Origin of Species: X-Men – First Class (2011)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Matthew Vaughn’s 2011’s prequel, X-Men: First Class

As prequels go, X-Men: First Class is a pretty great offering. As saviours of an entire franchise go, First Class is pretty much a miracle.

To suggest the X-Men franchise was in the doldrums at the end of the last decade would have been an understatement. The Last Stand, meant as a capper to the first two initial Bryan Singer helmed X-Men films, made a decent profit but was roundly trounced by critics and many fans, as indeed was X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 – technically both a sequel *and* prequel, intended as a character study for Hugh Jackman’s breakout mutant from the previous trilogy, it turned out a critical failure that set 20th Century Fox onto a path they had been toying with throughout the first trilogy of pictures: a film about the youthful origins of the X-Men. With no clear path forward, producer Lauren Shuler Donner started looking back, in order to gain a fresh perspective the franchise by this point sorely needed.

The result, First Class, turns out to be far more of an assured triumph than, off the back of the previous two films, it had any right to be. Matthew Vaughn’s film does not just go back to the origin story of characters who Singer introduced us to fully-formed and established in X-Men—principally Professor Charles Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr—but takes the franchise further back to its essential comic-book roots than ever. While the name First Class was grabbed by writer Simon Kinberg from a modern X-Men comic he chose not to directly adapt, the 1962, height of the Cold War setting, with a narrative underpinned by geopolitical tensions between the US and Soviet Union, very much calls back to Stan Lee/Jack Kirby’s original 1960’s comics—which debuted around the same time—filled as they were with anxieties about nuclear conflict and Communist fears.

In going back to the beginning, First Class is remarkably successful in charting a way forward that was inconceivable two films earlier.

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The Night of the Generals (1967)

Occasionally I am fortunate to be offered review material from various film, TV, book or comic PR companies, and will be taking a look at releases that interest me, whether based on writers, director or content.

This one is from Eureka Entertainment, 1967’s The Night of the Generals…

You might be surprised to learn that Lawrence of Arabia was not the only film in the 1960’s to co-star Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, but it would be no surprise if The Night of the Generals doesn’t ring any immediate bells.

A critical and financial dud on release, despite the ascendant stars of the aforementioned leading men, The Night of the Generals suffers in no small part for barely replicating the alchemy in David Lean’s masterpiece of having O’Toole & Sharif share screen time. The producer of both films, legendary Hollywood maestro Sam Spiegel, drafted both men in as part of a contractual deal following Lawrence of Arabia, paid them both a pittance (less indeed than lower billed Donald Pleasence), and largely kept them apart – O’Toole the creepy, dead eyed Nazi General and Sharif the dogged Nazi Major looking to catch a serial killer of women he has concluded was the work of a high-ranking General in the SS. Despite being inextricably linked by the narrative, O’Toole & Sharif share only a few brief scenes and it is one the many missteps taken in an overlong, oddly structured and ultimately misconceived novel adaptation.

Here’s the key point as to why: The Night of the Generals is both a political thriller and a cat and mouse horror all rolled into one, revolving around the search for a murderer the identity of whom is blindingly obvious from the very beginning of the film.

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That Same Old Dream: Dr. No (1962 – James Bond #1)

Over the course of 2019 and into 2020, in the run up to the 25th James Bond movie, I am going to be deep diving into every Bond film in depth, revisiting one of my favourite franchises.

We start at the beginning with 1962’s Dr. No…

It struck me watching Dr. No just how much the most recent James Bond film to date, Spectre, called back to the very first cinematic outing for 007.

In Spectre, Bond pursues an urbane, calm and collected super-villain who wears Nehru jackets, like in Dr. No. Said villain in Spectre only truly reveals himself fully in the third act, while charming Bond and his female companion with a luxury suite and fine clothing, like in Dr. No. Given the villain in question is Ernst Stavro Blofeld, arguably the most iconic bad guy in the Bond lexicon, it is easy to suggest Spectre is first and foremost inspired by Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice, but Christoph Waltz’ modern take on 007’s arch enemy has far more in common with Joseph Wiseman’s Doctor No, certainly when it comes to performance and style. Dr. No may not be a film which perfectly nails the historic James Bond movie formula but there is not one of the twenty-four films that follow it across half a century that do not owe a debt to this somewhat quieter beginning.

