REVIEW: X-Men: First Class (2011)

Mutants Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) bring together a team of mutants to stop Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) from starting a nuclear war.

I hadn’t seen X-Men: First Class in years and I’d forgotten how good it was! The casting is spot on almost across the board. McAvoy and Fassbender have such great chemistry and while thanks to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s performances in the original trilogy you could sense the years or friendship and respect, seeing how Charles and Erik met and the foundations of their relationship was just great to see. McAvoy and Fassbender both do a great job of showing the younger versions of these iconic characters while still making their own mark on them. Fassbender especially is great at showing the almost warring sides of Erik as he has a single determination for revenge but also likes and understands Charles’s point of view.

The differing ideologies of Erik and Charles don’t only come into play but also Charles and Raven aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Having them being adoptive siblings adds this whole new dynamic to characters we already thought we knew. Raven trying to figure out who she is leads to a lot of the sort of moral conversations about trying to fit in verses being true to yourself that wasn’t always discussed so much in the original trilogy.

The whole 60s vibe on First Class is a lot of fun. The use of Gnarls Barkley’s “Run” during the montage sequence of Erik and Charles recruiting mutants fits perfectly and the score composed by Henry Jackman is one of my favourites in the X-Men franchise and helps make First Class feel like its own thing outside of the rest of the X-Men films we’d seen so far.

Having X-Men: First Class be set during the Cold War adds another level of politics to the usual dynamic of humans vs mutants. There are humans being used by mutants, mutants trying to protect humans – it’s all put together so that the final conflict is truly satisfying.

While Charles, Erik, Mystique and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are all characters we’ve seen older versions of before, the rest of the mutants – both good and bad – are all new to the films. Naturally not all of them get the same amount of screen time and development but thanks to good casting and chemistry between them means they, and their powers, are all fun to watch.

X-Men: First Class is the near perfect blend of action, humour and fun. The cast is great, as is the special effects and the yellow X-Men uniforms are just the best. X-Men: First Class was the perfect way to reboot/reimagine the franchise and these characters after X-Men: The Last Stand. The subsequent films with these younger versions of the characters might not all have been as impressive as First Class, but it certainly gave the franchise a whole new lease of life. 5/5.

C is for Clare Devlin

I watched Derry Girls for the first time earlier this year and it’s a delight. The titular Derry Girls are all very different and great in their own ways, but my favourite was Clare.

Clare is super smart and academic achievement is pretty much the most important thing to her. She’s a great friend but she’s such a wuss when it comes to authority and doing anything wrong that she will automatically grass just about anyone up to save her own skin. It leads to a lot of hilarious scenes because she’s far less confident and more anxious than her friends. She’s the one worrying about everything when she and her friends end up in some sort of escapade.

How Clare came out as “the wee lesbian” was simultaneously lovely, funny and a bit awkward. While some of her friends took some time to figure out how they felt about it (it’s the 90s and some of them are a bit self-centred) they soon were all pretty supportive and all of them started wearing rainbow pins which was a nice touch.

B is for Kate Bishop

I’ve mentioned many times on this blog that Clint Barton aka Hawkeye is one of my favourite characters of all time, but in the comics Kate Bishop aka Hawkeye is also a much-loved character of mine.

I first learnt about her in the Hawkeye series by Matt Fraction and David Aja and then I read Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’ Young Avengers series where she was also a part of the team and in both series – plus other comics I’ve now read – I thought she was excellent.

Kate is the daughter of a rich and powerful businessman so the fact this heiress decides to become a crime-fighting hero is an interesting premise. Like her namesake she’s a highly skilled archer and martial artist but she has a bit more common sense than Barton does. Kate is tough but also very approachable and friendly. How she makes friends and connections is one of her best skills and when she was on her own in LA with just Lucky the dog for company she soon had met (and saved) enough people to form her own support system.

I really love Kate’s sense of humour and though she can be quite self-depreciating, she’s actually pretty smart and a very capable leader. She can do the crime-fighting thing and be a private investigator and a decent friend all at the same time.

