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Dark Phoenix (2019)

Dark Phoenix is the end of the X-Men as we know it. The franchise is arguably the reason that Disney bought Fox, to combine its Marvel properties under one creative universe, and hastened its ultimate demise. The franchise kicked off in 2000 when nobody knew what a Hugh Jackman was. Over the course of 19 years we’ve had ten total X-films (the original trilogy, four prequels, three Wolverine solo films — I’m not counting the two Deadpool entries) of varying quality. Dark Phoenix is longtime series writer Simon Kinberg’s debut as a director and was originally intended for a fall 2018 release before it got pushed back for extensive reshoots. There was even some doubt whether Disney would release Dark Phoenix or shunt it to its new streaming service (that’s my prediction for the long-delayed New Mutants, which released its trailer… in 2017). Ultimately this is the final X-Men movie, as we have known them for 19 years, and it’s the equivalent of a mayonnaise sandwich at room temperature: something nobody really wanted and delivered in a package not designed to satisfy.

In 1992, the X-Men are called upon by the president when the government is left with no other options. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) watches over as shape-shifting Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) leads the younger X-kids, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), into space to save some astronauts. A strange cosmic energy cloud zaps Jean Grey and supercharges her telekinetic powers. At first she feels more alive but is losing control and worrying her friends. After a tragic confrontation, she runs off to find Magneto (Michael Fassbender) while a mysterious alien woman (Jessica Chastain) seeks to gain the “phoenix” powers.

Thoroughly mediocre, Dark Phoenix is a pitiful ending to a franchise that kicked off the superhero era of the twenty-first century. This is a pretty sad ending to a franchise that has admittedly had more downs than ups (I’d say four of the ten X-Men movies have genuinely been good, two were fine, and four have been different levels of bad). What’s even more peculiar is this is Kinberg’s second attempt at the Dark Phoenix storyline, arguably the most famous in X-Men comics, and it doesn’t work — again. At least 2006’s The Last Stand had other storylines that presented topics of interest, like the choice over taking a mutant cure and whether this should be a choice after all. The problem with Dark Phoenix is that it’s nothing but Dark Phoenix with little variation but it doesn’t ever expand on the Dark Phoenix dilemma. Act Two of the film seems to consist of the same scene on repeat, where Jean Grey complains about her power struggles to some character, warns them, doesn’t want to harm people, and then something bad happens and more characters elect to try and murder her. It’s like watching the same TV show recycle the same plot but just changing the characters. It makes for a saggy mid section that loses momentum and cannot regain it. The last act feels like a different movie because… it is. Thanks to late reshoots, the final act is a series of clashes aboard a military train. There are some fun moments of mutant-power action, especially Magneto and Nightcrawler. It doesn’t make much sense to what came before (when questioned why Magneto is trying to save Jean after literally trying to kill her ten minutes earlier, he says, “I had a change of heart”) but the sequence is at least diverting and visually playful in a way the rest of the movie had been missing. By the end of the film, much of it feels rushed and little feels earned, especially the time you’ve spent watching it.

I’m going to declare that the villains in Dark Phoenix are actually the worst in the entire universe of X-Men movies. They’re aliens adopting human form and they talk… so… slowly… and in unshakable monotone. They’re an alien species that wants the powers of the super space cloud. That’s it. That’s all you get. I have no idea what attracted Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game) to this role and almost feel like it must have changed at some point. She walks around in a zombie-like daze with a giant platinum blonde wig that makes her look like an albino. At no point are any of these aliens interesting. At no point do they present personalities. At no point does their overall powers become clear. They seem invulnerable to anything, except when the script needs them not to be, and their vaguely defined powers seem limitless. Because of the creative choices with Jean Grey and how she developed her Dark Phoenix powers, extra emphasis is placed on the villains to carry the burden, and they could be eliminated entirely and not be missed in the slightest. It’s genuinely hilarious to watch them walk so stiltedly and then break into a run. The best thing Chastain does is strut in stilettos while taking a dozen blasting firearms to the face.

There are just some weird moments in this movie. Apparently Charles Xavier watches the students have their beer blasts in the woods and also keeps a thermal heat analysis of them during these moments (“That student’s really hot… I mean… getting really hot…, uh…”). That’s so weird and possibly perverted. There’s a running clothing item with blood that never gets changed. You’ll listen to “whose blood is that?” close to ten times. It’s always been inherently goofy watching these trained actors make silly strained faces while pretending to do things with their mind powers. Except this movie it goes a step further. There’s a moment of goofy strain face versus goofy strain face while the actors thrust their arms out, and there’s a scene where Jean Grey only has one arm out and then, to power up, she throws out her second arm. That’s not how mind powers work. There are several character jumps that seem rushed and unearned, like Charles becoming a focal point of disdain amongst his fellow X-people over his catering to public relations. Everyone is so quick to jump on the murder wagon when it comes to Jean Grey, which makes me wonder if they never really liked her and have just been waiting for a good excuse to kill her. The seesawing public support on mutants can be extremely confusing. The action sequences are filmed in a very haphazard way with replenishing bad guys to be disposed. During key stretches of the movie, I didn’t know who was on screen, where they had come from, and what relations they were to one another until punches started being thrown.

Continuity has never been a thing the X-universe cherished, especially once you started throwing in time travel with 2014’s Days of Future Past. However, Dark Phoenix complicates matters with its disregard for the overall continuity. Firstly, I am not a fan of the idea that these prequel films all take place in separate decades. It worked with First Class which tied the cultural revolutions and changing mores to the characters and their selfI identity, plus the Cold War paranoia. It even worked for Days of Future Past being set in the early 70s, during the malaise of the optimism of the 1960s. That related to the character arc for Raven on her quest for vengeance and the individual versus society. But what did Apocalypse have to gain by taking place in 1983? What does Dark Phoenix gain by taking place in 1992? Plus it means that these characters have hardly aged in 30 years and in less than a decade James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are going to look like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (no offense to McKellen, but that’s quite a sudden, precipitous drop). Let’s even say the older movies are eliminated from the timeline after the reboot of Days of Future Past. Just in the LAST movie they established that Jean Grey had the powerful phoenix spirit and abilities within her, as it was the final push to topple the bad guy.

