Wednesday, June 8, 2011

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)

At a Nazi concentration camp young magnetic mutant Erik Lehnsherr witnesses Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) gun his mother down after the boy fails to move metal objects upon demand.  Two decades later mind-reading Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) plays foster brother to shape-shifting Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and lectures about genetic mutations, while Erik/Magneto (now played by Michael Fassbender) hunts for the elusive Shaw to exact his revenge.  In the meantime Shaw has gathered an army of mutants around him, including the icy Emma Frost (January Jones).  He aspires to world domination by initiating nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis.  CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) stumbles upon this plot and enlists Charles’ help.  Charles and Erik join forces and gather their own army of mutants, including the nerdy Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult).  The film’s story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer has potential.  However, screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn squander it with clunky, clich├ęd dialogue and too many scenes that lack dramatic tension.  The most egregious example relates to Professor X and Magneto’s eventual philosophical split over coexisting with humans.  Though a foregone conclusion, director Vaughn and the writers make the mistake of treating it as such from the outset and kill any potential drama.  Vaughn’s action scenes are artless and incoherent, and he does a huge disservice to most of his actors.  Bacon feels miscast and self-conscious, while McAvoy, Jones and Lawrence are subdued and lifeless.  Byrne shows some spunk and spark, while Hoult’s Hank manages some geeky charm before being transformed into the wooden Beast.  The remaining mutant characters, however, aside from their specific abilities, are generic and barely register.  But the same cannot be said for Fassbender, who mesmerizes as the vengeful and mistrustful Magneto.  He deserves a much better film.

Monday, June 6, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

There are few filmmakers as ambitious or as frustrating as Terrence Malick.  His latest cinematic tone poem moves back and forth in time, exploring life, faith and forgiveness.  We begin with the middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in their beautiful, empty home as they learn that one of their teenage sons is dead.  It is never made clear how the son died (though I had the impression he had killed himself).  We only know that the mother is bereft and the father nagged by vague guilt.  Next we flash forward to present day where surviving son Jack (Sean Penn) still grapples with grief for his brother and anger at his father.  Then it’s back to the Big Bang and the arrival of the dinosaurs (I’m not kidding) until we finally return to the O’Briens in the 1950s as they start their family.  There the story, such as it is, becomes more linear, and we follow the O’Briens from the birth of their three sons through the boys’ childhood.  While Mrs. O’Brien shows her children the way of grace and creates a warm, nurturing environment, Mr. O’Brien teaches his children the way of nature and comes down hardest on Jack (now played by Hunter McCracken) in relaying life’s hardscrabble lessons.  Gorgeously shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s film, in its best moments, feels like captured communal memory.  The wonder of seeing the world through childlike eyes has rarely been more effectively conveyed.  And Malick elicits remarkably natural performances from novice actors McCracken and the beatific Laramie Eppler, who plays younger brother R.L.  Pitt works hard at being the hyper-achieving father who takes his personal frustrations out on his family, and Penn broods through his brief moments in the film.  Chastain, however, effortlessly registers every subtle shade of emotion through her delicate features and tethers us to this ephemeral movie.  Writer/director Malick tackles big philosophical issues with a lyrical, ludicrous commitment but has no new answers.  And while the end result is admirable, it is far from satisfying.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

BRIDESMAIDS (2011)

Writers Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig and director Paul Feig have struck a rich, raucous vein with this raunchy yet heartfelt comedy about a maid-of-honor on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Annie (co-writer Wiig) is teetering on the emotional and fiscal edge.  Her failed baking business has forced her to share an apartment with creepy British siblings, and she’s physically involved with a self-absorbed jerk (the uncredited Jon Hamm).  But when her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces she’s just become engaged and wants Annie to be her maid-of-honor, Annie agrees with barely concealed panic.  As a further complication fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne) begins competing with Annie and taking over the wedding plans.  Mumolo & Wiig’s generous script gives its stellar ensemble ample comedic breathing room and allows each scene’s humor to play out in full, while director Feig shows perfect restraint during the movie’s outrageous set pieces.  At the risk of giving too much away, the bridal party dress fitting, the flight to Las Vegas, and the bridal shower meltdown may be the most painfully funny scenes you’ll see in a film this year.  Playing against expectation Rudolph’s bride is the warm seeming calm around which the higher-strung bridesmaids spin, while Byrne masks Helen’s insecurity with passive-aggressive overcompensation.  Wendi McLendon-Covey, as a marriage- and child-weary matron, and Ellie Kemper, as an anxious newlywed, make the most of their smaller roles, while Chris O’Dowd nicely underplays Annie’s potential romantic interest.  As the crass and aggressive bridesmaid Megan, however, Melissa McCarthy steals nearly every scene she’s in.  Her character is one that could have gone wrong in so many ways, but McCarthy’s fearless commitment delivers huge laughs.  But in the end this is Annie’s movie, and the luminous Wiig channels Lucille Ball in her prime, balancing physical comedy with understated vulnerability.