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Marvel Movies Project: X-Men: First Class

Movie poster for X-Men: First Class (2011).

We’re coming to the end of this project now: 22 movies down, five to go! The fifth last film in our series is X-Men: First Class (2011), which goes back in time to the 1960s to tell the story of how Professor X and Magneto met and became friends, then enemies. It also exposes for the first time the Professor’s childhood friendship with .. Mystique?

There are things I really like about this movie, most notably Michael Fassbender’s excellent performance as Magneto. 2011 was the Year of Fassbender and based on the presence he shows here it’s not hard to see why. His menacing, powerful Magneto dominates the movie. The other standout is Nicholas Hoult, who beautifully plays Hank McCoy as a shy, vulnerable nerd. X-Men: First Class also has some good action setpieces along with standout scenes like the fun training sequence at Xavier’s mansion, Wolverine’s cameo, and basically any scene where Magneto is the main focus.

The film makes interesting use of Mystique, or more specifically the way the male characters react to her — Charles is uncomfortable with her true form and wants her to hide, Hank flat out tells her she’s ugly, and Erik finds her beautiful. This of course reflects their attitudes to mutation — Charles wants to fit in with society at large, Hank doesn’t like feeling like a freak, and Erik thinks mutants are superior. I have become a real Mystique fan through this rewatch, and I think the shocking nature of her appearance is in large part what makes her so fascinating. Rebecca Romijn played her in the first three X-Men movies with a very confrontational attitude: you can see in Romijn’s performance that Mystique’s “nudity” is one of her weapons. She loves it when people stare, especially if they seem disgusted by what they see. Jennifer Lawrence is playing a version of Mystique who’s much less sure of herself and still trying to work out how she feels about her body. I think Lawrence plays this well, but her version of Mystique is by nature less dynamic than Romijn’s.

A few things I’m not crazy about with this movie: well, January Jones is pretty terrible as Emma Frost. She’s very lucky to have been cast as Betty on Mad Men; it’s a role that apparently falls right into her sweet spot as an actress. It seems clear she doesn’t have much range. However, this random fact from the IMDb trivia page almost makes up for her performance:

This is the second time that January Jones has been cast in 1962 opposite an actor with a pork based name. The first was in Mad Men opposite Jon Hamm and then this alongside Kevin Bacon.

Almost.

Talking about Emma Frost leads me to the next thing I’m not crazy about, which is the fact that this movie is really sexist. It especially stands out as such when you watch it right after Thor, as I did this week. All four major female characters appear undressed at least once. Emma Frost’s bra might as well be credited as a supporting character (pun intended). Angel is a stripper, plus she’s the first good mutant to turn evil.

I will also take this opportunity to mention the film’s treatment of non-white characters: they’re all evil except Darwin, who’s dead. And speaking of Darwin, how about that moment where Shaw offers the mutants a choice: they can either be enslaved [SHOT OF BLACK GUY TO EMPHASIZE REFERENCE TO SLAVERY] or rise up to rule. Really?

Director Matthew Vaughn has said the sexism is intentional (he doesn’t mention the racism): they were trying to re-create the feel of a 1960s Bond movie, which they do successfully through the movie’s visual style, and yes, the depiction of women is accurate for that type of movie. However, the X-Men franchise is supposed to be progressive. This is supposed to be a story about diversity, equality, and acceptance. The heroes are the outcasts: the ones oppressed by society and treated as inhuman for being different. Surely the film has some kind of responsibility to reflect those ideals in its portrayals of real life oppressed groups.

First Class was the second lowest grossing X-Men movie so far, ahead only of X-Men, but it was still quite successful for Fox and they’ve planned a sequel for 2014. I’ve already mentioned this briefly in my post about X-Men: The Last Stand, but it bears repeating that Bryan Singer will be back in the director’s chair for this one and he intends to use the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes from The Last Stand.

The really intriguing thing about Days of Future Past is the cast, which will combine actors from the original X-Men trilogy with those from First Class. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are in it, but so are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Hugh Jackman will be back for what will be his world record seventh go round as Wolverine (The Wolverine is out July 26th). Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, and Daniel Cudmore (Colossus) will also be back, as will Jennifer Lawrence (fresh off her Oscar win) and Nicholas Hoult. It’ll be very interesting to see how that all plays out.

Also interesting: apparently, X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past will share continuity not only with the original X-Men movies, but also with Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot. Fox is creating its own Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Mark Millar presiding over the whole thing. I feel a bit like they’re stepping on Marvel Studios’ toes here. On the other hand, this might be really cool. I guess we’ll see.

From Amour to Zero Dark Thirty: Oscars 2012

Oscar time is upon us once again and this year I’ve actually managed to see all the nominees in the major categories before the show. This may be a first for me! Here’s a quick rundown of some of my thoughts.

