Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
If you thought the Viking Age was uninteresting in that old history textbook Pathfinder does it one better by actually upping the boring ante. In fact even ye Old World buffs out there will be disoriented. It’s set “600 years before Columbus ” when “people had to guard America’s shores from marauders.” One of those most noble guardsmen was Ghost (Karl Urban). Native Americans happened upon him as a young orphan boy and decided to raise him as one of their own--even though he was never truly accepted due to his unknown ancestry. Fifteen years pass and Ghost once a frail child has blossomed into a beast-sized man capable of warding off almost anyone. His size and skill set come in handy when Norse invaders look to raise hell in his village. Armed with horses swords and thorny helmets they kill and maim everyone in sight and mostly get away with it. That is until they mess with the object of Ghost’s affection Starfire (Moon Bloodgood) thereby seriously messing with Ghost. You don’t put Ghost in a corner! Beefcake actors are apparently a dime a dozen these days and Pathfinder lead Urban does nothing to separate himself from the supporting actors of his own movie let alone from the aforementioned Hollywood stereotype. Looking like a runway model on steroids the Lord of the Rings and Bourne Ultimatum star only stands out aesthetically here and is in danger of being pigeonholed and typecast for a long time to come. Unless he can somehow show a different side Urban will wind up on a long list with the likes of wrestlers-turned-actors who can’t act. Thing is in Pathfinder he can’t even manage the uber-virility his character is meant to project. Bloodgood (Eight Below) meanwhile owner of the best non-porn name in showbiz holds her own and softens things up in a movie otherwise completely dominated by males. And finally there's veteran Native American actor Russell Means (Natural Born Killers) who as the Pathfinder himself at least lends some desperately needed credibility. Looking up a director’s name and past work isn’t a fair way to pre-judge his or her movie but it may sometimes hint at what you’re in for. Take Pathfinder for example: Director Marcus Nispel's past work includes Texas Chainsaw Massacre and music videos. Massacre was terrible and music videos are stylized; thus we arrive upon Pathfinder which is terrible and stylized. When parents complain about violence in the movies this should be their focal point. Nispel like other offenders is unable to ever refrain and beheadings and such in all their slow-motion glory resemble fun video games. Not that his lack of morality makes Pathfinder the crap it is however. That blame rests on his apparent decision that such violence is all moviegoers want to see. And it is perhaps the sheer lack of a story that accentuates how mediocre the violent scenes really are--scenes that are meant to leave us agape in amazement as if we’ve never seen a loose eyeball on the screen before. On a (lone) positive note though the set design seems up-to-snuff.
A complete list of 44th Annual Grammy Award winners, announced Wednesday night:
Record of the Year: Walk On, U2
Rap Album: Stankonia, OutKast
Song of the Year: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys
Album of the Year: O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Various Artists
Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal: "Elevation," U2
New Artist: Alicia Keys
Country Collaboration with Vocals: "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen and Pat Enright (The Soggy Bottom Boys), from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
Female Pop Vocal Performance: "I'm Like a Bird," Nelly Furtado
R&B Album: Songs in A Minor, Alicia Keys
Rock Song: "Drops of Jupiter," Charlie Colin, Rob Hotchkiss, Pat Monahan, Jimmy Stafford and Scott Underwood (Train)
Pop Collaboration with Vocals: "Lady Marmalade," Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink
Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal: "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," U2
Rock Album: "All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2
Male Pop Vocal Performance: "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," James Taylor
Pop Instrumental Performance: "Reptile," Eric Clapton
Dance Recording: "All For You," Janet Jackson
Pop Instrumental Album: No Substitutions--Live in Osaka, Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather
Pop Vocal Album: Lovers Rock, Sade
Traditional Pop Vocal Album: Songs I Heard, Harry Connick Jr.
Female Rock Vocal Performance: "Get Right With God," Lucinda Williams
Male Rock Vocal Performance: "Dig In," Lenny Kravitz
Hard Rock Vocal: "Crawling," Linkin Park
Metal Performance: "Schism," Tool
Rock Instrumental Performance: "Dirty Mind," Jeff Beck
Alternative Music Album: Parachutes, Coldplay
Female R&B Vocal Performance: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys
Male R&B Vocal Performance: "U Remind Me," Usher
R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "Survivor," Destiny's Child
R&B Song: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys (Alicia Keys)
Traditional R&B Album: "At Last," Gladys Knight
Rap Solo Performance: "Get Ur Freak On," Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
Rap Performance by a Duo or Group: "Ms. Jackson," OutKast
Rap/Sung Collaboration: "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," Eve Featuring Gwen Stefani
Female Country Vocal Performance: "Shine," Dolly Parton
Male Country Vocal Performance: "O Death," Ralph Stanley, from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "The Lucky One," Alison Krauss + Union Station
Country Instrumental Performance: "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Earl Scruggs, Glen Duncan, Randy Scruggs, Steve Martin, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Gary Scruggs, Albert Lee, Paul Shaffer, Jerry Douglas and Leon Russell
Country Song: "The Lucky One," Robert Lee Castleman (Alison Krauss + Union Station)
