Tag Archives: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class — The Loser’s Opinion

By Nathanael Griffis

Let this be a lesson to anyone who hastily makes a bet. I had to re-watch X-Men: First Class, and now I have to say nice things about it.

When this film came out, it was hailed by some critics as the best comic book film ever. Both Vanity Fair and IGN proclaimed the film as the best Marvel had to offer at the time, putting it over Iron Man, which had been released several years earlier. Still, there are many positive things to take away from X-Men: First Class.

 

1.

For some years, blockbusters had been moving away from the rich traditions of older films. One of the richest traditions that has been relegated to B-movies, horror films, and straight-to-DVD releases, is the death of the black guy. It used to be you could predict the death sequence of most films. They weren’t complex. We knew the darker the pigment of your skin, the earlier you’d disappear. After that it was determined by morality, and the quality of chiseled chin. Now, though, it’s all surprises, and sometimes the good guy dies, or Gary Oldman sort of dies and resurrects himself midway through. Thank goodness then that X-Men: First Class has returned to such rich tradtions. Does the black man rise up and have a strong role in this film? No way, he gets blown up by having an absorbed laser hula hoop shoved down his throat by Kevin Bacon, managing to reference rich traditions and create new ones in the same moment.

2.

Professor X is a well respected moral teacher. The kind of man you can respect. He is a calm teacher who occasionally makes mistakes, but handles them with dignity, a Jean-Luc Picard type. Boring right? Sounds like a man who needs some depth. The kind of person you want to see using his telepathic powers to get laid. James McAvoy shows an amazing acting ability to take a beloved, distinguished character and spit on it all with boyish defiance. It’s as if he’s saying, “Screw it, Professor X is an insensitive sexist braggart!” Sure, from time to time he’ll teach his students something, but somehow miss all the emotional turmoil and crazy anti-mutation serums they’re developing. Why? Because that’s depth of character: alcoholism, pick-up-lines, and selfish, insensitive teaching. It really creates a whole new level of respect for the character.

3.

Michael Fassbender is cool as Magneto.

4.

Finally, we see a glimpse of hope for international democracy. The U.S. and Russia, mortal enemies since Teddy Roosevelt called Tsar Nicolas II a stupid onion head in 1906, band together against a common enemy. A clear thematic turning point reminding us that no matter the gap of culture or history, it can be breached by an eternal hatred of rowdy teenagers and their chaperons on a beach. (Take that, spring break.) Never before in a comic book film has the existence of threatening superheroes united discordant forces together for peace. Why, you’d never see such a tactic in Watchmen or The Dark Knight. And sure, it might feel rushed and unreasonable. But without it we wouldn’t get to see that frozen missile shot of Neo — sorry Magneto — stopping all the shells from various battleships.

I can say with absolute certainty that after having watched X-Men: First Class for a second time that it is, like Custer’s last stand, worth remembering.

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The Dark Knight: Gravel and Gadgets

By Steven Moore

[In trying to write an article on The Dark Knight and its flaws, I decided to write it in the form of an open letter to my fellow podcaster, and Rant Pad contributor, Nate Griffis, to finally put down his gleeful exuberance and appalling joy whenever this film is casually mentioned in conversation. It’s a flawed film, and here’s why:]

 

Dear Nate,

In anticipation of The Dark Knight Rises, I’m going to try to explain why The Dark Knight isn’t the flawless masterpiece you think it is, in hopes of tempering some of your enthusiasm for the last installment (as well as my own). I have tried to make this case many times, but you are always too busy writing articles on obscure Korean cinema to listen. I realize that deep down, you probably avoid the obvious flaws in The Dark Knight because you feel guilty about your self-absorbed billionaire playboy lifestyle and 16-pack-a-day cigarette habit. There was also that incident where you accidentally picked me up from work, and your girlfriend got blown up. Whatever the actual reason, you and many other  misguided people seem to think that The Dark Knight is one of the greatest movies ever made.

I must admit up front, The Dark Knight is easily in the top five superhero movies. The problems I have with the film are small flaws that only become more glaring because they detract from Christopher Nolan’s otherwise immaculate look at the hero’s sacrifice in the face of pure evil. In fact, all my problems with the film are directed solely at Nolan’s portrayal of Batman, and Christian Bale’s execution of him as a character. I think we can both agree that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is not just brilliant, but enlightening. No villain has ever encapsulated evil for evil’s sake like the Joker, and Heath Ledger embodied that sensibility. Often we uphold artists who have died young above their actual accomplishments. I don’t know that Ledger would have gone on to do anything as amazing as this role, but I cannot overstate the quality of his performance in this particular case.

Another admission in the spirit of full disclosure: I believe Michael Keaton to have been the best-cast Batman in the history of the character. If you need a moment to cool down, perhaps punch a pillow, I understand. One of the reasons Keaton was so great, and Christain Bale is not, is that Keaton never seemed at ease in the playboy role. He played Bruce Wayne as someone who doesn’t quite fit into the life he was handed. Keaton doesn’t quite look the part, and his attempts at nonchalance have a brusque edge. Bale is such an amazing actor that he forgets that Bruce Wayne is not also an actor. His switch from narcissistic philanderer to altruistic hero is too polished. It’s as though he has truly become a different person, something a trained actor is accustomed to, but not someone who has spent his life studying martial arts and technology.

 

Well, that's because... you know... I'm Batman.

 

The common complaint against the movie is Bale’s deep gravelly Batman voice. While I find it distracting, I understand the intention. Unfortunately, Nolan has set a high bar for himself, and if I am considering intent instead of story and character while watching the movie, that’s a flaw in the film. I understand how you, Nate, as someone who also uses technology to enhance your voice, might appreciate the time and energy Nolan took to convey an idea with Batman’s voice, but art should never come before entertainment. (Trivia: Nate actually sounds like a 87-year-old woman who has smoked cigars all her life. He alters his voice with filters for the podcast.)

My final complaint about the film is the sheer number of gadgets Batman has available to him at any given moment. Nolan is careful not to have the Deus Ex Machina utility belt, giving us a more gritty, vulnerable look at Batman and Gotham City. The gadget-laden Batman of previous films and television doesn’t fit the new vision of Gotham where the Joker is more than just a supervillian foil. Here he is the personification of a brilliant mind gone off the rails. The face of chaos attacked by a projectile shaped like a bat is weak, if only because it reminds me that this is a comic book movie where things are silly sometimes. Bat-zip lines and gliders feel out of place in this world. A Batman who relies instead on his training and perhaps a few select tools seems a more appropriate Batman for the tone of the world Nolan has built for us.

Again, The Dark Knight is an amazing film, and I’m sure Rises will be equally amazing. But I’m slightly nervous that the trailers seem to display more of the gadgety-ness and not one, but two over-wrought character voices. We’ll see if Nolan is able to make it less conspicuous in the context of this movie. I’m sure you’ll love every minute of it, and I will love about 89.5% of it, which incidentally is also roughly the score I would give X-Men: First Class.

The Dark Knight is an amazing supervillain movie, not an amazing superhero movie. It’s not me, it’s you. I hope we can still be friends.

–Steve

 

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Expectations — Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

By Nathanael Griffis

Hyperbole is fun, but it’s also the cute girl that flirts with you at the bar for drinks and then says no to dinner. Not that I’m bitter or that that’s ever happened… Anyways moving on, sometimes I find myself getting carried away with how excited I get for a movie and use hyperbole. I might expect it to be another stupid romantic comedy with no depth and a waste of my precious time and then discover that The Notebook is a great movie. On the other hand, when all the trailers tell me a film is going to be the best comic book movie ever made and I really want Matthew Vaughn to be a good director, then sometimes our hearts are rendered to shreds of… I don’t know, X-Men: First Class was just bad, it didn’t really scar me.

