At the Movies

X Men: First Class


Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Reviewed by Tony Sheppard and Malcolm Maclachlan

Malcolm: Just the other day I was telling someone I didn’t want to see another superhero movie unless there was a new twist. I’d let “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Wolverine” pass me by for this reason.

Tony: I tend to go into these films with little or no knowledge of the background material but somewhat expecting the films to be at least consistent with others in a series. Originality seems to be too much to hope for from adaptations of long-running comic books.

Malcolm: But the new X Men does provide a twist – superhero flick as period piece. The action is set in 1962, and, for the most part, it actually feels like 1962. The best thing they did was go out and find two actors best known for their work in period pieces, with James McEvoy (“Atonement”) as Dr. Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender, who has made his living playing Nazis, as the Nazi-hunting Magneto. It’s brilliant casting, not just because they don’t seem out of place a half century ago, and because the rivalry/bromance between the two is the lifeblood of the movie and having a couple decent actors actually makes it work. The problem is that things can drag a bit when at least one of them isn’t around. Many of the younger characters are pretty weak, unfortunately, and also seem a bit too modern.

Tony: These secondary characters are little more than walking mutations – rather than interesting people who happen to have mutations. When they sit around and chat, the prevailing topic is … you guessed it … their mutations. And the period angle will appear again in the upcoming “Captain America.”

Malcolm: But the interplay between Xavier, who wants to get along with normal non-mutated humans, and Magneto, who’s experience of having his entire family killed in a concentration camp has understandably made him a bit skeptical that minorities can ever really be accepted, drives the film. I also liked how the setup placed them smack in the center of the Cuban missile crisis, though I wonder how much of the audience thought this was a situation made up the by writers.

Tony: But their friendship seems far too brief and lightweight – it doesn’t give us a sense of long-standing friendship torn apart by philosophical differences.  It probably would have benefitted from two films – one in which they come together and bond, working together to establish a means of identifying and training young mutants, followed by a second film in which they are reluctantly separated by circumstances and perspectives. Instead, they barely seem to have been on the same side and it never seems very genuine. The incident chosen is interesting but it adds to the lack of tension as we’re already looking at characters whose outcomes are known with a chapter in history whose outcome is similarly known (to those who have heard of it). They’re never at risk – at least, not the leads.

Malcolm: I like how significant characters can die, sometimes with little warning – which makes it a little more like “The Wire” and less like most superhero franchises. But among the minor characters, the decision to kill off Darwin seems like the wrong one to me. Darwin, incidentally, has the ability to “adapt to survive,” such as growing gills on the spot if he’s in water. But we never really see another trick, as he gets killed off early.

Tony: Apparently his adaptations don’t extend to securing a multi-picture deal. He’s like the unknown member of a “Star Trek” away team – cannon fodder rather than canon fodder. And the canon of the films isn’t respected – this is more reboot than prequel. And the “Star Trek” reference is interesting, because that prequel had far more fun pre-introducing us to characters we already knew and loved.

Malcolm: Meanwhile, political pandering seems to have gotten much worse in movies recently (I’m looking at you, crappy waste-of-time “Adjustment Bureau”), and this seems like a particular bad example. It reminds me of an episode of “Life,” the BBC series after “Planet Earth,” where the American release replaces Richard Attenborough with a dumbed-down narration by Oprah Winfrey, who then proceeds to go far, far out of her way to avoid saying “evolution.” Darwin’s also the only major black character. Lame move to kill him off so fast.   
Tony: Ah yes, but blue is the new black when it comes to non-acceptance. I was still far more bothered by the lack of decent character development elsewhere. Xavier comes off as an arrogant jerk and it’s hard to argue with Magneto when he suggests that humans will try and slaughter them and then, seconds later, they try and slaughter them. Not only is it relatively easy to understand why mutants would ally themselves with Magneto, at that moment in time it’s relatively hard to see why some of them wouldn’t. The film is too lazy to ever bother justifying Xavier’s position – we’re simply expected to accept that he’s good because, well, the film needs a good guy – but good for whom?  At least “Adjustment Bureau” had clear motivations.

Malcolm: Still, this had a good mix. The non-action scenes, at least the ones that include Fassbender or McEvoy, or ideally both, were interesting—and relatively deep by the standards of superhero flicks. The action sequences were generally really good, and different from what I’ve seen in most recent superhero flicks. Overall, a pleasant resurgence for an X-Men series that started out with two really good films and then seems to have gone off the rails with the last two.

Tony: I think it bit off more than it could chew and ends up as little more than a placeholder in a rebooted series that couldn’t wait to give us two arch-enemies when it would have benefitted from more time establishing their connection and doomed friendship. Why reboot if you end up back where you started?

Super 8
Directed by J.J. Abrams

Review by Tony Sheppard

Co-Produced by Steven Speilberg, “Super 8” often feels like a darker remake or homage to “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial,” although the kids and their friendships have more of a Rob Reiner-esque, “Stand By Me” vibe. The title is a reference to the Super 8 film stock that they’re using to shoot their own ultra-low budget zombie movie. “Super 8” has a well produced, 70’s era appearance and vibe. It’s during one of their secret night shoots that they begin to witness strange goings on in their small town, including the arrival of the Air Force and what seems to be a large-scale cover-up of events. One recurring joke has the wannabe young director choose shooting locations with actual action scenes taking place in the background to add “production value” to their project – and the kids’ own film adds value for audience members who have an interest in filmmaking.

J.J. Abrams previously made the “Star Trek” prequel, a movie that managed to remain appealing despite the audience’s knowledge of which characters had to survive, a feat managed through excellent attention to the character development. In “Super 8” he manages this again, working very successfully with a young cast, such that the friendships seem genuine and the kids might even remind you of your own friends (childhood or otherwise). It’s this attention to character that seems lacking, for example, in “X-Men: First Class.”

There ar
e minor inconsistencies in the film (one soldier might be dragged by his gun towards a giant electro-magnet while neighboring soldiers seem unaffected, for example) but the overall result is delightful. This is a fun ride from start to finish – and even beyond. During the closing credits, the audience is treated to one of the best ever films within a film, as the zombie movie the kids were shooting as their ambitious film festival entry is shown in its entirety. It’s a fun bonus at the end of an already fun film.

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