X Marks The Spot: X-Men First Class (2011)

Like a lot of folks–especially comic fans of the 90s and 00s–I loved the first two X-Men flicks, but got soured by both the negative reactions to X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine as well as the films themselves. Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2 were revelatory in that they not only took one of the most continuity heavy and confusing groups of characters in all of comics and made them so easy my parents could understand, but also made really great, fun, dynamic and seri0us-when-they-needed-to-be flicks that everyone could enjoy. Those other movies? Not so much. (I remember very little about Last Stand, to be honest and only bits and pieces of Wolverine which I just watched in the past year.)

So, like a lot of folks, I was wary about First Class when I heard about it. Did I need or want another X-Men movie? The original plan was to completely focus on Magneto just like they did with Wolverine, but in moving away from that they did something that only Captain America has done in the world of comic book movies: set the characters in the time period their comic book counterparts were created (or facsimiles of them in the case of X-Men). Not only do I just generally appreciate the early 60s as a time period, but it’s fun to see the world the ever more up-to-date comic book characters set back in a different era. Plus, 1962 means some of the best, sexiest fashion for women, so who’s going to complain about that?

So, as you probably know, First Class follows the exploits of a young Charles Xavier and his growing friendship with Magneto. In the process of meeting and joining forces to take on the looming threat of Sebastian Shaw, they not only develop a strong friendship with one another, but also track down other mutants and form a team consisting of Beast, Angel (a girl with butterfly wings who spits fire, not Warren Worthington III), Mystique, Darwin, Havok and Banshee along with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert. It’s an odd grouping for sure, especially if you’re familiar with the comics. I have a very basic knowledge of the X-Men that comes from just knowing and reading about comics for so many years, a few brief stints as a regular reader, conversations with friends and absorption of most of the video games, cartoons and movies based on the franchise. Even still, I had some trouble reconciling who the characters in the film were and how the differed from the ones in the comics.

But, you know what? None of that matters. The few thousand people who read comics really don’t stack up to the overall movie-going audience. My wife, who has seen the movies and read some if not all of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men knew the basics and had a few questions, some of which I couldn’t answer. Who is Sebastian Shaw? No idea, but in this world, he’s a very evil man with energy powers. Nuff said.

So, the good guys and bad guys eventually come together and, if you’ve seen the first two movies–they ignored Last Stand and Wolverine when writing this one–wind up where they need to. SPOILERS. Magneto gets his helmet, Charles gets crippled and Mystique switches sides. It’s, overall, a satisfying flick with mostly-good special effects (some of them looked like CGI versions of poorly put together models being tossed about, but I’m fairly certain the budget for this movie was not very high, nor was there a big push behind it until it became a hit).

Yes, I liked the film. Very much, but I have a few lingering SPOILERY problems that you shouldn’t read unless you want major chunks of the movie ruined. You’ve been warned. My biggest problem about a small thing is that Darwin died. His power is to literally adapt to anything that can kill him and he died. That makes no sense. He should have absorbed Shaw’s energy ball and been messed up, but wound up okay because THAT’S HIS POWER! Heck, they could have killed off that dopey Angel character and had Darwin go bad, that would have been interesting. I’m also not sure why Xavier let Magneto kill Shaw. If you remember, Magneto trashed the room and removed the helmet so Professor X could freeze Shaw’s mind. While frozen he apparently can’t use his power, which is, fine and Magneto gets free. He then awesomely kills Shaw with a coin through the brain all the while Charles is screaming back on the plane. But, if he was so upset, why didn’t Charles unfreeze Shaw? He couldn’t change Magneto because he had that goofy helmet on–which Michael Fassbender pulled it off much better than Kevin Bacon did–but Shaw’s death is basically on Professor X’s hands for allowing it to happen. He could have at least tried to save him, you know? I’m also not sure I can reconcile all the timing with the film. It’s okay for the most part (Wolerine and Mystique are explained, the other main characters haven’t shown up again for the most part), but how is it possible that Prof X saw Storm and Cyclops when using Cerebro? This film is set in 1962 with X-Men presumably taking place in 2000, the year it debuted. So, that means there’s 38 years between the events in both films. Are we supposed to believe that Scott and Ororo are in their 40s in that film? James Marsden was 27 at the time the film came out and Halle Berry was 34. It just doesn’t add up.

