X-Men: First Class * * * * *
Cert 12a, 131 mins
A little over five years ago Matthew Vaughn dropped out of directing the third X-Men movie because he hadn’t the time to make the film he wanted to.
Two successes – Stardust and Kick-Ass – later he returns to the franchise with X-Men: First Class.
And the assured hand he displays here will surely have audiences wondering just how good The Last Stand – arguably the weakest of the initial trilogy – might have been.
There has already been an X-Men prequel which focused on Wolverine’s mysterious past.
First Class covers the rest of the mutant band of brothers, specifically Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, charting their history from the emergence of their powers to the formation of their friendship, ruefully hinted at by Professor X in the subsequent films, and the conflicting beliefs that irrevocably and inevitably drive them apart.
For this film at least they are united against a common enemy, Sebastian Shaw and his Hellfire Club, who see mutants as the next master race and are willing to incite world war in order to assure their ascendency.
Played with chilling relish by Kevin Bacon, Shaw’s unlimited resources – even his submarine is kitted out with a cocktail bar – megalomania and scantily-clad henchwoman, Emma Frost (January Jones), put him just one stroke of a cat away from the best Bond villains of old.
Vaughn has undoubtedly been influenced by the cult action films and series of the 1960s.
He also plunders some of history’s defining moments to add a sense of real drama to an otherwise fantastic story. Erik’s metal-bending ability is an anguished response to his family being dragged off to Auschwitz. It is Shaw’s manipulations that cause the Cuban Missile Crisis, while the parallels between the un-super humans’ prejudice against mutants and the experience of African-Americans in that era are keenly felt.
Vaughn and his co-scriptwriters temper the tension and the spectacle of the big set pieces with dashes of humour that will have the fanboys chuckling, particularly over Xavier’s protective attitude towards his hair and some succinct but effective cameos.
It is interesting to watch the nascent X-Men like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) on the cusp of adulthood, the struggle to establish their sense of identity made that much harder by a world that treats differences with distrust and outright hostility.
The cornerstones of First Class though are Charles and Erik – Prof X and Magneto. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender fully live up to the bar set by the acting knights who portrayed their older selves – Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
McAvoy brings a joie de vivre, and working legs, to the part of the idealistic young professor, cheerfully abusing his telepathic ability to seduce college girls.
Fassbender’s Lehnsherr is a more tormented soul. Moulded by what his powers have cost him and single-mindedly seeking revenge, he is temporarily redeemed by the compassionate Xavier.
Urbane yet ruthless, and with a gift for meting out poetic justice, it is no wonder that the Geman-born Irish actor has been cited as a Bond in-the-making. AJ
Senna * * * *
Cert 12a, 101 mins
Even those who think that watching cars go round and round the same track dozens of times is a waste of time – and I count myself among that number – will enjoy this film.
It’s a great human drama about an extraordinary sportsman, a tale full of rivalry, humour and tragedy.
Handsome Brazilian Formula 1 star Ayrton Senna is regarded as one of the greatest drivers of all time, though we’ll never know the heights he could have achieved as he was killed at the wheel aged just 34.
This fascinating film eschews a narrator, instead using mainly unseen archive footage combined with recollections from friends and family.
Senna made his mark early on in his F1 career. In just his sixth race, in Monaco in 1984, he started in 13th place but showed off his natural skill by blasting his way through the field to cross the line first in what James Hunt described as a “truly staggering performance”.
He just wanted to race, and took risks to win – “you either do well or forget it,” he declared. Yet he came up against the constraints of money and politics, rows with officials and an increasingly fraught rivalry with his McLaren teammate Alain Prost.
What is particularly interesting is the footage from the pre-race drivers’ meetings in which they voice their concerns about the safety of the track and challenge the regulations – and have amazing showdowns with FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre.
Minor flaws in the film include the grainy, flickering quality of some of the clips, and perhaps a concentration on Senna’s relationship with Prost to the exclusion of any other drivers. British stars like Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill barely feature.
And while it’s reassuring to hear the familiar tones of Murray Walker, there’s also quite a bit of foreign commentary which has to be subtitled.
Plus this may be a slightly sanitised version, putting Senna in the best possible light.
But it’s still gripping stuff. We get all the most exciting bits of races and plenty of behind-the-scenes revelations to satisfy F1 fans.
There’s lots of detail leading up to the crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. The crash itself isn’t dealt with too mawkishly, though there’s heartbreaking footage of the funeral and some poignant insights into Senna’s last moments from his friend and doctor Sid Watkins.
As well as being a great driver, Senna also comes across as being a big personality and a man who showed his emotions.
By the end of the film, we feel we know him a little better – and feel his loss a little more too. RL.
Prom * *
Cert U, 103 mins
The word that kept springing to mind while watching this Disney film was “bland”.
A bland cast of largely unknown actors play bland characters and spout a bland script in a totally predictable, bland plot.
It’s all about the very American – though now common in Britain too – custom of pupils celebrating the end of high school with a big party.
The prom is a rite of passage, one of the most important nights in a teenager’s life, as long as they have the right dress and date.
Not all the pupils at Brookside School are as keen. Geeky Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) says, in one of the film’s more perceptive lines: “Prom is like the Olympics of high school. You wait four years, three people have a good time and the rest live on with shattered dreams.”
Nova (Aimee Teegarden) is an annoying perfect pupil, blonde, clever and popular, though she hasn’t got a boyfriend. She longs for one dull boy to ask her to the prom she’s organised almost by herself.
Then disaster strikes, when all the decorations catch on fire. The principal forces bad boy Jesse (Thomas McDonell) – who’s hardly bad at all, he just skips class and rides a motorbike – to help Nova remake them.
She calls him a “rude, arrogant menace,” so it’s obvious they’ll fall in love.
Meanwhile there are plenty of other characters we don’t really care about, and not a great deal happens. It could do with more bite, as if it was taking place in the British Brookside. A body under the patio or a siege would liven things up, but it’s all very Disney sweet.
Horribly cheesy in parts, it’s fairly amusing in others and you may quite enjoy it if you’re a 12-year-old girl. Everyone else should steer clear. RL.
Last Night * * *
Cert 12a, 92 mins
There’s a strong multinational cast to this drama, with the four leads coming from England, Australia, France and America.
Joanna (Keira Knightley) and Michael (Sam Worthington) are a married couple living in New York. She’s a writer, he works in real estate.
At a work party, she spots an attraction between her husband and his work colleague Laura (Eva Mendes) and accuses him of having an affair.
“I didn’t do anything!” he protests, but when work takes them both away for the night, will temptation be too much for him?
Meanwhile, Joanna bumps into old flame Alex (Guillaume Canet) and spends the evening with him.
He’s charming and flirtatious, and there’s clearly unresolved history between them. So might she be the one to be tempted into infidelity?
It’s a little slow and not a great deal happens, but it’s no real hardship watching beautiful people for 90 minutes. And performances are good, clearly conveying the chemistry between the characters. RL.