REVIEW: “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”

Dark(small)

The X-Men movie franchise under the guidance of 20th Century Fox has been one wild roller-coaster ride. A pretty profitable one but in terms of quality the movies have been all over the map. Twelve films over the span of 18 years (and with one more set for 2020). Their first film, 2000’s “X-Men”, was a groundbreaking movie that could be credited with jump-starting the now lucrative superhero genre. Since then there have been several satisfying hits and just as many terrible misses.

Fox has handed over the reins to Disney but not before dropping one more X-Men focused movie. “Dark Phoenix” isn’t the first time the franchise has told a version of Chris Claremont’s hugely popular comic series “The Dark Phoenix Saga”. It was first put to film in 2006’s horribly frustrating “X-Men: The Last Stand”. This time they do justice to the story, not without a few kinks, but still in a way I found entertaining and satisfying.

X1

Even before the first trailer dropped, there was no shortage of dismissive opinions about “Dark Phoenix”. So it was no big surprise when it released alongside at least some deeply critical reviews. But the sheer volume of negativity has been surprising and certain to leave people expecting the worst. Thankfully my experience was considerably better than what I had prepped for.

“Dark Phoenix” gets off on the right foot by quickly defining itself as tighter and more intimate than its bombastic predecessor, 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse”. Writer-director Simon Kinberg takes the essence of the original Dark Phoenix story and develops a true planetary threat. But his strongest focus is on how it impacts the X-Men. The revelation of past choices, reckoning with the dire consequences, and the fractured relationships that follow is what this final franchise chapter is most interested in.

Set in 1992, the film begins with the X-Men and humanity living in unprecedented harmony. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has tirelessly worked to solidify the relationship between mankind and mutant. As a result the X-Men have become cultural pop stars but at the cost of continually putting their lives on the line.

X2

After a space shuttle is disabled by a massive solar flare, the president calls Xavier who sends his ill-equipped X-Men into space to rescue the crew against the judgement of team leader Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). During the rescue attempt Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs a massive burst of cosmic energy that heightens her powers, stirs her emotions, and rouses painful memories Xavier has long hidden from her. It proves to be more than Jean can control and her uncontrollable actions not only split the X-Men but also the peace between humans and mutants.

Many other characters return from the previous films, none better than Michael Fassbender as Magneto. He remains the franchise’s best character not named Wolverine. Here the ever-compelling battle between Xavier’s idealism versus Erik/Magneto’s realism is less pronounced but the story provides a good reason for it. Still, the charismatic Fassbender has several great stand-out moments. Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler) also return.

Not only is the scale of the story dialed back but so is the action. There are several action sequences but they are much more grounded, aiming for a semblance of reality (as much as you can in a movie like this). The one big exception is a spectacular train sequence during the final act. It hits several familiar cues but overall I found it to be electric.

X3

But Kinberg doesn’t get everything right. There are a couple of story angles that desperately needed more buildup and better treatment. Take humanity’s sudden and complete turn against the mutants after a run-in with Jean. There is practically no discussion, no debate, no measured response. All of the good will is gone in a snap and it all happens off camera.

And then you have a group of alien shape-shifters who come to Earth seeking the cosmic power Jean now possesses. Die-hard comic fans while recognize them as the D’Bari, but the movie does a terrible job defining them or making them the slightest bit compelling. Jessica Chastain plays their leader but it’s hard to give much thought to her character or her motivations. They mostly end up fodder for the X-Men throughout the second half.

Here is where I ultimately land. “Dark Phoenix” is not what I would call a great movie. It’s story and some of its characters could use more attention and with a running time under two hours there was space to do so. But it’s far from ‘bad’ and it deserves much better than an ugly 23% on Rotten Tomatoes. Could it be a reflection of a pretty healthy MCU bias? Could it be that some people wrote this film off and formed opinions before it ever hit the big screen? I can’t say that with any certainly, but I’m glad my experience was as entertaining as it was.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “X-Men: Apocalypse”

xmenposter

So exactly how do you categorize “X-Men: Apocalypse”? Is it the sixth film of the X-Men franchise or is it the third film in the second trilogy? Perhaps a hybrid of both? Do we even count the Deadpool and Wolverine movies? Whatever you call it, it is the follow-up to 2014’s “Days of Future Past” and the third film featuring this new wave of X-Men characters some of whom are actually younger versions of older characters. Clear as mud, right?

“Days of Future Past” made a strong attempt at bringing the first original three X-Men films together with the new ones. Arguably it did a decent job of accomplishing that rather hefty task. But now “Apocalypse” comes along and injects a little more confusion by tossing in more new mutants, bringing back old ones, and leaving you unsure how some of it all fits together.

At the same time the film shows satisfying flashes of brilliance as it deals head-on with weighty topics of personal struggle, loss, and self-sacrifice. It also offers several moments (particularly in the second half) that will genuinely excite die-hard fans. But who knows whether those moments are enough to overcome the film’s many crazy contortions of the source material whether it be characters, back stories, or storylines.

xmen2

X-Men architect and shepherd Bryan Singer returns as director, producer, and co-writer. This time his villain is Apocalypse (played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac), a powerful mutant worshiped by the ancient Egyptians but betrayed by a sect of non believers. His body is buried under a collapsed pyramid until he is unearthed and awoken in 1983. Ashamed of the perceived weakness of Earth, Apocalypse pledges to destroy the world and then raise it in his image, stripping power from the weak and granting it to the strong.

