Monthly Archives: June 2011

X-Men: First Class

After several rewrites, late reshoots and a change of directors X-Men: First Class has finally hit the big screen. I was initially skeptical of this film. X-Men has long been my favourite comic book franchise but I felt burned with the last 2 releases (the ridiculous X-Men: The Last Stand and Wolverine: Origins) which squandered interesting story lines in the pursuit of ‘mutant power mania’, creating self indulgent CGI spectacles. So needless to say my expectations for X-Men: First Class were fairly low. However, director Matthew Vaughn was able to defy the odds and pull off a very entertaining and cohesive film. X-Men: First Class is very cleverly set during the The Cuban Missle Crisis of the 1960′s. The story follows the origins of Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) aka Magneto, and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) , aka Professor X. Opening scenes focus on the childhood of both men; Erik was a prisoner in Hitler’s concentration camps while Charles led a privileged, though neglected life in New York. Fast forward a few years and Charles has finished his doctorate in genetics, while Erik is busy hunting ex-Nazi’s, looking for Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), the man responsible for killing his mother. In a twist of fate, both him and Charles team up with the CIA to look for Schmidt, now known as Sebastian Shaw, in the hopes of stopping his sinister plans with the Russian and US Army to start a new world war. The driving force of the film relies on the push and pull of Erik and Charles’ basic moral values. Erik is all about survival and has no confidence in man’s ability to accept and live in peaceful cohabitation with mutants. Charles, on the other hand, is an idealist and dreams of a time when mutants and man can mutually respect each other. This key characterization and the other moral questions presented play off quite well, especially since the ‘superhuman’ aspect of the film is muted. While there is of course the obligatory training montage of super powers and a few awesome action sequences, they are hardly the focus of the film and are not used as a crutch for an underdeveloped story (a common problem in many superhero films). X-Men: First Class’ also boasts an excellent lead cast. Michael Fassbender in particular stands out above the rest, fusing Erik with appropriate amounts of brutal morality and passionate conviction as he seeks revenge and ultimately strives to stop history from repeating itself in the form of a mutant holocaust. The story moves quickly, making it’s 2 hour and 12 minute run time fly by. I have only a few qualms with the film. One glaring issue is the quality of January Jones’ acting. While beautiful, she spends most of the film walking about in her underwear looking vacuous and unfortunately for Ms. Jones, her talent is not nearly as developed as her breasts. While her character, Emma Frost, is meant to be calculated and cold (pun intended), Jones’ complete lack of passion leaves the majority of her lines falling flat and lacking any conviction. Finally, there is the matter of continuity with the rest of the X-Men series. It is hard to tell if this is a reboot or a prequel. The entertaining cameos from former X-men actors, as well as the film’s advertisements, point towards it being a prequel. This could just be my raging nerd sensibilities talking but there are some points that don’t quite match up. Such as the use of Emma Frost, shown to be a young teenager in Wolverine: Origins which takes place roughly 10 years after this film or the differing roles of Moira MacTaggert (played in First Class by Rose Byrne) in X-Men: Last Stand and X-Men: First Class. However, continuity issues and January Jones aside, I tip my hat to Matthew Vaughn who rescued this fertile franchise from almost certain destruction.

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House (Hausu)

