Sunday, April 14, 2024

Movie Review Roundup: ‘Midnight in Paris’ and ‘X-Men: First Class’

The early reviews of Woody Allen’s latest film “Midnight in Paris,” seem to suggest that “Woody Allen is back,” a backhanded complement that implies that finally, after so many horrendous detours, the septuagenarian auteur has finally gotten himself on track and has made a film worth seeing. Well, it is worth seeing, but so are most – yes, most – of the so-called flops he’s directed since the turn of the century, thank you very much.

The bad blood that clots between Allen and the critical establishment mostly results from the fact that Allen directed so many masterpieces in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s; he was held at a higher standard than most, so that the really funny, really entertaining pictures he made later were deemed “minor Allen.” I would submit to you that his two most recent films, the Larry David vehicle “Whatever Works” and the ensemble dramedy “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” are as pleasing as many of the films he made during his peak period, and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is enchanting and – a rarity for Allen – genuinely sexy.

So what was missing from these enjoyable entrees that made critics dismiss them as middling appetizers? Catching “Manhattan” the other night on cable, it dawned on me: Perhaps cultural snobbery accounts for it. Allen’s work in the ‘00s has largely eschewed the literary and cinematic references and allusions that made his most renowned films so popular among the cultural elite.

In that context, “Midnight in Paris” is something of a “return to form.” Owen Wilson plays a successful writer of hacky Hollywood comedies who has the ambitions of a great American novelist. He’s hoping a lengthy sojourn to Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) will provide a spark of inspiration for his tome. Wilson’s Gil is a nostalgist with a passion for the halcyon days of the Parisian Jazz Age, where writers and artists exchanged ideas in the romantic rain and sipped wine in hip cafes.

Escaping the suffocating right-wing prattle of his soon-to-be father-in-law (character actor Kurt Fuller in wonderful form) and the pseudo-intellectual museum discourses of a local acquaintance (Michael Sheen), Gil wanders a cobblestone street alone only to find, at the turn of midnight, a vintage cab waiting to pick him up. He hops in and is transported, apparently, to the time period he idolizes. It isn’t long until he’s drinking champagne with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) and listening to Cole Porter play piano at a party for Jean Cocteau.

His modern-day relationship crumbling by day, Gil returns, night after night, to his surrealistic time-warp, where he burns his intellectually stimulating midnight oil with European painters and American expatriates, from Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody).

Written and directed with culture-clashing wit and absurdist whimsy, “Midnight in Paris” is Allen’s most exhilarating fantasy since “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” A film that could have been a dense, esoteric cultural slog is remarkably light on its feet, relatable to those who only have a passing knowledge of the artists and writers trotted out like movable museum pieces.

Owen Wilson has always been a martini too dry for my taste, but under Allen’s direction, he’s irrepressibly charming. Marion Cotillard has a habit of stealing every scene she’s in, and cast here as Gil’s early 20th century love interest, her performance is enough to make any man want to break the time-space continuum.

This is a movie that speaks to the inevitability and universality of nostalgic thinking when times are tough, or even when they aren’t: The historical figures Gil encounters regularly fantasize about their so-called Good Old Days, from La Belle Epoque to the Renaissance. The nostalgia Gil prefers reveals itself to be a hollow, unfulfilling and fleeting desire that, coming from a death-obsessed existentialist like Allen, is both a natural and disquieting conclusion.

Nostalgia also inflects the biggest blockbuster opening Friday, “X-Men: First Class,” director Matthew Vaughn’s youthful reboot of the now tiresome comic book franchise. Vaughn, who directed the sophomoric superhero satire “Kick-Ass,” here

plays the heroic mythos straight, and the film is all the better for it.

The nostalgia explored in this prequel is that of Cold War panic. Vaughn frames the origin of the first X-Men team in a revisionist history of the Cuban Missile Crises, complete with archive footage of JFK addressing the nation. Emerging coteries of mutants have taken sides in the impending nuclear battle between the United States and Russia. For the film’s chief mutant baddie, ex-Nazi Sebastian Shaw (played by Kevin Bacon in a thankless parody of moustache-twirling villainy), the war is an opportunity to supplant the human race with a new species of evolved mutants. For his young and brilliant nemesis, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, noble as always), mutants have been given their powers to heal, not hurt, and after a secret meeting with the CIA, he assembles a team of young, outcast mutants that, in this film’s interpretation, will become the original X-Men (Doubtlessly, comic book nerds will take offense at the film’s sacrilegious deviation from the source material).

The future superheroes, including Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, the “Winter’s Bone” star), The Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and Havok (Lucas Till), are presented not as powerful, proud wielders of superhuman abilities but as shunned, insecure youths trying to come to terms with their socially debilitating otherness. In this way, “X-Men: First Class” is a big-budget correlative to Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” YouTube project for bullied gay teenagers. It’s grounded in the same thematic morality, a resonant and welcome subtext to the superfluous influx of CGI battle scenes.

The movie has a habit, as many mass-market blockbusters do, of talking down to its more thoughtful patrons – one subtitle identifies a scene change as transporting us to “Moscow, Russia.” As opposed to what, Moscow, Alabama? And the factory-made script, hammered out by a team of four, sometimes feels like a compendium of recycled declarative sentences (“The world is primed for war, and there’s no one to stop me,” Bacon fiendishly states).

That said, this film is a lot of fun, something that can’t be said for an X-Men movie since the first one, 11 years prior. Vaughn directs with fact-paced confidence and respectable comic timing, elevating B-movie material with A-level acting, cinematography and showmanship.

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