X-Men: First Class (2011)

Origin stories are tough nuts to crack. Just ask George Lucas. Or X-Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood, whose 2009 fling with the X-verse endeavoured to fill in knuckle-clawed Wolvie’s back story, but met with more howls than hurrahs.

Could X-Men: First Class be a case of second time lucky, as Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn takes a root through the X-Men’s, uh, roots? Or is history doomed to repeat itself? Well, hardly. Vaughn’s X genesis is easily the classiest, most entertaining X film since X2. Impeccably cast, incisive in its splicing of history with an alt mutant narrative, and neatly balancing its spectacle with its story beats, it’s a stunning achievement – especially considering Vaughn had only a year in which to deliver.

It starts with the script. Kick-Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman all but throws out the kid-friendly First Class comic, retaining the title alone and penning a daring historical mutation that pitches the Cold War at a sci-fi tilt. The year is 1963. Bit of rough Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is hunting former Nazi Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who killed Erik’s mother when he was a child. Meanwhile, cheeky boffin Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just gotten his doctorate. When the paths of these two figures cross, you better hold onto your hat – especially after they encounter CIA Agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), who’s tracking the mysterious Hellfire Club, which involves Shaw and his mysterious sidekick Emma Frost (January Jones).

Foregoing the barbed, post-modern bite of Kick-Ass, Vaughn and Goldman have forged a sophisticated period superhero film that fits right in with the aesthetic of Bryan Singer’s two X outings, despite its historical setting. That’s mostly because the ‘60s influence is never exploited as a miserable, Austin Powers-style gimmick, Vaughn instead hand-picking period aesthetics to weave together something richly tangible.

That most stylish of eras permeates every detail; the set design is extravagant (the deliciously sleazy Hellfire Club) and the costumes to die for (Emma Frost’s bustilicious white fantasy get-up). There’s even playful split-screen edits, hilarious throwback dialogue (“groovy,” burrs McAvoy), not to mention a twangy, achingly cool score that recalls the best of old school Bond.

Speaking of, Bond is an obvious touchstone. Vaughn once wanted to reboot the spy franchise but never got the chance, and here he seizes the opportunity to position Magneto as a roguish smooth operator (“I basically moulded a young Magneto on a young Sean Connery,” he’s said in interviews). Easily 007’s equal in the charisma stakes, Fassbender rises to the tricky task of speaking in his native German and Russian (though at times fudging an English accent), and positions Magneto as a powerful, volatile force to be reckoned with.

His relationship with Charles/Professor X was always going to provide the, uh, meat of the story, and the boys don’t let us down. McAvoy in particular excels in this incarnation of the well-known Professor (most memorably played with stoic poise by Patrick Stewart), both endearingly emotional and surprisingly flirty – as unstuffy as he is warm and funny.

What of the young mutants promised by that ‘First Class’ subtitle? All are spirited additions, with Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique getting the most screentime, though she’s often sadly lumbered with self-hate issues that err on the side of repetitiveness. That said, Nicolas Hoult’s Beast is enjoyably nerdy, while Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee gets all the laughs. And the FC’s obligatory training montage is also one of its standout moments – a fun, flashy segment that zings with energy.

The involvement of the younglings, though, means that the typical X-movie niggle of short-changing secondary characters is still present and correct. Falling prey to the ‘ensemble movie’ curse are villain sidekicks Riptide and Azazel, who barely utter two words between them, while Emma Frost is a fantastic evil Bond girl who’s given no backstory whatsoever. Still, it’s a miracle that Vaughn has managed to create something as coherent as this without sacrificing more of his players. Everybody gets their moment – including the one-dimensional Azazel in a fight-scene reminiscent of X2’s zippy opening.

Vaughn summed it up best himself when he called First Class “X-Men meets Bond”. With Kevin Bacon something of a revelation as a preening, mad baddie, and McAvoy and Fassbender sharing near nuclear levels of chemistry, it’s a busy, gratifying return to form for the X films that ends in a gut-punchingly effective climax. As the credits swirl in a giddy ‘60s motif to the reverberating drawl of those Bondian guitars, you’ll be begging for a sequel. Yes, this X prequel really is (groan) first class. 4/5

 

He’s back…

Yes, he really is. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed on to make and star in a fifth Terminator movie – news that has pretty much split me straight through my solar plexus. The fanboy in my head can’t help but jump up and down with a “woo, yes!” while the concerned filmwatcher in me is sobbing: “Fools! Foooools!”

