‘Dark Phoenix’ is the Worst ‘X-Men’ Movie Yet

Dark Phoenix movie poster

“X-Men: The Last Stand” has long been treated as the bastard stepchild of the “X-Men” franchise. The Brett Ratner-directed take on “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was sharply criticized by both fans and critics, and it took quite the beating from everyone it seemed including Bryan Singer who left the “X-Men” franchise to direct “Superman Returns,” and Matthew Vaughn who was set to direct this one before dropping out. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” helped wipe the slate clean by altering the timeline to where the events of “The Last Stand” no longer existed. And let’s not forget the scene from “X-Men: Apocalypse” where characters were walking out of “Return of the Jedi” which they felt paled in comparison to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and Jean Grey ends up saying, “Well, at least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.” Please do not try to convince me this was not a jab at “The Last Stand.”

Now we have “Dark Phoenix,” the twelfth installment of the “X-Men” franchise, and it aims to give audiences a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” It also marks the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, a long-time screenwriter in this franchise and someone eager to make up for the mistakes made in “The Last Stand.” With this being the last installment of the 20th Century Fox-produced “X-Men” franchise now that Disney owns Fox and plans to incorporate these characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one has to be the penultimate sequel of the bunch, right?

Nope, not a chance. With “Dark Phoenix,” Kinberg has given us the worst “X-Men” movie yet. While has a strong cast and excellent special effects to work with, the narrative is badly conceived, the screenplay is muddled, characters actions are ill-defined, and it features the blandest set of villains this franchise has ever had. While these movies have in general proven to be tremendously entertaining, I walked out of this one feeling very indifferent to it as the whole project feels inescapably dull and anti-climatic.

It’s a real shame because “Dark Phoenix” gets things off to a good start as we learn how Jean Grey came to be more or less adopted by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after her mutant powers inadvertently get her parents killed in a nasty car accident. From there, the story moves to 1992 when the X-Men fly into outer space to rescue astronauts after their space shuttle is damaged by a solar flare. But in the process, Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) absorbs the solar flare in her body and looks to have been killed. But after being rescued, she appears to be just fine, and soon she realizes her psychic powers have been amplified to an infinite degree. It’s like the scene in “Wolf” where Kate Nelligan wakes up Jack Nicholson after he’s been asleep for 24 hours. She asks how he is feeling and Nicholson, with a Cheshire cat grin, replies, “I feel ah… Good!” Yes, and so does Jean until the two separate personalities within her begin to fight with one another and leave a lot of damage which will have insurance agents scratching their heads in disbelief.

From there, everything in “Dark Phoenix” feels routine to the point where I got increasingly weary while watching it. We have been done this road before in the “X-Men” franchise before, and Kinberg fails to bring anything new or fresh to this material. This installment also lacks the powerful emotion which made the best “X-Men” even more enthralling than they already were. A major mutant character is killed off in this one, but this death was already spoiled in the trailers to where the loss feels hollow.

Jennifer Lawrence, who returns as Mystique, does have one good scene in which she chews out Professor Charles Xavier for getting caught up in all the celebrity hoopla foisted upon the X-Men for their heroic efforts they have done. She is quick to remind Charles how the women have at times been the most heroic of the bunch to where she wonders if X-Men should instead be called X-Women. Yes, score one for the Me Too and Time’s Up movements!

Other than that, Lawrence and other actors like Nicholas Hoult and Alexandra Shipp, both of whom return as Beast and Storm, don’t look terribly interested in reprising their roles. Things get even worse as alliances keep shifting back and forth and in ways which seem completely contrived. There was also plenty of laughter throughout the press screening I attended, and I have no doubt most of it was unintentional.

Then there are the villains of this piece, the D’Bari who are a shape-shifting alien race intent on obtaining the power Jean Grey now has. They are led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain, completely wasted here), and they are some of the most banal antagonists in recent cinema history. All of them look as though the life has been completely sucked out of their bodies to where I can’t help but say they each had too many Botox treatments. This alien race leaves very little to the imagination, and they are far from memorable.

Coming out of “Dark Phoenix,” I spent a lot of time wondering how something which came with a lot of promise could have gone so terribly wrong. It also makes me feel sorry for Kinberg as I have no doubt he came into this project with the best of intentions, but the road to hell is always paved with them. Everything here feels very tired and ill-thought, and having Magneto (Michael Fassbender) come back into the action after someone close to him has been killed made my eyes roll as this has always been the case with this character. Didn’t Magneto learn anything from the previous two installments?

