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

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “300: Rise of an Empire”

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I still remember the buzz surrounding Zack Snyder’s “300” when it hit theaters in 2007. The hyper-stylized comic book adaptation gained an enthusiastic following to the tune of almost $500 million at the box office. Seven years later a sequel came along but minus Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, and director Zack Snyder. Snyder did stay around to co-write the screenplay, but this time the directing reins were given to Noam Murro.

“300: Rise of an Empire” takes place before, during, and after the events of the first film. This time the main character is a Greek General named Themistocles. He’s played by Sullivan Stapleton, an actor who I really enjoyed in David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom”. Themistocles kills King Darius of Persia as the king’s son Xerxes looks on. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) follows his father’s dying wish and journeys through the desert to a mystical cave. There he submerges himself in a pool of mysterious waters and eventually emerges as the god-king we see in the first film.

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Xerxes returns and declares war on Greece. He takes his army and faces Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (as seen in the first movie). At the same time Xerxes’ naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) takes a fleet and goes up against Themistocles in the Battle of Artemisium. From there the paper-thin plot navigates a series of dull fight scenes, a small bit of political wrangling, and plenty of forgettable exposition. It clearly aspires to be as stylistically hypnotic as its predecessor, but it never comes close.

Under Zack Snyder’s direction “300” had a captivating look. There was something harmonious and almost poetic about his bladed, blood-soaked ballet. Snyder’s camera placements, his use of slow motion, his fight scene choreography – all of it looked amazing despite their being little plot behind it. In “Rise of an Empire” the camera isn’t nearly as inventive. The slow motion is there but sometimes it is used in bewildering ways. The choreography occasionally shines, but it is just as often flat and unimaginative. All of this equals trouble for a movie whose bread and butter is the action.

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As you can expect from a “300” movie the plot is fairly plain although I was impressed with how they set up the sequel. There just isn’t much there after the table is set. Also most of the characters lack any charisma. The film really misses Butler, Fassbender, and company. But there is one cast member who actually saves this movie from completely sinking. Eva Green brings such voracity and spectacle to her character and she has a blast doing it. While Stapleton is quite dull as Themistocles, Green steals every scene with her mad, over-the-top performance. She single-handedly keeps this film above water.

Aside from Green “300: Rise of an Empire” doesn’t have a lot to offer. For those looking for blood and brawn, you’ll get it here at least in some degree. The first film wasn’t great but it handled its simple story well, its brutal visual style was impressive, and the characters had charisma. This time the story is dull, the action is dull, and the characters are dull with the one lone exception. In the end, Green can’t make this a good film, but she does make it watchable.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Assassin’s Creed”

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I just knew they existed even before the first screenings of “Assassin’s Creed” – the haughty dismissive jabs at yet another ‘video game movie’. Nevermind that video games have evolved from simple pixels and sprites into vast interactive experiences often times anchored by deep, thoughtful stories. Forget that video games have surpassed both Hollywood and the music industry in the entertainment market. Many people simply won’t treat video games or their movie adaptations seriously, so in that regard “Assassin’s Creed” was already behind the proverbial eight ball.

But there is another unavoidable truth. Filmmakers aren’t doing much to quell these attitudes. In fact, video games have a history of spawning some truly terrible film adaptations. Look no further than “Super Mario Bros.”, “Street Fighter”, “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” just to name a few. But isn’t “Assassin’s Creed” different? I mean it stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling. With that amount of talent it can’t be as bad as many are saying, right? The short answer – no it isn’t, but it’s complicated.

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The immensely popular Assassin’s Creed video game franchise from developer Ubisoft is ripe with big screen potential. This film clearly intends to be a launching point for a film series. The games have never been restricted to certain characters which enables to movie to create entirely new ones and tell a new story within the same universe. Fassbender latched on early in the process not only starring but also co-producing.

The story takes place during two time periods – 2016 and 15th century Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. An age-old war between the Knights Templar and the Assassins has bled over into modern day driving the mysterious Abstergo Foundation to create the Animus. The machine allows Abstergo to connect people with their descendants in order to glean information from the past. The foundation is ran by Alan Rikkin (Irons) but the Animus creator Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard) oversees the project. Both father and daughter have very different ideas for its use.

