Saturday, June 18, 2011

X Men: First Class (2011)

I can’t remember the first time I picked up an X Men comic, or the first version of the animated series I saw online. I do remember though, that from the onset, these were my heroes. Sure I liked the competing spiels about great power coming with great responsibility; about Gotham’s dark knight; or even the Man of Steel – but it was always this ever-changing band of mutants that garnered my loyalty. A large part of this loyalty came from the parallels I could sense between the X Men’s fight with acceptance, from outside and within, and my own gradual acceptance of my homosexuality. The movies have been quick to mine this subtext – a scene in X2 where Bobby Drake tells his parents about his mutation could just as easily be a coming out sequence in a non-superpowered movie.

There’s a lot of narrative to tell in in X Men: First Class, with its attempt at giving us a true blue origin story. And by origin story, I mean that we get a glimpse of Xavier, Magneto and Mystique as kids; we see the birth of Cerebro; of Beast’s human self before the mutation takes over full throttle; and most importantly of how Charles and Erik become allies and then part ways. We start off in a Nazi camp, with a scene that’s a direct throwback to the first X Men film, before zipping through a series of man-on-rampage missions over the decades to land us in the movie’s Cuban Missile Crisis present.

What First Class gets – and this is no mean feat considering the plotlines it’s juggling – is the central conflict about acceptance and integration in the face of human resentment to all that is different. Do you try to blend in, stifle that part of you that is different – as Hank McCoy pre his beast conversion unsuccesfully attempts. Or do you cherish who you are, proud and unabashed, no compromises made? The beauty of this movie is that for a brief moment, it lets you into the mind – and generates empathy – of the other side. The side of Magneto, the story that humans must be conquered before they conquer the other. In a series of tremendously acted sequences by Michael Fassbender, you let yourself flicker, waver, for a brief second as you question the boundaries of right and wrong. “Those men are merely acting on orders” implores Charles. But, counters Erik – it’s the same way “those men” in the concentration camps were merely acting on orders. And for a brief second, before ration and reason and good human conscience came flooding back, I thought – well. Yes!

But enough of that. This movie manages to not only engage successfully with some of its weighty questions in a manner not insulting to a paying audience, it also manages to be a big blast of fun while doing so. There’s a great sense of momentum that powers it along, as it thunders through one plotline to the next. The effects are often spectacular without being too distracting, with the climactic fight over the fate of a couple dozen missiles standing out in particular. Instead of letting itself be bogged down in too much origin-exposition, Mathew Vaughn takes the route of the zippy montage every now and then – and carries it off well.

In a movie so packed with everything, atleast something had to be given shirt shrift – and here it happens to be the younger mutants. Not that they’re bad – just that there isn’t enough of them. in the bits that theydo have, we get the tiniest of arcs – here those being as simple as then developing their abilities. Oh well, we’ll leave more for the sequel?

In the end, for all that it does successfully, First Class still isn’t the best X Men movie made – that tag continues to be held by the wonderfully crafted X2: X Men United. It’s still a great addition to the X Men canon, and goes a long way in erasing the sour taste left behind by the extremely mediocre Wolverine movie.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Gleecap: Showmance (Season 1, Episode 2)

(as published on

The second episode of Glee aired a fair few months after the first one in its initial run. A fair few re-introductions are in order, but before you know it, we’ve hurtled back into the Glee breakneck rhythm I know and love.

Sue Sylvester informs Will Schuester about the twelve-member team requirement as an eligibility criteria for the Regionals competition - the Glee club at present has exactly half that number. Will hits upon the idea of doing a performance before the class assembly which will then induce students to join - except that his choice of the 1970’s disco hit Le Freak isn’t going down too well with the club. With Rachel at the lead, “New Directions” goes behind Will’s back to assault the assembly with the saucy, astonishingly raunchy Push It. It is a performance that, as Sue puts it, “was the most offensive thing I've seen in twenty years of teaching, and that includes an elementary school production of Hair.” It also gets the club in a fair bit of trouble with the administration - they will now be required to sing off a list of Christian-values approved songs prepared by the Principal.

One of the season’s central love triangles is also set up here, as Finn, the star quarterback, puts his relationship with head cheerleader Quinn in jeopardy after spending a bit too much time with Rachel in practice sessions. Quinn resolves this by auditioning for the Glee club with fellow cheerleaders, and one delicious performance of I Say a little Prayer for you later, “New Directions” has nine members.

The Songs!

1. Le Freak - New Directions (Chic)

Another of the performance-as-joke numbers - this one has some cute choreography, and I can watch Mercedes cap off anything with her “Hell to the no!”


2. Gold Digger - New Directions (Kanye West)

Mercedes kicks this off with a great intro, the cast joins in, and Will shows us some sexy dance moves. It’s not often that the show does rap well, but this is, well, gold.


3. All By Myself - Emma (Eric Carmen)

So just a snatch of a performance - a few seconds actually. Gets huge points for how absolutely adorable Emma is here, and the irony of her giving the particular counsel she is to Rachel at this point.


