* * * X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn. With James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Kevin Bacon. (PG-13)
“Never forget — mutant and proud!” That's the rallying cry of X-Men: First Class, conflating Holocaust awareness and gay rights in a slogan as ungainly as the two movies it embraces, a reboot of a blockbusting franchise with a tween-friendly cast and an origins film for X-Men archenemy Magneto, now played by Michael Fassbender. The story, credited to Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer, originated in Turner's Auschwitz-based screenplay for X-Men Origins: Magneto, a casualty of the writers' strike and, perhaps, good sense. That backstory was based on the comics; this one sets Erik Lehnsherr on a quest for vengeance against the Dr. Mengele who cultivated his talents on the operating table. He says he is Frankenstein's monster searching for his creator, and as played by Fassbender as at turns a suave, multilingual James Bond, a coldblooded killer and a victim on an inexorable path to become the man who victimized him, he is the soul of the movie.
James McAvoy provides a smart, youthful foil for Fassbender as Charles Xavier, the future Professor X, who tries to save Erik's soul, and Kevin Bacon, as the Nazi doctor who reemerges, facelifted and accent-reduced, as the puppet master of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is the most chilling villain in a comic book movie since Heath Ledger's Joker. If the film were left to these three it would be exceptional, but then there are all those teenage mutants sitting around thinking up names for each other, and what some of their powers are I could not tell you. Do we really care about the budding romance between Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) when the Soviets are going to destroy the world and, more importantly, vengeance is going to destroy Erik Lehnsherr?
There is much action and, since this is an X-Men movie, much more talk about genocide and assimilation vs. aggression, Charles' Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Erik's Malcolm X, taking the comic back to its origins in the civil rights movement. But its best scene is in a tavern in Argentina involving a tailor and a pig farmer, low-key and expertly choreographed. Being magnetic has never looked so awesome.
The story goes that one day in the late '70s there was a guy selling Super-8 sound cameras on Houston Street, and from this was born the No Wave filmmaking scene that briefly flourished alongside bands like the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and DNA. The ethos was punk — you didn't have to be a filmmaker to pick up a camera, or a guitar, or a paintbrush, and many of the people interviewed in Blank City did all three.
* * * Blank City
Directed by Celine Danhier. (NR)
Amos Poe, whose unsynched, black-and-white Blank Generation documented performances by Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith and others, became the elder statesman of a group that included Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman, Vivienne Dick and Scott B. and Beth B. They acted in each other's movies, along with Steve Buscemi, Deborah Harry, John Lurie and Lydia Lunch, all of whom are on hand to reminisce. (Eagle eyes will spot Kathryn Bigelow in clips from Lizzie Borden's feminist battle-cry/satire Born in Flames.) Their films were a reaction to the nonnarrative lyricism of the American avant-garde; they made narrative films on paupers' budgets, fueled by amphetamines and admiration for the French New Wave.
Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style became mainstream hits, Seidelman's Desperately Seeking Susan and MTV commercialized what was left of the downtown scene, and with remarkable speed this nonmovement degenerated into Nick Zedd's Cinema of Transgression, which ramped up the sex and violence of Scott B. and Beth B.'s films in movies often directed by Richard Kern and starring Lunch. Speed gave way to heroin and a depressing nihilism, but who can argue with The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black's Kembra Pfahler being interviewed in an empty bathtub? Or Jean-Michel Basquiat tagging lonesome walls in the indispensable Downtown 81, or David Wojnarowicz, whose films are still raising hackles 19 years after his death?
First-time filmmaker Celine Dahnier doesn't get into the where-are-they-now, but some went Hollywood (Michael Oblowitz directed straight-to-video Steven Seagal flicks; Becky Johnston wrote screenplays for Barbra Streisand and Prince), others returned to painting or took teaching jobs. As for Zedd, he finally gave up on the now-gentrified Lower East Side this year and decamped for Mexico.
* * * 1/2 Le Quattro Volte
Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino. (NR)
Few images are more mysterious than the ones that open Le Quattro Volte: smoke billowing out of holes in a mound of — what is it, exactly? After 88 nearly wordless minutes we'll find out, in Michelangelo Frammartino's meditative, beautifully photographed look at the cycle of life in the mountains of Calabria. An elderly goatherd mixes water with dust swept from a church floor in an effort to cure his persistent cough. One day, he does not come to collect his herd, so they go to his house in an effort to rouse him. A life passes and a new one begins, as a kid, its umbilical cord still dangling, struggles to stand on matchstick legs. The kid grows; it is separated from the flock and takes shelter under a lone, towering fir tree; the tree is cut down and converted into coal. We have gone from man to animal to vegetable to a mineral to be used by man to begin the cycle once again (although that cycle is not sustainable; that the demand for wood coal has led to deforestation is not dealt with here, nor that this will be the last generation plying this trade, as ancient as the goatherd's).
The pagan ways persist, nominally cloaked by Christianity, from the surreptitious parceling of magic dust to the annual festival in which the tree is hoisted and then felled by the villagers, and it's hard not to see the passage of life from the goatherd to the kid as anything less than the transmigration of a soul. Frammartino works in long stationary shots and slow horizontal pans, the activities of men often filmed at an inscrutable distance. The soundtrack, a din of jangling cowbells, wind blowing through trees and chatter too distant to make out, is its own omniscient character. In his depiction of the actual activities of men and animals, Frammartino says more about the mysteries of life than Terrence Malick's fabric-softener-commercial imagery and animatronic dinosaurs — perhaps because the Calabrians cut down that tree we've been contemplating and put it to use.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun