Friday, June 3, 2011

This Weekend

"X-Men: First Class"

In Nazi Germany, Kevin Bacon cackles as the mutant Jewish boy he hold captive makes jazz hands to the sky and warps one of Der Furher's testing facilities. In Westchester, a telepathic six year old finds a blue-scaled thief in his house and invites her to live with him. One of these boys grows up to kill Nazis. The other reads women's minds in order to seduce and/or recruit them. Together they recruit a group of young mutants (a screamer, a flyer, an... adapter?) and they prevent the Bay of Pigs. In case you were wondering, yes, "X-Men First Class" is about eight different movies.

Director Matthew Vaughn's greatest skill is his weakness: a hyperactive fascination with genres that leads to one moment in "First Class" devoted to sixties-era "Palisades Park" doo-wop seduction, followed by decidedly-modern science being developed to track the world's superpowered contingent (Cerebro, for the nerds), followed by mysterious backroom CIA spy action. The film can't settle down, which works because the far more intriguing moments (Michael Fassbender's sexually-virile Erik seeking blood-soaked reparations) outshine the less-inspired ones (anything involving January Jones).

"X-Men: First Class" is nonetheless an above-average blockbuster, stupid only in small doses and carried by a mostly-strong cast - as compelling as Fassbender is, James McAvoy's Xavier is delicately humane and likable while still remaining a bit of a controlling cad. Fans can soothe themselves with the notion that not once does the film lower itself to the intellectual depths of "X-Men: The Last Stand" nor does it ever replicate the overall incompetence of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." "First Class" may not be the best X-Men film yet - it lacks the gravitas of "X2" and the self-seriousness of "X-Men" - but it's certainly the strangest, the most youthful, and, weirdly, the kinkiest.

I saw Mike Mills "Beginners" on the same night as Miranda July's "The Future," and if you didn't tell me they were life partners in real life, I would have guessed it. Both films have a detached otherworldly vibe, both films aren't shy about breaking the fourth wall, and both films feature talking animals. While the loquacious cat in "The Future" sets the tempo for July's melancholy offering, the speaking dog in "Beginners" ends up bringing a great sense of humor and relief to an otherwise dour, somewhat affecting film. Mills' previous "Thumbsucker" won me over when its protagonist was finally set free for a slow motion run through his dreamland New York City, and that grace permeates "Beginners," which is otherwise a story about loss and grief.

Ewan McGregor, a cartoonist working on something called The History of Sadness, finds himself struggling with the loss of his father, who he recently lost to cancer. Months earlier, his father, a widower (a wonderful Christopher Plummer), had come out of the closet, and was experiencing life as a homosexual man shorn of the weight of the world. The film cuts back and forth between those scenes of coping with his kindly father's illness and a post-grieving relationship with both that talkative dog, and a lovely French stranger played by Melanie Laurent. The film's structure, however, seems arbitrary, a delivery vessel for the film's genial good vibes. Mills has a nice eye for composition and a strong ear for music, but he hasn't seemed to learn how to channel that, as "Beginners" is filled with low-level digressions that dilute the impact of our lead character's journey. But good vibes it has in spades, and it's always refreshing to see McGregor and Plummer, two excellent thesps often stuck in dead-end roles.

"Film Socialisme"
Nick and I talked about this during our summer preview. Fairly prankish, interesting, more of an art project than film. Godard works in a cinematic essay format, letting his mischievous, heavily political viewpoint frame the world first through a cruise ship, then at a run-down gas station, using what he considers "Navajo subtitles" to loosely convey, at least to American audiences, what prism he's using to encapsulate our post-millennial attempts at globalism. If you want extra credit, it's the movie to see this weekend.

"Beautiful Boy"
I didn't buy a second of this interpersonal drama, where Maria Bello and Michael Sheen play two grieving parents struggling to cope with their late son's final act, a brutal massacre on a college campus. The film receives honesty points by suggesting the parents may not have even liked their son, and his death might actually bring them together romantically. But it's a small couple of ideas buried within dramatically contrived situations, where none of the characters' actions make sense. You're going to tell me a young writer who wants to write a book about the dead kid is going to flirt with his mother, and actually bring his research notes and newspaper clippings into the house? Every moment, especially a sum-it-all-up aside from Meatloaf of all people in the final reel, stinks of unreality. And, for the last time, Moon Bloodgood: no. Just no.

"Mr. Nice"
I was prepared to skim the screener I received for this true crime story about one of the world's biggest hashish dealers until I heard the familiar strings of Philip Glass greeted with the words "A Film By Bernard Rose." Yes, this is the first teaming of the baroque, difficult-to-figure Rose and Glass since "Candyman." Rose has been lost in the wilderness, adapting three Tolstoy works that have received scant distribution stateside, and arguably his last notable movie is "Immortal Beloved." Sadly, the disappearance of Rose is more interesting than the biopic narrative of the still-living Justin Marks, an academic who fell ass-backwards into the drug trade and never looked back.

Rhys Ifans, an actor for whom I have grown tired, plays Marks, though colorful support is given by sleazy, snarly David Thewlis (as a rogue IRA member who lives in barn and received blow jobs from visiting hookers while pigs snort in the distance) . Chloe Sevigny shows up as Marks' second wife and mutters a bit, while Crispin Glover livens things up at the hour mark, but this is one of those massive international globe-trotting dramas that shoots with dingy digital film, mostly iront of questionable green screen. I probably would have enjoyed it more were it not for Ifans' dead-eyed stare which, in a moment of questionable intent, subs for Marks from the age of 16 to modern day.

Possibly my favorite movie of the week, this British coming-of-ager finds a young boy desperate to hold on to his very first girlfriend while also maintaining the sanctity of his parents' marriage. It's universal, of course, that this child, an idiosyncratic sort, would also be desperate to maintain whatever institutions he comes upon. What's so winning is this film's big heart, ably granted by music from Arctic Monkeys' guitarist Alex Turner and a savvy turn from moony-eyed youngster Craig Roberts. When he falls hard for classroom trollop Jordana, he uses a super 8 camera to document what is titled "Two Weeks Of Lovemaking," which is really just the two of them frolicking on abandoned beaches, distant factories and population-less backdrops, setting off firecrackers and kissing deeply. By the time he attempt to lose his virginity to her, you are desperately rooting for all the boy's hard work to pay off that the temptation is to actively cheer.

"Submarine" is the first film from "The IT Crowd" star Richard Ayoade, and it's clear he picked up a thing or two from "Harold And Maude" and the work of Wes Anderson. Sadly, like most first films, the picture loses focus in that final half hour. This may be possibly due to the closer look at Paddy Considine's cartoonish New Age speaker who threatens to break apart the boy's parents (a superb Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins). Considine is a threat, but his absurd hair and kung fu moves place him more as a side character in a film from this picture's producer, Ben Stiller, than as a serious threat to a relationship between two real people. Still, "Submarine" is a film of undeniable charm and comic invention, each richly-deserved laugh coming from a place of bittersweet pain, and a foundation of blissfully painful memory. I highly recommend it.

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