Friday, 1 August 2014

Review: Jerry Maguire

Big-time sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) 'handle[s] the lives and dreams of 72 clients and get[s] an average of 264 phone calls a day.' Even though he is at the peak of his glamorous career, certain things trouble him.

The 'shark-in-a-suit' impersonality that Jerry's job requires steadily weighs on him, as do his clients' injuries. A football star's young son asks Jerry: 'This is his fourth concussion. Shouldn't somebody get him to stop?' Jerry checks his pager and impersonally dodges: 'It would take a tank to stop your dad!' The visibly pained kid tells Jerry to go fuck himself, then returns to his dad's hospital room.

During Jerry's bachelor party - in preparation for his marriage to similarly hyper-achieving fiancée Avery (Kelly Preston) - Jerry's friends put on a video of interviews with his many exes. At first the women are  complimentary: 'When I think about Jerry, my heart starts pounding.'

Then the comments start to turn: 'I think it's probably a good idea that Jerry get married. Then he won't be alone.' 'He cannot be alone.' 'He's almost phobic.' 'I mean, Jerry is great at friendship; he's just really bad at intimacy.' 'He can't say 'I love you'.' 'He lies.'

Several exes impersonate Jerry's insincere 'caring' - 'Hey! I love you too!' - complete with the typical Tom Cruise action of finger-point / head-tilt / eyebrow-raise / visible-from-space grin.

That's the one.

A disturbed Jerry has an existential crisis which yields a 25-page 'mission statement' in which he calls for humanity to be returned to his profession:

'What started out as one page became 25. Suddenly, I was my father's son again. I was remembering the simple pleasures of this job...With so many clients, we had forgotten what's important. Suddenly, it was all pretty clear. The answer was fewer clients. Less money, more attention. Caring for them. Caring for ourselves. The games, too...what I was writing was somewhat touchy-feely. I didn't care. I've lost the ability to bullshit. It was the me I've always wanted to be.'

Jerry makes copies of his piece, entitled The Things We Think And Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business, and sends a copy to all of his colleagues. The next day the ruthless, dispassionate Jerry returns and instantly regrets this decision. Jerry's sports agency fires him, and Jerry splits up with his fiancée.

Jerry attempts to take some of his clients and start an independent sports agency with the solitary support of officemate Dorothy ('90s and early-2000s darling Renée Zellweger).

My Take

I loved the start of Jerry Maguire (1996, trailer). I felt that Tom Cruise managed to embody the character of an intense, groveling prick; while also being very watchable: 'I will not rest until I have you holding a Coke, wearing your own shoe, playing a SEGA game featuring you, while singing your own song in a new commercial starring you, broadcast during the Super Bowl in a game that you are winning, and I will not sleep until that happens.'

I wanted to see Jerry humbled. And it happens, spectacularly. Jerry spends his last day at Sports Management International on the phone, frantically pleading his clients to stay with him. Meanwhile, fellow agent Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr) calls the same people to keep them at the agency. '[Sugar] said I don't know what it's like to be a black person?!' Jerry barks into the receiver. 'I'm Mister Black People!'

In the end, Jerry's only loyal client is wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) Tidwell wants Jerry to get him bigger contracts and more money, but Tidwell is obstinate to his coaches and refuses to be in product ads that he thinks are beneath him. So now, former cock-of-the-walk Jerry is reduced to spending all of his professional time serving a guy who is even more arrogant than he is. Seeing these two clash is quality entertainment:

(Jerry): This is a re-negotiation. We want more from them, so let's give them more. Let's show them your pure joy for the game. Let's bury the attitude a little bit, and show them-

'-Wait. You're telling me to dance.'

'No. I'm saying, to get back to the guy who first started playing this game, remember? Way back when, when you were a kid? It wasn't just about the money, was it?...was it?...was it?'

'Do your job! Don't you tell me to dance! I am an ath-lete! I am not an entertainer!'