I’m really looking forward to Kate Bishop joining the MCU. Hailee Steinfeld is going to play her in the Hawkeye Disney+ series and I think she’s going to be great. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a Young Avengers movie or show in a few years time as it looks like Marvel’s already planting those seeds.

READ THE WORLD – Tonga: We Are the Ocean by Epeli Hau’ofa

We Are the Ocean is a collection of essays, fiction, and poetry by Epeli Hau’ofa, whose writing over the past three decades has consistently challenged prevailing notions about Oceania and prescriptions for its development.

I found We Are the Ocean fascinating. It’s been a long time (since my uni days) since I’ve read academic essays, so I was a little apprehensive how I’d find these but quickly I realised my fears were unfounded. These essays were very readable and Hau’ofa’s voice came through clearly. As a lot of the essays were originally speeches at conferences, or adapted from a speech, that easy, conversational voice came through a lot.

I found these essays really interesting. I’ll readily admit I know little to nothing about the Oceanic region and the various island nations in that part of the world, so I learnt a lot from these essays. A lot of them were about the anthropology, history and financial structure of the countries in the Oceania/Pacific region. The relationship between the smaller island nations and Australia and New Zealand were a big part of it. How the trade worked, and how culture had been shared between the various countries and how people’s identities in some of the island countries were shaped by the influence of Australia and New Zealand rather than major western countries like America.

It was all super interesting and understandable because there was also talk of self-fulfilling prophesies as young people are told things like you’ll never amount to much in your home country unless you get an education abroad – so then is it of little surprise why the people in charge of banks, government etc aren’t fully educated in their home country. In fact, there’s often people of European, Australian, and New Zealander decent in positions of power due to colonial history.

The talk of anthropological studies and how historically anthropologists have been white and European and when they came to these countries, they made their own observations and didn’t think to make the effort to consult the native people who were experts in their own traditions. Hau’ofa being one of the only anthropologists from that region means he feels a great weight of responsibility of expanding the textbooks and the whole area of study.

The couple of short stories in this collection are kind of satirical and because they come after the majority of the essays it means you can pick up more of the references to the things and attitudes Hau’ofa is highlighting.

We Are the Ocean was incredibly interesting and easy to read. If you’re interested in history, social and cultural studies and how that all can interact to a person’s or country’s identity then this collection of work is for you. I learnt a lot from it and I’m please I read it. 5/5.

A is for Alec Lightwood

I read the first two books in the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, City of Bones and City of Ashes, probably close to ten years ago now but I couldn’t really get into them because of the writing and the main character. I did like Alec though and when the Shadowhunters TV show came along I liked him even more.

He starts out pretty grumpy and serious but that’s because he’s got the weight of his parents’ expectations on him and he has to be the sensible one when his siblings are more reckless. I love how Alec grows over the course of the series. He becomes more open to his emotions as he becomes accepting of who he is. He’s a badass Shadowhunter, the Head of the New York Institute and he’s in love with a male warlock. I love the badass, warrior side of Alec but I love the dorky more awkward side of him too when he’s all flustered – usually by his boyfriend Magnus.

The bond between Alec and his siblings Jace and Izzy is one of my favourite things in the show. How they love and support one another while still being able to call each other out when they think one of them is being unfair or not doing the right thing is how true siblings should be.

Alec is brave, loyal, sarcastic and caring. He’s highly skilled in both a physical battle with his bow but he becomes a great diplomat, being pretty much the only Shadowhunter who has brought together leaders of the warlocks, vampires, werewolves and Seelies. Other more experienced and older Shadowhunters often underestimate him but Alec is an extremely capable leader and while he’ll do just about anything for his friends, including bending the law, he won’t sacrifice other people for them. Alec always tries to work through a problem and get the most successful outcome for everyone involved. That sometimes leads to him getting hurt by the people he cares about but he has a big heart and a pretty much endless capacity for forgiveness – though he can be ruthless and hold a grudge when needed.

