo her away from Horrible just for kicks. The fact that Hammer is vain and uncaring toward most seems to escape everyone’s notice, including the soft-hearted Penny. She confesses to her laundry-friend “Billy” that the dreamy hero is actually possessed of secret depth — sometimes people have layers like that, you know. Billy is quick to ask if there might not be another, third layer that’s the same as the surface, “like pie!”
The question of alter ego is one that looms large in “Dr. Horrible.” Captain Hammer has the luxury of a fawning press, so there’s no need for him to hide. Meanwhile, the Billy side of things seems a bit of an ill-fitting costume for Dr. Horrible, whose misanthropic tendencies are constantly showing themselves. The Doc seems to think that Penny will be eventually won over by a huge victory on his (villainous) side of things, even though she spends her time aiding the homeless and attempting to cheer people up.
All of this, and I’ve yet to mention that yes, as per the title, “Dr. Horrible” is indeed a musical. Whedon has previously displayed his affection for the genre — “Once More, With Feeling” remains among the best episodes of “Buffy,” just as his guest directing turn resulted in one of “Glee’s” strongest outings to date. Alongside his brother Jed, he wrote the entirety of the show’s song book, which contains a number of musical staples: a crowd medley tune, a point-counterpoint duet and a sweet one-sided ballad. Unsurprisingly, the songs about evil are the most well-represented as well as the catchiest, to the Whedons’ credit. It takes a special kind of composer to make “All the angels sing/because you’re gonna die!” a triumphant musical moment.
Both the budgetary demands and the simple plot allow for only three main characters; thank God the roles were in such capable hands. Felicia Day has a talent playing soft-spoken nerd bait, and it’s not hard to see why Captain Hammer would give her a second glance (he was too busy beating Dr. Horrible against a van to notice in the first few moments). Ever since Nathan Fillion’s turn on Whedon’s short-lived “Firefly” TV series, his name is one that constantly surfaces in superhero casting debates, and this is probably the best resume anyone could give — his Captain Hammer is the perfect blend of breezily uncaring. There are few who can deliver Whedon dialogue as well as he.
And then there is Neil Patrick Harris, whose talents constantly amaze me. Long sections of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” are simple shots dominated by his face, where emotions flicker through in seconds. His work in the closing number alone, where Dr. Horrible and Billy seem to be having an internal face-off is worth rewatching.
The best thing about picking an Internet miniseries to rave about? I can point out that the entire program can be seen for free, both on Netflix Instant and YouTube. Whedon must have known that “Dr. Horrible” is a stellar watch for both people who like musicals and those who like superheroes. Or, even more simply, for everyone.
YATES: Film offers stunning visual effects
While earning a minor in film at college, I was required to take a series of film production courses. The first one required students to make a film the “old school” way using a Super 8 mm camera and editing each scene together using splicing tape. It was a grueling process that took place in the basement of the SIU communications building, and we liked to call the experience “character building.” When I heard Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams were teaming up for a film called “Super 8,” I was immediately intrigued. When the first teaser trailer debuted with someone, or something, smashing away on the inside of a derailed train car, I was sold. As a director and producer, Abrams has brought us “Cloverfield” and “Star Trek,” as well as TV’s “Lost” and “Alias.” Would this recent partnership with sci-fi guru Steven Spielberg be his best work yet?
During the summer of 1979 in a sleepy Ohio town a young group of friends film a train derailment while making a Super 8 movie. When the military arrives to clean up the wreckage, the friends slowly begin to realize there is more to the accident than the town is being told. As the military begins evacuating the town, the kids finally see the film footage from the night of the derailment and the creature that crawled out of the wreckage. As the town crumbles around them, the friends set out on a mission to find the creature and save what is left of the town, and one of their own.
There have been several descriptions of “Super 8” with the most accurate calling it a combination of “The Goonies,” “Stand by Me,” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The story revolves around a group of six friends and how they are impacted by the arrival of the creature. The young ensemble cast is surprisingly fantastic considering the film serves as the acting debut for the two male leads in Joel Courtney as Joe and Riley Griffiths as Charles. Elle Fanning as Alice (as seen in the previously reviewed “The Door in the Floor”) rounds out the main cast of characters. Griffiths steals the show as an autocratic filmmaker desperate to finish his movie despite the catastrophic events unfolding around him. As the daughter of an alcoholic, Fanning carries an aura of vulnerability throughout the film reminiscent of a young Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver.”
“Super 8” is a fun ride, but is by no means a classic. The film opens up on an extreme somber note with the death of Joe’s mother, setting up a storyline that comes off a bit contrived. Joe meets Alice. Joe falls for Alice. Alice’s father is the reason Joe’s mom is dead. Joe’s father forbids Joe from seeing Alice. Convenient, but not deeply explored and therefore it feels like artificial drama. The film’s climax arrives out of nowhere and there is literally no falling action, resulting in a very anti-climactic resolution. There is also no true protagonist to identify with. It seems to be Joe, but a protagonist is meant to overcome a series of obstacles in order to achieve his or her goal – and all Joe does is chase after Alice the whole time. Is it Deputy Jackson (Kyle Chandler, TV’s “Friday Night Lights)? He’s left in charge of the town once the Sheriff disappears. Is it Charles? He seems the most put out by the arrival of the creature, unable to finish his Super 8 film. The movie is named “Super 8” after all. It could even be the creature, which ends up having about as much depth as Joe. It could be any of them, yet Joe is the character Abrams asks us to invest the most in, even though he seems to have the least to accomplish.
Abrams brought us the groundbreaking film “Cloverfield” in 2008 and seems to go back to the well with a similar formula that could be considered Cloverfield: Midwest, with a mysterious creature caught on camera as humans try to escape its wrath. “Super 8” offers more of a plot and suspense, but something seems to be lacking with the character development. Despite this, the young actors shine as the focal point of the film. It seems like Spielberg and Abrams tried to do too much in the film, leading to under-developed characters storylines. As with most big budget sci-fi films, “Super 8″ is worth checking out on the big screen and does offer plenty of laughs and stunning visual effects. Stay put once the credits roll for a look at Charles’ finished Super 8 zombie movie — that may be the best part of the entire film.
WIEGENSTEIN: Film is about moviemaking
Opening a film with a slew of production company logos is standard practice today, totally unremarkable. That said, there’s a funny rush in the seconds before “Super 8” even starts its runtime. In watching the classic bike-across-the-moon image of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, followed immediately by the icon of Bad Robot, the creation of J.J. Abrams, a sense of inevitability is there; of course this would happen eventually. The torch between the two adventure movie mavens hasn’t been passed so much as its been acknowledged and embraced.
While early Spielberg films (“ET: The Extra-Terrestrial” in particular) are its most obvious inspiration, “Super 8” uses numerous universal rules of storytelling to their best example. The young director Charles (Riley Griffiths) scours moviemaking magazines to learn how to create an engaging plot, and Abrams clearly has the book memorized. Show character emotion in order to keep the audience rooting for the good guys. Hint at a larger backstory, but don’t get bogged down in it. And above all else: giant scary things are always scarier when they remain offscreen as long as possible.
Spielberg’s own “Jaws” taught everyone that last lesson through sheer necessity. The mechanical shark looked cheap to the director, so he kept it hidden through most of the film. And while CGI has advanced moviemaking light years beyond what was essentially a terrifying puppet, Abrams keeps the dictum close to heart. The alien’s path of destruction speaks for itself for three-fourths of “Super 8,” rather like 2008’s excellent alien-of-devastation film “Cloverfield” (another product of the Bad Robot family).
All this would mean nothing without a solid base in the trials and tribulations of the film’s young cast, led by the remarkable Joel Courtney. Indeed, the idea of a monster escaping from military control is almost equitable to the seismic effects of dropping a pretty girl (Elle Fanning, following up her leading turn in last year’s “Somewhere”) into the midst of a bunch of dweeby pre-teen boys. The chemistry between the guys in question is funny and unforced, reminiscent of earlier friend-centric films like “Stand By Me.”
