Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class (dir. Matthew Vaughn)

X-Men: First Class is a film that has a lot of great stuff in it, and fooled me a couple of times into thinking it was really great, but too often wallows in its own lack of direction. Over the weekend, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis wrote a bit about "slow and boring" movies, which concluded with Scott asking, "is there a recent movie more deserving of being called pretentious than Thor?" And given the actual definition of "pretentious" - "attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed" - I'd say the description is spot-on for Thor and for a great many comic book movies, including X-Men: First Class, that think settling as great entertainment is such a sin.

Oh, if only we could have a whole movie about Erik Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender to great effect) going across the globe hunting former Nazis. If only there could be endless training montages and spies sneaking around nightclubs in their underwear and terrific, exciting action sequences and clever uses of telepathy and Kevin Bacon doing anything. I don't want to totally undercut the character work, because aside from the film's attempts at the grandiose (oh, 45-second scene of Charles and Erik playing chess at the Lincoln Memorial), it's all pretty well-observed stuff. In this trip down memory lane, Charles Xavier (a very good James McAvoy) and Raven (a.k.a. Mystique, here played ably by Jennifer Lawrence) are best friends, and their eventual rift (yeah, spoiler alert, they fight each other in a movie made ten years ago) comes from a believable place of ideology. Raven comes to believe mutants gotta let it all hang out there, so to speak. Be loud and proud and all that. But she doesn't arrive at this through some sort of logical deduction; it happens because she's been sort of repressed all her life. Charles has always made her hide being blue, and Erik comes in and says "you're great just the way you are." Her move to "the dark side" as it were is motivated just as much by her friendships as her ideology.

The rift between Charles and Erik was always established as a friendship turned sour in the Bryan Singer films, but here we understand it much better for what it really was - a partnership of convenience. Both of them, for a short period of time, get to work alongside a colleague who genuinely challenges the other, until eventually they push each other to a breaking point. And it's odd that, for as positively as the franchise has portrayed Charles' opinion of mutant/human relations (why can't we be friends?), Erik definitely has the better case here. He's the one who thinks they should all be able to hang out in the streets, letting their freak flag fly, while Charles wants to cover up any abnormalities.

But do they have to take everything so damn seriously? If I never hear another conversation about mutant/human relations, I'll be a happy moviegoer. I like to think that these themes can run concurrent with a huge superhero adventure instead of being the entire driving force. It's not that I think serious stories can't be told with tights and a cape - rather, if they're going to take this tack, I'd rather they go all the way with it, a la Superman Returns or Ang Lee's Hulk. These one-minute bits of easy pathos and pseudo-intellectual (all incredibly on-the-nose) musings crammed in between Kevin Bacon absorbing the blast of a grenade with his bare hands becomes a little tiring.

The pacing as a whole is a little problematic. We've become accustomed to the rather short scenes necessitated by the summer blockbuster run-and-gun pace, but the actual story being told in X-Men: First Class is actually sort of slow and meandering. It develops focus as it goes on, but it doesn't have the central narrative drive that would make a quick pace the natural route. Instead, we have scenes in which tension is supposed to build - the grenade scene or any of the Erik Lehnsherr: Nazi Hunter stuff - but the air just gets let out too quickly. On their own, the scenes work nicely, but it takes a long time before they start to build off of one another and form a cohesive whole.

But when they do, it's quite the whole. X-Men: First Class has a really fantastic third act, finally delivering the kind of wham-bang mutant adventure we've been wanting. The cross-cutting can be a little troublesome when the big showdown between Erik and Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) keeps being interrupted by whatever Beast is up to, but on the whole it's strong stuff, and it builds to a final climax that's as good as they come.

While X-Men: First Class ends on a strong note, it's a really rough road getting there. For as many really good performances, there are an equal number of...let's call them unfortunate uses of screen time. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender soar, as anyone who's been watching movies for the past five years could have ensured, as does Nicholas Hoult (who plays Hank McCoy, later Beast), though he definitely had some trouble with some truly awful make-up in the third act. Kevin Bacon is on his own planet and I love him for it; it's been too long since we had a comic book villain this silly, and maybe the first time it actually worked. Jennifer Lawrence is fine, as is Rose Byrne as a CIA agent/token human, but everyone else is only occasionally rising from "present." The rest of the kids who make up the "First Class" are a joke, barely given any screen time and giving little effort to earn it, following in the footsteps of their counterparts working for Sebastian Shaw (though to be fair, their directions in the screenplay couldn't have amounted to more than "scowl" and "wave arms around").

And then there's January Jones, who more and more seems to be good on "Mad Men" (yeah, I said it) only by accident. Of all the major characters, hers is by far the most quickly dismissed creatively, in spite of playing a pretty large role in the plot, and Jones seems to hold the same contempt for the whole production that it holds for her. Whereas Fassbender certainly and McAvoy at his better moments are capable of taking what is frankly kind of stupid dialogue and making it sound like something someone would have some conviction in ("the point between rage and serenity" is the result of the ultimate writer's roadblock - "what the hell would the best advice be to give to someone who has trouble finding their full potential as a super-powered mutant?" - and it's miracle I believed McAvoy for a second), Jones takes the easiest and most convincing dialogue (you know, stuff like "they're here") and makes it sound like something no one would ever say.

So X-Men: First Class is a delightfully uneven film, saved largely by director Matthew Vaughn's eye for iconography, ease with actors, great staging of action, and occasional flair for what should have been the worst parts (hello, recruitment and training montages). Unfortunately, some of the looser stuff eludes him - the bonding between the teens feels like someone replicating what they think it's like when teenagers hang out - but he certainly does his best with a very uneven, unfocused screenplay. But boy, what a finish.

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