Allow me to get into more detail why this disregard is so troublesome and erroneous. Judging from the trailers and marketing, I thought Dark Phoenix was going to be an addiction metaphor, with Jean Grey embracing a self-destructive thrill that made her feel good even as it pushed others away and forced her down a darker path. Despite the ads emphasizing this aspect, the actual movie ignores this addiction metaphor for a cosmic illness she contracts. Kinberg and the filmmakers have dropped that Jean Grey had this power within her and have made her a victim of an external force from space. This is far less interesting because it makes the story of Jean as reactive from external forces taking over. Space clouds resembling a pink Parallax (the poop cloud monster from 2011’s Green Lantern) did it all. That’s boring.

Think of the stronger version already within reach that examined the power within her that Charles has been keeping limited thanks to withholding her memories of her parent’s deadly accident. Because she was denied this essential part of her past she was never able to process her trauma and work through it. The man she trusted, the father figure telling her how to best control her feelings and powers has been inhibiting her the whole time and manipulating her. That betrayal could reignite the power already within her, and her journey would be about self-discovery while also confronting the gaslighting by those she trusted. You could even go further and have Charles eventually revealed as a villain for psychically altering people’s memories and minds to his ideal of what is right. That’s the better movie. They might as well have gone all-out and ended with the destruction of the Earth and the death of everybody we know because why not? What we get with Dark Phoenix is a woman who glows a lot thanks to an inscrutable pink space cloud.

It’s hard for these talented actors to hide their disinterest; some have been eyeing the exits since the last film. I challenge every reader to look at the painting of Chastain’s face on the very poster, which to me reads loudly, “Let’s just get this thing done with.” Turner (HBO’s Game of Thrones) is the best thing in the movie and yet the screenplay doesn’t give her an actual character arc with depth. It feels like she has three or four stages in the movie where Kinberg just asks her to repeat the same note over and over. Many of the actors that have been here since 2011’s First Class feel like they’re on autopilot. It’s simply another level of mediocrity that ends up defining this disappointing movie.

If you asked writer/director Simon Kinberg, in private so he could be truly honest, whether he would have repeated what happens in Dark Phoenix as the very last X-Men movie, and I legitimately think he would say no. That’s the problem with the movie is that it’s a double dip that, surprisingly, doesn’t get better. The story is boring and repetitive, the action is bland, the characters are at the mercy of a story that has no interest in them, and the resolution does not provide any satisfying finality. It feels like the close of a weekly television episode that knows more is to come except it’s been cancelled. The X-Men movies have been at their best when they’ve been about something, when they’ve gone inside their characters and the conflicts of living in a society of oppression and prejudice and fear. The franchise lends itself to being more than spandex-clad superheroes fighting each other. The division between the good X-Men movies and the bad X-Men movies is wide and clear; nobody is going to put Logan and Apocalypse in the same grade. It’s easy to tell when the plots connect to character and have exciting themes to go with their exciting action sequences. Coming to a shrug-worthy series conclusion, I think I’d rather rewatch The Last Stand than the second go-round of the Phoenix saga. The X-Men ultimately go out with a whimper but that doesn’t take away from the greatness of the other films. It’s been nearly two decades, and I’m grateful for the ride, but it’s a shame it had to end this way.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

cf7kkqeuuaeqame“We all know the third movie is the worst,” says young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) in a curious moment that is too meta for its own good. It’s meant to be an in-joke, and possible a jab at 2006’s heavily derided X-Men: The Last Stand, but it ends up summarizing more than one X-Men movie. Easily the weakest of the prequel series, X-Men: Apocalypse is a muddled super hero movie that marginalizes its interesting characters, lacks a thematic linchpin, pushes a new batch of boring and often superfluous new mutants, and feels like everyone is running through the paces of what they think an X-Men movie should be. It’s not Last Stand, the near franchise-killer that Days of Future Past had to wipe out of existence, but this movie is a dull and clear example of the lousy mediocrity of compounded missed chances suffered at the expense of loyalty to formula.

In 1983, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted youngsters, a.k.a. mutants, and has a new class of students including Jean Grey, Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Kurt Smit-McPhee). Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying to live a simple life and exclude himself from a larger fight between humans and mutants. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is crossing the globe and discovering new mutants to rescue. Everything changes when an ancient mutant is awakened in Egypt. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is thousands of years old and is rumored to be the first mutant. He collects four mutant helpers he deems his Horsemen, and in 1983 it happens to be a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Magneto. Apocalypse promises a world built for only the strongest mutants and will wipe the planet with those found lesser.

X-Men-Apocalypse-Storm-Comic-OriginLet’s start with the empty void that is the titular super villain; Apocalypse is a complete waste and a complete bore. Oscar Isaac is a terrific and soulful actor who can be so malleable to roles as diverse as misanthropic Llewyn Davis to dreamy X-wing pilot Poe Damaron. He is buried under pounds of purple makeup that limit his expression, coupled with a heavy costume that also limits his movement. Apocalypse should have probably been a motion capture performance. Andy Serkis has proven that mo-cap performances can exhibit tremendous emotive qualities and the technology can support it. Mo-cap would have been better than staring at Ivan Ooze lumbering around. Then there’s his haphazard characterization. Apocalypse is both too all-powerful and shackled with powers that are too vaguely ill defined. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that needs an entourage for support despite the whole snazzy “Four Horsemen” backing band name. Apocalypse should be the solo act; he doesn’t need a backup band. You could have written Storm and Psylocke out entirely and had no impact on the plot whatsoever. My pal Eric Muller even jokes that Psylocke literally walks off the movie. Allow me to indulge my X-Men fandom a moment and just say how Apocalypse is my favorite X-Men villain and Psylocke was one of my favorite X-Men way back when I was reading the comics consistently in the 90s. I loved the psychic blade of Psylocke, though in this movie it’s pretty much just a laser arm sword, which is a underwhelming. Seeing both of these characters completely wasted is particularly disappointing to 90s me.

But back to Apocalypse, he seems too powerful to need to seek out a select group of super lieutenants and part of this is also because of how poorly the movie explains the specifics or limitations of his powers. He absorbs the powers of his host mutants but what are those powers exactly? The movie never specifies beyond the weird shifting-humans-into-walls thing that looks a bit too silly to be truly terrifying. Every time he displays a new fancy power we just have to accept it, but if he keeps unleashing powers we never know about then why does he even need assistance? We already see Apocalypse turning the world into dust clouds, so why does he need Magneto to, I believe, rip the metal core out of the Earth? It’s not like he has a meaningful relationship with Magneto, the only Horseman who truly matters. Apocalypse should be the mutant equivalent of a god, and credit to my pal Ben Bailey on this assertion, and the world of mutants should be forced to make a choice to follow this god who genuinely wants a new world consisting only of his “children.” Instead he’s just a bloviating and boring demagogue that makes a terrible lead villain. For a guy who might be the “first mutant” and inspire the Bible, it sure seems like squandered potential.

hqyqxvfnbce8jfpwptqnThe trio of the core characters of the prequels (Professor X, Magneto, Mystique) is largely sidelined and you can certainly tell that the actors are eyeing the exit door, no more than Lawrence. These are the characters we’ve gotten to know and the ones we’ve built up an emotional attachment to, so why not just push them to the outer edges of your story and shove some new even younger X kids in place to dominate the narrative? Lawrence and Fassbender especially are given the least to do. When Mystique has to become a de facto X-Men leader and teacher, you can feel like everyone is just going through the motions. They just look bored or at least unable to hide their ambivalence with the muddled screenplay. The new X kids are also fairly bland with little charisma. I think there’s an actual scene where Nightcrawler is walking around a mall in plain sight. The X kids are here to take over for the Magneto/Xavier/Mystique unit and provide a bridge to the original X-Men series. It is here where I must now gripe because First Class was set in 1961 and Apocalypse is set in 1983 and nobody looks like they’ve aged. Maybe that’s a mutant ability plot device but then Rose Byrne’s human character hasn’t aged much either. Her character is also completely pointless in this movie. She might not be as badly shoehorned into the action as Lois Lane was in Batman vs. Superman, but then again there still isn’t anything as terrible as anything in BvS.

The X-Men franchise from the beginning has been a super hero saga with subtext and social commentary. It might not be completely subtle but it was effective and brings greater relevance and emotional power to the struggles of our mutant heroes. The first prequel was about a core philosophical divide between Xavier and Magneto; the second movie was about the individual versus society and was personally exemplified by the moral crisis of Mystique’s hunt for vengeance that would lead to the downfall of humanity. This third movie has none of that. Magneto is suffering from a personal tragedy caused by prejudice and fear but the basic theme is the same from First Class just not nearly as well articulated. Here it’s more just blunt “kill ‘em all” vengeance, and he’s made to be a practically mute cipher until called upon at the very end for some tidy plot work. I haven’t even talked about the tacky return to a concentration camp. The characters are either fighting the bad guy or fighting with the bad guy. That’s it. There isn’t any major personal or philosophical conflict that is highlighted by the subtext of the plot. It’s all just more grist for world-ending CGI nonsense.

Apocalypse at best is a series of moments, and the overall quality level rarely rises beyond competently acceptable, not exactly a ringing endorsement. The movie’s action sequences are rather dull and visually repetitive, making poor use of geography and development. The entire third act is a blandly extended action sequence in the dusty ruins of Cairo. Things just sort of happen and then more things just sort of happen. The opening action sequence in Days of Future Past is better than 99% of the scenes in this movie. The clear highlight that everyone will rightly cite is Quicksilver (Evan Peters) showcasing the amazing potential of his super speedy powers, but even this is a repeat of a highlight from a previous movie. It’s like the producers decided to take the moment everybody loved and do it bigger and better. It was a real fun surprise in the first time, and now it’s become the newest part of the X-Men formula. Still, it’s a fantastic sequence with great visual panache and a lively sense of humor. When the world slows down and Quicksilver steps into the frame, it’s almost like a hero moment for the audience to cheer. He saves a school of mutants, and a dog, from a colossal explosion, but it too is just another moment that could have been cut from the movie entirely. It’s a fantastic moment, the obvious highpoint, and yet it’s still superfluous. The other highpoint is an extended cameo at Alkali Lake, and again it is superfluous and calls into question greater franchise continuity.

xmen0001Speaking of continuity, there are some major events in Days of Future Past but especially Apocalypse that make me question how the events in the 2000s X-Men still stand. According to the events of the prequels, Mystique “outed” herself to the world and proved the existence of mutants to the wider public when she tried killing Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) and infiltrated the Nixon White House. Cut to 1983 and Apocalypse broadcasts a message to every human and mutant on the planet. He launches the world’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons into space. That seems like a big deal, the kind of deal that would dramatically alter the events in the 2000s to the point that a mutant registration act would seem hilariously quaint and far too late. The character relationships in the first X-Men movie must also be reassessed with the events of Alkali Lake. It’s hard for me to reconcile the earlier films matching up with these prequels at this point.

The studio execs and producers behind the X-Men series have already gone on record speculating that their next movie will take place in the 1990s and have Mr. Sinister as its chief villain. I think they’re getting a little too ahead of themselves with the larger franchise vision much like what happened to Sony after their 2012 Amazing Spider-Man reboot. They started plotting two sequels, a spin-off, and lost sight of simply making a good movie with characters you care about and memorable action sequences. They lost track and had to reboot their Spider-Man franchise yet again, this time with an assist from the Marvel bigwigs. I don’t need an X-Men-a-decade adventure. I just want good movies. Out of six movies, half of them are great and the rest are acceptable to terrible. Apocalypse won’t kill its franchise but I think the negative and indifferent response from the public, as well as less-than-robust box-office returns, will give the studio caution. Don’t just throw out an X-Men movie in order to lay the tracks for the next two X-Men movies. Make a compelling and entertaining X-Men film that stands on its own. If you can’t do that, then there won’t be too many more X adventures, period.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fantastic Four (2015)

Few movies have had such a prominent stink of negativity attached to them as Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, a movie that is already being considered amongst the worst superhero movies of all time. Director Josh Trank (Chronicle) was given the freedom to go darker, emphasize more science fiction, and select a cast of respected actors rather than bankable names. Then came rumors of aloof and secluded behavior on set from Trank. Then came rumors that Fox and producer/co-writer Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) effectively shuttered Trank from his own movie, reshooting 40-minutes of a 90-minute film to salvage the wayward production (get ready for plenty of stuff in trailers not to be in the finished film). Not quite the room-clearing disaster of rampant speculation, the new Fantastic Four is a superhero movie that never really gets started and has constant battles with tone, characterization, and plot. It seems like the real villains of the movie are the Fox executives who signed off on the “gritty, gloomy” rendition and then interfered when they got too scared, managing to undercut the original vision, muddy an already messy film, and make things even worse. The behind-the-scenes drama is easily more interesting than anything that happens in this movie.

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a science genius recruited by Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Reed invented a makeshift teleporting device as a young child with the help of his friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). At Dr. Storm’s lab, Reed works with Storm’s children, Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a morose computer programmer, Victor Von Doom (Tony Kebbell). The group transports to another dimension but is attacked by a strange green energy cloud. Victor is left behind. The surviving foursome exhibits unique abilities. Reed can stretch his body. Sue can turn invisible and create force fields. Johnny can fly and set his body on fire. Poor Ben is a hulking rock monster. Reed promises to find a way to reverse what happened to them, but the re-emergence of Dr. Doom puts the fate of the entire world at risk.

The-Fantastic-Four-2015-The-Thing-Jamie-BellIt should be of little surprise that Fantastic Four feels like two different movies awkwardly and inarticulately smashed together. For the first hour, the movie follows the path of our heroes and their contraction of their powers. Rather than the gee-whiz fun of getting superpowers, the characters view themselves as freaks, their bodies turned against them, and their colleagues deeply afraid of them. It’s a far moodier antidote to the vicarious thrills of gaining special abilities. There are some effective sequences that channel David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Scanners, and it’s these brief moments where you feel Trank’s vision connect the most. Doom walking down a hallway and making heads explode, in a PG-13 way, is horrifying and cool. The problem for Trank, and the movie as a whole, is that this first hour still isn’t a very good movie. It takes far too long for these characters to get blasted by green space goo and become supers. The setup is so protracted and needless. Did we need to see how these characters came together? Did we need to see their childhoods? It’s not essential to see the team come together when we can already start from that point. In a sense, it reminded me of how needless I felt Pixar’s Monsters University was; did we need to see how these colleagues became friends? Despite this action-free opening half, the screenplay could have fleshed out the four main characters to justify the added time, but it’s hard for the movie to justify much.

These are some of the most boring and underdeveloped characters in recent comic book lore. If these versions of the Fantastic Four existed in the 1960s, they wouldn’t have made it to issue number two. Reed is smart. Sue is smart too but also standoffish (and adopted). Johnny likes fast cars. Ben is tough and loyal. Victor is a pessimist who called dibs on flirting with Sue. That is really about it, folks. Ben disappears for most of the film, called in to make the trans-dimensional jump because Reed feels like Ben deserves to be there since he helped create an early prototype with Reed. Actually, let’s talk about that scene. It’s a high school science fair yet the only other displays we see are clearly for much younger children, and yet Dr. Storm is visiting an all-ages school science fair to groom talent? That seems weird. Why does Dr. Storm not make the same offer to Ben, who helped Reed design and build his early teleporting machine? Regardless, Reed leaves his childhood pal behind with Ben’s abusive family. That’s because he’s a good friend. Then, once the horrible transformations occur and Ben gets the worst of it, Reed runs out on him again. Sure it’s in the pursuit of finding a cure, but who’s to say he couldn’t do that in the already constructed government super science lab? Sue doesn’t even go on the first trans-dimensional voyage; it’s just a boy’s club. Sue spends more time in this movie staring at computer screens and looking intently than any action. It’s probably for the best, though, because the scenes of her flying around in a bubble made me think of Glinda the Good Witch. I’m not a Kate Mara fan. I’ve found the majority of her performances to be stilted, but even I can admit she’s given nothing to do here but move her eyes from the left to the right and inform Miles Teller about Portishead, a band that’s only 20-plus years old. It’s sad but the most interesting part of Johnny is that a black actor, a point that caused certain more irritable fans to foam at the mouth at the adaptation, is playing him. If these super heroes aren’t going to be super until halfway through the movie, they better be interesting characters. They are not even close.

