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Column Fri Jun 03 2011
X-Men: First Class
I did not see this one coming, and I'm not sure why. To varying degrees, I like all of director Matthew Vaughn's work (Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass), but the X-Men franchise just kept getting more and more scattered after Bryan Singer's second film to the point where it seemed impossible to get this right with an almost-entirely new team in front of and behind the cameras. But as the cast came together, I became more and more hopeful. Mixed in with a few lesser-known young actors are a handful of genuinely fine performers who elevate this material to such a degree that the final product ranks among the best that Marvel Studios has put together in its existence. And by setting the film mostly in the 1960s (during the Kennedy years), it opens up the possibility for future X-Men films that could be set pretty much in any decade that seems appropriate.
But I'm not here to judge potential; I'm hear to critique X-Men: First Class, the film that explains in detail the pieces of the puzzle that came together to bring a team of mutants together for the first time to fight for the greater good under the tutelage of Charles Xavier (played as a younger man with a full head of hair by James McAvoy). Some may be surprised to know that in this version of the X-Men's birth, Erik Lehnsherr (the man who would become Magneto, played to perfection by Michael Fassbender) was Xavier's right-hand man at gathered scared, young mutants from around the globe, training them and instilling within them a sense of pride in who they were and desire to protect all human life. But even at this time, Lehnsherr (a concentration camp survivor as a child) saw the world in a different way and believed the protection of mutants trumped saving humans.
It's a harrowing dilemma for both Xavier and Lehnsherr, the latter of whom has sworn off sparing anyone who claims they were "just following orders." He's seen the worst in humanity, so his hatred of institutionalized violence is understandable, even if it's a bit warped. While Ian McKellen certainly did a fine job portraying Magneto in all his intellectual evil-ness, Fassbender actually provides us with the transition from handsome, laser-focused, devilish charmer who chases Nazis and contemplates mutantkind's future to the man who believes mutants are the new master race. The irony does drip.
The film opens with two parallel timelines. One is a sweet meeting between a pre-teen Charles Xavier and a little blue girl named Raven, who find in each other proof that there are others like them in the world. Charles is a telepath, and Raven a shapeshifter who hates her blue form. They grow up to be McAvoy and Winter's Bone's Jennifer Lawrence, who is clearly in love with Charles, who in term uses his mind-reading abilities to pick up co-eds at the university where he is writing his thesis. When Erik drops into their lives, he's a bit of an instigator. He wants Raven to be proud of her gifts and natural, blue form, while he wants Charles to feel the rage he does at having the government use mutants as expendable weapons against the Russian threat.
The second timeline follows young Erik into a concentration camp where he sees his parents taken from him. A scientist names Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) catches a glimpse of Erik's power over magnetism and calls him to his office where he begins years of experiments on the boy. It isn't a good day in the boy's life when Schmidt discovers that Erik's power is triggered by anger and pain.
As an adult Erik is a Nazi hunter, whose ultimate prize is Schmidt (renamed the more familiar Sebastian Shaw), who has gathered around him the Hellfire Club, a small group of not-so-nice mutants, including January Jones' Emma Frost, a telepath who can also generate a protective shell around her that makes her look like a walking chandelier; the red-skinned teleport Azazel (Jason Flemying); and Riptide (Álex González), a dude that can make tornadoes with his hands.
Charles and Raven are largely alone, until two forces enter their lives: Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), a government worker tasked with bringing down Shaw; and Oliver Platt's Man in Black, who has a covert CIA base tasked with mutant investigation, with one Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) leading the scientific team. Eventually these forces come together to bring down Shaw, with the help of some newly recruited mutants found with McCoy's prototype version of Cerebro. Names like Angel, Havok, and Banshee should be familiar to fans of the X-Men comics.
But that's just story. What's fascinating with First Class is watching how Xavier and Lehnsherr's roles become more clearly defined. Yes, it's fun to see how the team got their code names and how the X-Men name was coined. But I enjoyed watching Charles train his newer teammates, calling upon them to focus and often putting himself in mortal danger to help push these young mutants to control their powers. Whereas Charles becomes almost the phys-ed teacher, Erik takes on the role of philosophy professor, instilling his fear of human behavior and prejudice into the youngsters. It's a calculated practice as Erik drops little time-delayed specks of fear into their minds.
In terms of big picture, I really dig the way Vaughn and his team of writers have injected the mutants into the Cuban Missile Crisis, which the film blames squarely on Shaw's influence over the Russians. Although not entirely gone, First Class is thankfully lacking in clunky plot shifts or characters. And the film moves beautifully. The complex (not complicated) plot is astonishingly well conceived, and each decision and action leads perfectly into the next. And as much as people are going to cap on Jones' monotone performance as Frost (as much as they'll rightfully applaud Bacon's mesmerizing example of evil), I actually think she plays it right. Frost is meant to be an sociopathic ice queen. Things that trouble most people, don't phase her.
More than anything, I like that Xavier is torn between working with the government, a place he thinks mutants will need to be accepted before the rest of the world does, and looking out for his kind. And for the most part, he makes the wrong choice initially. Vaughn wants us to see both sides of the mutant argument clearly and in as balanced as possible. The parallels between how mutants are treated by human and homophobia or racism are still firmly in place, but it rings a little truer than in Singer's films. The entire film does, actually. By couching these events in history, and calling less attention to the unique powers each mutant has, Vaughn has actually made these folks seem commonplace to a degree.
There are enough nods to the other X-Men movies in First Class to keep fans on the earlier films happy. There are also some fun character actors (including James Remar, Matt Craven, Ray Wise, and the amazing Michael Ironside) scattered throughout this film, just to keep us on our toes. But X-Men: First Class succeeds because it's unpredictable more often than not. I expected an origin story, which is there, but what I also got was an emotional history lesson, a moral quandary, several coming-of-age stories, and a story of a friendship that was torn about by circumstance. I really loved this movie, and it's difficult for me to imagine that anyone who purports to love the X-Men as a comic book series won't be moved by someone getting it this right.
The Tree of Life
So here's the thing. If you've been reading reviews of writer-director Terrence Malick's years-in-the-making The Tree of Life, you've probably seen critics tripping over themselves attempting to interpret what the film and its characters represent. Is this Malick's attempt to confirm his atheism by showing up evolution and dinosaurs? Or is this a lesson on God versus darker influences on our lives beginning as children? I've read words like "grace" tossed around this film as often as words like "surreal," "impressionistic" and "existential." Everyone thinks they've got it figured out, or at least is going to attempt to convince you that they do. But here's the truth: they're all wrong. And in equal measure, they are all right.
And that's because The Tree of Life is a film that cannot be pinned down to any one explanation or meaning. It's a film meant to wash over you and leave you thinking about it days or weeks after you've seen it. But most of all, it's a work left deliberately vague so that discussion will ensue after it's been viewed. Those are my favorite kinds of film. When I hear someone tell me a day or two after they've seen a thought-provoking film that they still don't know what they thought of it, my response is always some variation of, "The fact that you're still thinking about it probably means you liked it." Not always the case, I know, but I think that's usually right.
While others may search for deeper meaning in The Tree of Life, on my first viewing I chose to take the film at face value, and it certainly works on both levels. But even if you end up giggling a bit at the presence of dinosaurs here, there is no denying that this is a story about family and how the relationship (or lack thereof) with our parents molds us with a relentless fire. The family in question is the O'Briens, living in Texas during the 1950s, a time considered by many to be America's last Golden Age, although no one in this family would probably agree with you. Mr. & Mrs. O'Brien (a relentless Brad Pitt and almost angelic Jessica Chastain) are raising three sons. But when we meet them, they have lost a child, presumably to war. And it's at this point where the inevitability of this moment in time becomes clear.
Without any real explanation why (that's a good thing), Malick transports is back to the beginning of time, to the Big Bang and continues on to trace the history of the earth and of humankind straight back to when the O'Brien children were younger and all alive, being raised by a stern but loving father and a mother that was sometimes permissive to a fault. The Tree of Life is not a traditionally constructed story, so much as it is a series of moments in the life of young Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken), who is briefly seen as an adult played by Sean Penn.
For some reason, I couldn't help but equate the relationship between Jack and his father to that of Bruce Springsteen's best-known, on-stage stories about his tumultuous emotional connection to his dad. He claims at one time to have hated his father, but it's clear that as he got older, being a success in his father's eyes was paramount. Jack (like the other O'Brien boys) is clearly scared of his dad, but doing well and being recognized by his fathers seems to be the thing Jack strives for. Most of you will likely recognize the version of Mr. O'Brien that Pitt gives us. The world has wronged him in so many ways, and the only place he has to vent that frustration and anger is in the direction of his family. But O'Brien isn't a bad man; we see what is worth admiring and loving about him. In may ways, he's a weak man in the body of a strong one.
And then there's Mrs. O'Brien. If her husband represents forcing their children to grow up before their time, then she embodies the very essence of staying a child for as long as one can. When dad travels, it's like the circus comes to town in their tiny home. The kids (with mom right there with them) are free to run around, slam doors and play -- a sharp contrast to the life lessons about fighting, manners and hard work that dad embraces. It's difficult to tell if mom is as scared of Mr. O'Brien as the kids are; he rarely aims his intimidation in her direction. But there is something off about her, and I couldn't help but think that she probably had a father much like her husband, so she is just better at handling him.
What's particularly fascinating about the way this story is told is that we're seeing everything from Jack's perspective. It's as if the film isn't meant to be an accurate account of the events as they took place. Instead, we're getting flashes of a very limited world as seen through this child's eyes. When you are young, your world doesn't often extend past your front lawn and your school. But when I was growing up, I remember school being like a vacation and home being the real world. And that's the marvelous thing about The Tree of Life -- it forces you to think in those terms. It's greatest gift is its universality. Most everyone will find some element in this movie that will trigger a flood of emotions and scattered memories.
I'm not convinced God figures into this film at all. Would you find it weird that in the audience I saw this film with were a priest and a nun? That sounds like the set up to a bad joke: "A priest and a nun go to a Terrence Malick movie..." That said, there are large heaps of spirituality as far as the eye can see. It's clear that life and evolution and natural science (as well as his ever-present nature) are Malick's religion and that he gets a spiritual rapture from simply contemplating them. I can't think of another filmmaker who embraces pure existence as much as Malick.
Malick also manages to evoke the air and heat and grass and trees of the O'Brien's yard and neighborhood. At many points in the film, the camera feel like it's floating on the wind. These may be idealized versions of nature (again, as remembered by Jack), but when you contrast them with the few shots of Jack (as played by Penn, who unfortunately barely registers in this film due to lack of screentime) later in life, surrounded by cold skyscrapers in some unnamed metropolis, you start to crave that smalltown version of nature. The Tree of Life is not a simple, straight-forward work, but it's not confusing or so intent on being different that it makes it impossible to understand. My advice is to let the images take hold, and don't worry so much about piecing them together or attempting to interpret them until the film is done. My guess is that your analysis will never quite be complete until you see it a second time. You will absolutely take something away from The Tree of Life, and that doesn't happen nearly enough in movies any more. Cherish the moment. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.