Flickering Myth ran a poll earlier in the year about which summer superhero movie people were most looking forward to. The contenders were surprise hit Thor, The Green Lantern, Captain America and this X-Men prequel, steered by director of Kick-Ass Matthew Vaughan. For me X-Men: First Class was the most anticipated of the selection by a mile.
The trailers promised a truly epic reinvention of a stagnating franchise. Vaughan went for a completely new look cast of mutants, with the exception of one comic cameo. Amongst this cast the partnership of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender takes centre stage, with the enormous task of matching and exploring the rivalry portrayed by thespian heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the previous Bryan Singer films. For the most part, their youthful interpretations bring something different that really works.
The film starts off brilliantly with Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr and McAvoy’s Charles Xavier on separate paths. Xavier is a brilliant Oxford academic with a fondness for pubs and science heavy chat up lines, which seem rather redundant when he can read minds. Lehnsherr however is driven by revenge into stalking the globe in search of his enemy and his mother’s murderer, Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw.
We see both of our key protagonists as children. The film starts with the young Erik, played rather limply by Bill Milner, being threatened in a Nazi concentration camp, by a toying doctor who turns out to be Shaw, into manipulating metal by moving a coin. We see the young Charles, far more convincingly played by Laurence Belcher (who was also excellent in the Doctor Who Christmas special), finding a fellow mutant, shape shifter Raven, in his kitchen and taking her in as a sister.
Things really get interesting when Xavier has graduated as a Professor in genetics and the CIA come to call on him. He then demonstrates his mind reading telepath tricks in a variety of ways, until he is believed enough to get free rein to create a team of mutants to take on Shaw, who is engineering a nuclear war via the Cuban Missile crisis, which he hopes will leave only mutants as Earth’s dominant species. The best bit of First Class however, is Fassbender’s pursuit of his Nazi nemesis.
What really excited me, more than anything else, was the historical setting of this film. Fassbender has been championed as a future 007 in the past and there hasn’t been a review of X-Men: First Class that doesn’t praise the mini James Bond adventure within it. Adult Erik travels in stylish, suave period suits to banks in Switzerland to interrogate the keepers of Nazi gold for info, by painfully plucking out fillings with his powers, and to bars in Argentina in cool summer gear to kill hiding Nazis with flying knives and magnetically manipulated pistols. In all these locations Fassbender speaks the native tongue and oozes the steely determination of a complex and damaged killer. His quest is a snapshot of what a modern Bond set in the past, bilingual and faithful to Fleming’s creation, could be like.
Aside from the dreams of a reinvented Bond though, the Cold War setting is exciting and thought provoking for other reasons. The mutant situation mirrors the struggles at the time for civil rights for black Americans and other minorities, such as homosexuals (hinted at by the line “Mutant and Proud”). The whole film can make the most of the visual benefits of period costume, with fabulous suits and dresses, as well as period locations and set designs. The rooms on Shaw’s secret submarine resemble a villainous Ken Adam Bond set. And the ideological conflict between the US and Russia, echoes the differences in outlook between Xavier and Lehnsherr.
Despite rave reviews at first, respected critics have given X-Men: First Class an average rating. I think this is mostly because the film doesn’t live up to the enormous possibilities of its setting and doesn’t explore as well as it could the beginnings of the relationships in the X-Men. It is still a good film. For a blockbuster this is a slow burning watch, which I liked, but I admit that the action scenes could have been more frequent; even though a couple are terrific the film never really ignites. All in all Vaughan’s prequel is good but not as good as it could have been.
One of the reasons cited for disappointment is a lack of focus on the rest of the X-Men. It was a difficult balance to strike, with Xavier and Lehnsherr’s relationship proving so fascinating and McAvoy and Fassbender having so much chemistry, both comic and serious. I actually thought that characters like Beast and Raven were fleshed out more than I was expecting. A much criticised code name scene, in which the younger X-Men members sit around joking about what they’d like to be called, has been pummelled with criticism. I thought this scene was funny, as much of the film is, for not taking itself too seriously and entertaining for introducing the powers of the characters.
X-Men: First Class will divide audiences. Some will think it’s boring, others will love its action punctuated with character development and solid acting. Fans of X-Men will differ with some salivating over the explanations to Professor X’s wheelchair and Magneto’s helmet and others feeling letdown by the promise of so much more. Perhaps the most reliable fan base for this film is James Bond fans waiting for next year’s Bond 23. Fassbender’s literally magnetic and chilling performance is Bondian, as are the locations, the villains and babes on show like January Jones and Rose Byrne.
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Yet again I am late with my thoughts on the latest episode. I’d actually been putting off my standard pre-blog second viewing, for two reasons. On the one hand I was so blown away by the unexpected cliff hanger that I didn’t think I would be able to say much besides “what will happen next week?” in various different ways. On the other, I was disappointed with The Almost People.
I should qualify that statement by explaining that when it comes to Doctor Who, even a below par outing is a must see event I can always derive satisfaction from. A bad Doctor Who episode is merely relatively poor, compared to the greatness of other episodes, and still one of the best things on telly.
Why was I disappointed though? It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact reason. As the Guardian series blog points out, the shocking and momentous twist at the end would overshadow whatever came before it, no matter how good it was. But The Almost People was certainly not as good as it could have been and not as good as the promise set up in The Rebel Flesh. In fact there were some shockingly bad elements.
