REVIEW: “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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REVIEW: “mother!”

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Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” opens with Javier Bardem sifting through the ashes of a burnt out farmhouse and finding a large jewel. He places it on a mantle and within seconds the house is restored. The charred remains give way to a house of color and life. But what does it all mean? Suffice it to say it’s the first of many bits of imagery that makes this more than a routine thriller.

Seemingly divisive by design, “mother!” is unquestionably an Aronofsky movie. I usually find that to be a cause for hesitation, but “mother!” managed to get its hooks in me unlike any of his past films. And it may not be the smoothest ride from start to finish but it does offer plenty to sink your teeth into and ponder afterwards.

It doesn’t take long to notice that “mother!” places symbolism and allegory ahead of plot and character. It quickly becomes an exercise in interpreting Aronofsky’s code instead of following a particular story. For Aronofsky it was an idea birthed from personal rage and his movie allows him to explore it through biblical and environmental metaphors galore. When the pieces fit it makes for some clever yet not always effective messaging.

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Bardem’s character, listed only as ‘Him’ in the credits, is a poet with a severe case of writer’s block while Jennifer Lawrence plays ‘Mother’, his wife and muse. From the moment Lawrence’s Mother gets out of bed in the opening moments the camera never leaves her side. It follows her around the house using close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, or shooting her point of view. And other than a couple of brief stops on the front porch, the entire film takes place within their remote Victorian country house.

The film starts with an illusion of normalcy but it slowly unravels beginning with the appearance of Ed Harris. He plays a sickly orthopedic surgeon new to the area. His wife pops up shortly after. She’s played by a wonderfully toxic-tongued Michelle Pfeiffer. The once brooding poet who spent his days staring at a blank page is reinvigorated by their attention and invites the couple to stay. Mother is frustrated by the intrusion and equally upset at her husband’s apathy towards her wishes.

From there things go bananas as the movie gives itself completely to its allegories. It all culminates in a psychotic fever dream of a final act that sees Aronofsky unleashing every ounce of his tortuous fury on Lawrence and her character. In what plays like a relentless symbolic montage of worldly horror and human suffering, the camera still never leaves Mother’s side. It’s an intensely demanding performance and a heavy load Lawrence is asked to carry. And she received a Razzie nomination for it? Give me a break.

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Production designer Phil Messina is tasked with visualizing another of the film’s key characters – the house. Like Lawrence, the large country farmhouse is represented in every shot and had to be designed with that in mind. The narratively essential home was constructed in Montreal, Canada, partially on a set in a field and the rest on a stage. It was meticulously crafted with mood and movement in mind and was shot by Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique.

You’ll find clever little touches with symbolic meaning everywhere in the movie. For instance there are several surreal moments where Mother places her hands on the walls checking the heartbeat of the home. Also, mysterious wounds begin to appear around the house. Not all of it makes sense (what is that urine colored Alka-Seltzer she drinks from time to time?) and the final 20 minutes dances dangerously close to unbearable. But that’s kind of the point.

Once movies leave their creators’ hands they often become their own thing. “mother!” benefits from that truth. While Aronofsky has a pointed personal meaning behind it, what you bring to the film will help define it for you. That is its coolest strength and it’s what kept me glued to the screen. Sure, it’s a bit self-indulgent and esoteric to a fault. But it’s also a rare slice of Aronofsky that I found surprisingly satisfying.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”

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Why, why, why? Oh who am I kidding? The reason is obvious – money. That’s the reason they chose to split the final chapter of “The Hunger Games” series into two movies. It certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen this done. Following the profitable but not narratively beneficial blueprint laid out by “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”, “Mockingjay – Part 1” is the first part of the much anticipated series finale.

The first Hunger Games movie was pretty good although it didn’t convince me that this was a franchise worth following. It was the second movie, “Catching Fire”, that won me over. The characters grow, the stakes are raised, you gain a firm understanding of where the franchise is going, and it ends with a bang. Now enter “Mockingjay – Part 1”, the first part of the final chapter, and a film with nowhere near the pop of its predecessor. It’s not that this is an inherently bad movie. Several interesting things happen. But it is stretched past its limits in order to make this a two-movie ending and the film suffers for it.

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All of the cast of characters return led by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Recuperating from the chaotic conclusion of “Catching Fire”, Katniss wakes up in District 13, the home of the burgeoning rebellion. After a brief reunion with her mother and sister, her is introduced to President Coin (Julianne Moore) who wants Katniss to be the face (AKA the Mockingjay) of the growing rebellion. Old friends Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) encourage Katniss to take on the role and inspire the people.

But Katniss remains unsure, that is until she see is taken to see the carnage and ruins of her home district left behind following an intense bombing by the Capitol. She eventually accepts but only if President Coin agrees to send a rescue team to free a captured Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol city. Peeta is being used by the noxious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as a propaganda piece to quell the rebellion. Several other familiar faces return. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is given a bit more to do this time around. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) pops up in a couple of scenes to offer sage-like counsel. Effie (Elizabeth Banks) appears in what is basically a tag-along role. And Stanley Tucci’s wacky Caesar gets very little screen time.

 

“Mockingjay – Part 1” doesn’t offer a lot in terms of thrills and excitement. Instead it gives us speeches and debates. Then it gives us more speeches and debates. We have long moments of indecision, lots of pondering, a bunch of planning. We visit a few locations (one of them twice where we get the exact same camera shots) and we get a couple of random scenes featuring inspired rebels. But very little spans beyond Katniss’ reluctance in becoming the Mockingjay and the political wrangling by both the rebellion and the Capitol.

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To be fair, I did enjoy a lot of the political back-and-forths. I also still like spending time with most of these characters. And Jennifer Lawrence is once again superb. There is nothing glamorous about her role. She attacks it with such conviction and delivers genuine raw emotion. There are also great performances from Hoffman, Wright, and Sutherland who is so playfully vile as the the chief antagonist. Moore was the biggest new addition and she serves the part. But her character is pretty straightforward and generic and she is isn’t asked to show much range.

I know “Mockingjay – Part 1” is considered a part of a greater whole, but as a single movie it disappoints. It felt like a gradual meandering buildup towards a climax that we never get. Even the cliffhanger (if you can even call it that) was shockingly underwhelming. And you can tell that numerous scenes were stretched as far as they could go in order to make this a two-picture conclusion. Yet still there are enjoyable moments, good characters, strong performances, and the knowledge that this is just a set-up to what should be an action-packed final film. But as a single standalone movie, I was definitely hoping for more.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

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The 2012 film “The Hunger Games” launched a new movie franchise to the tune of almost $700 million at the box office. It was based on Suzanne Collins’ equally popular book series – one that I had never heard of prior to the film’s announcement. The story is dystopian science fiction and it examines themes such a class disparity, oppression, and the infatuation with reality television. It wasn’t a perfect movie but it stood head and shoulders above other popular film franchises aimed at this age group. With a good cast locked in and the groundwork laid for a fairly interesting premise, the inevitable sequel had a lot of potential and expectations.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” hit theaters with even bigger fanfare than the first film. It raked in over $860 million and received hearty praise from critics. Personally I felt there was room to improve from the first film, but I didn’t expect to find a significantly better movie. I really enjoyed “Catching Fire” and I was impressed at how many trappings it avoided. So often movies of this type and sequels in general make the same mistakes which more often than not lowers the quality of the film. “Catching Fire” does several things better this time around and it starts with the story.

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This film begins shortly after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The two have returned to District 12 where Katniss has convinced her local boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that her “love” for Peeta was just an act to survive the games. She is paid a surprise visit by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who informs her that she and Peeta will be going on a victors tour to the other districts. He also expresses displeasure in her defiant actions during the games which have fueled a rising underground rebellion against his Capitol. He intends to use the tour to influence public opinion but in secret he feels the only way to solve his problem is to kill Katniss.

Woody Harrelson returns as the goodhearted boozer Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks is back as Effie, the queen of gaudy fashion overkill. The two clearly have affections for Katniss and Peeta and they both understand the danger and intensity of their situation. They try to prepare the two victors for the tightrope they must walk between energizing the revolution and bringing the wrath of President Snow to their home district. Director Francis Lawrence does a great job of ratcheting up the tension during this part of the story and the stakes are raised particularly when some of the tour stops to oppressed districts don’t go as planned.

