DARK PHOENIX (2019) – More Superficial Than Superhero

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There’s more superficial than superhero in DARK PHOENIX (2019), the latest Marvel X-Men movie to hit the theaters.

When 20th Century Fox rebooted its X-MEN franchise with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) that film not only instantly became one of my favorite X-MEN movies but also one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies, period. A major reason for this was the casting of James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. These two actors shared some strong chemistry together and lifted FIRST CLASS to its status as a superior superhero movie.

With apologies to Jennifer Lawrence, who has also appeared in these movies as Raven/Mystique, McAvoy and Fassbender have continued to be the best part of these X-Men reboots, and so even though DARK PHOENIX opened to dreadful reviews, knowing that McAvoy and Fassbender were back, I still trekked to the theater to catch this one.

And while I can certainly understand why this one opened to such negative reviews, it wasn’t all bad. It’s just not very good.

DARK PHOENIX tells a story that fans of the X-Men comics know very well, the story of Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix. This story was also told in the previous X-Men series, in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Fans didn’t like how the Phoenix story was handled in that movie, and I doubt they’re going to like how it’s handled here.

In DARK PHOENIX, it’s 1992, and the X-Men are enjoying happy times as they are universally perceived as heroes, and a jubilant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) spends his time giving speeches and has access to a personal phone line to the President of the United States. Life is good.

But during a daunting space rescue, where a crew of X-Men attempt to extract the endangered crew of a space shuttle, a strange space phenomenon, a beastly looking cloud of light, which is threatening the shuttle descends upon the scene, and it’s up to Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to stop it. She does, but it nearly kills her, and when she returns alive and well, she is given the nickname “Phoenix” as she seemingly has risen from the dead.

But all is not well, as Jean begins to exhibit some weird behaviors and unleash powers she doesn’t seem able to control. She’s suddenly out there doing things that are giving the X-Men a bad name. Further complicating matters, a group of space aliens who we know virtually nothing about led by Vux (Jessica Chastain) want the power which Jean possesses.

With the X-Men reeling, as there is lots of in-fighting over what is perceived as Charles Xavier’s mishandling of Jean Grey, the glory days for these mutant heroes comes to an end. Looking for help, Jean seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who’s living in the desert with his own band of mutant rebels. And once Magneto learns the truth about Jean and what she has done, he’s not interested in helping her but in killing her.

It’s up to Charles Xavier, who refuses to give up on Jean, to save her, but he’ll have to contend with Magneto, the space aliens, the military, and his own renegade mutants to do it.

This plot actually sounds better than it is, and that’s because the story as told in the movie is kind of all over the place. There were parts that I liked, but taken as a whole this one never becomes a unified story that works.

The screenplay by writer/director Simon Kinberg was far too superficial to be successful. Plot points are glossed over, conversations are banal, the dialogue trite, and the characterizations are without depth.

We learn little about the villainous aliens, and their scenes in this one are sporadic and dull. Speaking of dull, that’s how the X-men come off in this movie. Jean Grey/Phoenix really isn’t all that interesting, and her story isn’t given much depth at all. Jennifer Lawrence does very little as Raven/Mystique. Her role isn’t much more than an extended cameo, and she gets some of the worst lines in the movie.

I like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but his dialogue here isn’t any better. Michael Fassbender doesn’t show up as Magneto until halfway through the movie, and James McAvoy seems to be stuck saying the same things as Charles Xavier throughout. He sounds like a broken record.

Jessica Chastain is wasted as alien Vuk, a villain with no characterization, back story, or screen presence.

And while Tye Sheridan plays Cyclops, Alexandra Ship plays Storm, Evan Peters plays Quicksilver, and Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Nightcrawler, none of these folks make much of an impact.

Director Simon Kinberg also struggles to make this one cinematic. There’s hardly a memorable scene here, visually or otherwise.

There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention to detail. There’s an entire plot of in-fighting with the X-Men, reminiscent of what the Avengers went through in CAPTAIN AMERICA; CIVIL WAR (2016) but the two films aren’t even on the same page when it comes to quality. CIVIL WAR got down and dirty, got right into its characters’ faces, and as a result the audience knew exactly where each character stood and felt their pain.

Not so here with DARK PHOENIX. We know where the characters stand because they say so, but we never feel it. That’s a big difference. Very little of what happens in DARK PHOENIX resonates.

So, what did I like about DARK PHOENIX? Well, it still stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, and so even with the weak dialogue, the two actors are enjoyable to watch, and I did enjoy their performances here, although hands down DARK PHOENIX is the weakest of their X-MEN collaborations.

I also like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but unfortunately, the women don’t fare as well. I didn’t really enjoy Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, as unlike McAvoy and Fassbender, she was  unable to overcome the bad dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through her brief stint as Raven/Mystique, and Jessica Chastain is reduced to being robotic as villain Vuk.

While the initial space shuttle rescue was blah, the climactic battle aboard a speeding train at least had some pop.

But nothing in DARK PHOENIX really sticks. Things happen, but moments later they’re forgotten.

