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Thursday
Jun092011

Thankskilling (2009)

Cold Turkey

Thankskilling is an awful movie. You might think that's a given, since it's about a five-hundred-and-five-year-old psychopathic turkey who stalks and kills teenagers. But there's a huge difference between entertainingly bad films and ones that make you feel every second of their excruciating run-times. I've been working on a theory about what separates the two, and Thankskilling helped me codify it.

It all boils down to intent. My brother recommended this movie to me, proclaiming it better than The Room--which is, as far as I'm concerned, the high-bar of low quality. Writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau's epic drama about betrayal was meant to be an emotional masterpiece for the ages; but because the auteur had no idea what he was doing, it became a midnight-movie laughingstock. Of course, I can't prove that Wiseau's claims that he'd meant to make a comedy all along are false, but the proof is in the film itself: The Room is ninety hilarious minutes of happy accidents stemming from a complete lack of self-awareness.

On the flip side of that coin, you have Jordan Downey, a twenty-one-year-old kid who raised $3500 to shoot a horror/comedy. Horror/comedy is an extremely difficult genre to get right; most creators fuck up one of the two key elements, meaning the end result is neither funny nor scary. Downey takes the "Intentionally Bad" route here. He and co-writers Kevin Stewart, Brad Schulz, Anthony Wilson and Grant Yaffee cast bad actors, employ cheesy special effects, and rely on kitschy synth music to recall 80s slasher movies. The result is supposed to be funny just because it's ridiculous, but the filmmakers' lack of focus--indeed, their apparent refusal to try to write anything that's actually amusing--makes the whole movie pointless from frame one.

To show you what I mean, let's break down the opening scene, which takes place "a few minutes after the first Thanksgiving dinner":

We open on a full-screen naked breast and pull back to reveal a busty pilgrim (porn star Wanda Lust) running through the woods. She's in the traditional black dress, but for some reason, her boobs spill out of the top. After a few minutes of frantic looking around, she's assaulted by the killer turkey--a shoddily crafted hand puppet who sounds alternately like Dane Cook doing Ghetto Voice and a nobody doing Movie Trailer Voice into a $3 microphone. Before he chops her to death, he yells, "Nice tits, bitch!"

Roll credits.

The scene is devoid of style and suspense, and forces the viewer to ask way too many questions during the action. Whatever we're meant to get out of the movie's first three minutes, laughs and scares aren't on the list.

We fast forward to present day and meet our protagonists.  They're a Saved By the Bell sampling of stupid American kids, a group so generic that the credits actually list an archetype next to the characters' names (for example, Lance Predmore plays Johnny "The Jock" and Lindsey Anderson plays Kristen "The Good Girl"--rounding out the group are a nerd, a hick, and a slut). This partying body-count takes a road trip and gets sidetracked when Johnny's jeep overheats. They set up camp in some nearby woods and encounter the resurrected turkey, who sprung up from the earth after being peed on by a dog.

The rest of the movie sees the kids stalked and eviscerated by the bird, who acts as a cross between Freddy Krueger and the Leprechaun--minus the originality or humor. He bursts out of the hick's considerable stomach with a "Gobble, gobble, motherfucker!" and sodomizes the easy girl before snapping her neck ("You just got stuffed!"). By the end of the film, he's taken the skin of Lindsey's sheriff dad (Chuck Lamb) as a mask and been made super-strong by a dip in a vat of radioactive goo. All of this happens over the course of the longest sixty minutes I've spent watching any movie.

Before you accuse me of being humorless, let me say that I think Thankskilling could have actually worked. The key would have been making a straight horror movie with comedic touches (like the later Nightmare on Elm Street films), instead of peppering the story with stale Bugs-Bunny nonsense; like none of the characters recognizing the turkey because he's wearing the sheriff's skin; or the turkey's mythical teepee that pops up out of nowhere. There's nothing that says a killer-turkey movie has to be ridiculous on its face, given horror's rich history of murderous animals; but pulling that off requires a good deal of talent and drive--none of which is evident here.

Which leads me to question why Downey and company bothered making this movie in the first place. I saw a video in which the director begs fans to help fund a Thankskilling sequel; he wants to raise $100,000 in order to do it right. This says, essentially, that the original was thrown together on a lark, to cash in on the "so-bad-it's-good" craze. It's Downey's admission that anyone who paid to see his movie is a sucker.  It'd be like me charging $10 for this review and sending you a two-word critique after getting the cash.