Let’s look at the facts. Arnie’s now 63 years old. He was 37 when he made the first Terminator back in 1984. He was already looking a little creaky in the third film Rise Of The Machines, released in 2003. That was damn near 10 years ago.

Putting aside any questions of this new sequel’s quality, are we really expected to believe that a killing machine has been designed in the future that resembles a 63-year-old man? Or will the filmmakers be giving Arnie a CGI facelift like they did with the more recent Terminator Salvation? For that film, a body double was used in order to recreate the circa ’84 Arnie for a smackdown with Christian Bale.

If Justin Lin (yes, the director of Fast Five, who’s also attached to helm this new Terminator) decides to go that CG-heavy route, surely that’s a lot of work just to have the franchise’s star return? Furthermore, will T5 be a continuation of McG’s box office flop Terminator Salvation? While that film has its haters, it did at least feature some stunning aesthetics – and McG had hinted a fifth film could involve Sarah Connor (and hence, yippee, a return for Linda Hamilton).

Of course, that’s all conjecture. Nothing is known whatsoever about the plot of T5, so it’s a bit early to start complaining about geriatric robots. That said, perhaps the entire film will centre around a new vision of the future where the war is over and robots are now filling up retirement homes and fighting over the remote…

James Buckley – Funny people

My Comedy Hero
I watch more television but my comedy hero is Steve Coogan. The last film I saw him in was The Others Guys, which I thought was quite good. Without sounding stupid, obviously, he’s funny, but on top of that he’s just a great actor, he’s absolutely brilliant. Unless I’ve had lines written for me, I don’t consider myself to be that funny, but Steve Coogan’s the best at it.

My Favourite Funny Movie
I guess it would have to be National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I watch it every Christmas. I just think that movie’s perfect, it really is funny. You know, you can watch it by yourself and you’ll still laugh out loud even though there’s no-one around. I love that film. Chevy Chase was in another film with Dan Aykroyd, but I can’t remember what it’s called.

My Favourite One-liners
The one that just sprung into my head is Ace Ventura after he’s been investigating at this swanky party, and he’s been wrestling with a shark. He comes out of the bathroom and he’s ripped to shreds and dripping wet, and he just shouts “Whew! Do not go in there!” That’s a really good moment. That’s a great line to use in everyday life.

My Comedy Present
We’ve just finished The Inbetweeners movie, we’ve got another week of pick-ups in June then it’s done. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to talk about it. We’re lucky that we all get on and I guess that comes across on screen as well. It would be a really tough job if we all didn’t get along, you spend so much time together. Joe and Simon are shooting a pilot in a couple of weeks but I didn’t get a phone call.

My Comedy Future
I’m looking forward to The Hangover Part II. I think that comes out around the same time as our little film that we’ve made, so bring ‘em all on, we’ll take ‘em. The first film is quite perfect for a comedy, the fact that it’s in Las Vegas just makes it larger than life, even the location was a clown in itself. It has all you need: some people go on an adventure and things go wrong for them.

My Comedy Past
The whole sequence in the season two episode of The Inbetweeners when the boys go on a field trip with the school and then end up in a little boat… I was really confident that that was going to come across well. I think it was funny, even if I do say so myself. I’m really proud of that. It isn’t easy to be funny, but with The Inbetweeners we’re always asking ‘Is this funny?’ because all we want to do is make people laugh.

Via Total Film

Feel the need

“We were in the middle of doing V and they called me up one day,” recalls mega-producer Joel Silver. “They said, ‘What are you doing with that Speed Racer?’ I said ‘Well I’m struggling with it.’ They said, ‘What if we want to take a shot at it?’ I said, ‘It’s yours.’”

Of all the people to rev up Hollywood’s big screen adaptation of family-friendly ‘60s animation Speed Racer (Mach GoGoGo in native Japan speak), the Brothers Wachowski are perhaps the least likely to spring to mind. It’s an initially befuddling u-turn for Misters Andy and Larry after the brooding philosophy of The Matrix, the dazzling, kaleidoscopic landscapes revealed in Speed Racer’s theatrical trailer acting as a sun-screen to the minds behind its creation. But pop the hood and there, purring alongside the typical genre mechanics of the fuzzy family flick, you’ll find Wachowski staples all present and correct. Roots in the comic world? Yep. A David versus Goliath battle? You got it. A pleasingly multi-national cast? You betcha. And, of course, dizzy, technology-pushing visuals.

“What really motivated them was that they wanted to make a picture for everyone. For kids, for families,” explains Silver. “They’ve made stuff up to now that’s all R rated, the Matrix films, V For Vendetta. This is an opportunity to do something for everybody.”

