Exes (Dark Phoenix, 2019)

Dark_Phoenix_posterSo…after a long delay that has pretty much reached the point where the X-Movies from Fox seem to be just getting pushed out to clear the slate, Dark Phoenix has been released.  This is the series second attempt at pretty much the same story.

Set about ten years after X-Men Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix opens with the X-Men as fairly beloved by the public. They are now celebrities, but on a mission in space, this is all jeopardized as Jean Grey is hit by a strange cosmic anomaly that causes her powers to grow exponentially.

This results in her finding out facts about her past that drive a wedge between Jean, resulting in a character dying due to her actions. A second group, expressing interest in her power tries to seduce Jean while the X-Men are fractured between those that want to save Jean and those who feel she should be dead.

And honestly…the second shot is not a redemptive one.  The whole ten year jump deal seemed to cause more problems.  There are plenty of indicators of interesting story stuff going on between the past two films. But it almost seems like they forgot about stuff they established in Apocalypse. They had established stuff like the Hellfire Club as far back as First Class and yet, leave them aside for a bland sub-story threat.

The film introduces a new threat that has never been seen before in the X-Men franchise…the series has never even suggested this type of threat is out there.  It seems logical that it could exist in a universe of mutants, but it also feels entirely out of left field.

We have yet a new world ending threat that honestly…feels kind of boring. Characters are used blandly, Storm and Nightcrawler feel like characters that Kinberg forgot were in the movie until the big fight.

Apparently they had their big end fight in space and reshot the film to set it…um…on a train.  And the train fight is pretty cool. But not enough to save the film.  The effects work fine, and the mutant effects work fine.

A lot of the performances feel like the actors are kind of ready to be done with this series.  Sophie Turner’s performance is the best…she gives a genuinely strong performance.

As the film likely to be the finale for the Fox Franchise, Dark Phoenix is a pretty weak send off. I was disappointed that they could not recover from the failings of Apocalypse. but hey…we finally got Dazzler…so that is something?

Dark_Phoenix_Dazzler

As an aside, I am a bit amused at just how everyone appears to keep ignoring the New Mutants and are treating this as the final Fox X-Men film. But let’s face it…we don’t know if we will ever see that one released.

The End (Glass, 2019)

glass_posterAfter 2000’s Unbreakable, there was a lot of talk that this was almost meant to be part of a trilogy. Shyalaman has been all over the map. He claimed he had no such plans when Unbreakable first came out…but about a year later talked about sequels. And I really loved Unbreakable. I wanted to get those follow ups. I wanted to see what David Dunn would do next.

When Split was revealed as a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, I was thrilled.  And the trailers had me quite excited for Glass.  So, did Shyalaman create a great trilogy?

Well, when David Dunn and his son (who run a security business together, and also work together in stopping crime) interfere with the Horde’s (the nickname for the character from Split) attempt to kill another group of young women, the two are captured by the authorities. They are sent to an institution where they are introduced to Dr. Ellie Staple.  She specializes in people who believe they have powers.

Her goal is to help them realize they are suffering a delusion.

The film makes it very clear that she is wrong, of course…and that is one of the problems of the film.  Staple clearly represents Shyalaman’s critics.  This is a petty bit of behavior that stretches back to at least Lady In the Water, in which Bob Balaban’s critic is presented as a fool who does not understand true genius.  And that gets portrayed here.  Except it is a little worse. Here, Ellie is an insincere critic, and she is arguable a central villain, rather than an oblivious one.

The film has some annoying retcons in its plans of revealing that Glass is an even bigger architect than we realized (to be fair, the retcon does not suggest Glass intended for this, it was just a convenient byproduct of his acts in Unbreakable).

Add to this the fact that the film does lean hard into the notion that the Horde is actually a separate thing from his superpower…it really undermines any defense agains criticisms of the portrayal of the Horde and mental  health.

There are some things I like. McAvoy does a great job in his performance. Jackson gives the kind of solid performance I expect. I also appreciate that both David Dunn and Mrs. Price are played by the same actors who played the roles in Unbreakable (the same for the Comic Shop Owner).

