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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
When all-American girl Susan Murphy is inadvertently hit by a falling meteor on her wedding day she grows to be nearly 50 feet tall. The U.S. military gets wind of this renames her Ginormica and locks her away with a slacker group of other “monsters” in a top-secret compound. But when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and begins wreaking havoc these good-hearted but inept creatures are called into action by the President and must band together as a team to save the world from certain catastrophe.
WHO’S IN IT?
As usual Dreamworks has assembled a stellar A-list voice cast led by Reese Witherspoon as Susan/Ginormica. Playing one of the rare female animated heroes Witherspoon’s sweet/confused demeanor — in light of her highly unusual status as a fearsome freakazoid — hits just the right tone generously letting her zanier colleagues steal scenes from right under her (a long way down by the way). Chief among these are a not-so-bright gelatinous blue mass named B.O.B. hilariously voiced by Seth Rogen; the genius Dr. Cockroach Ph.D in the capable hands of House doc Hugh Laurie; and Will Arnett’s half-ape half-fish The Missing Link. In the human roles there’s Stephen Colbert as the idiotic U.S. President Kiefer Sutherland as the monster’s prison guardian Paul Rudd as the ego-driven weatherman fiancé of Susan; and a deliciously villainous Rainn Wilson as Galaxhar the alien determined to take over Earth.
Superb 3-D effects aren’t overdone and add immeasurably to the ginormous fun of the film but even seeing it in theaters that only show it in regular 2-D doesn’t spoil the pure joy of this cartoonish War of the Worlds. Throw in parodies of every cheap '50s sci-fi movie you can think of and you have the ingredients for a silly monster mash sure to appeal to just about anyone who wants to laugh. Despite the impressive production elements it’s the smart and clever script that really sets it apart from its competitors — and that even includes the similar Monsters Inc. from Pixar.
Like any kid-oriented comic ‘toon today the action can be a bit too frenetic and Monsters vs. Aliens piles a lot of it on in its trim 95 minutes. Still the lovable characters carry the day and somehow make it all palatable.
When Susan now Ginormica brings her new friends home to meet her parents chaos ensues and so do the laughs. Also impressive are the large action scenes that make fine use of CGI animation breakthroughs.
BEST SUPPORTING BLOB:
It's easily the one-eyed lame-brained blue lug of a people hugger named B.O.B. perfectly matched to the talents of Rogen. He rolls away with the movie and inevitably the merchandise tie-ins.
Duncan: 'Jen & Ben are the real thing'
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner's Daredevil co-star Michael Clarke Duncan is sure the couple are set to wed later this year and he's convinced they're perfect for each other. The former bodyguard was a special guest at the Las Vegas, Nevada, premiere for Garner's Daredevil spin-off Elektra, where Affleck sneaked in a back door. And he gushed about their romance, calling it the real thing: "They're so good together and I can see the love in them. It's not one of them Hollywood things. When they marry, it's going to be real and it's going to be for a long time." Duncan wishes his friends every success, and hopes they don't end up like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston--another celebrity couple who the hulking actor felt sure were destined to stay together forever. He adds, "In Hollywood, there's so many pressures on you, especially when two superstars marry--because you're gone, your wife is gone, you probably don't
spend enough time at home alone."
Jolie hopes to adopt tsunami orphan
Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie is so moved by the effects of the Dec. 26 tsunami in South Asia, she's embarked on plans to adopt one of the region's many orphans. The brunette beauty, who is a United Nations (UN) Goodwill Ambassador, recently announced plans to travel to hard-hit Sri Lanka in the coming weeks to help out as best she can, and now she also hopes to have one of the children in her custody. She tells TV show Celebrity Justice, "I think if children need a home, to adopt them is wonderful. I will be looking into the orphans that have just lost their parents, but always wherever there's a need. So we'll see how big my family grows over time." The plight of the world's orphans has long been a subject close to Jolie's heart--in 2002 she adopted Cambodian orphan Maddox.
Paltrow: 'Martin isn't a baby-sitter'
Hollywood star Gwyneth Paltrow has hit out at claims she bosses rocker husband Chris Martin around. The Coldplay front man has been left holding the couple's seven-month-old daughter Apple while Paltrow promoted her recent movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which hit cinemas in the U.S. and much of Europe last year, but has yet to be released in Australia. But Paltrow insists she doesn't force Martin to baby-sit. She tells Pagesix.com, "I've never said that. I hope he doesn't read this, he would kill me. I definitely don't boss him around."
Cruise and Kidman embarrass their kids
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's adopted children are so embarrassed by their showbiz connections, they once tried to change their names. Cruise and Kidman have found that while Isabella, 12, and nine-year-old Conor enjoy their family life at home, they're not too thrilled about their pals knowing who their parents are. Kidman admits, "They're embarrassed--they're very embarrassed. They actually deny us, which is okay. They tried to change their last name and they go, 'Don't come (to our school), whatever you do, don't come!' I go to Conor's soccer game and Bella's there on the sidelines and she's like, 'Don't touch me!' Then I tease her and kiss her and she gets really angry. Anyway, she's gonna kill me because I'm not actually allowed to talk about them. So I'm in huge trouble now!"
