X Marks The Spot: X-Men First Class (2011)

Like a lot of folks–especially comic fans of the 90s and 00s–I loved the first two X-Men flicks, but got soured by both the negative reactions to X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine as well as the films themselves. Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2 were revelatory in that they not only took one of the most continuity heavy and confusing groups of characters in all of comics and made them so easy my parents could understand, but also made really great, fun, dynamic and seri0us-when-they-needed-to-be flicks that everyone could enjoy. Those other movies? Not so much. (I remember very little about Last Stand, to be honest and only bits and pieces of Wolverine which I just watched in the past year.)

So, like a lot of folks, I was wary about First Class when I heard about it. Did I need or want another X-Men movie? The original plan was to completely focus on Magneto just like they did with Wolverine, but in moving away from that they did something that only Captain America has done in the world of comic book movies: set the characters in the time period their comic book counterparts were created (or facsimiles of them in the case of X-Men). Not only do I just generally appreciate the early 60s as a time period, but it’s fun to see the world the ever more up-to-date comic book characters set back in a different era. Plus, 1962 means some of the best, sexiest fashion for women, so who’s going to complain about that?

So, as you probably know, First Class follows the exploits of a young Charles Xavier and his growing friendship with Magneto. In the process of meeting and joining forces to take on the looming threat of Sebastian Shaw, they not only develop a strong friendship with one another, but also track down other mutants and form a team consisting of Beast, Angel (a girl with butterfly wings who spits fire, not Warren Worthington III), Mystique, Darwin, Havok and Banshee along with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert. It’s an odd grouping for sure, especially if you’re familiar with the comics. I have a very basic knowledge of the X-Men that comes from just knowing and reading about comics for so many years, a few brief stints as a regular reader, conversations with friends and absorption of most of the video games, cartoons and movies based on the franchise. Even still, I had some trouble reconciling who the characters in the film were and how the differed from the ones in the comics.

But, you know what? None of that matters. The few thousand people who read comics really don’t stack up to the overall movie-going audience. My wife, who has seen the movies and read some if not all of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men knew the basics and had a few questions, some of which I couldn’t answer. Who is Sebastian Shaw? No idea, but in this world, he’s a very evil man with energy powers. Nuff said.

So, the good guys and bad guys eventually come together and, if you’ve seen the first two movies–they ignored Last Stand and Wolverine when writing this one–wind up where they need to. SPOILERS. Magneto gets his helmet, Charles gets crippled and Mystique switches sides. It’s, overall, a satisfying flick with mostly-good special effects (some of them looked like CGI versions of poorly put together models being tossed about, but I’m fairly certain the budget for this movie was not very high, nor was there a big push behind it until it became a hit).

Yes, I liked the film. Very much, but I have a few lingering SPOILERY problems that you shouldn’t read unless you want major chunks of the movie ruined. You’ve been warned. My biggest problem about a small thing is that Darwin died. His power is to literally adapt to anything that can kill him and he died. That makes no sense. He should have absorbed Shaw’s energy ball and been messed up, but wound up okay because THAT’S HIS POWER! Heck, they could have killed off that dopey Angel character and had Darwin go bad, that would have been interesting. I’m also not sure why Xavier let Magneto kill Shaw. If you remember, Magneto trashed the room and removed the helmet so Professor X could freeze Shaw’s mind. While frozen he apparently can’t use his power, which is, fine and Magneto gets free. He then awesomely kills Shaw with a coin through the brain all the while Charles is screaming back on the plane. But, if he was so upset, why didn’t Charles unfreeze Shaw? He couldn’t change Magneto because he had that goofy helmet on–which Michael Fassbender pulled it off much better than Kevin Bacon did–but Shaw’s death is basically on Professor X’s hands for allowing it to happen. He could have at least tried to save him, you know? I’m also not sure I can reconcile all the timing with the film. It’s okay for the most part (Wolerine and Mystique are explained, the other main characters haven’t shown up again for the most part), but how is it possible that Prof X saw Storm and Cyclops when using Cerebro? This film is set in 1962 with X-Men presumably taking place in 2000, the year it debuted. So, that means there’s 38 years between the events in both films. Are we supposed to believe that Scott and Ororo are in their 40s in that film? James Marsden was 27 at the time the film came out and Halle Berry was 34. It just doesn’t add up.

There were a few other things that bugged me, but I can’t quite remember them at this point, so I guess they couldn’t have been too bad. At the end of the day, the good far outweighs the bad. Seeing Magneto running around and using his powers as basically an assassin is amazing. I love when superheroes or villains ditch the costumes and use their abilities like this. Ed Brubaker did an interesting bit of this when he wrote Daredevil and sent him to Europe. They also killed it with that Wolverine cameo which had me rolling. For some reason I thought it was hard to see, but that’s definitely not the case. Like I said, the good was better than the bad and maybe some of my problems can be explained away, they’re just questions I had after watching. I’m still left feeling like I had a great time watching a mostly well thought out and executed flick with really interesting actors doing cool things with superpowers, so I’ll chock that up as a win.