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The story then takes a sharp turn with the out-of-the-blue announcement of the Third Quarter Quell. Basically ever 25 years the Hunger Games are “celebrated” with a special set of rules that normally serves the Capitol’s interests. President Snow decides that the 75th games will consist only of past winners. Since Katniss is the only female to win from District 12 she is automatically put into the games which Snow hopes will take care of his little problem. For me this is where the movie does spin its wheels a little. In what felt like a slight retread from the first film, we go back through the glitzy chariot presentations of the players, their appearances on Stanley Tucci’s whacky talk show, and the showcase of their skills before the bigwigs. It doesn’t play out as long as it did in the first film but I did find myself anxious for things to movie along.

But once the games do start the film gets right back on track. There are a number of interesting twists and angles that come from a variety of different directions. That is what provides the film with its own identity. “Catching Fire” maintains the grand scope and ominous threat of the first film, but it magnifies it and then takes it into its own place. A lot of it has to do with the progression of Collins’ story, but I give a lot of credit to Francis Lawrence’s direction and the screenplay from Simon Beaufoy and Michael duBruyn.

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It also helps that the acting takes a step up. Lawrence is fabulous and I would take this performance over her good but generic work in “American Hustle”. She is the heart and soul of the film and her abilities to sell her character both emotionally and physically are vital. I also think Josh Hutcherson make significant strides. His acting was a weakness in the first film but both he and Liam Hemsworth make obvious improvements. It was also great seeing some new characters played by really talented actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman (in what is one of his final roles) shows up as Snow’s new Gamemaker. I also really liked Jeffrey Wright as a studious fellow games participant.

I enjoyed the first film of this popular franchise even though I didn’t think it was great. That alone was enough to make me curious about “Catching Fire”. What I didn’t expect was to be completely enthralled in it from start to finish. “Catching Fire” is a big budget franchise entry that manages itself well and pulls off what many are incapable of doing. It not only adds to the groundwork laid by its predecessor, but it improves on it in nearly every area. And perhaps this movie’s biggest trick was to make ME thoroughly interested in what happens next. That of itself was a major accomplishment.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “American Hustle”

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I may not be a card-carrying member of the David O. Russell fan club, but there are several things you have to give him. He has a knack for creating and developing raw and thoroughly engaging characters. He is also able to put together incredible ensemble casts perfectly in tune with his characters. Both of these strengths are the key reasons why Russell’s new film “American Hustle” works. The movie has several of his same indulgences that don’t always work for me but it’s the characters and performances that makes this film so intriguing.

The movie is set in 1978 and is loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation. It’s a time of good music, big collars, and really bad hair. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist who joins up with and falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The two run a small time but controlled loan scam that is bringing in some nice cash. Things are going well until they are caught up with by an ambitious FBI agent named Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper). But Richie doesn’t want small time cons. He wants the career-boosting big fish. So he forces Irving and Sydney to work for him and entrap bigger targets, namely politicians and government officials.

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Irving doesn’t like his circumstances at all. He likes things small and low-key. He also doesn’t like Richie and his constant changing of the rules. He feels that going too big will jeopardize the whole operation. But the biggest threat to their plans may be Irving’s loose cannon wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s loud, volatile, and she knows Irving has a thing for Sydney. That’s a pretty lethal cocktail. Another complication comes in the form of a New Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). He’s a popular and seemingly well-meaning guy who develops a friendship with Irving. The trouble is he becomes one of Richie’s prime targets.

This interwoven web of ‘who’s conning who’ could have been an utter mess but it actually plays out in an entertaining and fairly cohesive way. Much of that is due to the sharp script penned by Russell and Eric Warren Singer. It’s not perfect. There are lulls along the way and I couldn’t help but feel that they stretched the story to its limits. There are also a few glaring questions that remain unanswered. They don’t cripple the story the way major plot holes do, but they did stand out to me. Still, in terms of delivering a slick and stylish story, Russell and Singer pull it off.

But getting back to a previous thought, neither the direction nor the script are the film’s strongest point. The movie’s true success lies in the performances. It starts with Christian Bale. Armed with pretty much the same voice that he used playing Dicky in “The Fighter”, Bale was the most compelling character of the bunch. While he may sound like Dicky his physical appearance was quite different. In “The Fighter” Bale lost over 30 pounds to convincing depict a crack addict. In “American Hustle” he gained nearly 50 pounds which we get a good look at in the film’s opening scene. But Bale delivers much more than just a physical transformation. He gives us a character who is funny, selfish, crooked, pitiful, sympathetic – all encapsulated within a wonderful performance.

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I also liked Bradley Cooper, an actor who has gotten surprisingly better over time. His character is a little hard to gauge at first but as the story unfolds so does Richie’s personality and ambitions. Cooper gives an hearty performance that does at times get a tad too big but is still impressive. And speaking of big, Jennifer Lawrence is also good as the powder keg Rosalyn. She has already raked in a ton of critical acclaim but I wouldn’t call this her best work. The character is loud and abrasive by design so the performance has to be big. But it isn’t until later in the film that Lawrence is actually allowed to show her range. On the other hand Amy Adams (goofy split-up-the-front blouses aside) is fantastic. Her character isn’t a ‘take home to meet the parents’ kind of girl, but there is a sad and needy underlying thread to her. Adams never misses a beat. And I can’t forget Jeremy Renner who has a smaller role but to me was just as good as anyone else.

I can’t say that “American Hustle” has any kind of staying power and I don’t think I’ll remember it as one of the great films. But there is something about these generally unlikable characters that draws you to the screen. In typical David O. Russell fashion they are a little too abrasive for my taste. But each is fascinating in their own right and each truly desires something more: Irving – to be a more successful con, Richie – an FBI superstar, Sydney – British royalty, Rosalyn – a loved and appreciated wife, Carmine – a legendary mayor. Most of the credit for this goes to the performances. “American Hustle” is more of a showcase of great actors than it is great storytelling, but it still keeps you glued to the screen as you watch them do their work.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “House at the End of the Street”

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Am I starting to sense a trend here? Have you noticed that after getting some serious critical acclaim a number of young actresses are immediately running out to do soft PG-13 horror pictures? After really finding her way onto the critics radar with “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, Elizabeth Olsen quickly followed it up with “Silent House”. After making a huge splash in 2011 and giving what may end up being an Oscar-winning performance in 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, Jessica Chastain started off 2013 with “Mama”. And then there’s “House at the End of the Street”. Jennifer Lawrence first wowed critics with “Winters Bone” and then blew up the box office with “The Hunger Games”. She followed it by dipping her toes into the horror genre with a film that’s decent enough and relatively harmless, but that still feels like a quick money draw from her recent success.

Lawrence plays Elissa Cassidy, a high school student who moves to a small wooded town with her recently divorced mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue). They get a great deal on a beautiful home and they later find out why. It seems the property values have gone down following the gruesome murders of a couple in the house next door. Elissa and Sarah begin to find out more about the murders from the locals. But there is the question of what is fact and what is just gossip? They learn that the couple’s son Ryan (Max Thieriot) is living alone in the house. He’s been ostracized by many in the community and he’s the subject of so many rumors and speculations. He becomes the centerpiece of much of the film’s mystery.

Obviously Jennifer Lawrence is the real draw here and as you would expect she does a good job. But I have to say this isn’t challenging material. She does a lot of the same old stuff that you would expect from a movie like this. About the only opportunity she gets to flex her acting muscles are in the scenes with Shue. Elissa and Sarah don’t have the best relationship and the film’s better dramatic moments are when these two are hashing it out. Unfortunately we don’t get to much of it. As good as these moments are, they’re just thrown in here and there and they feel like an afterthought.

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While “House at the End of the Street” is advertised as a horror movie and it does have its moments of standard horror fare, in many ways it feels more like a thriller – not a great one, but a thriller nonetheless. Other than a couple of sudden blasts of loud music, the film doesn’t have any genuine scares. And it never really succeeds in creating the tense and creepy atmosphere it shoots for. But this isn’t a terrible movie. I actually found myself interested in the secrets and twists surrounding the murders in the house next door. The story also remains entertaining despite some obvious plot holes and unintentional silliness. I was never bored and I appreciated some of what the filmmakers were trying to do.

I think the biggest problem with “House at the End of the Road” is that it’s a really average movie. There’s not one thing that it does exceptionally. On the other hand there are very few egregious and crippling flaws. It’s not a horrible movie but it doesn’t do anything to set itself apart. That’s why it’s a decent movie to check out on DVD on a rainy day. But expect to have forgotten all about it the next day. It’s a ‘one-and-done’ film in my book but it’s a fairly entertaining one. It just has no staying power and it won’t challenge you with anything bold and new. It turns out to be more of the same and that’s a shame.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS