‘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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‘Deadpool 2’ Ups the Ante and Leaves You Begging for More

Deadpool 2 poster

I want to say that when “Deadpool” was released, it was a breath of fresh air in a time of endless comic book/superhero movies, but this description doesn’t do it justice. The air coming from the 2016 box office hit was filthy, and we loved how Ryan Reynolds, Tim Miller and company refused to play it safe with this Marvel Comics character to where a PG-13 rating just wasn’t going to do it for them. But in addition to being so gleefully profane, the movie also had a big heart as it ended with a message of loving someone inside and out instead of just admiring what is on the surface. If there ever was an R-rated movie for today’s teenagers to sneak into, “Deadpool” was it.

Now we finally have its long-awaited sequel, “Deadpool 2,” which was preceded for the longest time by a pair of jokey trailers which didn’t have much in the way of new footage, but instead put its wisecracking hero in situations which didn’t always put him in the best light, and we laughed our asses off all the same. Surely this sequel couldn’t match the inventiveness and comedic genius of the original, right?

Well, I am very happy to report that “Deadpool 2” proves to be just as funny and entertaining as its predecessor, and in some ways, I thought it was even better. While this one looked as though it would suffer from overkill as the recent “Kingsman” sequel did, everyone in front of and behind the camera keeps the energy level high and the laughs coming in rapid succession. With Reynolds constantly breaking the fourth wall and a plot which refuses to make clear right away of where this sequel is heading, I was never sure of what would come next. As a result, I could never take my eyes off the screen.

So, what has Wade Wilson/Deadpool been up to since his last expletive-laden adventure? Quite a bit actually, and it has thrust him into a realm of despair he doesn’t see himself escaping from. What ends up giving him a reason to live is helping to protect Russell Collins (“Hunt for the Wilder people’s” Julian Dennison), a young mutant who goes by the name of Firefist for reasons which become immediately clear to where Pyro’s penchant for lighting everything up pales in comparison. But in the process, they are both met by Nathan Summers/Cable (Josh Brolin), a time-traveling cybernetic mutant soldier who is looking to right a terrible wrong, and his main target might not be who you think.

The amount of pop culture references is countless in “Deadpool 2,” and you may need to watch this sequel twice to catch all of them. Right from the start, Wade wastes no time in skewering popular icons like Wolverine who made his swan song in last year’s “Logan.” From there, we watch as this particular comic book character lays waste to gangsters to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” gleefully provides a spoof of the James Bond opening titles which include such classics as “directed by one of the guys who killed the dog in ‘John Wick,’” and he makes you look at Barbara Streisand’s song “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” from “Yentil” in a very unnerving way. Also, he is quick to call you out on obvious references such as a line from “Robocop,” and by that, I mean the original, not the remake. Whether it’s a good or bad guy you are talking about here, at least they have great taste in movies.

However, the laughs and action come at us so quickly in “Deadpool 2” to where it takes longer than usual to figure out what the movie’s main plot is. At times, it seems like the filmmakers are geared towards throwing jokes, action scenes and filthy jokes and the expense of an actual story, and it looks as though we won’t find a story until the third act. Even Wade at one point says if he and his newly-appointed X-Force achieve their goals, there won’t even need to be a third act. Of course, I was having too much with this sequel to criticize this point all that much, and a story does indeed emerge.

Reynolds has come a long way from his “Van Wilder” days to get to this point. He’s given memorable performances in “Buried” and “The Proposal,” but his career has been overshadowed by having starred in one of the worst comic book movies ever, “Green Lantern.” “Deadpool” served as his redemption for that cinematic misfire, and his dedication to staying true to Wade Wilson and his alter-ego has been commendable considering the ill-fated debut he made as this character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Watching Reynolds here is a reminder of what a gifted comedic actor he can be when given the right material, and it is impossible to picture anyone else in this role instead of him.

Tim Miller stepped out of the director’s chair for “Deadpool 2,” and in his place is David Leitch who assisted Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron in their path to ass-kicking glory in “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde.” I was impressed at how he managed to keep this sequel’s energy and laugh quotient up and running throughout as I kept waiting for the whole thing to burst at the seams. It’s no surprise “Deadpool 2” lacks the freshness of the original, but it does have the same level of insane energy and even more to spare beyond it.

