X-Men: First Class

On the airplane over to Europe, I was a bit puzzled by the screening of X-Men 3: The Last Stand, but because I couldn't sleep, I watched it, and remembered just how bad it was. Where the first two X-Men films were fun, and fairly well done, the third felt rushed, overcooked, with no cohesive storyline, characters and action that didn't make sense, but with some definite promise to it. It's unfortunate that it was such a train wreck, and it put me off from the follow-up Wolverine film, which I've still not seen. Thus, the news that there was another X-Men film coming out simply didn't register, until it became fairly clear that this was going to be a film that was somewhat different.

Set in 1962, X:Men First Class turns to a certain amount of nostalgia. There's the old cars, the Cold War, and the origins of the X-Men, looking quite a bit like I remembered from the reprinted versions of the comics that I read as a kid. Then, one of my favorite directors, Matthew Vaughn, came on board to direct. I've almost universally liked his films: Layer Cake is one of my all time favorites, and I got a real kick out of Stardust and Kickass. His attention and film style makes X-Men: First Class stand out, turning it into a film that's notable in the franchise, as well as the superhero genre.

Starting off in the 1940s, we revisit the origins of Erik Lehnsherr, and get a glimpse into the early days of Charles Xavier, as they grow up. Erik is a holocaust survivor, forced to watch his mother's death in an move to unlock his powers at the hands of Sebastian Shaw. Xavier goes to Oxford, studying genetics and mutations. All the while, Shaw becomes a globetrotting super villain, moving back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union in an attempt to trigger all out war between the two superpowers, eventually leading Xavier and Lehnsherr together, all the while exploring several themes that become central to the X-Men franchise: identity and human nature.

X-Men: First Class succeeds because it's extensively focused on the two main characters, and it sets up, but doesn't quite deliver the epic nature of their friendship. Two opposites with incredible power: one angry, the other calm, one reckless where the other is deliberate. The two men complete each other in a number of ways, while the excellent cast of supporting characters, including Mystique (played by the fantastic Jennifer Lawrence - I can't wait to see her as Katniss in The Hunger Games), Beast, Banshee, and Darwin, who all face challenges of their own: how do they reconcile their abilities with their identity. More importantly, how they are seen by the public. Mystique spends most of the film in human form, torn between hiding and understanding herself. It's a powerful message that'll undoubtedly be relatable to any teenager who watches the film. Watching the film, I was a little annoyed that the filmmakers didn't simply use some of the characters from the original comics, such as Iceman and Angel, which would have made the movie that much better, before being reminded that they've already been used. With that in mind, the film slips into the original film's continuity nicely.

The film does falter at points: it feels rushed, overstuffed, with so much material that we blow past major scenes, some of which feel a bit abridged, rather than taking a bit of time to support the characters a bit. The relationship between Magneto and Professor X has enormous amounts of potential, and is pulled off rather well because of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, but it doesn't feel as true as it could have. Events likewise move very quickly, and it's hard to imagine the US and Soviet Union being manipulated as easily as they appear to be.

That being said, setting the film in the midst of the Cold War is an interesting choice, and it works well. One could make the argument that there's a cautionary tale when it comes to nuclear technology, but I think the bigger point to be made comes from the escalation of forces when you have superpowers at work against one another, and it helps to demonstrate, in a couple of ways how respective militaries can become pawns to larger forces at work. In the final act of the film, we essentially see US and USSR Navy personnel completely constrained by their orders, where they can see the absurdity of the situation, but are largely helpless to do anything about it. In similar forms, there's plenty to be said that can take such lessons and apply them to the modern day, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

X-Men: First Class renewed my interest and 10 year old self in the X-Men, making me want to find my old comics and trading cards from elementary school. It's very well filmed, very well thought out, and is just enough to make one forget about the poor-quality entries in the franchise thus far. But, the filmmakers have understood what really makes the X-Men special, and that's the characters, not the action or the drama, and where it comes to that, the film gets solid marks, and praise, for focusing more on the characters than the explosions. It makes the film something that will last far longer than X3 ever will.

2010 Film Recap

After last year, with some excellent films like District 9, Moon (and less excellent, but still fun to watch, like Avatar), 2010 felt downright dull when it came to the genre films that came out in theaters. So far this year, I've only watched a couple, in and out of theaters, although there are a couple that are currently available to rent through a local Red Box, which I'll likely do over the next couple of days.

Of all of the films that I've seen thus far, Inception is by far the best, not only of the year, but it's going onto my 'Top genre films' list, which includes films like Moon, District 9, Solaris, Minority Report, and others along the same caliber that I’ve enjoyed. Inception worked on almost every level for me: it had a compelling, interesting and relevant plot, was excellently shot and directed, and has a fantastic soundtrack that I’ve listened to a lot. It’s a film that I’ve been eagerly anticipating seeing again after I saw it in theaters, and I was particularly happy to see a film that was not only smart and interesting, but that caught with a broad appeal and actually did quite well at the box office.

