Arriving this week on Blu-ray and on DVD: James McAvoy is the young and dashing Charles Xavier trying to save the world from evil mutants in X-Men First Class; Saoirse Ronan stars as a 16-year-old reclusive killer in Hanna; and a look at Brian DePalma’s notorious Scarface on Blu-ray.
X-Men First Class [Friday, September 9]
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, January Jones, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Comic book adaptations have come a long way since Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie debuted in 2000, and while there have been a lot of great comic book movies since then, if I’m going to be honest I would have to admit that X2: X-Men United is by far my favorite comic book movie, based primarily on the fact that Singer knew how to tell a story about vivid characters.
The X-Men franchise hit a snag though with the release of the third film, which was sub-par to say the least, so nothing short of a reboot was really going to revive the franchise. Thankfully, as a long-time fan of the X-Men comic books, Matthew Vaughn has created a reboot that has it all: action, sex appeal, and laughs.
Starting out exactly like the first X-Men film, with a reshot opening set in 1944, we meet a young Erik Lehnsherr who is being held at a concentration camp where one man, Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, is forcing the boy to use his powers by threatening Erik’s mother.
From there, we float back and forth between Erik’s hunt for Shaw to meeting CIA agent Dr. Moira MacTaggert, played by Rose Byrne, who is investigating the Hellfire Club, where Emma Frost, played by January Jones, is currently playing host to a United States general and Shaw, who is essentially trying to start a nuclear war for his own gains. As Moira sneaks into the club, she inadvertently witnesses a display of mutant powers, sending her off to find an expert who can help her prove to the CIA that mutants exist.
That search leads her to Professor Charles Xavier, played by the über talented James McAvoy. As a boy Charles discovered he had the power to read minds, which led him to become a professor of genetics so he could better understand his own condition. By Charles’ side is the beautiful Raven, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who has a secret of her own–she’s a shapeshifter who can make herself look like anyone, and she’s been the professor’s best friend since they were children.
Joining with Moira when Charles realizes that there are dangerous mutants in the world, the trio gathers a young team of mutant cohorts as they meet the head of Division X, played by Oliver Platt, where they also join forces with Erik.
Using the intrigue of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the sixties as a backdrop, X-Men First Class is stylish, witty, and funny, and features a number of cameos, including a brief glimpse of Rebecca Romijn as Mystique, not to mention an equally quick moment with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.
Vaughn’s film hit all the right points as a fun summer blockbuster, and at home the film satisfies all the necessities for a smart, witty popcorn adventure. I also appreciated the film because, for fans, it very, very faithfully recreates the characters from the original comic books, all the way down to the costumes, and even Beast’s transformation from a brilliant scientist with ape-like feet to a big, blue creature.
Most importantly though, Vaughn has put together a fantastic team of actors, with some of the best casting I could imagine for these characters. McAvoy and Fassbender in particular are the perfect duo to lead the film, and Kevin Bacon plays, at times, a scenery-chewing villain worthy of being a big-screen nemesis. I also loved Lawrence as Mystique, and Jones plays a good Emma Frost, despite the fact that her role is more about looks than acting.
The only major complaint with the film is that the overall script is weak, with a plot that needed to be tightened up, especially in the second half, and the film feels ragged as we jump between story lines. X-Men: First Class is still a fantastic first film in this new trilogy, one that is in fact better than the original X-Men, but I hope the sequels have tighter writing and storylines.
Looking at where the film ends, my guess is that X-Men fans can perhaps expect the sequel to follow the X-Tinction Agenda storyline from the comic books, but that’s just a guess. All I can say is that if you appreciated Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, you need to see Vaughn’s prequel.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Tom Hollander, Jessica Barden
Director: Joe Wright
Hanna is a beautiful, edgy, and heart-racing fairy tale thriller by Joe Wright–the same director who brought us the period dramas Pride and Prejudice and Atonement–about a 16-year-old girl who has been trained since birth to be a weapon against one woman, and the CIA.
Eric Bana stars as Erik, an ex-CIA agent living in the wilds of Finland who has raised his daughter, Hanna, played by Saoirse Ronan, to be a perfect killer, honed to seek out the terrifying CIA agent Marissa, played by Cate Blanchett, and kill her.
Deciding that the time is finally right, Erik gives Hanna the device that will signal the CIA, who promptly appear and take the girl away. Of course, they don’t really know what Hanna is capable of, and Hanna is merely biding her time to carry out her own mission. At the same time, Marissa suspects Hanna’s dark side and does everything she can to protect herself.
At the heart of the story is a major secret that Erik has stolen from the organization, and the CIA will do anything to keep it from being revealed to the public. There is also much that Hanna does not know about herself.
Hanna is not your average cat-and-mouse thriller though, although Ronan does play both sides of those roles throughout the film, but Wright’s film is actually more of a coming-of-age story for a character who could have been plucked from the pages of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, which are heavily referenced.
Although the story is moderately weak, and the script could have been stronger in places, Wright sets everything up perfectly so Ronan can be the one and only star of this film, and she easily makes Hanna seem like a lost child in the woods one moment, before she fearlessly cuts someone up the next. Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett are well cast opposite Ronan, but they are definitely co-stars next to the young star’s sweet and killer attitude.
Wright also sets Hanna apart from most other films this year thanks to his tremendous filmmaking team, including stunning cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler, genius editing by Paul Tothill, not to mention art direction, sets and costumes that literally make the film seem almost like a twisted dream. Big kudos also have to go out to The Chemical Brothers, who weave a fantastic score throughout the film that is always present, but never oversteps its place.
The Blu-ray/DVD double pack from Alliance Films has a lot of great features worth checking out, including a superb commentary by Wright that delves deeply into how the film came to be made. There are also four above-average featurettes on the making of Hanna, deleted scenes, and an alternate ending. There could have been a bit more punch to the list of features, but overall a great package for an eye-popping thriller.
Scarface [Limited Edition Steelbook – Blu-ray]
Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia, Miriam Colon
Director: Brian DePalma
One of Brian DePalma’s greatest filmmaking achievements, and one of the best gangster movies of the eighties, arrives in a new Blu-ray limited edition steelbook this week, giving new and old fans a chance to enjoy one of Al Pacino’s greatest and fiercest performances.
Written with sheer operatic wisdom by Oliver Stone, Scarface stars Pacino stars as Tony Montana, a Cuban criminal banished to Miami where a drug lord picks him up to do his dirty work. As Tony works his way deeper into the cesspool of drugs, murder, and racketeering–not to mention buckets of blood–he quickly finds himself climbing to the top of the empire of criminals that rules Miami, making a few friends, and killing his enemies along the way.
Featuring Robert Loggia as Frank Lopez, and Michelle Pfeiffer as the drug-addicted mistress, Elvira, Scarface endures as a classic but brutal look at organized crime from the over-stylized view of what has become a modern stereotype. That stereotype endures, however, thanks at least in part to DePalma’s violent, legendary film.
Scarface may not be the best crime film ever made, but it’s mesmerizing, disturbing, and still a film that needs to be seen to be believed.
The steelbook Blu-ray package has a lot of extras, including some standard definition ones that have been around before, but the best of the features is by far The Scarface Phenomenon, a documentary that looks back at the film’s release, and what it meant at the time to audiences and critics.