Movie Review ~ Dark Phoenix


The Facts
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Synopsis: Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Stars: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters

Director: Simon Kinberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Having never been someone that has done a deep dive into the comic book realm, I can’t speak to fan reactions when a franchise plays fast and loose with characters and story arcs. There are some that can’t look past a studio wanting to continue their cash cows by making financially motivated choices to keep their films alive and there are others (like myself) who don’t mind sitting back and taking in the movie for what it is – entertainment. It’s not for lack of interest or ambivalence on my part, it’s stepping back and seeing the big picture. Of all the superhero tentpole films, it seems the X-Men movies take the biggest beating from critics and fans that revolt at the slightest stray from where they want to see the action go and I find that so strangely fascinating.

I’ve gone on record multiple times saying that by and large I’ve enjoyed most all of the X-Men films and their numerous spin-offs. True, some have been problematic and less winning than others but they’ve been more consistent than most long-running series and have evolved from the silly seriousness of the original film (you know it’s true!) to something bold and musclar like 2016’s brilliant Logan. A new era of the X-Men began in 2011 with X-Men: First Class and I was not moved either way by that semi-reboot until X-Men: Days of Future Past arrived in 2014. That film was a grand return to form and while The Wolverine didn’t connect with some I appreciated what it was doing in advancing Hugh Jackman’s character toward Logan. Knives were unfairly out for X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016, even though I found it a weirdly fun film.

Arriving amidst an ominous cloud of bad buzz is the next film in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix, and I imagine it will take the same beating from former fans and critics eager for an easy target. Delayed several times by 20th Century Fox due to highly publicized reshoots not to mention its pending purchase by Disney studios which had its own Marvel superhero movie to attend to earlier this summer, I’m not sure this ever would have had a fair shot when it was released. Honestly? The film has some major flaws and often feels like it’s held together by packing tape that’s long since lost its ability to keep things in place but when it works it works like a charm. For all the negative things I’d heard about it going in, maybe the bar was set low enough that my opinion couldn’t be worse than what people were saying.

When we last left our world-saving mutants, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had unleashed the full force of her powers to destroy Apocalypse. After a brief prologue shows us the tragic beginnings of how Jean came to stay with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) at his school for teens with extraordinary talents we are thrown right into action set in 1992. The team, comprised of Jean, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, mother!), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Love, Simon), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect), is dispatched to save the crew of a space shuttle in the path of a solar storm. This is no ordinary space mission, though, and Jean is exposed to an energy source at the center of the storm.

Now possessing remarkable power that begins to consume her, Jean goes rogue to seek out answers from her past to help her decide what to do with her new gifts. At the same time, she’s pursed not only by Professor X, the X-Men, and a revenge-seeking Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), but by alien huntress Vuk (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) who has arrived on Earth with a large number of her own warriors aiming to harvest the lifeforce within Jean that has the power to create new worlds…and destroy Earth in the process. It leads to a showdown that begins with Jean’s allegiance and ends with the lives of many hanging in the balance.

It’s clear this movie has been through many an edit and it shows not only in the hastily reshot footage but in the tonal shifts throughout. Looking at the success of grittier fare like Deadpool and its sequel, you can see where writer/director Simon Kinberg (Murder on the Orient Express) wanted to push the boundaries a bit by making this one more intense but without being able to go all the way with the blood, language, or violence it comes off as too tentative and neutered. There’s also a strange reliance on scenes with characters gulping down booze whenever they can’t cope with pressure or wanting to tamp down their own emotions. Normally good actors paint with broader strokes here, perhaps knowing this was their final time at bat they are really swinging for high camp. Chastain, Hoult, and McAvoy in particular seem to be trying to outdo each other in who can be the most ostentatious…until Fassbender shows up and puts them all to shame.

Yet somehow the movie checked off enough of the right boxes on my score sheet to emerge a winner and that’s mostly due to a fantastic finale set aboard a train. Usually a reshot ending can be one big eye roll since it often is an afterthought that rarely gels with the rest of the film but this one felt like it came after the filmmakers had some distance from the work and came back refreshed. There are some crowd-pleasing moments to be had here and it provided the requisite thrills some other parts of the movie lacked. Also, it showed once again that Shipp’s Storm (and just the character of Storm in general) needs her own movie, like, yesterday.  I still long for the filmmakers to spend more time at the school so we can see more of the youngsters and their burgeoning abilities — anytime we’re in the school and we see hints at the comic-books fringe characters people recognize you can tell people want more.  Now that 20th Century Fox is owned by Disney, perhaps Disney will get a series together for their streaming Disney+ service that’s all about the school?  Might be a good idea.