And there’s Josh Brolin who appears in his second Marvel movie in two months as Cable. Just as he did in “Avengers: Infinity War,” he gives this iconic comic book character a wounded humanity which makes especially complex and threatening throughout. Even when Cable undergoes a change of alliances which is almost as unbelievable as any in “The Fate of the Furious,” Brolin keeps a straight face throughout the proceedings which become increasingly over the top. It’s also great to see how Brolin has a good sense of humor about himself as he endures barbs relating to “The Goonies,” and looking at his scared face here made me want to say, “Who do you think you are, Thanos?”

It’s also nice to see a variety of new and familiar characters here like Karan Soni whose character of taxi driver Dopinder has developed a bit of a blood lust which Wade is not quick to take all that seriously. Stefan Kapičić gets a bit more to do as Colossus in this sequel as this character does what he can to make Wade a better person. The character of Peter, a regular person with no superpowers, is an inspired addition to this series, and I would love to have seen Rob Delaney play him in more scenes here. T.J. Miller also returns as bar owner and Wade’s best friend, Weasel, but considering his penchant for making fake bomb threats, I believe this will be the last time we see him in this role.

Deadpool 2” could have been too much of a good thing, but I had so much fun with it to where it didn’t matter if it was. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a movie, and it is nice to watch a movie where the jokes hit far more often than they miss. Reynolds, like Ben Affleck, have a strong sense of humor about his past mistakes in the world of cinema, and its fun seeing a movie star crack a few laughs at their own expense However, I am curious as to why he did not lay waste to “Blade: Trinity.” That misbegotten sequel was every bit as bad as “Green Lantern.”

And as always, be prepared for a post-credit sequence which is by the funniest of its kind since “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It is too damn hilarious to spoil here, and you have got to see it for yourself.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘X-Men: First Class’ Represents What a Prequel Should Be Like

X Men First Class poster

X-Men: First Class” is a huge improvement over the previous entry, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and it’s also the best film in the series since “X-Men 2.” It’s breezy fun, the special effects are terrific, and the emphasis on character this time around makes for a more involving prequel. With Wolverine shoved to the side, this fifth movie and the second prequel in the long running franchise, many other characters get their chance to shine.

The primary focus of “First Class” is on Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as we see the significant events which shaped and brought them together. But while Charles’ upbringing was a privileged one, Erik’s was unbearably tragic as he and his parents were imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp. Erik’s ability to control magnetism becomes evident early on, and this talent soon gets exploited by scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who commits an atrocious act in front of him. From there on, the driving force in Erik’s life is one of bloody revenge.

Prequels are tricky because we are naturally inclined to be against other actors taking over roles previously portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. Then there’s that cynical feeling of studios taking this route just to save money. It was deemed after “X-Men: The Last Stand” that a fourth movie with the same cast would have been far too expensive to make. Of course, with a reported budget of $160 million, “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t sound like much of a bargain. Moreover, does anyone remember “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd?” Did you think audiences were going to be fooled by a Jim Carrey-less prequel? Anyone remember “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas?” Heck, does anyone remember the first “Flintstones” movie? I remember seeing it, but the plot details escaped me once I walked out of the theater.

But what’s great about “X-Men: First Class” is the cast doesn’t need to worry about living up to the actors who inhabited the same roles before them. They get to approach these classic characters in a different light, and this frees them up from any restrictions which could have been imposed on them. Characters like Mystique and Dr. Hank McCoy are given more depth and complexity than ever before, and many surprises are in store for the audience as the script invests a lot of emotion in these characters including those bad mutants we rooted against in the past.

