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Thread: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (Matthew Vaughan 2011)

  1. #1
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    X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (Matthew Vaughan 2011)

    Matthew Vaughan: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)
    Review by Chris Knipp


    KEVIN BACON AND JANUARY JONES IN X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

    Skill sets

    X-Men is a Marvel Comics story and so it concerns super beings with marvelous powers, but they aren't Norse gods or men in lycra unitards. They are mutants. In this pop fantasy version of biology, that doesn't mean they have developed into a new sub species. They're simply individuals with peculiar "mutations," traits that give them superhuman abilities. X-Men: First Class is the fifth installment in the film series based on Marvel Comics stories. Some experts tell us it's not a "prequel" but a "reboot." In other words, it goes back to the origins of the X-Men but doesn't try to mesh exactly with the previous episodes.

    The fanboys and fangirls are never quite happy with any adaptations of their sacred comic book texts, and so one says all the X-Men movies are "horrible atrocities," and X-Man: First Class is not a reboot by intent but only because the filmmakers are dummies (a stronger word was used).

    For this non-fanboy, X-Men: First Class is the most watchable of the five films. It's a bit over-the-top -- it tries to include everything and more, the origins of the series, a scientist who explains mutation, a re-writing of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a passionte defense of being different, and a concentration camp drama reminiscent of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. There are too many special effects after a while, the Missile Crisis gets silly and drawn out. Also saying this was the most watchable wouldn't be saying much for me in itself, because I could barely watch the other ones at all. But in many ways this movie (by the English director of the outrageous and fun Kick Ass) is splendid entertainment, full of good acting, pleasing to the eye, and a valid explanation of the whole X-Men idea.

    Things start out very well, get better, level off, liven up a lot, but sort of fizzle out just because of the excesses of the climactic sequences. There's boy -- the future Magneto -- a Jewish boy (Bill Milner) who uses extrasensory powers to make the metal gate open when his mother has been taken away from him on the way into a Nazi concentration camp. And then the movie's arch baddie, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon in top form), AKA Dr. Schmidt, by an act of extraordinary cruelty, forces the boy to demonstrate his powers more spectacularly. This is an excellent use of special effects. It's lovely fun to see Dr. Schmidt's evil Nazi lab self-destruct, hacksaws and scalpels flying around, and Dr. Schmidt delighted because he's got a real first-class mutant on his hands.

    All that is a mere introduction, an r-moment in the life of Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, and what cements it to the main action is the Inglourious Basterds interlude where grownup Erik, now played by the terrific Michael Fassbender (whose role in the Tarantino movie is an obvious subtext), dazzling us with his considerable linguistic skills as he first menaces a French banker in French, and then turns up in Argentina to ferret out a couple of former Nazis and finish them off in choice German (the actor's second language).

    Things move faster and faster after this, and I won't even try to summarize. James McAvoy is the anchor of the whole movie, and he does sort of look like a mutant, one now realizes, always has: those unnaturally red lips, that pasty-white skin, those glittering eyes, that preturnaturally articulate speech in various adopted accents. He is the scientist, but also a "telepath," someone whose superhuman gift is to be able to enter and alter other minds. Charles Xavier (McAvoy) starts up a school and later a team, for humans with superhuman abilities. He also explains everything to us, which the movie is perhaps a bit to eager to do. But then that's its chosen task, and it does it well. No one who watches this movie can ever wonder what the X-Men stories are all about (even though some important earlier characters are barely shown here -- notably Wolverine, the uncredited Hugh Jackman).

    X-Men: First Class is a summer blockbuster, and it's likely to blow all the other ones away. It sums up the themes of its franchise, it has splendid and never gratuitous CGI, and it offers up a wealth of fine actors, including a whole group of new young ones as up-and-coming mutants, led by a terrific Nicolas Hoult (the star of the first season of Skins, who came on the scene as the boy in About a Boy). Hoult is sympathetic and a little tragic as Hank/the Beast. Because it zeros in on the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, everything takes on a period flavor as it if were all some grandiose synthesis of old James Bond episodes (though with effects they didn't have). That makes it possible to see the ridiculous excesses of fancy and effect as charmingly campy. And along with that, the interior decor and many of the costumes are a great pleasure to look at. Let's not forget the ladies, who include the young up-and-comer Jennifer Lawrence (as Raven/Mystique), January Jones (who comes with the right period associations from "Mad Men"), Rose Byrne, Zo Kravitz -- the list goes on. The writing is fine here: despite the over-explaining, there are really a lot of interesting ideas thrown out to ponder. This is about as close as a blockbuster gets to being a movie for smart people.