Halloween Scene: Insidious (2010)

I think I’ve seen too many movies. I say that with absolutely no intent of cutting back, though I will probably not be watching horror flicks for a while after a very packed October filled with them. I got Insidious in the mail from Netflix at the tail end of the month or possibly November 1st and wasn’t sure if I was going to watch or just send it back to view another time. But, my daughter wound up taking a surprisingly long nap today, so I took advantage and watched the movie that scarred some friends of mine and made my wife scared and angry every time the trailer played.

Honestly, it didn’t do that much for me. Like with the first two Paranormal Activity movies, I think watching this one during the day while doing other things takes a lot of the power away from the scares. I think it might have also caused me not to see some of the spooky, lingering images, but I caught enough to get the gist. The explanation of the plot contains elements of the story that get explained throughout the movie, so if you want to go in blind, stop reading.

There’s a couple with three kids, two young boys and a baby. One day one of the boys–Dalton–goes to sleep and won’t wake up. He’s in some kind of coma and the doctors don’t know what’s up. Then the mom, played by Rose Byrne from Bridesmaids, starts seeing ghosts. You think they’re just going to stay in the house like every other haunted house movie in the world, but they don’t, which earned it huge points in my book. Once in the second house, though, they discover that the hauntings have not stopped. They get a medium to come over who explains (and this is where the heavier SPOILERS begin) that Dalton actually has the ability to project himself into the astral plane, but he’s gotten lost. With an open body just sitting there all these bad spirits are wanting to get back in, which has drawn them not to the house that the family lives in, but to the boy. The medium and her team perform a few seances with wacky looking gear and then we get to the ending which I will talk about in the following spoiler filled paragraph.

As noted, SPOILERS ARE ALL UP IN THIS PARAGRAPH. So, towards the last third of the movie, the medium lady reveals to the dad that he was an astral projector too as a boy, which was super obvious when the old lady told him about 15-20 minutes earlier that he had changed a lot since she had last seen him or something. He had troubles, so she somehow wiped his memory. Anyway, this means that the dad can go into the astral plane and get his son back, but that will not only risk encountering other ghosts or demons or whatever they are and also leaving his body open for inhabitation by said baddies. I half thought they were going to just show him closing his eyes and then coming back with the kid, but they actually get into it. I mean, it’s not some crazy, hellish world, but it does look pretty neat. Most of the ghosts even wound up being pretty creepy, though that red-faced thing you saw in the previews just looked kind of silly to me, especially when they did that quick cut of him behind the dad before all this other business. There’s one that’s just a big dude with a messed up face and long black hair who looks a hell of a lot more threatening. Then there’s the two Shining-esque twins (though they’re older and more creepy-smiley). Also, the very, very end was such a “no shit” moment that it didn’t even come as a surprise.

STILL IN SPOILER TERRITORY. Which brings be to the real end. I’m getting sick of these kinds of endings. At the end of the flick, the dad has been taken over by the ghostmonsterdemon that haunted him as a child and killed the medium. The wife discovers this and freaks out only to have him/her/ghost come up behind her. Then cut to black. Bleh. I like movies like The Thing where the ambiguous/unknown ending really feels earned and creepy, but doesn’t leave you feeling cheated. In this case, I felt cheated. There’s still people in the house. A lot of them actually. What happens to them? I don’t expect everything to be wrapped up in a nice bow, but this really felt like an ending in the middle of a chapter instead of a good place to end.

Okay, no more spoilers. At the end of the day, the haunted house conceit just really doesn’t scare me. You spend the entire movie waiting for something to pop out. It either does or doesn’t. If you’re not watching as a captive audience member and are doing other things, you’re even more disconnected. That second part is on me as a viewer, but it’s still a factor. The aspect of the movie that did get to me, though, was the child/parent stuff. Not only have I been creeped out by our baby monitors (crying is bad enough, but piped through an electronic gizmo makes it otherworldly and cringe-worthy), but I get now wanting to defend your children and the fear that would come from trying to do so against an unknown, unseen enemy. But, the problem was that I understood that in my brain, I didn’t feel it in my gut. At the end of the day, the movie didn’t really make me feel anything but tense during the seance scene. That part was genius. I even liked the astral plane stuff, more so than the first half of the movie I think, but at the end of the day, I’ve seen too many of these movies, was familiar with the scares and wasn’t drawn in.

Quick Movie Review: Get Him To The Greek (2010)

I haven’t been watching as many movies as I have in the rest of the year. That’s partly because I’ve been getting out of the house and going to the coffee shop more often than sitting around the house. I’ve also been watching some more TV and listening to podcasts or music while working. For those reasons, Get Him To The Greek has been sitting next to my DVD player for a few weeks which surprised me a bit because I fell in love with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the first movie to feature Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow character. As it is, I’m kind of glad that I held off because I didn’t like this movie nearly as much as it’s predecessor. The big difference between the two movies is that Forgetting had a lot of heart to it, while Greek tried shoehorning that kind of stuff in towards the end.

