In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Regal City North Stadium 14

I'm not going to do a proper review of the Regal City North Stadium 14. If I ever catch up on my backlog of theaters visited from 2010 (104 in all), perhaps I'll have the energy to revisit these subsequent venues in more detail, but I doubt it. But that's no reason to deprive you of shiny pictures!

Earlier this year I moved to the warm, balmy city of Chicago. Where the words "sidewalk" and "snow" are interchangeable, and where a vegan restaurant can be nonetheless greasy and deliciously filling. So far Chicago doesn't appear to have the same density of older theaters that I came to appreciate in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it's still fun to explore, and I'm told there are a few treats awaiting my attention.

This particular theater was acquired last year from the dissolving Kerasotes Theatres circuit as part of an antitrust concession that allowed AMC to gain a dominant foothold in the Chicago area. I guess the Justice Department's idea of antitrust is to make sure the second largest theater circuit doesn't gain too much on the largest circuit.

An adjacent parking garage charges a flat rate of $2.00.

The City North has an attractive lobby, with a large and inviting arcade area to one side, and a loooong concession counter to the right, stretching the width of screens 12 and 13 combined.

The theater has fourteen auditoriums, the largest of which seats fewer than 500 people. I'd guess that the theater seats ~3,500 in all. I love floor plans!


The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo (Teaser)

Why is the outstanding Swedish Millennium trilogy being remade in English? Are we Americans so averse to foreign films? Perhaps the movies just received too narrow a distribution? Let's assume that the distribution market is well calibrated, having given our domestic audiences as many showings of the original three films as we were willing to pay for. In the Bay Area last year, Män som hatar kvinnor (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Flickan som lekte med elden (aka The Girl Who Played with Fire), and Luftslottet som sprängdes (aka The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) were granted 5,454 showings, spanning nine months, in 28 theaters (the number of participating theaters decreased as the trilogy progressed). Thus each installment is averaging only enough showings to keep ranks with such wide releases as Extraordinary Measures (see this chart to get an idea of how quickly the public passed on that snoozefest) and Skyline (not yet reviewed, but I'll give you a sneak peek: it's the one movie I attended last year that I'd take back if I could; and remember, I saw Legion, so I've got some serious street cred). So that would seem to suggest that the trilogy was thrown out with the trash.

Yet The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo received more local showings than did any other limited release, besting the third in line (City Island) by nearly 700 showings (The Girl Who Played with Fire had the 2nd-most showings, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest was 28th). So in the context of a limited distribution, the trilogy was a smash success. The Numbers ranks the films 137th, 145th, and 161st out of 667 films for 2010 domestic box office gross. So the economic strategy seems to be clear: the films have been vetted and exalted by the limited-release public; now we just need a way to re-package them for mass consumption.

Enter Daniel Craig. Rugged Daniel Craig. Daniel Craig, who re-invigorated a superspy already flogged to death by five previous leads. The man so charismatic that being alone in a room with himself is considered a date. Daniel "you'll die an orgiastic death if you stare into his steely blue eyes for too long" Craig.

The opening of this trailer had me convinced that the next Bond film would demonstrate a genre overhaul, eschewing pop action in favor of dramatic intrigue. In 173 beat-pounding cuts (second only to the The Expendables), we are dragged through urban and wintry rural landscapes. Motorcycles. Voyeurism. Tattoos. Appearances by Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgård, Embeth Davidtz, and Steven Berkoff (where has he been?). In the eponymous role, relative newcomer Rooney Mara tries to fill the very large boots of Noomi Rapace.

This trailer is exceptional. Easily one of the ten best I've ever seen. The techno music and fast cuts add an intense snap to every glance or turn of the head. What might be just a man looking up from reading a book suddenly seems of life-threatening importance. As the trailer draws to a close, large print text smashes onto the screen, Kill Bill-style, and the music wrenches into overdrive. Outstanding. See the trailer, then rent the original trilogy.

Oh, and because my mother is a librarian, I'll put in a plug: the trilogy is adapted from a series of novels by Stieg Larsson, which has also been translated into English.

Green Lantern (Trailer 2)

This is going to be a great movie, despite Ryan Reynolds's inherent dopiness (on a spectrum from the disciplined John Stewart to the irreverent Guy Gardner, Reynolds is definitely on the far right). The film is not at all shy to delve deep into the messy but fascinating lore of the Green Lantern corps, an order that predates but is similar to Lucas's Jedi. I can't wait.

This trailer has so much gooey goodness in it, so much eye candy, how can I rate it at only two stars? Because, like the trailer before it, it reveals entirely too much. Does the trailer really need to step me through each sequence of the plot, from how he gets his ring, to how he gets his physical? If there are any lurking villains absent from the trailer, I will be quite surprised. The only improvement here over the original teaser is that they dropped a boring car chase, which doesn't quite rate in the same dramatic category as, say, zipping into a wormhole, meeting a bunch of aliens, and saving the planet from a tentacled doom. The teaser, with its great music, is excellent; this second trailer is not. 131 cuts.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1
Okay, I haven't actually seen this trailer yet. But I wanted to bask in the glory that countdowns are no longer reserved just for movies. The art of trailers is finally coming into its own.