The reveal that all three films represented an origin story is a bit…deflating.  I mean, people complain about the decompressed storytelling of modern comics…but Brian Michael Bendis never took nineteen years to tell one story.

The film seems to unload twist upon twist in the final act and that gets tiring.  Glass is an underwhelming and disappointing ending to the Unbreakable story.

The Middle (Split, 2016)

split_posterAfter Signs, Shyalaman’s career took a hit.  Critics were brutal and try as he might, his films were not grabbing fans.  It was not until 2015’s Visit that he seemed to be picking up some steam.

In Split, we meet Casey and her friends who are abducted by a frightening man named Kevin.  It is quickly revealed that Kevin has a personality disorder with 23 known personalities.  His psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher, is working to try and help Kevin become dominant. But he has kidnapped the young girls for nefarious purposes.  He is not a sexual deviant though. His personalities are preparing the way for a new and frightening personality…the Beast…and the girls are innocents that he demands as a sacrifice.

Like the Visit, Split received criticism for its treatment of mental health. And this is a big  part of the plot.  Due to the portrayal of the Beast, a super-human monster, I felt that the film narrowly avoided this being the notion that he was fractured. These were unique and individual people. However, I realize that some will disagree with this read…and I am inclined to in the light of Glass, but I will address this in the Glass review.

Split hinges almost entirely on McAvoy’s performance. He can be ominous, terrifying and yet sweet and kind…sometimes all in the same scene. A good actor should be able to pull this off anyways, but still, McAvoy does it well.

This felt like a return to form, with a small but perfect twist at the end.  Split is one of the strongest films Shyalaman has made since probably Signs.

Narnia Quest Part 1 (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, 2005)

Narnia_001_PosterDuring World War 2, the four Pevensie children are sent to stay in the remote countryside with Professor Kirke.  A somewhat distant man, the kids try and pass the time by exploring his large home and playing games.  One day, during a game of hide and seek, youngest Lucy hides in a large wardrobe.  She discovers that there is something different with the Wardrobe.  As she pushes through coats, she suddenly finds herself in a snowy forest.

She runs into a Faun (half man and half goat) who timidly introduces himself as Mr. Tumnus.  When he discovers that Lucy is a “daughter of Eve”, he becomes worried and tries to hurry Lucy back to where she came. He explains there world (where there is no Christmas, but a seemingly endless winter) is ruled by a tyrant queen, the White Witch, who demands any member of the line of Adam and Eve should be brought to her.  Upon her return, her siblings do not believe Lucy.  And why would they?

That night, Lucy tries to return, and is unknowingly followed by Edmund.  Edmund meets the White Witch who wants him to bring his sibling to her.  She plays to his ego and desire for fanciful Turkish Delights candy.

Eventually, all the kids enter the wardrobe and find Mr. Tumnus is missing.  They are greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver who are…well, talking Beavers.  The kids learn more of the curse upon Narnia, but that many believe the world will be released by the return of King Aslan and the children of Adam and Eve.  And so the children become drawn into a battle to save  the world of Narnia from the cruel White Queen.

The Chronicles of Narnia are the beloved children’s books by noted popular Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. The series has been adapted in the past.  There was a cartoon of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe from the BBC in 1979.  And four of the books* were adapted for a live action series (also from the BBC) in the late eighties. But the twin successes of the Lord of the Rings films and the Harry Potter series made things look viable for more fantasy.

And so, Disney and Walden Media combined forces to bring us the Chronicles of Narnia.  They brought in Andrew Adamson, who was known for Shrek and Shrek 2 before this.

Visually, the effects in the film are quite good.  Aslan looks like a real lion, not just a digital cartoon.  The makeup is effect for the creatures of Narnia.  The cast is good.  And yet…the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe feels a bit…flat.  It follows the main beats of the story, but it is clear that, rather than looking to the novels for guidance?  They were looking at the success of the Lord of the Rings.  Overwhelmingly so.  The emphasis is on “epic”.  And this is not really something at the heart of the Narnia books.  The books are short, in fact, much shorter than the Tolkien’s books.  I almost wonder if the seven books total more than the three Rings books.

