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.
Easy A a teen sex comedy with no actual sex aims rather conspicuously to plumb the best bits of Diablo Cody and Alexander Payne in its upside-down self-consciously campy take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In the role of its high-school Hester Prynne is Emma Stone the sly husky heroine of last year’s surprise hit Zombieland. Tested by a film that is far less clever than its director Will Gluck or screenwriter Bert Royal would have us believe (and they desperately want us to believe) she passes with flying colors delivering a performance that should elevate her into the upper echelon of actresses possessing brains and beauty in equal measure.
Stone plays Olive the kind of quick-witted hyper-literate teen that our educational system produces in ever-diminishing numbers. (If it ever produced them to begin with.) More knowing and sophisticated than others her age she is nonetheless not immune to the pressure of peers and the dread of being labeled a loser. Under duress by a prying friend (Aly Michalka) to dish the details of her birthday weekend a rather mundane affair mainly spent jumping on her bed to the tune of Natasha Bedingfield’s pop monstrosity “Pocket Full of Sunshine ” she feels compelled to embellish a bit and concocts an entirely fictional account of losing her virginity (dubbed the “V-Card” by Royal trying too hard) to a boy from a junior college across town.
Word of Olive’s deflowering spreads with startling speed aided by the incessant rumor-mongering of a catty Evangelical eavesdropper (Amanda Bynes). Suddenly branded a tramp on account of a seemingly harmless little lie Olive opts to embrace her newly tarnished reputation and put it to good use. In a viciously stratified social environment where even the most awkward acne-plagued pariah can earn respect and even admiration from members of the upper castes for having gone All the Way Olive anoints herself the Mother Theresa of (fake) sluts bestowing her blessing upon downtrodden gents in need of a reputation boost. And she resolves to look the part too traipsing around in scandalous bustiers and affixing the letter “A” to her chest.
There are limits to Easy A’s Scarlet Letter conceit overly Glee-ful tone forced repartee and pop-culture references (John Hughes is invoked so many times he should get a producer credit). Which is why director Gluck must be grateful to have found Stone who handles the verbal calisthenics of Royal’s script with charm and verve and a certain effortless appeal that keeps us engaged even as the film wallows in contrived irony and heavy-handedness. Keep your eye on her.
Tragedy strikes the Marshall University community when a plane crash claims the lives of most of the football team coaches and some fans. With the whole town traumatized university president Donald Dedmond (David Strathairn) thinks it's best to cancel the football program but remaining players led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) rally the school to support continuing the team's honor. Of course nobody wants to coach in these circumstances--that is until rogue bad boy Jake Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) asks for the job. Along with surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) they build the team back up. Just putting the team back together raises the town's spirits but getting back the winning record is another story. This could have easily been a sappy tearjerker but it sticks to the high road for the most part. There are some sad scenes (i.e. the cheerleader [Kate Mara] returning the engagement ring her dead boyfriend gave her to his mourning daddy) but otherwise the focus is on moving ahead. Just about every actor gets at least one big moment to cry. That's a given in a story of this nature and some of them are better than others. Mackie's stoic attempt to take punches in an injured shoulder is full of passion but Fox's random breakdown is well just like a flashback from Lost. He is better on the field showing us a side to his personality we haven’t seen yet. Strathairn seems the most sympathetic as the pained authority figure making tough decisions. Mara (Brokeback Mountain) looks so innocent you just want to hold her hand and stroke her hair every time she wells up. Aside from that there's also a lot of personality in the film. McConaughey leads the team with a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his lips but it never comes across as insensitive. He’s hip so of course he's the one who can lead them out of tragedy. And as an ensemble film the cast comes together as a community in which a single tragedy can affect them all and a single victory can give them hope. McG totally restrains his bombastic Charlie's Angels style of filmmaking for this character piece. Just about the only noticeably fancy shot is a dissolve from Mara looking up at the plane to her boyfriend staring out the airplane window. It's a moving moment because we know what is coming and it does not call too much attention to the filmmaking process. McG knows how to do some great montages too. Recruiting the new players running the drills--they're all full of visual moments set to a rocking soundtrack. Most importantly he handles the tragedy with class and doesn’t deliberately try to jerk tears. The plane crashes with only a single jump and a fade to black but the wreckage burns through our hearts. Instead McG shows there's a way to honor the dead to take back a community's pride and let life go on without disrespecting any of the departed. The football games in We Are Marshall are filmed with visceral impacts pretty much the way most sports movies are. There's no Friday Night Lights grit but that's fine. These games are about telling a story not exposing the seedy underbelly of the sport.
Sean Combs premiered his new collection of men's underwear, pajamas and robes on Wednesday at Bloomingdale's, Reuters reports. Sean John Loungewear has been available at Bloomingdale's for less than two weeks and is selling well, the store's fashion director Kal Ruttenstein said.
