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.
Based on an autobiographical novel by British author Nick Hornby about his obsession with football (soccer to us American folk) Fever Pitch gets a stateside makeover. Of course the term "sports fanatic" takes on a whole new meaning when you're talking about an avid Red Sox follower. I mean it takes a special kind of person to unconditionally love a baseball team that until last year was considered cursed because it hadn't won a World Series since 1918. This is what business consultant Lindsay Meeks (Drew Barrymore) learns when she meets and falls for Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon) a charming happy-go-lucky high school math teacher who also happens to be a Red Sox nut. Since they fall in love during the winter Lindsay is already hooked once summertime rolls around and she witnesses how truly deep Ben's obsession goes. That's OK she can handle it. She's an ambitious workaholic bucking for a promotion and can relate. But really she can't. Ben's level of commitment to the team goes way beyond what she expected and Lindsay realizes she needs more from him than he seems willing to give. Can Ben give up his beloved Bosox--even as they enter into one of the most incredible seasons in baseball history--just so he can be with his beloved? Ah the course of true love never runs smooth.
It took her awhile to find her true calling but Drew Barrymore has finally cornered the market on sweet and appealing romantic comedies. The Wedding Singer Never Been Kissed 50 First Dates all hit home runs. It's because Barrymore plays it smart and finds the right leading guys to connect with and she's got her own obsession with Saturday Night Live alums. First Adam Sandler and now Fallon. For all his juvenile behavior on SNL Fallon actually pulls off Pitch's very adult romantic duties with aplomb even if he still maintains his ever-present boyish quality. The best thing about these two is that they make Lindsay and Ben's love affair and its progression genuine. From the first date during which Lindsay comes down with the stomach flu and Ben gently takes care of her to their bittersweet split after he blames her for missing the best game the Red Sox ever played against rivals the New York Yankees their relationship never rings untrue. It'd be nice to see them paired up again. Maybe they could have a love triangle with Sandler. Yeah that's the ticket!
They can do it. Peter and Bobby Farrelly can actually make a movie that doesn't include one fart joke. Wow. So what do you think it is about Fever Pitch a cute love story that curves dangerously away from their usual broad and outlandish efforts that appeals to the brothers Farrelly? Could it be that they are enormous Red Sox fans? Aha! Apparently the guys had to chase this one pretty hard before the powers that be decided to let these two pranksters handle the job. But they had help. Scripted by another well-known comedy duo City Slickers' Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel Fever Pitch starts off slow but builds momentum. It keeps to the classic boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl and boy-gets-girl-back scenario but adds in the whole baseball extremist element. To be honest it's pretty darn fascinating to learn about the Red Sox's romantic heart-wrenching superstitious history. But the most amazing thing about the making of Fever Pitch is that it actually had to be done on the fly--well at least the ending. As it turns out during the filming the Boston Red Sox actually went on to win that elusive World Series championship. No one thought it was going to happen. No one planned for it. But it sure makes for a fairy-tale ending doesn't it?
October 25, 2002 1:51pm EST
Captain Sean Murphy (Gabriel Byrne) leads a salvage team of five people aboard the tugboat Arctic Warrior with Maureen (Julianna Margulies) as something of a second in command. At a bar one night the crew is approached by a Canadian Air Force pilot (Desmond Harrington) who while monitoring icebergs in the Bering Sea spotted a mysterious vessel. He offers to divulge its location for a cut of whatever it's worth. What the crew finds are the decaying remains of the Antonio Graza an Italian cruise ship thought to be lost at sea for more than 40 years. While scavenging the vessel for valuables the salvage team discovers that something horrendous happened on board four decades ago. To make matters worse the crew starts seeing ghosts including a little girl named Katie (Emily Browning) who warns them to get off the ship before it's too late. Let's just say that the plot involves something about a ghost tricking people into boarding the ship in order to amass a certain amount of souls and complete a mission of sorts. Don't be surprised if you find yourself scratching your head when the ghost's true intentions are revealed--the film leaves many questions unanswered.
Former ER star Margulies (Dinosaur) shares the lead here with Byrne (End of Days) and the most refreshing thing of all is that there is no romance between the two characters. Maureen is a tough and independent woman who has no qualms about living at sea with a bunch of grubby men and Margulies portrays that well. We are told that Maureen and Byrne's character Murphy have a father-daughter-type relationship but that is not explored on screen. While Byrne plays a convincing rugged sea captain his character is never delved into and is dismissed rather abruptly. In fact that is the biggest problem with most of the actors and their characters; they are more like slightly more developed extras brought in to become victims rather than the film's protagonists. Harrington's (We Were Soldiers) character Jack is not as glazed over as the others and the actor conveys the different sides of his personality well enough. The rest of the crew including Ron Eldard as Dodge Isaiah Washington as First Mate Greer Alex Dimitriades as Santos and Karl Urban as Munder do the best they could with the flat and disposable characters they are given.
Ghost Ship opens up with a fantastic scene that involves hundreds of crewmembers and passengers getting dismembered by a high tension wire that slices across the boats main deck. Too bad it's so implausible because unless the wire was lined with razor blades all those bodies wouldn't have been severed so neatly. The massacre is set aboard the Antonio Graza back in 1962 when cruises were still considered a luxury. But when the film zips back to present day it becomes less imaginative and director Steve Beck (Thirteen Ghosts) dips into the old haunted-stories bag o' tricks including ghost reflections in mirrors. But while the gags are a little worn they still scare and are constant enough to keep the film from lagging. The film comes in under 90 minutes which isn't short enough to graze over some of the story's plot holes. The characters for example jump in and out of the icy Bering Sea without the slightest quiver even though their survival time in the 45-degree waters would be measured in minutes. And if Ghost Ship sounds familiar that's because it was made in 1997 and called Event Horizon except that rescue mission was set in the year 2047 aboard a space ship.