A ‘first-class’ X-Men, and a journey into the past

by Mark Burger

Another week, another sequel. Actually, X-Men: First Class is a prequel — and quite a good one. It’s the fifth in the X-Men series (including 2009’s Wolverine), based on the popular Marvel Comics series, and among the best so far.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, the film depicts the first time that the titular X-Men were brought together and called into action to save the world — something that comic-book heroes are invariably called upon to do.

James McAvoy plays the young Charles Xavier, determined to create a safe haven for his fellow mutants, whom he believes could possibly be the next step in human evolution, as opposed to anomalies to be feared and persecuted. Given the bizarre abilities of some of the mutants, it’s rather difficult to keep their existence under wraps.

Michael Fassbender brings a terrific intensity to the role of the young Magneto, bent on hunting down and destroying Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), the Nazi scientist who fostered his powers through the sort of coercion that involved shooting Magneto’s mother in cold blood.

Years later, Schmidt — whose origins also prove unusual — is passing himself off as Sebastian Shaw, international power-broker, bent on destroying the world through nuclear war and thereby giving rise to a “new” world in which the mutants rule.

Xavier and Magneto form an uneasy alliance, as the stage is set for the inevitable and repeated clashes between Shaw’s “bad” mutants and Xavier’s “good” ones. No fair guessing who wins — this being a prequel, it should be pretty obvious — but X-Men: First Class does a fine job of maintaining narrative interest with the requisite glossy, high-tech action. The film runs two hours and 20 minutes, yet only toward the very end does its energy begin to flag.

The film doesn’t get bogged down by exposition, simply because it doesn’t go out of its way to reintroduce the characters to any great degree, presuming (perhaps rightly) that, given the success of the other films, the audience will be familiar enough with the mythos that further explanation is unnecessary. There are also some well-placed in-jokes for fans of the franchise.

Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Alex Gonzalez and Nicholas Hoult embody both the mutant and human contingents, while there are brief, welcome appearances by such veterans as Ray Wise, James Remar, Matt Craven and Michael Ironside in smaller roles.

Using actual historical events such as the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis can be an iffy business in the comic-book realm, but X-Men: First Class does so in a manner that neither exploits (too much, anyway) or demeans the impact of those events. Actually, having the Cuban Missile Crisis caused — and solved — by mutants is rather an inventive conceit.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies , which opens Friday and which earned an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign-Language Film, is a convoluted, slow-moving drama with a finecentral performance (by Lubna Azabal) and lofty ambitions that it never quite achieves.

Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette play twin brother and sister who have recently buried their mother (Azabal). As dictated in her will, she asks that her children fulfill a promise she was unable to: Find the child born to her when she was a teenager in Jordan.

The children, born and raised in Montreal, have never been to Jordan and know very little about their mother’s early life. Their journey into their mother’s past, depicted through flashbacks (and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks), proves slow going much of the time, with plot developments unfolding slowly and sometimes tediously.

There is, howevere, Azabal’s fine, fierce performance, which holds attention throughout. Hers was a life of hardship, horror, and ceaseless tenacity — one that encompasses far more Middle Eastern political turmoil than her children could ever conceive (and, perhaps, more than the film can comfortably accommodate).

The audience learns, as the children do, the experiences that shaped their mother’s life, and just in case they haven’t picked up on everything, at film’s end, there’s basically a recap of the entire plot that seems as unnecessary as it does repetitious. Still, Icendies is not without its powerful and affecting moments, and it’s never insincere. (In French and Arabic with English subtitles)