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.

Film Review: “Glass”

Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 129 minutes
Universal Pictures

What are some of the best non-DC/Marvel superhero films? That’s when folks would throw out movies like “The Crow” or “The Rocketeer.” But what about truly original superhero films, ones not based on comics? That’s when you really get down to the nitty gritty of films that hold their own against CGI-filled blockbusters. Before “Unbreakable,” there was “Darkman” and “The Toxic Avenger.” But unlike the latter, “Unbreakable” has spurred some worthy sequels.

It’s been discussed online for nearly two decades that director M. Night Shyamalan had always intended for “Unbreakable” to inevitably be a trilogy. The question remained even after the release of “Split,” a trilogy about what or who? So does “Glass” fulfill what fans were told, a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy? Or does it pull a Disney and create the possibility of more sequels? Luckily Samuel L. Jackson’s character doesn’t reveal himself to be Nick Fury all along.

Much to the surprise of fans, the throwdown between David Dunn (Willis) and Kevin Crumb as the Beast (McAvoy) happens fairly early on as Dunn is tracking down some kidnapped cheerleaders, the latest in a string other kidnappings and vicious murders in Philadelphia. Police are hot on both their trails though and arrest both before they can spar for too long. Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), is at the scene along with authorities because she wants to study the two for their delusions of grandeur, believing that comic book culture is behind their perceived abilities. Also in custody, and sitting down with Dunn and Crumb for some bizarre group therapy, is Mr. Glass (Jackson). Dr. Staple’s hope is to convince the trio that their super strength and super intelligence isn’t what it seems.

While sometimes clunky, everything that feels out of place or misguided eventually comes together in the third act. When everything is said and done, David Dunn (probably because of the salary Bruce Willis commands), seems to be more of a side character in this film. But it’s also not necessarily about the origins of Mr. Glass. We already got that in “Unbreakable.” The movie does have him play a key role, revealing why the film is inevitably named after him. But a good chunk of story outside the trio’s therapy sessions is Mr. Glass and Crumb’s multiple personalities scheming, talking and acting. It’s in these scenes that audiences are treated to every individual inhabiting David’s head. Acting wise, nothing’s quite as impressive or entertaining as McAvoy’s scenery chewing, but other side characters from the previous films provide some emotional weight as they make their way in throughout the film, building towards the climax.

It feels a little long, and is as the longest film in the trilogy, mainly because Shyamalan unfortunately falls back onto some poor storytelling mechanics that we’ve seen before with some of his weaker films. He tends to over explain plot points by showing and telling the audience what’s happening. It can feel a little condescending since the film is built around the idea that you’ve seen the previous two films and that you should be smarter than the average moviegoer. I would usually chalk it up to a talking head at the studio, but this is something Shyamalan has done in films like “The Happening” or “The Village.” Luckily he doesn’t do it ad nauseam.

“Glass” doesn’t subvert superhero tropes or makes any kind of new critiques of the genre, but it manages to manipulate viewer’s emotions and expectations enough to where everything genuinely feels original. The action is filmed in a way where our imagination, instead of computers, fills the void. Even the simplest things that Dunn or Crumb do, feel grand because of the lives they’re saving and taking. Because they’re not throwing each other into buildings like Superman and General Zod, but instead slowly bending steel or taking their time to punch down metal doors, the story feels more grounded in reality. It helps that every character is morally flawed. The good and evil on display blend together to elicit sympathy and disgust.

“Glass” ends up being the weakest of the three films, but it’s still an entertaining finale. Some might be turned off by how it all ends, but I applaud the bowtie. While most directors would have left the door open, just in case the box office receipts warranted a sequel, Shyamalan promptly wrote “Glass” as a final chapter to this superhero story. It feels complete, without the need to tell us anymore or asking us to sit through another chapter, something most superhero movies these days don’t know how to do.

Film Review: “Atomic Blonde”

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy and John Goodman
Directed By: David Leitch
Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Focus Features

David Leitch’s first solo directed movie comes after the success of his work on the “John Wick” franchise. While a lot of the “Wick” DNA is on display in many of its action sequences, “Atomic Blonde” suffers from a choppy narrative and lack of character intrigue outside of its two leads.

MI6 agent Lorraine (Theron) is first seen, covered in bruises and burning the memories of a former ally. She walks into a soundproof room to give her recorded recollection of her undercover week leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She recounts her tale of infiltrating East Berlin, in search of an allusive watch containing information on every agent deployed during the Cold War. Failing to retrieve that token, may result in another 40 years of nuclear arms muscle flex by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

The premise is alluring as Theron’s character radiates macho gusto and calm precision. She speaks in short, biting simplistic sentences and delivers angered quips under her breath. She’s matched by a Berlin ally, David (McAvoy), who’s underground smuggling and cocky smirk covers his secretive intentions. The two, while relatively friendly, aren’t about to become buddies as they spy and record each other. “Atomic Blonde” should be an interesting blend of spy-thriller and action-survival, but is bogged down by its jumbly plot.

There’s plenty of exposition to munch on, but nothing clear or meaningful. There are dozens of characters brought in and out of the woodwork to offer their allegiances and services, but none bring a unique personality or influence to the script. The exquisite opening for “Atomic Blonde” quickly sinks into uninvolving plot progression that feels like an assigned household chore before the film’s real goodies, the action sequences.

Hand-to-hand combat is filmed tightly, but fully in frame to put the viewer right in the middle of fists, kicks, groans and gunshots. They’re some of the film’s most inspired moments, but they’re shoehorned in towards the end and sparse. The sagging middle cuts between uninteresting character interactions and posturing that only pays off in the final 10 minutes of the movie. It makes the entire storyline a lot clearer; however the bad taste of wasted talent meandering aimlessly doesn’t leave your mouth.

This graphic novel adaptation displays an attractive visual flair along with an 80’s best-of soundtrack that keeps your eyes from wandering to far from the screen although there’s no substance beneath its neon portrait. Despite her best efforts, Theron (who also helped produce the movie) can only carry the film so far. Her mix of femme fatale and impenetrable action star is humbled by a late emotional reveal towards the end, that’s more impactful than it should be. Her recent run of action films, like “Mad Max” and “Fate of the Furious” are commendable. But “Atomic Blonde” is more bark than bite.

Film Review: “Split”

Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Universal Pictures

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is more commonly known as split personality disorder (SPD) or multiple personality disorder (MPD). The 90’s was full of daytime talk shows, like Oprah, talking to people who allegedly suffered from the disorder. The TV appearances didn’t add much credence to the ongoing debate over the diagnosis and legitimacy of the mental illness in the scientific and psychological communities. Instead it provided housewives with fodder and a free-pass for Hollywood to rejuvenate one of their favorite horror/thriller tropes. Now in 2017, the disease is back in “Split,” but not without a ferociously unique bite.

It’d be unfair to say that Kevin (McAvoy) kidnapped three women from a suburban Philadelphia mall. There are nearly two dozen other distinct personalities in his brain that could have done it or plotted to do it. However, just like his victims, we’ll soon find out that Dennis did it, but not without a little help. The trio of girls will also meet Patricia, Hedwig, Barry, and a handful of Kevin’s other internal personalities. The one victim that “Split” will tend to focus on is Casey (Taylor-Joy). Unlike her fellow captives, she isn’t crying or screaming for help. Casey seems to not only have a grasp on the situation, but an understanding of Kevin.

Another person with a deep understanding of Kevin is Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley). She’s talked with Kevin and nearly all of his personalities, but she’s unaware of his latest emotional developments and actions. She doesn’t view Kevin as a freak of nature, but as someone/something more. She believes Kevin’s DID makes him superhuman in nature, with personalities that not only control his mind, but his body, enhancing or crippling some of his physical attributes. That’s why it worries her that there are rumblings of a 24th personality, nicknamed ‘The Beast’. But is it just rumors between Kevin’s personalities or is there truly another personality, which can climb walls and feast on human flesh, lurking inside Kevin’s brain?

