25 March 2012

Good and Bad of 2011: Movies - Vol. 4

And my favorite movie of 2011 is....

X-Men: First Class

I'm going to write this post differently from my impassioned and lengthy declaration of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's sheer brilliance and status as both my favorite and the absolute best of 2010, and instead have a bit of fun with the presentation. Obviously X-Men: First Class isn't the crystal clear best motion picture of 2011, but why shouldn't it be? It's one hell of a marvelous, pretty much perfect film [unless you're one of those folks who balk at the incongruities in the films continuity; I like to look at this flick as its own entity]

And finally, before I move any further, I wish to give credit to Ruth's passionate Top 40 Reasons I Love X-Men: First Class, which echoes my thoughts and feelings quite eerily well and served as an inspiration with what follows. I hope this post does hers justice. My list won't be as detailed, but instead will be numbered to 20, because...well, I don't really have a huge reason behind it.

Finally, finally, I just want to say: before X-Men: First Class, I can't honestly say I gave a bloody damn about any of these characters minus Wolverine. I didn't care all that much about the overarching theme of the franchise of prejudice/mutations, or the opposing sides of the argument. These were action movies, nothing more. Jane Goodman and Matthew Vaughn presented audiences with a movie that wasn't about flare, action scenes, or a being a vehicle for money grabbing studios. This film made me care, because everyone involved cared. X-Men: First Class is the beginning of a battle of the minds, the splintering of a brotherly friendship, and the formation of two powerful groups. This is quality filmmaking and storytelling. This is why this movie stands - excuse the following - above the rest of class.

1. Erik/Charles relationship. The most telling moment in the X-Men trilogy, the most significant and powerful moment, was after Xavier's demise at the hands of Phoenix in X-Men: The Last Stand, as Magneto defends Xavier even in death: "Charles Xavier did more for mutants than you will ever know. My single greatest regret is that he had to die for our dream to live." Now we get to see the birth of that friendship, that bond that defines the whole damn set of movies. To me, you can throw away Cyclopes, Storm, Jean, Wolervine, Rogue, the whole group and just concentrate on these two, and you would have a very fulfilling, riveting series. They're the Anakin/Obi-Wan of mutants - their choices decide the fate of the whole world, basically. Here in First Class, that relationship is brought to life beautifully. They instantly respect one another - who they are, what they represent, what they hold dear and believe in, etc. Every scene with those two is charged and powerful. Regrettably, for a movie so jam-packed with story and character beats that needed to be addressed, there just doesn't seem to be enough Charles/Erik scenes. Sad face.

2. Raven/Charles/Erik relationship. Leave it to this flick to give more dimension to Mystique than the entire trilogy. Turns out Mystique/Raven was best buds with Charles (even though there is no hint to support this in the Trilogy, though there isn't any evidence to negate it, either), living together in a brother/sister capacity (in a fashion), using their powers under the radar just enough. Raven uses her ability nearly every waking minute of the day, and Charles uses his to pick up the ladies. And then Erik comes along, and tells Raven point blank that she doesn't need to hide who she is, that she's beautiful, that when she's, shall we say, Jennifer Lawrence, she's not completely 'her'. She believes in Erik's belief - mankind won't accept them, they can't, and makes her choice in the end, with Xavier's blessing. This whole dynamic is wonderfully played. It's this layer of complexity that I appreciate out of the screenplay.

3. Cameo! ....... sorry, did I spoil it for anyone?

4. This scene. Mentioned it the other day, but my Lords of Kobol, how is there not a more touching scene in 2011? [oh, right, nearly the entirety of this movie]. Erik is a walking vessel of anger and rage, and in this scene, this one, simple, beautiful scene, Charles enters Erik's mind and releases a memory Erik had long forgotten, giving the man of pain one wonderful moment of serenity. Why does a movie have to be a political thriller, or Holocaust drama, or just some big snazzy drama drama to be recognized for their powerful strengths? This is an action/superhero movie, and this is just one small example of why, with this new breed of post-Dark Knight productions [minus Green Lantern], these movies have a complexity unmatched before, and deserve to be recognized for their outstanding achievements.
"There's so much more to you than you know, not just pain and anger. There's good in you too, and you can harness all that. You have a power that no one can match, not even me."

