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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: X-Men The First Class, Thor, The Colossus of New York, Monkey Business


X-Men: The First Class (Also Blu) (Two Discs) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Matthew Vaughn, 2011

Maybe I’m getting tired of super-heroes and super-heroines. Or maybe X-Men: First Class just has too many of them. In any case, the latest Marvel movie, by my reckoning, puts a first-rate cast into a third-rate story, nearly saves it with first or second rate production values, but ultimately sinks into — by my count — second-or-third-rate entertainment.
I’m not trying to be snobbish here. I don’t expect Tolstoy or Dicken, or even Elmore Leonard.  But movie — directed by Matthew Vaughn of Kick-Ass, and assembled by six writers, including Vaughn and the first X-Menmeister Bryan Singer — isn’t even up to Stan Lee. Lee’s best writing has a brashness, zing and nose-thumbing humor X-Men: First doesn’t even touch. (To be fair, most of the other Marvel movies don’t touch it either, except for the first Iron Man. )
That doesn’t mean the Marvel movies aren’t entertaining, or even, in their own ways, ambitious. But there’s nothing very original or exciting about X-Men: First Class — an origin story that takes us back to the creation of the super-mutant group fussed over by Professor X aka Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) — despite its very expensive attempt to reboot ‘60s Marvel  and James Bond.
X-Men: First Class does throw around a lot of money and flex a lot of technical prowess, and it shows us, in great, dubious detail, how these young mutant super-supers were recruited and came together and how they got their names. (If you want proof that X: First isn’t first-rate writing, check out those naming scenes.)
For all of ice-babe Emma Frost’s (Jones) glittering diamond skin (diamonds are really her best friend), and Beast’s (Nicolas Hoult’s) weird feet, and Mystique’s (Lawrence) blue face and flaming hair, I also found it hard to warm up to these people — hard to warm up to anybody except, occasionally, the super-intense Erik, the brainy and bemused Charles and Bacon’s cheerfully odious super-villain, who at least seemed to be having a good time. I’m also a little amazed (though happy for his career prospects) at all the slavering over Fassbender for this movie and part, when he’s obviously so much better in lesser-seen films like Hunger and Jane Eyre.
Director/co-writer Vaughn — who made an amusing show out of Kick-Ass — does his job fairly well here. The movie is slick and fast and good-looking (not as good-looking perhaps, as it should be), and it has a genuinely exciting though dopey last act: that crazy three-cornered American-Russian-mutant battle off Cuba, with President Kennedy delivering the coda on TV. (That scene shows that JFK has more star power than either Fassbender or McAvoy. Or Kevin Bacon.)

So there’s a limit to what even a ensemble like Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence, Byrne, January Jones, and Kevin Bacon can do for you, especially when the script is so ordinary — composed, among other uninspiring bits, of that questionable Holocaust prelude, a lot of inside Marvel jokes, homoerotic undertones, funny costumes, and that truly inane re-imagining of the Cuban Missile Crisis. For me, the new X-Men was hard to sit through. Others may and will disagree. That’s what makes Cuban missile races.
I never read the X-Men books in my Marvel Comics-reading days, back in the ‘60s, and I guess there’s even less chance I’ll ever read one now. (“X-Men” aficionados tell me this movie is a faithful reboot.) My loss, I guess. Proust and Musil and “Finnegan’s Wake” and a lot of Balzac are still on the shelf too. Still, I’m beginning to think there’s a limit to the number of big, expensive, technically spectacular movies I want to see based on comic book heroes, even the ones dreamed up by Stan Lee and his buddies. Unless they bring back more comedy — which I think, is the best way to play a movie that has heroes and heroines with blue skin and stretchable feet, and villains and anti-heroines with diamond covered bodies and silly-looking helmets, and a Cuban missile Crisis remote-controlled by warring mutants, while the Americans and Russians — reduced to impotent bystanders — watch in addled confusion.
X-Men: First Class  may deliver the goods in its own special arena.  But it’s also a movie I found hard to sit through. A personal taste no doubt, but all taste is personal. And this “X” is not the kind of movie that got me excited about movies in the first place, and also probably not the kind of movie that should be sucking all the oxygen out of the room. (Neither are The Hangover 2 or Kung Fu Panda 2.) I pretty much forgot most of “X-First” as I headed for the exits, and I’ll bet some of the people praising it to the skies secretly felt that way too.
Extras: Featurettes; Isolated score; Deleted scenes.