Fantastic-Four-2015-Reboot-Early-ReviewsIt’s with the return of Dr. Doom that the Fantastic Four makes its inept transition into the second movie, the one reshot by the producers and the studio. In an implausibly fast amount of time we’re given our villain of the movie and he sets off to open a black hole to destroy Earth because… we’re self-destructive? So humanity is self-destructive so Doom is going to destroy humanity? I would also like to know exactly how Doom survived for over a year in the alternate dimension when it clearly looks like there is nothing of substance for miles, unless green goop is edible. Did he just lose the need to go to the bathroom? Doom’s powers are rather nebulous, which makes it even less interesting when the Fantastic Four decides to, get this, work together to beat the bad guy. For a movie that hasn’t had one action sequence until its final act, now our characters must band together to stop Doom and his giant flashing blue light black hole thingy. The special effects are pretty undistinguished and hard to read at times. I’d also like to remark how hideously this other dimension looks. It’s all rocky crags and dark clouds; it’s like a less successful timeshare for the residents of Mordor. It doesn’t quite look like the paradise that Doom describes it as (the brochure lied to us!). This jumbled conclusion feels so ham-fisted and rushed, a villain and a typical world-destroying fate that must be thwarted at the last minute. Things just sort of happen rather than storylines finding payoffs, and then it’s all sort of over and the resolution echoes the very end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, even with the credits cutting off the vocal iteration of the title heroes. It’s so transparently different in tone, sloppy in development and execution, and so quickly introduced and resolved, that the whole conclusion comes across as forcibly laughable.

At the end of watching the dire Fantastic Four reboot, I felt more sympathy for Josh Trank. He still deserves blame for helping to conceive and develop such a misshapen story and squander his actors. After three duds and whatever you want to call the 1994 Roger Corman adaptation, it feels like maybe this franchise is just cursed. Maybe these characters are too dated and their powers are too silly. Then again we know that these characters can work in the format of a movie because a good Fantastic Four movie already exists, and it’s called The Incredibles. It doesn’t seem like anyone is going to come away completely clean from this misfire and financial flop, especially now that Trank and executives are engaging in a P.R. blame game. Fox was hoping for a rekindled franchise. Now they may be hoping to work out a deal for Marvel to buy back the rights to the characters. I would have been interested to see the full vision of what Trank was going for, especially since the one scene that feels most adamant is the best sequence in an admittedly mediocre superhero film. At least the movie would feel cohesive. It probably wouldn’t be good but at least it would be committed to trying something different. Instead, the movie tries to be different from the superhero blockbusters populating the landscape and then, at the last minute, tries to follow their lead and become one of them, becoming its own misshapen and poorly developed blob. It’s not the worst superhero movie in history (that honor still has to belong to the atomic bomb of taste, Batman & Robin), but even achieving sustained mediocrity is too much to expect.

Nate’s Grade: C-

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

rs_634x939-140324091106-634.jennifer-lawrence-x-men.ls.32414Ever since Marvel’s Avengers destroyed the box-office in 2012, every studio with super hero franchises has been looking to follow suit. It’s not just about comic book franchises; it’s about building a comic book universe. It’s been a long dark period for the X-Men ever since the regrettable 2006 debacle The Last Stand, which callously killed characters, butchered others, and botched the most famous storyline in the history of the comic. In 2011, Matthew Vaughn proved there was still life to be found in the franchise with his terrific 60s-era prequel, X-Men: First Class. Now, post-Avengers, Fox is salivating at combining the past X-Men and the present X-Men into one colossal movie with a colossal budget. Back on board is director Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films and the man who helped kickstart the modern superhero era. If that wasn’t enough riding on the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past also follows the second most famous storyline in the history of the comic.

In the horrible future, killer robots known as Sentinels hunt down mutants. These are the invention of Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who was killed back in 1973 by the vengeful shape-shifting mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The murder convinced humans to subsidize Trask’s killer robot plan of defense. Thanks to experiments replicating Mystique’s mutant ability, the Sentinels have the ability to adapt to any power, turning them practically indestructible. In the future, the Sentinels are eradicating all mutants, mutant sympathizers, and eventually human beings. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have teamed up with a small band of surviving mutants, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Thanks to the phasing powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they can send Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973 so that he can prevent the Trask assassination. The only ones who can help Wolverine is the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), former mentors to Mystique. Except Xavier is a recluse and strung-out on drugs to dull his powers and Magneto is locked away underneath the Pentagon.

eotca49rixfbkx8q5rf1The X-Men films have always had a topical advantage to them that provided a weightier sense of drama than your typical story about a reluctant soul blessed with amazing powers. The mutant allegory automatically applies to any sub-group facing oppression mostly through fear and ignorance. What other superhero franchise has two opening scenes in a German concentration camp? The stakes are even larger with this movie because of the Horrible Nightmare Future that must be prevented. Now we all assume said Nightmare Future will be avoided by film’s end, so the movie provides a proverbial reset button that the filmmakers can have fun with, and they do (look out future mutants). Excluding the Nightmare Future framing device that becomes an unnecessary parallel storyline, the majority of the film takes place in 1973. If X-Men: First Class tapped into the groovy optimism and “take me for what I am” sense of social justice of the time, then this film certainly taps into the disillusionment of the 1970s, where the promise of reform and hope morphed into anger and cynicism (hey, that’s like us today!). This loss of innocence is typified in Mystique, who becomes the central figure of the movie in many ways. Her seething desire for vengeance is what animates her, as well as the pain of betrayal from the men closest in her life, as well as the world who once held such promise. Also, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) has become one of the biggest female stars on the planet, so it makes sense to bolster her role. The central conflict is stopping an assassination, one domino that leads to many others, but it’s emotionally about Mystique having to confront her feelings of hate. It’s another platform for the ongoing conflict of perspectives between Xavier (restraint, tolerance) and Magneto (strong defense, eye for an eye). But as I found in First Class, it’s hard not to agree with Magneto as human overreaction leads to rash and thoughtless actions, like Horrible Nightmare Future.