5. In the Trilogy, the costumes were black. Just black. Meant to go with the realism. I can dig that. Here we are with First Class, and we've gone black and yellow....and I am really, really groovin' on that design train. It's perfectly, simply retro, but also kickass effective. They're also nice transitional suits, beginning with these and eventually forming into what we know from the Singer productions [assuming we are to believe in the continuity of all these X-flicks].

6. Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn's screenplay. If Christopher & Jonathan Nolan's names aren't attached to a reimagining or some other big property that deserves nothing but the best, I expect Jane and Matthew to be a part of it at least, and if none of these folks are, I already expect it to be doomed. After Kick-Ass and now this, Jane and Matthew have proven themselves amazing writers. They have a true talent in regards to characterization, specifically the ability to bring a lot in something not expansive. In just a few quick lines of dialogue (and the help of Fassbender), Erik is established fully and deeply. In Kick-Ass, the action and reaction of the characters made them three dimensional people instead of plot puppet pals. They added heart, drama, tension, action, politics, and heartbreak all in one two hour movie.

7. Erik is the cause of Xavier's wheelchair-boundness. I'm unfamiliar if this ties into the comics, but I found this turn of events to be marvelous and ingenious. I wasn't too fond of how everything seemed to be thrown into one movie, this included, but if they had to do it, this was the way. Have Erik's bullheadedness, his descent into Magneto, be the crippling of Charles Xavier. Beautiful, really.

8. Normally I find period movies to not be all that fascinating, even ones from the 1960's. Leave it to the X-Men team to turn my displeasure into pure entertainment delight. As if this flick needed to become any more epic in scope, the first X-Men leap into battle to stop potential nuclear war! How much awesomer and high-stakes can you get? There's the James Bond-y element that many people take note of, specifically how Fassbender seems to channel his inner Sean Connery/Daniel Craig (for realz) by playing Magneto: 00M. And plus, you get period clothing! As for the pic I chose above, the subtleties of why I chose it for costume design may not have be apparent. It's a deep, complex reason, no doubt.

9. James McAvoy as Charles Xavier. Originally, I didn't see it, didn't like it, etc. Patrick Stewart is Charles Xavier, yo, simple as 'dat! Well, then I saw the flick, and McAvoy sold me. Yeah, he's the young Xavier all right. Completely and utterly sold. I LOVED that he was a bit of a ladies man, using his telekinetic abilities to hit on the women. I LOVED how he was so enthusiastic and firmly believed in everything he was saying and doing. And I LOVED how McAvoy made this character very much his own, but with just enough to make you believe in him, that yes, the bald Patrick Stewart comes of this.

10. Henry Jackman's appropriate and rousing score compliments the action-y vibe of the flick when need be, and gives us chilling bits with 'Frankenstein's Monster'. Definitely one of the Greats of 2011.

11. This Guy. Glenn Morshower, known primarily to me as Agent Pierce from several seasons of 24, or to the general public, the guy who dies a lot but keeps coming back in the Michael Bay Transformers franchise. He's had roles in at least a half dozen major Hollywood productions and countless TV shows. Seeing this man always brightens my day.

12. Fast-paced editing. The movie starts and then - holy crap! It's the end already?! By the films insane final 20 minutes came to a close, I was ready for another outing. This is one spectacular film, firing at all cylinders, how could I not want another dose? Director Vaughn never allows us to be bored (or at least a good amount of people; lots seemed to have been less than invested in the story, or are nitpicking at its inaccuracies). It's always a balancing act for directors to juggle the characters, the drama, and the action - Vaughn makes it look easy. Bastard. Love you!

