New on Blu-ray and DVD: ‘X-Men: First Class,’ ‘Hanna,’ ‘In a Better World’

The formula for a successful superhero movie begins with its director and trickles down to its cast and crew. We’ve seen it time and again in movies like “Batman Begins” and “Iron Man.”

We have the pleasure of seeing another such film in “X-Men: First Class.” With Matthew Vaughn behind the camera, and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender leading the cast, “First Class” has set a new standard for comic book movies.

We meet Professor X and Magneto as children, Charles and Erik, one in a mansion, the other subjected to traumatizing Nazi experiments. They’re perfect foils, and the knowledge that they will grow old and butt heads philosophically sits anxiously in the back of your mind.

But enough about the future, for now they’re just Charles and Erik, and as they grow older, the two become bound by their uniqueness. It’s one of the most fascinating relationships in comic book history, and until now, moviegoers had only seen glimpses of how deep their ties run.

It’s a mutual enemy, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, always surprising), who brings the two together. An ageless mutant with the power to absorb energy, Shaw was borne from nuclear radiation, and he wants to see the world under the rubble of a nuclear holocaust, leaving only mutants alive. He’s cunning in his planning and political manipulation, and evil at his core.

Shaw also happens to be the Nazi behind the experiments on Erik.

For Charles Xavier, stopping Shaw’s master plan is a mission for peace. For Erik Lehnsherr, it’s war. Here, we find the crux of their troubled friendship.

Fassbender (“Hunger”), one of the best actors working today – and that’s no exaggeration – is perfect as the man who will become Magneto. He’s haunted and emotionally frail despite a rugged facade, but he’s also charismatic and incredibly persuasive.

Because of the caliber of its two leads, “First Class” is in a class of its own when Fassbender and McAvoy are on screen together. They run the gamut of acting, going from friends to enemies, laughing to crying, or just talking over a game of chess. Most of all, they’re paradoxically understanding and frustrated with the decisions of the other.

Watching actors sink into the material as these two do is a rarity among blockbuster movies.

If you’ve come looking for action and special effects, there’s plenty to go around, and Vaughn handles it like a pro. The result is an exciting comic book movie that actually has depth, and it’s one of the best films from this summer.

Grade: A

 

When a poet decides to make an action movie, you get “Hanna,” the latest film from director Joe Wright (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement”).

A teenage girl, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), has been raised off the grid in Finland by her father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), where she’s been subjected to a strict regimen of homeschooling and combat training. “Adapt or die” are the words of wisdom Erik instills in his daughter.

He is preparing Hanna for life outside their Waldenesque world, where they’ll both be hunted down by a CIA agent named Marissa Wiegler (a villainous Cate Blanchett). And she’ll stop at nothing until they’re both dead.

Of course, as every child grows up yearning to know what’s outside their little bubble, so does Hanna. One day, she flicks the switch on an old CIA transmitter, revealing her location and welcoming that big, bad real world.

“Hanna’s” stark silence is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” or Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” but Wright intersperses intense bursts of fights and chases, rhythmically building them with the use of everyday noises and a score from The Chemical Brothers. It’s old-fashioned in some ways, and quite modern in others.

Where most filmmakers would see a straightforward action-thriller, Wright finds a neo-fairytale (credit also goes to writers Seth Lochhead and David Farr) rife with Grim Brothers references and avant-garde imagery.

The director frames the film from Hanna’s perspective of having come out of 16 years of seclusion. In doing so, Wright creates a movie that is entertaining, aesthetically pleasing and fresh.

Grade: A-

 

Susanne Bier’s latest movie, “In a Better World,” gives you absolutely everything you’ve come to expect from the filmmaker.

The film, written by Anders Thomas Jensen, follows two Danish families, fractured by physical and emotional distance. Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), the new kid at school who’s angry and fragile after his mother’s death, strikes up a friendship with Elias (Markus Rygaar), who is tormented every day by bullies.

It’s not unlike the world of Elias’s father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who works at an African refugee camp. The bully of Anton’s world is a criminal tyrant known as “The Big Man,” whose victims (mostly tortured women and children) end up on Anton’s operating table daily.

When Christian stands up for Elias, beating a classmate senseless and threatening him with a knife, Bier taps into a moral gray area that is always present in her work.

After hearing of the incident, Anton remains steadfast in nonviolent beliefs. He explains the cycle of violence to the children: He hits you, you hit him, he hits you harder etc. But by standing up for himself, Christian is now assured that neither he nor Elias will have to face bullies again in school.

And what of Anton’s own bully, who doesn’t let air out of kids’ bicycle tires, but maims and kills for sport. Is there a breaking point where nonviolent resistance is no longer an option?

The parallel Bier creates between these two worlds is a work of art. She’s an expert on taking large-scale problems that plague the world, and personalizing them, breaking down complex moral quandaries to give them stronger meaning for her audience. It’s what makes her work so distinct and rich, and it’s likely what garnered “In a Better World” an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Grade: A-

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