The general plot is that record company owner Sergio (Sean “Puffy” Combs) sends low level worker Aaron (Jonah Hill) to get Aldous Snow in England and take him, first to The Today Show in New York and then to the Greek, a club in LA. Aaron has a falling out with his girlfriend played by Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss before leaving and so he goes a bit crazy while out with the procrastinating and party loving Snow. There’s lots of good gags in the movie, from the Mars Volta joke to the “Not everyone cares” line to the kid who plays Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, but while Marshall felt more like a cohesive story about real characters, this felt more like a group of repertory players staging skits and trying to get as many jokes out as possible.

The movie’s not bad but it just didn’t live up to the expectations put into place by FSM. Brand and Hill did great in their roles, especially Hill who stepped out of his usual “loud asshole” role. Really, though, Combs steals the show and every scene he’s in. Yes, pretty much everything he says and does is funny because he is who is, but that kind of meta humor isn’t always bad. Combs loves Biggest Loser? Hilarious. Guys like TJ Miller, Aziz Ansari and Colm Meanie also do great in their smaller roles, but at the end of the day, the story feels secondary to the one liners.

Halloween Scene: 28 Weeks Later (2007)

Allow me to get nostalgic, just for a moment. The first time I saw Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was in this tiny art house theatre in Bowling Green, Ohio. I went with Barry’s co-worker-turned friend Bobby, his girlfriend-now-wife Sasha, Toth and Randy (I think) and it blew us away. We had been hearing chatter about it and the alternate ending that you could see if you waited through the credits. The ride home was full of conversations about fast zombies and which ending we liked better. I can tell you with zero doubt that that’s the furthest I’ve ever gone to see a movie and it was totally worth it. I later bought 28DL and watched it a number of times, so, like every other person on the planet, I was pretty skeptical when I heard about the Boyle-less sequel 28 Weeks Later. But damn was it good.

I won’t be nearly as eloquent and detailed as Sean was when he talked about writer/director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28WL back in ’07, but it really seems like this flick was amazing in spite of itself. A sequel to a movie that most people either saw in art houses or on DVD getting a bigger sequel by some guy who wasn’t involved in the first one with a joke title like 28 Weeks Later? It couldn’t possibly live up to it’s predecessor, but boy howdy, does it.

And, I think what makes it work so well is the fact that it’s not a direct sequel, it’s merely set in the same world as the original. No characters return (unless you count London, which I wouldn’t argue against) so you’re left with a part of the zombie mythos we don’t tend to see: the clean-up and aftermath. Plus, if the opening of this movie doesn’t get under your skin and make you think about how you’d REALLY react in a situation like this, then you might need to check your pulse. Sure we’ve seen people ditch other folks to save themselves in movies like this, but damn if this isn’t the most effective emotionally.

That’s really what makes this such a superior horror film, the level of emotional attachment stays consistent with the original. You start wondering how’d you react in a given situation and it’s so easy to transfer most scenarios from a zombie infested world to the real one: how would you react if the woman you abandoned to thieves turned out to still be alive?

I also like how the emotional attachment bounces from character to character. After seeing how easily and understandably a husband might abandon his wife, it makes the adult heroes of this movie who accompany the children, even more heroic, earning them instant credibility (along with Scarlett’s attestation that they probably shouldn’t be bringing children into the city).

I had seen 28WL on DVD a while back, purchased it almost immediately afterwards, but hadn’t watched it in a while, so the fates of the characters weren’t fresh in my mind and I was continually surprised followed by moments of “oh yeah.”

Another aspect of the movie that I love is the fact that things aren’t forced down your throat. You can think about this movie for a while and realize all kinds of things. This time around, I fell in love with the idea that, Scarlett protested the idea of kids coming into London because “what if the rage virus isn’t all the way gone?” only to have them not only be the only ones to survive (of our main characters at least), but also re-caused the spread of the virus inadvertently. So, she was right that they shouldn’t be there, but for a completely different reason. Damn kids.

Oh, plus Harold Perrineau of Lost fame is in it, so bonus! I know I’m talking about a much-loved two year old movie that most horror fans have already seen, but if you haven’t watched it in a while, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than the helicopter vs. zombie scene and the very end with zombies storming France. It’s way more effective than the “invasion” of NYC in Zombie and it nicely sets things up for a potential sequel.

Finally, a quick note about the DVD. There are two animated comics on there that were apparently first published through Fox Atomic that tell the tale of the guys who accidentally created the rage virus before the events of 28DL and one of a vigilante killing zombies and humans in “his city.” The first one was really interesting from a continuity perspective (plus it had art by my con buddy Dennis Calero), while the second is more of a slice-of-life from one tiny perspective in a larger world. They’re not too long and definitely worth a look.