REVIEW: The 8th (2020)

The 8th tells the story of Irish women and their fight to overturn one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in the world. After a 35-year struggle the pro-choice side have to radically shift tactics to try and bring this historically conservative electorate over the line.

Living in the UK and having Irish friends via social media I remember hearing about the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment. Though I had no real idea of the real-world implications of such an amendment, that put the rights of the unborn the same as any living human’s rights – meaning the unborn had more rights than the pregnant woman, often even if her health was at risk. Seeing this documentary really highlights how passionate people were on both sides of the argument, and the different ways they’d go to try and get their message out there.

Ailbhe Smyth, a feminist and campaigner, is one of the main people the documentary follows. She’s one of the prominent figures in the Yes campaign and through her and the team’s various members, from door-to-door campaigners to the core organisers and communications specialists, you see what their plans were and how they implemented them. The other main person on the Yes campaign the film follows is self-described glitter-activist Andrea Horan. She is the owner of a nail bar and shows what it’s like when a “normal, not political person” gets into politics and behind a cause. She can mobilise young women in a way that other may not be able to and she shows that you can be interested in makeup and nails while still being passionate about women’s rights.

As a documentary The 8th is a mixture of talking heads and in the room-type footage. What’s interesting is the talking heads all are from before and during the campaign, so these people don’t know which way the vote will go and are basing all their thoughts on what was currently happening in the campaign. With hindsight this makes some of their observations quite amusing.

Maria Steen, a journalist who is supporting the No Vote, does make a good point. She believes that culture and society should change so that women don’t feel they have to have abortions if they want a career, that the working environment and social services should be more inclusive so that women can be supported when having children and that their careers aren’t negatively affected by having children. In an ideal world this would be the case, and she and everyone else who believes that should continue to fight for that, but until society is fairer, women need to be able to have access to safe and legal abortions so that they can make the choice about their bodies and their future safely.

Not only does The 8th cover the run up to the voting day, but it also includes past events in Irish history that are to do with women’s reproductive rights and how various cases have gained support from the people before. One example is of a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped by a schoolfriends father. She and her family were banned from flying to the UK for an abortion, something that all pregnant women who were seeking an abortion – no matter the reason – would have to do in order to have one safely. There was outcry because how on earth is the foetus have more rights than the living, breathing child that was raped?!

The 8th is a rousing and passionate documentary. While it does it’s best to show both sides of the debate, it’s clear that it is a film that’s behind the pro-choice message. The way the campaigners adapted their message to appeal to those undecided voters, to be compassionate and not scaremongering, and how they stuck with their methods even when it looked like things were turning against them is impressive. 5/5.

REVIEW: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

A prequel to the original X-Men trilogy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine shows the early years of James Logan (Hugh Jackman) who would one day become the Wolverine.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine tries to cram a lot in and very little of it works. A big part of this film is the relationship between Logan and his brother, Victor Creed (Live Schreiber). How they are each other’s only family until Victor’s violent streak gets too much for Logan and they go on different paths. Schreiber, and his creepy/gross nails, does look like he’s having a good time playing a villain that’s one step away from moustache-twirling. But the film never really delves into the hows and whys of the character instead having it pretty black and white – Logan = good while Victor = bad.

There are a lot of new mutants as a part of the team, led by Stryker (Danny Huston), and I couldn’t tell you any of their names – except Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds). X-Men Origins: Wolverine is possibly the most derided X-Men film and a big part of that is because of its treatment of that character and what it turned Deadpool into. God bless Ryan Reynolds for sticking with it and getting a Deadpool movie made seven years after this one made the character unrecognisable. The other members of the team aren’t given much more than the barebones of a personality and most are quicky killed off.

Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) makes his one and only appearance in the entire X-Men franchise
(so far) and he really is a bright spark in this otherwise dull film. He’s probably got less than 10 minutes of screen time, and he doesn’t appear until an hour into the film, but Kitsch still manages to bring more charm and charisma in that time than Hugh Jackman does in the whole film.