As I said in last week’s piece, Matthew Graham’s script was inconsistent. After watching The Almost People for a second time, I liked it a lot more and appreciated the extremely intricate and clever plotting. All of the character development ploughed into the Gangers, for Jimmy and his son, Cleaves and her blood clot, even the Doctors shoe swapping, made more sense once you knew that this was all part of the Doctor mulling over Amy’s impostor. The Doctor still gets the odd good line; with Matt Smith making most of the disappointing ones look good too with a varied and vibrant performance. Re-watch it and see the burden of worry about where the real Amy is on his face, way before we find out.
However Graham’s script also contained such truly awful lines as “who are the real monsters?” and “It will destroy them all”. And whilst you can see the idea behind the development of the Gangers far more clearly after a second viewing, it doesn’t always come off, with stereotypical northern Buzzer not convincing at all as he moans “I should have been a postman like me dad”. Then there’s the terrible acting, which I touched upon last week, even more noticeable this time. Cleaves and Jennifer in particular are woefully portrayed.
So despite a lot of potential, with intelligent moral dilemmas and frightening psychological horror, this double bill never really grabbed my attention completely. Until the climax that is. With the rather random and forced CGI monster out of the way and the ridiculous farewell hugs when the beast was supposedly breaking down the door, the Doctor becomes grave and ushers Amy and Rory into the TARDIS. He had a reason for his visit to the factory with the flesh. Amy has not been with them for some time.
But how long? She must surely have been there for the Doctor’s death at the beginning of the series? Did the swap take place during an adventure we saw on screen or another in between time? It would seem a bit of a cop out if it just happened somewhere along the line and we’re not given a precise explanation as to when.
There are endless other questions, and knowing Moffat, the majority will be left unanswered. We are promised that next week’s A Good Man Goes to War will see the unveiling of River Song’s true identity though. And the trailer shows us that the Cybermen are back, but once again, knowing Moffat, they’re unlikely to be the real masterminds behind it all. Who impregnated Amy? Was the Timelord child from the opening two parter hers? The Doctor shouts something about not using a baby as a weapon in the trailer, to mysterious eye patch midwife Madame Kovarian, so how exactly does she do that?
After this disappointing pair of episodes following the superb The Doctor’s Wife by Neil Gaiman, doubts resurface, for me at least, about trying to do too much with the story arc. In overlaying so many secrets, which are often tagged onto the ends of episodes, Moffat risks devaluing the standalone stories and turning the increasingly strained relationships within the TARDIS into soap opera. I’m sure that A Good Man Goes to War will be an improvement on The Almost People, if only in terms of the quality of the dialogue. But hopefully, with some real answers, Doctor Who will also begin to get back to just telling damn good stories every week too.
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Isn’t it helpful when reviews compare a new film to something you’ve previously seen? Lots of writers have something resembling a “if you liked that you’ll like this” feature. It’s impossible to keep constantly clued up so to find out Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean 3 is a real time saver.
Seriously though what about when those comparisons are technically true but grossly misleading? It’s not really constructive to recommend Pixar’s Cars to someone who liked the revving, neon lighting and cheerleaders of The Fast and the Furious. Black Swan and Step Up are both about dancing but poles apart. Forced similarities are far from enlightening.
Bear that in mind when I tell you Winter’s Bone is like Hot Fuzz. It’s set in a close knit rural community. It’s about crime. It turns out that all the locals are part of a sinister conspiracy to protect the “greater good”, covering up murder most foul. The police are dodgy and probably in on it. A few characters have “great big bushy beards”.
Things happen in Hot Fuzz though. Apart from the above similarities, which made me long for Pegg and Frost blowing Wells to bits, Winter’s Bone is Hot Fuzz’s complete opposite in tone, style and substance. There is not a single laugh in it. Instead of explosions and comical supermarket shootouts, we get moody trudging through woods and a drug dealing lumberjack casually smashing in a windscreen with an axe. Instead of Nick Frost pretending to stab himself in the eye we get sombre, faultless acting.
Winter’s Bone is arty and managed to get enough critics gushing to earn Oscar nominations. It’s beautifully shot, showcasing one of the faces of America rarely given an outing at the multiplex; a bleak, rough and timber strewn existence. We follow Ree, convincingly played by Jennifer Lawrence, on her mostly far from fruitful quest to find her meth cooking Dad, who has skipped bail, jeopardising the family home. She stalks about a neighbourhood dependent on nature, trekking through the crunchy undergrowth to have uninformative conversations with an assortment of stripy shirted chaps playing earthy music. Her walking about the place is almost like a mind blowing and oh so subtle metaphor for her struggle through social convention for the truth and justice.
This is a film that will delight a certain audience, whilst sending others into a coma. I fell somewhere between the two views, partially numbed by the pedestrian pace but appreciative of the acting and cinematography. The drama is always of the dreary variety, except for one harrowing and emotional scene. I will try to avoid spoilers, but up until this point Ree appeared to be hardened beyond her years and unattached to her fugitive father. When she’s asked to carry out a gruesome task no daughter should ever have to do (relating to the film’s title) we see that she is merely a brave child underneath it all, scraping by.
Unfortunately Winter’s Bone doesn’t have enough of these genuinely moving moments to be engaging. It is atmospheric and pretty in its own way. Some will think sunbeams of quality shine from its every orifice. But I’d rather watch something less pretentious. Give me the silly satire of narrow minded communities in Hot Fuzz any day.
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