My expectations and how they influence my viewing experience has always fascinated me. Do I like The Notebook more because I didn’t expect to like it, and because the depth or characters surprised me? Was the problem with X-Men: First Class my desire for it to be good or its failure to be good? Our expectations are powerful things, and don’t think for a moment studios don’t know this. That’s why trailers can sometimes be more exciting than the films themselves. If enough good buzz is generated about a film people will see it. On Buried Cinema we did an entire podcast that dealt with this issue after we saw Catfish. I’d sum it up for you, but then you wouldn’t watch the podcast. I will say this, though: the directors of Catfish are now horror directors. I’m happy for them, no doubt, but Catfish is a not a horror movie. The way the film was advertised, though, was almost like a horror film, and you can imagine that that comes with certain expectations.

How stupid am I, this poster clearly screams middling documentary.

What I’d like to do, from here on out, is look into those expectations and try and determine how they affect my film watching experience. I’m going to drown myself in introspective metacognitive processes (i.e., probably just babble a lot) and try to discern, if at all possible, some of the connections between what we expect from a film and how we then judge it.

How this’ll work is simple. I’ll watch a film I’ve never seen before, but before doing that I’ll analyze what advertisement I’m given: posters, trailers, clips of the film, screen shots, probably not everything but enough to get a gist of the film. Then I’ll see what critics have to say. What does the mighty Internet tell us about this film? Is it highly regarded? Is it the kind of film that divides friendships? Does it involve people staring at each other for hours? I’ll sum up my expectations into a sort of hypothesis. Then I’ll watch the film and say my piece. Consider this the results and analysis section, so now it’s got scientific pretensions.

To start us off I’m going with a movie that has a whopper of expectations for me personally: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

My expectations: This’ll be a shorter article than the next few I suspect1 but perhaps deserves as much space as those that follow. The fact is I’ve been waiting for this movie for at least two years. After watching Let the Right One In, I was stunned that a film like that could be made. It was full of depth and perfectly crafted. There wasn’t a flaw in it. Every cut mattered, every performance was airtight and convincing. It transcends the sense that you’re watching a film and engages you in a shared experience. I know, I know, that all sounds very fluffy and as philosophical as it is nonsensical, but I believe it’s the truth and you won’t convince me otherwise. Although bribed with a cookie, I will gladly say otherwise.

It wasn’t long after that I heard Tomas Alfredson, who directed Let the Right One In, was working on an adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I immediately went and told all my friends and it was at this point I began to suspect I am the only John le Carré fan under 50 years old. (These suspicions, by the way, were further indicated by the silver-haired audience I sat with tonight.) My friends did not care, but the fire for espionage and paranoia continued to bubble within my blood. Then mysteriously, casting began to leak: Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy. Clearly Britain has heard of John le Carré. It was like they were making this movie just for me. A stupendous trailer followed that told me nothing except that there was a spy, a mole, at the head of British Intelligence, and suddenly, with as much seemingly swift power as the anticipation had, there was silence and disappointment. My small upstate New York town was not deemed important enough to receive this gem of movie.

Best Poster Ever, nope, Best Poster Ever.

The time and waiting I think built up my expectations; it drove my thirst for a slow-paced, realistic spy thriller. Enough Jason Bourne. I wanted a real spy, an old tired man with a briefcase who goes over files and tapes photos to chess pieces, yeah sexy. Lack only strengthened my desire. It was like the theater deliberately didn’t want me to see this movie and, like a child being forbidden, my thought was that the verboten must by amazing, for all adults are selfish and want to keep all the fun to themselves. So I started to devise this theory. An idea began to creep up in my head. Hyperbole dripped down through my nerves till it fed every bone in my body. I was convinced, plainly, simply, deludedly, that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the greatest movie ever made.

With all honesty those were my expectations going into the film. I was about to watch something that would leave Citizen Kane in the celluloid dust, a film that wouldn’t even blink at Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie that redefined violence previously exposed in A History of Violence, a movie that struck my heart deeper than Singin’ in the Rain, a film that better understood the craft of filmmaking than WALL-E, something more eternal than Casablanca. So, not a big deal right?

The Result: The best movie of the year. One of the best films I’ve ever seen. But, the best movie ever made? No. Let’s return to the pretty girl metaphor. Forgotten it already because of my stirring prose, I’ll remind you. A pretty girl flirts with you, your hopes travel wildly down the path of the delirious lie that is the male imagination. A single thought drips down a stalactite in far reaches of your brain: perhaps. Perhaps what? Perhaps anything, and that is what is so engaging. This could be the one. She’s pretty smart… and she says yes to dinner. Then comes dinner and it’s wonderful. You have salad, she orders steak, it’s fancifully contradictory. The sad thing is it never really becomes all those amazing things your imagination thought up, does it? Still, it’s something worth treasuring. This film is like that.

Saying a movie is one of the best ever made, a Top 100 film, is not an insult, but it’s a long way from the best. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, to review the film as a whole, astoundingly perfect. There is a haunting combination of cinematography and sound, a blend of acting and directing like I’ve never seen, and the sharpest editing and script this year or in several years. Alfredson does some amazing things with the camera. He on several occasions pulls back, which seems minute and a simple small choice, but it’s a brilliant subtle reference to the larger picture. We, like the characters, will at first only see a small glint of the truth, but once we stand back…well, you’ll come to realize that perhaps there is still farther back to step. Nothing is completely cleaned up or solved; most things are, but the loose ends and questions remain. There is still farther back we could step, but won’t or can’t. There is a limit to perception, and we have to content ourselves with such limits.

The film is not simple. It’s complex and realistic. There is no over-hyped Bourne tension. No globetrotting action scenes. These are quiet, nervous men with guns, reading books. My father said, as we drove from the theater, “They’re real spys: men getting killed over dangerous, boring things.” He’s right, and it adds a sense of realism to the film that is backed up by le Carré’s past as a commander in British Intelligence. The performances are the best I’ve seen all year. Each man is a unique picture of caged, controlled, and unleashed emotion. Gary Oldman deserves the Oscar, but if Brad Pitt wins I won’t throw a fit. I will, however, if Alberto Iglesias doesn’t win for his score and Tom Brown and Zsuzsa Kismarty-Lechner don’t win for their art direction.

I don’t want to give anything away, yet I suspect that even if I did it might still stand on its own. This is a film for film-lovers, and a film to make a film-lover out of you.

Analysis: So were my expectations met? No, but I think they impacted my view greatly. Trying to be unbiased with this film is impossible. I honestly cannot see any way I would have disliked this film. If something catastrophic, like a random car chase and Hollywood slow-motion suddenly crept up and ruined the film, I would have brushed it off as the producers’ fault. Excuses would have been made for missteps, and the film would have still ended up on my shelf. I just got lucky that it’s a spectacular film. It wouldn’t surprise me if my views aren’t agreed with, but I think I can chalk that up to the difference in expectation perhaps. A viewer expecting something akin to Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, or James Bond, will be befuddled when actions scenes are limited to a few frames. People expecting closure, but perhaps a sequel teaser at the end, will be grasping for answers to a serpentine plot that may come full circle or not. It’s a hard film to dislike, because I think expert artistry is simply noted and appreciated, but not free of the shackles of  bias and expectation. But are any?

 

1: I said this before I finished writing the piece, so this is probably how long they’ll be. If they’re not, I’m clearly even more of a pompous verbose ass than I think I am.

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Better Remembered: Tim Burton’s Batman

By Steven Moore

Comic book movies have had a hard road to travel. Granted, most of the bumps and potholes along the way were of their own and Joel Schumacher’s making. Often, any step forward brought two steps backward. The recent endeavor by Marvel to create a film universe that parallels the comic universe adds a new level of legitimacy to the comic book genre, but I still don’t expect the Oscars to nominate X-Men: First Class for Best Picture (even though I think it’s deserving). One of the first comic book films to legitimize the genre was Tim Burton’s Batman. Burton took a superhero who had been bastardized into a cartoonish, so-bad-it’s-good schlock-fest, and brought him back to the dirty, gritty slums of Gotham.