Speaking of Jackman, considering how layered his performance as Logan in previous films was and how it looked like he was giving a good performance even if the script wasn’t great (looking at you X-Men: The Last Stand) here he looks like he’s checked out of it and doesn’t really care anymore. That may be down to the poor script or the fact he’s supposed to be playing a slightly different Logan than the one we’ve seen before, one who remembers the 100+ years of his life so is more weary due to the things he’s seen or done. Either way, it’s not a great performance.

There’s a lot of X-Men Origins: Wolverine that feels contrived because it’s a prequel. There are things like where Logan gained the moniker Wolverine and even where he got his cool, brown leather jacket – were we really desperate to know that? – and often it seems unnatural as the film screeches to a holt so you pick up this obvious reference. Then there’s a problem that prequels often fall into – you have a good idea of how the story is going to end. If you’ve seen the original trilogy (which you probably have) then you know Logan is “experimented on” and he must lose his memory by the end of the film. If the stuff leading up to that was more compelling maybe Logan’s amnesia would then be bittersweet as a viewer as then what he’d lost would be more affecting but it’s not.

The CGI in X-Men Origins: Wolverine is so bad. I’m one to forgive some shoddy CGI if it’s just in one scene or the rest of the film in terms of plot and characters is good and entertaining, but as X-Men Origins: Wolverine doesn’t meet those requirements it’s worth mentioning. The most noticeable thing is Wolverine’s claws. Obviously, they aren’t real but they look so fake and far worse than they did in X-Men which was released nine years earlier. They look stuck on Logan’s hands rather than a part of the characters body.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is pretty much one fight/action scene after another, and it gets boring pretty quickly as none of the characters Logan goes up against (besides Gambit) have much of a personality or a compelling story arc – and the actual plot of the film isn’t that entertaining either. 1/5.

SERIES REVIEW: Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

As I said in a recent TBR post, though I read and enjoyed Six of Crows years ago I never finished that duology and I’d never read the original trilogy that started this Grisha’verse. Thanks to the trailer for the Shadow and Bone Netflix show, it got me reinterested in this series and now I’ve read the trilogy for the first time – and plan to reread Six of Crows and then read Crooked Kingdom for the first time. And then at some point I’ll probably also read the other duology in this world that has my new favourite character in it.

Set in a fantasy world inspired by Imperial Russia, Shadow and Bone sees Alina Starkov, a mapmaker in the army, suddenly learn she has a dormant but extraordinary power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. She’s whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling, and soon she learns nothing is what it seems as she may be in more danger than she realised.

Shadow and Bone is my least favourite in the trilogy. I think it’s partly because it’d been a while since I’ve read fantasy, and while it’s still a genre I like, just getting in that YA fantasy mindset took some time. Also because of general internet osmosis, I knew going into it who was the big villain so I was kind of just waiting for that to be revealed too.

That being said, I think it did a great job of introducing the really interesting magic system. I liked the fact that while the Grisha are powerful, they have their limitations. They aren’t all powerful in all types of magic, there’s three different types of magic and they each have the skills for one type. How the magic and the history of this warring country is woven into the story is done well as there never seems a moment where you’re just listening to a history lesson. A lot of the time, you’re learning about things the same time as Alina is. This continues throughout the next two books and it makes the story all the richer for it.

The dynamic between Alina and the Darkling gets more interesting in each book but its here that all that important foundation is set. Their relationship verges on creepy a lot of times in the book before characters intentions are clear, and it gives their interactions an unsettling edge. Their powers compliment one another so they often appear to have the whole two sides of the same coin deal going on.

I gave Shadow and Bone 3/5.

Siege and Storm is my favourite in the trilogy. It feels like almost non-stop action and even when it’s not there’s more political intrigue as Alina learns to navigate the court and starts to become a leader which is just as gripping.

I thought the pacing in Siege and Storm was excellent and how it introduced new characters and new aspects of this world was nicely done. Here you see more of the technology of this country, not only are there pirate ships but also these aircraft which are unlike anything we’ve seen in these books before. The mixture of technology and science/magic in this world is really interesting.