James McAvoy is excellent as the young Charles Xavier, and he looks like he had lots of fun making this prequel. Whereas Patrick Stewart’s Professor X was wise and mature, McAvoy’s is just getting started in his career and comes across as quite the ladies’ man. I also admired that while Charles is incredibly intelligent, we find his ego getting the best of him. So sure of all the things he is knowledgeable of, McAvoy does great work in making Xavier well-intentioned but not as open to mutants being themselves in the real world.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto remains one of the most fascinating characters in the “X-Men” universe. While he’s been the series’ chief villain and a megalomaniac, Magneto is simultaneously an anti-hero and has even been seen as a hero in the comic books. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for him considering the horrors he was exposed to in his youth, and it makes his future actions understandable, if not excusable. No wonder actors have so much fun in this role; you never know for sure the direction Magneto will end up taking. All you can say is, whatever he ends up doing, it will be to his benefit more than anyone else’s.

With movies like “Fish Tank” and “Inglourious Basterds” under his belt, Michael Fassbender is the perfect choice to play the young Erik Lehnsherr before and after he becomes Magneto. Fassbender has given performances deep with complexity and feeling; looking like the good guy at one point and then later turning into one seriously twisted individual. As Erik, he is great at showing the different layers to this character who is forever caught in a horrific moment he can’t get out of.

But one character who really gets expanded in “X-Men: First Class” is Raven whose shape-shifting abilities earn her the nickname of Mystique. Rebecca Romijn played Raven in the first three movies as a villain, and her character never got much in the way of psychological depth. Jennifer Lawrence, however, gets more to work with as we come to meet Raven at the time her allegiance to her “brother” Xavier begins to wane.

In Lawrence’s hands, she makes Raven/Mystique a strong female role model, one who is determined to be open about who she is and not be ashamed of it. While hiding herself in human form, as she is encouraged to do so by Charles Xavier, Raven’s frustration at appearing in public as someone other than herself is beginning to take its toll. Lawrence is riding high on some incredibly strong performances, and she continues to show how far her acting chops can stretch.

With Bryan Singer returning to this franchise as a producer, I’m sure he had a good hand in getting this particular entry focused more on character development. Each character is shown to be suffering through conflicted emotions as to what path the mutant race should follow, making them no different from the humans who deal with many of the same issues. Mutants are seen as the next stage in human evolution, but the haunting question of whether this will be to humanity’s best interests or detriment always hangs in the air.

But the person who deserves the most credit for “First Class” is its director, Matthew Vaughn. Coming off of the gleefully rebellious “Kick Ass,” one of 2010’s best movies, he manages to bring a lot of inventive energy to a franchise in desperate need of it. Vaughn also makes the special effects benefit the actors instead of just overwhelming them. What made the first few “X-Men” movies so special was the amount of emotion they generated, and the same thing is definitely the case here. It’s our connection with these characters which makes the action set pieces all the more exciting.

If there are any problems with “X-Men: First Class,” they come in the last half as the filmmakers become overly concerned about bringing the characters in line to where they are at in the first “X-Men” film. This was also a big problem with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” even though that prequel was much more convoluted. It would have been nicer to see the friendship between Charles and Erik get expanded instead of just ending this one with them taking opposite sides. Then again, perhaps it still could be expanded on in future installments.

Kevin Bacon, always a terrific actor, is perfectly detestable as the movie’s most irredeemable villain. At the same time, I wished the writers had expanded on his character more. Compared to the others, Sebastian Shaw threatens to be a little too one-dimensional in his actions. If Sebastian had more complexity to him, it would have made the transition of power between him and Erik all the more believable and compelling.

Other strong performances come from Rose Byrne as Dr. Moira MacTaggert and Nicholas Hout as the highly intelligent yet shy Dr. Hank McCoy. On the other hand, while January Jones is amazingly beautiful as Emma Frost/White Queen, her one-note delivery of dialogue is one of this film’s major detriments.

“X-Men: First Class” is a prequel done in the same spirit of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” and it’s proof you don’t need Wolverine present to make a good “X-Men” movie. This is a reboot which works to everyone’s advantage, and I am eager to see what comes next.