4. Push It - New Directions (Salt ‘N’ Pepa)

‘Ooh baby baby’ … now we’re talking. Every syllable is stressed on for maximum raunch and as for the choreography - it makes those late 1990s R&B videos look tame. I would not enjoy watching this with my folks. As Rebecca Black would intone - Fun, Fun, Fun, Fun.


5. I Say a Little Prayer for You - Quinn, Santana and Brittany (Dionne Warwick)

Incredibly suggestive, and Quinn’s vocals go down like a shot of Bailey’s. The cheerleaders are here to stay.


6. Take a Bow - Rachel (Rihanna)

Till now, Glee has been a performance-musical. All the songs have taken place in the real world, so to speak, every moment that we see as audiences being also observed by the characters within the show. With this song, Glee begins to embrace more fully its musical roots. Rachel starts off singing this in the auditorium; before you know, she’s walking through the McKinley halls, directly chiding Finn - “you put on quite a show, really had me going”. It’s right in Rachel’s vocal sweet spot - wide as that is.


So final verdict for this episode?

Well, another set of great performances, a preview of Will’s moves, Emma crying her eyes out while wailing All By Myself, the love triangles threatening to go out of control so early in the show - Glee’s firing on all cylinders. That’s a 4/5.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 (2011)

Everybody is predicting this to be the year Pixar ends its four-year Academy Award streak. The question is, will Kung Fu Panda 2 (KFP 2) be the one to nudge it off the pedestal? Well. Since Cars 2 hasn’t released yet, I’d say that’s a terribly unfair question. But I can tell you this much: KFP 2 is a visually stunning film, that will have you in splits (you will leave the cinema hall loudly proclaiming, “Victory is ours! Ka-kaa! Ka-kaaa!” I guarantee this). That is, of course, assuming you aren’t one of those snobs who think they’re too good for DreamWorks.

Po the panda is back again as the Dragon Warrior! He is shocked and surprised to discover that his father, the goose is not his biological parent and sets out on a journey to discover his origins (yes obviously, by the end of the movie he realizes that his noodle-making dad is the only family he needs). At the same time, an evil peacock Shen invents the gun and with it, threatens the old order of kung fu. Po and the Furious Five must destroy the gun and save China (and kung fu).

Just a rehash of the first film’s plot? Sort of. Instead of Tai Lung, we got Shen; instead of the dragon scroll, we got cannons; and instead of a villain who was not content with himself, we got a villain who would not make peace with his inner demons. Even so, I found the sequel far more satiating that its predecessor. Despite the similarities, this was a very successful sequel because, even though they went with a tried and tested formula, they did it with more flair and confidence. Jack Black has become comfortable in his role, the jokes and dialogue were extremely funny, the visual effects roundly trumps the old and the storyline was far darker in parts. Po’s emotional recollection of his childhood in KFP 2 is so well portrayed that it simply cannot be compared to the first film. KFP 2 felt grander and more memorable of the two. I’d even go so far as to say, KFP 2 is ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to KFP 1‘s ‘The Hobbit’.

I cannot stress enough on what a heartbreakingly b e a u t i f u l film this was. With some three or four different styles of animation, ranging from shadow puppetry to computer animation used for different story arcs, one could even enjoy the film with the sound on mute. Be it a peacock tail, drawn using a simple palette of white and red (which, somehow felt more suitable than the traditional blues and greens) or a scared panda running through a forest– where even trees seemed to exude animosity, every single frame of the film is like a painting.

But what I absolutely loved about the film was that it never became too sententious. Funny movies have this terrible habit of become teary and emotional (ugh) in the second half. A lot of DreamWorks films too suffer from this syndrome,where they have a hard time toeing the line between irreverence and preachiness. KFP 2 on the other hand, seamlessly weaves the emotional element into its essentially comedic plot. Po always remains Po. He doesn’t become Batman overnight, after crying about his mom for 30 seconds and making an overwrought speech about family, yada yada. He remains an obese, bumbling panda who constantly surprises himself on the few occasions when he doesn’t trip over his own feet. He finds the strength to face the demons from his past and makes peace with himself. And then immediately sets his hand on fire.

I hate that non-Pixar and non-Studio Ghibli animated films are constantly dissed as either “an animated movie for adults, with no appeal for children” or as “too puerile– animated movies aren’t just for children, you know”, and I don’t doubt that one or the other will be assigned to this movie as well. As if an animated movie is worthy of our attention only if it appeals to every single person on the planet. This is exactly why Danish and I feel our campaign against evil movie critics is a worthy cause (cash contributions welcome). Shocker of shockers, sometimes films are made specifically to appeal to a certain demographic. For example, romantic comedies where Hugh Grant plays a shallow British man who falls in love and then wants to be a not-shallow man are made for the smart, sexy, female lawyer demographic. Should universal appeal or the lack thereof be a criterion for judging the quality of a film? All I can say is that, one smart, sexy, female lawyer and the sticky-fingered, popcorn-spilling, seat-kicking kid behind her thoroughly enjoyed this film.

Now if only they hadn’t put in one of those greedy, irritating, cliff-hanger endings in preparation for a potential sequel.