What also infuriated me is that “Dark Phoenix” does not provide Quicksilver (Evan Peters) with a rescue scene set to a classic 1990’s song. “Days of Future Past” had this supersonic character saving his fellow mutants to the 1970’s song “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce, and “Apocalypse” had him doing the same thing to the tune of the Eurythmics’ 1980’s classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I came into “Dark Phoenix” expecting Quicksilver to do his hypersonic rescue thing to a 1990’s classic song, but no such luck. It could have been something by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or perhaps Nine Inch Nails (“Head Like a Hole” would have been a great choice). Heck, they could have even used “Dyslexic Heart” by Paul Westerberg.

It’s no secret of how troubled the production of “Dark Phoenix” was. Thanks to poor test screenings, the entire third act had to be reshot. Its release was delayed a number of times as a result, and even though Kinberg describe the reshoots as being a “normal” process for any movie, none of them helped to salvage the cinematic mess we have here.

This is also the first “X-Men” movie not to feature Hugh Jackman as Wolverine as he had played the character for the last time in “Logan.” Indeed, Wolverine is the missing link here as his romance with Jean Grey gave the story much of its emotional power. This same level emotion is seriously missing here as we reach a conclusion which is never really in doubt. Then again, having Jackman romancing Sophie Turner would have seemed a bit strange.

For the record, I liked “The Last Stand,” but I have also never read the Marvel comic books it was based on. Had I done so, perhaps my feelings on Ratner’s film would have been different, but I still found it to be an entertaining ride from start to finish and with emotion to spare. Even if it paled in comparison with the first two “X-Men” movies, it still fared much better than the prequel which came after it “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and I did not care for that one much. While I know fans and filmmakers were eager to see a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” come to fruition, the fact this is a complete failure makes it a stunning disappointment and the first real letdown of the summer 2019 movie season. Fans of the franchise will still go out to see “Dark Phoenix,” but the most fun they will have is in analyzing everything wrong with it.

My only hope with “Dark Phoenix” now is that it can drum up interest in the long-delayed stand-alone “X-Men” movie, “The New Mutants.” That one has seen its release delayed for over two years, and 20th Century Fox can only hide it next to the Lindberg baby for only so much longer.

* ½ out of * * * *

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‘Love, Simon’ Digs Deep Enough Beneath the Surface

Love Simon movie poster

When it comes to teen movies, I live for those which take the adolescence seriously. Those years can be rough and tumble ones, filled of strong emotions which can overwhelm our small little worlds to an unbearable degree, and this is reflected in “The Breakfast Club,” “Pump Up the Volume” and “The Spectacular Now.” However, most teen movies deal with those years in a shallow manner to where they do nothing more than magnify the fears we have, or had, of being seen as unpopular or horribly isolated from our peers. Going into “Love, Simon,” which is based on the book “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli, I figured it would be one of the shallower motion pictures involving teen life as its poster features the cast in all their clear-skinned glory. Surely some of these stars had to deal with acne, right?

“Love, Simon” ends up falling into the middle space of realistic and shallow teen movies. Some parts of it feel forced to where they belong more in a network sitcom, but others strike at the truth of growing up in a way few other movies have recently. In fact, this may be the first movie in which we eagerly await to see two guys kiss. Many were revolted by such a sight in the past, but these days we accept it because love is far more an attractive thing than hate. Realizing this, it makes me believe we have evolved as a society even more than we already have.

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is your average teenager who comes from a good home with loving parents and a sister who looks to become a world class chef in record time. He also has a great group of friends he can confide in any time, and this made me very envious of his life as it didn’t feel like I always had that when I was his age. But Simon does have a big secret, and he doesn’t need to spell it out for us. He is gay and has yet to tell his family and friends, and the only way he can discuss his sexual orientation dilemma is with his email pen pal who is also contemplating how he can come out to his own family and friends.

Right from the start, I realized “Love, Simon” is a groundbreaking movie as the filmmakers were not about to paint the majority of the characters in such broad or obvious strokes. I was constantly reminded of the scene from “Clueless” in which Murray tells Cher that the boy she wants to have sex with is in fact a “disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy.” While homosexuals might, and I strongly stress the word might, have been easier to spot in the past, such stereotypes we are now largely irrelevant as we have no business judging anyone as what we say about others speaks far more about who we are.

“Love, Simon” also takes place in a time where our lives have long since become dominated by social media and cell phones. In the past, we could leave our school lives behind once we went home, but kids today cannot do the same as their friends and enemies continue to exert a strong hold over them via the internet, and nobody these days can live without it let alone a cell phone.

Simon is able to keep his sexual orientation a secret even as he reaches out online to another young man who is considering coming out to his parents. Things, however, become complicated when the annoying class nerd, Martin Addison (Logan Miller), discovers Simon’s secret and threatens to blackmail him unless he can set him up with one of his very pretty friends, Abby (Alexandra Shipp). From there, Simon’s life heads into a spiral of sorts as he is forced to lie to his closest friends and comprise their relationships, all in an effort to keep his secret even more secret than ever before.

