Film Review: “Ophelia”

  • OPHELIA
  • Starring: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts
  • Directed by: Claire McCarthy
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Running Time: 1 hr 54 mind
  • IFC 

There is nothing more spectacular, and scary than taking an epic work of theater, by Shakespeare no less, and turning it on its head by retelling it from a different perspective. This is the case with “Ophelia,” the doomed love interest of the equally doomed Danish prince, Hamlet. With a more modernesque musical score and friendly dialogue that lacks the thous and thees you would expect from Shakespeare, director Claire McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) takes us on a journey with an unexpected destination. 

As she floats with an eternal peace across face, our heroine Ophelia asks us in a voiceover if we know her story. Tired of no one knowing who she is, Ophelia tells us it is time we finally understand her. As such, she takes us back to when she was a dirty faced, rebellious little girl in Elsinore Castle who draws the fateful attention of Danish Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). Turned into a lady-in-waiting, a grownup Ophelia (Daisy Ridley, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) enjoys the queen’s favor, but she is hen pecked mercilessly by the other ladies who all hold the distinction of being noble by birth. 

When Prince Hamlet (George MacKay, ’Where Hands Touch”) returns from school as a man, he is instantly smitten with Ophelia. However, “Ophelia” is still a Shakespearean tale despite the rewrite and the budding romance is complicated by the sudden death of King Hamlet and the subsequent quick marriage of Queen Gertrude and suspect number one, the deceased king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen) who ascends to Denmark’s throne. It proves to be too much for Prince Hamlet to bear and his wits begin to deteriorate. 

At the same time, Prince Hamlet becomes obsessed with Ophelia and the idea of marrying her, which comes to fruition but in secret. Secrets though are no stranger to her, who learns many from the witch Mechtild (Watts), Gertrude’s sister. Claudius comes to view Ophelia as dangerous while Prince Hamlet falls deeper into madness. And while it’s to be expected for people to die in droves, this enjoyable retelling of Shakespeare contains some delightful twists that makes it fresh and surprising. 

Based upon the 2008 novel of the same name by American author Lisa Klein (“Lady Macbeth’s Daughter”), “Ophelia” is a breath of fresh air. It’s daring. It’s imaginative. It doesn’t require Ridley to hold a light saber as she is given a chance to shine on the screen. While the depth of her emotional output is found wanting, she more than holds her own against a terrific dual performance by Watts. Owen is adequate as the diabolical Claudius and MacKay is just wide-eyed and stammers a lot with spittle spewing from his mouth. 

In the end, “Ophelia” is a definite must-see for anyone who loves Shakespeare or good theater in general.

The Filmmakers of YESTERDAY

Yesterday…or rather just about a month ago Danny Boyle’s new romantic comedy called Yesterday hit the red carpet as the closing night film of the Tribeca Film Festival. Written by romcom guru Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral), the film follows Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) a struggling musician who wakes up one day in a world where the Beatles never existed. In this situation, Jack takes the music world by storm reintroducing classics like “Yesterday”, “Let it Be” and “Hey Jude”.

I got to speak with the talented filmmakers at their premiere about the impact the Beatles had in their own lives and shooting some epic concert scenes.

“Just think how often life has been sort of softened and sweetened by [The Beatles]” – Richard Curtis

Lauren Damon: Soundtracks are so integral to your movies, does it pain you to imagine the world without the Beatles?

Screenwriter Richard Curtis: I think it would be worse! I mean certainly my life would have been worse. You just think how often life has been sort of softened and sweetened by them. When I was living here in America, I was terribly aware of how often you heard Frank Sinatra and I was thinking, ‘God, wouldn’t all these shoe shops be worse without Frank Sinatra to make it less painful?

LD: For the concept of this film did you ever consider other bands being gone?

Curtis: No. No and it’s interesting, is there another band? And I don’t know that there is. A lot of this movie came about was because every time I would go to see my kids’ school plays they would always end with a Beatles song. You know, William the Conqueror would hold King Harold’s hand and they would both sing “We Can Work it Out.” Or you do something about the environment and they sing “Here Comes the Sun.” So I do think at the moment that the Beatles are the most comprehensive band of all.

LD: Did you get to speak to Paul or Ringo about this concept?

Curtis: Well they know about it now. I wrote to Paul asking him if it would be okay to call it “Yesterday” And he wrote back and suggested we call it “Scrambled Eggs” which was the original name of “Yesterday” And he said ‘I think that would be the better title, but if you haven’t got the courage to call it “Scrambled Eggs”, then I don’t mind you calling it “Yesterday”

Film Composer Daniel Pemberton

Film Composer, Daniel Pemberton: Paul and Ringo were very aware of the film. But with this we took a step back because the thing is in this world the Beatles don’t exist…And we kept having to say ‘the Beatles do not exist in this film’ so you have to pretend Paul and Ringo don’t exist.

LD: When you’re starting with a film that’s based around The Beatles when you go in to compose for it, do you draw strains for them? Or is it from scratch?

Pemberton: Yeah, the score element of this film has been massively influenced by the Beatles. So that’s everything from–I tried to approach the score in a way where we would use the sort of sonic landscape the Beatles created. So that would be everything from the instruments, like the mellotron…We actually used some of the actual instruments that the Beatles recorded on. So we recorded at Abbey Road all the score. And so we used things like the Mrs. Mills piano–the piano from “Lady Madonna”. And those are the actual pianos they used on the recordings. We’d also use a similar kind of bass guitars that Paul McCartney plays. We used the same mixing desks and the same recording techniques. But then we tried to write a different score that wasn’t just a pastiche of the Beatles but just had the elements of their work. Almost as if the Beatles had scored this movie, what would it sound like?

Himesh Patel (“Jack Malik”)

Lauren Damon: What was your casting process like to go from tv into this big lead in front of thousands of extras?

Himesh Patel (“Jack”): I mean the casting was kind of just like anything else to be honest. I just got a breakdown and then I did the self-tape and then I met Danny [Boyle] and Richard. And then I met Danny again and then waited a long time and then I got a call.

LD: Do you have a singing background?

Patel: Not in any sort of professional way, no. I did a little bit on the stage in a play I did a couple of years ago. And I’d some, you know, for myself, youth theater and that kind of thing but nothing like this.

LD: What was it like recreating songs like this? Such important and monumental songs?

Patel: It was thrilling, you know but also a little bit nerve-wracking. The people I was working with, the people we got on board with were really great and so I never felt the pressure of what we were doing. And we had a little bit of leeway because narratively the songs don’t exist. So we could make them our own.