13. To Blow Up or Not Blow Up? Next to the crumbling building scene in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I don't think I've been more - to use the tired phrase - at the edge of my seat than here. Magneto and Charles russlin' it out on the sand, a bazillion missiles ready to blow Americans and Soviets into nothingness. This is the power struggle of the whole series, personified in one hell of an amazing scene of physical violence and visual gorgeousness.

14. Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. A hard role to pull off, perhaps more than Fassbender and McAvoy had to - after all, this was a character who was known only for her sex appeal in the Trilogy, and now she's being given depth! Lawrence had to bring heart and soul to Raven, to make her choices understandable, and her arc in the Singer/Ratner films more meaningful. Beyond all odds, she does it.

15. X-Training. Usually the area in most 'coming-of' superhero films that are least enjoyable, and could easily be cut. Here, I wouldn't slice a frame. Every second of the training exercises is hilarious and, sorry to go general here, awesome. From Banshee gaining his 'wings', Beast getting his run on, Erik pushing himself further, the Summers boy harnessing his flamey-thing, and Raven understanding how her fear limits who she is. Character building and fun - another testament to Goldman and Vaughn.

16. The Baconator. Man, can this guy pull of Evil Bastard. Loved it. Still the essence of cool.

17. In the Trilogy, Magneto was often just your regular everyday villain, but here, in First Class, he's a living, breathing character with his own ideology and attitude. He was pissed on by a pre-mutated Sebastian Shaw, hardened by the environment he grew up in, treated like shit, pushed into using his abilities for the gain of another, and all around been given a really unfortunate life. In the finale, Erik/Magneto stands at the beach, addressing his fellow mutants, and summarizes his stance well enough here, "Open your blinders, my brothers and sisters. The real enemy is out there - Americans, Soviets, humans. United in their fear of the unknown." Sorta sounds like Batman Begins, dunnit? "People always fear what they don't understand." Nice, Vaugh/Goldman, nice.

18. I relish when characters begin to push boundaries and cross lines. Erik leaps into action without a plan, and allows his anger to overcome reason, pinning Emma Frost to the metal bedpost in one of the film's most riveting scenes. And I recognize that this whole post may sound like one Michael Fassbender love letter - and rightly so - but that dead look in his eyes as he begins to break Emma's crystal exterior, it's frightening. A complete turnaround of that look of serenity Charles released earlier in the narrative. This is one of the many glimpses of Erik's rage, of that beast inside him, a furnace that refuses to be extinguished, and it's terrifying. Here I can see why people fear Magneto, I can get a picture of the complicated, pissed man under the helmet. Want to find an interesting, compelling character in 2011? Erik/Magneto is that character. In the next flick, say Second Class, the movie should focus solely on Erik and Charles and their friendship, and see how Erik's revenge has either given him peace or brought him further down.

19. When it comes to superhero movies, so many things are imperative to make a fine production, from script to actors, but perhaps one of the most important element that must be strong is the director. After all, a director brings his own 'style' to the mix. The 1989/1992 Burton Batman movies are very much Burton through and through, same with the Schumacher movies and the Nolan movies - visually, you can just tell. I'm not to a point where I can tell Vaughn's style off a quick three-second clip or anything like that, but watching his movies, there is a distinct look, and Vaughn brings his very cool look/style to the X-Men franchise marvelously. Let's take Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand, Gavin Hood's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Vaughn's First Class and put them next to each other, and each director's style is pretty damn obvious. I can't put into words Vaughn's style - it needs to be seen and enjoyed. He's a unique talent, and news of his return to the X-Men franchise with the sequel gives me hope for the next installment that would otherwise not be there. Vaughn owns the screen.

20. I'm going to make this coin disappear. Yeah, you are. [What a friggin' intense scene; also, more major kudos to Matthew Vaughn for excellent directing here]


So, yeah, not a normal choice by any means, but isn't it fun to not play safe? The good of 2011 has officially been handled and done with, now what's in store for the bad? Any guesses? Thoughts on my top 10? Leave your thoughts below!

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