Good Ol’ Freda


Best. Job. Ever.

Best. Job. Ever.

(2013) Documentary (Magnet) Freda Kelly, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, Tony Barrow, Billy Kinsley, Billy Hatton, Elsie Starkey, Louise Harrison, Harold Hargreaves “Harry” Harrison, Maureen Tigrett, Brian Epstein. Directed by Ryan White

Most of us have a sense of the Beatles largely through the many biographies – most of which are written by outsiders – or through media accounts of the group. Few in their inner circle have stepped forward to give their accounts of Beatlemania.

Freda Kelly was a 17 year old devotee of the band who worked in a secretarial pool in Liverpool and would see the band play at the Cavern Club during their lunch hours. She got to know the boys in the band who would often give her lifts home when she would go to see them in the evening hours. When Brian Epstein took over the management of the band, he knew that they would need help in the office and asked Freda if she was up to the task. She would work this job until the band broke up, as well as running their fan club which was how many of the band’s fans got to know her name.

She rarely spoke of her time managing the fan club or the secretarial needs of the Fab Four even to her own children. Although she has scrapbooks and old fan club magazines, much of the memorabilia that she collected over the years she gave to the fans. Kelly, who began as a fan herself and continued to be after the demise of the band, empathized with them and felt a responsibility to the fans as well as to the band.

In this documentary, she talks about her time with the band but true to form she’s reticent to dish any dirt. Fiercely loyal, she feels bound to keep private those things that are personal about the band even though forty years have passed and half the members have passed on. There’s something to be said for that.

Freda has a certain charming guilelessness about her. She never sought the spotlight nor is she really seeking it out now. She felt that she wanted to get her story out so that her grandchildren would know what she did, motivated by the untimely death of her eldest son. In fact, her surviving daughter says on camera that she never really spoke about her time with the band when they were growing up and even today her friends are shocked to discover that she once worked with the Beatles.

She certainly hasn’t profited by her time with the band, although she might have with a tell-all book as some have done in the past. She’s a working class girl from a working class town who has just gone on about things. She isn’t particularly charismatic which might be the secret to her anonymity and may have saved her from the savage side of that spotlight.

Some critics have groused about the lack of focus on the Beatles but this isn’t about them. It is about living with them, just out of the limelight but certainly affected by it. The documentary has a lot of Freda’s personal photos of her with the band, or her at the office. We get a bit of a view as to what it took to run the empire but mostly through the days of Beatlemania – the later days when the band got into drugs, Eastern religion and psychedelia and began to implode are pretty much glossed over. Some may well find that disingenuous.

Still, you can’t help get a warm glow of nostalgia in your bones leaving the theater, particularly if you lived through the era or were simply a Beatles fan. Me, I’m both so I have to say that Good Ol’ Freda might get a bit more of a pass from my sort than it might from younger critics. After all, I’m a fan just like Freda Kelly was – perhaps not to the extent that I would have asked for a lock of Paul’s hair or a bit of John’s shirt, or asked Ringo to sleep on a pillowcase and have it returned to me. There’s a fine line between fandom and obsession after all. Still, I loved the band and their music made up the soundtrack of my life to a large extent, and one has to recognize the band’s importance in pop culture and music in general even if one is a snot-nosed young critic. Or a starry-eyed old one.

REASONS TO GO: A good way for people of a certain age to get the warm fuzzies. Some priceless behind-the-scenes pics and anecdotes.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of smoking and a few sexual and drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title comes from the band’s 1963 Christmas message in which they namecheck their secretary and fan club president (the message is played at the beginning of the film).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imagine: John Lennon

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Philomena

Mr. Nice


Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

(2009) Biography (MPI) Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, David Thewlis, Luis Tosar, Crispin Glover, Omid Djalili, Christian McKay, Elsa Pataky, Jack Huston, Jamie Harris, Sara Sugarman, William Thomas, Andrew Tiernan, Kinsey Packard, Ania Sowinski, James Jagger, Howell Evans, Ken Russell, Ferdy Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Olivia Grant. Directed by Bernard Rose

The 60s and 70s were the era when drug culture became widespread and suddenly there was a worldwide demand for narcotics. It took all kinds to make sure the supply kept up with the demand – and some drug dealers were the most unlikely souls indeed.

