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

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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