This may be the end of this class of X-Men. Disney, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, has bought 20th Century Fox, and rumor has it they will once more reboot the X-Men series and incorporate it into the MCU.

And while this isn’t the best ending of the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender led series, I’ve enjoyed the ride. It’s too bad that their final film wasn’t better.

Unless of course, they, like the Phoenix, survive the buyout and rise once again as Professor X and Magneto.

I for one wouldn’t mind that at all.

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TOLKIEN (2019) – Unimaginative Look At Imaginative Author Tolkien

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For a bio pic about imaginative author J.R.R. Tolkien, TOLKIEN (2019) isn’t all that imaginative.

In fact, it’s slow moving and often dull, but it sure looks good!

Director Dome Karukoski, who hails from Finland, has made a handsome elegant production that hearkens back to the Merchant-Ivory classics of yesteryear, at least in appearance anyway. It’s well-acted by its principal leads, but its script lacks the necessary emotion and imagination to carry its audience through to the end. In short, its 112 minute running time seemed much longer.

TOLKIEN tells the story of author J.R.R. Tolkien, known of course for the epic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it does this by focusing on three phases of his life: his childhood, his time at school where he developed close friendships with a small group of students, and on the battlefields of World War I. While the film intercuts between all three of these periods, the bulk of the movie is spent on Tolkien’s time at school.

It’s at school where Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) meets his three closest friends, Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). The group becomes friends as youths where they declare they will change the world through art, and they stay together as they move on to Oxford where they continue to develop their “fellowship,” a word and feeling that will linger in Tolkien’s mind and heart long after he has finished school.

At home, Tolkien becomes friends with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) who plays piano for their adoptive benefactor. The two become very close and eventually fall in love.

With the start of World War I, Tolkien finds himself on the battlefield, a brutal and unforgiving place that changes his life forever.

I guess.

That’s the thing about TOLKIEN. Its story never really resonates. Part of it is it’s not that captivating a story in the first place. Sure, Tolkien suffered on the battlefields of World War I, and friends were lost, but it wasn’t for these reasons alone that he wrote The Lord of the Rings.

The film hints that this is the case but never really hammers the point home. I mean, there are times on the battlefield where Tolkien hallucinates about dragons and other mythical creatures, but these images are shown fleetingly, and the connections to his later literary work are only implied.

I had a funny reaction watching TOLKIEN. I liked the main characters and enjoyed watching them, but the conversations and situations were so subtle, lifeless, and dull, that in spite of this I was rather bored throughout. It was akin to spending time with people you like but man, was the conversation flat.

Which is ironic since Tolkien was all about words, and here, the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford is superficial at best. It tells its story but without energy, imagination, or inspiration. And as I said, it’s also not much of a story. Tolkien was an orphan, yes, but the film paints a picture of a decent childhood, and he and his friends at school enjoyed quality times together. There didn’t seem to be much adversity.

The World War I scenes make their point regarding the brutality of trench warfare, but it’s all rather sanitized and doesn’t provide the necessary impact to show that such horrific warfare scarred or shaped Tolkien in any major way.

The love story between Tolkien and Edith Bratt is a good one, but again, there wasn’t a lot of adversity to overcome.

I did enjoy the acting, though. A lot.

Nicholas Hoult, who’s been playing Beast in the recent X-MEN reboots, and he’s been doing an excellent job in the role, is superb in the lead here as J.R.R. Tolkien. In spite of the script limitations, he captures Tolkien’s love of words and the arts, and he makes the author a likable person. He embodies Tolkien’s love of learning and quirky intellect, and at times Holt channels a Benedict Cumberbatch vibe with this performance.

Hoult’s performance was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Hoult was also memorable in last year’s THE FAVOURITE (2018).

Lily Collins was also excellent as Edith Bratt. In fact, Collins, who’s the daughter of singer Phil Collins, was probably my favorite part of TOLKIEN. In the film, Edith Bratt is portrayed as probably the person who influenced Tolkien the most. She’s a strong and articulate presence, and Collins does an outstanding job bringing these qualities to life and also being adorable as well. It’s easy to see by Collins’ performance why Tolkien fell in love with her.

For a movie that was strangely devoid of emotion, Edith Bratt was one of the few characters whose scenes were frequently moving, and Lily Collins’ performance was directly responsible.

Strong emotions were few and far between in TOLKIEN. One of the more powerful scenes in the movie comes near the end, when Tolkien sits down with the mother of one of his slain friends, and she admits she never really knew her son. The way Tolkien explains her son to her is one of the more emotionally charged sequences in the movie.

It was fun to see Colm Meaney in the movie in a key supporting role as Father Francis, a priest who Tolkien’s mother left in charge of her sons’ welfare. Meaney of course played Chief Miles O’Brien on both STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994) and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (1993-1999).

And Derek Jacobi shows up briefly as language Professor Wright.

There also just wasn’t a whole lot of connections between Tolkien’s life story as told here in this movie and his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Sure, things are hinted at, and connections are made peripherally, but you have to connect the dots, which isn’t a bad thing, but what is bad is there simply aren’t a lot of dots to connect.