June 2006, Los Angeles. Andy and Larry Wachowski meet with their favourite visual effects co-ordinators John Gaeta and Dan Glass, and production designer Owen Paterson. All five worked on the Matrix trilogy, for which they received a collective critical kicking in the soft bits. But something very different is in the air this day. One year on from the unveiling of Sin City, which pioneered a new, CGI-reliant strain of comic book film interpretation, the Wachowskis are looking to expand their horizons. No more saturated rain fights, out with the philosophical psycho-babble, even the grit has to go. For they feel the time has come to broach that tricky, fickle genre… the family film.

“That was the honeymoon phase if you like,” says Glass. “There wasn’t a script yet. Andy and Larry wanted to take this idea of the racing family and they wanted to put it into a world where cars were really everything. Almost like a fetish for vehicles, like a teenager had visualized Formula One racing as if a parallel world had developed in the ‘50s or ‘60s.”

Not only that, the brothers’ ambition extended to the very execution of the film, the necessity of shooting against green screen stretching into something that would compliment and justify the adaptation. With Speed Racer they intended to produce the most literal translation of cartoon into live action ever seen – both visually and emotionally, more on that later – attempting to leave the visual language of animation in-tact.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Brought to the attention of Joel Silver in 1992, the Japanese cartoon’s depiction of a bright, fast-paced race world in which its lead character Speed battles all manner of vehicular pyrotechnics (and prejudices) was always going to be a rough ride. Created as a manga comic by Tatsuo Yoshida in the 1960s, the TV series premiered in 1967 and ran for 52 episodes. Dubbed into English for American audiences, the show took on cult status. The story? Speed is a young driver who competes in a slue of outrageous races, his trusty Mach 5 the Swiss Army Knife of automobiles, gifted with gadgets that would make James Bond weep. With the support of his motor-business family – Mom, Pop, brother Spritle and pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim – as well as girlfriend Trixie, he contests various auto-foes, including the mysterious and enigmatic Racer X. So far so cool, but why so long in the making?

“We kind of never had the right people involved,” explains Silver. “I mean a lot of people wrote scripts, but they always felt derivative, they weren’t really exciting and fresh.”
The project stalled and started, the air gasping out of its weary tires as directors Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón and J.J. Abrams all took a stab before quickly departing. The overriding problem? Technological limitations. With the defining iconography of the cartoon consisting primarily of the gravity-defying race car exploits, it was all just too much. “Really it isn’t until now, like this year,” continues Silver, “that the technology existed where the boys – the Wachowski Brothers – created a grammar for these cars to do what we call ‘Car Fu’.”

Of course, for the brain box duo responsible for some of the late ‘90s’ most iconic cinematic images (via The Matrix), the task of generating believable stunt CGI cars was akin to doing the washing up. Andy and Larry wanted to push the CGI further. “It seemed like the time was right to experiment in a different type of movie,” says Gaeta, “a different texture for a film. We thought it was the right time to explore digital cinema across the board.”

Like the Miller-Rodriguez vehicle Sin City, the Wachowskis decided to craft their anime-inspired world entirely with CGI – save for the actors and occasional prop. Ninety per cent of the film would end up reliant on post-shoot computer tampering. But unlike other effect-heavy films (hang your head, Phantom Menace), it was more than just a case of creating images too expensive or technically demanding to produce in-camera – it was about bridging the gap between animation and live action like never before.

“The analogy is: the animation you make layer by layer,” Gaeta clarifies. “You get the background, the mid-ground and then your foreground characters and then you get on your animation stand, you sort of shoot the layers sliding against each other and you give the impression of a camera move. There’s a sort of nuance to it, and we are really looking at a lot of the nuances you get from animated pictures.” In constructing each frame of the film, the Wachowskis hoped to capture the zany cartoon optimism of the original Speed Racer series, along with the slightly warped, illogical perspectives prevalent in animation. More importantly, they wanted everything – background, mid-ground and foreground – to be in sharp, clean focus at the same time. To achieve the desired effect, the team behind the revolutionary Bullet Time looked to an unlikely source: the internet.

“We’ve got to come up with a better name,” cautions Glass, “but we were calling it ‘Bubble Technology’.” Said technology adapted a “very primitive” digital imaging program favoured by real estate companies called QTVR technology, which gives a 3D impression of a room. “If you can imagine you photographed in every direction and then you put that into a Quick Time movie, you can yourself look around it,” Glass explains. “We took that to extremes by going to gorgeous locations like the Alps or Morocco, and then we shot them at extremely high detail levels, so the files are absolutely enormous.” Taking these flat panel background shots, Gaeta and Glass manipulated them in a way that replicated the process of cartoon animation. Adds Glass, “It gives you a very strange look.”

May 2007, Berlin. Shooting of Speed Racer’s live elements is under way at Studio Babelsberg. A huge, neon green studio houses the action, as well as the film’s only full set, the Racer family house (“that, in theory, gave us a little moment to pause,” justifies Glass). The crew have been given a brisk three months in which to shoot – a task made slightly easier by the four filming and six visual effects units tending to various elements of the script.

As the titular Speed, Emile Hirsch’s workload proved particularly heavy. “It was intense,” he nods. “Sometimes we would all three of us [myself and the Wachowskis] be working together huddled in a pow-wow, you know, working on what I’m doing, coming up with ideas.” And the uniquely green screen environment presented its own challenges. “It’s an oddity in itself ‘cos it’s just an imaginary world in your head that you have to deal with,” says Hirsch. “Sometimes it’s your worst enemy, and you just wanna put a bazooka through it.”

For Roger Allam, caramel-toned Brit thespian with a voice bred for villainy, the Kermit factor didn’t have too much of an impact. “If you do a lot of theatre, pretending that stuff is there, it’s quite normal,” he reasons. “I didn’t find that nearly as off-putting as I thought I would.” Integral to the film’s plot, Allam plays Mr Royalton, the corporate billionaire who attempts to capitalize on Speed’s talent by luring him away from the family business to race for him instead. “Villains are always great fun to play,” laughs Allam. “I have had my fair share.” When Speed refuses Royalton’s advances, he becomes embroiled in a dirty-knuckled underworld of corporate control and sports tampering.

“It’s funny because, when we were filming, all the scandals in the racing world were coming out,” says Susan ‘Mom’ Sarandon. “The espionage of stealing plans. When you’re in this kind of arena, this product placement is everywhere.” It’s a thread most obviously carried through from The Matrix – that of mass control, the crushing of the little people for the benefit of the cold, calculating elite. The theme forms the emotional and dramatic crux of the movie. As John ‘Pop’ Goodman notes, “It’s a good versus evil, family versus corporation type of a thing.” Another Wachowski staple.

February 2008, Los Angeles. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen before,” enthuses Goodman. “It definitely looks like live action anime.” Post-production is in full swing. Almost two years after their initial meeting with the Brothers Wachowski, visual effects co-ordinators Gaeta and Glass are having to remind themselves to breathe in their scrabble to finalise effects shots in time for Speed Racer’s May release.

“This film is an experiment in how one can create a sort of pop-art experience using really hi-fidelity, super-clean, colour-rich digital photography,” says Gaeta. “We’re emulating qualities that you would only really find in animated film.” These qualities include very clean frames, infinite depth of field and saturated colour that are all done to “emotional effect more than realistic. So it’s more how it makes you feel than how real it is.”

Here, then, is Racer’s (and the Wachowskis’) greatest ambition – to heighten the emotional impact of a film’s mise-en-scène by injecting it with the electrifying palettes of cartoon animation. Thus during the hair-raising races the deepest, most succulent of blushes are utilized, adding a visual-emotional zing to the action. When things turn sinister, a bleak, snowy clime is adopted. “We always had the intention of keeping it just on the edge of believability,” muses Glass. “Emotionally you get the right feeling.”

With its almost entirely digitally-constructed universe, Speed Racer recollects the kind of progressive, explorative camera work that led to the creation of ‘80s mind-bender Tron. The effects team, however, are careful not to make hasty declarations of bold technological advancements. “I’d like to hear what kids and teens think about it before we create an analogy, but the whole Tron thing was a pretty bold experiment,” says Gaeta. Glass echoes his co-worker’s wary sentiments. “You never know with these things if people are just gonna go, ‘What were they thinking?’”

After the critical flogging that their Matrix sequels received, the Wachowskis threw their directorial hats to the wind in favour of less scrutiny-heavy production roles. Speed Racer marks their return to the viewfinder after a five year absence. So are they out to prove themselves? Do they see Racer as their comeback movie? “I don’t think so,” Silver asserts. “The movies that they made are the movies they wanted to make. The Matrix is about consciousness, and it’s complex and it’s difficult to understand, there’s a lot there. You have to realise those movies returned $3bn to Warner Brothers. They were a successful venture.” He pauses, thinks. “Speed Racer is thrilling, it’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s everything a big family movie needs. The question is, ‘Is this movie gonna do what the Matrix movies did?’, and all I can say is I hope so.”

Via Total Film