So for all you aspiring filmmakers out there, let me offer this piece of advice: If you want to make a horror movie, make a horror movie; if you're into comedy, make a comedy; if you want to make a horror/comedy, research your ass off. Don't watch other horror/comedies (especially not this one) because there are only two people on the planet who understand the tricky hybrid-genre well enough to pull it off--and, I'm sorry, but you're neither Peter Jackson nor Sam Raimi (not yet, anyway).

Hire the most talented actors you can find. Casting bad actors or friends who think they can perform will only piss your audience off after the first five minutes. The same goes for your special effects crew: horror fans won't stand for shoddy kills in their movies unless they're way over-the-top; and you can't substitute cheap camp for over-the-top in every scene. If you don't know what I'm talking about, please return your video equipment to Best Buy and consider accounting.

Lastly, just be honest with yourself. If you can say that your script (assuming there is one) is the smartest, funniest/scariest piece of writing you could ever hope to shoot, then by all means, go ahead and make your masterpiece. But if you're taking the "Let's get a couple more shots in on the way to the party" approach, you're wasting a lot of peoples' time and money. Making a movie for $3500 is only something to brag about if the audience doesn't walk away thinking, "Yeah, that sounds about right."

Tuesday
Jun072011

Mad Max (1979)

Outback Stakeout

You could describe me as a thoroughly depressed dude.  For some reason, I'm unable to appreciate my great life for more than a twentieth of a percent of any given day.  I indulge in self-sabotaging behavior and revel in the silly dark side I should have left behind in high school.

This leads to unwise decisions, like watching Spice World at four o'clock in the morning.

Fortunately, even my sadness has a bottom, and I was savvy enough to recognize it in Elton John's cameo following the opening number (which, sue me, I thought was quite good).  I'll finish Spice World soon, per a clause in my "Never Walk Out" policy; but for my own safety and the continuation of this site, I had to step away from the pop tarts.

So who does one turn to in such a situation?  Why, to everybody's favorite misogynist/anti-Semite, Mel Gibson, of course! Granted, Mad Max came out way before he was any of those things (ahem), so you won't find any cheeky inferences in this review. But the fact is, I'd never seen this film and figured virtual road rage might be a solid outlet for whatever demons are keeping me from resting at night and tensing up my legs so much that I can barely walk during the day.

I've seen bits of the sequels, The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but the original has always escaped me.  It's a weird little film, full of fantastic camerawork and stunts as well as some of the worst scene transitions I've ever seen.  I was two years old when it opened, so I can't judge whether or not the crap that tarnishes George Miller's almost-masterpiece was acceptable back then; but I will say that Mad Max could use a bit of the old George Lucas treatment.

Set in a near-future Australia, the movie centers on a small unit of highway patrol cops who have become as crazy as the sun-baked lunatics they try to keep off the roads.  Miller and co-writers Byron Kennedy and James McCausland do something unique here: relegate their main character to sidekick status for about half the picture; like so many elements in the story, they handle this unevenly, but I appreciated the novelty.  When the movie begins, Max is the cool, shadowy enforcer who swoops in to clean up a nasty bit of trash named Nightrider (Vincent Gil) after four other officers fail to nab him. Later on, he pops up as second banana to a super-cop named Jim Goose.

Goose is the hard-partying single swinger to Max's settled family man.  He's also a bit of a celebrity, known for busting heads and keeping the sparse populace safe.  But Nightrider's death draws the ire of biker-gang leader Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who puts a hit out on our heroes.  Before long, Goose gets cooked and Max announces he's quitting the force.  His captain orders him to take a vacation to clear his head and reconsider.

On a trip to the countryside, Max's wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel), runs afoul of Toecutter's gang and, through a tense series of events I wouldn't dare spoil, winds up dead--along with their infant son.  Max goes crazy (er, mad) and seeks to destroy anything on two wheels.

I know it's sacrilege to nitpick a cult classic, but goddamnit, someone needs to. All of the action in Mad Max is superb.  Miller and cinematographer David Eggby placed me square in the path of banged-up vehicles moving at a hundred-and-fifty miles per hour, and there are entire stretches of this movie where my whole body locked up.  The duo are masters of both anticipation and collision, and aside from Duel and the original The Hitcher, I haven't seen a movie that so faithfully captures the dread of being in the middle of nowhere at the mercy of strangers.

On the other hand, you have the goofy shit, like Max and Jessie's disappearing/reappearing son.  At the outset of the vacation montage, I thought, "Oh, they must have left their baby with some relatives that were neither introduced nor mentioned"; until the kid pops up in the car at a gas station.  Later, at a summer home--whose owners might be relatives--Jessie goes off to the beach for a swim and leaves the baby playing in some tall grass several yards from the house, unsupervised.  Later, she's shocked to learn that the bikers have kidnapped her little latchkey angel.

One more note about Jessie: She plays a mean saxophone.  Early in the movie, we see Max sitting at home in the dark as a sexy sax groove plays on the soundtrack; I figured we were being clued into the steamy, contemplative places his mind was going, but when Miller cuts to Jessie in the corner, practicing her instrument, I felt like I was watching Airplane!.

Let's talk about those transitions, shall we?  I don't know if Miller is to blame, or if this is strictly the fault of editors Cliff Hayes and Tony Paterson, but Mad Max has some of the most awkward cuts and unofficial wipes I've ever seen. From abrupt fades-to-black to downright strange closeups of birds that are, I guess, supposed to fly into the camera to prevent us from witnessing the bikers' heinous crimes, there's not a single instance of natural progression here; which is unfortunate considering how terrific the chase scenes are. I dont' know this for sure, and it'll sound rather obvious, but it seems like Mad Max was thrown together purely as an action showcase.  That's a tough call, given the sort of art-house nature of the meandering story lines and character development, but these details took me straight out of the picture; I have to assume they're either deliberate, bad choices, or simply afterthoughts.

I can't even say for sure that Mel Gibson is the star of the movie. As I mentioned earlier, Max is a non-presence until Goose leaves the story. By then, he comes off as a milquetoast dad who gets pushed too far. Had Miller and company fleshed him out a bit more--had they actually decided what he was supposed to be--maybe his blood-quest during the film's closing ten minutes would have resonated. Instead, I was left to assume he'd become a real character in the sequel.

I'm glad I chose to watch Mad Max today. It's an uneven movie, but it falls short in really interesting ways and manages to surpass much of the excitement level of today's mega-million-dollar blockbusters. It's silly, violent, and uplifting, and has restored enough of whatever's missing in me today to make Spice World a possibility for tomorrow.

Monday
Jun062011

Titanic 2 (2010)

The Boat So Nice They Sank it Twice

Before you freak out, know that Titanic 2 is not a sequel to James Cameron's world-dominating 1997 blockbuster. That would be pretty cool though, wouldn't it? Imagine an expedition to the sunken ship in which scientists discover the zombified crew of the Titanic; a half-eaten-away Jack Dawson could fall in what passes for love among the undead with the sexy but vulnerable head diver--who would, of course, be Rose Dewitt Bukater's great-great-great-granddaughter. Zack Snyder could direct, with KNB working their Walking Dead magic on the practical makeup effects.

Think Resident Evil with bubbles.

That'll never happen. But at least we have this spectacularly ambitious, amazingly awful SyFy movie to cherish.  Shane Van Dyke plays millionaire playboy Hayden Walsh, a blonde airhead whose greatest triumph is to be the successful launch of Titanic 2. Unlike the original doomed vessel, his ship is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and plenty of lifeboats.  It's slick and unsinkable--never mind the clearly visible rust stains on the outside of the hull.

Hayden boards Titanic 2 minutes before departure with an entourage of FHM models. He runs into ex-girlfriend Amy (Marie Westbrook), who works as one of two (!) nurses on the ship, and their terse, awkward exchanges are so convincing that I was shocked to see them get back together when disaster strikes.

Sorry, should I have tagged those last items as spoilers? Yes, it's not long before Titanic 2 finds itself at the mercy of not one iceberg but a field of icebergs propelled by an 840-miles-per-hour mega-tsunami. Monitoring the storm from a helicopter are Coast Guard captain James Maine (Bruce Davison)--who happens to be Amy's father--and NOAA scientist Kim Patterson (Brooke Burns). They race against time to reach the doomed ship and keep Hayden and the sweaty captain (D.C. Douglas) from doing anything stupid.

It's a testament to Davison's fine acting abilities that Titanic 2 is intermittently gripping.  None of the ship stuff works, but the scenes aboard the helicopter are quite good--mostly because Davison is great at playing the Concerned Father while coaching his daughter and her idiot ex over the radio. His face is sufficiently scrunched and sad, and I wonder how much of that is a combination of sense-memory and Method acting versus a day-by-day realization that he's starring in Titanic 2.