By the way, don’t bother staying through the end credits. There’s no post-credits sequence, so take care of that urine ache ASAP.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X Men Days of Future Past poster

Okay, let me get it out of the way now; “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is not only the best “X-Men” movie since “X2,” but it is also the most entertaining and emotionally powerful film of the franchise to date. For a while, it seemed like the series peaked as the succeeding sequels and prequels were critically maligned to where you wondered if this particular superhero franchise had finally overstayed its welcome. But with Bryan Singer, having been led away by Superman and a giant slayer among others things, back behind the camera again, everything feels fresh and invigorating again, and it’s hard to think of another “X-Men” movie which can top this one.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” starts off in a very bleak future where sentient robots known as Sentinels have exterminated most of the mutants as well as those humans who have helped them. Not much is left which leads me to believe that in the process of protecting humanity, humans ended up destroying themselves by creating the Sentinels. Time is running out for the remaining X-Men which include Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe / Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde / Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Bobby Drake / Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and of course Logan / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and they hide away in a Chinese monastery and prepare to use the only method they can to save all of humanity: time travel.

Charles explains to Logan of how they need to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the military scientist who created the Sentinels, by Raven Darkhölme / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). While it is completely understandable for any mutant to hate Bolivar with a passion, his assassination ends up making him a martyr and Raven gets captured and experimented on to where the analysis of her mutant powers help to make the Sentinels all the more effective. So Logan, with the help of Shadowcat, ends up traveling back to the year 1973 to stop Raven from killing Bolivar as he is the only one of the group who can withstand the rigors of time travel. But just when you think this is going to turn into the usual time-travel flick, it becomes anything but.

What I love about the “X-Men” movies are how they focus on character as much as they do on visual effects. The mutants are treated as the outcasts of society, and we feel their pain at being excluded for who they are. Singer understands this pain, and it makes his return to the franchise all the more welcome. Also, there’s something bigger at stake than changing the course of events in time, and that’s preserving hope. While Morgan Freeman said in “The Shawshank Redemption” of how hope is a dangerous thing as it can drive a man insane, the mutants (the good ones anyway) thrive on it because they know no one can live any other way. Even in the darkest of times, they strive to make the world a better place for all of humanity. You feel the weight of the choices they are about to make, and it produced moments which truly left me on the edge of my seat.

After playing Wolverine for so many years, I figured Hugh Jackman would be sick of the character as he remained a moody son of a bitch in. But the great thing about Wolverine this time around is how he and Charles Xavier essentially trade places. In the previous films, Charles was always trying to get Wolverine to look past his anger and bitterness to embrace a better path in life, and now Wolverine has to do the same for Charles. When we catch up with the younger Professor X (this time played by James McAvoy) in 1973, he is a broken man who has regained the ability to walk (don’t worry, there is an explanation) and has become more comfortable being a functioning alcoholic instead of being a teacher. His school is now empty since the Vietnam War took away many of his students, and he spends his days hanging out with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hout) who tends to his needs.

In some ways, Jackman looks really invigorated this time around as Wolverine proves to be the source of hope the other characters desperately need. He still remains the Wolverine we all know and love, and it’s a lot of fun watching him interact with the cast members of “X-Men: First Class.” Both McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who plays the younger Magneto, once again make these iconic roles their own without the shadows of Stewart and McKellen hovering over them. It’s also great to see Hout and Jennifer Lawrence back as well as both actors make Beast and Mystique more than just a couple of mere supporting characters.

It’s also great to see a lot of veteran “X-Men” actors here as I was afraid we would never see them together again in the same movie. Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page and Ashmore make their welcome returns count for every second of their screen time. And yes, Anna Paquin does make an appearance as Marie/Rogue. She’s only in the movie for a little bit, but at least she didn’t get cut out of it completely.

The screenwriter of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Simon Kinberg, and it is based on the famous comic book by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. For a time, I thought this was going to be your typical time travel movie where everything hinges on a pivotal moment in human history, but Kinberg has a few surprises in store for us as the story doesn’t stop at the moment we expect it to. The characters are acutely aware of the ripple effects they can cause in the history of things, and there’s no time wasted on showing how out of place they are in the 70’s as they always seem to be out of place in everyone’s eyes regardless of the decade.

There are also a bunch of new mutants joining the party this time around, and the one which stands out the most is Pietro Maximoff /Quicksilver who is played by Evan Peters. Peters is a gas to watch as his character moves at supersonic speeds around everyone, and he injects a good dose of humor into the proceedings. Singer also features Quicksilver in one of the movie’s most ingenious sequences which is scored to the most unlikely of songs. Seriously, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it has to be seen to be believed.

Another standout performance in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Peter Dinklage’s as Bolivar Trask. Like any good actor, Dinklage keeps Bolivar from becoming another one-dimensional villain as he infuses the character with an arrogance and blind ambition which makes him all the more dangerous. Bolivar believes deeply in what he is doing as he feels it is right, and you come out of the movie pitying him. This is a character who has struggled all his life to get the respect he feels he deserves, and he never gives much thought to the consequences of his actions.

I also got to give kudos to Richard Camacho who plays President Richard Nixon. After watching Frank Langella portray this American President in “Frost/Nixon,” I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see another actor play Nixon again as anyone else would have simply played him as a caricature. But I was surprised to see how good Camacho was because he didn’t give us the usual Nixon as this movie would have suffered as a result.

But in many ways, the biggest star of this “X-Men” movie is Singer himself. Regardless of his current legal predicament (I’m not even going into that here), he makes a comeback of sorts with this entry as his last few efforts have seen him lose his touch as a filmmaker. No, I haven’t seen “Jack the Giant Slayer,” but I have yet to hear my friends say anything good about it. But just as he did with the first “X-Men” movies, he does a terrific job of balancing out the visual effects with character development, and what results is the most emotionally satisfying comic book blockbuster I’ve ever seen. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which was really good, set the bar high, but Singer surpasses it by a wide margin with this installment.

After watching “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” you will agree that “X-Men: Apocalypse” can’t come soon enough. Seriously, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” only dreamed of being this good.

* * * * out of * * * *

Logan

Logan movie poster

Watching “Logan” is especially thrilling if you have been keeping up with the “X-Men” movies since the first one came out in the year 2000. While the previous installments played by a certain set of rules, this one smashes through them to create something unique in the long-running franchise. No longer shackled by the PG-13 rating, Hugh Jackman is given free rein to show just how bloody Wolverine can get when you piss him off, and he gives this character, which made him into a movie star, the swan song he deserves.

While the “X-Men” movies were largely science-fiction, “Logan” plays more like a western, and this will become abundantly clear even before characters sit down in a hotel room to watch “Shane.” We catch up with Wolverine, a.k.a. James “Logan” Howlett, in a future not too distant from our own where mutants have long since become an endangered species. Wolverine is now past his prime and works as a limo driver in an effort to save money to buy a boat which he and the ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) can sail away in from all of humanity. While he can still kick ass, he is now hobbled by a bad leg and a dependency on alcohol which eases the pain of surviving in this world for far too long.

The same goes with Xavier who now suffers from a neurodegenerative disease which has turned his telepathic abilities from a blessing into an unstable force people would be best not to be in the vicinity of. When he has an episode, the world around him is threatened in a highly unsettling way, and only Wolverine can give him the medication he needs to stop him from becoming a true weapon of mass destruction.

Then into the picture comes Laura (Dafne Keen), a young mutant who has more in common with Wolverine than he would care to admit or realize. Like the miraculously pregnant woman in “Children of Men,” Laura represents the next step in human evolution, and she needs to be taken to a safe haven for mutants which may or may not exist. On her trail are Reavers, a team of criminal cyborgs hell-bent on wiping mutants off the face of the earth, led by the gleefully sadistic Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) who is not about to let his fandom of Wolverine get in the way of his mission.

What I especially admired about “Logan” is how it dealt with the effects of aging and of people now past their prime. This is s0mething superhero or comic book movies, let alone most Hollywood movies, usually avoid dealing with as the powers that be wish to keep everything looking and feeling youthful. But we are forced to look at Wolverine and Xavier at a point in their lives where they are more vulnerable than ever to their enemies and especially their own mortality. Once they were powerful, but now they are pretty much off-warranty. How does one deal with arriving at a point in life where their bodies start working against them? “Logan” dares to deal with this question, and it does so in a way which is more character driven than ever before but still action packed as ever.