Actual photo of Steve riding his bike home after the movie.

Batman holds a special place for me. Being a huge fan of the comics, my friend (who had incidentally never been to a movie before) and I rode our bikes several miles to the theater, through the scorching hills of Mission Viejo. Our parents knew nothing of what we were up to, and after we purchased our tickets with pockets full of change, we walked out of the 95-degree Southern California heat into the cool, stale butter-drenched air of the theater. One hundred and twenty-six minutes later we came bounding out, yelling “I’m Batman” to one another in our uneven attempts at a gravely voice. On our ride home, swooshing down the hills as the salt air screamed past us, we pretended our bikes were the coolest version of the Batmobile we’d ever seen. This film was everything we ever wanted Batman to be.

Watching it again recently with my daughter revealed that perhaps it wasn’t as close to perfection as my 12-year-old mind saw. Robert Wuhl, who plays the pushy Alexander Knox, easily gives the worst performance of the film. His character is supposed to be boyish and charming, but he comes off as an actor who can’t be boyish or charming. He delivers his lines like great lead weights he can’t wait to drop. Knox is a two-dimensional caricature of a reporter that stands out like a bad actor surrounded by well-rounded, interesting people.

Michael Keaton as Batman & Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale

Although the other characters are not immune from the cheese that radiates from Knox, many lines of the film are just plain bad. Vicki Vale, played by Kim Basinger, delivers the worst line in the film when she is coming to terms with her new beau’s hobby: “I just gotta know, are we going to try to love each other?” I can see the screenwriter trying to finish the script, just wanting to be done with it, wincing as he is writing this line, but hoping that it will get fixed somewhere during production. Michael Keaton delivers a few flat lines as well, most notably when he exclaims, “I gotta go to work.” I think this was intended as a cute, audience-cheering moment that might work if the superhero were Green Lantern, where expectations are low; but not Batman.

Many of the sets are clearly models, and in the age before CGI came into its own, it’s obvious that they are working around some scenes so as to avoid having to show Batman moving the way he should move. There are several times throughout the film when you can see the wires on Batman, although it’s almost as though they aren’t even trying to hide it in the museum scene. Overall, the effects, although amazing for the time, haven’t aged well, and an audience used to more sophisticated effects will easily spots the flaws.

Jack Nicholson as The Joker

Nevertheless, this movie has brilliant moments and humanizes Batman (and the Superhero) in a way never fully accomplished before, and it manages to do so while presenting a backdrop of social decay and human decadence. A lot of credit goes to Michael Keaton (who would have ever picked that one?) for playing an incredibly charming Bruce Wayne. The amazing dinner scene where he attempts a formal dinner for the benefit of Vicki Vale but gives up after revealing he usually just hangs out with Alfred in the kitchen could only have been pulled off by someone of Keaton’s acting caliber.

The museum scene, featuring Jack Nicholson’s oft-cited, inspired performance as the Joker, seems to fortell the future of art with a Banksy-esque revision of classic pieces. It’s almost as though Banksy watched this film as a kid and decided to base his entire art career on that one scene. It is a brilliant insight into the Joker, an artistic genius trapped inside the mind of a psychopath.

This film has done so much for comic book films and has shown serious directors that the superhero was a worthy subject. If not for this film, I doubt we would have Spider-Man or Iron Man films that treat their subjects with respect. We certainly wouldn’t have an X-Men movie that could actually be nominated for Best Picture. Batman is a film leaps and bounds above its predecessors. It forced the genre to move forward. Unfortunately, it pushed so hard, it’s fallen behind. In the end, I guess that’s a tribute to the film itself.

 

 

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