Garner's co-star worries he injured her
Jennifer Garner's Elektra co-star Will Yun Lee cringed when he heard the actress was fighting nerve damage because he felt sure he was to blame for her health crisis. The stunning action girl had to pull out of promotional duties for the film last week after suffering a back injury in a stunt on the set of the Daredevil spin-off. And when Lee heard that, he almost pulled out of attending Saturday's premiere in Las Vegas, Nevada. He says, "I accidentally slashed her with my sword and there was blood everywhere, but she stuck her hand in the dirt and kept going. I thought I was going to get fired, but she was ready to keep fighting. I was a nervous wreck, I turned white. We almost had to shut the day down because of me." But Garner herself insists her injury wasn't that bad--she got an extended Christmas break out of it. She says, "I wasn't feeling well over Christmas, I didn't know why, I thought I had some kind of infection and it turned out that I had bashed up my back a little bit. But I did get a couple of extra days off over my Christmas break, so that was a bargain, and it all turned out OK. I'm feeling OK and ready to get back on the horse."
Will Smith sells off hotel project
Will Smith has scrapped plans to develop a hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, because he feared the project would be a huge flop. The actor and his brother bought a derelict property in the city's Society
Hill five years ago with a view to developing it as a top hotel. The businessmen secured millions in tax incentives from local authorities to get the project up and running, but a recent plunge in hotel business in the city has prompted the Smiths to sell off the land. The sale is great news for Smith and his partners as they've made three times what they paid for the site in 2000. Smith's real-estate company, Treyball Development, regularly invests in building projects in Philadelphia. The brothers currently co-own a former furniture company and a funeral home among other projects.
Portman to go back to school?
Actress Natalie Portman has been targeted to front a new TV series about a fictitious boarding school shrouded in "drugs, elitism and pretentiousness". The sexy Leon beauty's New York pals Taylor Materne, Hobson Brown and Jardine Libare have teamed up to pen a script and film a pilot for the New England, America-based show. And the budding trio have asked their superstar friend to lend her talent to their planned production, reports Pagesix.com. Materne says, "We are not trashing the boarding schools like Hotchkiss, St Paul's and Andover. We are just giving an honest portrayal."
Moore to take care of his health in 2005
Controversial filmmaker Michael Moore has made a New Year's resolution to take care of his weight, and worry less about everybody else's problems. Moore, who has exposed his findings on America's gun violence and the current Iraq war in Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 respectively, admits his wide girth is something he's now going focus on in 2005. He says, "I think maybe just this year (I'll) just try and save myself, instead of everything else. (I'll) just take better care of myself, because we should all take better care of ourselves. Too much fast food. I grew up in the Midwest, so I have a basic Midwestern diet--stuff with grease on it!" Before Moore starts working on his body, he has his next documentary to make--Sicko, about America's health care service.
Jackman makes musical pact with Disney
X-Men star Hugh Jackman is set to show off his musical skills in a string of movies, after signing a special deal with Disney. The Australian actor has signed a non-exclusive deal with the filmmaking giants through his new venture with Chicago executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The deal came about after Disney bosses were impressed with Jackman's Tony-winning performance in the Broadway show The Boy from Oz. The actor says, "I'm lucky that at the time my career in movies was building, the movie musical genre that had been in the desert for 20 years started to come back. As an art form, the musical is Mount Everest: tough to pull off, but exhilarating and timeless when it works. And when it is done badly, it stinks to high heaven." Jackman says Disney will develop as many as three projects at the same time--and he's hoping none of them will be remakes. He adds, "There might be a classic out there that can be redone and find an audience, but I am personally more interested in finding something new."
Foxx unveils plans for new comedy sketch show
Collateral star Jamie Foxx is clearing some time in his increasingly busy schedule to work on a TV pilot for a new comedy sketch show. The comedian has had the Untitled Jamie Foxx Sketch Show in the works for a number of years, but became too busy to devote his attentions to it, as his movie career took off. But now the funnyman has embarked on a search for an ensemble of comedic actors who can do improvisation, original characters and impersonations, to star in the show. The project will follow the format of Foxx's popular 1990s show In Living Color, which featured Jim Carrey, Chris Rock and the Wayans brothers among its cast--and Jennifer Lopez as a member of the Fly Girl dancing troupe.
Grace compares work on show to taking crack
Actor Topher Grace is having great difficulty imagining what his life will be like once he leaves That 70s Show--because he likens working on the sitcom to taking crack. This season of the comedy will be Grace's seventh and last, as he moves on to pursue other acting opportunities. But he admits leaving his co-stars--including Ashton Kutcher and Wilmer Valderrama--behind will be a tough adjustment. He says, "Thinking about the end makes me really sad, but I wanted to go out on top, out of respect for the show. Still, I can't even imagine that last taping. Being in front of the audience every Friday night is like crack. I mean, what I imagine crack to be like. Anyway, it's amazing, and it's been a big part of my life. My cast mates are like my family--we've gone through so much together--and I will miss working with them."
Law delays Miller wedding
Movie hunk Jude Law has shattered his fiancee Sienna Miller's hopes of marrying this year--by announcing they "could be engaged for years." The Alfie star proposed to the stunning actress on Christmas Day and Miller, 23, is so impatient to marry 32-year-old Law, she has been visiting London's most exclusive jewelers searching for a finger band to equal her diamond engagement ring. But Law has refused to wed the blonde beauty until the media attention has worn off, and he fears that could take years. He explains, "We could be engaged for years. If we do wed, it will be well away from the press."
Star Trek movie scrapped
The latest installment in the Star Trek movie series has been scrapped by film-makers who were disappointed by the finished screenplay. Paramount hoped to take the sci-fi franchise back before William Shatner's Captain Kirk took charge of the Starship Enterprise and prequel the legendary TV series--but plans have been put on hold. A source says, "Paramount was not happy with the direction the story was heading." But Hollywood insiders insist a follow-up to 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis will be made: "Star Trek will return to the big screen at some stage."
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