    I'd say that a major logical flaw in the narrative is that the group of young mutants, Charles Xavier's "first class," are still getting their tricks under control when they must face off against Sebastian Shaw's exploitation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They turn perfect a bit too fast there. Such are the pitfalls of trying to merge so many far-fetched ideas and explanations into a coherent narrative in one gonzo and fast-paced blockbuster. But as even some of the pickiest fanboys acknowledge, it's a heck of a show. No wonder this is 132 minutes long. It's got a lot going on.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-28-2011 at 12:05 AM.

  2. #2
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    Reticent

    I did not enjoy the long list of variants on a theme that Brian Singer and company over at Fox presented as sequels to the original "X-men" film. However, in taking on the role of producer of this film, he has brought a sense of continuity that made sense. The origin "X-men" film began with the concentration camp scene, almost precisely duplicated down to the most miniscule in this outing. However, the scene extends into the motivation for the Erik/Magneto character to pursue Shaw, and one of the film's driving forces. The opening is not only stunning in its presentation but gives us a reason to hate Shaw and cheer on Magneto, something I thought I would never do (as in the comics, he is a villain!)

    This first scene then gives rise to two very dramatic scenes that follow near at the start of the film, sold by the character actors that occupied the scene with Fassbender (whose mastery of accents reminded me of a young Meryl Streep and her ability to morph from one convincing accent to another). The scene in the bank where Erik extracts a metal filling from the mouth of the banker is completely sold on the actor's performance and the driving/building score of Henry Jackman's music. The banker's facials and grimaces make us squirm in our seats. We can only imagine how painful such an extraction must be, sold by the character actorJames Faulkner. Kudos my friend.

    In the next scene of import with Fassbender, we see him enter a bar in Argentina (notorious refuge of Nazis after WWII). Fassbender easily switches from Spanish to German to English in a scene that one can describe as delicious in its revenge, savored over "the best" beer. Here, Ludger Pistor (as the pig farmer) and Wilfried Hochholdinger (as the tailor) come across as the kind of men who have no remorse over their war crimes. Erik dispatches them with amazing precision to the same driving/pounding score of Henry Jackman. The scene is a tour de force marriage between concise writing, great camera work, good editing, a wonderful yet simple score, and the performances of three very good actors - another incredible collaborative effort.

    These scenes lend their credibility to a film that builds toward a grand climax in a re-write of the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete with original footage of JFK interspliced with the X-men in action. Director Matthew Vaughan brought new life to a series that had completely played out, killing off most of the good characters instead of developing them. Vaughan, having just completed a super-hero movie and having worked on a big budget fantasy drama previously (Stardust) decided to bring drama to the work, which helps to sell the idea of people defying logic by doing the absurd. In addition to the revenge for justice aspect of a Holocust survivor, Vaughan brings out the story between Xavier and Erik in a way that explains how the two interact in the first two films (they often call each other "friend" in a way that is almost sarcastic). This relationship adds dramatic tension that spills over into the climax where the allies go their separate ways and why they never directly attack each other.

    Jackman wrote a sweeping score for the film that Vaughan shot down on the first day. Jackman had developed themes for all the characters in a John Williams kind of way. However, director Vaughan objected and said, "I don't want that. I just want something simple that will build quickly in a scene to support the dramatic action I have in mind." Going with his advice, Jackman cut out nearly 80% of his music and returned to a simpler theme that is reminiscent of John Barry's scores for "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball" where a solo guitar starts the theme which is picked up cellos and then violins, repeating the same refrain in ever increasing crescendos. This also helps to establish the 1960's feel to the film.

    I was surprised when I first saw the film on blu-ray DVD. I have since watched it three or four times and find some excellent stuff here that bears another look. Good work from McAvoy and Fassbender in the two major roles. However, excellent work from a solid supporting cast. "No matter who you cast in the lead, the supporting players can make or break any movie." William Wyler

    Now available on blu-ray, "X-men, first class" comes highly recommended.
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  3. #3
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    Great review, cinemabon. You apply a magnifying glass to the best scenes. Didn't know that about the music, but the Bond-like tunes fit the Sixties style of the film overall.

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