LD: Do you have a favorite?

Patel: A favorite…I mean, one of the ones I love singing was “Long and Winding Road.” I think it’s a really beautiful song…and where it sits in the movie is so beautiful too.

Yesterday is out this weekend in theaters

Film Review: “Spider-Man: Far From Home”

Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson and Zendaya
Directed by: Jon Watts
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 129 minutes
Sony Pictures Releasing

If you haven’t yet watched “Avengers: Endgame,” then there’s a couple of things I’d like to say. 1. How have you not? 2. Why are you reading this if you haven’t? 3. You know there will be spoilers abound in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” for “Endgame,” if you haven’t watched it yet, right? Now, while my review will not have any spoilers, because Marvel fans are becoming incredibly irate about the slightest drip of a reveal and I generally find it to be disingenuous to do so in a review, I think it’s important for those who haven’t seen “Endgame” to know that they’ve been warned.

Seemingly weeks, maybe even days, after the events of “Endgame,” “Far From Home” wastes no time getting us up-to-date on what’s going on in the world of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland). As comically explained in a high school TV news update, the Thanos snap threw a curveball and some students are now towering over the other students because of the five-year gap. Meanwhile, there are fresh reminders that the world continues to mourn the loss of Tony Stark/Iron Man, and immortalize him in whatever way they can. However, the movie isn’t too clear on where we’re at chronologically within this world or Peter’s world, but who cares? He’s going on a European trip, hitting the proverbial FU button on his phone when Nick Fury (Jackson) calls, and trying to get in good with MJ (Zendaya).

“Far From Home” may have actually worked infinitely better as a high school comedy, as opposed to a superhero movie. That’s because the villain(s) of this movie aren’t that interesting, nor is there a lot of peril when Peter has to quickly throw on the Spider-Man suit and save the day. The movie works a lot better when Peter and his classmates are goofing around in Italy, Austria, or whatever European country they find themselves in. The movie makes this odd choice of trying to convince us, as well as S.H.I.E.L.D., that Peter is the savior of Earth, and to some extent, the next figurehead for hope like Iron Man was. That’s hammered home a lot, even though the film repeatedly shows us that Peter is too young or inept at being a hero, sometimes to cataclysmic effect.

I did have some fun here and there, warming up to the characters like a fire in a snowstorm, but there’s too many boneheaded decisions, and pivots in tone and direction. I’m also not entirely sold on the relationship between Peter and MJ, mainly because the movie seems to just assume that we already know why they like one another and why they should be together. It’s almost like “Far From Home” suffers from being sandwiched between the most climactic finish to a series of films and the beginning of a new cinematic phase. That really puts the teenager superhero, and the filmmakers, in precarious situation. It’s also quite possible that superhero fatigue is setting in after the “Endgame” sugar rush.

“Far From Home” is a fun epilogue to “Endgame,” but it isn’t strong enough to stand on its own merits. Thankfully this movie doesn’t hit the lows of other Marvel sequels, like “Iron Man 2” or “Thor 2,” thanks to the charm of its lead, Holland, and his pairing with Jake Gyllenhaal who, as per usual, gives it his all. I didn’t love it as much as “Homecoming” and I probably won’t rewatch it as much as “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Infinity War,” but it’s passable enough that you’ll leave with a smile, although it’ll fade by the time Marvel churns out another one of these.

Film Review: “Yesterday”

YESTERDAY

  • Starring:  Hirish Patel, Lily James and Ed Sheeran
  • Directed by:  Danny Boyle
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 56 mins
  • Universal

Dear Readers – If you would please indulge me:

AN OPEN LETTER TO RICHARD CURTIS – Sir, in the trailer for your 2003 film “Love Actually,” you include a scene of Andrew Lincoln holding up a card to Kiera Knightley which reads HELLO FATSO.  This scene is NOT in the film.  What did that mean?  I know her character liked sweets.  Did her husband complain she was getting a fat arse???  If Richard Curtis is reading this, or if anyone knows the answer, please reply to me via this website.  Thank you.  We now return to your scheduled review.

I’m 58 years old.  I grew up with the Beatles.  The very first record I ever purchased was “Hello/Goodbye.”   I wept when John Lennon died.  So to imagine a world where the Beatles and their music never existed would be horrible to me.  But it works out well for Jack Malik (Patel) an aspiring musician who, despite having some talent, cannot make it into the music business.  After a disappointing gig he announces to his manager Ellie (James) that he’s hanging up the guitar and going back to teaching.  Unable to talk him out of it, Ellie watches as Jack pedals his bicycle into the night.  However, soon their lives will change forever.

Directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), “Yesterday” is a lot like the Beatles songs that fill the soundtrack – an emotional rollercoaster.  After an accident with a bus, Jack gets out of the hospital to discover that things are different.  When he asks for a Coke he is given quizzical looks.  When he plays the song “Yesterday” to Ellie and her friends, they are amazed by the song, asking him when he wrote it.  He tells them that it was a song by the Beatles, but only gets blank stares.  When he Googles “the Beatles” on the Internet, he is directed to the bugs.  Curious, he tries other bands and is relieved that the Rolling Stones are still around.  He is even more relieved when he learns that the band Oasis isn’t.  Realizing the situation, he begins performing Beatles songs and soon catches the ear of musician Ed Sheeran, who challenges Jack to a spontaneous song writing contest.  10 minutes later, Sheeran delivers a sweet song about love.  Jack counters with “The Long and Winding Road.”  Boom!  Mic drop!

Patel is very strong as Jack.  He has a pleasant enough voice and, when he sings from the Beatles catalog, he isn’t just covering the songs, he invests an emotional weight into them, as if he HAD written them.  When he performs “Help” in front of a huge crowd, he’s literally begging for someone to help him get off of the rollercoaster he has found himself on.  James and Sheeran are also quite good, with Sheeran having fun at his own expense, even going so far as to suggest that Jack rename “Hey Jude” as “Hey Dude,” which apparently he finds cooler.

The film also packs an emotion punch with a scene that had many in the audience, myself including, tearing up.  Boyle’s direction is brisk and screenwriter Curtis is at the top of his game.  And you can never go wrong with a soundtrack consisting of 17 of the Beatles’ greatest songs.  As John Lennon sang in Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, “a splendid time is guaranteed for all!”

“Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” Limited Edition 50th Anniversary Mystery Mansion – Available September 3, 2019

SCOOBY-DOO, WHERE ARE YOU!:THE LIMITED EDITION 50TH ANNIVERSARY MYSTERY MANSION RELEASED BY WARNER BROS. HOME ENTERTAINMENT SEPTEMBER 3, 2019 FEATURES ALL EPISODES OF THE ICONIC SCOOBY-DOO WHERE ARE YOU! SERIES ON BLU-RAY FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER!

Four-Disc Collection Includes 41 Episodes Packaged in a Limited Edition Collectible Mystery Mansion Giftset that Features Enhanced Content Plus Unique Memorabilia Including an Exclusive Scooby-Doo Funko Keychain and A Mini Scooby-Doo Encyclopedia!

BURBANK, CA (June 25, 2019) – Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (WBHE) salutes that lovable Great Dane, Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Inc. gang with the release of Scooby-Doo, Where are You!: The Complete Series Limited Edition 50th Anniversary Mystery MansionAvailable in stores on September 3, 2019, this release is packaged in an eye-catching, limited edition collectible mystery mansion giftset that includes all 41 episodes of the original series, Scooby-Doo! Where are You!, released on Blu-ray™ for the first time, as well as a Digital Copy of the series. This must-own box set has some fun extras. The set contains all-new HD content and Scooby-Doo collectibles including an exclusive Scooby-Doo Funko keychain, and a mini Scooby-Doo Encyclopedia. Scooby-Doo, Where are You!: The Complete Series Limited Edition 50th Anniversary Mystery Mansion will retail for $89.99 SRP.                   

 For 50 years, the Mystery Inc. gang has entertained Scooby-Doo fans with zany hijinks, action-packed adventures and engaging mysteries that have captivated viewers of all ages. What started as a Saturday morning cartoon, exploded into an enormously successful franchise encompassing multiple spin-off series, original animated and live action films, consumer products and much more. Now fans have the opportunity to enjoy the original series which launched Scooby-Doo into worldwide stardom. Scooby-Doo follows the adventures of four teens, Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and his lovable, but cowardly Great Dane, Scooby-Doo, as they travel far and wide in their stylish van, the Mystery Machine, to solve mysteries involving ghosts, monsters and other supernatural forces. Their entertaining adventures are always filled with hilarious hijinks and sometimes even catchy musical moments. Through teamwork and clever investigation, the teen sleuths solve case after case, while unmasking the villains who are usually behind each of the mysteries they encounter.  “We are thrilled to celebrate the golden anniversary of Scooby-Doo, with the release of this gorgeous, limited edition, collectible set,” said Mary Ellen Thomas, Vice President Family & Animation Marketing. She added, “The original Scooby-Doo! Where are You! series is an iconic cartoon that has captivated audiences for generations. We are delighted to release the series on Blu-ray™ for the first time ever. Scooby-Doo fans and collectors won’t want to miss the chance to own this unique, classic animation collectible.” Brand-new Bonus Content:

  • My Life with Scooby – Frank Welker’s Animated Journey (Featurette):
    Frank Welker is the only voice actor to work on Scooby-Doo in its many incarnations, since the very first series debuted in 1969. Welker has been the voice of Freddy since the beginning and has provided the voice of Scooby-Doo since 2002. My Life with Scooby is a personal look at the seminal voice actor’s five-decade body of work on Scooby-Doo, complete with personal stories and fun memories from the recording booth.
  • A Scooby-Doo for Everyone (Featurette):
    The iconic look and feel of the original Scooby-Doo cartoon is a beloved classic… and within 50 years of animated adventures, WB Animation has created a host of different versions of the series for each new generation.  From the kid-friendly approach of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo to the envisioned look of Be Cool Scooby-Doo, WB Animation has consistently reimagined the characters in fun and exciting ways over five decades.  Interviews with the animators behind the many different Scooby-Doo versions, reveal the compelling creative process.
  • 50 Years of Scooby Snacks (Featurette):
    A narrated history of the cultural impact of everyone’s favorite mystery-solving gang over the last 50 years.  This fun-filled featurette is brought to life by interviews with creatives and cultural historians, plus clips from the TV series, films, toys lines, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi Scooby-Doo ride, and upcoming animated feature…Scoob.
  • Scooby-Doo and the Lost City of Gold Trailer: 
    A sneak peak of the all-new Scooby-Doo! Live stage production.

Bonus Content (Previously Released):

  • Scooby-Doo’s Ultimate FansHail the Gang’s Followers and Memorabilia Collectors
  • Get the Picture: How to draw Scooby-Doo and the Gang.
  • Funky Fashion
  • America Loves Scooby-Doo: Music Video
  • Scooby-Doo Street Smarts: Favorite cases of Scooby-Doo Fans
  • Take the Scooby-Doo Challenge
  • Hanna-Barbera: From H to B: Uncover how the studio’s artists and animators collaborate internally and connect with fans externally.
  • Scooby-Doo The Whole World Loves You!: It’s a fun-filled exploration of the world’s on-going love affair with all things Scooby-Doo.  With interviews with actors, writers, and directors of various Scooby-Doo TV series and movies from the last 50 years.
  • The Eerie Mystery of the Scooby-Doo HistoryThis featurette talks about the beginnings of Scooby-Doo and how the show came to exist from the point of view of the executives and creative team behind the show.
  • The Scooby-Doo Gang: In Their Own Words: This featurette talks about the original voice cast of Scooby-Doo and how they originated the characters’ distinctive voices.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!:The Complete Series Limited Edition 50th Anniversary Mystery Mansion Featured Episodes

1.What a Night for a Knight
2.A Clue for Scooby-Doo
3.Hassle in the Castle
4.Mine Your Own Business
5.Decoy for a Dognapper
6.What the Hex is Going On?
7.Never Ape and Ape Man
8.Foul Play in Funland
9.The Backstage Rage
10.Bedlam in the Big Top
11.A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts
12.Scooby-Doo and a Mummy, Too
13.Which Witch is Which?
14.Go Away Ghost Ship
15.Spooky Space Kook “That crazy spaceman, yeah!”
16.A Night of Fright Is No Delight
17.That’s Snow Ghost
18.Nowhere to Hyde
19.Mystery Mask Mix-Up
20.Scooby’s Night with a Frozen Fright
21.Jeepers, It’s the Creeper
22.Haunted House Hang-Up
23.A Tiki Scare Is No Fair
24.Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Werewolf?
25.Don’t Fool with a Phantom
26.Watch Out! The Willawaw!
27.To Switch a Witch
28.A Creepy Tangle in the Bermuda Triangle
29.The Creepy Case of Old Iron Face
30.A Highlight Fling with a Monstrous Thing
31.A Scary Night With a Snow Beast Fright
32.The Tar Monster
33.Jeepers, It’s the Jaguaro
34.The Creepy Creature of Vulture’s Claw
35.Who Was That Cat Creature I Saw You With Last Night? (a.k.a. Make A Beeline Away From That Feline)
36.The Diabolical Disc Demon
37.Scooby’s Chinese Fortune Kooky Caper
38.A Menace in Venice
39.Don’t Go Near the Fortress of Fear
40.The Beast is Awake in Bottomless Lake
41.The Warlock of Wimbledon

Digital – Scooby-Doo, Where are You!: The Complete Series is now available to own on digital. Digital ownership allows consumers to instantly stream and download all episodes to watch anywhere and anytime on their favorite devices.  Digital movies and TV shows are available from various digital retailers including iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and others.  

The Credits – About Warner Bros. Animation Warner Bros. Animation (WBA) is one of the leading producers of animation in the entertainment industry, producing and developing projects for multiple platforms, both domestically and internationally. WBA’s TV series include Teen Titans Go!, Unikitty!, DC Super Hero Girls and the upcoming ThunderCats Roar for Cartoon Network; Bunnicula, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, The Tom and Jerry ShowNew Looney Tunes, Wacky Races and the upcoming Scooby-Doo! and Guess Who? and Yabba Dabba Dinosaurs for Boomerang; Mike Tyson Mysteries for Adult Swim; Green Eggs and Ham for Netflix; Harley Quinn and Young Justice: Outsiders for DC UNIVERSE; Animaniacs for Hulu; and the upcoming Looney Tunes Cartoons content initiative. Theatrically, WBA’s full-length film, Teen Titans GO! to the Movies, released in summer 2018. As home to the iconic animated characters from the DC, Hanna-Barbera, MGM and Looney Tunes libraries, WBA also produces highly successful animated films — including the DC Universe Animated Original Movies — for DVD, Blu-ray® and digital media. One of the most-honored animation studios in history, WBA has won six Academy Awards®, 35 Emmy® Awards, the George Foster Peabody Award, an Environmental Media Award, a Parents’ Choice Award, the HUMANITAS Prize, two Prism Awards and 20 Annie Awards (honoring excellence in animation). 

About Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Inc.Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (WBHE) brings together Warner Bros. Entertainment’s home video, digital distribution and interactive entertainment businesses in order to maximize current and next-generation distribution scenarios. An industry leader since its inception, WBHE oversees the global distribution of content through packaged goods (Blu-ray Disc™ and DVD) and digital media in the form of electronic sell-through and video-on-demand via cable, satellite, online and mobile channels, and is a significant developer and publisher for console and online video game titles worldwide. WBHE distributes its product through third party retail partners and licensees.

Film Review: “Loopers: the Caddie’s Long Walk”

  • LOOPERS: THE CADDIE’S LONG WALK
  • Narrated by: Bill Murray
  • Directed by: Jason Baffa
  • Rated: PG
  • Running time: 1 hr 16 mins
  • Gravitas Ventures

One of my many jobs as a teenager in Tampa involved getting up early on Saturdays and walking the few blocks to the Palma Ceia Country Club. The earlier the better. There those of us that assembled would hang out around the clubhouse and ask arriving golfers if we could carry their bags. On a good morning, you could end up with $10 (including tip) for four hours work. That’s right, I’ll admit it. I was a looper.

Full of interesting golf history and some fun interviews, “Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk” is an interesting take on what was once seen as a menial job that has blossomed into a handsome way to make a living for some. The film looks at golf, and it’s caddies, in both Scotland (the birthplace of the game) and here in the states. We visit the world famous St. Andrews course, founded in 1552! That’s right, golf has been around for over 400-years. The history of the caddie is also explored, running from the three basic caddie rules (Show Up, Keep Up, Shut Up) to the origins of the name looper (a round of 18 holes was called a loop). We also get a glimpse at some of the more famous caddies to ever carry a bag, including the caddies that worked at Augusta National, home of the Masters. I found it ironic that these young men were so vital to a golfer’s success, yet theirs were the only black faces on the course until Lee Elder played there in 1975 (blacks were not allowed to join the club until 1991).

A particularly poignant sequence examines the relationship between golfer and caddie. Living as I do in Kansas City, I was happy to see local boy made good Tom Watson talk about the two-plus decades he spent with his caddie, Bruce Edwards. The men remained friends until Edwards passed away in 2004 from ALS. We also meet other well known caddies, like Steve Williams (Tiger Woods’ ex-caddie) and Carl Jackson, who caddied for Ben Crenshaw in almost 40 tournaments in their partnership.

The film is narrated by former looper Bill Murray, who immortalized the caddie as Carl Spackler in “Caddyshack.” Murray relates some of his own experiences as well as narrates, lending his particular sense of humor to the film.

With the beginning of summer upon us, before you head out to the course give “Loopers” a look. And watch out for those kids hanging out in front of the clubhouse!

Film Review: “Toy Story 4”

Starring the Voices of: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Annie Potts
Directed by: Josh Cooley
Rated: G
Running Time: 100 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Since 1999, audiences have asked three times, “Do we really need another one of these?” And every time, Pixar responds with, “Yes,” and audiences have overwhelmingly agreed. It’s astonishing that that same animation studio has struggled to justify other sequels, yet has had no problem continuing the adventures of Woody (Hanks), Buzz (Allen) and the other toys we’ve come to love over the past 24 years. So I almost have to wonder, is it really time to say goodbye?

If you haven’t been keeping up-to-date with these movies, the toys are no longer with their kid, Andy. They were left in the care of Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) and she’s now off to Kindergarten. Woody, wanting to ensure that his new kid is happy despite the scary change, tags along for her first trip to school, only to watch Bonnie struggle with making friends. So with some unforeseen help from Woody, Bonnie creates a new companion/toy, called Forky (Tony Hale). The fork, with crudely created feet and arms, creates a lot of existential questions for the toys, and audience. Forky doesn’t see his purpose as a toy, actually knowing that his purpose is to be a utensil and to be tossed in the trash. He believes in that mantra so much, that he abandons Bonnie during a family trip, leaving Woody to have to go after him.

In a lot of ways, “Toy Story 4” is a road trip movie where Woody and Buzz inherently grow up. Along the way, Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (Potts), one of the secondary characters from the first two films, but unexplainably missing from the previous film. In this one, we’re shown why Bo Peep is absent from that third film and just how important she is to Woody. So much so, that when she reunites with Woody, that’s when things come-to-a-head for Woody, who just isn’t quite as happy in his new life with Bonnie as he was with Andy.

Thankfully it isn’t just Woody who’s having an identity crisis. A lot of the toys in the movie seem to be pondering their own place in this world they don’t quite understand. Woody’s knows all the rules, but may be tired of following them. Buzz may be realizing that the world isn’t as black and white, and that tough decisions come from reflection and listening to that little voice inside your head. It’s astounding that after giving our toys in the previous film, a fresh restart on bliss, that they find themselves still wondering if there’s more to this world. It’s something that kids can surely latch on to as they grow into the world around them, and for their parents who still ponder a lot of “What ifs?” in their own life and own personal quest for happiness. It’s astonishing that the fourth of any franchise, animated or not, could be this profound.

Another thing that seems to impeccably be a part of Pixar’s storytelling arsenal, is their seemingly effortless nature to establish loveable characters. Like the first three, “Toy Story 4” introduces us to a lot more toys, maybe some of the most memorable ancillary ones of the series. Although this one has the benefit of having a lot more star power, with guest stars like Key and Peele, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, and some brief cameos by the likes of Mel Brooks and Betty White. Those kinds of cameos may give credence to the belief that Pixar is officially done with the franchise.

I would have never guessed back in 1995, as a seven-year-old in theaters, that these plastic toys come to life would make me cry twice later in my life. While a lot of that is because I’ve actually grown up and matured alongside these characters, Pixar’s writers and creators bare their soul and tap into a lot of elements of the human condition in this series. The franchise has managed to create a litany of unique and impactful messages that feel simple enough for kids to understand, but complex enough to resonate throughout one’s adulthood. As much as I was OK with saying goodbye in “Toy Story 3,” especially with where our toys were left, part of me doesn’t want to say goodbye this time because of how Pixar has always given these characters something new and heartfelt to say every time.

Film Review: “The Dead Don’t Die”

  • THE DEAD DON’T DIE
  • Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver
  • Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins
  • Focus Features 

Zombie movies have been a part of the cinema landscape since the 1930s with Victor Halperin’s “White Zombie” in 1932 among the first. George A. Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” is regarded as a cult classic with its depiction of cannibalistic zombies. Since then there have been dozens and dozens of zombie flicks, often of low budget origins, featuring the undead scaring the life out of the living. Director Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson,” “Broken Flowers,” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”) has thrown his hat into the zombie arena with his comical horror/fantasy “The Dead Don’t Die,” which features an all-star cast that’s sure to make anyone alive look twice. While it may have some clever laughs and some dry one-liners that only star Bill Murray can deliver, Jarmusch’s effort is about as mundane as watching Selena Gomez act.

 After responding to a complaint by racist Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) that his chickens are being killed by the disheveled eccentric Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), Centerville police Chief Cliff Robertson (Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) notice something odd is going on. Animals are disappearing, cell phones no longer work, and its daylight way into the night. All of this is blamed on polar fracking, which is denied in news reports by the companies who are doing the fracking. With the poles shifting their positions, it has altered Earth’s rotation, which of course means that the dead begin to rise from their graves.

 The town is littered with other recognizable faces including Danny Glover, Chloe Sevigny, Gomez, and Tilda Swinton as, you might guess it, an off-kilter character. I know it’s shocking, but who else could play a Scottish accented, samurai sword wielding, funeral home director? With so many different faces it only makes sense there are several little side stories as the townspeople struggle to avoid having their intestines eaten. They often fail as they are typically slower than the undead and even slower than the film’s pacing, which is often excruciating to sit through.

 Besides some great interaction between Murray and Driver, who talk in character about Jarmusch’s script and the repetitive-to-the-point-of-annoying theme song by Sturgill Simpson, the only bright spot of entertainment is Swinton’s performance. Otherwise, the plot is looser than someone who has drank a bottle of Metamucil in one setting. Characters vanish and unidentified objects appear for no reason. The acting is bland, punctuated by Gomez who seems to have no idea what she is doing and would have probably been better off just playing herself. Lastly, the nonsense becomes ridiculous when Jarmusch’s script turns political when he has Wait’s character go on socialist, metaphoric ramblings about consumerism, among other things. If I wanted that then I could have stayed at home and watched a documentary on PBS.

Film Review: “I Am Mother”

  • I AM MOTHER
  • Starring: Rose Byrne, Clara Rugaard
  • Directed by: Grant Sputore
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Running Time: 113 minutes
  • Netflix 

With the same gusto that Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark used to declare, “I am Iron Man,” I am hereby announcing that “I Am Mother,” currently on Netflix, is the best work of science fiction to grace the cinema universe since 2014’s bold “Ex Machina.” Brimming with a Stanley Kubrick vibe, “I Am Mother” holds your attention with ferocious vigor from beginning to end without ever skipping a beat. It captures the horrors of artificial intelligence gone wrong, something the late Stephen Hawking warned humanity about, with an engrossing cerebral script, solid acting, and a vision of the future that should make anyone shudder. This film should also make us question what is cinema?

 “I Am Mother,” which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, begins with dark, foreboding music as we are taken to an underground repopulation center. A red counter on the screen tells us that just one day has elapsed since an “extinction event;” that there are 65,000 human embryos being stored here; and that there are no human beings currently alive in the complex. The extinction event is kept a mystery to us, but in the meantime, we watch a solitary droid, known simply as Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne, “X-Men: Apocalypse”), begin the task of restarting humanity by incubating an embryo. When that child eventually asks why it’s the only one, the kind Mother cryptically says that she needs practice to become a good parent.

 Flash forward to 15,867 days after the extinction event to when a teenage girl, Daughter (Clara Rugaard, “Teen Spirit”), is prepping for a test involving moral and ethical conundrums. It’s at this point our suspicions of Mother grow deeper since Daughter is still the only child in the facility, and roughly 40 years have passed since the first embryo was grown into a walking, talking human being. The situation becomes complicated because of Daughter’s own curiosity and the arrival of Woman (Hilary Swank) at the front door. The appearance of Woman, who has been shot, further contradicts Mother who repeatedly warns Daughter that the outside world is unhabitable for humans. Woman, who is less than truthful herself, paints a picture of human annihilation by A.I.-controlled droids.

 A brilliant first feature-length directorial effort by Grant Sputore, “I Am Mother” has influences on it that range from “Terminator” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Ex Machina” itself. There is a great feeling of suspense that builds and builds until it reaches a crescendo that will leave you analyzing what you saw for hours after the final credits leave the TV screen. Rugaard is a joy to watch as she delivers a breakout performance that rivals Alicia Vikander’s in “Ex Machina.” Byrne gives us a new HAL 9000 and Swank is raw and powerful as a lone survivor.

 Despite its greatness, is “I Am Mother” not cinema in the truest sense of the word because it is a Netflix endeavor and did not have, for example, a 3,000-screen release across the United States with an international debut of even more? And if it is classified in the same way as say a new “Terminator” would be, without gracing a silver screen, does that mean it would hypothetically be eligible for an Oscar? “I Am Mother” and others like it are a sign of changing times and perhaps a redefinition of what cinema is.

“Toy Story 4” Summer Road Trip Rolls into Kansas City on June 23rd

 Attention “Toy Story” fans, this announcement is for YOU!

  On Sunday, June 23rd, the “Toy Story 4” Summer Road Trip will be making a stop in the Kansas City area. A “Toy Story 4”-themed RV will roll into Kansas City, featuring photo opportunities for fans, film-themed prizes, carnival games and lots of family-friendly fun.     

Local “Toy Story” fans are invited to take part in the activities. Two film ambassadors will be on hand to share details about fan-favorite characters—Woody, Buzz, Bo Peep—as well as new characters coming to the big screen—Forky, Bunny, Ducky and Duke Caboom, among others—learn more about this all-new adventure.     

The event will be held at the AMC Town Center 20, 11701 Nall Ave. in Leawood, Kansas and will run from 10:00 am through 3:00 pm.

Film Review: “Men In Black: International”

  • MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL
  • Starring:  Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Liam Neeson
  • Directed by:  F. Gary Gray
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 54 mins
  • Columbia

Paris.  Present day.  As a young man prepares to propose to his lady on top of the Eifel Tower they are surprised by the sudden appearance of two mysterious men dressed in black.  They appear curious as to their presence but soon they won’t even remember they were there.  Cue the neurolizer.  FLASH!

An entertaining continuation of the “Men in Black” series, albeit minus Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, “Men In Black: International” introduces us to two new agents – H (Hemsworth) and M (Thompson).  They are assigned to protect a visiting alien dignitary by their superior, High T (Neeson).  However, when things go horribly wrong, they quickly deduce that there is a mole in MIB, one who must be stopped.

I’ve always enjoyed these films.  And I like how they have fun with the time lines.  This time the producers have cast two of the most popular young actors working today and both Hemsworth and Thompson handle their assignments well.  Thompson’s M has dreamed of “What’s out there?” since she was a little girl.  She impresses MIB chief O (Emma Thompson) by doing the impossible – infiltrating MIB headquarters.  This bold move gets her hired – probationary – and her exuberance is felt in the audience.  Hemsworth is the hot-shot H, dealing with emotional issues (his alien girlfriend just dumped him) and slacking off in his job.  They are joined by Pawnie, a six inch chess piece voiced hilariously by Kumall Nanjiani.  The trio team up to save the day, or at least destroy a lot of stuff trying.

Like the other films, the two best things going are the chemistry between the leads and the amazing creature effects.  Seven-time Academy Award winner Rick Baker designed the original trilogy’s creatures and the new group who worked on this film carry on the great tradition.  The direction, with Mr. Gray replacing trilogy director Barry Sonnenfeld, is brisk and keeps the story moving.  If you’ve even wondered “What’s out there?” this film may not have the answers.  But it will give you an enjoyable two hours to contemplate. 

Interview with “Georgie” Producer and Co-writer John Campopiano

When he’s not busy doing his daytime job for the television program “Frontline,” filmmaker John Campopiano allows himself to indulge his love for horror films.  In 2017, Campopiano co-wrote and co-directed the acclaimed documentary “Unearthed and Untold:  The Path to Pet Sematary.”  He just released the short film “Georgie,” which he produced and co-wrote with the film’s director, Ryan /Grulich.  Next up is his next full length documentary, “Pennywise:  The Story of ‘IT’”   While gearing up for his next project, John found some spare time to talk with me about his work, past, present and future.

MIKE SMITH:  Where did you come up with the idea for “Georgie?”

JOHN CAMPOPIANO:  We were in post-production on a documentary about the mini-series “IT.”  We interviewed the cast and crew and one of the cast members, Tony Dakota, who played Georgie Dembrough in the mini-series was one of the last actors to find for an interview.  I found him in the Pacific Northwest.  By this time our production budget was depleted so I was looking for a free-lancer to get this interview with Tony.  I met Ryan Grulich, who is based in Seattle and he shot the interview for us.  One of the questions we had asked Tony was if he would ever want to get back in show business.  He had been a child actor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Besides “IT” he had also been in “Who ‘s Harry Crumb?” with John Candy and had also done some episodes of “McGyver.”  (NOTE:  T.V. fans may also remember Dakota for his eight episode arc as Clavo on the very popular “21 Jump Street”),   He had been out of the spotlight for some time and had stopped acting around 1993.  So when he was asked if he wanted to get back into acting he said “yes” but wasn’t sure how to do it.  He had had a rough upbringing and some personal problems which had kept him away from acting.  But when he expressed an interest a light bulb went off.  I said to Ryan, “what if we wrote a short film for Tony?  It could be a win/win.”  We would write a short film that would allow him to reprise his role as Georgie, which would put some money in his pocket.  And we would give him a positive and creative outlet that could hopefully open some doors for him.  And that’s how “Georgie” started.

MS:  I know from doing the “Jaws 2” book that trying to find actors that haven’t acted in 30 years is not very easy.  Did you have the same problems with some of the lesser known members of the cast?

JC:  Oh yes.  Even though Tony is billed a Tony Dakota, Dakota was not his birth name.  Since he stopped acting he has been living his life under his real last name.  He was almost like a ghost who had vanished from the public eye.  Also, he hadn’t acted in almost a quarter of a century.  It made it challenging for sure. 

Tony Dakota returns as the title character in “Georgie”

MS:  Thank God for the internet!!

JC:  (laughs):  I know, right?

MS:  Ironically, last week on our Podcast we kind of previewed “Georgie” and talked some about the “IT” documentary and my co-host informed me that Stephen King will allow student filmmakers to license any of his works that have not been sold to Hollywood for $1.00 for a student film.  Did you contact him about “Georgie” and, if so, has he seen it?

JC:  I think it’s cool that he does that, especially for somebody who has had his level of success.  We did not approach him about “Georgie” ahead of time.  Obviously we’re dealing with intellectual property that belongs to him and Warner Brothers.  But on the same side of that, we are not monetizing this.  It’s a short film, which really don’t have much of an afterlife in terms of monetization.  We’re giving Georgie a fresh story and kind of a new spin on the character.  We will definitely be sending it to him and hoping he watches it.

MS:  Can you talk a little about the ‘IT” documentary?

JS:  I had done a documentary with Justin White about the film “Pet Sematary” that took us about four and a half years to complete.  That got us a little bit of attention from other filmmakers who were doing similar documentary films…retrospectives about other films.  I’ve been a die-hard “IT” fan, both the book and the mini-series, forever.  Justin was not interested in doing another documentary.  Given the scope of the mini-series I knew it wasn’t something I could do alone.  So I started writing articles as I was interviewing the cast and crew.  A producer in the U.K. named Gary Smart, who runs Dead Mouse Productions, saw the articles and had the idea about doing the documentary about “IT.”  He reached out to me and asked if I wanted to come on-board and co-write it or produce it with him.  That was 2017.  We launched a successful Indiegogo campaign, raised the money and spent three weeks in Los Angeles shooting cast and crew interviews.  Now we’re in the final stages of post-production.  We dropped an extended trailer back in February of this year and it’s done very well.  It received almost 500,000 views on YouTube in the first week.  It was also very serendipitous.  We had announced a street date before the theatrical version of “IT” was released.  People had been talking about remaking “Pet Sematary” and “IT” for years but it wasn’t until the past few years that those projects became reality.  We got very lucky in terms of the timing.  The mini-series was beloved by its fans but the new movie really introduced the story to new generations.  It revitalized the franchise, which worked in our favor.  I think in total we’ve interviewed about forty members of the cast and crew.  It’s going to be a pretty robust documentary that I think people are going to be excited about.  The plan is to release it before the end of 2019. 

MS:  Do you have any projects planned after the documentary is completed?

JC:  I’m working with Gary Smart again on a bio-pic about Robert Englund.  That was Gary’s idea.  He approached me and said he wanted to do a film about Robert’s life and career.  He’s such a legendary character actor.  Not just for the “Nightmare on Elm Street” films but all of the other projects that he’s been a part of.    Gary asked if I wanted to come on board as a producer and I said, “sure.”  We launched an Indiegogo campaign last weekend to help raise funds to make it happen.  The plan is to go out to L.A. later this summer to get the interviews and then get working on that one.  I’m not writing that one, which is nice because it’s less work for me but I’ll be doing a lot of archive research for Gary and helping produce the interviews.  I’m also working with “Georgie” director Ryan Grulich again.  We wrote a new short film based on my story, dealing with something I went through as a kid.  We have a finished script for that.  It’s my attempt at an “Are You Afraid of the Dark” episode or something from “Goosebumps.”  I’ve been interested for a long time in horror movies for kids.  In my opinion I think it’s a sub-genre that we are seeing less and less of.  I feel that the 80s and the 90s were a ripe period for content like that.  I want to make a short film that is spooky and scary and has an original monster in it but one that is geared very much towards a teenage audience.  We’re looking right now for talent to attach to the project and then we’ll raise some funds and hopefully start shooting it next year. 

On a personal note, John and I both had an amazing friend named Lou Pisano.  Lou co-wrote the “Jaws 2” book with me and was really looking forward to the release of “Georgie.”  John told me, “It’s kind of bittersweet.  Lou was so excited about this project.  I think he would have loved it.  The only disappointing thing is that he isn’t here with us to see it.”

To view the extended trailer for “Pennywise:  The Story of ‘IT’” click HERE.

To contribute to the Indiegogo campaign for “ICON: The Robert Englund Story” click HERE.  

Film Review: “GEORGIE”

  • GEORGIE
  • Starring:  Tony Dakota, Meredith Binder
  • Directed by:  Ryan Grulich
  • Not Rated

I’ll admit here that I was very late to the acclaimed and beloved 1990 horror mini-series “IT.”  About 27 years late.  That’s right, I didn’t see it until just before the feature film was released.  No reason really.  Actually there is.  I’m deathly afraid of clowns.  Not sure why.  I don’t have any bad “he touched me” stories to share.  Actually I’ve only had two “run-ins” with clowns, the first being when I was threatened with protests (and worse) should the theatre I was managing at the time show the film “Shakes the Clown,” which these clowns – and I’m not using slang, they WERE clowns – felt was disrespectful to the clown community.  Anyway, I watched it and I loved it.  Loved the film as well.  Hate Pennywise but you know what I’m saying.

Welcome to the town of Derry.  As darkness falls we find ourselves inside a modest house.  Inside a frail woman is finishing a sketch of a young boy.  The flights flicker, then go out.  As she begins lighting candles her hand shake.  To quiet her nerves, she begins to play “Fur Elise” on the piano, but the tune is slow and deliberate…almost like a dirge.  Though the room above her is empty, she hears footsteps.  Georgie?

A short film – about eight minutes in length – “Georgie” is that rare short film that gets its message across loud and clear.  Written by Producer John Campopiano and director Grulich, it is being promoted with the question “What if Georgie returned to Derry?”  For those of you not familiar with the story of “IT,” Georgie is the little boy whose paper boat has the misfortune of going into the storm drain occupied by Pennywise the clown.  Things don’t go well for the youngster.

With only music and atmosphere to propel the story, “Georgie” relies greatly on its two leads.  As the woman of the house, Binder is able to convey her fear in her eyes.  She is unsure of the noises we hear and so are we.  Dakota, who played the young Georgie in the 1990 mini-series, is a blank yet terrifying face, able to express his menace with a wink of an eye or a smile.  Grulich’s direction is top notch and the film is well paced.  Credit also the musical score, animated sequences and visual effects that help create and sustain the atmosphere. 

If you’re a fan of “IT,” horror films in general or just great filmmaking, I urge you to pay “Georgie” a visit.  To view the film, click HERE.

Film Review: “The Secret Life of Pets 2”

  • THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2
  • Starring the voices of: Kevin Hart, Patton Oswalt
  • Directed by:  Chris Renaud, Jonathan del Val
  • Rated:  PG
  • Running time:  1 hr 26 mins
  • Universal

If you are a pet owner, I’m pretty sure you’ve seen, and loved, “The Secret Life of Pets.”  It was uncanny how the creators captured the little idiosyncrasies that had many in the audience, myself including, thinking “that’s exactly what my dog/cat/bird/ferret, etc does.  And that insight carries over into the second chapter in the adventures of Max (Oswalt) and his furry and feathered friends.

Things are going well for Max.  His owner attends to his every need and all is right with the world.  Until the day she meets a gentleman.  Nothing wrong with that.  But as things progress, as they do in life, Max soon finds himself having to deal with a new person in his life…a baby.  At first he is wary of the new arrival, but as the boy grows, they form a bond that, anyone who had a dog as a child will know, can’t be broken.  Which makes Max frantic.  Where he used to enjoy going for walks, he now feels the streets, and the things encountered (steam grates, flocks of pigeons) are hazards for the boy.  This causes him to develop a nervous tic which sadly leads him to be encased in, what both my wife and I (and the film) call the cone of shame.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Snowball the bunny (Hart) is also enjoying life.  His owner likes to dress him up as a superhero and he takes to the idea, proclaiming his prowess to his pet friends.  He is quick to jump – do you see what I did there – into action when he is asked by his Shih Tzu friend Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to help save a tiger being held by a cruel circus worker.  What’s a bunny to do?

Cleverly written and fast paced, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is the ideal early summer film.  The characters and their traits are spot on and the voice actors do their best to inflect some of their own personalities into the characters.  Oswalt, replacing original Max voicer Louis C.K., is well cast.  Of course, he was outstanding as the voice of Renny in “Ratatouille,” so this should come as no surprise.  Hart once again is the frantic Snowball and I’m happy to see he is no longer homicidal (my one big problem with the first film).  Other actors lending their voice include Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Nick Kroll, Ellie Kemper and Pete Holmes.  Even Harrison Ford shows up, marking his animated film debut.  But as great as they all are, the vocal star here is Lake Bell, who seems to inhabit the character of Chloe, a cat like no other and yet like every cat we’ve ever encountered!

My only fault with the film is the same one I had with the first.  Though obviously geared for kids (and the parents that accompany them), there are some scary moments here, including one (thankfully off camera) of the tiger being disciplined with a whip.  There is also a pretty intense pack of wolves that made at least one child near me at the screening hide her face in her mother’s side.  So parents with very young children, be warned.

All in all, though, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is a welcome treat to begin the early days of summer.

Film Review: “Dark Phoenix”

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
Directed by: Simon Kinberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
20th Century Fox

As we all know by now, it only took Disney a measly 11 years to crank out 22 Marvel movies which culminated in the Infinity Stones saga. Fox hasn’t been so quick when it comes to the X-Men franchise, which began back in 2000. If you count the “Deadpool” movies, “Dark Phoenix” is the 12th entry and it feels like the end after a lot of outside and inside factor. The internal factors is that it comes after the R-rated ending to the Wolverine storyline, the jumbling of time in “Days of Future Past” and the peculiar decline in quality since “Days of Future Past.” The key outside factor is the Fox buyout. “Dark Phoenix” isn’t as bad as the attempt by “Last Stand” to tell the Dark Phoenix story, but it doesn’t quite live up to the highs of this beloved franchise.

“Dark Phoenix” begins in uncharted territories, with the X-Men actually being loved by the general public and the U.S. government. That’s because they’re on the President’s speed dial in case a national crisis arises. The latest event that requires the X-Men is NASA losing contact with a spaceship and its crew. The X-Men are called upon to save the astronauts, but it’s while in space that something bizarre happens to Jean Grey (Turner). Jean absorbs a mysterious, electric cosmic cloud during the rescue mission and comes back to Earth volatile, quick to anger and conflicted. The reason lies within Jean’s past, as well as what Professor X (McAvoy) has buried within her mind.

“Dark Phoenix” takes place nearly a decade after “Apocalypse” and makes the assumption that all of the relationships between the characters, established in the original “X-Men” movie and “X-2” will ring true, like Jean Grey’s relationship with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). We’re also supposed to know what’s happened in the newer films with the fresh, young cast, like how Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Professor Xavier are friends and how Magneto (Fassbender) isn’t necessarily the prevailing bad guy anymore. If you’re only acquainted with one branch of the franchise, you’re likely to be confused. Of course if any of the above read like stereo instructions then just go ahead and skip this one.

The villains in this movie are a race of aliens that are so obscure; the comic book fans in attendance at the preview screening didn’t even know who they were. After a little bit of digging, I found that the aliens are called the Shi’ar. Their leader in this movie is played by Jessica Chastain, and the intergalactic race of no names frequently proves to be unreliable narrators, which hurts the overall story whenever they’re given exposition to deliver. Their goal is to channel the cloud energy thing that Jean Grey has absorbed and transfer it into one of their own, or manipulate Jean Grey’s emotions so that she can do their bidding. Their reasoning? You’d probably have a better guess than me, even if you haven’t seen the movie.

For a franchise that’s always had good villains, it’s odd that a powerful race of space aliens looking to destroy the Earth is so uninteresting and toothless. At least Jean Grey, when she’s Dark Phoenix, proves to be an interesting firecracker, made up of equal parts sympathetic and volatile. It’s great watching her shrug off the powers of the most iconic characters in this franchise, like Professor X and Magneto. Speaking of which, Professor X and Magneto continue to be the best superhero duo, whether opposed or working together, on the screen, no matter the pair of actors portraying the two. I actually enjoy what these newer X-Men movies have done with Magneto. Instead of being the fallback for villainy, he seems a lot more focused on a secluded life, away from the noise surrounding him, If anything, Professor X seems more or less to be the instigator of problems as of late.

“Dark Phoenix” suffers a lot from what plagued “Apocalypse,” a weak villain, character motivations that are beneath the actors and their strong performances, and a story that falls within the shadows of the franchise’s superior films. But unlike some of the weakest X-Men films, this one has a lot of great action sequences and sometimes the characters manage to elevate a flimsy scene just with their quips and actions. Quiksilver (Evan Peters) once again steals the scenes he’s in, but is used so sparingly, it makes you wonder why they ever introduced him. “Dark Phoenix” is a middle of the road entry that certainly could have been worse, but definitely deserves to be better, given the pieces that are in place.

Nearly 18 years after the first film, it appears that one of the first superhero franchises is about to disappear or be rebooted. Granted, no one has officially said anything and “Dark Phoenix,” by no means, hints that this is indeed the finale, but some writing is on the wall. Ever since the government gave the thumbs up to Disney absorbing Fox for billions, with Hugh Jackman hanging up the adamantium claws, and the box office receipts coming back smaller and smaller, it appears that the X-Men franchise is starting to run on fumes, creatively and financially. I’m hoping “Dark Phoenix” isn’t the last of these films or the last time we’ll see the dynamic duo of McAvoy and Fassbender, but if this is the last time, they deserved a hell of a lot better.

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