If you've seen X-Men Origins: Wolverine you probably couldn't be blamed for thinking the franchise was dead. The shoddiness of that flick (how, my God, how do you screw up something as simple as making Wolvie's adamantium claws look, well, real?) on the heels of the merely passable X-Men: The Last Stand certainly pointed to diminishing returns after the excellence of director Bryan Singer's X-Men United.
But with X-Men: First Class the signs of hope were clear. Ostensibly a reboot, prequel and origin story at once, the recasting of roles was the first clue. Two great European actors, Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) as Erik Lehnsherr (a.k.a Magneto) and James McAvoy (Atonement) as Charles Xavier (a.k.a Professor X) should have had cinephiles and X-Men geeks salivating for solid performances. Add the batting-a-thousand director, Matt Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass) to the mix and one is practically assured of a good movie.
Turns out, X-Men: First Class is easily the best film since United and quite probably the best of the entire franchise. More than that, it's great summer filmmaking.
Opening in 1944, Erik Lehnsherr (portrayed as a boy by Bill Milner) is interred in a German concentration camp with his family. Separated from his parents, his anger becomes manifest when he seemingly bends a metal gate with his mind. This captures the attention of Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon going full on Nazi?! Hell. Yes.) who coerces the boy into revealing his mutant powers by murdering his mother right in front of him.
Fast forward to 1962 and the adult Erik (Fassbender) has become a Nazi hunter, travelling the world, endeavoring to find Schmidt and extract vengeance. Meanwhile, across the pond in England, Charles Xavier (McAvoy), a telepathic mutant and Oxford grad, is publishing a paper on genetic mutation and doing his best to pick up co-eds with lines based on his research. Living with his shape-shifting, quasi-sister Raven (the soon to be Mystique, Jennifer Lawrence), Charles knows that mutants are an inevitability of evolution and he's already trying to brace humanity against the shock, knowing full well that the advent of homo sapiens didn't work out so well for the Neanderthals.
Of course, being 1962 other shit is blowing up. The Cold War is kicking in, and the CIA is looking everywhere for Communist spies. Dispatched to Las Vegas to do surveillance, Agent Moria MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) discovers that Schmidt, now known as Sebastian Shaw, is coercing an Army Colonel (24's Glenn Moshower) into recommending U.S. nuclear missile emplacements in Turkey with the help of mutants Emma Frost (January Jones) and the demonic, teleporter Azazel (Jason Flemyng) -- emplacements that will foment the Cuban Missile Crisis and surely World War III.
Shocked at what she's seen, MacTaggert, looking for research on mutants, finds Xavier and brings him to her patriarchal bosses at Langley. At first incredulous, then shocked by Xavier's telepathic knowledge of their top-secret secrets, they immediately see a threat. But another Man in Black (the always delightful Oliver Platt) sees the potential of Xavier and Raven's abilities and folds them into what becomes Division X, when it's discovered that Shaw is amassing the beginnings of a mutant army to take over after the superpowers annihilate themselves in nuclear Armageddon. Xavier and Erik join forces, and become friends, to take down Shaw and avert disaster, though Erik's motivation to kill Shaw doesn't necessarily mean that he agrees with Xavier, that humans and mutants can (or should) co-exist.
And I love those shades of the future. Director Matt Vaughn takes the story (no doubt reinvigorated by the return of Bryan Singer to its telling) and packs it with action, intrigue and loads of visual panache. It should come as no surprise that X-Men: First Class looks great (Vaughn has proven his cinematic chops elsewhere), but he also nails the narrative and the atmosphere of its period setting. Essentially a Cold War spy thriller with badass mutants and a pulpy plot, Vaughn rides a delicate line between the canon of X-Men mythology and the genre cornerstones of tightly crafted, epic, popcorn-munching, '60s espionage/action films, tagging such classics as The Manchurian Candidate to the satire of Dr. Strangelove.
There were few missteps. While the period setting was convincing on a whole, little things like Gnarls Barkley on the soundtrack take one out of the moment. Erik wondering, upon meeting Xavier, that he didn't know there were other mutants didn't make much sense after his getting his ass handed to him by the crystalline, obviously mutated Emma Frost. Minor quibbles, though.
And easily forgotten given the surplus of fine performances and the chemistry of its actors. X-Men: First Class is about the beginnings of these characters and the casting is as spot on as could be hoped for. Fassbender and McAvoy clearly own, and delight in, their roles; giving the Magneto/Professor X relationship a weight that wonderfully contrasts their counterparts, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, in the original films. Discovering those dynamics, or even how Professor X wound up in that wheelchair, is sure to compel even the most passing fans of the X-Men universe.
Newcomers Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) as Mystique, Rose Byrne (Insidious) as MacTaggert and Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy (nee Beast) stand out, though Zoë Kravitz (daughter of Lenny) as the mosquito-winged, Angel Salvador, probably needs to find another line of work. Lovely but shallow. The choice of staple characters points to the story's economy, wasting none of them--a huge complaint for X-Men: Origins and The Last Stand. Cameos from guys like Michael Ironside and James Remar (and a couple I won't spoil) cement the flick's film geek cred; if you're into that sort of nerdery. The sense of fun the cast enjoys is palpable and infectious.
Marvel Comics films abound this year. X-Men: First Class chain-smokes the entertaining Thor with a pot of coffee, while setting a bar for the upcoming Captain America that one only hopes The First Avenger can hurdle.
Midnight in Paris
It's a good week when you have a new Woody Allen flick on top of something as legitimately surprising as a great X-Men movie. It's even better when it's a great Woody Allen flick, too.
There really hasn't been one since his acerbic, imaginative and brilliant Deconstructing Harry, much less one as creatively acrobatic and satisfying as The Purple Rose of Cairo. With Midnight in Paris, Allen combines the whimsy of the latter with the writer's malaise of the former into a charming existential fantasy that plays like a Lewis Carroll dream set amongst Golden Age artists. But, true to form, Allen turns it into a deft romantic comedy that delights in every sense.
Gil Pender (a serendipitously cast Owen Wilson, the role was re-written for his West Coast demeanor) is a hacky, yet successful, screenwriter on vacation in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her mildly disapproving parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Taken by the beauty of the city, and working on his first real, classical novel, Gil is hypnotized by Paris and the siren song of a different life.
Annoyed by his condescending bride-to-be and the entitled, right-wing nature of his in-laws--not to mention Inez's pedantic friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a Parisian cultural "expert" who qualifies every assertion with an "I believe" (the last bastion of people who have no idea of what the fuck they are talking about) Gil takes to wandering the nighttime streets of Paris in the hope of absorbing whatever aura that inspired the greatest artists of the 20th century. Sure enough, after a drunken walk on the Rue De Somewhere in search of his hotel, a Ford Model A pulls up, offering Gil a ride to the 1920s.
The realization slowly dawns on him as he begins to meet his idols. Thrown into a party at a high-end club with live music provided by Cole Porter (Yves Heck) and the dancing of Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), Gil meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scott Pilgrim's Allison Pill and Thor's Tom Hiddleston) and immediately falls in with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) who recommends that his book should be looked at by Gertrude Stein (Cathy Bates).
Gil becomes smitten with Adriana (Inception's Marion Cotillard), the girlfriend of Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and winds up being consulted on his time-traveling romance in a café by Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), directorial master Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) and groundbreaking photographer, Man Ray (Tom Cordier). It's just another day at the office of Allen's whimsy.
That's the real delight of Midnight in Paris. Allen effortlessly crafts a story that is at once an accessible romantic comedy steeped in his love of the great, bohemian artists and cultural behemoths of the only city he loves as much as New York, and the era he loves most of all.
He shoots it just as lovingly. The combined skills of cinematographers Johanne Debas (City of Lost Children) and Darius Khondji (Se7en) render the set-dressed, nocturnal 1920s Paris as gorgeously as could be dreamed. You'd have to be fresh out of a 20th Century humanities class to get all the in-jokes, but the fancy and mirth of his script, and its theme of longing for a golden era that only exists in the imagination, are bound to enrapture.
Typically, (or perhaps atypically of late) Allen's dialogue and characters are wonderful. You can sense his amusement in a way that was sorely lacking 2009's Whatever Works (a script from the '70s that he literally pulled out of a drawer when he came up short for a movie that year). He gives his heroes iconic moments, as when Dali expounds on the painting he would craft of Gil's malaise or when Hemmingway drunkenly advises Gil on what makes a great writer.
As Gil, Owen Wilson is wonderfully charming, playing the "Woody" role with fewer neuroses, which is refreshing for a typical Allen scion and for Wilson (I'll never see Drillbit Taylor). Corey Stoll is great as Hemmingway, owning every second of the role, making the near-unknown a force to look out for. Marion Cotillard is ethereal as Adriana, while Cathy Bates chews on every scene she's in as Gertrude Stein. The list of standouts is long and satisfying.
At 75-years old, and after a lifetime of great films, Midnight in Paris proves that Woody Allen has yet to exhaust the talent that has made him one of the most influential, unique and prolific cinematic masters across two centuries.
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