Also, Siege and Storm introduces one of my favourite characters I’ve read in a long, long time – Sturmhond. He is clever and charming but also ambitious and ruthless, and I pretty much loved everything he said. As you learn more about him you see how he’s a man of many faces. He’s almost a chameleon as he can fit in in any social or political situation and often can get people to agree with him. I just loved him a lot.

I gave Siege and Storm 5/5.

Ruin and Rising is a near perfect end to this trilogy. Like Siege and Storm, I read it in two sittings because I was instantly pulled into the story because of the characters and the cliffhangers at the end of each book. While Alina has formed various bonds over the course of the previous two books, in this one there’s almost a family of choice trope happening as Alina and her small band of survivors fight to stick together and to do the right thing. The final act almost seemed to feel rushed. Throughout the book Alina had been working towards one goal but then that changed suddenly and, while there were possible hints in the previous book her original goal had still been an overarching theme, it made the final showdown seem more of a Plan B and it didn’t quite have the same effect.

I gave Ruin and Rising 4/5.

Overall, I really enjoyed this trilogy. Alina is a great and believable heroine. She acts to things how you’d think any sane person would react, she’s constantly learning from her mistakes and evolving into a powerful leader as she accepts and relishes in her newfound power. The rest of the characters are great too. As I’ve said, Sturmhond is my favourite but how some of the secondary or minor characters are allowed to develop is really cool as you see sides to them you wouldn’t have expected to begin with. While Alina’s closest relationship is with her best friend Mal, there’s a lot of good dynamics and friendships between female characters in these books which I always appreciate.

The Grisha trilogy is, on the whole, fast-paced, action-packed, and has compelling characters and a vivid world. I can see why these books have become so well loved and I’m definitely looking forward to the Netflix show.

REVIEW: Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

My review of the 2017 theatrical version of Justice League.

Determined to ensure Superman’s (Henry Cavill) ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) aligns forces with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions led by Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds).

The trials and tribulations of this film, or this version of this film, are pretty well known and now thanks to HBO Max Zack Snyder has been able to release the version of Justice League that was his ideal vision to release back in 2017 – all four hours of it.

It’s difficult to watch Zack Snyder’s Justice League and not compare it to the film that was released in cinemas in 2017. There are scenes that are exactly the same or similar but extended but then there’s also a whole lot of new footage and backstory on different characters. Much like the 2017 version, I think Zack Snyder’s Justice League is mostly fine, it’s still messy but it is a bit more coherent and thematically consistent. It’s just that if you’re not keen on how Snyder represents these characters, making them more like God-like warriors than superheroes, then you’ll probably not be too over keen on this film.

Cyborg (Ray Fisher) gets the most out of this new version. As a character he gets so much more to do, more character development and he does kind of become the heart and driving force of this team of heroes. Fisher’s performance isn’t always great, but his character goes from being an almost non-entity to the glue that holds this team together – and his relationship with his father Silas Stone (Joe Morton) is a big subplot of the film.

Steppenwolf is given more of a backstory too so becomes a bit more than a generic villain who wants to destroy the world. The CGI with all the spikes in his suit makes him appear more menacing and with the extra blood and violence he does seem like a sizable threat.

The four-hour runtime of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a bit intimidating, and you do feel it at times. Slow-motion shots are a big part of Snyder’s directing style and there’s a lot in here. In fact, the use of them is excessive as shots that look cool in a trailer (Jason Momoa’s Aquaman standing in the waves) last for minutes as you have to see them in slow-mo and from every angle, and then there’s sequences like a football game that’s also in slow-mo which seems pointless. These shots may look cool, but having so much slow-motion shots used, all the time no matter the context of the scene, makes them lose their impact when they’re used in a big action sequences.