One of the key elements of “Love, Simon” is how our main protagonist is always trying to find out the true identity of his email pen-pal, Blue. The filmmakers tantalize us with the possibilities of it being this or that person, Director Greg Berlanti teases us with what could be obvious answers, but he instead invites us to see past what we thought we saw and see the bigger picture we have no business denying ourselves. Movies in the past have played on what we think homosexuals look, how they act and dress like, but this one makes how nothing is ever clear cut as it seems.

The only character who you could say exhibits such stereotypes is Ethan, an out-and-proud teenager played by Clark Moore. Ethan doesn’t try to hide who he really is from anyone, nor should he, but he does have a key scene with Simon where he explains how his coming out was not as easy as it seemed. In retrospect, I wished the filmmakers had dug a little deeper into Ethan’s character, but to their credit, they do give him some of the movie’s best one-liners (the “gangbanged by TJ Maxx” line is classic).

I also really enjoyed the camaraderie Simon has with his best friends played by Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Miles Heizer, and Katherine Langford, whose character fares much better here than the one she played on “13 Reasons Why.” Seeing these friends have a great time with one another reminded me of the friendships I had during my high school years. It’s those friendships who help us get through the worst of times, and being a teenager can really suck more often than not. When Simon’s friendships become threatened, it’s painful to watch because losing a friend can seem so infinitely painful to where the heartache seems impossible to cure.

As for the character of Martin, he reminds of the kind of guy I never wanted to be seen as in high school. You know, the guy completely unaware of how annoying he is to others and who thinks so highly of himself that he cannot see the truth of what’s going on around him. The scene where he professes his affection to Abby at a football game is one of those horrifically cringe-inducing moments we all hope and pray never to get caught in, and Miller sells the moment for all the humiliation it is worth.

Simon’s parents are played wonderfully by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel, and they present the typical loving couple and parents we always hope to see in movies like these. Garner in particular has a wonderful scene with Robinson as she professes how proud she is of him for coming out. Duhamel, however, has a scene with Robinson where he accepts his son for who he is, and it feels like laughable for reasons I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t intend. Still, it’s fun to see Duhamel come to see how the music he loved in the past is no longer cool.

“Love, Simon” also features a pair of sublime supporting performances from Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell, both who look like they are having the time of their lives. Hale plays Mr. Worth, the high school’s vice-principal who tries much too hard to fit in with a youthful demographic who will never see him as cool, especially when he is so busy taking away their cell phones at any given opportunity.

As for Rothwell, she plays Ms. Albright, the school’s drama teacher who is directing a production of the musical “Cabaret.” Her reactions to her students’ talent, or lack thereof, are priceless as she wonders how she went from doing “The Lion King” on Broadway to ending up here. Just watch Rothwell as she reprimands a pair of immature students who make fun of others for being different. The way she handles them could have been cliched, but it leads to one of the biggest laughs “Love, Simon” has in store for its audience.

In some ways I wish “Love, Simon” had dug even deeper into its subject manner. Many scenes ring true in the ways teenager act and live their lives, but it only gives so far beneath the surface of things to where this comes close to seeming like a missed opportunity. All the same, to have a movie like this one which the life of an adolescent seriously is always a wonderful gift, and this one definitely qualifies.

In the past, gay-themed or LGBT movies were treated with latex gloves as studios feared general audiences would not be quick to accept homosexuals in love. But with movies like “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Kids Are All Right,” we were not given gay love stories, but love stories as passionate as any we had ever watched before. The audience I saw “Love, Simon” with cheered loudly at the sight of two boys kissing each other, and I like to think this shows how far we have come in accepting things which never should have been quicker to accept in the past. Besides, we should agree seeing two boys kiss is a far more pleasing sight than seeing teenagers gunned down by a madman with an assault weapon, wouldn’t you say?

* * * out of * * * *

X-Men: Apocalypse

X Men Apocalypse poster

In the whirlwind of superhero movies which have come out in 2016, “X-Men: Apocalypse” ends up being sandwiched between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Like those two, “X-Men: Apocalypse” has far too many characters and plotlines to deal with, and its running time is much longer than it needs to be. But while this “X-Men” might not reach thrilling heights of “Captain America: Civil War,” it is far more enjoyable than the dour affair that was “Batman vs. Superman.” Still, after “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” this entry does feel like a comedown for the long running franchise.

