X-Men: First Class

Quote of the movie: “Mutant and proud!”

X-Men: First Class (2011) is a reboot of the X-Men franchise, directed by Matthew Vaughan. The film chronicles the lives of Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Both are young boys who have a gift, but they have discovered and developed them in very different ways. Charles, with the subtle gift of telepathy, grew up in a secure household, very open to learning and understanding his ability. Eric, at a German concentration camp during WWII, discovers his ability trying to save his parents, and it’s only by the murder of his mother when he can begin to understand how to tap into his power. From the very get-go, Charles has a safe and peaceful association with his ability — and mutants in general. Eric, on the other hand, associates his gift with anger and pain — and with the concept of power.

To further establish Charles’ open-mindedness, he catches “his mother” in his kitchen once. She looks and sounds like his mother, but she doesn’t act anything like her. Attempting to steal some food, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) transforms from Charles’ mother to her real self: a scaly blue creature with red hair. Charles invites her to his home, promising her companionship and food. While this movie primarily focuses on Charles and Eric, Raven is a very important third character. Charles doesn’t mind her appearance, but he encourages her to hide her real self from society. It’s this society conformity that Raven struggles with throughout the entire movie. She wants to be “beautiful”, but human society would never accept her as such. She takes on a beautiful guise, but that’s not *really* her. It’s not until Eric works together with Charles and Raven where she finally feels some acceptance from another person; he encourages her to be her true self.

Whether or not this follows X-Men comic lore, I really enjoyed the backstory in this movie. From my vague memory of X-Men cartoons, I knew that Professor X and the X-Men constantly battle against Magneto and his group of mutants. I’m sure it had been implied that they were friends at some point, and I really enjoyed seeing their friendship in this movie. Charles, through his gift of telepathy, can truly understand the experiences and feelings of anybody he reads, which makes his guidance and concern extremely sincere. He really wants to find the best inside of everyone.

Eric has a fervent hatred towards Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who killed his mother. While working with Charles, he internally always wanted to get revenge against Shaw. When the moment finally comes, he shuts out Charles, who would convince him to act otherwise. He murders Shaw and he exhibits his true feelings about mutants and humans — mutants are the better beings and humans must be destroyed, or else they will destroy the mutants. Charles doesn’t feel that way at all; he truly believes that there can be coexistence. Charles and Eric fight and Eric accidentally deflects a bullet into Charles’ spine, causing his paralysis. Eric truly cares for him, but, realizing their differences, he leaves. Before he leaves, he calls for the other mutants to join him. Raven joins him. She also cares for Charles — they have an almost brother/sister bond — but he understands that she needs to follow Eric.  It’s an interesting take on back history that evolved from friendship and brotherhood into animosity and hostility.

The film flaunts a mantra similar to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” — promoting an attitude of self-acceptance. The film’s use of “Mutant and proud” makes the message a little too blunt, but the message is still appreciated. The message even shines light on Charles’ character. As a supporter of mutant-kind, he tries to keep mutant powers discreet — a reality that is quite convenient for him since his ability is undetectable. It shows two sides of his character: one of which is incredibly caring and helpful to the cause while the other promotes a sense of shame.

The reboot is a great success, with a great script and cast. The sequel is set to be released on May 23, 2014, bridging together the new and old cast.

American Hustle

Quote of the film: “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.” — Sydney

American Hustle (2013) is an American character film loosely based on the ABSCAM operation of the 70s and 80s. Directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), the film focuses more on character relationships between an all-star cast.

Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a businessman and conman, who makes money by feeding off desperate lowlives who need loans and by selling stolen and forged art. He is quick-witted, charismatic, and quick-tempered. He’s an aggressive businessman, loving father, indifferent husband, and tender lover — and Bale shifts between each side of Rosenfeld with ease. Bale even gained 40 pounds for this role, literally embodying his character.

Amy Adams plays Sydney Prosser, lover and business partner to Irving. She’s a seductive and alluring woman, struggling to turn her life around — managing to turn from stripper to con-woman. Her con is as Lady Edith Greensley, an English woman with bank connections in London. She’s a sharp and intuitive woman, who puts up a strong exterior to hide her desire to be loved. Adams, who tends to play a wholesome character, knocks it out of the park with this sexy role. She’s uninhibited, showing off her body in slinky dresses, and owning every space she enters.

Bradley Cooper plays FBI agent Richie DiMaso. He’s innately a good man, truly wanting to do a good job for the FBI and bring justice to “corrupt” politicians, but his good nature is carried out through a hot head, aggression, and impulse. Cooper does a great job mixing innocence and naivety with instability and drive.

Jennifer Lawrence dazzles as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn. Written specifically for Lawrence, this role is parody of the typical misinformed and mistreated housewife. She is accident-proned, fearless, and unintentionally hilarious. She’s selfish, more concerned about her needs than those of her husband or son, looking to fall in love. Lawrence nails a Jersey accent, and she portrays an unstable housewife with finesse. And, as always, every time Lawrence cries on screen, hearts break.

Jeremy Renner plays Carmine Polito, mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Polito is an honest-to-goodness politician. He works earnestly for the people in his city, doing his best to restore Atlantic City and create jobs for his citizens. Targeted by DiMaso, he’s brought down in the end by the FBI for bribery and corruption, with the utmost honest intentions at heart. Renner plays an incredibly charismatic and compassionate family man and the most respectful politician. The incredible switch that Renner delivers from optimistic hero to devastated and betrayed friend is powerful.

As David O. Russell has said: “I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” This film truly embodies that sentiment. The plot is engaging and interesting, but it’s nothing to the play between the characters. At almost 2.5 hours, the film feels a touch slow towards the end, but it’s worth the character dynamics that Russell takes the time to develop. The acting between this all-star cast is incredible. The most striking moments are scenes with pairs of actors: Irving and Sydney, Rosalyn and Irving, Sydney and Richie, Carmine and Irving. These moments delve into the cores of the characters, perpetuating the emotional gravitas of the plot. The way Irving is touched by Carmine’s friendship leads to heartbreaking shots of guilt on Irving’s face. The way Rosalyn is disgusted by Irving’s “whore” leads to a shocking kiss and maniacal laughter. These moments are the meat of the film, what make it worth the watch.

The film starts with a bang as the words “Some of this actually happened” display on the screen. Loosely based on actual events, Russell is able to play around with his extraordinary characters and incredible actors. The film is suspenseful, engaging, and funny all in one. The masterful acting in this film is inspiring and powerful, sure to be acknowledged and rewarded this award season.