Howard Marx (Ifans) was an honest and well-adjusted boy from Wales who managed to earn himself an education at Oxford. He’s studying alone in his room one night when exchange student Ilze Kadegis (Pataky) bursts into his room looking for a secret passageway. When she finds it, a curious Howard follows her to an old storage room where Graham Plinson (Huston), the university’s biggest dope dealer, hides his stash. Ilze seduces Howard and introduces Howard to the joys of cannabis. From that point on, Howard is hooked and becomes one of Graham’s best customers with his academics suffering predictably as a result.

When Plinson and Howard’s friends start experimenting with harder drugs, tragedy ensues and Howard vows not to touch the serious stuff ever again and rededicates himself to his studies, passing by the skin of his teeth (and with a bit of underhanded chicanery). He marries Ilze and takes a job as a teaching assistant (what they called a teacher training position back then) at the University of London. By now, the swinging ’60s were in full flower and Carnaby Street was the bloom on the rose. Howard was fully into the scene, prompting a reprimand for long hair and flashy suits.

When Plinson gets arrested after plans to transport a shipment of hashish from Germany to England go awry, Howard – his marriage on the ropes, his job rapidly going down the toilet – figures he has nothing to lose and steps in to help. Because he’s not a known drug dealer, he sails through the customs checkpoints without so much as a second glance. Howard finds that the adrenaline rush of smuggling drugs appeals to him and he decides to take it up as a vocation  He eventually becomes one of the world’s largest marijuana traffickers – at one point controlling a fairly large percentage of the world’s supply.

However, the problem with this kind of lifestyle is that eventually people start gunning for what you have, and soon Howard finds himself playing a dangerous game. It’s one that will get him arrested and dropped into one of the nastiest prisons in the United States.

This is based on the autobiography of  Howard Marks (uh huh, this is a true story) and Marks served as a consultant on the film, proclaiming it as accurate even though there were some differences between his book and the movie. One gets the sense that there are a few brain cells not functioning quite up to optimum for ol’ Howard these days.

The same might be said of the filmmakers. The movie often feels like it was written by one stoned, and directed while the same. Plenty of stoner clichés – half-naked chicks rolling around on a bed full of cash, slow-mo shots of the arrest and so on – mar the film. While I liked that the first part of the movie was shot in black and white, switching to color when Howard takes his first psychedelic, at times one gets the sense that the film is stuck in neutral waiting for the GPS to kick in and send it somewhere.

Ifans is an engaging actor and as he did in Notting Hill he does a good job of playing the stoner. Although the Nice of the title refers to the city in France, it is also apt to the demeanor of Marks as portrayed by Ifans. I’m pretty sure the intent here was to portray Marks as a counterculture Robin Hood-sort, fighting the battle of worldwide weed, but I keep getting the sense that we’re seeing very much a self-promotion more than an accurate portrayal.  While honestly I have nothing against Marks, I wonder if I wouldn’t have appreciated the movie more if he had a few more warts here.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent, although Sevigny has a truly terrible English accent. She’s a fine actress but I found the accent distracting and thought the film would have been better served if she hadn’t attempted it, or if they’d hired a British actress instead.

The era is captured nicely and we get a sense of the wide-open era that was the ’60s and ’70s. This is more of a throwback to films of that era in many ways – the drug dealer is the hero and unlike the modern version of heroic Hollywood drug dealers these days, he doesn’t have automatic rifles, machine pistols or military training. Howard is no Rambo by any stretch of the imagination.

Those who dislike movies about drugs and drug dealers should give this a wide berth. You’ll only give yourself an aneurysm. Stoners will find this to be excellent entertainment with a hero they can get behind. As for the rest of us, this doesn’t really distinguish itself much – but it doesn’t disgrace itself overly much either. A lot of how you’ll find this movie will depend on your attitudes towards cannabis to begin with. Me, I’m allergic to the stuff so that should give you some insight to where I’m coming from.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty decent performance by Ifans. Nicely immersed in the era it’s set.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of runs together and loses cohesion. Sevigny’s accent is atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug use and foul language as well as some sexuality and violence (and a bit of nudity).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Marks’ autobiography on which the film is based, he claimed to have been betrayed to the American authorities by Lord Moynihan but that isn’t brought up in the film here for legal reasons.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Shepard and Dark


Uneasy riders.