The movie takes place in the 1980’s; a time of synth pop, “Knight Rider,” Ronald Reagan and “Return of the Jedi” among other things. The newest threat to both humans and mutants alike is En Sabah Nur, better known as Apocalypse, the world’s first and most powerful mutant. The movie starts off with him being entombed in a rocky grave after being betrayed by his followers, but he is awakened in 1983 and finds humanity has lost its way because, as he sees it, humanity was without his presence. As a result, he vows to destroy the world and remake it, and this time the X-Men may have a foe too powerful for them to defeat.

Playing Apocalypse is Oscar Isaac who enters yet another incredibly successful franchise after leaving his mark on another in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” In a way he is undone here by the large amount of makeup he is forced to wear as it threatens to rob him of his charisma. Seriously, the less makeup you put on Isaac the better as he can lock you in place with just a look from his eyes. Regardless, he is still very good here as he holds his own opposite actors who have been veterans of this franchise for quite some time.

Many of the “X-Men: First Class” cast return as well like James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hout, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne and Evan Peters. It’s great to see them all back as they are still deeply invested in these famous comic book characters as always. McAvoy, portraying Professor Charles Xavier/Professor X, shows just how mentally exhausting it is to fight an antagonist with only your mind. We also get to see how Charles lost his hair, and we leave the theater wondering how his eyebrows managed to remain intact.

Lawrence remains an enthralling presence in any movie she appears in, and she makes Raven/Mystique another in a long line of wounded warriors. The Oscar winning actress makes this comic book character into a hero as reluctant as Katniss Everdeen, and we feel for even as she feels she deserves no respect because of her regretful mistakes. While Raven/Mystique has been an antagonist for many of the “X-Men” movies, Lawrence makes her a complex character who comes to see what she must fight for most.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto has a setup like Logan/Wolverine had in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in which he’s found peace but eventually sees it completely destroyed to where the only thing on his mind is vengeance. It’s a familiar setup we have seen many times, but whether or not you know how Magneto will end up in this mutant tug of war, it’s worth just seeing Fassbender inhabit this role once again as he is riveting for every second he appears onscreen. Compare him all you want to Sir Ian McKellen, Fassbender imbues this iconic comic book character with a lot of raw emotion which will not leave you unmoved.

Evan Peters steals the show once again as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver, the man who can move at supersonic speeds and yet still lives in his mother’s basement. Peters had one of “Days of Future Past’s” best scenes which was set to the tune of a classic 70’s song, and he does his thing here yet again to an 80’s song. It has been said that the next “X-Men” movie will take place in the 90’s, so we’ll have some time to guess what classic grunge song he will be saving the day to.

A number of other X-Men return as well, but this time played different actors. Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler finally returns to the franchise for the first time since “X-Men 2: X-Men United,” and he is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee who gives the character a good dose of humor. Alexandra Shipp takes on Storm and sports a mohawk which is as fierce as her attitude, so watch out. The terrific Tye Sheridan portrays Scott Summers/Cyclops, and this character gets fleshed out in a way we have not seen previously. “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner appears here as Jean Grey, and it’s great to see the actress portray Jean’s dark side which is her gift and her possible undoing in the future.

With Bryan Singer returning to the director’s chair for his fourth “X-Men” movie, you can’t help but walk into “Apocalypse” with high expectations. Both he and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have too many characters to deal with to where several are not developed fully enough to be satisfying, and others are simply there for dramatic conflict. The mutant hating William Stryker returns, but the character barely registers this time around. We also get introduced to new mutants like Psylocke whose talents seem no different from others like her, and more could have been done to make her stand out. However, it should be noted that Olivia Munn fills out Psylocke’s uniform very well.

But even with its inescapable flaws, Singer still makes “X-Men: Apocalypse” a summer blockbuster packed with action, and the movie also hits you on a deep emotional level. We’ve been following these characters now for nearly a dozen movies, and we still care about their predicaments regardless of whatever timeline they are living through. Other directors in this franchise, with the exception of Matthew Vaughn, have not had the same success in engaging us as Singer has, and he continues to set the bar high for others looking to helm the next entry. And once again, Singer is served well here by his longtime editor and composer John Ottman who gives us yet another rousing music score.

So yeah, “X-Men: Apocalypse” could have been better, but it still works for what it is. It has a serious yet playful tone which has been the mark of many comic book movies in recent years, and it’s better than its score on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. Regardless of how you feel about this movie, there’s still a lot of life left in this franchise and I am eager to see how the next “Wolverine” movie turns out.

Oh by the way, the filmmakers do pull off a none-too-subtle dig at “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Trust me, you will know it when you see it. Suffice to say, I don’t think Brett Ratner will be returning to this franchise anytime soon.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * out of * * * *