I’m still grappling with these recent X-Men movies not totally lining up with the original three X-Men films that started off this whole series of films. Don’t think too hard that the first X-Men movie is set a mere eight years after this one is to take place…or wonder what happens to Fassbender and McAvoy in those eight years to turn them into Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Instead, take these movies as the prequels they were always meant to be and for what they are, casual entertainment. Perhaps if you go in with the lowered expectations like I did you’ll set yourself up to get something more out of this than others who went in prepared to hate it. Give it a chance.  I’m not totally sure where the series goes from here.  There’s absolutely room for more sequels but based on the struggle this one had to get to theaters and the boos and hisses already coming from the Twitter-verse, a reset might be in order to restore some faith in this franchise.  Clearly, I’m easier to please than most and found the fun in this Phoenix…but I’m also not a hardcore fan that had a great investment in it either.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Apocalypse

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the emergence of the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Dear readers, it’s OK if you are in the throes of Superhero Movie Fatigue. I’ve been suffering symptoms of SMF for over a year now and I’m sure it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone if you suddenly find yourself recoiling at the first whiff of a CGI created villain or needing to lie down from exhaustion when you try to tie all of the various multi-film storylines together. While I don’t see a cure for SMF in the near future (both the Marvel and DC universe are mapped out for the next several years), I think we’ll learn to adjust to an onslaught of comic book adaptations that will eventually start to compete only with films from their own franchises until a death rattle finishes them all off.

In the meantime, 2016 has brought forth the good (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War) and the misunderstood (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and judging from early reaction you might feel inclined to add X-Men Apocalypse to the miscalculated pile. I’d caution you to see for yourself though because this eighth X-Men movie is big (BIG!), rather exciting, and sets the stage for a new era with a careful hand and a gentle nod.

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I was slow to warm to the series and never really had much of an interest or stake in the opinion of the overall quality or the consistency that true fans seemed to find the most fault with. The first movie was decent but half-baked, the second addressed the major concerns and righted a listing ship only to have the third one stank up the joint. Venturing into solo territory, Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) tried to get a Wolverine series off the ground but fans weren’t interested. A prequel reignited the flame and led to another Wolverine film (which I enjoyed more than most) and the 2014 time-hopping head-scratcher X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I didn’t think the franchise could stuff more into its running length but X-Men: Apocalypse is the stone soup of the bunch…it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s going to divide many a fan/critic/movie-goer and maybe I was just in the right mood for it because I found myself highly engaged and, yeah, emotionally invested in the continued adventures of Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy), and their mutant co-horts that go up against their most formidable enemy yet.

His presence was teased at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past and an energetic prologue in Egypt shows how Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) came to be buried under a pyramid until he’s uncovered in the ’80s by a faction of his descendant followers. Luckily, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy) is there to see it all take place and sound the alarm that something big is about to go down.

Meanwhile, Mystique is spending most of her time sans blue skin (you can just hear Lawrence negotiating ever y second she has to be in full Mystique-garb), watching out for mutants being mistreated the world over. Rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy), she brings him back to Professor X’s school where he falls in with Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It isn’t long before the mutants find themselves under attack in their own home, culminating in a most impressive rescue sequence (it took the longest to film) led by Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect) who happened to be in the area looking for personal answers of his own.

With Apocalypse freed and intent on bringing the world back to square one by wiping the human population out, he gathers his four horsemen to assist him in his end of days plot. One will remain secret here but a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Magic Mike) are part of the mix. Scenes of massive destruction and special effects threaten to overtake the picture but those that complain about director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) focusing more on computer generated mayhem instead of human heart must not realize they bought a ticket for a movie about superhero mutants fighting a doomsday villain.