Jackman intends “Logan” to be his last “X-Men” as he has played Wolverine now for over a decade, and he has certainly given the character quite the exit. He even took a pay cut in order to ensure this film would get an R-rating, and it was certainly worth it as it gives him the freedom to make this iconic comic book character a far more blunt and brutal instrument than ever before.

Life is suffering, and no one knows this more than Wolverine who has lived more lifetimes than anyone else around him. Jackman has been brilliant at letting us see the inescapable vulnerabilities which are just beneath the surface of his tough and rugged exterior. Seeing him portray Wolverine at his most wounded is brave as he shows how even the most powerful of superheroes can reach their limit and yet still fight the good fight.

The movie also proves to be a perfect swansong for Patrick Stewart’s interpretation of Charles Xavier as he too portrays this character in a way we never expected. The professor was once a man of significant intelligence and insight, and now he has become a victim of the cruelties of aging none of us are eager to experience. Stewart shows no fear at portraying Xavier in his most disabled state, and while it is painful to see this once great character reduced to a mere shell of who he once was, the great actor is priceless in giving us a man who clings on to the mere gifts afforded to him in a way we all take for granted. It’s a heartbreaking performance, and Stewart plays it without a single faked emotion.

There are also a number of terrific supporting performances here, and the most impressive of the bunch comes from Dafne Keen as the young and deadly mutant, Laura, who befriends Wolverine and Professor X. At the tender age of 11 or 12 years old, Keen is forced to play most of her scenes with no dialogue whatsoever, but she still speaks so many words with even the smallest of facial expressions. It’s a lot to ask of an actor of any age to accept such an acting challenge, but she is more than up to it and gives us a riveting portrayal of a child who has been made to become something no child should ever be made into.

I also admired Stephen Merchant’s performance as Caliban, an albino mutant who can sense and track other mutants. This could have easily been the kind of wimpy character who goes through the usual scenarios of betraying others for his own selfish purposes, but Merchant makes him into much more than that as we see how heavy the consequences of his actions weigh on his conscience. In the hands of another actor, this could have been a throwaway role, but Merchant is too good to let something like that happen.

Boyd Holbrook makes a perfectly hateful yet charismatic villain out of Donald Pierce, Eriq La Salle has some strong moments as a family man who helps out Wolverine and his friends, and Frank Gallegos figures prominently in a small role as a Federale Lieutenant who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Please believe me when I say Gallegos is concrete proof of how actors in the smallest of roles can make quite the impression, and he more than does that here.

Directing “Logan” is James Mangold who directed the previous “X-Men” spinoff “The Wolverine” which was easily better than its predecessor, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Mangold’s films have mostly been studies in empathy about people who have been severely damaged by life, but who still have yet to meet their greatest challenge. Whether it’s Sylvester Stallone’s disabled police officer in “Copland,” the emotionally unstable women portrayed by Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted,” singers Johnny Cash and June Carter in “Walk the Line,” or even Tom Cruise’s eccentric spy in “Knight and Day,” the characters who occupy his films have suffered deep emotional wounds which they will be eventually forced to confront and make peace with whether they want to or not. “Logan” definitely fits in with the themes Mangold has explored throughout his films, and he makes this comic book/superhero an especially enthralling one as we are thrilled as much as we are moved emotionally.

Mangold also breaks free of the rules and conventions the “X-Men” movie franchise has laid out for its various filmmakers, and as a result, it really does feel like a true spin-off compared to the others before it. He gives “Logan” a very gritty feel, but as brutal and bleak as this movie is, it is also filled with hope. While history does repeat itself more often than we would like to admit, we are left with the strong possibility that the next generation of mutants will find a better way to exist in a world with those who have yet to fully trust them.

Seriously, I found “Logan” to be a thing of beauty as it dares to take characters we have grown up watching and put them in situations no filmmaker would have dared to put them in 10 years ago. I came into it thinking it would be the “Alien 3” of the “X-Men” movies as the use of Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” in the teaser trailer implied this would show Wolverine and Xavier at the darkest points in their lives. It certainly does, but it doesn’t leave us in a state of utter depression at its climax. We have come too far to give up on these mutants, and there’s no giving up on them now.