I think that’s a good way to sum up Zack Snyder’s Justice League. A lot of the time it looks cool but those visual, stylistic choices don’t necessarily make a good film. With it’s four-hour runtime there’s a lot of exposition and action and some it works while some of it doesn’t. More padding around the plot makes it a more consistent film than the one released in 2017, but I see little reason for it to be four hours. There’s probably a really good two-and-a-half to three-hour Justice League movie in here.

If you had problems with the 2017 film, you may like this version more. If you liked the 2017 version, there may be some stuff to like here but there’s not as much slapstick comedy for instance. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is long, often dour but frequently visually interesting. There are a few nice character moments (how the dynamic between Wonder Woman and Aquaman is briefly explored is one of my favourite moments) but then other characters are pushed aside (Amy Adams’ Lois Lane). It’s the balance between character and action and pacing that’s lacking and often makes Zack Snyder’s Justice League a bit of a slog but the film does just enough to keep you watching – if only out of morbid curiosity. 2/5.

If you want to hear my spoiler-filled thoughts on this film, I featured on JumpCast’s Zack Snyder’s Justice League episode that was released today.

REVIEW: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

When the government develops a “cure” for mutations that will turn mutants human permanently, Magneto (Ian McKellen) rages war and the X-Men must choose what side they’re on. Meanwhile Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) returns and is more powerful than ever, calling herself the Phoenix and turns on her friends, aligning herself with Magneto.

X-Men: The Last Stand is one of the X-Men films that I’m pretty sure I hadn’t seen it in its entirety since the cinema, 15 years ago. I remember being a bit disappointed by it but not necessarily why and a lot of my thoughts and opinions on it before this rewatch were probably thanks to the general internet consensus over the years.

The Last Stand definitely isn’t as good as the first two X-Men films, but I don’t think it’s as terrible as I’d been led to believe. The main problem with it is that it tries to cram two storylines together in a film that’s less than two hours long.

The “cure” plot is good though because of the other stuff there isn’t as much time to give the emotional and ethical dilemma some characters face, namely Rogue (Anna Paquin), space to fully develop. Sure, mutants were born with these powers but for some if they change how they look or make them unable to be close to anyone, they can be a curse. But does that mean they should change who they are? The conversation between Storm (Halle Berry) and Rogue touches on these things but there’s so much more that could’ve been explored. Storm thinks every mutant is perfect the way they are, and that’s perhaps easy for someone like her who can control the weather but is otherwise completely normal. For Rogue who can’t touch someone without harming them, it’s very different.

The Jean Grey/Phoenix Saga story line is what feels shoehorned in. If The Last Stand had just focussed on the cure storyline, or even the Phoenix Saga one, it would’ve had the potential to be a much better film. Jean returns suddenly evil and far more powerful than any other mutant. She has a completely different personality and it’s hard to care about what she’s going through. Every time the plot moves forward with the cure stuff it then has to pause to go back to Jean, and often Logan (Hugh Jackman’s) love for her, and it grinds the film to a halt.

The opening sequence in the Danger Room is great as you see the X-Men in a battle situation, most of which you haven’t seen use their powers to their full capabilities before so that’s cool. Likewise, the final battle is exciting as there’s so many different powers on display and each of the X-Men do get their moment to shine there.

Rewatching The Last Stand I remembered what disappointed me most. After all the promo of Angel (Ben Foster) being in one of the X-Men suits I thought he’d become a proper part of the team, so I was disappointed when he was pretty much a cameo. Generally, that’s another problem The Last Stand has, it introduces a lot of new characters, as well as already having quite a full roster, that a lot are given minimal screen time and little to know character development – I couldn’t name half the new characters that joined Magneto. Scott Summers (James Marsden) really is given the short end of the stick in this film. He’s given nothing to do, is used to bring Jean back to the story, and barely anyone misses him when he’s not there.

X-Men: The Last Stand is a bit of a mess. There’s some good stuff to be found but with an over abundance of characters and conflicting plots that each deserve a whole film it’s a bit of a let down as an end to a trilogy. Still, the final battle is pretty great (even if it goes from day to night in a second) so it does leave you on a high and maybe in a more forgiving mood. 3/5.