I enjoyed TOLKIEN well enough because I liked the performances and the look of the film, but for a story about J.R.R. Tolkien, it was all rather lackluster and subdued, and not at all an imaginative take on its very imaginative subject.

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THE FAVOURITE (2018) – A Period Piece With An Edge

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Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE (2018).

THE FAVOURITE (2018), the latest film by acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos, is on many critics’ lists as one of the best films of 2018. While I liked this one well enough, I wouldn’t call it my favorite. Heh-heh.

THE FAVOURITE is a period piece with an edge. It takes place in 18th century England, and is as raunchy and vulgar as a modern-day R-rated comedy, only it presents these raw elements with much more dignity and grace.

In THE FAVOURITE, the miserable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules England with a depressed demeanor, and she’s melancholy because of both physical ailments like gout and emotional ones, like the fact that all her children have died. Her friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) takes care of her and helps her with both her physical maladies and with the running of the country.  Lady Sarah has a keen political mind, and she has the Queen’s ear, and so many of the decisions regarding England’s involvement in its war with France are made by Lady Sarah.

And as we come to find out, these two women are more than just friends. They’re lovers.

When a young woman named Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the castle, she presents herself to Lady Sarah as her cousin, a woman who had been a lady but due to the fault of her father, had lost favor and had become a servant. She arrives at the castle seeking work, and Lady Sarah hires her as her personal servant.

Abigail is an enterprising young woman, and she soon works herself into the favor of Queen Anne, so much so that her presence and relationship with the queen becomes a threat to Lady Sarah. At this point, the story becomes a duel between the two women to see who will ultimately gain favor with the queen, and the only rules here are that there are no rules.

There’s certainly a lot to like about THE FAVOURITE. Probably my favorite part of the movie is that it never deteriorates into silly comedy at the expense of its story. While there is much that is funny that happens in this movie, when Abigail declares war on Lady Sarah, the ensuing battle is dark and nasty rather than upbeat and goofy. The story is still good for a few chuckles at this point, but the characters and their actions remain true to the plot.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, known for his provocative and offbeat movies like THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) and THE LOBSTER (2015), has made a much more straightforward film here with THE FAVOURITE.  I enjoyed THE LOBSTER more than THE FAVOURITE, mostly because it was such an unusual film.

While THE FAVOURITE delivers in that it successfully tells this story of these three women, it didn’t pique my interest quite the same way THE LOBSTER did. That being said, Lanthimos includes enough creative camerawork here to put his stamp on this one.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t write the screenplay here. The script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It’s a good screenplay. The dialogue is first-rate, and it’s quick and snappy, and the characters are all fleshed out. What interested me the least here was the actual story. While I was intrigued by the way Abigail and Lady Sarah went about their business in trying to impress the queen, I ultimately didn’t care all that much. Abigail is a cunning manipulative character, and while Lady Sarah is much more honest, she’s also cutthroat and abrasive.  So, while I enjoyed watching a story about these two beguiling characters, I can’t say that I liked them very much, and so ultimately they both could have failed, and I wouldn’t have cared.

Director Lanthimos has been hailed for getting the most out of his actors in THE FAVOURITE, and I would have to agree. The performances in this movie are all outstanding, from the three female leads to the supporting male characters.

I continue to be a huge Emma Stone fan. I’ve enjoyed her in nearly everything she’s done, even those awful Andrew Garfield SPIDER-MAN movies. While I enjoyed her recent performances in BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) and LA LA LAND (2016) more, she is still excellent here as Abigail, creating in this character a spirited enterprising woman who knows what she wants and what to do in order to get it. And we see her maltreated by enough men to feel empathy for her when she goes for it.

Rachel Weisz makes for an indomitable and focused Lady Sarah who throughout most of the movie is less sympathetic than Abigail, but that changes as the stakes get higher and the manipulations grow darker.

Olivia Colman also delivers a noteworthy performance as the long-suffering Queen Anne. The queen’s emotions and behaviors are all over the place, as she goes from happy one minute to shouting in anger the next, and Colman captures her unpredictability masterfully.

The supporting male characters are just as impressive. Nicholas Hoult nearly steals the show with a dashing performance as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who is politically opposed to Lady Sarah. He’s mean and he’s manipulative, and as he bullies Abigail to help him, she acquiesces because his positions frequently align with hers. Hoult has been very enjoyable as Beast in the re-booted X-MEN films, and his performance here as Harley is even better.

Joe Alwyn is also memorable as Masham, the young man who is fascinated by Abigail and pursues her even as she continually proves herself to be his superior. Alwyn is having a very good year, as he has also been in BOY ERASED (2018) and OPERATION FINALE (2018).

And James Smith gives perhaps the most restrained performance in the movie, as the respected and honorable Godolphin.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the ending to THE FAVOURITE all that much. It’s not a bad ending, and it succeeds in making its point, but it seems to lack the dagger effect which stabbed at the rest of the movie.

I enjoyed THE FAVOURITE for what it was, an R-rated period piece showing that women can be just as devious as men in the world of politics, and it tells this tale of debauchery and intrigue in a raunchy bawdy manner that will have you chuckling far more than wincing.

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