“Logan” proves to be one of the best “X-Men” movies as well as one of the best comic book movies ever made. With this gripping installment, this franchise has found its own version of “The Dark Knight,” and 2017 has already found one of its best motion pictures in only its third month.

* * * * out of * * * *

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

x-men-origins-wolverine-poster

I was racing to the movie theater, one of the smaller ones in the Los Angeles area, trying to get there before the movie started. My friends were all there waiting on my slow ass, and as usual, I had left my apartment at the last possible minute. Cursing myself and the slow ass drivers placed in my path, I hurried while risking the possibility of getting pulled over. With the economy now being located in the center of the earth while we slowly dig towards it, the police are handing out more tickets than ever. Heaven forbid I make some sort of unnecessary donation to them and miss the film.

Anyway, with an enormous stroke of luck, I managed to make it to the theater just as the trailers were about to start. I was thankful to find my friends who managed to save a seat for me, and I was even more thankful to miss out on all those stupid commercials AMC Theaters feels the need to inflict on us. It is an addictive thrill to get to where you are going just in the nick of time and a hard one to get over (it would help if I did, though). Thank god for Japanese machinery, especially with it having almost 200,000 miles on the odometer.

I bring this up because my maddening drive to get to the theater on time turned out to be far more exciting than the movie I ended up seeing: “X-Men Origins – Wolverine.” It is the fourth movie in the “X-Men” franchise, and the first big movie of summer 2009. But more importantly, it is also summer 2009’s first big disappointment. This has been the case for the past couple of years, with the first big summer movie not meeting expectations.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” takes place years before the first “X-Men” movie, and we get to see the pivotal character of Wolverine as a young boy who ends up committing a violent act he can never take back. As a result, he runs away from home with his half-brother Victor Creed (later to be known as Sabretooth). From there, we get a spectacular opening sequence in which we see the both of them fight in just about every major war they were exposed to throughout their endless lifetimes. From the American Civil War to the Vietnam War, we see them fighting with the other side, taking their hits, and they come out of it all relatively unscathed. Of course, when Wolverine and Sabretooth end up being played by Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, they stop aging for good. Very convenient for the box office, wouldn’t you say?

With this being a prequel, a lot of the suspense is sucked out right there because we all know Wolverine is going to survive this adventure and go on to experience many more. Granted, some prequels can be exciting and leave you hanging on the edge of your seat (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is a perfect example), but it takes a really good script and precise direction to suck you into the present tense of the movie you are watching. The more you as an audience member are sucked into the moment, the more you forget about the film which chronologically comes after it. But since this franchise has been around since the early part of the 2000’s, we have come to know these characters all too well. We know what will happen to them eventually, and we end up spending too much time trying to connect the dots between this and the other “X-Men” movies. It makes this origin movie a lot less exciting as a result.

Seriously, this is “X-Men” meets “The Punisher” when you take a close look at the story. We see Wolverine working as a lumberjack after having left special ops six years ago, and he lives with his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox (the lovely Lynn Collins) in a secluded cabin up in the hills of Canada, but the past, of course, catches up with him like we expect it to. Logan (Wolverine’s real name) is approached by William Stryker (Danny Huston playing the same character Brian Cox played in “X-Men 2”) to get back into action because Victor/Sabretooth is on the loose. Logan says no, and this had me rolling my eyes because we all know Kayla is going to get murdered by Victor, and this will make Wolverine become thirsty for revenge. In doing so, he will be forced to alter his body to where he will become the indestructible animal we already know him as through the previous installments.

One of the movie’s real stumbling blocks is both Wolverine and Sabretooth are presented as indestructible. No matter how many bullets are shot at them or how many times they get stabbed, we know they will get back up and heal themselves in a matter of seconds. This knowledge affects the movie’s big action sequences because, regardless of whether or not they get the bad guys, we know they will come out of it all unscathed. We also know Sabretooth is not going to get his due justice at the end of this story. It gets to where you expect either of these characters to start singing “Shoot Me Again” by Metallica. You know how that one goes, right?

“Shoot me again, I ain’t dead yet!”

