X-Men: First Class (In Stores Friday, 9/9)
Coolest extra: Extended and deleted scenes (DVD); 10 X-Men Digital Comics (Blu-ray only)
Complex says: With damn near every other new theatrical release operating on a certain let’s-start-over motif, just reading the overused term “reboot” is enough to send any cinephile into vicious fits. Go ahead, throw something—we’ll wait. Back? Cool.
Many times, the film industry’s laziest attempts to cash in on an existing property’s name are perfunctory desecrations of a classic movie, a trend most popular in the horror genre. But once in a while, a fresh cinematic start comes along for a franchise in desperate need of rejuvenation; this year, the finest, most welcome example of this was the early summer hit X-Men: First Class, a brainy and lively salvaging of Marvel Comics’ mutant brand after Brett Ratner’s universally maligned, and deservedly so, 2006 sequel X-Men: The Last Stand.
Director Matthew Vaughn and his Kick-Ass co-writer Jane Goldman’s script takes the X-clan back to 1962, framing the mutants’ rise under Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) around the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film, for which Vaughn went to great lengths to capture a Cold War-era period feel, ticks with more of a James Bond vibe than the workmanlike tone of generic superhero origin stories.
A large part of that veneer is owed to Fassbender’s performance as the man who becomes Magneto; the acting is mostly terrific, especially McAvoy’s charming leading man turn and Kevin Bacon’s slithery work as the central villain, but Fassbender’s Lensherr is the flick’s most complex and intricately portrayed character. He’s the polar opposite of January Jones’ Emma Frost, for example, which the Mad Men actress plays with flat energy and busty cleavage. Jones fares better than several of the film’s other mutant underlings, though, an issue of far too many characters in a crammed, dense package of narrative combustion.
X-Men: First Class works remarkably, however, thanks to Vaughn’s wise decision to let Fassbender, McAvoy, and Bacon dominate the screen time; when the film is centered on their interactions, which is a good three-quarters of its running time, X-Men: First Class jettisons all of X-Men’s post-Ratner trauma, provides wonderful entertainment, and should give comic book fans the warm fuzzies inside. Now, how much dough would it take to get Fassbender and Vaughn to collaborate on a Green Lantern reboot?
Buy it now: X-Men: First Class
Coolest extra: “Anatomy Of A Scene: The Escape From G” featurette (DVD); Chemical Brothers music featurette (Blu-ray only)
Complex says: On superficial terms, Hanna is a tough sell. Firstly, there’s the film’s premise, that of a mysterious young girl who uses her programmed assassin skills to thwart the higher-ups who made her that way, and its overtly Bourne-esque familiarity. And then there are director Joe Wright’s previous credits, which consist of not-so-badass, though fine within their own genre, costume dramas (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) and the painfully schmaltzy Jamie Foxx/Robert Downey Jr. misfire The Soloist.
Yet, those preconceptions only serve to enhance Hanna’s superiority; it’d stand as one of 2011’s best movies so far even without such doubtful pre-viewing judgments, but its wickedness is all the more impressive, not to mention a total surprise. Wright’s livewire camerawork, the Chemical Brothers’ hypnotically excellent score, and the script’s fairy-tale-gone-wrong structure combine to lend Hanna a distinctive punk rock energy—it’s a fiendishly arthouse answer to the more conventional Bourne films.
As the title character, Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) is a magnetic, one-girl wrecking crew, inhabiting the challenging role with crucial humanity when the action stops and believable physicality when it’s time to knuckle up. The film’s grandest set-piece, staged inside a vast, outdoor container park, shows off Ronan’s knockout abilities, as well as Wright’s uninhibited filmmaking; like Hanna as a whole, the container park sequence, with its sweeping camera movements, jarring edits, and pulsating music, feels like the kinetic work of a director’s who’s ecstatic about taking his gloves off for a change. If Hanna isn’t the year's best action movie, it’s certainly the most unique. And unexpectedly fierce.
Buy it now: Hanna
Everything Must Go
Coolest extra: “In Character With Will Ferrell” featurette (DVD/Blu-ray)
Complex says: Just because Will Ferrell’s funniest performances are shamelessly juvenile, it doesn’t mean that his comedic roles haven’t been worthy of the “good acting” label. Self-serious viewers might scoff at films like Anchorman, Old School, and Step Brothers, but that’s not entirely fair; it takes genuine talent to make such overblown caricatures as Ron Burgundy and Frank The Tank feel, well, human, and Ferrell’s got that in spades. And, yes, we’re trying to wax intellectual about someone who thinks San Diego means “a whale’s vagina.” Work with us here, people.
In the former Saturday Night Live all-star’s latest movie, Everything Must Go, there’s none of that idiocy; scaled down to emotional truths, writer-director Dan Rush’s adaptation of celebrated author Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance” is a simple look at a depressed alcoholic’s lowest point. Ferrell is a low-key marvel as a guy who, on the same day in which he loses his job, arrives at home to see that his unloving wife has changed their home’s locks and thrown all of his shit on the front lawn. She’s left him, and all Ferrell’s character can do is drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, sulk, and unwillingly bond with a shy neighborhood kid (C.J. Wallace, son of the Notorious B.I.G. and a nuanced scene-stealer here).
The concept sounds like a downer, but Ferrell’s ability to inject well-timed and restrained levity into uncomfortable situations balances Everything Must Go quite nicely. At times, he’s required to do a good deal of heavy lifting when Rush’s script lags, particularly in the film’s dry second act. Everything Must Go milks Ferrell’s mostly untapped dramatic gifts for all of their immense worth, though, and the result is a fascinating piece of against-type acting that’s more than “good.”
Buy it now: Everything Must Go
Fringe: The Complete Third Season
Coolest extra: “Duality Of Worlds” four-part featurette series (DVD/Blu-ray)
Complex says: If and when the day comes that the surprisingly patient suits at Fox cancel the cult-followed sci-fi drama series Fringe, there’s going to be a small army of angry nerds ready to attack. Not in a fisticuffs manner—the furious onslaught will consist more of bitter indictments against basic network television’s lack of creative storytelling, the overabundance of cop shows, medical romances, and sheisty lawyer programs. Meaning, everything that Fringe is not; created by J.J. Abrams and the blockbuster screenwriting duo of Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, Fox’s modern answer to The X-Files has some of the most intensely layered mythology on TV, a singular world that grows deeper with each new season. It’s utterly fresh.
In the same breath, though, it’s also uninviting to anyone outside of its loyal, since-day-one viewership. Fringe isn’t a show one can just casually stroll into mid-season and not feel like a blindsided tourist, and Season Three was its trickiest stretch, as well as the show's best string of episodes to date. Set in parallel universes that mirror each other nearly to the tee, Fringe’s third season alternates between worlds that come with separate histories and varying character trajectories. At the helm is Anna Torv’s steely FBI agent, who, at the start of the season, is trapped inside the “other” world, with her other self hiding out in familiar Earth—got all of that?
We’ll spare you verbose explanations of how Joshua Jackson’s Peter Bishop character is only half-alive and how his mad scientist father’s (the dynamite John Noble) theories could potentially save both worlds. But, suffice it to say, Fringe is a head-buster. And Season Three, with its 22 evenly-paced episodes and stunner of a finale, is the show at its best.