Utterly infuriated and faced with an immovable object that even his unstoppable force can't breach, Jerry yells 'FINE!' like a petulant child. 'FINE!' he punches the air in rage. 'FINE!' he kicks the wall.

It's really funny.

Based on Jerry Maguire's first act, I assumed that the story would go like this: a materialistic man loses everything and has to find his conscience, learn to be alone, and rebuild his life for the better.

None of this happens.

Jerry Maguire writer-director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) seems to like giving his films bright, brisk beginnings with well-defined protagonists who have clear character trajectories. Unfortunately, Crowe tends to follow up these promising beginnings with sluggish, tedious second- and third-acts that focus on schmaltzy romances that have nothing to do with the proposed character journeys.

Jerry's assistant and sole employee Dorothy agrees to let a drunken, despondent Jerry visit her at her house. He appears at her door sporting several ex-fiancée-inflicted facial wounds. 'I'm so glad you're home', he gushes, teetering and beaming. 'The 'alone' thing is not my specialty.' Then he asks for a drink and wheels around to look for Dorothy's young son: 'Where's the little guy?'

'Jerry.' Dorothy says firmly. 'I can see you're upset, but I don't think it's appropriate for you to be here. I have a four-year-old, and I don't want him to hear a drunk guy stumbling around the house in the dead of night. He barely even knows you. Hell, I barely even know you. Maybe you should talk to your friends about your problems, or your family. Or a shrink. I'll call you a cab, but I definitely won't get you a drink. Are those cuts on your face?!'

Just kidding, she doesn't say that. Instead, the scene is played for laughs: Ha ha, Jerry's drunkenly embarrassing himself.

Dorothy goes to her kitchen to get Jerry something to eat, and Dorothy's son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki) walks into the living room in his pyjamas and talks to Jerry. Or, he says childlike things like 'Let's go to the zoo!' as Jerry rants about his personal problems. 'Ray', Jerry says, exasperatedly; 'fuckin' zoo's closed.' Again, this is played for laughs: Oops, this unstable drunk swore in front of a kid!

I don't know what Dorothy's thinking. I would never leave my kid alone with this guy; he's falling apart at the seams.

'I broke up with Avery,' Jerry tells Dorothy. Dorothy's face pulls a comedy Oh-my-God, handsome-Tom-Cruise-is-back-on-the-market! jaw drop. She inexplicably moons over Jerry for the rest of the scene, even as he picks up a poker - a sharp, heavy iron spike, I'd like to point out - and waves it around while he paces across the room and says absolutely crazy things: 'Let me tell you something about Jerry Maguire. You come after me, and you lose. Because I am a survivor.'

Ohh, that beautiful man...

At this point in the story Jerry has lost his job and his fiancée, and I expected this to be the part where Dorothy refuses to let him use her as an emotional crutch. Dorothy's sister Laurel (Bonnie Hunt) uses some exceptionally sound advice to encourage her to do this: 'Dorothy, this is not a guy. It's a syndrome. Early mid-life. Hanging on to the bottom rung, Dear-God-don't-let-me-alone, I'll-call-my-newly-long-suffering-assistant-without-medical-for-company syndrome.'

I wanted Dorothy to deny Jerry's desperate clinging. Then, I thought, Jerry would hit rock bottom. Then he'd have to confront being truly alone - his greatest fear - and do some honest-to-God soul searching.

This doesn't happen.

Instead, the film turns from character drama to romantic comedy. Tidwell becomes the obligatory rom-com relationship advice dispenser for Jerry. Dorothy's son becomes the obligatory rom-com single-mom's kid who loves Jerry and so sets the stage for Jerry and Dorothy's union. Jerry and Dorothy get together, then split up, then Jerry declares his love for her at the end and they live happily ever after. Standard romantic comedy story structure.

Jerry's character journey is now abandoned. The only progression his character has is abandoning one love interest in favor of another. All that set-up about how he needs to grow a conscience? Never paid off. Dorothy helpfully pushes Jerry to live up to all the wonderful things he wrote in his mission statement - as Jerry's dominant-asshole personality tries to resist this. Dorothy is Jerry's conscience for him.

Cricket's the name. Jiminy Cricket.

Has Jerry learned anything? He's just ditched one woman for one that can be his conscience. It seems like he hasn't advanced at all. Even his love declaration sounds as desperate and aggressive as ever: 'I'm not letting you get rid of me. How 'bout that?'

Jerry concludes his declaration with his famous line: 'You complete me.' It's one of the most beloved romantic quotations in cinematic history, but what does it really mean? 'I am broken and can't survive without you'? 'I need you to keep me from falling apart'?

Wait a minute. Isn't 'you complete me' just a rewording of 'I can't be alone'? 

I wonder what would have happened if Jerry Maguire's second half lived up to the realistic character study of the first half. I imagine Jerry's constant neediness would drive Dorothy to break up with him out of her own - and her son's - best interests. Then Jerry would probably have another breakdown and realize that a woman isn't going to fix everything for him.

Then maybe Jerry would seek to find out 'what kind of a person am I?', instead of 'what kind of person can this other person make me, if only she'd agree to be my counterpart?'


Further Reading

For more derision of classic rom-coms, you can see my post about Breakfast at Tiffany's.

For a - in my opinion - much more realistic and inspiring perspective on relationships, breakups and soul-searching, you can see my post about Sita Sings The Blues.

Screengrabs: Jerry Maguire was produced by TriStar Pictures and Gracie Films. Images obtained from
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Review: Mother

Film buffs like me are nuts about this new wave of quality genre films that has been coming out of South Korea since the late '90s. The most famous examples of this wave include Park Chan-wook's 'Vengeance Trilogy' (Sympathy for Mr. VengeanceOldboy and Lady Vengeance); Bong Joon-ho's off-kilter 2006 monster movie The Host; and Kim Jee-woon's 2008 western The Good, the Bad, the Weird and his 2010 serial killer film I Saw The Devil.

They seem to all share intense and often brutal plots, a mordant sense of humor; and an artistically beautiful cinematic technique that I assume is afforded to them by their small budgets and niche audience.

I didn't know much about the film Mother (2009, trailer) before I saw it, but the fact that it was South Korean and that it was made by The Host director Bong were good enough selling points for me.


When a Mercedes sideswipes mentally handicapped Do-joon (Bin Won) and keeps driving, Do-joon's troublemaker friend Jin-tae (Ku Jin) tracks down the car to a country club. Jin-tae smashes the car's side-mirror, and Do-joon picks golf balls out of the water hazard and writes his name on them. 'I'll give it to a girl', he tells Jin-tae.

Late that night, a drunken Do-joon follows a girl, Ah-jung (Mun Hee-ra): 'Where are you going?...You don't like guys?' She ducks into a disused building to avoid him.

Cut to the next morning. The police find Ah-jung dead from a head wound, as well as one of Do-joon's autographed golf balls near the body. Do-joon's poor memory fails to provide an alibi, and he naively signs a confession simply because the cops think he did it.

While Do-joon endures a prison sentence, his overprotective Mother (Hye-ja Kim) sets out to prove his innocence.

My Take

Mother is a mysterious detective film that stands out for its unique detective. Mother is a highly anxious apothecary who has no experience whatsoever in investigating anything, let alone in living without her son. In fact, Mother's entire existence is centered around caring for Do-joon - as she tells him in a prison visit;  'You and me are one. We've only got each other.'

A recurring theme in Mother is 'the sins of the mother' - the question of whether Do-joon's arrested mental state is related to Mother's overbearing fearfulness. In an early scene, Mother distractedly slices herbs at her apothecary while she watches Do-joon outside. When the Mercedes knocks him down, Mother runs over in a panic. 'Oh no, blood!' she screams hysterically. 'Do-joon, you're bleeding!' Then, a bystander indicates a cut on Mother's finger and exclaims: 'This is your own blood!'

