Review of “Dark Phoenix”

Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) has been the ward of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) since a car crash caused by Jean’s powers killed her parents when she was eight in 1975. In 1992, the X-Men take on the rescue of the astronauts onboard the space shuttle Endeavour that’s been crippled by a solar flare. While Jean is on the shuttle, the solar flare strikes the shuttle which should have destroyed the space craft and killed Jean. However, Jean absorbs the energy that isn’t really a solar flare. On the ground, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) gives Jean a medical exam and finds she is physically fine, but her mutant powers are off the scale. Meanwhile, during a dinner party, a woman hears her dog barking. She goes to investigate when she is attacked by aliens, one of them taking on her appearance. More aliens are with her and shapeshift into other human forms. They are a race called D’Bari and her name is Vuk (Jessica Chastain). They are looking for the energy Jean absorbed and plan on using it for evil purposes. That energy has changed Jean, overcoming mental blocks put in place by Xavier to protect her from her past and is causing her to hurt and kill those around her. Jean finds Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) at his protected island refuge for mutants, hoping to find a way to deal with her new power. When a military team arrives to capture Jean, she destroys one of their helicopters and has a tug of war with Erik over the other before he can push it away, saving all the soldiers from Jean. He tells her to leave as she is endangering his mutant enclave. Vuk finds Jean and tells her she can help her discover the truth about her abilities and that the X-Men fear her and will try to kill her.

With the purchase of 20th Century Fox by Disney, “Dark Phoenix” is the last X-Men film for a while. It is also the worst reviewed of the series with a 22% on Rotten Tomatoes and had the lowest opening weekend of the franchise with just $33 million. It was plagued by poor audience response in test screenings, reshoots, on-set script revisions and budget overruns. Projections put “Dark Phoenix” losing $100 million or so. It is by all measurements a complete failure…and yet, I liked it quite a bit.

The film has several good performances, including a brief appearance by a very young actress. Summer Fontana plays Jean Grey at the age of eight. She possesses a seriousness and maturity that is striking for someone of her young age. It may be the best performance in the film as it is the most memorable.

Sophie Turner and James McAvoy are also impressive in their final turns as Jean Grey and Charles Xavier respectively. Turner, once she is empowered by the cosmic energy, is in turns frightened and questioning, then powerful and aggressive. Jean is unsure of what has happened to her and Turner captures all Jean’s confusion. It’s like a child entering puberty and being unsure of what is happening to their body and mind. Jean is filled with power and when she uses it, people get hurt. Perhaps scaring Jean even more is she likes the feeling of losing control. Turner turns Jean’s switches in personality into believable moments as a woman with new gifts begins flexing her muscles, despite the consequences.

James McAvoy has a nice bit of character growth in “Dark Phoenix.” McAvoy’s Xavier enjoys the moment of acceptance the X-Men are getting, especially after Jean, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and the rest of the team save a space shuttle full of astronauts. Charles is getting congratulations calls from the President of the United States and good publicity for mutants on the news for a change. He’s basking in the warm glow of good feelings and it’s going to his head. He believes he’s doing everything for the betterment of mutants, but he’s also feeding his ego. Charles borders on smarmy when he’s dealing with VIP’s and he’s dismissive of Raven and Hank when they question his motives. McAvoy delivers a performance that leads the audience to dislike the character for perhaps the first time in the series. It’s a bold choice to turn a character from fatherly to bad step-fatherly in what is likely your last outing. McAvoy is always fun to watch, especially in “Dark Phoenix.”

There are numerous action scenes and they all work very well and look great. The scene of the X-Men saving the astronauts that really kicks off the story is an exciting start. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler gets a chance to shine as a big part of the rescue. The bit of smoke or whatever that’s supposed to be left when Nightcrawler uses his power gets amped up this time and blocks the audience’s view at tense times to build suspense. Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops gets to blast his way into the action and play a major role. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver helps as well, despite the lack of gravity. The whole scene lets the audience know there are some impressive special effects to follow.

“Dark Phoenix” has a feeling of finality to it. It is the last entry in the 20th Century Fox version of the X-Men. While the Disney purchase of the studio was an unknown future when this film was being written, “Dark Phoenix” says goodbye to some characters and puts a period on other character’s relationships. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere else to go with this version of the characters and the film’s makers appear to know that. Many of the actors may also be at the end of their contracts and recasting might have been in the future if the Fox sale hadn’t happened. Looking at the reviews and the box office, perhaps it’s time for this version of the franchise to come to an end.

“Dark Phoenix” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, action, disturbing images, intense sci-fi violence and some gunplay. There are numerous fights and battles but very little blood. Gunfire is limited and is mostly aimed at aliens that are able to withstand it without injury. There are a couple of scenes when the aliens use a power to cave in people’s chests. Foul language is limited, but the film uses its one allowed “F-bomb.”

The X-Men have always been a metaphor for the struggles of minorities and the outsiders of society. Despite all the super heroics and special effects, “Dark Phoenix” continues this tradition. It even mirrors the apparent acceptance of the different and the backlash that inevitably happens. It’s an interesting view on society that I hope will be continued by the folks at Disney when the X-Men eventually make their appearance in the MCU. While this film hasn’t been welcomed with open arms, I enjoyed it, found it exciting both in the action and the visuals, and a good way to wrap up this version of the X-Men. Make up your own mind, but I liked it.

“Dark Phoenix” gets five stars.

I’ll be reviewing “Shaft” for WIMZ.com.

Also opening this week is “Men in Black: International.”

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “The Martian”

Botanist and astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a six-person crew exploring the surface of Mars as part of the Ares III mission. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is informed by crew member Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) of an approaching dust storm that has intensified since the last weather update and may cause their return vehicle to topple over. Lewis orders the crew to head to the launch vehicle and prepare to return to their mothership Hermes in orbit. As they walk from a habitat module to the return vehicle, a piece of equipment is picked up by the wind and strikes Watney with such force that it carries him away from the others. Unable to see him in the blinding storm and receiving telemetry that his suit has been breached, Lewis makes the decision to leave him behind since it appears he is dead. The crew launches and begins the nine month trip back to Earth. Watney wakes up, injured but alive. He returns to the habitat and assesses his situation. He can’t contact Hermes or NASA since his communications equipment was destroyed in the storm. He is in a habitat designed to last 30 days with a limited food and water supply and he’s looking at a minimum of four years before the next mission is scheduled to arrive. Watney begins thinking of ways to extend his food and water supply. Back on Earth, Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) asks NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) to use satellites orbiting Mars to look at the Ares III landing site but Sanders refuses fearing images of Watney’s body on the surface would turn public sentiment against the space program. Kapoor asks an operator in Mission Control to redirect a satellite to look at the Ares III location and notices a rover has changed locations. NASA realizes Watney is alive and begin working on plans to send him supplies. Using his remaining supplies and repurposing the equipment to which he has access Watney does everything he can to stay alive and have the best chance at rescue.

“The Martian” is more than a science-fiction movie. The story wouldn’t be hugely different if the setting was in the wilderness and a lone character had to figure out how to survive with just his wits and limited supplies. While the potential wait for rescue would be significantly shorter, the basics would remain the same. That’s what makes “The Martian” a movie that appeals to those that like sci-fi and those that don’t, as shown by the large take at the box office. It is a film that focuses on one man’s struggle to survive in an environment that has several different ways it can kill him. While the locale is out of this world, the struggle is completely relatable.

Matt Damon is such an everyman he easily fits into just about any role. From a troubled mathematical genius to an amnesiac super spy to a stranded astronaut, Damon finds the humanity in all his characters no matter what insanity might swirl around them. His work in “The Martian” is no different. Damon plays Watney as a brilliant man, cool under pressure, but not someone that doesn’t have doubts about his chances from time to time. The strain of being alone takes its toll on Watney and Damon unapologetically shows us his fear and anger. It’s a brilliant performance on which the entire movie rides.

That isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t given a chance to shine. Large chunks of the story take place on Earth and on board the Hermes. As the characters deal with the pressures of figuring out a way to save their stranded comrade and the guilt of having left him behind, we see the kind of political, personal and public relations decisions that go on behind the scenes. There are hard choices that have to be made and difficult calculations on the worth of one man’s life. Is the risk of saving Watney worth the cost in materials, manpower and possible bad PR? It’s the kind of questions the real space program hasn’t had to answer publicly but I’m sure discussions about all the possible outcomes of missions have led to some heated debates. It’s that sort of real-world consideration along with the excitement and tension that make “The Martian” such a grounded story for a sci-fi movie.

“The Martian” is rated PG-13 for injury images, brief nudity and some strong language. We see Watney’s injury and his self-surgery to repair the damage. There are a couple of views of Watney’s bare backside. Foul language is widely scattered but the film does use its maximum allowed number of “F-Bombs.”

“The Martian” is based on a book of the same name by Andy Weir. According to an interview in the podcast “SciFi Geeks Club,” Weir says screenwriter Drew Goddard consulted him on certain aspects of the story and the movie is about 95% faithful to his book. That is almost unheard of in making books into movies. That kind of adherence to the source material may play some part in why “The Martian” is such a great movie. It doesn’t dumb down the science and it keeps the characters grounded with real emotion along with humor to keep the threat of impending death from making the movie too grim. It is well worth your time and money whether you enjoy science fiction or not.

“The Martian” gets five guitars out of five.

This week, there is only one wide release film and that’s the prequel story of Peter Pan. While I may see that visual effect extravaganza, there are some smaller films that look interesting as well. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Grandma—

Hell and Back—

Learning to Drive—

Pan—

Pawn Sacrifice—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Reviews of “Interstellar” and “Big Hero 6”

Some movies get very little advance publicity. You don’t hear about them until right before they come out. You don’t see any banner ads on the Internet. You don’t hear your friends talking about them and you sometimes might not see a trailer until a few weeks before the release. That cannot be said for this week’s movies at “Interstellar” and “Big Hero 6” have been the subject of the kind of pre-release publicity you see only for films that are expected to be blockbusters or come from filmmakers who are expected to release something you haven’t quite seen before. Both are true of these films.

Interstellar

Earth is dying. Actually, the people on Earth are dying because of various vegetable crop blights that have killed off many mainstay foods. Famine is widespread and over-farming is creating dust bowl conditions over huge parts of the planet. Nearly everyone is a farmer of some sort but mostly of corn. One of those corn farmers is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut. He has two children, his daughter Murphy (played a various ages by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn) and son Tom (played by Timothee Chalamet and Casey Affleck) but is raising them with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) because his wife died of an undiagnosed brain cyst. Since the beginning of the food shortage, science and technology that has nothing to do with farming have fallen out of favor; so much so that textbooks have been changed to say the moon landings were faked to force the old Soviet Union to bankrupt itself to keep pace. Murphy, or Murph as she is often called, loves science and has a curious and hungry mind that Cooper fosters and when books begin falling randomly from the shelves in Murph’s room, Cooper urges her to figure it out scientifically and not assume it’s a ghost. One day after a dust storm, Murph and Cooper are standing in her room when they notice the dust is settling in patterns. These patterns are due to gravity fluctuations. Doing some math, Cooper figures out a series of coordinates that are a couple of hours away by truck. Cooper and Murph head out to find the source of the anomaly and discover a military base. They are captured by guards and brought inside where they meet Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and her father Dr. Brand (Michael Caine). Dr. Brand was one of Cooper’s college professors and he tells Cooper that what he’s stumbled upon is the remnants of NASA. Originally disbanded because it was considered a waste of money, NASA is now operating in secret to investigate a wormhole that formed 50 years earlier near the orbit of Saturn. Dr. Brand wants Cooper to lead a team consisting of Amelia, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) to take a ship through the wormhole and check out three worlds that might be habitable on the other side. Twelve teams were sent through years earlier each to a separate planet. The wormhole keeps communication to a minimum so Dr. Brand wants to send a team to check on them and come back with the world that might be a new home for humanity.

That is a basic synopsis of the first 30 minutes of Christopher Nolan’s 169 minute “Interstellar.” That’s a long movie and it had better be interesting to keep my attention for the full running time. “Interstellar” is not only capable of keeping your attention; it makes you wish the movie was actually longer. As a sci-fi fan, I was engrossed by the visual interpretation of a wormhole and later a black hole. I watch as many science documentaries as I can find on the subject of space and quantum theory and humanity’s possible future colonization of the moon, Mars and planets beyond so this movie is squarely in my wheelhouse. On the other hand, if you get glassy eyed at the technobabble, don’t be afraid as “Interstellar” is really about more down to earth subjects.

At the core of Nolan’s film is the relationship between Cooper and Murph. Theirs is a special, deep bond that is frequently lacking in real life between fathers and daughters. When Cooper agrees to take the mission and can’t tell Murph how long he’ll be gone, she is heartbroken and angry beyond words. That feeling of abandonment, probably amplified by the death of her mother, is a theme that runs throughout “Interstellar.” It plays out on a couple of different levels that I shan’t discuss as to not spoil the film for you; but be aware, it is at the heart of what’s driving the film. Even when Cooper and his team are on the surfaces of other planets, loss, abandonment, fear and anger are just as prevalent as they are at home. Grounding the film in such deep and understandable emotion is why “Interstellar” is more than just a special effects picture.

Of course, the special effects are spectacular. From the spaceships to the robots and from the wormhole to the spacesuits, “Interstellar” is the kind of visual feast one doesn’t get very often. A great deal of care was taken with the representation of the wormhole and the production used theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne as a science advisor. Unlike most films that would just use other representations of such objects found in other films or television shows, “Interstellar” used the research of Dr. Thorne to try and create the most accurate representation of a wormhole and a black hole that has ever been seen. According to Thorne, his work on the movie has led to a new scientific paper for the world of astrophysics. The spaceships and other technical aspects of space travel appear to have been well researched also. There doesn’t appear to be any wildly outlandish technology on display. While many people might question robots that look like representations of the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the way they move and interact with the humans on the crew makes perfect sense. The landscapes of the alien worlds they visit are also spectacular without being overly “alien.” One world is made up mostly of a shallow sea while the other is a frozen wasteland. Both locations were in Iceland and are perfect for representing a different planet.

So the emotion, the science and the look of the movie are all fantastic. That means “Interstellar” is perfect, right? Not quite. While the movie mostly works, the way things are all tied together struck me as a bit too neat and sweet. Again, I don’t want to give away anything; but I will say the way Nolan and company decided to resolve the film felt a bit cheap. It is designed to make you say “aww” and possibly roll a tear; however, it left me a bit dumbstruck that all that preceded led to this. I’m being vague so as to not blow anything for you. You may see the movie and think it all makes perfect sense and wonder how I can be so heartless as to complain. That’s fine as we all are allowed to have our opinions. That is mine.

“Interstellar” is rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language. There are a couple of physical confrontations, one more aggressive than the rest. Foul language is minimal but the movie does use its one rating-allowed F-bomb.

“Interstellar” is an engrossing film that will make you forget about its nearly three hour running time (and your overwhelming need to urinate). The film is spectacular in all ways with the exception of a tidying up of story that, to me, felt a bit cheap and lazy. I’m willing to forgive that small issue as the rest of the movie more than makes up for it.

“Interstellar” gets five stars out of five.

Big Hero 6

Hiro Hamada (voice of Ryan Potter) is a genius in robotics engineering. After graduating from high school at age 13, the now 14 year old Hiro is using his talents to compete in illegal robot fighting and the gambling that surrounds it. His brother, Tadashi (voice of Daniel Henney), wants Hiro to join him at college in the engineering department. Taking him for a tour of his campus workshop, Hiro meets Tadashi’s friends and fellow students Go Go Tomago (voice of Jamie Chung), Wasabi (voice of Damon Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (voice of Genesis Rodriguez) and Fred (voice of T. J. Miller). Fred is not a student but loves science and hopes his friends can one day turn him into a fire-breathing dragon. Tadashi shows Hiro what he’s working on: A healthcare robot named Baymax (voice of Scott Adsit). Baymax only function is to care for the injured and provide comfort until they tell him they are satisfied with their care. Hiro is impressed by what he sees what Tadashi and the other students are doing and wants to join Tadashi. He meets the head of the engineering department Professor Robert Callaghan (voice of James Cromwell) who says he might belong at the school if he’s good enough. There’s a showcase for prospective students and inventors in a few weeks and Hiro decides to enter and see if he can get an invitation to come to the school. Working diligently, Hiro invents microbots, a swarm of inch long robots that work in concert to construct anything the operator can think of. They are controlled by a headband that projects the users’ thoughts to the microbots. The display impresses Professor Callaghan who offers admission to the school and also industrialist Alistair Krei (voiced by Alan Tudyk) who offers to buy the microbots on the spot. Professor Callaghan reacts negatively to Krei’s offer and urges Hiro not to accept. Hiro doesn’t sell and Krei walks away in a bit of a huff. Later Tadashi and Hiro are walking around campus when they see the engineering building is on fire. Someone says Professor Callaghan is trapped and Tadashi runs inside just before the building explodes, killing him and Callaghan. Distraught, Hiro stays in his room and doesn’t start school. Dropping an object on his foot, Hiro accidently activates Baymax who has been stored in Tadashi’s old room. It is also about this time that Hiro finds a stray microbot in this jacket pocket. It seems to be trying to join with the others but they were all destroyed in the fire. Baymax decides to see where the microbot wants to go and Hiro reluctantly follows. At a warehouse, Hiro and Baymax find someone is mass producing microbots. They are then attacked by a man in a mask who is controlling the millions of microbots. Barely escaping, Hiro decides to upgrade Baymax with carbon-fiber armor and investigate the mysterious man in the mask. Baymax, concerned about Hiro’s emotional state after the loss of his brother, contracts Tadashi’s five classmates who all come to cheer Hiro up as he’s investigating back at the warehouse. The masked man and microbots attack the whole group and they escape to Fred’s house which turns out to be a mansion. Using the research projects of each of Tadashi’s friends, Hiro designs armor and weapons for the five of them (creating a dragon suit that breathes fire for Fred) and they form a group of superheroes to stop the man in the mask from causing mass destruction and turn him over to the police for killing Tadashi and the professor.

“Big Hero 6” is a lesser known Marvel Comics property whose members bear little resemblance to the characters in the movie. That’s okay as this group of teens and twenty-somethings is far more relatable then the gonzo group of characters in the comic book. While it doesn’t exactly ground the group in reality, it is far more relevant in today’s world.

First and foremost, “Big Hero 6” is a kid’s movie. The bright colors, the characters that are just slightly older than the target audience and the use of familial loss as the basis for the story are just part of what makes the film so kid friendly. That doesn’t mean their parents won’t like it also, as the movie is action packed and has some great voice performances and plenty of humor that works for both kids and adults.

Like “Interstellar,” “Big Hero 6” is about more than what is on the surface. Dealing with loss and finding constructive ways to use your talents is a couple of themes along with not letting yourself be consumed by revenge. All the elements work together to create a movie that is both a great way to pass the time and to begin a conversation with children about somewhat more grownup topics.

While watered down, the use of Japanese imagery and architecture in the mashed-up city of San Fransokyo is a nice way to introduce another culture to American children. As a nation, we are usually so focused on our immediate problems and surroundings we don’t remember to enjoy the numerous cultures that make up our society. While you won’t see anything that will start a conversation about Japan, it at least gives the eye something to look at that isn’t your standard Americana. It’s a small thing but I noticed it.

“Big Hero 6” is rated PG for some rude humor, action/peril and thematic elements. I don’t remember what the rude humor was so it must not have been terribly rude. The bad guy uses the microbots to lob large cargo containers at our heroes. There are also times when the microbots are used like fists to punch characters. The concepts of death, grief and revenge might trouble some younger viewers.

It uses everything very well and made me think and feel and nearly cry, so “Big Hero 6” worked on every level for me and for the audience of families I saw it with. The kids would ask questions about why Hiro was sad and where Tadashi was and why the man in the mask was being mean to Baymax. While I normally don’t like kids talking in a movie, I didn’t mind it so much this time. It meant they were paying attention and the movie engaged their minds. That’s far more than can be said for most films, for either kids or adults. That fact that it’s also a great deal of fun doesn’t hurt either.

“Big Hero 6” also gets five stars.

Here are my extemporaneous comments right after I saw the movies.

Feel free to comment or, if you’d prefer, send me an email to stanthemovieman@comcast.net and you can follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Next week, I’ll be seeing either “Dumb and Dumber To”

or “Beyond the Lights.”