In addition to that we also get a number of side stories intended to fill us in on old characters as well as introduce us to new ones. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) continues growing his school for young mutants. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is smuggling mutants out of dangerous locales around the globe. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is a mill worker living in Poland with his wife and daughter. Then we get into the stories of a ton of new characters. It takes over an hour to get all of the introductions out of the way and the principle story pieces in place.

The first hour is tough. There are several compelling individual sequences, but collectively it’s a mishmash of origin stories and mandatory table setting. To Singer’s credit he does manage to reel in most of his moving parts and piece them together pretty well by the final act. But at the same time it’s hard to ignore how the film turns a blind eye to several glaring plot problems. I mean am I silly to think they might address the 10 million people killed when a city is leveled?

xmen1

Thankfully the script does allow for some interesting character exploration and development. Characters are overwhelmed with sorrow, crumble to inner turmoil, battle depression and feelings of isolation, and of course struggle with the common X-Men theme of belonging. Most of these issues are handled with a genuine sensibility that allows the characters to be seen as more than disposable even though the script sometimes shortchanges them.

By the third act the movie is pretty much in tune with the common superhero formula – a gigantic, loud, action-packed finale. But I have to say it’s a good one. There are some fun superhero effects and several moments that will bring smiles to the faces of those familiar with the history of these characters. I’m not too sure if it will have the same effect on casual fans.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” won’t do much to cure some people’s comic book movie fatigue, but for those still enjoying these superhero tales there are things to like. Fassbender and McAvoy are fantastic. The story doesn’t shy away from deeper human themes. There are tons of little treats and several fun surprises for fans. But there is also a bloated first hour and several head-scratching oversights as the story progresses. There still is plenty to admire and Singer’s vision is ambitious. I can easily say I was entertained. I can just as easily understand how others may not be.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “X-MEN: Days of Future Past”

XMEN POSTER

The X-Men franchise (and I’m including the Wolverine films) has been filled with great movies and great disappointments. It was only two years ago that we saw a reboot of sorts and a new direction for these cinematic superhumans. Now they are back in a film that at first sounded risky and potentially disastrous. Instead of continuing with a storyline strictly focused on these rebooted characters, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” mixes them with the characters (and the performers who played them) from the past series. So my first question was is this “X-Men 4″ or X-Men: First Class 2”?

This huge mash up could have went terribly bad. I’m so happy to say that the opposite is true. In fact, after a somewhat disorienting start, the movie turns into what is easily one of the best movies of the entire franchise. Bryan Singer, the architect of the original X-Men films returns to direct this ambitious and large-scale blockbuster which gets its title from the classic comic book storyline from Chris Claremont and John Byrne.

 

XMEN1

The future world is a dark place especially for mutantkind. Giant robot mutant hunters known as Sentinels have chased mutants to the edge of extinction. The X-Men of the future (played by the original cast members from the first films) have traced the origins of the Sentinels back to 1973 and a man named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Led by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), they devise a plan to send the never-aging Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to influence the situations that lead to the Sentinels’ creation. You with me so far?

When arriving in 1973, Wolverine is tasked with enlisting the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The problem is a lot has changed since the final credits scrolled in “X-Men: First Class”. It’s this landscape, filled with political tensions, shattered relationships, and fragile psyches, that Wolverine must navigate if there is any hope of averting their future extinction. Obviously several major threats are at work both in the past and in the future. The movie hops back-and-forth throughout but the main focus of the film is Wolverine’s mission in 1973.

The movie literally plunges into its bleak future setting with practically no buildup whatsoever. We do get some exposition that sets the table, but it took me a few moments to get my feet planted and, aside from the familiar faces, it took some time to connect this movie to any of the earlier films. But once the story begins to take form it is an exhilarating and captivating experience. In fact, the story is the movie’s greatest strength. “X-Men: DOFP” features one of the smartest and most layered stories that you’ll find in a superhero picture. Even more, the story never becomes convoluted or confusing. I loved how everything unfolded and numerous connections to other X-Men films are sprinkled everywhere.

Another thing I appreciated is how everything had importance and carried weight. Every decision had to be made with careful thought given to their consequences. Convictions had to be questioned and actions had to be scrutinized. There are very few wasted scenes in this movie (there are a couple – for example the Wolverine butt shot? Seriously Bryan Singer?). I also think the way they joined the old with the new was smart, effective, and It avoided all of the traps that it easily could have steppedl in. Narratively this was a huge treat right up to its very satisfying payoff.

XMEN2

As for the performances, can we just go ahead say without question that Hugh Jackman IS Wolverine? Once again he is very good, but he was not his normal action-fueled centerpiece and I’m fine with that. The real highlights for me were Fassbender and McAvoy. Fassbender is one of our best working actors today and his Magneto is menacing and unpredictable. He’s a man of conviction and unharnessed anger and Fassbender paints him perfectly. But the best performance may be from McAvoy. He’s tasked with conveying a huge range of emotions and I never questioned the authenticity of what he was doing. It truly is brilliant work that sets itself apart in a profound way.

I can’t believe I’m saying this again, but here we have yet another really strong 2014 blockbuster. On an almost unprecedented level, this year’s big budget movies have really taken steps up (minus a couple of disappointments). “X-Men: DOFP” is really good. It’s start is a bit jarring, the future Sentinels look pretty generic, and I could list a few other nitpicks. But in terms of story, storytelling, and sheer entertainment, the movie scores where it counts. Now the big question is where does it go from here? Have we seen the last of the “First Class” X-Men? Will the old timers take back the reins? I don’t know but after seeing this movie I am really intrigued.

VERDICT – 4 STARS