Actress Hye-ja Kim does a great job presenting her character's wide emotional range; from her quiet, mousy submissiveness when at rest to her horrified panics when agitated. Director Bong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo complement Kim's performance with visually evocative moments - when we see Mother trudging to investigate Jin-tae's home, the enormity of her quest is implied in a vast landscape shot:

Mother is the tiny speck about two-thirds across the image.

In contrast, Mother's panic attacks are framed in tight, overwhelming close-up; and with the unstable sway of a handheld camera.

Mother is faced with many obstacles. The disaffected cops consider Do-joon an open-and-shut case. Further, the distinguished lawyer that Mother secures is also uninterested in her plight. When Mother implores her son to remember anything he can from the night of the murder, he can only recall tangential information about the earlier country club incident.

Typically, the detective in a detective story has a lot of skill, experience, and police resources at his disposal. Here in Mother, Mother has both a desperate goal and hopeless odds. I was riveted, and had no clue what would happen next. How will she save Do-joon? I wondered. Can she save him? Where will her first lead come from? How will her frantically worried psyche figure into the story?

I'm glad to report that the rest of Mother (scripted by Park Eun-kyo and director Bong) delivers on the promise of its strange premise with a plot of moral ambiguity and compelling noir-ish twists.

SPOILER ALERT: Even though I won't give anything away beyond the first half of the film, I'll leave a gap here so that any spoiler-averse readers won't risk reading my next bit by accident.

Do-joon tells Mother that on the night of the murder he intended to meet Jin-tae at a bar, but Jin-tae never showed up. Also, despite Jin-tae being Do-joon's only friend, he hasn't come to prison for a visit. Mother also learns that Jin-tae knew about the incriminating golf balls.

Mother sneaks into Jin-tae's house and removes what appears to be a bloody golf club. She has Jin-tae arrested, but the police find that the red mark is just lipstick. Jin-tae confronts Mother at her home: 'I feel so fucking betrayed. How could you do this to me, bitch?' Then he demands that she pay him a settlement that she can't afford.

Then, just when Mother's 'rotten little scoundrel' opinion of him seems to be completely verified, Jin-tae softens a little: 'Wait. By the way, that dead girl, Moon Ah-jung...there are only three motives for murder: Money, passion, and vengeance...That poor kid living on the hill, what kind of money could she have? So it must be either passion or vengeance.

'So we need to start by investigating the people around her. But those fuckers on the police force found that golf ball and just close the case? Exactly. Do-joon is the obvious scapegoat for them. If it were me, I'd never investigate like that...Do-joon has been totally fucked over. I'm his friend, after all.'

And so; an aging, worrywart mother gains the alliance of a vaguely sociopathic young ne'er-do-well.

The sleepy suburban town that holds Mother's mystery is portrayed through Mother's untrusting eyes as a dingy, malevolent place with secrets hidden in its dark corners. Director Bong also includes memorably uncanny moments in his film - in an early scene, Bong illustrates Mother's and Do-joon's unhealthily intimate relationship in a shot where Mother holds a bowl of medicine to Do-joon's mouth as he urinates against a wall.


Bong Joon-ho's next film after Mother was his 2013 comic-book film (and English language debut) Snowpiercer (trailer). It is currently uncertain as to whether Snowpiercer will be released theatrically here in the UK, but I hope it will be.

Further Reading

For more films that aren't in the English language, you can see my posts about The Skin I Live In, Nine Queens, and Troll Hunter.

Screengrabs: Mother was produced by Barnson and CJ Entertainment. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Home Entertainment.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Article: 'Fantasia' and Racism Reparations in Old Cartoons

While I was reading the Amazon page of Disney's Fantasia on DVD, I was surprised to find many excoriating user reviews. Apparently, the original 1940 cut of Fantasia had a small sequence where a 'white' centaur is groomed and waited on by a subordinate 'black' centaur. 

Fig. 1: The offending centaur. Image from YouTube.

From 1969 onwards, Disney removed the centaur from all commercially-available editions of the film - including the VHS version that I saw as a child. A progressive triumph over racism, right?

Well, the Amazon reviews were actually condemning the DVD of Fantasia because of the centaur's absence:

'Please be careful when buying this DVD. The package says it's 'uncut', but it really isn't. Disney felt they needed to censor some scenes because they might offend some black people. I'm a black person, and I'm more offended by Disney lying to me than the scenes. I hope someday in the future Disney will think I'm mature enough to own a real uncut version.'

I guess it's a positive thing that Disney is ashamed of the unscrupulous content of its older films. However, this censorship is an example of the worst way to deal with a problem: Don't mention it, and deny that it ever existed. As Amazon user T. WRABEK says: 'History does not benefit from censorship and political correctness. It was what it was, and whitewashing it changes nothing and shuts down an opportunity to open discussion.'

I'd be very impressed if Disney ever decides to release the 1940 cut to the public as-is. I think that a huge media corporation admitting its chequered past would be something to be admired. Plus, I'll bet that any number of college students majoring in African-American studies, social studies, media studies, anthropology and film history would relish the ability to use the original unaltered cut of Fantasia as a Primary Source in their papers.

I can sympathise with Disney's censorship decision inasmuch as Fantasia is an animated feature for children. However, Fantasia isn't the only Disney film to feature racist overtones. Remember Peter Pan's idiotic, monosyllabic 'Indians'? Those still exist on the DVD version.

Oh geez...

Aladdin and Mulan get a lot of flak for stereotyping Arabian and Chinese people. The Jungle Book's orangutan characters have been criticized as stereotyping black people, as has Dumbo's jive-talking crows - of which one is named Jim Crow. All of these films are commercially available in their original forms.

If I ever have children, I don't think I'd have any compunction with showing them these films that I once enjoyed. I'd probably think twice about Peter Pan, but I think that any kid who understands the significance of the Jim Crow laws is probably too old for Dumbo to influence their racial prejudices. If I harbor any kind of seething racial hatred, it probably wasn't sparked by a childhood viewing of The Jungle Book.

What about other things that could be considered inappropriate for young eyes? Pinocchio has children smoking giant cigars, and another of Fantasia's segments has a drunken Bacchus stumbling around guzzling red wine. I don't personally feel that children are so impressionable as to be corrupted by such imagery, but I'm not quite sure what Disney's moral stance is.

As long as he's not black, it's okay.

Maybe removing a few seconds from Fantasia is simply easier to do than cutting entire scenes from Peter Pan. If this is the case, then is Disney's policy 'we'll be politically correct as long as it's not too difficult'? If Fantasia is indeed censored for reasons of moral principle, then why doesn't Disney apply the same principle to its other classics?

Disney's ultimate censorship move is flat-out refusing to release their infamously racist 1946 film Song of the South - which has been mostly unseen since its final cinematic re-release in 1986. Disney seems to be trying to sweep this one deep under the rug, but Song of the South has ironically achieved high notoriety for being 'the censored one'. 

Maybe Disney could release Song of the South discreetly, without marketing it to kids. Or they could give it a higher rating. There are many petitions calling for its release, some of which have thousands of signatures. Forget Fantasiathis is potentially the Primary Source Holy Grail. I personally want to see it - if only out of a contrarian, teenage-ish curiosity to see what they don't want me to see.

Song of the South won an Academy Award for its oft-covered song Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah. Nobody forgets that the movie exists; they just know that there is a classic childrens' song out there that has been disembodied from a film that they are not allowed to see. 

The song even plays on the Disneyland 'Splash Mountain' ride and exists on many Disney compilation albums. I guess they just avoid any Song of the South connotations by nixing any of the film's imagery on the album covers and liner notes.

The Walt Disney Company denies the existence of this man. Image from YouTube.

Going back to Fantasia: Racism aspects aside, the removal of the black centaur footage created a domino effect that harmed other elements of the film. An anonymous Amazon reviewer writes:

'Circa 1969, the seemingly racist shots of a black centaurette (similar to Our Gang's 'Buckwheat') attending on the white centaurettes were cut from the film, resulting in a 'jump' in the music. Subsequent releases to video have used optical tricks to remove the appearance of black centaurs, so that the original music track scans properly...In this 'restored' version, these optical edits are still glaringly obvious - e.g. an optical zoom to avoid the black centaurette shows you the film grain up close, and in another shot a green bush magically slides across the ground by itself!'

A new soundtrack was recorded to accommodate the film's new run-time, and a much-beloved narration by the reportedly dulcet-toned Deems Taylor was replaced by a new one from a guy with a much more irritating voice.

Films are like carefully made machines with many gears that interlock in cooperation. This bumbling mess sounds like a trying-to-make-it-better-but-only-making-it-worse comedy sketch: Oops, I dropped a glass of wine onto the rug while cleaning! Oops, I knocked over a lamp while scrubbing the rug! Oops, I stepped on the lightbulb shards!

Disney isn't the only animation studio to have made racist cartoons. What about the old Warner Brothers cartoons? With lecherous French stereotype Pepé le Pew and Cucaracha-singing Mexican stereotype Speedy GonzalesThose are widely available on DVD.

Well, the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs address this problem with the most perfectly-worded disclaimer I've ever seen:

'The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were false then and are still false today. While the following does not represent the WB view of society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as to claim these prejudices never existed.'

Speedy does it right.

Fantasia was a product of its time, and it always will be. Retroactively changing it to claim otherwise makes no sense. I wouldn't care if Disney had deleted Fantasia's controversial scene prior to its 1940 release; but once a film comes out, it belongs to culture. It's 'out there', and people will remember it in its intact form.

Maybe Disney could release Song of the South and an uncut Fantasia on DVD and preface them with a similar disclaimer to the Looney Tunes one. Or they could include short cartoons where Mickey and Donald explain the questionable material in kids' terms. Disney films aren't averse to depicting difficult truths - just about all of them have a scene in which one (or both) of the main characters' parents tragically die.


Further Reading

For more of my 'articles', you can see my posts entitled 'Four Directions of Bond' and 'The Hobbit and the Phantom Menace Effect'.

For more about animation, you can see my posts about Sita Sings The Blues and Princess Mononoke.

Screengrabs: Fantasia, Peter Pan and Song of the South were produced by Walt Disney Pictures. The Speedy Gonzales short Gonzales' Tamales was produced by Warner Bros.. The UK Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD was distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Review: X-Men: First Class

When I was about ten years old, I saw the first X-Men movie at a friend's house. Soon after, I acquired a soon to be well-worn VHS copy of the film. In May 2003 I went to the cinema to catch the sequel, which I thought was even better.

In 2006, hack-for-hire Brett Ratner (Red Dragon, Rush Hour 3) replaced regular X-director Bryan Singer to make the widely-reviled X-Men 3. Three years later, the property produced the laughable X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

By the time X-Men: First Class (2011, trailercame out, the series was tied in a two-good, two-bad score for me. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to this one. A '60s-set iteration featuring a young Professor X played by James McAvoy and a young Magneto played by Michael Fassbender sounded promising to me.


In 1962, the CIA recruits 'mutation expert' Charles (Professor X) Xavier to help them foil a dastardly plot by mutant villain Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).

On the way, Xavier meets and teams up with Erik (Magneto) Lehnsherr, who is also hunting down Shaw for his Nazi war crimes.

My Take

These first two X-Men movies remind me of Terminator 2 in that they are dazzling special-effects action movies, but they also have clever ideas and solid characterization.

On one side of the series' central conflict is authoritative psychic Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who wants mutants to coexist with humankind. On the other side is metal-manipulating concentration camp survivor Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), who hates humanity and wishes to eliminate it in favor of mutant-kind.

There's also a classic, Star Wars-y dynamic between straight-arrow Cyclops (James Marsden), roguish Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and their mutual love interest Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).

In X-Men: First Class our merry band of mutants is comprised of wooden, model-looking people who lack any distinction beyond their assorted computer-generated superpowers.

And here, sporting the lovely CGI wings by Industrial Light and Magic, is Zoë 'daughter of Lenny' Kravitz.

Most comic-book movies like Superman: The Movie seem to be based on straightforward wish-fulfilment. X-Men 1 and 2 do indulge in super-powered fantasy, but they also use the idea of a newly-evolved mutant race as an allegory to comment on racist and homosexual bigotry.

The first X-Men movie opens with a congressional debate between Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) and telekinetic mutant Dr. Jean Grey, during which the two discuss whether or not to pass the 'Mutant Registration Act':

(Kelly:) 'Are mutants dangerous?'

'I'm afraid that's an unfair question, Senator Kelly. After all, the wrong person behind the wheel of a car can be dangerous.'

'Well, we do licence people to drive.'

'Yes, but not to live. Senator, it is a fact that mutants who have come forward and revealed themselves publicly have been met with fear, hostility, even violence.'

For a blockbuster film, this is pretty intelligent and interesting dialogue. In First Class, the bigoted mutants' and humans' crass outbursts punch you in the face with their bluntness: 'Where do I find the more evolved people?' 'Just let us normal people go.'

Magneto spends several scenes lurking around in a black turtleneck and uttering portentous lines like 'I've been a lab rat. I know one when I see one.' This guy will grow up to be Ian McKellen. How about some class?

When CIA official Oliver Platt introduces Xavier to scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Xavier psychically recognizes McCoy as a fellow mutant and exclaims: 'How wonderful. Another mutant, already here. Why didn't you say?'

'Say what?' asks Platt.

'Because you don't know. [Looks directly at Hank] I am so, so terribly sorry.'

So instead of gracefully extricating himself from the social gaffe of outing a guy who is obviously secretive about being a mutant, he just gaffes even harder. This is meant to be the man who will become Patrick Stewart; how 'bout some tact?

'I see you also have sadomasochistic fantasies and an Oedipal complex. Oops, did I say that out loud? I am so, so terribly sorry.'

Has there ever been a good prequel? The Godfather Part II doesn't count because it takes place mostly after the first one. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Casino Royale don't count because the Jones and Bond films are all self-contained episodes.

Otherwise, there's refuse like Hannibal Rising and the Star Wars prequels. I know I'm in the minority, but I also felt that Prometheus and the Hobbit films were pretty weak.

One of the big draws of the Star Wars prequels was the promise of seeing the dissolution of the friendship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and a proto-Darth Vader. Likewise, X-Men: First Class was supposed to be about Magneto and Professor X becoming friends, then enemies.

Like the Star Wars prequels, First Class forgets to include the friendship part. It's as if the writers are coasting on the fact that the audience already knows Xavier and Lehnsherr are old friends because Patrick Stewart mentioned it in a previous movie.

Well, here in First Class Lehnsherr is a creepy psychopath from the get-go, and his relationship with Xavier is marked by their contentious arguing. I guess the downfall of a friendship is the exciting, emotional part to dramatize; but the drama doesn't exist if there is no friendship to 'fall' from. Having each character address the other as 'friend' doesn't solve this problem.

'I shall call you 'friend', seeing as we are friends now.'

There are also countless in-jokes that refer to previous X-Men films. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) tells a college-aged Xavier that the title 'Professor' suits him. At one point, Xavier says 'Next thing you know, I'll be going bald.' A CIA guy named Stryker irrelevantly mentions his son William, who will one day become the villain of X-Men 2.

I can understand a sequel making references to previous instalments, but a prequel doing the same thing makes no chronological sense. If this film is meant to be the 'first' one, then I feel it should spend less time making exclusive in-jokes and more time being accessible to series newcomers. 

The end of First Class is a desperate scramble to tie up loose ends. Mystique hooks up with Magneto out of nowhere - or, because we know they are together in the 'later' earlier films. In the final minutes of the movie Xavier sustains a bullet wound to his spine. In case the audience didn't pick up on the fact that this spinal injury explains Xavier's paraplegia, the movie has Xavier yell 'I can't feel my legs!' three times.

Prequels like this feel so slavishly beholden to the original films. Either tie up loose ends neatly, or don't bother at all. If Xavier is still able to walk at the end of this prequel, I'd assume that he had some kind of accident in the 30 year interval between this film and the first X-Men.

I got this weird exploitation vibe from First Class. I don't mean that it was a blood-drenched, limbs-flying '70s-type schlock flick, but I did get the sense that director/writer Matthew Vaughn was consciously pushing the boundaries of the PG-13 rating (or the UK-equivalent 12A rating, which I assume was the English director's template.) First Class is crammed with as much rating-permitted violence and titillation as possible, assumedly to appeal to 12-year-old boys.

Vaughn has Magneto viciously murder several hired goons, but he maintains his rating by keeping the violence bloodless.

12A movies are famously allowed one F-bomb each, and First Class clearly planned its opportunity.

12A doesn't allow out-and-out nudity, but Vaughn does the next best thing by having his female characters wear as little as possible. Mystique's natural, non-shapeshifted appearance is essentially Jennifer Lawrence naked. Shaw's right-hand goon Emma Frost (January Jones) doesn't say or do much, but she does live up to Frost's reputation of being one of the most scantily-clad female characters in comics history.

CIA agent Moira MacTaggert's (Rose Byrne) improvised plan to infiltrate a secretive nightclub consists of tearing her clothes off and sneaking in behind a train of strippers.

'Quick, take my blouse and skirt. This is the only way.'

Then there's the questionable accuracy of the film's 1962 setting, which critic Erik Lundegaard explains well in his First Class review:

'How did [Charles] know 'groovy' would be such a hip word three years later? Can he also see into the future? Is that why his hair is longish before the Beatles even recorded 'Love Me Do'?...1962 is not 1964 is not 1974 is not today, but the movie gloms them all together and we wind up with a cultural and historical hodgepodge.

'Shaw in 1962 looks like a 1974 swinger. London is swinging even though it didn't begin to swing until, what, 1965?...I know. It's a blockbuster. It's a superhero film. But I can't leave this aspect alone.'

In terms of our pop-culture images of each decade, the Sixties didn't even begin to look like the hippy-dippy, capital-S Sixties until around '65. 1962 looked closer to our pop-culture image of the Fifties.

If the filmmakers wanted to be period-accurate, all they had to do was study the first few seasons of Mad Men. If the filmmakers wanted First Class to feature a medley of fashions from all different decades, then why not set it in...I don't know, the present?

'Have either of you seen my iPod?'

Magneto's musical cue is this distorted, Queens of the Stone Age-esque heavy rock guitar tune that I found distractingly period-inaccurate. Why not use timeless orchestral score like the first two movies? I guess Vaughn stuck it in because guitar riffs are another item on the checklist of awesome things 12 year-old boys like.

Writing about First Class makes me feel like a teacher who is disappointed in a stellar student's passable work. First Class is your average dumb Hollywood blockbuster, but I feel let down because I know that the series has been, and is, capable of so much more. 


In 2013, X-Men spinoff The Wolverine left me disgruntled yet again. Bryan Singer's 2014 franchise return X Men: Days of Future Past also disappointed me. I understood why as soon as I spied First Class writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman in the credits.

X-Men: Apocalypse is now in production, with Singer directing again and X-Men 2 writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris penning the script. Call me a zealot, but I hold out hope that this one will be good.

Further Reading

For more Matthew Vaughn derision, you can see my post about Kick-Ass.

Screengrabs: X-Men: First Class was produced by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Bad Hat Harry Productions, in association with Marvel Entertainment, Dune Entertainment, Ingenious Media, Big Screen Productions, Ingenious Film Partners and Dune Entertainment III. The UK DVD was distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.