Likewise, dead bodies are a fascination for the boys in each film, albeit in very different manners. Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic has its cast out looking for an actual corpse, while the Abrams iteration treads familiar ground for both himself and Spielberg: youthful attempts at creating the most lifelike zombies possible for a short film shot on, you guessed it, a Super 8 camera. Interestingly, the actual auteur-in-training is presented as both a smart storyteller and an insufferable control freak, perhaps in a self-effacing nod by Abrams to his own past. The protagonist here is a lesser crew member, in charge of boom mic holding and undead makeup tricks he learned from a manual — all the better for Joe (Courtney) and Alice (Fanning) to shyly develop crushes on one another.
Joe is a boy possessed of great awkwardness (particularly around Alice) and incredible sadness — “Super 8” opens with the loss of his mother, leaving him with a distant father to raise him as best he can (Kyle Chandler, whose lack of purpose in the story is one of the film’s notable missteps). And if it takes an extraterrestrial being (though it’s one that can’t be bribed with Reese’s Pieces) to reconnect him with his parent and help him gain confidence, well, that’s fine. What theme could be more prevalent in the films of both Spielberg (everything from “Minority Report” to “Hook”) and the work of Abrams (both “Alias” and “Lost,” most notably)?
The blend of old-fashioned thrill technique –I’d take another 30 minutes of suspenseful waiting than I would the ultimate final quarter of the movie, comprised of a whole lot of running and explosions — with a classic core of childhood emotionality is what makes “Super 8” the success that it is, both for the summer movie pantheon and in the career of J.J. Abrams. It’s a film much needed in a season otherwise filled with comic hero adaptations and big-budget sequels. It’s about quality moviemaking much more than aliens, and viewers are better off for it.
YATES: Film meets expectations
Summer is officially here with the arrival of the first big action blockbuster film in “X-Men: First Class.” After three chronological films and the successful spinoff “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009, Marvel returns with a prequel that explains the early friendship and origins of the rivalry between Professor X and Magneto. The film is the fifth film in Marvel Comics billion-dollar franchise and sets the stage for the previous films by revealing when the line between mutants was drawn and how Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters was founded.
Before Professor X and Magneto battled as hardened rivals, they were close friends. In 1963, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, “Wanted”) sets about finding other mutants in an effort to help the U.S. government stop mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) from starting World War III and creating a mutant revolution. Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto, (Michael Fassbender, “Inglourious Basterds”) is on a lifelong quest to avenge the murder of his mother by Shaw, and inevitably joins forces with Charles. The two recruit and train the “first class” of mutant students to train in an effort to thwart Sebastian and his group of rogue mutants. The film’s rising action sets up a large scale clash between the two mutant groups with the Cuban Missile Crisis as the backdrop, with the future of man and mutant-kind at stake.
Though the premise of the film is similar to its predecessors, the fantastic cast sets this film apart from the others. McAvoy shines as a young Professor X, and Kevin Bacon steals the show in a James Bond-esque villainous role. McAvoy and Fassbender do a great job of building the on-screen relationship between Professor X and Magneto while allowing their differences to simmer just below the surface. After all, this broken relationship is what drives the X-Men series.
Director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”) does a nice job of balancing on the tight rope between somber and humorous subject matter. The film itself was quite fun, despite the themes of revenge and deceit during period settings of World War I and the Cold War. The juvenile hijinks of the young X-Men, led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”), helps keep the mood light, and the film has plenty of comic relief from start to finish. Be ready for a great cameo by Wolverine that fans of the series will love.
Overall, “X-Men: First Class” meets the expectations of the big-budget summer action film, while chronicling the beginnings of an epic saga. It does come off as a bit cheesy at times, but somehow seems to fit within the flow of the plot. There seems to be some debate whether this is a prequel or a reboot, but either way it successfully elucidates the complicated relationship between two iconic superhero characters in Professor X and Magneto.