X-Men: First Class

The brilliance of Stan Lee's The X-Men (1963), with its fictional mutant class, is that, like the U.S. Constitution, its premise of non-discrimination is flexible enough to defend groups of people the author probably didn't imagine would need or be deserving of protection. Writing the initial comics during the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most famous speech, Lee no doubt had racial equality in mind. But could he have foreseen that the X-Men would eventually come to stand also for equality regardless of sex, national origin, physical ability, or sexual orientation? That we should tolerate and learn from those who are ideologically alien to us? The X-Men canon asks that we look beyond superficial differences and divisive groupings, to instead recognize each other as unique individuals equally deserving of our respect and compassion. But unlike your workplace sensitivity training, this lesson comes dressed in yellow spandex and looking to throw down.

I can't offer an unbiased review of this film. The Uncanny X-Men was by far my favorite title during my comic book-reading years, I've enjoyed all the feature films to date, and I would even be glad to re-watch the kids' show X-Men: Evolution. My favorite character? The uptight leader, Cyclops, who was once described as being an even more devout follower of Charles Xavier's dream than Xavier himself. But I could easily name twenty characters in the X-Men universe that I think are stand-out awesome.

Team-based superhero movies are my favorites. Sure, I'll watch anything with superpowers; but there is something lonely about the solitary efforts of Superman, Batman, Elektra, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, etc. I want a team. The Fantastic Four (I make no apologies). The Avengers (can't wait). The Justice League (I promise to buy ten thousand tickets if it will get this movie made). Heroes vs. villains; good vs. evil; bamf vs. ... um, well, Nightcrawler really has no equal, does he? The X-Men movies have teams in spades. Rising from six core members in the first film to nine in the second, and finally topping out at ten in the third. And the baddies keep pace with their own sinister team-ups. These films feature so much superpowered goodness, it's impossible to even contemplate all the permutations of who would win in a fight. As Syndrome says in The Incredibles, I'm still geeking out about it.

Let's do a run-down of the movies to date. X-Men was so good, it basically gave birth to a now-thriving sub-industry that has grossed nearly $17 Billion worldwide in the past decade. X2: X-Men United is, of course, the best superhero movie ever made. X-Men: the Last Stand tore a hole in me. As superhero movies go, it's one of the best, but those writers knew exactly what to do to elicit my despair. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a good movie (again, no apologies). Though it suffers a bit from the lone hero model of most other comic-inspired movies, it does manage some great team-ups, including a delicious assortment of mutants at the end, foreshadowing the founding of Xavier's Institute for Gifted Youngsters. So X-Men: First Class is standing in a long shadow. But I wasn't worried going in, because its trailers are kick-ass.

A prequel, the film is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which also coincides nicely with the original debut of the X-Men comic. Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) are played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, roughly equivalent in age to each other, and with nearly as large a gap between their age and that of their predecessors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) as between this film's setting and that of 2000's X-Men. (The least consistent age gap is for Moira MacTaggart; there are only six actual years between Rose Byrne and Olivia Williams, even though 44 years separate their films.) Other than a few inconsistencies here and there, the film stays within the canon established by the others, including some nice cameos that cement the relationship. Me likey.

This is the sixth paragraph of this review. Hopefully you took one look at how many stars I gave the movie, and then rushed out to see it, rather than slog through this text in lieu of enjoying the primary source. X-Men: First Class is excellent. It succeeds as a superhero movie, with scene after scene of cool power demonstrations. There are several big showdowns, and none go quite as I was expecting. The effects for the various powers are well done. At one point there is an aerial chase that finally does justice to the power of flight. Costumes, codenames, secret lairs, secret identities, training sequences, and allusions to a wider world of mutantkind. In terms of superhero geekiness, this movie outdoes itself.

But more than anything, the prequel stands out as a convincing character study. Fassbender is captivating as Magneto. He is commanding, emotionally vulnerable, and frighteningly zealous. He would dominate the screen among a lesser ensemble, but McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence (as Mystique) are able to hold their own. Though the film covers a short period of time, the friendship between Xavier and Magneto is soundly established. Xavier's stewardship of Mystique, whom he loves as a sister, casts an interesting light on the previous films in which they are adversaries (though, to my knowledge, they never actually share any screen time together).

The newly formed X-Men find themselves pitted against a powerful order of mutants, the Hellfire Club, bent on inciting humans to annihilate each other. Xavier's dream of peaceful co-existence is contrasted to Magneto's hostility toward humans; he might align himself with the Hellfire Club if he wasn't so picky about the company he keeps. For the rest of the team, we spend the most time with Beast, whose own deformity, as he calls it, allows the science nerd to establish a romantic connection with the perpetually self-conscious yet beautiful Mystique. Not everyone is given so nobel a character background, so we're left to wonder exactly why they would sign up for such a dangerous mission.

I can only hope that this film performs exceptionally well, because I can't wait for more.


  1. This movie was excellent. In fact, this might be my favorite "prequel" of all time (in movie form or in book form mind you). That is to say, I thought this movie perfectly set up the coming trilogy and even added to the story without changing it.

    To note some "prequels" I wasn't pleased with you can count the recent Star Wars prequels and the awful awful awful Foundation prequel from Issac Azimov (I still defend the man went senile in his later years.)

    The back story for Mystique here was absolutely perfect. Perfect perfect perfect.

    As for this particular blogger and reviewer, despite his long track record of being completely awesome and right in everything he says . . . he does need to make some apologies for Fantastic 4 and Wolverine. Many of us are waiting. Be vulnerable. Just own up to it. . . .

  2. Elektra? No need to apologize I liked that one to.