Uneasy riders.

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Sam Shepard, Johnny Dark, Jessica Lange, O-Lan Jones, Jesse Shepard. Directed by Treva Wurmfeld  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The beautiful thing about documentaries is that they can get people to reveal something about themselves without them meaning to do it. The camera eye just focuses on them in the act of them being themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about some life-changing subject, although those can be informative and important. Just the focus on a long time friendship can give us insight into our own friendships.

Sam Shepard, the well-known playwright and actor, has been friends with Johnny Dark, a not so well-known author, for about 50 years when this was filmed (the two met in the Village back in1963 when Shepard was just beginning to establish his reputation). They hung out, drank a bit, smoked some weed and partied hard. Shepard eventually would marry actress O-Lan Jones; Dark would marry her mother, Scarlett.

They all lived together with O-Lan and Shepard’s son Jesse. Eventually Scarlett would have a major stroke and lose quite a bit of brain function and long-term memories. Dark would have to almost treat her like a child in many ways, with the kind of patience thee and me couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Shepard though wasn’t really made for setting down roots and so he left his wife and son for actress Jessica Lange. Dark would have a hand in raising Sam’s son. The two began to correspond regularly and still continued to hang out when Shepard’s increasingly busy schedule allowed.

Dark was almost compulsive about archiving everything and recently when Shepard’s relationship with Lange came to an end, he was left with a lot of time (and it is hinted, a lot of bills) to reflect. When a Texas university expresses interest in archiving the correspondence between the two men with an eye to publishing a book which frankly both men could use – not only is Shepard having some financial issues but also Dark is struggling, working at a grocery deli counter in Deming, New Mexico.

The two decide to get some office space and work on this thing together. Initially their banter is very sibling like with a lot of affectionate (and maybe some not-so-affectionate) teasing. Shepard, notoriously reticent about his private life, opens up somewhat here (and certainly a lot more in his letters), admitting that he regrets some of the mistakes he’s made in the past – and is frustrated that he continue to repeat those same mistakes, even up to now.

This is not an issue kind of documentary. It is more of a relationship documentary as we watch how small little issues can turn into nearly insurmountable barriers. Both men freely admit that they are nothing alike; Shepard has a bit of wanderlust in his soul, preferring a rootless existence while Dark takes great comfort in his home, his books and his cats. Shepard navigates life pretty much by the seat of his pants; Dark is a nearly obsessive organizer.

Some might find it a bit dry given that it’s mostly about human nature. I’d generally be inclined to rate this a bit higher – these sorts of documentaries offer endless insights into my own behaviors and my own relationships but I can see where others might see this as somewhat voyeuristic. Frankly put, this isn’t for everybody but those who are willing to give this a chance will find the opportunity to learn something about human nature.

What I find really admirable is that while there is one person that is famous in this equation (and one that is not), it’s not Shepard’s celebrity that drives this film. While some attention is paid to his fame, that’s not really the focus here and thus Shepard becomes humanized here despite his best efforts to the contrary (he comes off as a bit of a prick in some of the sequences whereas Dark comes off as a bit eccentric in the same vein Hunter S. Thompson was).

It is the one commonality between all of us that we are human. It is our definition of what makes us human that in turn defines ourselves. In watching a film like Shepard and Dark I was struck by this most particularly. These are men who have lived lives I will never lead, made choices I would never make and reap consequences I can’t relate to. And yet we still have so much in common – even in our differences, we have those differences in common as well. Shepard and Dark may not necessarily offer you any great revelations when it comes to your life and friendships, but at the very least it will give you a glimpse into a life and friendship that is different than yours and if you won’t take something from that, well amigo, that’s your choice too but it’s a lost opportunity as well.

REASONS TO GO: Dark and Shepard are both interesting people. The effects of the documentary on their lives is fascinating..

REASONS TO STAY: Not everything here is fascinating to everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a  release later on in 2013.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betty and Coretta

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Pieta

The Company You Keep


Robert Redford explains to Jackie Evancho who the Sundance Kid was.

Robert Redford explains to Jackie Evancho who the Sundance Kid was.