Best Picture

This is a pretty solid year for Best Picture nominees! Normally, there’s at least one movie on the list I can’t stand; this year, all nine are a-okay. I wasn’t crazy about Life of Pi but I didn’t think it was terrible or anything. My personal favourite is probably Les Misérables; however, I don’t think it’s the best of the nine. I just happen to love it despite its flaws. The cream of the crop, in my opinion, is Argo, which is a massively entertaining film that is both a funny Hollywood parody and a nailbiting action thriller. Argo looks like the frontrunner right now and I’m hoping it’ll continue its streak on Sunday night. Zero Dark Thirty, with its subtle non-commentary on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is my second choice. The most impressive thing about this film is that it neither praises nor condemns those involved. Even the end result, the killing of Bin Laden, is not seen as a good thing or a bad thing. It just is.

I’ve been posting reviews of every movie I see over at Letterboxd since the beginning of 2012. Here are links to my reviews of the Best Picture nominees, in case you’re interested: Amour | Argo | Beasts of the Southern Wild | Django Unchained | Les Misérables | Life of Pi | Lincoln | Silver Linings Playbook | Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director

I’m guessing Steven Spielberg will take this, and I can’t complain about that. I thought he made a few strange choices in Lincoln, but overall I liked his quiet, low key handling of the dialogue-heavy script. No matter who wins, though, the story in this category is that Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow weren’t nominated for their outstanding work on Argo and Zero Dark Thirty respectively. These are both shocking omissions, especially given that Affleck won the Directors Guild award. The guild of directors thinks he’s the best director! AMPAS fail.

Best Actor

As soon as I heard Daniel Day-Lewis would be playing Abraham Lincoln in a film directed by Steven Spielberg, I assumed he would win an Oscar for it. This doesn’t come as a huge shock. But if he does win, which he no doubt will, he will absolutely deserve it. I don’t think any of the other nominees even comes close. It’s unfortunate that Jean-Louis Trintignant from Amour was passed over, however. He was excellent.

Best Actress

This is an interesting category. It’s the one that seemed most up in the air until the nominations were announced and I still find a couple of the inclusions a little odd. Naomi Watts is solid in The Impossible, but she’s out of action for a large part of the movie and I’m not sure how she managed to be included here. Little Quvenzhané Wallis was the sparkplug that made Beasts of the Southern Wild run, but you just know she has no chance of winning. Emmanuelle Riva is excellent in Amour, no question, but I thought she was more of a supporting character to Trintignant’s lead. It seems likely that Jennifer Lawrence will win this. I like her and I very much enjoyed her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. Jessica Chastain would also be a worthy winner for Zero Dark Thirty.

Best Supporting Actor

Five nominees, all previous Oscar winners — this is a solid category. I’m hoping Tommy Lee Jones will win for Lincoln because he was one of the best things about the film. I wish there could have been more than five nominees, though, because there are some excellent performances I feel were overlooked:

  • Ewan McGregor in The Impossible. Somehow, Naomi Watts is getting all the attention for this film, but McGregor is the one who provides its best, most moving moment: his heartbreaking, emotional phonecall home to England.
  • Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths. A great actor playing a great character with a lot of depth.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained. It might be a bit much to nominate every actor from Django, but these two would both have deserved it. I was saying all through 2012 that this would finally be Leo’s year because he was playing against type. Okay, so I was wrong about him winning the Oscar, but I wasn’t wrong about his performance. Jackson is also phenomenal and adds a lot of punch to a movie that at times lacks it.

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway is up against, uh, some other people … ? Really, though, this category is puzzling to me. Jacki Weaver was alright in Silver Linings Playbook, I guess, but she didn’t exactly have much to do. Helen Hunt has the nudity nomination. Amy Adams is very good in The Master, but I felt her character could have been more developed. I hated Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln, but I accept that no one else feels that way.

Anyway, Hathaway is good enough that I think she would win against much better competition, but I can’t help feeling the relative weakness of the two actress categories demonstrates the lack of solid roles for women. And that makes me sad.

SMASH! and Trash: 2012 in Review

Happy New Year! Now that we’ve made it to 2013, it’s time to look back on 2012. It was an ok year. I don’t know that I accomplished much. I learned how to make books. I finished paying off my student debt! That was actually quite exciting. I went canoeing and walked a few of the trails in Algonquin Park. I was a good aunt. I visited Newfoundland, which was the only province I hadn’t been to before. But enough about my actual life: here’s my take on the year in pop culture.

Movies

Every year, I set a goal of watching 50 movies I haven’t seen before; I accomplished that in 2012 with a final tally of 108 movies. A personal highlight of the year in film for me was going to Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival. This was something I’d been thinking about doing for a few years. I saw five films, including one of my favourites of the year (see below). If I can swing it, I’d definitely like to go back in 2013 and possibly see even more movies. Looking at the list of 2012 releases I saw, it seems I saw more movies I didn’t really care for than movies I loved. However, there were four standouts on both ends of the spectrum:

Best

1. The Avengers. I’d been looking forward to this movie ever since that amazing moment when Nick Fury showed up in the Iron Man post-credits scene. Marvel superheroes + Joss Whedon + the generally high quality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies = lots and lots of hype and expectations. I was living in fear of the possibility that The Avengers would be disappointing. Luckily for me, it wasn’t! At all! In fact, it was superb. It was one of the most awesome movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life and possibly the best thing to happen on Earth in 2012. A massive (they have a Hulk) and massively entertaining summer blockbuster.

