Talking Movies

November 16, 2011

Justice

Nicolas Cage gets involved in vigilantism masterminded by an increasingly sinister Guy Pearce but director Roger Donaldson doesn’t tighten the Hitchcockian screws.

Nicolas Cage plays ye typically inspirational English teacher at ye typically deprived inner city high school in New Orleans. He’s married to January Jones’ cellist and plays chess with his principal and good friend Harold Perrineau. And then a rapist brutally attacks Jones, and at the hospital a shaven-headed Guy Pearce approaches Cage with an offer of true justice – in return for owing a small favour at an unspecified date in the future to Pearce’s shadowy organisation. Cage of course soon discovers such favours include not just surveillance or logistics but a murder in return, and, as the net tightens, finds himself running from the police over a murder he didn’t commit, estranged from his wife who’s convinced he’s keeping something from her, and subject to wonderfully justified paranoia as Pearce’s organisation seems to pervade every strata of New Orleans.

Pearce’s introduction recalls Steed offering a hospital surgeon help in avenging his wife’s murder in The Avengers pilot, and Mr Chapel in Vengeance Unlimited offering victims a chance to get even at the cost of a million dollars or a favour, while there’s also a touch of the Twilight Zone in that the person you just killed may not actually have been guilty of anything – but now you sure are. Cage reins in his craziness for the most part but effectively channels his eccentricities into portraying the increasing nerviness of a peaceful man forced into violent confrontation after violent confrontation. This time the bad lieutenant is the always great Xander Berkeley who may be utterly corrupt or perversely honourable somehow. Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter is criminally underused as Jones’ best friend, but Harold Perrineau fares better in another studiedly ambiguous turn.

Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, 13 Days) is a good director experienced in paranoia, but raw material that Hitchcock would have relished exploiting for suspense and black comedy is perfunctorily rushed through. The escalation of Pearce’s machinations invokes Strangers on a Train’s trading of murders to elude detection, and the fact that no one can be trusted, that whistle-blowing journalists, trustworthy cops, anyone at all could suddenly mutter the Edmund Burke derived shibboleth “The hungry rabbit jumps” and reveal themselves to be part of the organisation is prime Hitch. The best wasted set-up is Cage breaking into a newspaper office, and then having to walk through the distribution bay where his face is on every front page… Donaldson instead prioritises shoot-outs, chases and unlikely action-man heroics.

This is solidly entertaining, but feels far longer than its running time. The great high concept so obviously buried in here but failed by the execution honestly just frustrates me too much to give it the 3 stars it probably deserves for about scraping being good.

2/5

June 2, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Matthew Vaughn finally gets to direct an X-Men movie, and the result is the best instalment of the X-franchise to date…

Beginning (as X-Men did) with Erik Lensherr traumatically discovering his powers of magnetism in Poland in 1944, the pre-credits sequence contrasts the parallel childhood experiences of Charles Xavier in upstate New York, where he welcomes in the young and terrified Mystique to his luxurious home, with that of Erik in a Nazi concentration camp, where Dr Schmidt sadistically hones Erik’s powers. Vaughn’s film pivots around the subsequent emotional and political developments, during the Cuban Missiles Crisis in 1962, of the events of this cold-open. Rose Byrne’s CIA agent Moira McTaggart endures Mad Men-style sexism while investigating the shady activities of the Hellfire Club. In a Mark Millar touch Vaughn and co-writers integrate Cuba into the story wonderfully, not by rewriting history but by suggesting that history as we know it is a carefully constructed cover-story to hide mutant involvement. Legendary comics villains the Hellfire Club, led by Sebastian Shaw (a nicely malevolent Kevin Bacon) and Emma Frost (an appropriately icy and under-dressed January Jones), appear to be manipulating both sides to ignite the Cold War. Moira needs help against mutants and so recruits Xavier, and subsequently Erik.

James McAvoy is yet again upstaged by someone lower-billed, because while McAvoy is very funny as a young Xavier using genetics as a chat-up routine, it pales next to the dark charisma of Michael Fassbender’s globe-trotting Nazi-hunter Erik. On seeing Xavier’s mansion Erik sardonically asks, “Charles, how did you ever survive such hardship?” The clash in philosophy between Erik and Xavier is finally given the substance it lacked in the original trilogy, and is personalised by Mystique (an affecting Jennifer Lawrence) being drawn to Erik over Xavier. Erik’s driven life is killing Nazis to avenge his race, while Xavier’s life has always been one of privilege. ‘Mutant and proud’ is a chat-up line for Xavier but, as Erik affectionately teaches her to embrace her appearance rather than hide it as Xavier wishes, it becomes Mystique’s self-definition. Erik’s quest to murder Shaw is a fulfilment of his tutelage by Schmidt, Xavier’s determination to prevent Erik the fulfilment of his compassion. Mystique must choose one philosophy…

Vaughn balances this tragedy with montages, of Erik and Xavier recruiting mutants for the CIA and training mutants at Xavier’s mansion, which are heavy on the Fassbendering. There are delightful cameos by a couple of cast members from the original trilogy as well as superb gags based on our knowledge of these characters’ futures. The action is also very well-handled with Erik’s single-handed attack on a Russian military base utterly thrilling, while an assault by the Hellfire Club on the CIA is notable for Vaughn showing real terror on the face of Xavier’s unprepared recruits, especially Mystique. The only gripe is that the second act can at times feel like two screenplays are being audibly bolted together. But these are mere quibbles when Vaughan can casually toss in an enormous shock in the finale, and then have a final scene that complicates comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass.

There was a danger with this film’s title that critics would immediately call it second-rate at the slightest provocation; instead, it really is X-Men: First Class in every sense.

4.5/5

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