But, hey, no one's coming to this movie for the acting, right?  It's all about the cool special effects and awesome body count!  Let me iterate that this movie debuted on the SyFy Channel, the same bastion of quality CG effects that brought us Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Mansquito. There aren't any poorly compisited mutants in Titanic 2, but there are plenty of grade-school-project shots of the ship speeding through the ocean like cut-paper animation; not to mention the cracks forming on the face of the arctic ice shelves--which hilariously look like someone took a Sharpie marker and an animation camera to a still picture of an iceberg.

There are also a handful of scenes that are so dark that I couldn't tell what the hell was going on.  I watched this movie on both a laptop and a high-resolution monitor, and no amount of tilting the screen and squinting could help define most of the underwater and trapped-in-the-bowels-of-the-ship shots. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice on Van Dyke's part (did I mention he also directed and wrote this gem?), because the ship's interiors don't stand up to a lot of visual scrutiny.  Take, for example, the control panels on the high-tech escape vessels, which are clearly made of PVC pipe and papier-mâché.

I could spend hours picking apart all the wonderful little details that make Titanic 2 such a joy to watch. But I'm not one to deprive my readers of magic.  So here are a few teaser-ific highlights:

  • Amy's friend and fellow nurse, Kelly (Michelle Glavan) reads a book called The Original Titanic
  • After the first iceberg assault, the crew herd the passengers onto elevators to get them to safety
  • One passenger is a Mick Foley look alike who randomly beats up people during the panic
  • Van Dyke gets a lot of mileage out of victims-tripping-on-stairs shots
  • Amy uses a credit card and some tape to apply pressure to Kelly's gaping chest wound
  • A submarine captain--parts of whose face disappear into the green-screen background--utters the catch-phrase-worthy, "Let's get this cigar smokin'!"

I get the feeling that Van Dyke and his entire cast and crew honestly believed they were making a solid motion picture.  Similar to The Haunting of Winchester House, this film plays as if everyone involved (except for Davison) was making their first movie; the enthusiasm and incompetence overwhelm every frame like the most treasured Ed Wood classic. Titanic 2 fails on almost every measurable level, but the sincerity of the people behind it helps to make the movie a wholly satisfying entertainment experience. It's the best piece of shit I've seen in quite awhile. 

Sunday
Jun052011

Winter's Bone (2010)

The Grapes of Meth

Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is an odd movie. Light on plot and heavy on great performances, it unfolds at the same leisurely pace as its main character's week-long journey to find her father.  Ree Milton (Jennifer Lawrence) is a high-schooler living in the impoverished Ozarks. She raises her younger brother and sister and cares for their mother, who nearly became a vegetable after a mental breakdown. Ree's convict dad, Jessup, has gone missing, and unless she can turn him up before his bond hearing the family will lose the home that he put up as collateral.

Ree walks from house to house in her gray, wooded community asking everyone she knows if they've seen Jessup. Officially, no one knows anything, but they all warn her to stop asking around.  Everyone in town seems to be both a meth dealer and a relative of the Miltons. The drug trade has torn any semblance of family loyalty to shreds.  Indeed, Ree's uncle Teardrop (John Hawks) chokes her out, and her grandfather's wife, Merab (Dale Dickey), organizes a mob to beat her half to death. Ree presses on, determined to save the house and prevent her siblings from being orphaned.  She even considers joining the military, a highly popular way out of destitution at her high school--as well as a quick source of money.

Like Children of Men, Winter's Bone is a film in which much of the story is told by the set decoration. The audience is dropped into a bleak collective of forgotten Americans and forced to catch up with this secret redneck society, a sort of corn-cob Mafia.  Clues to the extended family's strained relationships can be found in every junk-strewn front yard and run-down kitchenette, as well as in the threat of violence that hangs over everyone's heads.

The key difference between these films, though, is that Children of Men actually went somewhere. Winter's Bone is almost all inferred back story and little actual Story story.  Which is fine; this is more a performance showcase than a movie, anyway, and it totally works on that level.  Everyone in the cast is superb.  Lawrence and Hawks deserved their Oscar nominations last year. She made me believe in Ree's desperation and determination and he really sold Teardrop as the quiet, menacing enforcer of the family business--a real threat to the legions of scumbags beneath him, but still subservient to the stoic and rarely seen patriarch, Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall).

While I appreciate everything the film delivers visually and acting-wise, I can't say it's a great movie. I wasn't surprised to learn that Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini based their screenplay on Daniel Woodrell's novel because the story reminded me of a lot of books I was forced to read in high school--books where themes and motifs superseded action. Granted, I learned to love a lot of these kinds of stories later on (I still haven't given A Separate Peace a second chance, though. Ugh.), but when I come across them in movies it sometimes just turns me off. I expected more twists and turns in the story, but as it stands, the screenplay is just a flimsy hangar on which to rest the depressed visual splendor and dynamite performances.

Is that enough? It could have been, had the dialogue not been so atrocious. Seriously, this is one of the worst-written Oscar-nominated films I've seen in a long time. Aside from a couple of scenes, it felt like Winter's Bone had been written by Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movies. There are other ways to tell an audience that characters are related to each other besides gems like:

"But he's your only brother!"

"Well, you know, as cousins, we should..."

"I know he's our grandfather, but..."

The film is packed with distractingly bad writing, and the actors deserve even more credit for transporting it out of the realm of hilarity.

Call this a mixed recommendation. I think everyone should see Winter's Bone for all of the things it gets right, but temper your expectations. Though the movie can be described as "A girl's search for her missing father in a town of crystal meth dealers", it's not as consistently thrilling as one might hope. It's interesting from start to finish, but "interesting" and "compelling" are two very different things. You can find just as much down-economy drama in the average episode of MTV's 16 and Pregant as you can in this film; sure, it's not as pretty or well-acted, but at least the dialogue is believable.

Saturday
Jun042011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Finally, a Kick-Ass X-Men Movie!

Let's get this out of the way: Fuck continuity.  It's my policy not to read other critics' reviews of a film before I've had a chance to see it, but I love reading the comments sections of movie forums.  And the Internets are ablaze with angry fanboys decrying Matthew Vaughn's butchering of their beloved comic-book story lines in his exceptional prequel, X-Men: First Class.  Small details like Emma Frost (January Jones) debuting in the comics in 1979--making her an anachronism in First Class's 1963-set story--have caused nerds' heads to explode the world over.

I've got news for you, kids: Unless Fox and Marvel Studios can guarantee profits on a nineteen-picture, multi-billion-dollar, thirty-year franchise, there's no way to bring all of your precious, convoluted (and often contradictory) canon to the silver screen.  Summer blockbusters are designed for people who don't read, and who like for their picture stories to move. Let it go, and enjoy the show.

Since we're confessing sins here (I promise, an actual review is on its way), let me also say that I hold the minority opinion on the X-Men film series.  I think Bryan Singer followed his decent 2000 hit with a bloated, insular sequel;  X-Men Origins: Wolverine was just kind of sloppy, but not a total abomination; and Brett Ratner's X3: X-Men United was the best of the bunch.  I know, I know; that's blasphemy.  But in my opinion, X3 did two things that the previous two movies didn't: It told an epic story in under two-and-a-half hours and finally imbued the series with a global sense of scale.  Singer's movies, like the ain't-it-dead-yet Harry Potter franchise, both felt like they took place in two locations, and that the "world" that hated and feared its heroic mutants barely extended beyond Westchester, New York.

After more than a decade, Matthew Vaughn has finally gotten this series right.  I shouldn't be surprised that the guy who made what I consider to be the best comic-book movie ever has also made the second best.  With 2010's Kick-Ass, Vaughn brought Mark Millar's cracked-skulls-and-costumes miniseries to life in a film that both deconstructed the medium and plunged audiences into the ridiculous, four-color world that hooked many of us as kids.  First Class isn't as self-aware, but it feels more like a comic and successfully blends action, intrigue and political themes into what feels like two hours of a four-part story arc.

Vaughn and co-screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Jane Goldman tell the story of how psychic millionaire genius Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) met metal-bending Holocaust survivor Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) in 1963.  Erik's hunt for former Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) lands him in the middle of Charles's burgeoning relationship with the CIA, who've recently discovered A) the existence of mutants and B) an apparent Russian plot to use Cuba as a launching pad for nuclear weapons. Shaw plans to initiate World War 3, emerging as leader of a new super race after mankind has blown itself up.

