“Super 8” and “X-Men: First Class” are not two films I would toss together on any given day, but they are sealed in my mind as a weird double feature separated by a week or so. They are sold as Summer 2011 Box Office Hits, but instead happily riff and thrive off film genres that no longer get the respect they deserve, even if they fall short of beloved and timeless classics.
“Super 8” is a throwback to the five-star films of my youth, “The Goonies” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” fathered by two masters-of-cinema dads, one older and one younger, producer Steven Spielberg and writer/director J.J. Abrams. With a pedigree such as that, it should be the Film of the Year. Yet, it’s not. Maybe I’m too far removed from my 11-year-old self, the year I saw and desperately wanted nothing more than to be a “Goonie.” (Hang out and kiss older girls? Fight villains and plunder pirate treasure!?! Yes and yes, please.)
The plot follows a group of young teens (led by Joel Courtney as a boy grieving over his dead mother) as they get sucked up in a spectacular alien conspiracy in their small Ohio steel town after they witness a spectacular train crash. The title comes from the movie they are making -- a zombie flick -- on old 8 mm film, this being the late 1970s. I remember doing that. In full Spielberg vein, the children are the heroes, and the adults must grow up.
“Super 8” also mixes in heavy doses of government madness as in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and it's a wild joy for a while. The teens play to each other, not the audience. The in-jokes of 1979 are so damn accurate and funny. But, damn it all, when the big bad alien is fully revealed, the film goes soft and flaky, and breaks its back reaching for sentimental pathos. All tension and fun evaporates. Also, the creature looks so …eye-rolling obvious CGI. Hey, guys, why not go for old-school puppetry and in-camera tricks? Speaking of cameras, Abrahams’ OCD love for lens flare kills the finale as faces are near blurred by blue light pops. It’s never a good sign when, during an emotional finale, one sits there thinking, “What the hell lens did they use?” But that’s nitpicking. I'll shut up.
Yes, “X-Men: First Class” is a prequel to the 10-year-old film franchise and yet another superhero movie in this, The Summer of Super Hero Movies. But that’s surface. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, “X:FC” is actually an old-school 1960s spy flick born of John Le Carre novels, James Bond films and “Fail Safe” paranoid drama, spiced with an old revenge thriller plot. We get CIA agents, war room grand-standing, fantastic hideouts for the villains (a submarine!), secret bases in plain sight for the good guys, strip clubs and old Nazis in hiding.
Much of the film takes place in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world almost nuked itself into radioactive dust. As with “Inglourious Basterds” or a James Ellroy novel, “X:FC ” takes this history and bends it. The gist: What if the whole United States/Soviet Union stand-off was the wicked master plan of a martini-sipping megalomaniac ex-Nazi Mutant (Kevin Bacon) grooving on the wish that nuclear fallout will bring him to power. Naturally, it is Charles Xavier, a peaceful Mutant (he is a telekinetic) who must keep the party from going nuclear. James McAvoy plays the young Xavier, before the wheelchair and baldness.
There’s also the rogue man out for bloody redemption who drives the whole plot forward. This is Erik Lensherr (sic), aka Magneto, an ex-Jew out to slay the Nazis who killed his family. Bacon’s character being target No. 1. Lensherr is far more interesting than Xavier, basically taking the place of Wolverine – violence-prone outsider – in the 2000 film “X-Men.” I’m assuming you know what I’m talking about, all this name dropping and Mutant talk. Apologies if you don’t. Magneto is played by Michael Fassbender who by law must become the next James Bond. (Ian McKellan played elder Magneto in the previous films.)
It’s a daring canvas, asking movie-goers to know real history. Despite how dark and dirty Vaughn stretches – he provides a gruesome death that will forever change the way you look at pocket change – I felt he wanted to go further. Darker than “The Dark Knight,” with more meaning. Too many kills cut away, sloppily, before they end. I actually could have done without the First Class in “First Class,” as the variety of young Mutants (with Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique) on display don’t hold water against McAvoy and Fassbender. There’s more nitpicking, from an “X-Men” comic book nerd’s perspective, but hey … how many summer flicks feature JFK and men in turtlenecks?
Both films: B
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