There’s more psychological and emotionally scarring at work in “Split” other than the harmful effects of DID. The mental traumas that Kevin and Casey endured previously before the current abduction predicament are revealed and make them more human. The level of empathy for the inherent villain of the movie, Kevin, is nurtured through light-hearted humor, the innocence of some of his personalities, and the one honest moment where the audience finally meets the real Kevin. McAvoy and Taylor-Joy find wordless ways to make their characters sympathetic, simply by letting tears well up in their eyes or flashing various facial tics at the right moment.

“Split” isn’t quite a return to form for Shyamalan, but more of an evolutionary step in his directing and writing. For years he’s been the twist guy that throws in some jump scares for good measure, but he’s dropped a lot of that in “Split,” relying more on atmosphere and the ability of his actors and actresses. But there’s a light joy to his movie, almost understanding that a movie about a man with DID should surely have a few jokes. Although anyone suffering from the disease and anyone without a funny bone in their body from the medical community would say otherwise. That’s not to say “Split” isn’t without its faults.

It runs a little bit too long and sometimes pushes the envelope without any purpose other than to visually or emotionally upset the audience. That may be Shyamalan tinkering with the formula since he is in new territory. “Split” is a restricted thriller, relying more on drawn out suspense and claustrophobic anxiety. “Split” is a slow boiler with enough tension to make you jump at the slightest movement. It also has Shyamalan working with a tragic villain for the first time since “Unbreakable.” If “Split” is Shyamalan’s apology for everything in between “Signs” and “The Visit,” then apology accepted.

Film Review: “X-Men: Apocalypse”

Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 2 hrs 24 mins
20th Century Fox
Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

Review by Mike Smith

They’re back! I’d say “the X-men are back” but, thanks to the whims of Hollywood, that statement doesn’t clarify if it’s the old folks or the kids. Or, as Deadpool asked, “McAvoy or Stewart?” It’s McAvoy and the gang here.

Where better for a film series that dabbles with time lines to begin but ancient Egypt. Here we are witness to a ceremony in which an old ruler will receive a mystical transplant from a virile young man. However, a group of traitorous minions (soldiers, etc, not the guys from the Despicable Me films) betray their leader and, after some impressive special effects, he is sealed inside a giant pyramid for all eternity. Or until 1983.

It’s been ten years since the first Mutant was observed and the world still hasn’t accepted them. At his school for “the gifted” Dr. Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is going about his daily duties while over in Poland the formerly underground Magneto (Fassbender) has just been discovered by the local authorities. Two men with similar lives yet very different outlooks. Throw in the mysterious Mystique (Lawrence) and you have a movie. Kind of.

Full of amazing special effects and horrible destruction, X-men: Apocalypse is, presumably, the last film to feature the Future Past characters. And just in time. With a cast that includes three Oscar-nominees it seems like they may have gotten bored with their roles. All do good work here, but there almost seems to be a look of relief in their eyes that they’re done with the spandex for good. That being said, while the leads are serviceable, the supporting cast has fun with their roles. Among the new faces are Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler and a returning Evan Peters as Quicksilver. And kudos to Oscar Isaac, who makes Apocalypse one nasty mo-fo.

The other drawback is the amount of carnage depicted here. As the various mutants battle each other, the toll taken on the planet is amazingly over the top. The destruction here makes the carnage in Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice look like a small dustup. There is also a particularly brutal scene featuring a familiar face making his eighth X-men appearance. The amount of blood spilled was actually quite disturbing and I can’t help but wonder if this scene was included to judge audience reaction as to how far is too far. It’s not Deadpool violent but it’s a little more mature than you might imagine.

X-Men: Apocalypse opens in the UK on May 18th & the US on May 27th

 

Related Content