A certain amount of comparison would be inevitable.  Lewis and Tolkien were close friends.  When it came to their work though, they had very different attitudes.  Tolkien had no real use for allegory.  But that is what drives the heart of the Narnia Books.  The allegory is as important as the story.

And the film does not really water down the allegory. Aslan is still clearly a stand in for Jesus. Though, some might feel that Aslan seems to have less bite.  He seems a bit warm and fuzzy and a little less…threatening…even for the minions of evil.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe very much wants to be the Lord of the Rings, and this causes the film to not carve out it’s own identity against the Lord of the Rings films. Instead, it feels like a pale comparison.

 

 

 

*Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader were combined.

Bombshells (Atomic Blonde, 2017)

Atomic_Blonde_PosterBased on the graphic novel the Coldest City is a spy thriller set days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Lorraine Broughton is a highly skilled British spy on a mission to collect a dossier that could expose countless deep undercover spies.  The problem is, determining who she can trust.  Her contact in East Berlin, David Percival, has “gone native” in the punk scene.  He is working to get a Russian nicknamed Spyglass to freedom in exchange for the information.

Told in a flashback format, we have Lorraine presenting her story to her MI6 boss and a CIA Representative (John Goodman).  The film gives you a warning of the fight ahead of Lorraine by introducing us to her after her mission is over…she is severely bruised and covered in cuts.  And this is an important thing to understand…

The promotional material would have you think this is just a kick ass action hero type of film.  There have been comparisons to James Bond, but this is a very surface comparison.  Atomic Blonde is far grittier and the action much more brutal.  This is an action packed espionage film, not an action movie.

This is not a criticism of the film, it is quite a good espionage film with plenty of uncertainty as to how certain aspects will play out.  Theron’s Broughton is tough and blunt, refusing to quit.  Along with the cast, the film’s 80’s soundtrack is very much a character in this film.  Chase and fight sequences are set to the likes of Bowie, New Order and Siouxsie & the Banshees with great effectiveness.

Atomic Blonde is a strong and dark thriller full of twists and turns.

Back to the Future (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014)

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-posterDays of Future Past is a well loved storyline where Kitty Pryde is thrust into a future where Mutants are herded in camps, marked and in some cases killed.  They are hunted by giant robots called Sentinels.  And for the most part, Days of Future Past keeps these ideas.  Except the film begins in the future and instead of Kitty Pryde going to the future, they send Wolverine back in time to stop it from ever happening.  Kitty Pryde is still a part of this, as she can use her phasing ability to phase people through time.  Only to a few days earlier, so they are playing a cat and mouse game with the Sentinels finding their hideout, Kitty sending Bishop back in time to warn them.  They decide they need to go farther back, but it is to taxing on Kitty and the brain of the person she sends back.  Wolverine volunteers to go, arguing his healing factor makes him the best choice.

Wolverine awakes in the 70’s and finds that the School Xavier opened is in shambles…there are no students.  Xavier is addicted to a drug that allows him to walk, but also prevents him from using his powers.  Beast is also there as his aide.  They do not initially buy Wolverines arguments, but he eventually persuades them to the cause.  They are trying to stop Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask.  Trask is the creator of the Sentinels and he has been using mutants as part of his R&D.  The research is fatal, and this is actually used to kill several characters from First Class off screen.

This is without a doubt one of the strongest films in the entire X-Men series.  The return of Bryan Singer as director was clearly a smart choice.  There is well timed humor and exciting action.  We see the return of the original (still living cast).  The future sequences are full of cool uses of power and we get new characters like Blink (who creates wormholes characters can escape through-the film is very inventive with these powers) and Warpath (a character from the 1970’s return of the X-Men comics).  We have Storm and Iceman back.  The films have always had a hard time placing Magneto on the side of evil and seeing real life friends Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan back together again.

And the new characters are pretty memorable.  Quicksilver appears only a short time, but he totally steals every scene.  He is funny and likeable.  Peter Dinklage makes Trask a sympathetic and misguided villain.  He is not simply evil…he is consumed by fear of what mutants mean for the human race.  It does not make his actions acceptable.  His choices are evil, but you can see what takes him there.  William Stryker returns to the series and is trying to weaponize mutants, treating them as less than human already.  The film is, of course, very Wolverine-centric.