Enter Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a death row inmate who wakes up to find himself in an Abstergo facility. Lynch is the descendent of a 15th century Assassin named Aguilar de Nerha who may hold the key to locating a powerful relic called the Apple of Eden. Sophia sees the relic as a tool for global peace while others at Abstergo have much more nefarious intentions.

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Let’s get this out of the way. “Assassin’s Creed” isn’t the wretched, soulless dreck its Rotten Tomatoes score would have you believe. In fact, a solid two-thirds of its running time is a ton of fun especially for those familiar with the franchise. The film nicely juggles Creed’s signature crazy mix of action, historical drama, and science fiction while tossing out several nods to fans. But you don’t need to be an aficionado to understand what’s going on, at least until the last act. At that point things get a bit muddled and messy as the film tries to tie up its many layers of plot.

Director Justin Kurzel (who had previously worked with Fassbender and Cotillard in “Macbeth”) offers several interesting touches as he works in two very different time periods and locations. The 15th century sequences are exhilarating particularly one street chase that may be my favorite action sequence of the year. Kurzel and regular cinematographer Adam Arkapaw shoot the scenes with gusto and great detail. When it moves back to modern day it leaves the dusty, dirty shades of brown for cold, dreary blues and greys. This is where most of the story plays out.

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But now I get back to that third act. Overall I disagree with the criticisms calling the plot convoluted and overblown, at least for the majority of the film. But as it wraps things up it does get a little confusing. The story moves into full franchise setup mode, putting characters and tensions in places that clearly points to follow-up movies. There are some good elements to the finale, but some messiness as well. Even the action takes a step down in last 15 minutes.

Still, I had fun with “Assassin’s Creed” particularly with its wildly unique (and admittedly wacky) story. It also doesn’t hurt to have this level of acting talent in front of the camera. It does fall victim to some of the usual franchise-building frustrations, but at the same time it sets itself up for limitless possibilities. Where does it go next – the Civil War, the French Revolution, the Cold War? I don’t know. First it will depend on the box office and so far that hasn’t looked too promising.

VERDICT 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “Steve Jobs”

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Michael Fassbender may be the busiest man making movies. The guy is always working. To give you an idea, he appeared in three movies last year and has a whopping five movies slated for a 2016 release. But here’s the great thing – whether he is starring in a huge superhero franchise or smaller independent cinema, Fassbender always delivers rock solid performances. “Steve Jobs” adds to that reputation.

This is the second Steve Jobs biopic within a three year span and the upgrades we get in this film are significant.  Fassbender takes the lead role. Danny Boyle directs. Word wizard Aaron Sorkin writes the screenplay. The story is adapted from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography and mixes in information gathered from Sorkin’s numerous interviews with Jobs’ associates.

The film wisely steers clear of being an exhaustive biopic. Instead it functions in a three chapter structure, each coinciding with a new product launch from the Apple co-founder. First is the Macintosh launch of 1984. Second is his NeXt computer of 1988. The last chapter jumps to 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac. Between these three pivotal moments in his life, Steve Jobs is faced with a number of professional and personal hurdles. Boyle and Sorkin manage to weave together so many narrative threads most of which rely on relationships that grow (or in many cases fester) as the film moves forward.

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Much like with “The Social Network”, Sorkin doesn’t coddle his subject. He paints Jobs as the creative visionary he was, but our backstage access also shows an insufferable, insecure bully obsessed with total control. He constantly badgers his underlings and can’t bring himself to give anyone else the slightest bit of credit or consideration. The person who has an inside communication line with him is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), a marketing executive who is the only person besides himself he seems to depend on. It is a key relationship with Fassbender and Winslet each bringing needed levels of intensity.

Other relationships suffer at the hands of Jobs’ ego. Seth Rogen, an actor whose performances I generally find repellent, steps out of his norm and is great playing Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ old friend and Apple co-founder. I also enjoyed every scene featuring the naturally subdued Michael Stuhlbarg. He plays Andy Hertzfeld, an original Mac team member and “family friend” of Jobs. Jeff Daniels is really good as John Sculley, the CEO of Apple. All three chapters show each of these relationships in various stages of disrepair.

Perhaps the most damning scenes feature Jobs with his daughter Lisa. We first meet her at five years-old and she serves as a small window into Jobs’ private life. Jobs shamelessly denies he is her father and, despite his net worth, leaves her and her mother (Katherine Waterston) living on welfare. While Lisa showcases the more despicable side of Jobs, she also offers the one thin chance at redemption.