Thor (Two Disc Blu/DVD) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Kenneth Branagh, 2011 (Paramount)
High on the endless spires and bridges of Asgard, plunged in a vast gloom of monumental, sinister “Viking Noir” decor, besieged by Frost Giants, and always in danger of tumbling into New Mexico, dwells the Odin family.
Ah, the Odins! There is mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) the hunky Norse hothead , wielder of the magical hammer Mjolnir. And his duplicitous little creep of a brother, wily Loki (Tom Hiddleston), up to his old double-Loki tricks. And Big Daddy Odin himself, played like a one-eyed King in search of his Lear by Anthony Hopkins. And the suggestively named and mostly quiet Queen Frigga (Rene Russo)
Like most mythological families, this one has problems. Odin seems to be dying, and taking forever to do it. Loki can’t be trusted and probably has designs on everything West of the Nibelungen. Frigga is perturbed. The Frost Giants prowl around, clearly up to no good. And Thor — whom Stan Lee and Jack Kirby once planted between the pages of Marvel Comics in a long-ago Golden Age many of us remember — well, that Scandinavian bombshell (played by an Australian) blows his stack right at the start and winds up in, you guessed it, New Mexico.
A lutefisk out of water. A mythic hero adjusting to a land and age of  nuclear power and truckstop food. With his hammer. And with a budget vaster than Asgard’s bridges and spires. And Natalie Portman as astrophysicist Jane Foster, swooning, though not over anything astrophysical. And Stellan Skarsgard as scientist Erik, brooding. And Kat Dennings as helper Darcy, cracking wise. Thor and Valhalla never had it so good. Except for the 3D. 
Thor is a movie that all but dares you not to be entertained by it, and frankly, when I saw it, I was too tired to resist. Nothing too clever about the lines, nothing too witty about the script, nothing much up its dramatic sleeve — but it looks fabulous (except for the 3D), and the actors seem to be having a good, plummy time, pretending to be Gods and scientists and government agents. Director Kenneth Branagh didn‘t make a Thor that surpassed or transcended itself or that elevated the genre, and he‘s often upstaged by Bo Welch’s spectacular production design and Hemsworth’s virility and Hopkins‘ endless death throes. But Branagh didn’t gum it up either. 
Thor is not especially well-written but it’s mostly well and classily done. It’s pseudo art of a sometimes exhilarating hokiness, and it even has a sense of humor. It also has action, spectacle, romance (and plummy speeches), and to some audiences — and not just the legions of “Fanboys” who are getting pistol-whipped in the more sarcastic reviews of this film — that’s what movies were made to give us. I don’t agree, but I liked the movie’s brazen sense of itself, the way it flaunts its budget and its stars and its effects (except for the 3D) and keeps flirting with the big-superhero-movie predictability that never quite sinks it.
Most of all though, I liked Thor because it was an obvious hit, and that meant that Branagh might be able to squeeze three good Shakespearean movie adaptations out of the heaps of moolah and studio good will he’s generated here.
Oh, the 3D. Tacked on afterwards, or so they say, it’s completely irrelevant. It adds nothing to Thor except the usual 3D darkness. And even if you’re a 3D aficionado, you should probably just pass it up and go see the 2D version instead — unless you feel irresistibly drawn to the pleasures of watching a flung hammer hurled toward your head.
The Colossus of New York (Two Stars)

U.S.: Eugene Lourie, 1958 (Olive)

Fans of Otto Kruger (and aren’t we all?) will want to see The Colossus of New York — a stiffly crazy little cheapo black-and-white horror movie directed by Jean Renoir’s great art director, Eugene Lourie — because it really has one of  Kruger’s more interesting bad roles.  As an affable maniac, who transplants his dead genius scientist son’s (Ross Martin) brain into a gigantic, clunky-looking, massively discontented robot, Kruger gets to show off  that first-rate evil glint in his eyes, and that classy, suavely sadistic delivery, both of which he also exploited to good bad ends in Hitchcock’s Saboteur.

Fans of anyone else in the picture though, including followers of Martin, Mala Powers (as his perplexed wife), and John Baragrey (as his jealous brother) or fans of robots in general —  shouldn’t stay up late (or early) for it. It’s your standard My-God-my-husband’s-brain-is-in-the- body-of-a-huge-robot movies, and probably not even the best of them. (Not that I’m an expert.)

That definitely includes (out) the admirers of Eugene Lourie, one of  the cinema’s greatest art directors: Renoir’s superbly imaginative designer on The Lower Depths, Grand Illusion, La Bete Humaine and The Rules of the Game, and also Sam Fuller’s high-class low-budget set-man on Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. Lourie, who followed Renoir to Hollywood, and like “the boss,” stayed there, was also an occasional director whose best known work is probably The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms — if it isn’t Gorgo.

Troubling question: Why am I convinced that it would be easier in contemporary Hollywood to get a green light for a remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, or The Colossus of New York, or even Gorgo,  than for one of  The Rules of the Game? Even if they had the same budget?  Figuring that one out, I’m afraid,  is like trying to make love to a robot. (Not that I’m an expert.)

Monkey Business (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Norman Z. McLeod, 1931 (Universal)

All four Marx Brothers — garrulous gad-about Groucho, chick-chasing chiseler Chico, harp-strumming hedonist Harpo and zippy no-zingers straight man Zeppo — play stowaways on a cruise liner, inhabited by gangsters and Thelma Todd and, for all we know, all of Paramount on Parade, jammed into Thelma’s closet. This is the one where the guys do their group impersonation of Maurice Chevalier. (Harpo has a phonograph playing a Chevalier record under his coat.)

 Since they’re stowaways, I guess that makes them illegal aliens and candidates for deportation by the Republican Party presidential candidates, who probably have them confused with Karl Marx anyway.  One of the screenwriters here was S. J. Perelman, and the producer was Herman J Mankiewicz. (Yes, that Herman J. Mankiewicz.) It’s funny — but you knew that already, didn’t you? “If the nightingale could sing lahk you, He’d sing much sweetah than they do, ‘Cause you brought a new kind of love to me…”


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon