Film Review: ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’

It’s farewell to the ‘First Class’ as Fox’s X-Men series draws to a close…

X-Men Dark Phoenix (a)

The finale to 20th Century Fox’s Marvel film series – ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ (credit: 20th Century Fox/Marvel).

 

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Jessica Chastain

Directed and written by:  Simon Kinberg / 114 minutes

What’s it about?

Whilst on a mission to rescue the crew of a stricken space shuttle, X-Men team member Jean Grey encounters a mysterious cosmic force which amplifies her psychokinetic powers to dangerous and uncontrollable levels…

In review

Serving as the finale of 20th Century Fox’s mainline X-Men film series (although troubled spin-off New Mutants is still, presently, set for an eventual theatrical release) – the rights to the property now with Marvel Studios following Disney’s Fox acquisition – X-Men: Dark Phoenix follows 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse with a plot once again based on the iconic comic book storyline previously adapted (superbly) for the 1990s X-Men animated series and incorporated (not so successfully) into Fox’s original X-trilogy capper, X-Men: The Last Stand (released back in 2006).

Written and directed by long-term X-Men writer and producer Simon Kinberg, the 90’s-set X-Men: Dark Phoenix (simply known as just ‘Dark Phoenix’ in the U.S.) isn’t the rousing, wholly satisfying finale the series deserved but nor is it a crashing failure.  It doesn’t hit the heights of previous entries First Class or Days of Future Past but is comfortably superior to The Last Stand and a fair leap above X-Men Origins: Wolverine, arguably the franchise’s lowest point.  Aiming for a more grounded and character driven focus than the divisive Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix is unlikely to sway viewers left unimpressed by Bryan Singer’s X-sequel but it’s a laudable approach and Kinberg’s script packs an emotional punch whilst the sombre and dark tone lends some emotional maturity and tension to the proceedings.  The only issue here is that it doesn’t feel as though we’ve been given enough time to truly care about the newer X-Men team members introduced in Apocalypse and besides Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey they don’t actually get a whole lot to do in Dark Phoenix beyond playing their part in the action.  There’s also some drag in the pacing during the second act due to the slow-burn narrative, with much of the action saved for the finale which together with that desire for a more restrained and personal approach can leave Dark Phoenix lacking a larger sense of adventure and excitement, something First Class and Days of Future Past were able to accomplish whilst still delivering on character.

Cast performances are generally strong, Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) does a solid enough job with a lot of dramatic weight to carry as Jean Grey, unable to control the temptation and danger of the Phoenix force descends into turmoil.  Returning First Class alumni Jennifer Lawrence is suitably dour and weary as Raven/Mystique and fellow first generation X-Man Nicholas Hoult has a poignant and contemplative turn as Hank McCoy/Beast.  Interstellar’s Jessica Chastain makes for a sinister if underdeveloped villain, her manipulation of the increasingly fragile Jean and her Phoenix force heightened powers providing high stakes and a cause for our heroes to rally against.

X-Men Dark Phoenix (b)

Tye Sheridan returns as Cyclops (credit: 20th Century Fox/Marvel).

Again though, it’s James McAvoy and Michel Fassbender – Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto respectively – who are the standouts and both actors are provided with some good material, especially McAvoy as Xavier grapples with fracturing friendships, a reluctance to acknowledge his mistakes and an uncertain future for the X-Men and consequentially, mutantkind.  Sadly, despite having roles to play in the action, Alexandra Shipp’s Storm, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler are not afforded a large enough presence for the majority of the film and tend to withdraw into the background with no significant character arcs of their own.  Tye Sheridan’s Scott Summers/Cyclops fares better but, again, there hasn’t really been time enough for the actors and their respective characters to grow beyond their debuts in X-Men: Apocalypse.

Making his feature film directorial debut, Simon Kinberg handles it fairly competently – keeping things level and focused in the more character-driven scenes whilst skilfully staging the action which aside from the initial space rescue mission (accompanied by some nicely atmospheric music from score composer Hans Zimmer), includes a climactic battle aboard a speeding train that ramps up the tension as Dark Phoenix reaches its denouement.  Despite the months of extensive re-shoots, Kinberg’s film hangs together in a coherent manner.

So, although Dark Phoenix isn’t a runaway hit it’s not a disastrous misfire either resulting in an entertaining diversion that doesn’t live up to the high-points of the X-Men franchise or it’s potential as a grand finale but is a stronger take on a beloved story arc with some decent character beats and an action-packed final act.

The bottom line:  Not the train wreck it was feared to be nor the epic final chapter it could’ve been, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is still a reasonably enjoyable time for those willing to give it a chance.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘The Predator’

Shane Black takes the reigns for the newest addition to the ‘Predator’ franchise…

 

The Predator

One of cinema’s most lethal creations returns in ‘The Predator’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane

Directed by:  Shane Black / written by:  Shane Black & Fred Dekker/ 107 minutes

What’s it about?

The crash-landing of an alien spacecraft leads to a fight for survival as a rag-tag group of ex-military personnel find themselves being hunted by a dangerous and lethal extra-terrestrial…

In review

Along with the Alien and Terminator series, Predator is another franchise that refuses to die despite diminishing returns.  Having said that, Predator 2 and Predators are actually pretty good so far as sequels go but a pair of underwhelming Alien vs Predator films sullies the overall quality.

Enlisting Iron Man Three director Shane Black to helm a new Predator instalment would surely give it instant potential, then?  Sadly, The Predator proves more of a low point for the franchise than a triumphant return, a promising set-up and an interesting creative approach let down by a weak script and messy final act.