Boyle’s high-energy direction is a nice compliment to Sorkin’s dialogue. Boyle is known for pulling all sorts of visual tricks out of his hat. Here he shoots the 1984 segment in grainy 16mm, 1988 in 35mm, and 1998 in full digital. It’s such a cool way of distinguishing the time periods aside from the standard new haircuts and age-worn faces. Other than that Boyle doesn’t go overboard. We still get a few of those signature showy strokes, but otherwise he keeps everything nicely situated within the script’s theatrical boundaries.

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And then we come back to Fassbender, critically praised and with an Oscar nomination to match. He handles Sorkin’s thick, tricky dialogue with profound surety. It’s a commanding performance that manages to make you admire him in one scene and detest him in the next. And aside from his great delivery, Fassbender channels his character’s complexities through every insecure smirk, every cut of the eyes, and every defiant stare.

There are a few things that left me curious. As with “The Social Network” Sorkin takes some enormous liberties depicting Steve Jobs all for the sake of drama. While Sorkin is never one to shy away from that fact, its understandable how some might take issue. And is it that common for everyone to have their meltdowns and emotional face-offs 30 minutes prior to every major technology presentation? That is certainly the case in all three chapters of “Steve Jobs”.

Aside from that “Steve Jobs” got its hooks in me right off the bat and kept me captivated for the duration. Despite the questions I had, it is so satisfying to watch good actors work with a whip-smart script and under very assured direction. All of these pieces do their parts in making “Steve Jobs” an usual but thoroughly entertaining biopic.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Slow West” (2015)

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“Once upon a time, 1870 to be exact, a 16-year old kid travelled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find his love. His name was Jay. Her name was Rose”. This quick bit of narration opens and sets up the fairly simple story of “Slow West”. But while the story sounds pretty basic and familiar, it does several surprising things within its barely 80 minute running time.

“Slow West” is a Western with a European twist from first time writer and director John Maclean. Maclean plays with several of the genre’s well known staples, but he also brings several fresh ingredients to his film. Perhaps these contrasts are best realized in the two main characters. Jay (convincingly played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is driven by emotion, his love for Rose guiding his compass. He’s a bit of a dreamer, seeing the American West through a naive but unique and spirited lens. He is also out of element and ill equipped for the dangers in the new world. At one point he is referred to as “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves”.

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Silas (Michael Fassbender) represents our familiar view of the Wild West. He’s a rough and tough bounty hunter who knows how to survive. But he has seen his sensibilities numbed and over time he has grown a bit calloused to the violence and dangers of his world. On a couple of occasions Jay simply refers to Silas as “a brute”. These two come together in a fitting way – with Silas saving Jay from a killer posing as a soldier. Jay then hires Silas for protection until he can find Rose.

The heart of the film is centered around this rather odd relationship. For Jay, Silas brings a reality check and an understanding that the West isn’t a pretty place. But at the same time Jay never loses his hope, optimism and spirit. For Silas, Jay reminds him of what it’s like to feel, to care, and to have emotion. Jay ‘s childlike exuberance clashes with Silas’ tough-as-leather exterior and begins to soften his hardened perspectives. Having this intriguing focus on the relationship gives a unique meaning to the different things they encounter along the way.

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Another thing that sets this film apart is its covertly quirky tone. There is something slightly off (and I mean that in a really good way). And even more surprising, there are moments when the film is really funny showing off a daffy, Wes Anderson-esque sense of humor. It can be found in the subtle, dry wit or in some of the absurd situations which oddly feel at home in the film. Maclean weaves these lighter threads in with serious and sometimes violent ones much like we have seen in films from the Coen brothers.

“Slow West” was an absolute treat. A compelling story set within familiar Western boundaries but strikingly original in the paths it takes. The choice to film in New Zealand provides a gorgeous landscape while Fassbender and Smit-McPhee ground the story with solid performances. Even the always fun Ben Mendelsohn pops up later on. Innocence versus reality. Which wins in the end? A true spirit versus a cold callousness. Which is most important to have? “Slow West” plays with these questions and answers them in its own fun, compelling, and thoroughly entertaining way.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “X-MEN: Days of Future Past”

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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.

 

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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.

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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