On the disappointing side are McAvoy and Fassbender largely sleepwalk through the movie and Munn is totally miscast, mostly because she’s not that impressive to begin with. Isaac gets lost in his big blue bad guy but he does what he can in moon boots under all that make-up. It’s the younger generation that impresses here, with Hoult, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Turner signaling that they have what’s needed to continue on with the franchise. This is reportedly Lawrence’s last spin and her absence will leave a big hole in the emotional core of the film. Even though she’s a top-tier A-List star now, Lawrence never looks down on her role or gives it anything less than her full attention.

For a PG-13 film, the movie has a questionable amount of bloody violence (especially in a sequence that involves a cameo that seems to be standard issue for any film bearing the X-Men moniker). Parents should likely see this one first before bringing young children, it’s not only heavy on viscera but at nearly 2 ½ hours it can start to feel long during its mid-section. It ramps up nicely to a whopper of a climax but even I struggled to stay alert as the film reached the two hour mark.

There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse and for those living with SMF you could find yourself stretched thin by the time the credits roll…but if you can hang on it’s highly worth seeing on the largest screen you can get to.

Movie Review ~ The Lazarus Effect

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of medical students discover a way to bring dead patients back to life.

Stars: Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Ray Wise, Amy Aquino

Director: David Gelb

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  The last film director David Gelb helmed was the well-received Jiro Dreams of Sushi from 2011, a documentary about a legendary sushi master and his heir-apparent.  Bereft of any creative pulse, The Lazarus Effect sees Gelb go from sushi to turkey in one fell swoop because the only thing that needs reviving at the end of this cheap-o effort are the audiences.  Not that Gelb and company don’t try to keep you awake by introducing a host of loud noises and seizure inducing flickering lights at random points along the way…but it’s best to sleep with one eye open so you can make a break for the door by the time the credits roll.

In an unnamed research facility on an unnamed college campus, two scientists (Mark Duplass, Tammy and Olivia Wilde, People Like Us) and their assistants (Donald Glover, The To Do List and Evan Peters, X:Men – Days of Future Past) are joined by a co-ed (Sarah Bolger) filming a documentary on their research.  Strangely (and maybe thankfully), given Gelb’s documentary past and aside from some grainy opening footage there’s none of that hand-held camera nonsense until the film reaches its hyperactive finale when the camera swoops around like it’s been tethered to a ceiling fan.

The scientists are working on a formula to re-animate dead animals…all because they eventually want to be able to “give doctors more time” to heal near-death human patients.  The first of many scientific miscalculations, the reasoning behind the research comes across more like the movie pitch it most certainly is.  Even Duplass and Wilde seem to have trouble making it through relaying their theories of resurrection without cracking a smile.

Now is a good time to really break down how much The Lazarus Effect will remind you of other movies:

Like Flatliners, the film is about a motley crew of apparently brilliant minds making a whole host of stupid decisions and pausing occasionally to talk about what’s on “the other side” and musing about what death really means.  Like Lucy, there are discussions about brain activity, how much of our brain we actually use, and what access to all of our potential would do to a person’s psyche.  Like Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator, the experimenters become the experimented when fate deals the kind of blow that necessitates speeding up the testing process and moving to human trials.  And like Hollow Man, the finale is a cat-and-mouse game where the group is locked in a lab and picked off one by one.

Screenwriters Luke Dawson & Jeremy Slater have Frankenstein-ed their script with so many other ideas that the only interesting thing about the movie becomes matching up the plot points to previously released films.  Eventually, the filmmakers totally give up and increase the volume and amount of times the lights are turned off.  Seriously, at one point I thought that the evil at work was simply an energy conservationist because the scariest thing they do is turn the lights off at the most inopportune times.

Sometimes in knock-off films like this some fun can be had in some well-crafted moments of bloody gore.  I get the feeling the movie was edited down to PG-13 territory because the way that the violence is cut away from suggests post-op censoring of the ickier bits.  There’s nary a drop of blood spilled and death either occurs off-screen or in a non-invasive method such as a twisted neck.

Hound dog faced Duplass is hardly the picture of the driven researcher he’s supposed to be playing.  Changing his intentions every ten minutes because the script tells him to, there’s a missed opportunity to give the character an edge so Duplass just sits on the middle of the fence for most of the picture.  Wilde is his Mozart-loving fiancé and research partner…though he never seems to sleep in the same bed as her as evidenced in three shots of her sleeping in the middle of a bed in the house they share.  It’s a strange thing to get hung-up on, I know, but it serves as an example of the lack of attention to detail from Gelb.  With a little over an hour to tell the story, there’s not time for much character development so the rest of the cast is hardly worth mentioning (though Bolger is perhaps the best of the bunch).

Between a heap of scientific mumbo-jumbo and sleepy performances by its B-grade cast, the only thing you could put in the pro column for The Lazarus Effect would be that it’s short (83 minutes…including a credit sequence that’s better looking than anything else onscreen) and goes by relatively quickly.  Made by Blumhouse Productions (The Purge, Insidious, Sinister) for the low fee of 5 million (yes, that’s now considered a low sum), the film likely won’t have any trouble making that money back from knee-jerk audiences merely in the mood for a cheap thrill.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Days of Future Past

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants

Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Boo Boo Stewart, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Ok, I believe by now we’ve established the kind of reader-critic relationship that allows me to be as open and honest with you as I possibly can.  So, I the spirit of putting it all out there on the table I need to tell you that the X-Men and all their variations have never really been my thing.  Aside from a childhood desire to beat the SEGA game, I’ve never truly warmed to Professor X and his motley crew of mutant heroes and villains…even after seven films.

Though the overreaching message of the film (we’re all mutants in some form or another and that’s ok) is a positive one that has the ability to speak to anyone, there’s something about the over eagerness of the filmmakers to constantly “get it right” that I find myself enjoying the spectacle at a distance.

It doesn’t help that the quality of the movies hasn’t maintained any sort of consistency since X-Men was released in 2000.  The first sequel improved upon its predecessor but when original director Bryan Signer vacated the series for Superman Returns the third entry landed with a thud.  Spinning off the series into a poorly executed Wolverine origin story further dug a hole for the franchise before 2011’s X-Men: First Class saved a listing ship.  I didn’t dislike 2013’s The Wolverine as much as my colleagues but by that point fans were a little sensitive to their mutants getting less than stellar cinematic adventures.

Now we’ve arrived in the present with X-Men: Days of Future Past…but we won’t stay there long as the enjoyable seventh entry of the series is more interested in looking back than moving forward.  There’s a lot (A LOT) going on in Simon Kinberg’s script…so much so that I often found myself struggling to remember how all the pieces fit, who is who, and what decade we’re in.  After an opening in a desolate not-too-distant future, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, who must have been paid in how many bicep veins are present) is sent back to the early 70’s by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) to prevent rouge Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) from setting a series of events into motion in the past that will have a deadly impact for the future.

Juggling two separate time frames, returning director Bryan Singer manages to keep everything in balance for the most part.  Having watched X-Men: First Class directly before seeing this new film, I was impressed that Singer and Kinberg carved out a new path while keeping continuity through some difficult loose ends previous director Matthew Vaughn left for the new crew to figure out.

Less impressive is an overall humdrum feeling the movie left me with after all was said and done.  I’m not suggesting the movie isn’t terrific popcorn entertainment or doesn’t contain a handful of impressively filmed sequences (like Evan Peters as Quicksilver showing off his talents while Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” plays in the background) but it all feels overly calculated, designed to allow the franchise to continue without really having to answer for past mistakes.

With Lawrence’s star gone supernova since the last installment, her part is significantly beefed up here.  Mystique has never been so front and center and Lawrence manages to eek out some nice moments under her full body make-up.  As the younger Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy (Trance) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) don’t seem quite as invested this time around, but then again there’s not the same kind of character discovery available to them.  Jackman can play the role in his sleep…and by now it looks like he is.

Moving fast through its 131 minute running length, the end of the film sets up the next volume of X-Men escapades nicely…but then again if you really think about it that’s all the movie seemed interested in in the first place.  Fairly and frequently violent for a PG-13 film, parents should think twice before bringing young children along…Godzilla has less death/carnage in it.

With all my griping about overall ulterior motives, I’ll admit the movie fits neatly into the mode of summer blockbuster by combining all the right elements into the mix.  I think fans will look back and see the mechanics of the script in years to come…but by that time these will be the true days of future past.