How to Train Your Dragon was a film that I saw recently that really surprised me. Megan and I rented it on a whim, and we both really enjoyed it. It’s a standard pre-teen action/adventure animated movie, with a focus on the fighting and happy ending, but it’s a fun little story of friendship and doing the right thing. And there’s dragons, some funny moments, quite a bit of action, and some excellent voice acting. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming in a couple of years, and I’ll certainly make it a point to see that one.

Along with How to Train Your Dragon, we rented Toy Story 3, which was a great capstone to the first two films, although given how long it’s been since I’ve seen the 2nd one, it’s hard to compare them in terms of quality. This new addition holds up wonderfully to the first film, something I consider a formative film in my own childhood, and treasure it deeply (along with the lessons learned there: treat your things well). #3 felt very dark at points without going overboard, but retained the charm of the first two films. Beyond that, it aged well, with Andy headed off to college, making this film a very different one in tone, and not just a rehash of the first two.

Daybreakers was another surprise, and while people seem fixated on the horrors of the sparkly Vampire novels and urban fantasy, this film makes its own departures and is able to retain some of the more horrific and over the top elements nicely. There’s an overt political and environmental message embedded in the story, but it fits well. The story of vampires running out of blood and mutating was a fun one, with some over the top elements, some neat science fictional ones, and Sam Neill being creepy.

Iron Man II was a letdown after the first Iron Man movie. Where the first was a fun, concise story that rolled together the military industrial complex and the wars in the Middle East, the sequel attempted to do the same thing, while also setting up the upcoming Avengers movie, juggle multiple villains and the Demon in a Bottle storyline. It’s a case where they should have picked one or two and focused on those, but despite the glaring problems, the film is a fun one, with action, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Hopefully, they’ll get the 3rd one right when that’s released in a couple of years, and I’m guessing that many of the problems are due to studio interference, rather than the people who actually filmed it.

Clash of the Titans was a bomb: a big, stupid fun bomb that was pure popcorn fare. Not worth picking up by any stretch of the imagination (I ended up winning a copy), but it’s worth watching for the overblown effects, crappy acting and monsters going around eating / killing / maiming people in various ways.

I couldn’t even get through The Book of Eli. A coworker of mine told me the ending afterwards, and I’m not missing anything after falling asleep while watching it. There were some interesting action sequences and a cool premise, but it just couldn’t hold my attention.

There were a bunch of films that I wanted to see, but simply haven’t had the chance or time to do so yet: Wolfman (despite the horrible reviews), Green Zone (Jason Bourne lite?), Social Network (Aaron Sorkin is one of my favorite writers), Kick Ass (Which looked like an incredible amount of fun), Splice (which was apparently a well acted, scripted and shot film), Predators (which looked like fun), The American (Artistic spy film?) and the recently released Black Swan, (which looks and sounds incredible). A couple of these, like Predators, Splice, Kickass, Green Zone and Wolfman are all available to rent, so I might end up going that route before buying any of them.

And, of course, there’s a couple of films out there that are about to be released: True Grit, a Coen Brothers western, which looks like it could be an interesting one, based off of the original John Wayne film, while I’m also interested in the last Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hollows, Part 1 (I’m rereading all of the books now). The last film of the year that I’m eagerly awaiting, Tron: Legacy, for some pseudo-Cyberpunk blockbuster action is out next week. I loved the original Tron when I saw it earlier this year, and it’s one that I’m already anticipating for the big screen.

After this year, there’s a couple of films that I’m looking forwards to for 2011: Battle: Los Angeles is going to be a certain theater visit for me, The Adjustment Bureau, based off of a Philip K. Dick story, as well as Sucker Punch, which looks like pure male fantasy (and every geeky trope lumped into one story). Source Code, Duncan Jones’ second film is also to be released (I loved Moon, so I’m hopeful for this one.) and the summer, with Thor (Maybe), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tides (Sure), X-Men: First Class (Yep), Super 8 (J.J. Abrams film), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Maybe?), Captain America (Maybe), Harry Potter 7.2 (depends on the first one), Cowboys and Aliens (Yes!), all looking like a bit of fun. The fall will also bring in the first Tintin movie, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, which I’m eagerly awaiting. There’s also a second Sherlock Holmes film in there somewhere, which might be fun.

2010 felt like a bit of a lax year – there were some other genre films that came out, but there really wasn’t anything that caught my eyes or attention beyond the films that I saw (or otherwise listed). Between ’9 and ’11, there are quite a few interesting things set to film, and if anything, it’s a reaffirmation that Science Fiction and Fantasy are both still pretty popular when it comes down to the wire. Except this year, for some reason.