A few weeks ago I went down to The Pacific Cinematheque (one of my favourite haunts) to check out House (Hausu). I didn’t know what to expect, other than that it had become a cult classic in Japan. To this day I am not sure if anything could have truly prepared me for the insanity that awaited. The story follows a group of 7 school girls on their summer holiday. The lead protagonist, Gorgeous, (each girl is named after a ruling personality attribute ie. Prof, Kung Fu and Fantasy) convinces the girls to come visit her aunt out in the country who she hasn’t seen since her childhood. Unfortunately her aunt is haunted by the memory of her lost lover, and has since become a malevolent spirit in possession of a demonic cat, a sinister house and a ravenous hunger for young girls. Gorgeous and company soon learn after the mysterious disappearance of some of their group, that they’ll have to rely on their wits and individual strengths to discover the secrets of the house if they want to make it through the night alive. House is completely deranged, and I do mean that in the most complimentary sense. Released in Japan in 1977, it only began to be distributed in North America in 2009. House fuses genres, taking a typical horror storyline and turning it on its ear, combining it with comedy and melodrama. Part soap opera, part paranoid delusion, House makes ample use of wind machines, vaseline on the lens gauzy effects and stage blood. One of House’s strongest points is that it takes ideas that are genuinely creepy and pushes them over the edge to comic absurdism. Furthermore, the experimental effects utilized by director and producer Nobuhiko Obayashi are hands down the highlight of this film and maximize its surreal impact. Nobuhiko Obayashi reportedly wanted to achieve an unrealistic look and makes use of paint, animation, and over the top stage gore. Not willing to compromise his vision, Nobuhiko uses these effects to bring his audience memorable images of murderous pianos and renegade lamp shades. It is honestly difficult to find a flaw in this film, since I believe that every element contributes to the overall feeling. While the acting is amateur and over the top (Obayashi used mainly non-actors) and the dialogue inane I feel that it all just adds to the experience of Obayashi’s funhouse. This film is not for everybody, but for anyone who wants to let go of all sense of reason and just have fun for an hour and a half, House provides a surreal and ridiculous dreamscape, and it’s well worth it.

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Filed under Dark Comedy, Horror

Thor

Shakespeare meets a hammer wielding Norse God. Sounds like an interesting combination, and it is for the most part. Kenneth Branagh takes the helm of Thor which leads this summer’s pack of comic releases (soon to be followed by X-Men: First Class and Captain America) and deviates from the regular fare of superhuman characters to something more divine. Branagh focuses the film on his characters inner struggles against self and identity and thus shies away from the obvious choice of making Thor an explosive action flick. It’s an interesting gamble, and it succeeds to a certain degree. Unfortunately, Branagh is contending with a script that does not have the writing or character development to allow for a very interesting story. Furthermore, while there are a few action scenes to raise the audience’s collective heart rate, they feel uninspired and fail to give Thor a much needed spark. Thus Thor is an odd chimera, sitting in a no man’s land, wedged between an action film and a Shakespearean-esque character drama. The film’s main plot revolves around Thor’s redemption after he breaks a long standing truce between the Asgardian’s (his people) and the Frost Giants. After this little indiscretion his father, Odin, banishes Thor from Asgard faster than you can mispronounce ‘Mjolnir’, in the hopes of teaching him humility. He lands on Earth, befriends a ragtag group of humans led by scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and from here hilarity ensues as Thor is thrust into everyday earthly activities armed only with his Asgardian know-how. Typically, I think redemption storylines work quite well in comic adaptations (i.e. Iron Man), however it feels as though the writers didn’t take much time developing the plot or characters, focusing more on the jokes then the overall story arch. Thor’s path to redemption does not feel like a journey of personal growth for as soon as he hits earth, he quickly sheds most of his arrogance and becomes the perfect gentleman. Furthermore, the subplot regarding Thor’s treacherous brother Loki feels even less loved as it is both dull and predictable, culminating in a very anticlimactic ending.
The films strongest points are definitely in the performances of Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth. Hopkins brings a restrained power to his character and makes good of his limited screen time as the ruler of Asgard and Thor’s father, Odin. Hemsworth is a lot of fun to watch as Thor, infusing the character with the perfect amount of passion, aggression and good humour. Co-stars Natalie Portman, Stellen Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings prove capable in their roles though like the story their characters feel a little undercooked. Although Portman is an intelligent woman, she is not scripted as a believable scientist, for while she can pronounce complicated theorem she spends most of her screen time giggling in a tizzy over Thor.
Thor is a fun summer film but its weak storyline and unsteady character development amounts to only a slightly above average turnout for Marvel Studios, landing it firmly between Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk on my Marvel meter.

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