Unlike most big-cast superhero movies, First Class manages to stuff about twenty important characters into its story without sacrificing coherence or momentum. The creators do a marvelous job of establishing a few key relationships, stacking on a few more, and then closing out the film with a grand-scale, climactic battle in which everyone in the audience knows each of the characters well enough to care about what they're fighting for.  The main bond, of course, is that of Charles and Erik, which we've seen play out in other installments; but McAvoy and Fassbender bring such life to the roles that we could just as well watch them play chess for two hours as don costumes to save/destroy the world.

Charles acts as the older brother Erik never had, a steady hand who tries to temper his homicidal vengeance.  On the other side of that coin is Shaw, a complex, evil bastard who is at once Erik's sworn enemy and--in a tragic turn of events--his inspiration.  I haven't seen a villain this integral to both a comic-book movie's plot and its main characters' psyches since The Dark Knght's Joker.  The credit for this can be equally divided between the screenwriters and Kevin Bacon, who has never been this awesome in a movie, ever.  His Shaw is neither a fool nor a sniveling coward hiding behind other mutants. He's a genuine, vicious bad-ass with charisma and a master plan; and the actor's menacing grin looks like something straight out of a comic book, especially underneath his psychic-proof helmet (the helmet, by the way, is one of the coolest plot points I've seen in awhile; a real treat for fans of the series).

The third big relationship in First Class is between Charles and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), the blue-skinned, shape-shifting mutant who will eventually become villainess Mystique.  In a surprising twist, we learn that she and Charles grew up together as unofficial siblings.  Raven's sass and free-spirit inform Charles's character in ways we didn't see in the earlier (later?) films.  McAvoy's Charles is a boozy, over-confident womanizer who loves to party; there's no sign of the reserved Patrick-Stewart-in-waiting until the very end of the film.

One of the movie's greatest achievements is making Raven/Mystique interesting.  In other X-Men movies, we've seen glimpses of her insecurity, but as played by Rebecca Romijn, she was given little more to do than seduce and betray men and compel fanboys to look for seams in her nude-body makeup.  By casting Oscar-nominated wunderkind Lawrence, the filmmakers rocket Mystique from third-stringer to serious contender.  Lawrence embodies all the sex of Romijn, but more pathos and empathy than most characters who've appeared in the franchise.  Her relationship with government scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult)--who wants to develop a serum that will eliminate all aesthetic evidence of mutanthood--drives the movie as much as the missile-crisis storyline.

With all this juicy drama unfolding, it's easy to forget that X-Men: First Class is also about training mutants to be heroes.  We get a new freak roster on both sides of the good/bad divide, and Vaughn excels at balancing the heavier tone of the main plot with the story's more whimsical aspects--like the training montage and 1960s-spy-movie antics of CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne).  Despite some downer themes, First Class is a tremendous amount of fun. We bounce from New York and Poland in the 40s to Moscow, Miami, and other exotic locales in the 60s. This film has a wider scope and more streamlined sense of intrigue than any of the previous X-films. I typically tune out while watching summer-action-movie climaxes, but by the end of First Class, I was heavily invested, entertained, and satisfied.

The movie isn't without its problems, though. There are two big ones: The first is Magneto's costume reveal at the end.  Michael Fassbender cut such a confident, imposing figure throughout the film that to see him in what looked like a dime-store Halloween helmet and bunched-up bolt of red fabric was a real let-down (I guess I should mention the inconsistent makeup job on both Raven and Beast, too; maybe Fox blew that portion of the practical-effects budget on airfare and catering).

This is small potatoes compared to January Jones's "performance" as Emma Frost. From what little I know of the comics, Frost is a brilliant, formidable mutant.  She can read minds and turn her skin into diamonds.  Jones plays her as a Victoria's Secret model shooting a prolonged camera test.  Her stare is as blank as her white costumes, and her line delivery makes my voice mail operator sound like Dame Judy Dench.  I get that she's both eye candy and a recognizable enough name to put on a poster, but did Vaughn and company not see her appalling missed-cues-and-cue-cards hosting gig on Saturday Night Live a couple years ago?

Setting aside these nitpicks, I have no complaints about First Class.  Matthew Vaughn has shot the bar for this brand of comic-book movie straight into the stratosphere.  For once, I can't wait to see another X-Men movie.

Note: For those skeptics who still think this film looks like kiddie stuff, I can assure you that Vaughn pushes the boundaries of his PG-13 rating.  From a fabulous F-bomb dropped by an even more fabulous cameo player, to the jolting violence of Nazi helmets imploding and G-men falling from the sky like bird shit, there's enough edge here to satisfy even the most jaded spandex-epic haters.