June 4 (Bloomberg) -- I thought I was an expert on the Cuban Missile Crisis until I saw “X-Men: First Class.” Little did I know that a band of mutants saved the world from nuclear annihilation.
Fantasy history plays a big part in the fifth film of the blockbuster Marvel comic-book series. The story of how the mutants developed their super powers and formed their alliances is set against the backdrop of escalating Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
The movie focuses on Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), young friends destined to become bitter rivals Professor X and Magneto. Personally I find Kennedy and Khrushchev, who make newsreel appearances, more compelling.
Still, “First Class” is far better than the previous two installments, which were ugly mutations of Bryan Singer’s imaginative “X-Men” and “X2.”
The new film is fresh and energetic, and features a memorable villain played with gusto by Kevin Bacon. It tries to cover too much ground with too many characters, but at least it’s ambitious.
Singer returns as a producer, with Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”) directing from a script he co-wrote with Jane Goldman and the “Thor” team of Zack Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller.
The scope is wide, in subject matter and geography. The globetrotting settings (Russia, Argentina, Switzerland, Poland, England and the U.S.) would make James Bond proud, and the issues raised vary from the morality of war to the rights of outcasts.
Bacon plays a Nazi doctor who terrifies Erik as a boy at Auschwitz. Erik, armed with metal-bending powers, vows revenge against the doctor, who turns up later as a megalomaniac mutant named Sebastian Shaw who’s determined to wipe out the human race.
Charles and Erik originally are allies who recruit other mutants to stop Shaw. The group includes a government scientist with giant feet that give him ape-like agility, a former prisoner who can discharge fiery blasts and a sonic screamer who can fly. (Later, they become X-Men known as Beast, Havok and Banshee.)
Jennifer Lawrence plays Raven, a blue-skinned, shape-shifting mutant who’s close to Charles, while January Jones is Shaw’s sexy confidante Emma, whose main attributes are abundant cleavage and the ability to transform her body into a diamond-like substance.
Rose Byrne’s wily CIA agent has no extraordinary powers, though she does help rescue the planet.
“X-Men: First Class,” from 20th Century Fox, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ***
Michael Sheen cries in the shower. Maria Bello groans in bed.
In “Beautiful Boy,” Sheen and Bello play the grieving, perplexed parents of a college freshmen who commits a Virginia Tech-type massacre before killing himself.
It’s a fertile subject for drama -- a similar film, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” is coming out later this year -- but co-writer/director Shawn Ku doesn’t do much with it.
Sheen and Bello are stuck with paper-thin characters and a script that gives them little to do except look like zombies and argue over what caused their son -- yes, he was a quiet loner -- to go berserk.
Cliched moments include Sheen leaving a message on his dead son’s mobile phone, Bello breaking down in a restaurant and Sheen lashing out at his colleagues after returning to work too soon.
The best scene takes place in a motel room where the couple is taking refuge from the press, which is camped out in front of their house. Drinking scotch from plastic cups and gorging on snacks from a vending machine, they share a few laughs as they desperately try to forget the nightmare their lives have become.
“Beautiful Boy,” from Anchor Bay Films, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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