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.

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.

Drive Mad (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015)

poster_fury_road_mad_max_by_cesaria_yohannThe Mad Max franchise went quiet after 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  That film fell a bit short of the Road Warrior, the film that we tend to mostly recall when we think of the Mad Max franchise.  Talk began as far back 2003, back then it was set to star original Max Mel Gibson.

The film struggled through development, eventually announcing Tom Hardy taking over the role.  I was not all that interested, to be honest.  It seems like it was a sequel nobody was interested in getting and that we were all happy to to see it be a remnant of 80’s franchises.

Turns out we were all wrong.  This film is the shot in the arm action franchises needed.  Fury Road is an adrenaline rush.  Director George Miller intended the film to be a massive chase film.  And he achieves that successfully.  The film pushes down the pedal almost right away, and rarely takes a break.

The plot is simple, Max is being a loner and gets dragged into a battle against Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne who was Toe Cutter in the original Mad Max) who is pursuing Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron in a terrific performance).  She has stolen precious cargo from him, and he wants it back.  The cargo is his harem.  These young women do not want to bear children to be fodder for his Warboy Army.

So much stands out, the editing (the film was edited by Miller’s wife Margaret Sixel, who has never edited an action movie before…this was a wise call, as she did a bang up job), the fact that there is almost no digital work with stunts, the grim humor…this is an adrenaline rush of a film.

As with the previous incarnation’s Max inhabits a dark world.  Immortan Joe rules from the citidel, where he keeps all the best for himself, throwing scraps to the people below.  He rules cruelly, while his Warboys live for nothing other than to die for his glory.  He has used a weird viking style religion promising glory to those he smiles upon.

Furiosa wants to rescue the young women Joe keeps to bear him children from this oppressive life.  Furiosa is tough and powerful.  She is a striking character who stands up to the gruff Max, and in turn winning his respect and help.

While the heroes often rely on violence to achieve their ends of getting away from the forces of Immortan Joe, what stands out to me if there is also room for the power of mercy and gentleness to bring about change on an individual level.

Mad Max Fury Road is the best action film I saw all year.  It spends little time on exposition (who are the ghosts that haunt Max?  How long after Thunderdome is this taking place, etc).  The visuals are insanely engaging…I mean…look at this:

doof_guitarYou either think that is the dumbest thing ever, or you love it.  The world is just…, well, bonkers.  Characters have names like Nux, Toast the Knowing and the Splendid Angharad.  I find myself excited for the blu-ray so I can watch it again.  I am curious to see the next film that they give us in Max’s story (Hardy is on for three more films).

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