(2012) Drama (Sony Classics) Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Anna Kendrick, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brit Marling, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, Jackie Evancho, Matthew Kimbrough, Andrew Airlie, Lochlyn Munro, Hiro Kanagawa, Lane Edwards, Kenneth Miller, Susan Hogan. Directed by Robert Redford.  

The 60s live with us in a number of ways – some beneficial, some not. Those who felt the need to rise up and protest the unjustness of the Vietnam war, the social inequities between poor and rich, black and white, women and men – most moved on to lives of numbing normality. Others however were forced by circumstances to disappear into the bowels of a country that despised them.

A Vermont housewife (Sarandon), typical in every way, says goodbye to her husband and grown children, gets in her car and drives South. Once in New York state, she stops to put gas in her car and is surrounded by federal agents. It turns out that she was once Sharon Solarz, a member of the radical group the Weather Underground and that she took part in a bank robbery that resulted in the death of a bank guard.

In the coming days it turned out that FBI Agent Cornelius (Howard) had lucked out – a wire tap on Billy Cusimano (Root), a pot farmer, had caught Solarz making plans to turn herself in, but the Agency – unable to locate her for almost 40 years, instead grabbed her so that they would seem to have caught her through their investigative prowess.

Realizing that Solarz needed a lawyer in the worst way, Cusimano reached out to his friend Jim Grant (Redford), an aging public interest lawyer who was getting over the death of his much younger wife the previous year, and trying to raise her daughter Isabel (Evancho) as best he can. Grant has way too much on his plate and politely refers Cusimano (and Solarz) elsewhere.

Ben Shepard (LaBeouf), a reporter for the local newspaper, is a little stung that he missed the story of the high-profile arrest that happened in his own backyard. Well, actually it’s his editor Ray Fuller (Tucci) who’s stung but the stinging is trickling down somewhat. He wants Ben to follow it up and Ben, one of those old-style reporters with an instinct for a story, starts following the Solarz arrest, utilizing a contact (Kendrick) in the FBI  This leads him to Jim, who politely brushes him off. That’s when things go sideways.

Jim takes his daughter out of school and takes a trip down to New York City. You see, it turns out that Jim used to go by the name of Nick Sloan and was one of the three outstanding fugitives from the bank robbery. He rightly presumes that his identity won’t hold up long to scrutiny and his real name will be discovered. Once that happens, he knows it’s a matter of time before overzealous FBI agents swoop in and traumatize his child.

He leaves Isabel with his real brother, Daniel (Cooper) and heads on out – but not to run. It doesn’t take long for Ben to figure out that Jim/Nick’s behavior doesn’t jive with someone trying to get away. He seems to be seeking out people involved with the case – like the investigating officer Henry Osborne (Gleeson) whose daughter Rebecca (Marling) Ben finds unusually fascinating. He’s also visiting former “fellow travelers” Donal Fitzgerald (Nolte) and Jed Lewis (Jenkins).

You see, there’s a fourth fugitive out there – Mimi Lurie (Christie) who seems to want to remain hidden. And Ben begins to suspect that Jim/Nick is seeking her out, not to warn her of events that she’s already fully aware of – but to clear his name.

Redford has always positioned himself out of the mainstream politically while remaining firmly within it, without being part of it. He excels at playing outsiders and has throughout his career. I’ve always admired his moral center, which shows clearly in his films which are generally about individuals who fall victim to pressures that range from societal (Ordinary People) to governmental (The Conspirator).

He’s a little long in the tooth for a role like this one, particularly where he is the stepfather of a tween-age girl and nothing against Evancho but while I understand the intent of the writers to show the effects of Nick Sloan’s decisions on those who love and count on him, they might have been better served to have an adult child affected instead. We never get a sense of how the absence of his daughter affects Jim/Nick, which also renders the role superfluous. If you’re gonna bring a kid into the equation, it would be nice to see the parent actually missing them.

This is in all likelihood the best cast you’re going to see, top to bottom, this year. These are some of the finest actors in Hollywood, both established (Sarandon, Christie) and up-and-coming (LaBeouf, Marling), not to mention outstanding character actors (Jenkins, Gleeson). There isn’t a false note in any performances here and they all realize they have the kind of taut story that will keep audiences on the edge of their collective seats.