In terms of performances, Hugh Jackman still delivers the goods as Logan/Wolverine. If you think his successful stint as host of the Oscars might have softened him, you needn’t worry. Even with a script which deals with elements we have seen in other movies like this one, he gives this comic book hero a real heart and soul just as he did before. Starting off an “X-Men” prequel series with this character wasn’t a bad idea, but it’s a shame the filmmakers did not give him a more original and compelling story.

Liev Schreiber also does solid work here as Victor Creed/Sabretooth. While the script could have given the character a little more dimension, Schreiber makes the character an effectively dangerous rival with a never-ending bloodlust, and he keeps our interest along with Jackman throughout the movie’s two hour running time.

The other actors don’t fare as well. Danny Huston’s portrayal of William Stryker lacks the complex nature Brian Cox brought to the role previously. The fact Stryker’s son is a mutant is brought into this film as an afterthought, and it leads to one of the character’s more ludicrous moments. Stryker’s fate at the end of the film doesn’t make much sense either because you can’t help but wonder how he managed to become such a powerful military leader by the time we see him in “X-Men 2.”

Ryan Reynolds plays Wade Wilson/Deadpool, and it is same kind of character he played in the dreadful “Blade: Trinity.” While I got a kick out of Reynolds’ sardonic wit and lightning speed with swords, his appearance in “Wolverine” feels like a wasted opportunity. Reynolds ends up disappearing from the movie too quickly, and we don’t see him again until much later. This leaves us with mutants who are nowhere as interesting as the ones we met in the previous “X-Men” movies. Characters like Agent Zero (played by Daniel Henney) are so one-note, they cease to be interesting almost immediately.

In fact, this is my biggest beef with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine;” it has an utter lack of character development. The three previous films gave us characters to care about as soon as they appeared onscreen. Bryan Singer, who directed the first two films, really took the time to make us feel what these characters were going through as they were cruelly branded as outcasts. We sympathized with their struggles as they worked with Professor Charles Xavier to co-exist peacefully with humans. This made the action sequences all the more exciting; we worried about these characters getting hurt. It was like we got hurt along with them.

But with this newest “X-Men” movie, these characters cease to be as interesting as they once were. They exist here as a means to an end, to guide Wolverine to the point where we first met him. We get introduced to some cool characters like Gambit, but it feels like he is being given only a test run here to see if he will be popular enough to include in future installments. More attention is paid here to the spectacle than anything else, and it shows. There are some great visuals to be found here for sure, but without stronger characters, they just come across as empty. There is no visceral feeling to them, and not much risk is on display.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was directed by Gavin Hood who previously directed the Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” as well as “Rendition” which starred Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m not sure how much of the blame he should take for this one. Word is the production was troubled and that executive producer Richard Donner took over directing duties for a few scenes, and the script was constantly being rewritten (no surprise there). I guess by bringing in an indie director like they did with Singer, the producers were hoping to bring a fresh new perspective to the long-running franchise. But Hood’s direction is not exemplary here in the way Singer’s was, and he makes this nothing more than an average action movie. There is nothing really special he accomplishes here which could have made this particular comic book movie more unique.

Indeed, there are many twists towards the end which serve to define the character of Wolverine. But the more they came, the less I believed them. There are gaps in logic I am willing to forgive in movies, but once I start thinking about them while watching what unfolds onscreen, I will undoubtedly have some serious issues. Some plot twists would have required years of preparation for the characters to pull off, and I can’t see any of them thinking that far into the future. Much more attention should have been paid to the script, and the characters should have been given top priority. They also should have given this film a much different story than an average one of a man scorned by the loss of love and the need for vengeance. The conflicted hero act worked for a while, but now it feels old, old, old.

It’s hard to dissuade you “X-Men” fans from seeing this movie, so I’m not going to try. Granted, I’ll be interested to hear what you all think of it. You may end up enjoying it far more than I did. Jackman is great as always, but his performance is not enough to save this scripted mess. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” should serve as a warning for future origin movies in how they should and should not be made. Seeing Wolverine before he goes on his Jason Bourne-like mission takes many of the character’s mysteries away and renders him far less intriguing. Sometimes it is better to not know so much about where certain people come from.

* * 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 * * * *