Saturday, 9 July 2011

Review Time - X-Men: First Class

I've been pretty lazy about reviewing lately, but luckily, those days are coming to a middle. 
I recently saw X-Men: First class, which seems as good a time as any to get back into this whole reviewing things business. Read on, etc.

X-Men is a pretty beleaguered franchise. After the complete letdown of Last Stand, it seemed like the series had hit a low point. Then came Wolverine: origins, a film that was a kick in the teeth not just to X-men fans, but really just about anyone with functioning eyes and ears. The series seemed pretty much dead in the water, but Fox weren't about to let go yet. To prevent them having to give up the rights to the franchise, they legally had to make another film, and hence X-men: First Class was born. Hardly an auspicious beginning by any means. Worse, the first promotional images released seemed to be about as dorky looking as they could possibly make it. I was pretty much about to write it off as another cheap cash grab and give it a miss. What piqued my interest though, was seeing Matthew Vaughn's name attached. Vaughn directed Kick Ass last year, which was an apt description of its quality; Could he save the sinking ship that was the X-men franchise? Or more accurately, carry out a deep sea diving expedition and salvage the wreckage from the sea floor? Well, before I torture that metaphor any more, I'll get to it.

The film centers around the early days of Professor X and Magneto, and the beginnings of the complex relationship between the two. Now, this is already a much more exciting prospect than the origin of Wolverine the stabbing dude (hint: It involved more stabbing). It's set in the swingin' sixties, which along with giving a charged political backdrop, allows a more colourful style, much more suited to the X-men. The plot plays out as a mixture of both epic battle against a villain hell bent on nuclear war, but also on the more subtle battle between friendship and the growing rift that spurs from differing beliefs. There's also the tragic character arc of Magneto, the identity crisis of Mystique, and several other subplots as well. Whilst it's very nearly overkill, they're weaved together quite nicely for the most part, and for the principle 3 characters I was really invested by the end.

Cast wise, the film is almost uniformly excellent. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender lead as Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr respectively, and they both shine in their roles. While McAvoy seems like an odd choice for Professor X, he's really playing an altogether different character to Patrick Stewart's Zen master. Young Xavier is brash, headstrong, and a suave ladies man. It's refreshing to see that they didn't just go for a young clone, and instead show a different side to the character, more light hearted, but still guided by his strong principles. Fassbender turns in a great performance as the tortured Erik, a man eager to fight for his kind, but also fuelled by vengeance. Jennifer Lawrence also really shines as Mystique; she really brings across the struggle the character has with accepting herself for who she really is, and alongside Fassbender the film has some real heart. Finally, we have Kevin Bacon also plays the villain Sebastian Shaw with significant relish. A complex villain he is not, but while it's nice to have complex villains, sometimes the bad guy you love to hate is all you need, and Bacon delivers. More than anything though, his character, whilst unambiguously an evil git, gives good drive to Erik's arc.

Note however, that I said "almost uniformly". Zoe Kravitz plays filler side character Angel, and her background as a model first and foremost really shows. Her delivery is flat an uninteresting, and is almost a non presence. The character has a revelatory twist about half way in, but it's extremely difficult to care. This however, pales in comparison to the awfulness of January Jones as Emma Frost. You might be familiar with Jones as Betty Draper in Mad Men, and here she plays the exact same character. Hell, when something goes wrong in Shaw's giant submarine of doom, she scolds in the same way she would her children the show. The woman has no idea how to act. The worst part is she has a bewildering number of scenes: more than Shaw himself, and aside from the terrible acting, the character really has no reason to be there. Hell, with Jennifer Lawrence the eye candy quota is already well and truly filled, so Jones truly is useless.

Mmm hmm.
The most original aspect is Erik's role in the story. Whilst he has pretty much equal screen time as Charles, he's definitely playing the hero, in the more typical sense. He is the man of action and drive, and goes through the most character development. He resorts to extreme violence, but given the character's backstory it seems almost entirely justified. The great success here is in showing you exactly how the character became the man he is, in a way we not only understand, but also empathise with. Again, it is a credit to Fassbender that he really sells the character. There are a few scenes near the end where he inexplicably breaks out his Kerry accent, but lets just ignore that. He probably couldn't hear himself over the ridiculous helmet or something.

Tone wise, the film flits between humorous and dramatic, and it's surprisingly well handled. There's a bunch of young mutants thrashing the place with their powers one minute, and soon after there's a surprisingly emotional scene with Erik remembering his mother that died at the hands of Shaw in the concentration camp. It's a real credit to Vaughn that the film doesn't suffer any mood whiplash; scenes like these flow naturally from one to the next, and it just serves to make us empathise with the characters more. Speaking of the characters though, with such a large cast the film does spread itself too thin at times. The second act is a bit threadbare, focusing mostly on the mutants' training, but with so many character it doesn't leave room for much else. The growing friendship of Charles and Erik, and the rift that slowly forms between them, isn't given enough to time to really feel developed. It's to be expected that X-men is all about the ensemble, but it would have been much more prudent to, say, cut every scene with Angel and Emma frost, and just give some time to the story that actually mattered.

It should also be noted that the CGI is laughably bad in parts. For a film in 2011, I really wasn't expecting worse effects worse than that in the first X-men film. It's not a huge issue, but when they focus on Mystique's transformations in close ups, I'm bewildered. They really should have known how bad it looks. Not as bad as the CG claws from Origins mind, so there's at least that. Again, it's not a huge issue, but there's parts that really do take me out of the film, and it's a shame.

Let me tell you, It was hard not to just put another picture of Jennifer Lawrence here.
On the whole though, whilst the film has its share of flaws, it doesn't matter that much in the long run. I enjoyed it immensely. The central characters are all really relatable, the setting and tone is nigh on perfect, and the ending, whilst coming to a satisfying conclusion, still left me wanting more. I was hoping for decent sequel to the first two X-men films; what I got was a film far better than both of them, and up there with the best superhero films.

Don't miss it.

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