The movie does take awhile to get to its destination, which plants it firmly in the “not for young people” category who prefer movies that require less of an attention span. In any case, the real target audience for this movie is pretty much aging, people who are hitting their 60s and 70s and have the patience to sit through a certain amount of exposition and remember the turbulent 60s vividly.

Redford, who has been relatively inactive as a director for decades, has now done two movies in three years. I hope that signals further activity in the director’s chair for him – I find his work to be high quality in every instance that he’s gone behind the camera and this isn’t an exception. Like Redford himself, the movie is going outside the mainstream with a limited release via Sony Classics rather than a mass release on Columbia. Oddly enough, that appeals to me somehow – although I am concerned that it won’t reach as many viewers as it might which would be a crying shame. I hope those that read this will get the message that they should mark seeing this movie down on their to-do list.

REASONS TO GO: Taut story told well. Really great cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places. Definitely a movie for people who are getting on a bit in years.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At least nine of the actors in the cast have been nominated for or won Academy Awards.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100; the reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Running on Empty

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Gut

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Man som hatar kvinnor)


The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo

This is not the girl you want to mess with.

(2009) Thriller (Music Box) Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Peter Andersson, Marika Lagercrantz, Ingvar Hirdwall, Bjorn Granath, Ewa Froling, Annika Hallin, Georgi Staykov, Tomas Kohler.  Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

My wife was often heard to say to my son (and she heard this herself often as a child) that the truth will find you out. It usually does, too – although sometimes it can take many years before it finally shows up at your door.

Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) is the publisher of Millennium, a left wing magazine in Sweden that goes after corporate and government officials mostly of the right wing variety. Blomkvist has just lost a libel trial against a wealthy Swedish industrialist and in six months time, will be sent to jail for it. He has temporarily stepped down from his position because of the scandal.

In the midst of this, he gets an intriguing offer from an aging Swedish industrialist. Henrik Vanger (Taube) is in his 80s, the patriarch of a wealthy Swedish family living in isolation on an island near Stockholm. 40 years previously, his niece Harriet (Froling) disappeared and is presumed dead. Nobody knows what happened to her although everyone assumes she was murdered. Who done it? Well there’s a whole family of suspects.

As it turns out, Mikael isn’t the only one investigating. Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) was hired to investigate Blomkvist and as she checks up on him, gets drawn in to his own investigation. She is one of Sweden’s best hackers and she has no trouble finding information Mikael can’t access. As time goes by, they discover that the Vangers have a couple of not-so-closet Nazis in the family tree. Salander turns out to have some dangerous secrets of her own and as Mikael closes in on the truth, nothing is what it seems – and it seems there may be something rotten in Sweden.

This is from the first book of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy which is wildly popular in Scandinavia and more recently worldwide. The motion pictures based on the trilogy are among the most popular ever in Sweden and are due to be remade by Hollywood, the first due out at Christmas directed by Oscar winner David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.

So should you see these before seeing the remakes? I say yes. This is a world class movie, right up there with the best of Hitchcock and De Palma. The bleak Swedish winter landscapes create the perfect mood, with just the right number of twists – not too many, not too few.

The leads couldn’t be more different. Nyqvist is understated as Blomkvist. He is capable and intellectual but not what you’d call the typical heroic sort. He is more heroic in his convictions and ideals rather than as a physical purveyor of derring-do. He is a decent man caught in a situation that is way over his head, one he’s not nearly mean enough to handle.

Rapace however delivers a star turn as Salander. Lisbeth is a bundle of contradictory characteristics. Quiet and withdrawn in many ways, she also dresses in outlandish punk hairstyle and leather which inevitably calls attention to herself. There is a rage in her that’s just below the surface, a rage that comes out brutally when she’s raped graphically early in the movie. It’s a brutal scene that’s not for the sensitive and is anything but sexual. There are those who are disturbed by it, but considering the importance of the event in the series, it is a necessary scene.

I like the mood the movie weaves; it is a mood that contains the comfort of Scandinavian homes, the overwhelming fog of uneasy dread, the air of mysteries buried deep in the Swedish soil. While there is an Agatha Christie-like vibe to the first act, this is definitely the work of a mind whose roots are deep in the land of the Northern climes, where winters are deep, bone-chilling and soul-sucking. One can almost hear “Finlandia” playing on the soundtrack.

Even more to the point, these are characters that are real and compelling. Even the evil neo-Nazi bastards aren’t caricatures; there is flesh on all of these bones.  Lisbeth Salander may be one of the most interesting heroines to come along since Ellen Ripley in Alien. She has demons deep within her, most of them barely hinted at. She’s not always an easy character to like, but she’s always an easy character to be fascinated by.

There are people who won’t see this because it’s subtitled. That’s a shame; those who love thrillers will love this one. It’s not the most original plot; it’s just done in an original style. There’s a realism to it that works, as well as an air of melancholy that makes it Swedish. It’s not Hitchcock, but as this style of movie goes, it’s as good as anything that’s come along in the last decade.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted, well-filmed and well-structured – nearly an ideal mystery-thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is not really ground-breaking and the ending is not too hard to figure out.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of violence and some grisly images. There’s also a graphic rape, nudity, some sexual material and a bit of bad language (in Swedish but nonetheless).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Noomi Rapace got her eyebrow and nose pierced for the film. She also learned kickboxing and lost weight. Incidentally, the actress playing her mother in the movie is also her mom in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Vanger family tree that may prove helpful in keeping up with the plot. There’s also an interesting interview with Rapace in which she discusses how she came aboard.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.4M on a $13M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Girl Who Played With Fire

X-Men: First Class


X-Men: First Class

You can tell it's the 60s: they're playing chess on an actual chessboard.

(2011) Superhero (20th Century Fox) James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Alex Gonzalez, Zoe Kravitz, Matt Craven, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise, M. Ironside, Bill Milner, Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Romijn. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

It is a failing of humanity that the things we don’t understand, we tend to fear and the things we fear we tend to destroy. This is what leads to genocide, and that kind of hatred and malevolence can have unintended consequences.

Erik Lensherr (Milner) is the son of Jews who have been taken to a concentration camp, displaying great power over magnetism when angered. A Nazi scientist (Bacon) notices this and determines to find out how he can use Lensherr as a weapon for the Third Reich. In order to force Lensherr’s co-operation, he executes his mother in front of him.

After the war, the adult Lensherr (Fassbender) goes on a rampage, hunting down Nazis who had anything to do with his torture, with emphasis in particular on the scientist who now goes by the name of Sebastian Shaw. His powers still only manifest when he’s angry but he’s not yet grown into the powerful mutant he will become.

Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is graduating from Oxford and has become an expert on human mutation, o much so that he is approached by Agent Moira MacTaggert (Byrne) of the Central Intelligence Agency to give expert testimony to the higher-ups of the CIA, including a skeptical agency chief (Craven). It seems that MacTaggert has been chasing Sebastian Shaw as well, and witnessed the telepathic powers of his associate Emma Frost (J. Jones) and the teleportation powers of Azazel (Flemyng), one of the associates of the Hellfire Club that Shaw runs. Xavier brings along Raven Darkholme (Lawrence), a young orphan his family adopted. When Xavier’s scientific presentation fails to impress, he reveals that both he and Raven are mutants; he a powerful telepath and she a shape-shifter.

They are taken charge of by an eager, jovial section chief (Platt) who has built a facility for the study of mutants, only without any mutants. That changes when one of the scientists working for them, Hank McCoy (Hoult) turns out to have hands for feet and has animal-like powers. He discovers a kindred spirit in Raven, who like Hank longs to be normal-looking (Raven in her natural appearance has blue skin, golden eyes and brick-red hair).

During a government attack on Shaw’s boat, the government is foiled by Azazel and Riptide (Gonzalez), a mutant who can generate tornado-like windstorms. Shaw, Frost, Azazel and Riptide escape on a submarine that Shaw had built inside his boat despite the efforts of Lensherr who arrives mid-fight in an attempt to murder Shaw, who recognizes his old pupil.

Xavier rescues Lensherr from drowning and recruits him to be part of the government team. Lensherr really isn’t much of a team player, but his growing friendship and respect for Xavier keeps him around. They realize that since Shaw has a mutant team that can easily wipe out even a military attack, a mutant team of their own will be needed. Using Cerebro, a computer that enhances Xavier’s telepathic abilities and allows him to “find” mutants, he and Lensherr go on a recruiting drive, allowing him to find Angel Salvadore (Kravitz) – a stripper with wings, Darwin (Gathegi) who can adapt to any survival situation, Banshee (C.L. Jones) who can project sonic blasts that allow him to fly and also act as sonar, and Havoc (Till) who fires lethal blasts out of his chest.