It is easy to dismiss Dr. No as a stepping stone to the embarrassment of riches to come in From Russia With Love or Goldfinger, but that is to lend a disservice to a picture steadily growing finer with age. A picture that puts in place a range of Bond movie aspects that without question made the franchise a global, beloved success.

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Alias (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

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Alias – ‘Almost Thirty Years’ (1×22)

When you think about it, Alias gives away the final twist at the end of Almost Thirty Years by virtue of its title alone.

Season 1’s climactic episode is probably best remembered by critics and fans for those final couple of minutes, in which Sydney Bristow is confronted with a twist on the truth that has steadily been unravelling across the entire season. Not only was her mother secretly a KGB spy, and not only did she not tragically die when Syd was just a little girl, but in reality she is the grand master villain behind (almost) everything she has been fighting for the last twenty-two episodes. Her mother, Irina, is ‘The Man’, the shadowy, powerful, mysterious machiavelli in control of vast crime organisation. She literally appears here in shadow, cast against the wall of a dark room Syd is held in captivity, and won’t emerge into the light until the first moments of Season 2.

This grand twist, leaving Sydney with the quiet and stunned final line “Mom?” (which is perfect for a season which has almost entirely been about the secret dysfunctional history of her family), was an inevitability, yet somehow JJ Abrams manages across this episode and indeed the entire season to make it a surprise, and an incredibly effective final moment. You do and you *don’t* see it coming all at once, perhaps because the show has devoted so little time to the supposed ‘Man’, Alexander Khasinau, and kept the entire organisation he seemingly controls in the shadows, dropping the bombshell that Irina has been hiding behind a masculine, almost cliched alias of her own lands with both us and, naturally, with Sydney.

It is the icing on the cake of an extremely assured season finale for a remarkably tight and strident first year. Alias has some enjoyable season finale’s left in its back pocket, but none with the skill or control of Almost Thirty Years.

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Plugging Gaps: How backstory is *becoming* story

Remember the time that backstory was just that? Backstory.

Many of the most successful TV shows and movies are specifically built on a sense of their own mythology and world building. Game of Thrones has a series of vast novels to draw on which detail an incredibly complicated social and political eco-system, for example. Backstory, the details of the universes of these tales and the histories of many characters within the stories, provide the unseen depth and ballast to the tale we are being told, the tale we are invested in.

In recent years, however, the trend of this has begun to shift. Our biggest stories within popular culture are now becoming obsessed with backstory not just being developed to enable the narrative, they are instead *becoming* the narrative. Storytellers are actively attempting to try and ‘plug gaps’, for want of a better term, in continuity and canon, believing it seems that audiences are as obsessed with these minor details as the writers of these properties appear to be. We are losing the element of ambiguity, surprise and mystery.

We are losing backstory by exploring too much of it.

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Mission Impossible (1996)

Given the direction the Mission Impossible franchise has taken over the last twenty two years, all the way through to the most recent sixth outing Fallout, it is easy to forget Brian De Palma’s original but also to underestimate quite how well it launched one of Hollywood’s most impressively consistent franchises.

Mission Impossible happened just before cinema began to change. It happened just before the post-modernist transformation of Hollywood into a self-referential field of franchises that would go on to metaphorically eat themselves, in the wake of Wes Craven’s Scream and a thousand imitators. It happened in advance of the rise of the blockbuster which did not rely on the tentpole, marquee name to keep afloat, as The Matrix sequels gave way to the first flourish of the comic-book movie rise across the 2000’s. It happened in the midst of the trend of classic properties being revisited, updated and ‘reimagined’, which began dominating the landscape, coming in the wake of successes such as The Fugitive. Mission Impossible, quite remarkably for a picture which is now two decades old, feels as a result both uniquely rooted in the 1990’s and decidedly out of time. Read more…