WIEGENSTEIN: Film closes with a gigantic sense of anticipation
Though comic reboots are as old as the art itself (how else could the heroes still fit into those suits?), the process of rewriting classic characters for the screen is fraught with peril. Aim correctly, and Bruce Wayne is saved from the campy hell of “Batman And Robin” by Christopher Nolan, But beware, for every “Batman Begins” there is a misfire like 2003’s “Hulk.”
Good or bad, one thread that connects all recent superhero re-ups is the choice to bring the protagonist into the present day. The reasoning is sound – it’s great watching Spider-Man websling his way across New York City, but placing Peter Parker and co. into a post-9/11 Manhattan is more interesting and emotionally resonant to an audience. And given that the heart of Marvel Comics’ X-Men series has always been the struggle — both internal and external — of those who felt unnatural and excluded, the theme is one that makes as much sense now (when it’s often read as a LGBT text) as it did then (when the parallels with race relations were more prescient).
“X-Men: First Class” bucks tradition and makes the excellent decision to renew its franchise by traveling backward to 1962, and manages to strike a balance between the universal elements of any good superhero story and the sheer delight of an early James Bond flick. As any good retro piece should be, it’s impeccable in its design, and weaves in the nuclear-age fears of the JFK presidency with a story about mutants more easily than one might ever imagine.
The paths of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr are so widely disparate, it seems only sensible that they wound up being archrivals. Charles (James McAvoy, utilizing his on-screen charm judiciously) is wealthy and untroubled throughout youth, and enjoys the luxury of having a mutation only on the inside — his telepathic ability only aids him in getting laid, while his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) must constantly shape shift to hide her natural blue form.
Meanwhile, Erik (Michael Fassbender, whose work here is more akin to his recent performance in “Jane Eyre” than many comic nerds might want to admit) survives the Holocaust only by revealing his knack for manipulating metal, and is taken under the sadistic wing of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). “First Class” catches the pair at the moment when their destinies led them to work alongside each other, and explores the way the brief months spent side-by-side led each man to become the characters X-fans now recognize.
It is at this point that I have to confess my ignorance as to the “X-Men” source material. All the characters I know, I’ve learned from the previous film trilogy – which is why featuring some lesser-known mutants in the titular “first class” was a solid choice by the writing team here. Defying all expectations, I was actually much more intrigued by the training of a junior-level hero like Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) than I might have been watching Wolverine work his claws. (This is overlooking “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which really, everyone should.)
Given the immense focus on McAvoy and Fassbender (with the main B-plot being the tentative romance between Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult’s nerdy scientist/mutant character), it’s unsurprising that the development of other characters is ignored with a waved hand. Rose Byrne has little to do as the X-Men’s CIA contact. January Jones was obviously recruited as Emma Frost due to her work as the resident ice queen on “Mad Men,” but her performance remains rigid beyond belief. Even villainous girlfriends need a spark.
Director Matthew Vaughn (previously of the underrated graphic novel adaptation “Kick-Ass”) makes the very most of the stylistic flourishes the retro setting allows him — one sequence is meshed together using onscreen comic-style panels, and there are several slapsticky moments that might have been lifted from a “Get Smart” episode. It’s more than a little fantastic to see an evil genius outlining his plans for world domination not on a futuristic screen, but by moving around little rocket-shaped stickers on a paper map.
While the trysts into a full-on 60s motif can sometimes slide into the ridiculous (Jones peering into a submarine sonar panel while dressed like Twiggy looks like a scene from “Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery”), Vaughn sticks the landing completely. By the close of “X-Men: First Class,” Charles and Erik have become Professor X and Magneto, the people they’ll be for the duration of the series. Not only has the film given the character progression the destined feel it deserves, but it closes with a gigantic sense of anticipation. It seems this might be the beginning of a beautiful retelling.