Shaw finds out what Xavier and Lensherr, who are now going as Professor X and Magneto (suggested by Raven who’s going by Mystique, while McCoy is Beast), are up to and orchestrates an attack on his new recruits, killing one and recruiting Angel to his cause. Shaw, who sees the mutants as the next step in evolution, is up to no good – he is the one who has through subtle and not-so-subtle influence in both the Soviet Union and the United States, created the Cuban Missile Crisis in hopes of starting World War III, from which he and his fellow mutants would rise from the ashes to rule the world. Xavier and his X-Men (a play on G-Men bestowed on the group by MacTaggert who is their CIA liaison), must stop it despite the group’s youth and inexperience.

Vaughn, who has done the superhero thing before with Kick-Ass (he was originally supposed to direct the third X-Men movie but dropped out because he didn’t think he could finish it in the time allotted by the studio) and is also the man behind Stardust, one of my favorite movies of recent years, does a pretty spiffy job here. He has a great visual eye and has done this as essentially a James Bond movie from the 60s with superheroes. It’s a brilliant concept that he doesn’t always pull off but manages to enough to make the movie interesting.

One of the main reasons the movie works is the chemistry between McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence. These are three talents rising in the industry – Lawrence already has an Oscar nomination for her stellar work in Winter’s Bone – and all have enormous potential to be stars. McAvoy plays the contemplative Xavier with an even keel, rarely raising his voice or seemingly getting excited but that doesn’t mean he isn’t emotional; it is amusing to watch him trying to pick up girls with his line about mutations at various Oxford pubs.

Fassbender is much more intense as Magneto, making the pain of his childhood palpable but well-covered by layers of anger. His need for revenge has driven him to hate all humans, wanting to forestall another Holocaust-like fate for his fellow mutants. The leadership of the CIA and the military will certainly not assuage his paranoia much.

Lawrence does Mystique as a troubled soul, whose power is wrapped up in deception but yet yearns to be perceived as normal. She develops an attraction for Magneto despite Beast’s obvious crush on her, and she is very much attached in a sisterly way to Xavier.

The movie goes a long way into showing how Xavier and Magneto went from the best of friends to the most implacable of foes. It also depicts how Xavier was paralyzed and shows the founding of his school where the X-Men would eventually be based. While Wolverine and an adult Mystique make cameos (both very playfully done I might add), the mutants from the first trilogy of the X-movies largely are absent.

Fox has made no secret that they plan to make a new trilogy starting with this one. The question is, will I want to see the next one? The answer is a resounding yes. While the 60s atmosphere that was created was rife with anachronisms (the miniskirt, which is clearly worn by several characters and extras during the film, wasn’t introduced until a few years after the Crisis for example and the soundtrack is rife with music that wasn’t recorded until afterwards either), the feel of the Bond movies is retained and that makes the movie special.

The action sequences (particularly the battle with the Russian and American fleets with the mutants that ends the film) are well done. As summer superhero movies go, this is definitely a cut above, although lacking the epic scope of Thor earlier this year. It certainly is a promising reboot of the franchise and continues the run of quality Marvel films that we’ve been getting over the past five years. Hopefully Fox will continue to follow Marvel’s lead and keep the quality of this franchise high.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences and good chemistry between McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t capture the period as well as it might have.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some partial nudity and a few mildly bad words, along with some action sequence that may be too intense for the youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fassbender and McAvoy both appeared in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” early on in their careers but haven’t appeared together in the same project since.

HOME OR THEATER: The action sequences are huge and need a huge canvas.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Outlander

A Single Man


A Single Man

Elegance, sophistication and despair, 60s-style.

(2009) Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Ginnifer Goodwin, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult, Jon Kortajarena, Ryan Simpkins, Teddy Sears, Paulette Lamon, Aaron Sanders, Paul Butler, Lee Pace, Adam Shapiro, Jon Hamm (voice). Directed by Tom Ford

We live our lives out for the most part in isolation. It is a horrible fate that we strive to avoid and when we find someone to share our lives with, we feel a certain amount of relief, as if we have finally received our membership card for the human race. However, when that is taken away from us, our careful façade can show cracks as despair and grief set our very souls to crumbling.