Country Album: Timeless--Hank Williams Tribute, Various Artists
Bluegrass Album: New Favorite, Alison Krauss + Union Station
Contemporary Jazz Album: M2, Marcus Miller
Jazz Vocal Album: The Calling, Dianne Reeves
Jazz Instrumental Solo: "Chan's Song," Michael Brecker
Jazz Instrumental Album: This Is What I Do, Sonny Rollins
Large Jazz Ensemble Album: Homage To Count Basie, Bob Mintzer Big Band
Latin Jazz Album: Nocturne, Charlie Haden
Rock Gospel Album: Solo, DC Talk
Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album: CeCe Winans, CeCe Winans
Southern, Country or Bluegrass Album: Bill & Gloria Gaither Present A Billy Graham Music Homecoming, Bill and Gloria Gaither and The Homecoming Friends
Traditional Soul Gospel Album: Spirit of the Century, The Blind Boys of Alabama
Contemporary Soul Gospel Album: The Experience, Yolanda Adams
Gospel Choir or Chorus Album: Love Is Live!, LFT Church Choir, Hezekiah Walker, choir director
Latin Pop Album: La Musica De Baldemar Huerta, Freddy Fender
Latin Rock/Alternative Album: Embrace the Chaos, Ozomatli
Traditional Tropical Latin Album: Dejame Entrar, Carlos Vives
Salsa Album: Encore, Robert Blades
Merengue Album: Yo Por Ti, Olga Tanon
Mexican/Mexican-American Album: En Vivo ... El Hombre y Su Musica, Ramon Ayala y Sus Bravos del Norte
Tejano Album: Nadie Como Tu, Solido
Traditional Blues Album: Do You Get the Blues?, Jimmie Vaughan
Contemporary Blues Album: Nothing Personal, Delbert McClinton
Traditional Folk Album: Down From the Mountain, Various Artists
Contemporary Folk Album: Love and Theft, Bob Dylan
Native American Music Album: Bless the People--Harmonized Peyote Songs, Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike
Reggae Album: Halfway Tree, Damian Marley
World Music Album: Full Circle/Carnegie Hall 2000, Ravi Shankar
Polka Album: Gone Polka, Jimmy Sturr
Musical Album for Children: Elmo and the Orchestra, Sesame Street Characters
Spoken Word Album for Children: Mama Don't Allow, Tom Chapin
Spoken Word Album: Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, Quincy Jones
Spoken Comedy Album: Napalm and Silly Putty, George Carlin
Musical Show Album: The Producers, Original Broadway Cast with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, lyricist and composer Mel Brooks
Compilation Soundtrack Album For a Motion Picture, Television or other Visual Media: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Various Artists
Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or other Visual Media: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, composer Tan Dun
Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media: "Boss of Me," (They Might Be Giants from Malcolm in the Middle), songwriters They Might Be Giants
Instrumental Composition: "Cast Away (End Credits)," Alan Silvestri (Alan Silvestri)
Instrumental Arrangement: "Claude Debussy 'Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum' from Children's Corner," Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer (Bela Fleck with Joshua Bell and Gary Hoffmann)
Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s): "Drops of Jupiter," Paul Buckmaster (Train)
Recording Package: "Amnesiac (Special Limited Edition)" (Radiohead)
Boxed Recording Package: "Brain in a Box--The Science Fiction Collection," (Various Artists)
Album Notes: (tie) Richard Pryor ... And It's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992), (Richard Pryor); Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000 The Journey Of Chris Strachwitz, (Various Artists)
Historical Album: Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, (Billie Holiday)
Engineered Album, Non-Classical: The Look of Love, (Diana Krall)
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical: T Bone Burnett
Remixed of the Year, Non-Classical: Deep Dish, "Thank You (Deep Dish Vocal Remix)" (Dido)
Engineered Album, Classical: Bernstein (Arr. Brohn & Corigliano): West Side Story Suite (Lonely Town; Make Our Garden Grow, Etc.) (Joshua Bell)
Producer Of The Year, Classical: Manfred Eicher
Classical Album: Berlioz: Les Troyens, James Mallinson, producer
Orchestral Performance: "Boulez Conducts Varese (Ameriques; Arcana; Deserts; Ionisation)," Pierre Boulez (Chicago Sym. Orch.)
Opera Recording: "Berlioz: Les Troyens," Sir Colin Davis; Michelle De Young, Ben Heppner, Petra Lang, Peter Mattei, Stephen Milling, Sara Mingardo, Kenneth Tarver; James Mallinson, producer (Various Artists; London Sym. Orch.)
Choral Performance Award: "Bach: St. Matthew Passion," Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Arnold Schoenberg Chamber Orch. and Wiener Sangerknaben; Concentus Musicus Wien)
Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance: "Strauss Wind Concertos (Horn Concerto; Oboe Concerto, etc.)," Dale Clevenger, horn; Larry Combs, clarinet; Alex Klein, oboe; David McGill, bassoon; Daniel Barenboim, piano/conductor (Chicago Sym. Orch.)
Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra): "Britten Cello Suites (1-3)," Truls Mork, cello
Chamber Music Performance: "Haydn: The Complete String Quartets," The Angeles String Quartet
Small Ensemble Performance (with or without Conductor): "After Mozart (Raskatov, Silvestrov, Schnittke, Etc.)," Kremerata Baltica; Gidon Kremer, violin
Classical Vocal Performance: "Dreams & Fables--Gluck Italian Arias (Tremo Fra' Dubbi Miei; Di Questa Cetra in Seno, etc.)," Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo soprano
Classical Contemporary Composition: "Rouse: Concert De Gaudi for Guitar and Orch.," Christopher Rouse, composer
Classical Crossover Album: Perpetual Motion (Scarlatti, Bach, Debussy, Chopin, etc.) Bela Fleck, banjo (Joshua Bell, violin; Evelyn Glennie, marimba; Gary Hoffman, cello; Edgar Meyer, bass and piano; Chris Thile, mandolin; John Williams, guitar)
Short Form Music Video: "Weapon of Choice," Fatboy Slim featuring Bootsy Collins
Long Form Music Video: "Recording the Producers--A Musical Romp With Mel Brooks," Mel Brooks (with Various Artists including Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick)
New Age Album: A Day Without Rain, Enya