There are two cuts of the film out on Blu-Ray.  The theatrical cut eliminated Rogue entirely with the exception of the film’s final scene, even though they filmed several scenes focused on Rogue.  The second is not a directors cut, it is the Rogue Cut and restores Rogue to the story.  Both versions are good, but it is nice seeing the inclusion of Rogue and the important part she plays.  It also brings things back to the first film and Rogue’s relationship to Wolverine.

The film has continuity issues in regards to the film series.  One being how Patrick Stewart is back…it is a bit more focused on undoing X3 and “fixing a timeline”…which results in questions.  Like First Class, Days of Future Past overcomes a lot of these questions while watching it.  This film feels like the passing of the baton to the new cast (much in the way Star Trek Generations tried to do…but this does it oh so much better). It is, like X2, a film that has a strong identity that is built on strong performances.

Rebirth (X-Men: First Class, 2011)

X-Men-First-Class-PosterAfter the cool reception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine the producers stepped back to determine their next step.  So they went back to the drawing board.  X-Men First Class starts at the beginning with a Young Charles Xavier and Magneto.  It also gives an origin of sorts for Mystique.  Oddly, for a character who mostly served a function of henchman for Magneto in the original series, the latest set of films are heavily focused on Mystique as a tortured soul torn between Professor X and Magneto.  One of the interesting things that happened as the film came together was the return of Matthew Vaughn as a director.  He dropped out of X3 for family reasons.  Returning for First Class was a good move.

While the first trilogy gave no hint that Prof X and Mystique know each other, but early in the film we see them not only meet, but young Charles Xavier takes her in to live with him in his giant mansion.  But the film opens with a faithful recreation of the first X-Men film’s opening.  Young Magneto is brought into a concentration camp where he is seen as a great weapon by Nazi Officer Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  It is pretty clear that the X-Men Origins Magneto film morphed into this one and we get a well constructed scene where a grown up Magneto (now played by Michael Fassbender) finds two retired Nazis in a bar and torments them for information.  We return to Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) with a full head of hair and Raven (Mystique, now played by Jennifer Lawrence).  Xavier is recruited by the government for help regarding Sebastian Shaw, who has not aged a day.  He is trying to play governments against each other in the midst of the cold war.  The world does not know mutants are out there, but the government does and they want them.  This help brings Professor X and Magneto together when Magneto tried to take down Shaw, messing up the sting.

They start working with CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and A Man in a Suit (Oliver Platt) to locate new mutants.  The entire time, Magneto struggles with his desire for revenge against Shaw.  Raven finds herself drawn to Magneto’s pride as a mutant.  Meanwhile, Shaw and his henchmen (Including Emma Frost, inexplicably a grown woman in a film set years earlier than X-Men Origins Wolverine) are working to incite nuclear war (the film is really set around the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Overall, First Class is fun, exciting and compelling.  Magneto: Nazi Hunter is a great introduction.  The collection of characters is an intriguing mix from the X-Men comics.  You have longstanding members like Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Havok (Lucas Till) and newer characters such as Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi).  The film is extremely well cast and is filled with strong performances.  There is a lone exception.  January Jones once claimed her ex Ashton Kutcher told her she cannot act.  I am inclined to agree.  Her Emma Frost is dull and lifeless.  Emma Frost is a character who should be intensely arrogant and cold.  And here she feels entirely inconsequential.

While the original films irked people with the leather outfits, this film pays homage to the early costumes, with black and yellow color schemes.  This is one of the strongest films in the franchise, full of life and character.  There is much to admire and enjoy with First Class.

There are some slipups in the choices they make, such as the film kills some characters with great potential for the old “See How Great the Danger Is?”  It also just happens to be one of the few minority characters in the story.

And yet, it starts some continuity cracks.  First Class is going back to the beginning, not pretending the first three films never happened.  Moira McTaggert is a scientist in the third film, played by Olivia Williams.  First class has the same character in another job altogether decades earlier.  They use characters without concern for whether they appeared in the previous films with entirely different incarnations.  Jubilee appeared in the third film ad then in Apocalypse.  Apparently never aging.  The quality of the film overcomes these issues, but it starts a series of problems.

Temporary Apocalypse (X-Men: Apocalypse, 2016)

X-Men-Apocalypse-IMAX-posterThere is a scene in X-Men Apocalypse where, as a group of students are leaving Return of the Jedi, Jean Grey states “But we can all agree the third movie is always the worst.”  It is a pretty clear shot at X-Men: The Last Stand.  That was the movie Apocalypse Director Bryan Singer skipped and is pretty widely seen as a disappointment after X2.  Except, whether they realized it or not, the joke is kind of a jinx.

See, X-Men: First Class and X-Men:Days of Future Past?  They were quite good.  They are entertaining and filled with terrific performances and nice use of characters from the vast history of the X-Men Comics.  After the Last stand and the damage done by X-Men Origins: Wolverine the series went back to the beginning.  Introducing us to Young Charles Xavier and Magneto.  McAvoy and Fassbender brought characters we knew as aging leaders to young men trying to make the world a better play, but always coming to odds with how to do that.  Then, in Days of Futures Past, they brought the past and future together, to try and fix the timeline, fixing the flaws of Last Stand and Wolverine.

And this brings us to X-Men Apocalypse.  I was looking forward to it, as it was most of the team that brought us the last two installments.  Yet again, the central focus is the relationship between Xavier (McAvoy), Magneto (Fassbender) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).  Beast (Nicholas Hoult) retuns, as does Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne).  We are also introduced to a younger Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Jubilee (Lana Condor).  Of course, smartly, the film brings back Evan Peters as Quicksilver…and he steals the show a lot…again.

First, the good.  Again, as I said, Quicksilver is just fantastic.  Yeah, he is not really like his counterpart from the comics.  In the comics, he is arrogant, impatient and snippy. This is explained in the comics by Quicksilver essentially seeing life as being a continuous wait at the DMV, at least when he has to move at the rest of the worlds pace.  Evans approach is more of a lighthearted goofball who enjoys and savors his speed.  And it really works.

The performers are good choices.  I like that they kept the faith element for Nightcrawler.  I know his creator never cared for that addition…but I always liked the combo of swashbuckler swordsman Christian who happens to look like a demon.  Setting young Storm in Cairo was a nice touch, acknowledging her history from the comics.  There are a lot of great visuals. And yet…

The story is just a mess.  There is so much going on, so many introductions, characters get lost.  Jubliee, who was a pretty big character in the comics for over a decade is barely a side character.  We never even see her mutant powers in action.   Angel is just a random passerby in the film, for all intents and purposes.  Both he and Psylock (Olivia Munn) get precious little to do and zero character development.  The film routinely feels like it is advertising “There will be a deleted scene on the blu-ray fans!” as it transitions from moment to moment.  Maybe those deleted scenes will make Apocalypse feel threatening.  When some of us expressed concern about the pictures of Apocalypse on Entertainment Weekly’s cover last year, we were told to not assume this was the final look, they will Fix It In Post, so to speak.They did not.  Or at least not enough.  In spite of hiring a terrific actor (Oscar Isaac), Apocalypse just never feels as frightening as the film keeps telling us he is.

And it is clear the film is going for epic.  But it just never feels that way…because the film takes forever to get through it’s big dramatic moments.  There is a sequence that is supposed to be the big Jean Grey moment.  She walks dramatically into battle towards Apocalypse.  There is a standoff going on the mental plane involving the psychic characters…and the film spends a ridiculous amount of time on dramatic shots of Jean Grey walking.  And walking.  And walking.  Instead of being thrilled by a big moment, I was just wanting them to get to the moment.

And there is a dramatic image from the trailers…that turns out to be the filmmakers taking a cue from Superman IV: the Quest for Peace.  The film just shambles along from scene to scene, never feeling coherent or particularly great.  And after the last two films?  A pretty big disappointment.  I mean, it is okay, but it was a real drop after the last two films.  And Deadpool.  It is okay for an X-Men movie means it might be slightly better than the Last Stand.

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