That’s where George Falconer (Firth) is. He receives news that his partner of 16 years, Jim (Goode) has perished in a car accident. This being 1962, George’s relationship with Jim is barely acknowledged and when George makes inquiries about the memorial service, he’s told in no uncertain terms that his presence is not welcome. Very civilly, he thanks the caller (Hamm) for the information, hangs up the phone and stares into the abyss.

Eight months later, the grief has far from subsided; it has multiplied, feeding on itself and growing exponentially until George can no longer stand it. He wakes up in pain every morning, and confides that for the first time in his life, he cannot see a future. Without a future, with an intolerable present, George makes plans to end his own life. He meticulously arranges his study so all the important papers will be easily found, and goes about the business of his last day on Earth.

In it, he will lecture his class at a Los Angeles-area college on the works of Aldous Huxley and set up a philosophical discussion about invisible minorities. He will attend a dinner with his old friend and ex-lover Charley (Moore), who yearns for one last go at a man she knows is lost to her, but she herself is lost so that has little meaning. He flirts with a Spanish hustler (Kortajarena) and with a kindly student (Hoult) but in the end he knows there’s a gun waiting for him in his bedside table.

This is the first directing effort by fashion designer Ford, who is credited from rescuing Gucci from bankruptcy and turning it into a billion-dollar brand name. As you would expect from someone with that kind of eye, extreme attention is paid to art direction, the meticulous detail of recreating 1962 is done with great authentic detail from the brand names to the attitudes. The Cuban Missile Crisis is in the background but never  becomes the centerpiece; it is a topic of conversation and colors the film a bit without being the focus. Ford also takes some artistic cues from famed Chinese director Wong Kar-Wei, using colors as emotional triggers in the film.

However, as impressive as Ford is, it is Firth who steals the show here. He was Oscar nominated for his performance here (which he didn’t win but it set the stage for his win earlier this year for The King’s Speech) and it was richly deserved. Firth has made a name for himself for playing uptight British sorts, and so he is here, so tightly wound that it seems at times that one pinprick in the right place will let loose a barrage of screams.

His scene in which he is notified of Jim’s death is reason alone to see the movie; he’s just talking on the telephone, sitting down but you look at his eyes, his demeanor, his body language – while he looks composed, you can see him disintegrating inside. There’s no tears, no dramatic gestures, just the quiet despair of a man who in the space of a few moments has lost everything that has any meaning to him.

Firth shuffles through the film with a grey, lifeless pallor which only heats up in certain instances. One of them is with Charley, the divorcee who in many ways is as lost and desperate as George is. Moore gives her life, not only reading the lines with the caustic cattiness that was perfect for the period and the character but also showing the vulnerability she is careful to keep away from the surface, but so intense is it that it appears without warning and despite her best efforts. Moore was nominated for a Best Supporting Dramatic Actress Golden Globe; she didn’t get an Oscar nomination but I doubt anyone would have complained had she received one.

The Christopher Isherwood novel this is based on is considered a touchstone of gay English language literature and it is indeed ambitious that Ford, who is also gay, would take it on as his first filmed project but in many ways this is a movie that needed to be made and having someone with the visual eye that Ford has made him the right choice for the role, despite his limited experience as a director.

There are those who have skipped this movie because of its gay themes, and to those folks let me say this; you may be uncomfortable with the expression of same-sex love and there is certainly a good deal of that here, but I never found it uncomfortable or intrusive. This is more accurately a portrayal of grief, of a limited ability to express that grief both publically and privately, and the character study of a man deeply wounded but who in the end finds a certain measure of peace. It’s a very good movie and gay or straight, you should make an effort to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing looking film perfectly capturing the period. Firth does an amazing job in the role of George.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s a very slow-moving film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexual content, as well as some fairly disturbing images. There’s also a little bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Firth nearly turned the role down and had composed an e-mail to Ford sending his regrets. He was about to send it when he was interrupted by a repairman who was there to fix his refrigerator. While the fridge was being repaired, Firth reconsidered and never sent the e-mail. Firth thanked the “fridge guy” when accepting his BAFTA award for Best Actor for the part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $24.9M on a $7M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Thor