Movie Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ Plays It Way Too Safe by Both X-Men and General Movie Standards

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Scott Shepherd, Ato Essandoh

Director: Simon Kinberg

Running Time: 114 Minute

Rating: PG-13 for Getting Suddenly Violently Tossed About by Telekinesis

Release Date: June 7, 2019

I love the X-Men. They’re my favorite superhero team, and still, through it all, my favorite superhero movie franchise. They’ve delivered some dizzying cinematic heights but also some flicks that have driven me batty. So it pains me to say that Dark Phoenix did not make me feel much in the way of any strong emotions.

Some say that the X-Men series is burdened by tangled, contradictory continuity. I say it’s bolstered by it. Whereas other cinematic universes are careful to keep every little thread in line for the health of a sturdy timeline, the Merry Mutants traverse decades willy-nilly, tossing off whatever plotlines just aren’t working and cruising along with whatever’s exciting and vibrant, paradoxes be damned! Dark Phoenix doesn’t reject that approach, but it doesn’t embrace it either. It’s mostly content to tell a straightforward story, while occasionally throwing out some half-baked ideas. It’s a movie unstuck in time, instead of proudly giving the middle finger to any temporal concepts.

Dark Phoenix is clearly a labor of love. It’s the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, who’s been with the franchise for over a decade, and it’s based on one of the most beloved comics storylines, in which telepathic telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) bonds with a super-hot cosmic force to become the most powerful creature on the planet, perhaps the whole universe. It’s a huge climactic big screen culmination that’s been promised to us for quite some time, but after seeing how it’s turned out, I mainly want to say: we would have been okay without this movie. Or maybe now just wasn’t the right time for it. It’s arriving hot on the heels of an X-Men movie whose title literally referred to the end of the world and another that said a fitting goodbye to a pair of iconic X-characters.

But it shouldn’t have been impossible for Dark Phoenix to be another rousing, revolutionary statement so soon after those conclusive paradigm changes. In fact, it would have totally been in keeping with this franchise’s always-moving-forward ethos. But that’s not going to happen when a climactic battle scene takes place in some random New York hotel or when Professor X and Magneto run through the same old rigamarole of bickering and then making a temporary peace. When the stakes are this high, you have to go for broke.

Dark Phoenix is Recommended If You Like: X-Men completism, if you gotta

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Firebirds

This Is a Movie Review: Mother of Mercy, Is This the End of ‘Logan’?

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This review was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant

Director: James Mangold

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Relentless, Vengeful Bodily Harm and a DGAF Attitude to Language

Release Date: March 3, 2017

Logan marks the ninth time that Hugh Jackamn is donning the muttonchops and adamantium claws to play indestructible X-Man Wolverine. At this point, for general audiences and fanboys alike to care, there simply MUST be something new to offer this go-round. Both of Wolverine’s previous solo films kind of fulfilled that dictum, but 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine otherwise totally missed the mark, while 2013’s The Wolverine felt too inconsequential. Logan ain’t having any of that. Set in a semi-apocalyptic near future, the film streamlines the muddled continuity down of the X-universe to its essence and gets right down to business.

Logan and an unstable, nonagenarian Professor X (Patrick Stewart, relevant as ever) are tasked with transferring the preteen Laura (Dafne Keen) to safety. In this future, mutants have mostly died out and no new ones have been born for two decades (the reason for this is revealed in a quick bit of exposition, so keep your ears peeled), but Laura displays abilities very reminiscent of our title character, suggesting that the mutant gene may not have died out completely. What we have here is a classic Western story structure about transporting human cargo. This makeshift family treks along dusty Oklahoma highways in search of a supposed Eden, avoiding the evil scientist forces that constantly plague this world’s heroes.

In a first for the franchise, Logan is rated R, and it does not shy away from earning that rating. With Wolverine’s penchant for slicing his enemies to smithereens, this potential was always there. And this is not just bloodlust for the sake of it. Logan does not have any new powers in this iteration, but he does deploy them in unprecedented fashion. Rendered sick by the same culprit that killed off the rest of mutantkind, there is greater vulnerability to his carnage. His earlier appearances have not lacked for thrillingly hardcore action, but with his healing power, the stakes have never been as high as they are in Logan. Every thrash of his claw becomes profoundly cathartic.

Logan works primarily as an acting showcase for Jackman, Stewart, and Keen. This entry just solidifies the Aussie’s performance as one of the most iconic bits of casting in cinema history. Stewart plays the telepathic leader in a key that I would have never anticipated. I am not entirely sure it all works, but it is undoubtedly riveting, and I admire Stewart for venturing into such dangerous territory. Keen is a spitfire and a revelation. It takes a special breed of 11-year-old to go toe-to-toe with a hairy beast, and she’s got what it takes. All signs point to Jackman hanging up the claws for good after this entry, and if this means that Keen can inherit the mantle, we are in good hands.

Logan is Recommended If You Like: The berserker scene from X2The Hateful EightThe Nice GuysLooper

Grade: 4 out of 5 Decapitations

This Is a Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

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X-Men: Apocalypse is liable to thrill and offend audiences in equally extreme measure. I mean, come on, just consider the plot: the oldest mutant arises from his millennia-long sleep after being betrayed in ancient Egypt, and then he works to enact his plan to conquer humankind and establish mutants in their rightful place atop the new world order. The acting, direction, production design, makeup, and cinematography all match the grandiosity of this vision. To make it all work, Bryan Singer and team take a mix-and-match approach to the plotting, mining elements from the comics and the earlier X-Men films and recycling or rejecting them as they see fit. The result is unmistakably audacious and constantly thrilling. This is a movie in which a Holocaust survivor razes Auschwitz, and in many respects that is not even the most shocking moment.

This bombast asks a lot of the actors, but most of them acquit themselves well, or at least as well as they possibly can. As the titular baddie, Oscar Isaac weaves gold despite being caked under a mountain of purple makeup. This could easily be a ridiculous role, and it actually is, but it is also frightening, kind of hilarious, and deeply felt. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy (Fassbender especially) benefit from drawing upon their earlier performances (and those of their predecessors). As Jean Grey, Sophie Turner must simultaneously be a novice and one of the most powerful beings in the world – she manages to pull off the appropriate dread and uncertainty. While not every character shines (an inevitability with a cast this big), Apocalypse is another example of an X-Men movie understanding its fundamental strength of a rainbow of unique powers. More than any other entry in the series, this is a film in which it truly feels like anything can happen.

I give X-Men: Apocalypse 8 Grand Speeches out of 10 Risers From the Ashes.

P.S.: Quicksilver’s signature scene tops the “Time in a Bottle” sequence from Days of Future Past, but even more jaw-dropping is the scene right before, in which Apocalypse legitimately destroys the status quo.