2. Les Misérables. I only saw this last week so it’s possible my opinion will change after the movie sits with me for a while, but right now I’m totally enamoured with it; I liked it so much the first time that I went again the next day — that’s a pretty strong recommendation. I was obsessed with the musical as a teenager and admire the songs very much. All I wanted from the film was solid performances that captured the tone of the musical well, and it delivered. Everyone in the cast is great. The film, while not perfect, is a stirring and emotional experience that is as grand as the songs.

3. Argo. This is the one I saw at TIFF, and the one I’m going to be rooting for come Oscar time. (Sorry, Les Mis. I still love you the most.) It’s a tense thriller about U.S. relations with the Middle East, mixed with a comedy about the movie industry — a mix that works very well and is highly enjoyable. Ben Affleck has turned out to be an excellent filmmaker. I’m honestly surprised this movie wasn’t a bigger hit: it has all the makings of a real crowdpleaser.

4. The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson shine as Katniss and Peeta in what I felt was a mostly successful adaptation of a book I like very much. The movie has suspenseful action as well as genuinely affecting emotional scenes plus all the terrible spectacle of the Capitol and the Games. The fact that a movie about the horrors of consumerism is now the centre of a vast moneymaking empire is of course a bit ironic, but oh well.

Worst

End of Watch. Vomit-inducing shakycam combined with lots of incoherent shouting. I remain convinced that this was originally pitched as a comedy and someone somewhere along the way accidentally took it seriously.

Cosmopolis. This was at least nine hours long. Why, David Cronenberg, why?

The Amazing Spider-Man. I liked this 10 years ago when it was just called Spider-Man and was actually amazing.

The Sessions. Heroic actor plays severely disabled person! Heroic actress no one’s thought about in years takes off clothes! “Well then,” say the critics, “it must be good.” No.

Music

I was really planning to make an effort to discover more new music in 2012, but alas. I failed quite miserably and basically spent the whole year listening to Florence + the Machine. The only new album I can say made an impact on me is Battle Born by The Killers. I’ve also been enjoying Muse’s The 2nd Law, particularly the unexpectedly beautiful song “Madness.”

As for the worst in music, I was dismayed by Tori Amos’ “new” album Gold Dust, which features orchestral “reimaginings” of some of Tori’s older songs. Sounds like an interesting idea … except that many of the songs included already featured orchestras in their original versions, which made me wonder what exactly the purpose of all this could be. The only thing I can think is that she’s actually run out of crappy new material to record so she’s decided to start destroying her good music, too. The horror, the horror.

Books

My biggest literary excitement of 2012 was no doubt the fact that two of my favourite authors, J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket, released new books within a couple of weeks of one another. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy was a very good entry in the English country village genre; Snicket’s Who Could That Be at This Hour? takes us back into the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events for a look at the author’s youth. I enjoyed both, but I think my favourite book of the year was Such Wicked Intent, the second book in Kenneth Oppel’s The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series. Aside from drawing with great skill on the themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oppel brings in other influences — the main one being H.P. Lovecraft — and writes in a convincing Victorian style. I look forward to the final book in the series.

In the world of graphic novels, Jeff Lemire is my cartoonist of the year: I read both Essex County and The Underwater Welder in 2012 and have totally fallen in love with his art. Lemire’s strange and haunting Sweet Tooth is one of two comics I discovered and enjoyed catching up on this year, the other being Mike Carey’s very literary The Unwritten. I also continued making my way through Bill Willingham’s great series Fables, but I’m not caught up yet.

Television

I already covered the first part of 2012 quite extensively in my Memmys blog post so I won’t go on much here. In terms of things that have aired since I wrote that post, I felt Dexter returned to form this season. Yvonne Strahovski was a surprisingly good addition to the cast. Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire was also very impressive, and the most recent season of Survivor is probably one of its best ever, despite the presence of one of the all-time most irritating castaways (Abi, in case you weren’t sure).

I bade farewell to three old favourites as One Tree Hill, Weeds, and Gossip Girl made their final appearances. I discovered a couple of new to me, old to everyone else favourites in the utterly brilliant The Wire, the hilarious Community, and the very endearing Parks and Recreation. I rewatched Lost, and in doing so discovered that it works better the second time through. My rewatch cemented Lost as one of my top five favourite shows.

Finally, a couple of surprises, one good and one bad. Good: I am loving the newest season of Castle. I always thought it would annoy me if Castle and Beckett ever became a couple, but they’ve actually been really fun to watch. Bad: the final season of Fringe has been a real disappointment. I was so happy when it was renewed, but now that I’ve seen what they’re doing I will go so far as to say that unless the remaining episodes are mindblowingly amazing I will probably skip season 5 on any future Fringe rewatches I undertake. It’s a bummer.

So that’s 2012 in a nutshell. There is literally no chance that 2013 will be able to top The Avengers, but here’s hoping it provides some good stuff nonetheless.