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 “X-Men: Apocalypse”

En Sabah Nur (Oscar Issac) has been alive for many lifetimes and is the leader of Egypt 5000 year ago. Born the first mutant and able to transfer his consciousness from one body to another, En Sabah Nur is being transferred into the body of a mutant with healing abilities which would likely make him nearly immortal when some of his guards turn against him and seal him within a pyramid buried deep underground. With the public finding out about mutants in the 1970’s, a cult has developed around the myth of En Sabah Nur. CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating one of these cults in Cairo when she witnesses the awakening of En Sabah Nur but doesn’t realize what she sees. En Sabah Nur, seeing how the world has changed by absorbing information from a satellite TV connection, puts into motion a plan to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth and rule a world of only mutants. He recruits four followers giving their mutant abilities a boost. First is Storm (Alexandra Shipp) who is able to control the weather, next is Psylocke (Olivia Munn) who can project psychic energy in the form of a purple sword or whip, third is Angel (Warren Worthington III) who flies with wings of metal growing from his back and the last is Magneto (Michael Fassbender) with the ability to control metal and magnetic fields. En Sabah Nur detects the mind of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) while he is using Cerebro to look for Magneto. Overwhelming Xavier, En Sabah Nur abducts him with a plan to use his psychic abilities to contact all living minds. Xavier’s students and fellow instructors Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), along with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) join forces to stop En Sabah Nur and his Four Horsemen from bringing about an apocalypse.

Perhaps it’s superhero burnout. Perhaps it’s the release of this film close to the vastly superior “Captain America: Civil War.” Maybe it’s just the quality of this film. Whatever the reason, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is a flat, uninvolving and somewhat repetitive mix of visually exciting CGI action and mind-numbing complications leading to a predictable ending and a post-credits scene that will only excite someone steeped in X-Men comics lore. I don’t hate “X-Men: Apocalypse” but I believe it could have been better.

My main issue with the film is it never involves the audience emotionally. Even when given a chance to with the death of a young mutant, it is tossed off like something meaningless. It never feels like there are real consequences to what happens in “X-Men: Apocalypse” as the ending is telegraphed by an early scene, showing us who will be responsible for the “good” mutants beating the “bad” mutants.

If you feel like that’s a spoiler you haven’t been paying much attention to the “X-Men” movies over the years. Director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg don’t stray too far from the formula that has been the staple of X-Men and other superhero movies. While the film does drop a few hints about what may come up in future installments (including that post-credits scene), it doesn’t really stretch the lore of these characters the way “X-Men: Days of Future Past” did. That film committed what many fans thought of as an unforgivable sin and completely reset the timeline of the movie universe. This film stays locked within the lines and acts like there are hot lava alligators lurking past the comfortable and expected edges. They are characters based on comic books. They can be and do ANYTHING! They aren’t constrained by time, physics, death or any other rule we normal humans can’t violate. They brought Professor Xavier back after we watched him die in the third X-Men movie and gave us absolutely NO explanation and we all collectively went “ok.” Play with these characters and stretch them in directions that aren’t straight from the moviemaking rule book. After all, (SPOILER ALERT) Marvel comics just made Captain America a HYDRA agent. If they can do that, you guys can give audiences some surprises when it comes to these films.

“X-Men Apocalypse” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, action and destruction, sequences of violence and some suggestive images. Buildings are ripped from the ground and cars flung in the air but no loss of life is seen. One cameo appearance by an X-Men favorite leads to lots of dead bodies and some puddles of blood. Mystique is nearly choked to death. A woman and child are killed with a bow and arrow. There are other examples of mutant on mutant mayhem. I’m not exactly sure what the suggestive images are referring to as I don’t recall anything other than a couple of female costumes that might be considered such. Foul language is infrequent but there is one “F-Bomb.”

The story of “X-Men: Apocalypse” is rather convoluted but the idea behind the story is simple: Mutants are still feared and often abused or put on display by humans so En Sabah Nur uses mutants’ anger and fear to make them his soldiers. It seems fairly straightforward but for some reason Bryan Singer and the makers of the movie feel the need to throw in a great many complications, locations and action scenes to muddy the waters. “X-Men: Apocalypse” is an overwrought mess that needed to be reined in before it hit theatres.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” gets two stars out of five.

Love, music and more mutation hit screens this week. I’ll see and review at least one of these movies.

Me Before You—

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping—

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows—

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

Review of “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Most of Australia is a desert that is roamed by gangs looking to steal from others or make them slaves. In this harsh world is Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a former cop who is dealing with the deaths of his wife and daughter at the hands of the aforementioned gangs. Max hallucinates seeing and hearing his wife and daughter. Max is captured by War Boys who are the soldiers of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe controls both the water and food for his followers, making him their king whether they like it or not as both are in short supply. Also a valuable commodity is gasoline used to fuel the various gangs modified cars and trucks used as war machines. Going out on a run to collect gas from a nearby refinery is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who was kidnapped from her clan when she was a child. Max is discovered to be a universal blood donor and is used as a living blood bag for one of the War Boys named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Nux is a dedicated soldier of Joe’s and is willing to die for him to receive salvation in the next life in Valhalla. Furiosa has helped Joe’s five breeding wives escape his compound and deviates from her route trying to take them to her old home territory called the Green Place. Joe’s people are watching and see her change course. Joe checks and finds his wives are gone and gives chase along with several War Boys, including Nux who has Max strapped to the front of his car giving him a constant transfusion. The wives all begged Furiosa for her help and she believes this is the best chance she has to escape Joe’s domination and return home.

There’s very little story or dialog in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Most of the film’s two hour running time is filled with a massive car chase through the desert that is punctuated with incredible stunts, huge explosions and the occasional brief bit of discussion between the characters. Most other films that follow this formula would receive a fair amount of criticism but director and co-writer George Miller has delivered an action picture that succeeds despite what for many other movies would be shortcomings.

For his first trip back to the dystopian world he last visited 30 years ago, Miller has populated “Mad Max: Fury Road” with his most twisted and distorted group of characters yet. Most are freaks in some very obvious way. The War Boys have very pale white skin with many scarred with massive images on their chests and backs. Nux seems to be suffering with an ailment that causes large tumors just under the skin. He mentions that either the tumors or the night fever will probably kill him. Immortan Joe is covered with open boils and wears a breathing apparatus. Other secondary characters have ailments ranging from facial deformities to massively swollen legs and feet. The only people who look fairly normal are Max, Furiosa and Joe’s wives. Furiosa has an artificial arm that straps on with leather belts. My guess would be she ran afoul of Joe in some way and the loss of her arm below the elbow was her punishment. Joe obviously selected the five young women with which to breed due to their apparent lack of physical deformities. He also protects his property, as he calls them, by equipping each one with a chastity belt. Joe is willing to risk everything to get his wives back, even leaving his compound largely undefended to chase after them.

Joe’s dominance over his people is a bit puzzling. He requires a great deal of physical assistance from his inner circle as well as equipment to help him breathe. It doesn’t seem like it would take much to overthrow his regime by someone with a little courage. All the various gangs appear to be led by people who could be easily deposed. While these characters are certainly colorful, the world they populate seems to be geared toward those who are physically able to take and hold power. None of the primary gang leaders appear to be up to that. Something else that strikes me as odd is the availability of gasoline. If the world economy has completely collapsed it would seem that industry would be the most vulnerable. It isn’t easy to find and pump crude oil and it takes a fair amount of technology to refine it into gas and diesel. All this takes infrastructure, manufacturing, skilled labor, transportation and more. The world of “Mad Max: Fury Road” appears to be lacking most of the things needed to keep an industry producing yet there are dozens of gas guzzling vehicles running at full throttle over vast stretches of barren desert. I’m probably trying too hard to apply logic to a movie but these things stuck out to me.

My issues aside, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a visually spectacular film that should sate the appetite of action fans. The number of vehicles that must have been destroyed is likely enormous. Modified cars and trucks are flipped end over end and rolled numerous times right after they’ve been hit with an explosion. The stunt coordinator and stunt performers should all receive any and every award there is as bodies are sent flying in these crashes. Riders are shot off of motorcycles while flying 20 feet or more in the air. Gang members are swaying back and forth from tall polls and are dropping into moving vehicles during a lengthy fight scene near the end of the film. Many of the stunts were performed live with a minimum of computer effects making this one of the more dangerous shoots for stunt performers. This is action filmmaking the old fashioned way where there’s a chance people could die. No one did but that’s beside the point.

Aside from the stunts, the vehicles of “Mad Max: Fury Road” will catch your eye. Volkswagen Bugs covered in spikes, sawblades mounted on swing arms, trucks outfitted with dozens of speakers and a guy playing a flame-throwing guitar, a car running on tank treads, it all is on display and much more. If there is a backyard mechanic with ambition watching this film, it will likely make him or her start looking for a beater that can be modified into one of these automotive visions from Hell.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images. There are of course numerous car crashes and more than a few people being run over by vehicles. We see several people shot by various weapons. There is also a scene of a baby being cut from the womb of a woman who has died. The baby is also dead. It isn’t gory but it may be disturbing to some.

Tom Hardy isn’t given much to do in “Mad Max: Fury Road” other than to look angry or concerned. It sounds like most if not all of his dialog was overdubbed adding more bass to his brief speaking parts and grunts. It’s a bit of a reminder back to the original “Mad Max” when Mel Gibson’s and most of the other actor’s dialog was replaced with American actors covering up the Australian accents. In that instance, it was done since no one in the film was a well-known star and the script contained Australian slang terms. This time, the slang has been left intact but Max’s voice has still been overdubbed but by the same actor as playing the role. I suppose this was done to set the character apart and make him seem somehow special and almost supernatural. To me, it just stuck out as odd. Of course, this movie is populated by the odd who in the world they inhabit are the normal ones. That probably makes the action of the film just another day in the Australian outback even if it isn’t your usual fare in American movie theatres.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” gets five stars out of five.

The summer movie season rolls on with two highly anticipated new films: One is a remake of a classic 1980’s film while the other is a project that was kept tightly under wraps until recently. I’ll see at least one of them and let you know what I think.

Poltergeist—

Tomorrowland—

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