That’s not to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past fails to deliver when it comes to the popcorn thrills and action highs we crave in our finest summer blockbusters. The action set pieces are large without dwarfing the characters, playful and imaginative without losing a sense of edge and danger. I loved how the character Blink (Bingbing Fan) would utilize her mutant power of opening portals as a fighting strategy. It makes action sequences so much more inventive and visually exciting to throw a series of portals. The pacing is swift short of the second half of Act Two, gearing up for the climactic showdown in D.C. that dominates Act Three. The time travel story starts with a lot of exposition but it gets smoothed out as it goes, the rules of the story fall into place. Every action sequence hits, some admittedly better than others, but it’s the small touches that Singer injects that made me smile most. I enjoyed Magneto pointing a gun, being toppled, but still using his power to have the gun fire in midair. I enjoyed the animalistic nature of the Beast/Wolverine brawl. Jackman is looking even veinier than usual in his bulked out form. Thankfully the fish-out of-water timeline jokes are kept to a minimum. Wolverine is the perfect glue to hold both timelines together. And then there’s that standout Pentagon prison break sequence (more on that later). Singer might not have the most natural instincts developing and staging action, but the man is a surefire talent when it comes to staging eye-catching visuals (I would say the same about Christopher Nolan). Even his unfairly maligned Superman Returns is proof of the man’s cinematic gifts. As far as entertainment value, this is right up there with X-Men 2. I still view Vaughn’s savvy First Class as the best X-film of the bunch, which has only gotten better the more I’ve watched it.

o-X-MEN-DAYS-OF-FUTURE-PAST-TRAILER-facebookAnd if that wasn’t enough, Singer’s new film does what every fan has been hoping for: (spoilers) it erases all the crummy X-Men movies, namely 2006’s Last Stand and the first Wolverine solo effort, from the official timeline. It’s time to start anew, toss out the old stuff nobody liked, and forge ahead with a new unified timeline. There can be two parallel X-Men franchises, one present/future and one with the prequel casts, and they can go on forever as desired, or until the prequel cast prices itself out. In one fell swoop, Singer and company have reset the mother franchise and given fans new hope about the possibilities. Make sure to stick around to the very end of the credits for a scene that indicates directly who the next major villain will be in the 2016 sequel.

Let me take time to single out just how expertly Evan Peters (TV’s American Horror Story) steals the entire mutant-heavy movie. First, he’s the most comically attuned character, which is a nice break from how serious, and rightly so, every character is so often. Quicksilver provides a whole new jolt of entertainment, and when he checks out after the prison break sequence you’ll dearly miss him. The character is a rapscallion (as my late grandmother might have termed) that enjoys using his super speed powers to mess with people, to test his limits, to see what he can get away with, and a Pentagon jailbreak is right up his alley. Ignore the silly yet period appropriate outfit and ignore what initially seems like Peters’ smirking self-involvement from trailers and ads. When this character is onscreen the movie has a joyful sense of irreverence. He is instrumental to freeing Magneto and the onscreen depiction of his super speed is the best illustration of the power ever conceived in film and TV. There is a segment sent to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and some wonderful special effects, which is just so playful, so giddy, and so cool that it very well might be my favorite moment in any superhero movie… ever. It is definitely an applause-worthy moment and my audience responded in kind. Quicksilver is a perfectly utilized supporting player in a movie stuffed to the gills with characters.

The time travel geek in me has a few quibbles with the parallel lines of action from past and present. Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back in time but he film plays out like it’s happening simultaneously to the events of the future. So if Wolverine is pulled out in the middle of the movie, he’ll have failed his mission to change the future, even though by going back in time he’s already, blah blah blah butterfly effect. Anyway, I understand how they want to make the future story have a sense of urgency but it’s not like waking Wolverine from a dream; the times are not happening concurrently. He’s in the past, meaning that the moment he goes back there, the future will already be altered due to the consequences of his actions, for better or worse. There is no race against time to keep his consciousness back in time until he complete his mission. I can see why they went this route for a summer blockbuster, but that doesn’t quell the quibbles.

video-undefined-1C88A9B800000578-163_636x358X-Men: Days of Future Past is a time-hopping, unabashedly fun time at the movies; well as fun as preventing nightmarish futures built from the consequences of oppression and prejudice can be. With Singer back in the saddle and the bridging of the two X-Men universes, the series is back on track and once again the promising font of stories and characters. The newest X-film is one of the most entertaining, funny while still being dramatic, and while burdened with the largest cast of any super franchise, finds notable moments for its characters big and small to remind us that these people matter. While less philosophical and funky than First Class, this is one of the best films in the franchise, on par with X2. The action sequences and visual eye-candy are great fun with some inventive and memorable touches. It’s also nerdy fun getting to watch the past and present interact, and for many this is their first return since 2006’s crappy Last Stand. It’s not a perfect movie; I wish there was more early Sentinel action, I wish Dinklage had much more to do, and I wish that the plot didn’t so transparently hinge on Xavier not having his powers. The slate is clean and all X-Men fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The future is once again rosy. The X-Men, and not just Wolverine, are relevant once again.

Nate’s Grade: B+

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The story behind the making of X-Men: The Last Stand is more interesting than most. Bryan Singer had directed the first two X-Men films and had done a fine job establishing many loveable characters and the universe that housed them. Warner Brothers has been trying to get their Superman franchise flying for so long, going all the way back to 1996 when Kevin Smith wrote the script, Tim Burton was to direct, and Nicolas Cage was going to be the man in tights. Since then directors and drafts of screenplays have come and gone, including Brett Ratner, best known for directing both Rush Hour movies and a slate of mostly mediocre movies. Then Warner Brothers poached most of the X-Men 2 team to make Superman Returns, hiring Bryan Singer as director, plus X2‘s screenwriters, cinematographer, editor/composer, and maybe even the cat that licked Wolverine’s claws. Fox was left without a captain for X-Men 3. They daringly picked Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) but then he dropped out for family reasons. Then Fox went with their second choice … Brett Ratner. Both directors had essentially switched projects. Hollywood’s funny like that.

It’s been a few months since the events in X-Men 2. Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden) is still mourning the loss of his love, Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save the rest of the X-Men. He’s tormented by her voice, whispering all around him and pleading with him to return to Alkali Lake, the site of her death. Miraculously, Jean returns from the dead but she’s much different. Her persona has broken and the Phoenix has taken over, a destructive killing force unparalleled on earth.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) has great use for such a force. There’s been news of a new drug that suppresses the gene that causes people to be born as mutants. This discovery has been dubbed a cure. The question persists, is should being different be curable and what would that even mean? Magneto sees the writing on the wall, knowing that any cure would only be voluntary for so long. He collects new mutant fighters along with his stalwarts the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and fire starter Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a former student at Xavier’s School for the Gifted.

Over at Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school, the mutant students are each questioning life with a cure. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is considering it so she can finally touch her boyfriend, Bobby “Ice Man” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) without killing him. Plus, so he’ll stop spending so much time with Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (Ellen Page), a girl who can walk through matter. Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are left to run the team after some disastrous setbacks. Henry “Beast” McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) is a man covered in blue fur and appointed as head of Mutant Relations for the president. He senses the growing danger and anxiety the administration has with mutants and joins the X-Men to do what he feels is right.

It feels like that in a rush to production that character development, subtlety, and subtext were chucked out the window to make time for more boom-boom action. The first two X-Men flicks juggled the characters and introductions but still managed to squeeze in one great moment for the characters we cared about. The plot moved at a mature pace, insightful and touching on elements of psychology, politics, and personal struggles to fit into a society that fears you. There was some sophisticated, relevant stuff bandied about this franchise in between the kick-ass action. But with X-Men 3, you basically have Halle Berry doing less with more. She’s got more screen time, in part to her demands, and now she can use that extra time onscreen to show us how perfectly bland her character is as the film’s most laughable moral ideologue. The idea of a cure for the mutant gene is vastly interesting with all kinds of great avenues for character introspection and socio-political debate. But X-Men 3 renders all of its debate to be merely superficial, another in a series of plot points to get the action moving quicker.

The X-Men franchise was already overpopulated with lots of characters vying for screen time, so I don’t understand the decision to add even more characters to the ensemble and cut down the running time to a brisk 100 minutes. As a result, certain characters sit out for long stretches of the film, are inactive during key moments, some are mostly forgotten, or some meet unjustifiably hasty ends. If I was still an ardent comic book fan, and a follower of the X-Men, I might view the third film as heresy. Why even bother bringing the character of Angel into the movie if he’s just going to be on for two minutes, including a forehead-smacking deus ex machine moment? The Dark Phoenix storyline is the most pivotal storyline in the comic’s history, so why even bother dragging it into X-Men 3 if it’s just going to be Zombie Jean Grey? It feels like Ratner is off screen with a pole poking Janssen whenever the story needs her to wake up and stir up some stuff.

I hope comic fans enjoy the brief glimpses of some of their favorites, because X-Men 3 does a good job of throwing characters into a meat grinder. I had to check online to just to find out who they were, and even then my realization was followed by, “Her? Him? What?” And what the hell is up with Porcupine Face? That has got to be the worst mutant ability of all time. What’s he going to do to his enemies? “Hey, will you come a little closer. I have a secret to tell you. Closer … closer … closer still … that’s right, now please lean against my face.”

The movie trades character for action, so is the action even good? Ratner is a workmanlike director devoid of any personal style, which further brands X-Men 3 as ordinary. The action sequences aren’t anything extraordinary, there just happens to be more of them. The climax pits mutant against mutant in short-lived bursts. A battle between Ice Man and Pyro should be awesome, but Ratner stages the showdown like he was choreographing his neighbor’s kids. This battle lasts a whopping 45 seconds. The climactic end battle, the “war to end all wars,” is rather sloppy. Ratner keeps cutting back and forth between his pairing of Good mutant vs. Evil mutant (why do the two black girls seem forced to fight each other?), but his showdowns are all too quick to quicken the pulse. Wolverine’s brawls in the woods never rise up to the adrenaline-soaked fights in X-Men 2. The special effects and make-up are just as good; they’re just not being put to as good a use. If Ratner is going to dump character for action he has to make his action exceptional. The movie feels on autopilot.

Ratner is not fully to blame for the shortcomings of X-Men 3. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zack Penn (Elektra) have crafted an overly rushed story that is more tailored for getting the job done than telling a good story. They present some big ideas and interesting elements, like a love triangle between Rogue-Ice Man-Shadowcat, but then most of the promise is either skipped over or dropped. They’re trying to juggle too many balls at once, and it just makes me miss Singer and the X2 screenwriters and how effective they were in defining character even in the smallest of moments. Some of the X-Men 3 dialogue is awfully stilted, like “You of all people know how fast the weather can change” and “Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.” There’s also a silly subplot about Storm teaching Wolverine what it means to be responsible. Try and count how many times you roll your eyes with that one. How many times are they going to have the president look blankly at a TV screen and gasp, “My god”? There’s some clever use of mutant powers during battles (mostly involving Shadowcat) but there’s just as many routine moments as well.

The acting is all over the map. Jackman owns his role as Wolverine. McKellen and Stewart bring a needed dose of grandeur to the proceedings. The X-kids are enjoyable, and Ellen Page (knocking ’em dead in Hard Candy) makes a very nice addition to the fold. I’ve likely enjoyed Paquin the most in this series, next to Jackman of course, so it’s so frustrating that she just plays Jealous Girlfriend at Window. I think it’s criminal how little she’s examined in the movie, especially since the supposed cure has the most questions and ramifications for her. Grammer is essentially Frasier in blue fur, but that’s essentially what Beast is so it works. He has a very nice moment when he sees what life would be like minus his mutant likeness. It’s really hard to judge most of the performances because of how short they appear in the movie.

X-Men: The Last Stand is far from boring but it’s more serviceable than special, and lacks the maturity and imagination that its previous films held. This was a franchise full of limitless potential, so to see it drop to something ordinary is sad, especially if this is the rumored end of the franchise (a record opening gross over Memorial weekend says otherwise). This franchise feels dumbed down; yes it’s still entertaining on a mass market level but it doesn’t have the creativity and precision that Singer’s movies had. X-Men 3 is fast-paced and not without its great geek moments, but it’s also the least emotionally involving of the films. When the deaths and departures come you’ll probably shrug your shoulders because of how the film presents them. X-Men 3 is fine, but I expect better from this franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

The new action comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith sure seems to be in the headlines a lot. Most from tabloids trying to connect Angelina Jolie as the catalyst for why Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have filed for divorce. You can’t walk past a checkout counter without being screamed at by 15 magazine covers. Too bad the actual movie seems to be forgotten in the process. That’s a shame because Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one terrifically fun summer ride that you don’t want to get off of (kind of like Jolie and/or Pitt, depending upon which way you swing).

Things aren’t so peachy for the Smiths (Jolie and Pitt). They met and married in Columbia amid a flurry of action but now it seems like their lives have become quite mundane as husband and wife. Life at work, though, is quite the opposite. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are hiding a whopper of a secret — that they’re hired assassins. They’ve both been hired to take out the same mark (Adam Brody) and accidentally discover each other’s true identity. Of course both spies are now compromised so they’re assigned to bump off their spouse. And you thought your marriage was murder. Mr. and Mrs. Smith combat their real feelings and put the spark back into their marriage by trying to kill each other, the little taught alternative in marriage counseling courses.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith has a vibrant sex appeal to it. Pitt and Jolie are extraordinarily beautiful people, no question, but they also have sizzling chemistry. The looks they give could ignite the screen. Even when they’re at each other’s throats you like them and hope for the best. The stars’ sex appeal and the film’s off kilter tone collides in fun ways. A knockout, drag-out fight between husband and wife turns into foreplay that literally brings the house down. The most unbelievable aspect of the movie is the idea that these gorgeous people would grow sexually tired with one another.

The leads are terrific and terrific together. Jolie has finally found the right role for her. She’s the perfect balance between tough and sexy. She could very easily kick my ass and look good doing it. Originally Nicole Kidman was going to play Mrs. Smith before scheduling conflicts put the kibosh on that. I can not see Kidman working. I’m not afraid of Kidman, but with Jolie I’d do whatever she says. Jolie has a real kick in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the audience can feel it too. It also helps that she looks absolutely magnificent. Finally, her beauty and wildness are put to excellent use. I’ve always thought Pitt got a bad rap as an actor for being pretty. Sure, he’s built like a Greek God (and played one in Troy) but this man can act. People seem to forget he was nominated for an Oscar for Twelve Monkeys. Pitt exudes a natural calm and always seems a smirk away from getting out of anything. These traits serve him well as a smooth criminal. Even when he’s whacking people with a golf club he seems easygoing.

The tone needs to be very specific for Mr. and Mrs. Smith to work. I mean, one false step and husband and wife revitalizing their marriage by trying to kill each other turns from funny to horrifying. Mrs. and Mrs. Smith walks that delicate line but nails the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek tone needed to make this movie soar. When you boil it down, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is essentially a modern day screwball romance. Instead of sparring with witticisms they spar with heavy-duty weaponry (I can only imagine what Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn could have done with knives and bazookas).

After Mr. and Mrs. Smith find out the true identities of their spouses, they both know it’s kill-or-be-killed. Both tread very carefully and are highly suspicious that any little thing, like a glass of wine, a trip to the bathroom, could be the trigger to their demise. Now, if the tone weren’t exactly perfect, this sequence would seem overly silly or overly cruel. Instead, the sequence comes across as being very funny. Pitt and Jolie nail the casual awkwardness as they test one another. Even the ending of Mr. and Mrs. Smith is laugh-out-loud perfect with the film’s vibe. I will go so far to say it’s the greatest ending line for a film since 1959’s Some Like it Hot.

It seems that if you want your action done right, you call Doug Liman to be director. Liman, as he did with 2002’s stellar The Bourne Identity, can craft highly imaginative, stylish, and playful action sequences that are low on pesky CGI and high on thrills. He makes sure the audience can witness every balletic move of his orchestration. He’s likes his fireballs big, though not Michael Bay the-sun-is-exploding big. If you want an inventive use of ordinary objects, Liman’s your man. There’s a fabulous car chase that utilizes a mini-van in surprising and gleeful ways. While dodging bullets and bad guys, Mr. Smith slides the vehicle’s doors open on both sides. When a bad guy jumps into the car, he grabs the baddie and swings him out the other side in one continuous motion.

This isn’t a movie to take too seriously. Yes, the plot is pretty goofy at turns and the Smiths seem nigh invincible. Yes, the bad guys are all terrible shots. Yes, it would be unlikely for the Smiths to take out 100 or so armed men surrounding them. Yes, it seems like the resolution would be cloudy because they’d still be wanted as husband and wife assassins. Yes, Brody is wearing a Fight Club T-shirt. None of this matters. Of course a world of super spies and gadgets is going to be goofy, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith never winks at the camera. This is one romantic comedy with a macabre edge and a devilish sense of humor. I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the big blast of fun I’ve been waiting Hollywood to deliver all year. The action sequences are inventive, exciting, and quite sexy. Seeing the two hottest people on the planet (Thora Birch excluded, obviously) kiss, fight, shoot each other, and blow stuff up is entertainment in itself, but the chemistry between Jolie and Pitt is in the five-alarm area. This will not be a movie for everyone. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about married assassins who do kill people and get off on trying to kill each other. But for people who like their summer ventures to have a little malevolent glee, Mr. and Mrs. Smith will hit the right note. I can only hope for the eventual sequel – Mr. and Mrs. Smith Go to Washington. Imagine that potential filibuster sequence and try not to smile. You can’t!

Nate’s Grade: A-

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