X-Men: First Class: I was almost relieved to be busy the night I could’ve caught a screening of this, because seeing the first X-Men with an audience audibly relieved and then downright jazzed by its nonsuckiness was a great experience, and also because if this one sucks anywhere near as much as X-Men: The Last Stand, I want to be surrounded by friends so we can console each other. Fortunately, early word has been strong. What a strange and yet unnervingly quick journey it’s been from the low expectations surpassed by Bryan Singer’s first, strong X-Men movie to a fifth entry having to prove itself all over again. Singer’s first two X-pictures were wittier and more engaging than much of what followed them into megagrossing territory, including/especially the Ratner takeover of the third installment. I tell you, there are any number of sequels/prequels/whatevers I’ve defended in this space as not nearly as bad as people say they are: Attack of the Clones, Spider-Man 3, Ang Lee’s Hulk. But X-Men: The Last Stand pretty much is that bad, to the point where I hold that possibly even cheesier first Wolverine movie in higher esteem simply because thinking about it doesn’t make me hopping mad.
Last Stand crams several major new characters into a rushed climax that somehow manages to run a good half-hour or so shorter than its predecessor; features character deaths galore just to clear the decks for new characters that go mostly undeveloped; focuses so heavily and desperately on Wolverine that one of said character deaths is forced to take place off screen and another character’s entire arc takes place off to the side; manages to shoehorn in some Ratner style all-in-good-fun racism; and is generally chockablock with the kind of stupidity the earlier movies carefully avoided. I like the bit with Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut and Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde; that’s about it.
I’ve gone off on this Last Stand rant to convey just what’s at stake for those of us who would really prefer our X-Men movies not be totally fucking embarrassing. Fortunately, Matthew Vaughn, who was once going to step in for Singer on X3, got hired back under Singer’s producing eye. It also looks like a pleasing mix of heeding general movie-world continuity (Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are just about the right ages to become Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart circa 2000) and also ignoring it in favor of telling a 60s-set origin story with characters underutilized or ignored by the present-day X-movie continuity. Maybe this will make up for the lack of the Fantastic Four period piece that should’ve been.
Submarine: Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), the young hero of Submarine, will inevitably be compared to Max Fischer, the young hero of Rushmore, perhaps unfairly: though he shares with Fischer a semi-formal manner and accompanying mild delusions, Tate is even more of a loner and even less of a visionary, skulking around school and making plans to find a suitable girlfriend. Still, there are touches of Wes Anderson in the filmmaking, with deadpan subtitles and oddball narration (not to mention Life Aquatic‘s Noah Taylor as a Oliver’s depressive father, a marine biologist no less!), and reference points to offbeat young-adult chroniclers don’t end there: the post-industrial English landscapes recall David Gordon Green, and Oliver’s observations sometimes come off like a dysfunctional Harriet the Spy. The L’s Justin Stewart also cites Salinger, Ashby, and 400 Blows, not without cause. But director Richard Ayoade is no opportunistic ripoff artist; not quite as fanciful or dreamy as Anderson, he gives this coming-of-age story its own downtrodden, funny rhythms.
In fact, the first half-hour or so of Submarine is downright hilarious as Oliver monitors his parents’ relationship and pursues a relationship with Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a possible pyromaniac. Both story threads get considerably more serious in the second half, as Oliver’s mum (Sally Hawkins) flirts with an old flame, now a motivational speaker played by Paddy Considine bearing (delightfully?) disturbing resemblance to Sam Rockwell. But Oliver’s voice, made literal in some of the best voiceover narration I’ve heard in awhile, is so distinct and charming that the less laugh-heavy passages feel like natural developments, not cheap melodrama. For all of the movie’s comic and stylistic flourishes, Ayoade is attentive to stillness, whether it’s on Oliver’s face or depicted via fleeting romantic moments frozen in Polaroids. Even when the movie goofs around, it does so sincerely, and sweetly.
Beginners: In the miniaturized battle royale of cute indies, Beginners has the muscle of Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Melanie Laurent, as well as noted if not yet beloved video auteur turned filmmaker Mike Mills (not the one from R.E.M.). I suppose that makes Submarine the scrappy challenger; and critics on the prowl for any sign of fanciful whimsy may pounce on a movie where a dog speaks in subtitles, even if it has respectable actors freed from the likes of Angels and Demons or Priest (seriously, Ewan was in the former and Plummer the latter). McGregor plays an American again for some reason; Plummer is his father, who comes out of the closet for the last few years of his life. Rapold finds it more sustained mood than engaging storytelling.
Turkey Bowl: Of course, an even scrappier indie opens at reRun in DUMBO—Kyle Smith’s Turkey Bowl, an hourlong microbudget indie that I quite liked, as did editor Mark Asch. Obviously the reRun people aren’t going to study the film release schedule closely when booking their weeklong runs, but offhand, this seems like the wrong weekend for Turkey Bowl, only because Beginners and Submarine, though seemingly better matched with each other than this semi-mumblecore and quite American touch-football movie, should garner a reasonable amount of indie attention, and also, there’s a blockbuster-scale movie that might actually be good coming out. So on one hand, Turkey Bowl joins what looks like one of the better release weekends of the summer for NYC film fans; on the other, audiences might really be able to use this movie on some barren weekend in, say, August, when this movie happens to be set. [I’m thinking a lot about this point, because it’s interesting, but I would ask: given that Aaron Hillis is programming scrappy indie movies from the festival circuit—increasingly in concert with smaller distributors, as he develops those relationships—what should he have released this week? Presumably anything else within the theater’s purview would have the same problems of competition, and I imagine there’s a fairly long list of logistical reasons you wouldn’t or couldn’t get too fine trying to set things up perfectly for the ones you *really* believe in. -Ed.]