Singer Stevie Nicks has postponed two concerts at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles to undergo treatment for severe bronchitis, The Associated Press reports. The two shows will be rescheduled at a later date. Nicks expects to return to her "Trouble in Shangri-La Tour" in Las Vegas Saturday if she responds well to medication.
French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo was released from the hospital Wednesday after making what doctors call a remarkable recovery, according to Reuters. Belmondo was admitted to Saint Joseph's hospital in Paris two weeks ago after suffering from a stroke while vacationing on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Belmondo, 68, starred in Jean-Luc Goddard's 1960 film Breathless.
Raymond E. Scott, the co-owner of Source magazine, was arrested one day after the Source Hip Hop Music Awards in Miami Beach, AP reports. According to police, Scott was arrested Tuesday and charged with reckless driving, battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence, driving with a suspended license and possession of marijuana. Police stopped Scott for speeding and say he became verbally abusive with the officer who ordered him out of the car. Source CEO David Mays reportedly tried to pressure police to drop the charges by threatening to tear up the city and call Jesse Jackson. A spokeswoman for the magazine said a statement would be released Thursday.
Rapper Nate Dogg was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine after pleading no contest to a charge of possessing an unmarked firearm, AP reports. The rapper, whose real name is Nathaniel Dawayne Hale, was arrested on June 18, 2000, for allegedly kidnapping his girlfriend, holding her against her will, assaulting her and setting a car on fire. The charges were later dismissed at a preliminary hearing.
Actor Roy Scheider could face possible jail time if he fails to appear at his next hearing scheduled in a few weeks, according to PageSix.com. Scheider owes his ex-wife Cynthia nearly $1.4 million in payments stipulated by their 1989 divorce agreement. Scheider and his lawyer Samuel Sharp failed to show up for a hearing last Thursday at the Central Islip, Long Island, courthouse. Sharp reportedly called the courthouse minutes before the hearing, claiming he was stuck in traffic. But when Judge Morton I. Willen called the Nassau and Suffolk County highway patrols, he was told that traffic on the Long Island Expressway was running smoothly. The judge warned Sharp that his stall tactics were intolerable and said that the lawyer could face jail time if he failed to show at the next hearing.
State regulators have proposed fines of nearly $59,000 against Sony Pictures for an accident resulting in the death of a welder Tim Holcombe on the set of Spider-Man, Variety reports. Hale died on Mar. 6 after he was struck in the head when a boom extension fell onto the aerial basket in which he was working. The California Division of Occupational Safety & Health said that Sony owned Columbia Pictures failed to use good engineering practices and that the capacity, operation and maintenance instruction plate had not been changed according to specifications. They also allege that Holcombe did not have adequate fall protection, such as a safety harness. The studio has until Sept. 6 to file an appeal.
The British media is having a field day over Mick Jagger's appearance Thursday on the cover of Britain's Saga Magazine, a publication aimed at people over the age of 50, Reuters reports. Jagger is promoting the new film Enigma, which he produced along with Lorne Michaels. The film is set in 1943, the same year that Jagger was born. Saga editor Paul Bach thought it would be a perfect subject for his readers. The Rolling Stones singer, once known as the wild man of rock 'n' roll, is reportedly dating 23-year-old model Sophie Dahl.
Michael Crawford is returning to Broadway with Dance of the Vampires, Variety reports. The show, which will open on April 11 at the Minskoff Theater, is based on Roman Polanski's 1967 movie The Fearless Vampire Killers. The musical premiered in Vienna four years ago and was directed by Polanski, but show organizers were unable to get the director back into the United States to work on the play. Polanski fled the country in 1977 when facing charges of statutory rape. Crawford, who starred in The Phantom of the Opera for 14 years, has committed to the show for one year in New York.
Tony Danza will host the Miss America Pageant, becoming the first solo male to host the event since Bert Parks in 1980, Reuters reports. Parks died in 1992 and hosted the pageant for 25 years. Danza will replace Donny and Marie Osmond, who have been emceeing the event for the past two years. The Miss America Pageant organizers are trying to boost ratings and appeal to viewers by incorporating elements of reality TV shows and have also added a game show segment.
George Michael has returned the piano used by John Lennon to record the song Imagine to the Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool, AP reports. Michael bought the 31-year-old piano at an auction last year for $2 million. At the time, the pop star said that the instrument should be seen by people rather than protected in storage somewhere. But Michael first wanted to use the piano to record a song on his next album. Lennon, who bought the piano in 1970, was killed in New York City more than 20 years ago.
Eric McCormack and Debra Messing from NBC's Will & Grace have been added to the presenters list for the 53rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards, according toVariety. Other presenters include Kelsey Grammer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sela Ward, Martin Sheen, Jessica Alba, Michael Michele and Amy Brenneman.