X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

Odeon East Kilbride, 02.06.11

The year of sequel followed by prequel followed by sequel roles on, with another outing for the X-Men, although this franchise at least has the decency to offer a historical prequel reboot, thereby giving it a certain freshness lacking from other multiple offerings like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011)  and Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011).

X-Men – First Class is set in the 1960’s, at the height of the cold war, and tells the story of the young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as he finishes University and begins to harness his telepathic powers.  Meanwhile, a young Eric Lehnsherr is using his own magnetic powers to travel round the globe in search of revenge for the death of his mother at the hands of vicious Nazi officer (Kevin Bacon) in a German concentration camp.  Eventually Charles and Eric cross paths and together with a small band of fellow mutants, take on the Nazi officer, revealed as a mutant and now reinvented as Sebastian Shaw, and set upon starting nuclear war between Russia and the US to destroy the human race and leave the mutants in charge.

First Class plays on the strengths of the X-Men franchise.  The political background, and the analogy between the treatment of the mutants by humans mirroring the real world treatment of many minority ethnic groups, are what makes the X-Men universe stand out above most superhero or comic adaptations.  This is more than the story of an adolescent teenager having to come to terms with his responsibility and harnessing their powers.  And it is this that makes the X-Men a rich vein of material to play with.  While it obviously over-simplifies the political situation of the 1960’s, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even trivialises the German Concentration Camps, the very fact these topics are discussed and used as  a backdrop lends the film a weight that others miss, for example the recent fantasy Thor.  It grounds the film in a certain reality that gives the moral questions faced by the superheros more meaning than just the typical good-versus-evil storyline.  This is exemplified by the central storyline of Xavier and Eric as they become friends, but with very different moralities that eventually lead to their fall out.

The genesis of their relationship is one of several strands that neatly reward viewers of the original trilogy of films.  Along the way we also get to see how Raven transforms into Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and becomes Magneto’s ally, how Xavier sustained his injury that leaves him in a wheelchair, how Hank McCoy becomes the Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and how Magneto gets his distinctive metal helmet.  There are some neat cameos, and even an attempt to acknowledge, though perhaps not adequately explain, why Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) isn’t a more prominent member of the team in this prequel.  There’s neat references to CIA involvement, the uniforms the X-Men wear and the creation of the X Jet.  True fans of the original comics may pick up inconsistencies, but to the average viewer, there is little of these things to complain about.

The action scenes are well directed by Matthew Vaughn, following on from Kick-Ass (2010), he is gradually establishing himself as the director to go to when comic action and violence are the order of the day.  Having walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, one wonders if that would have been a better film had he been given the chance to direct it.  McAvoy and Fassbender take the place of Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen and cope admirably.  Some of the younger cast get little time to shine as so many new characters are squeezed into the two-hour running time.

A marked improvement on the last entry two X-Men entries – X-Men: The Last Stand (2006, Brett Ratner) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009, Gavin Hood) – and a return to the tone and style set by Bryan Singer in the first two films, First Class injects new life into the franchise and opens up the possibility of more sequels to the prequel, which for one franchise at least, offers the possibility of expanding and improving on the original, unlike most of the cash-in franchise films seen so far this year.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

THE WAY

Cineworld Glasgow, 24.05.11

Once upon a time Emilio Estevez was famous for ’80’s action-comedies like Stakeout (John Badham, 1987) and comic spoof films like National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (Gene Quintano, 1993).  He even tried his hand at writing and directing this sort of film early on, starring with brother Charlie in the over complicated and so-so Men At Work (1990).  As funny and likeable  as he could be, there was always a sense of under achievement and wasted talent.  Perhaps it was the pressure of living up to brother Charlie, who, despite all his off-screen problems, has featured in more acclaimed fair from Wall Street films (1988 and 2010, Oliver Stone), to Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986) to his own spoof comedy hit Hot Shots! (Jim Abrahams, 1991).  In the latter 1990’s,  both brothers seemed to disappear, until Charlie re-emerged in successful television, firstly in Spin City (2000-2002, taking the place of Michael J. Fox) and latterly the successful TV sitcom Two and a Half Men (2003-).   Emilio, meanwhile, took to writing and directing and found some success with the ambitious but flawed Bobby (2006).  Neither brother has come close to the acclaim and success of their father, Martin, who although he has had his own off-screen problems and career lows has starred in iconic roles from Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola) to everyone’s favourite US President in the brilliant The West Wing (1999-2006).  Not that he hasn’t tried to help his children’s careers along the way.  He starred alongside Charlie in Wall Street, playing his onscreen father, and played a role in Bobby for Emilio.  His daughter, Renee Estevez, was also a regular in The West Wing.

With his new feature as director, Emilio again enlists his father’s acting credentials, this time in the central role of Tom, a dentist in America (sister, Renee, gets a short cameo as his secretary here too) who travels to Europe to collect the remains of his son, Daniel, who has died in a walking accident.  Once there, Tom decides to finish the route that Daniel (Emilio Estevez, in a cameo role) had intended to travel, taking along his ashes on the El camino de Santiago, a 700-mile trek through France and Spain.  On his pilgrimage he meets up with Joost (Yorick Van Wageningen) a friendly, overweight, jovial Dutchman, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a tough Canadian woman who’s been the victim of abuse and Jack (James Nesbitt) an Irish writer,  each making the walk for their own reasons.  Various mishaps occur along the way, while the new friends bond and work through their own issues.  Tom’s central story, bonding after death with the son he had drifted apart from in life, touches on Martin and Emilio’s own relationship, added to by Estevez appearing briefly as Daniel in Tom’s imagination.  This real life mirroring gives the film an added poignancy, which crucially doesn’t overshadow the fictional story on-screen.

There are flaws with the film.  The tale meanders along and occasionally drifts for too long.  Some of the incidental moments along the way feel forced and over simplified, for example an evening spent with some Gypsies in one town, and the acting can feel forced.  James Nesbitt as Jack has an excruciating introduction, forcing twee Oirish mania (he’s a ‘Jack-the-lad’, you see), but thankfully settles down into decent performance, and along with Joost provides valuable humour along the way.  This humour helps to lighten the sentimentality of the piece.  Often derided in films, there are moments of over sentimentality here, perhaps one too many shots of Martin Sheen looking pensive and thoughtful, but it is to his credit as an actor that by the end of the film this can be overlooked.  One is so drawn in by his performance, and the sense of real life struggle hidden behind this, that it’s impossible not to be willing him on towards the end.  It’s good also to see Deborah Kara Unger in a central role, too often left in bit parts or unused by mainstream films.  Her looks, while still radiant, showing signs now of ageing that work well for her character here.

Alongside the earlier Bobby, The Way again marks a mature piece of film making from Emilio Estevez, something he never chose, or was allowed, to produce as an actor.  It’s hard to reconcile the man lampooning and smart talking his way through the 1980’s and ’90’s, with the director of this accomplished work, but one hopes he will continue along this vein, especially once his father is no longer able to lend a hand – although on this evidence, Martin certainly has a few good years left.  While Charlie continues to court controversy and make the news, Emilio has quietly carved out the beginnings of a successful directing career.  The Way will certainly stand as a testament to fatherly love for a son and is certainly one of the better and more mature films to come out of America exploring the relationship between father and son in recent times.  One wonders what Charlie, being sacked from Two and a Half Men around the time of its release, will have made of it.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5