There were a few other things that bugged me, but I can’t quite remember them at this point, so I guess they couldn’t have been too bad. At the end of the day, the good far outweighs the bad. Seeing Magneto running around and using his powers as basically an assassin is amazing. I love when superheroes or villains ditch the costumes and use their abilities like this. Ed Brubaker did an interesting bit of this when he wrote Daredevil and sent him to Europe. They also killed it with that Wolverine cameo which had me rolling. For some reason I thought it was hard to see, but that’s definitely not the case. Like I said, the good was better than the bad and maybe some of my problems can be explained away, they’re just questions I had after watching. I’m still left feeling like I had a great time watching a mostly well thought out and executed flick with really interesting actors doing cool things with superpowers, so I’ll chock that up as a win.

Christmas Stories: Miracle On 34th Street (1947) & Love Actually (2003)

While decorating our tree and cleaning up, Em and I watched a few classic Christmas movies, one an old classic in the form of the original Miracle On 34th Street and a new classic Love Actually.

Did you know that Warner Bros. actually had so little faith in Miracle On 34th Street that they released it in the spring and tried to avoid advertising the fact that the movie takes places at Christmas (hence this poster instead of one of the more Santa-themed ones you might be familiar with). That’s crazy, right? They apparently thought it would be too schmaltzy. And actually so did I. My folks gave me this movie on DVD back when I first moved to NY and I’ll be honest, I never watched it until this weekend, though I had seen it when I was younger. But, considering we’d already watched White Christmas, Holiday Inn and a few other favorites, we landed on Miracle because Em had never seen it. In the end we were both pleasantly surprised. See, the idea is that a man claiming to be Santa replaces a drunk “Santa” in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and ends up working in the main store as Santa. Maureen O’Hara hires him and her daughter (Natalie Wood) comes to form a friendship with the man even though she doesn’t believe he’s Santa (or in anything non-logical, she’s like mini Vulcan thanks to her mom’s programming). Of course, as you might expect, the man claiming to be Santa has his sanity called into question and visits with a crappy jerk who’s not even really a psychiatrist, who, eventually drives Santa crazy enough that he knocks the jerk in the head with his cane. Somehow, this gets him institutionalized, so O’Hara’s neighbor/love interest (played by John Payne) represents him as a lawyer and eventually SPOILER WARNING proves that he’s Santa thanks to some delivered mail.

Like I said, I thought it would be too ooey gooey, but the film is really well done. I think it’s balanced with Christmas spirit and real world doubt, kind of like The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (it’s not as weird of a comparison as you might think). I also really enjoyed Wood’s performance and was shocked to read the she died in 1981 after falling off a boat that her husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken were in. It’s really too bad. So, give Miracle a shot, have a good time and enjoy some fantastic performances.

Though if you’re looking for a real rollercoaster of a Christmas movie, I can’t recommend Love Actually more as it is one of my favorites of the last 10 years (along with Elf). Love Actually is one of those movies that has a ton of big time British actors (Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, and plenty of others) with several stories interacting with each other in all kinds of ways you don’t necessarily notice on the first viewing. I’m not going to get into all the stories, but Grant plays the Prime Minister who falls in love with one of his assistants and Neeson tries to help his son get the girl of his dreams even after his wife (and the kid’s mom) dies prematurely. What I love about Love Actually, is not only does it cover the gamut of emotions you might feel around the holidays, but it’s intricately put together. I’ve seen this movie probably around 5 or 6 times and I’m always recognizing new things and connections between characters that I didn’t catch the last time around. I also like it because it reminds me of a really good Nick Hornby book (and not just because it’s British), but because there isn’t a single character that feels like a one-trick pony.

I did have a little trouble this time around with Laura Linney’s character. See, she’s American and plays as such. Her character arc involves her finally going out with this guy she’s been crushing on forever, but she’s also taking care of her mentally handicapped brother who continually takes precedence over everything else. And by “taking care of” I mean, he’s in an institution that lets him call her at all hours of the day. Aside from not believing that she’d kick the super-hot dude out of bed, I also don’t get why her mentally handicapped American brother is with her in England? There are plenty of plausible explanations, but I do wish it would have been addressed because it nags at me (or at least it did this time around). But, that’s a pretty minor nitpick and I still really have a good time watching this one every year.

Another thing about this movie that I enjoy is the fact that every year it seems like I recognize someone in it that I didn’t the year before. The last time it was Martin Freeman (a.k.a. Tim from the British Office), this time it was  January Jones playing one of the American girls that a British dude meets in a bar. See, he figured that he’d score like crazy in the States so he just bought a ticket and flew out. He went to the first bar the cab found and lucked out finding not one but four hot chicks who all sleep together and invite him to stay over. Good job, man!

So, as you can probably tell from this brief description, this movie has a lot going on. Everyone I’ve handed it to has loved it and I think you will too. Just give it a shot tough guy!