Boyd Holbrook (Logan) and Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) are capable leads, the former as sniper Quinn McKenna – bringing the requisite dose of gruff alpha male – and the latter, convincingly, as biologist Dr. Casey Brackett.  Joining them is a group of kooky military misfits, amongst them Thomas Jane’s Tourette’s-inflicted Baxley, the endlessly profane Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) and the surprisingly stable ‘Nebraska’ Williams (Trevante Rhodes).  Adding a touch of villainy is Black Panther’s Sterling K. Brown as Traeger, an oddly comical government agent with special interest in the mysterious Predators.

By giving us a set of oddball characters, The Predator seeks to draw the audience in and have viewers become emotionally invested and to a degree it works, proving most effective with an endearing performance by Jacob Tremblay as McKenna’s autistic son, Rory, who may hold the key to defeating their enemy.

There’s some misjudged (though perhaps necessary at this point) attempts to broaden the mythology of the Predators themselves which some may be receptive to and others may not as it removes some of the mystique surrounding the iconic alien hunters.  Disappointingly, the ‘Super’ Predator seen in the pre-release trailers is nothing more than an oversized version of the original creature, although it does raise the stakes as the film progresses toward its denouement.

Making full use of its ‘R’ rating (certified ’15’ in the U.K.), The Predator is fairly bloody at times and its language littered with profanity which fans of the franchise would rightly expect.  The film’s action is satisfying in places but, bar one or two moments, there’s a lack of tension – especially during the rushed finale that feels generic, choppy and uninventive.

It all feels like a bit of a missed opportunity and a genuine shame given Black’s history with the franchise, having played the part of Hawkins in the classic 1987 original as well as providing uncredited contributions to the script.  The screenplay for The Predator, co-written by Black with Fred Dekker (RoboCop 3) is a little clichéd, with some embarrassing and dumb dialogue and an overreliance on humour – some of which provide genuine laughs but too much of which feels stilted.

The direction is fairly competent and it’s commendable that a slightly different approach for The Predator was sought, but ultimately the fusion of action, horror and humour doesn’t quite gel as successfully as it could have with stronger writing and better editing.  As a result, The Predator is best watched more as a straight forward, slightly cheap action horror flick than a notable and essential continuation of the franchise.

The bottom line:  A flawed sequel to a beloved classic, there’s some fun to be had with The Predator but its creative potential is squandered by some weak execution.

The Predator is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ (spoiler-free)

The end is nigh…

Starring:  James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp

Directed by:  Bryan Singer / Written by:  Simon Kinberg (story by Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris) / 147 minutes

What’s it about?

Professor Charles Xavier unites a new generation of X-Men to battle against the ancient and mighty mutant known as Apocalypse…

In review

Following the huge critical and commercial success of X-Men: Days of Future Past, director Bryan Singer returns once again to helm the latest chapter in 20th Century Fox’s long running X-Men film series, based on the lucrative and ever popular Marvel Comics property.  Given that Singer’s original foray into the Marvel mutant universe was with 2000’s X-Men (the success of which is credited with launching the modern superhero film craze that we enjoy today), you would be forgiven for thinking that he would not have anything further to give to the franchise – yet it feels that Singer channels just as much passion and energy into X-Men: Apocalypse as he did on the rather excellent Days of Future Past.

The story for this X-Men outing centres on the emergence of the all-mighty and powerful being known as Apocalypse, believed to be the world’s first mutant.  Ruling over the denizens of ancient Egypt, he is betrayed and left for dead until revived in the film’s setting of the early 1980s.  Needless to say, Apocalypse soon plots revenge against humanity and seeks to use his powers to reshape the world as he sees fit.  It’s this threat that sees Charles Xavier unite fresh blood with some familiar faces to build a new team of ‘X-Men’ and prevent the annihilation of the human race.

The threat is a familiar one for comic book superhero films but world-ending scenarios coupled with epic action and jaw dropping special effects is what the audiences for these films have come to expect and it makes proceedings all the more entertaining.  Like Days of Future Past and Marvel Studios’ recent smash Captain America: Civil War, Apocalypse features a large roster of characters yet never feels as though it falters under its own weight.  Whilst future X-Men Storm, Angel and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) feature in largely introductory roles the story of Apocalypse focuses more significantly on younger versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler who under the guidance of Xavier, Hank McCoy (aka X-Man ‘Beast’) and Raven (aka the shape-shifting Mystique) learn to use their abilities ‘for the cause’.  The new cast fit their parts well and complement each other nicely with plenty of room to further develop their characters in future instalments.

McAvoy and Fassbender are as great as they always have been as Professor Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto respectively, the latter served with some really great dramatic elements to chew on, it’s just a shame that Fassbender’s part feels diminished in the film’s later acts as he falls under the control of Apocalypse.  it’s also a little disappointing that although the two actors are (rightfully) given an appreciable amount of screentime, there is actually little that they share together, as the chemistry between them has been such a key part to the success of their previous X-Men outings.

But what of Evan Peters, who stole the show as Peter Maximoff – aka the speedster called Quicksilver – in Days of Future Past?  Well, the good news is that he does so again and this time he enjoys a much larger role and Singer and his team outdo what they did in Days of Future Past to deliver one of the film’s greatest and most pleasing sequences.  As the titular antagonist of the film’s subtitle, Oscar Isaac (crack pilot Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) imbues Apocalypse with a – for the most part – subtle intensity, the make-up design allowing him to express and emote with an appropriate mix of intellect and sinister snarl.

The finale of Apocalypse facilitates the requisite spectacle as the triumphant unison of this new team of heroes plays out against peril and large scale destruction on a level that exceeds that of Days of Future Past and with a few surprises and fan pleasing in-jokes thrown in for good measure, X-Men: Apocalypse is another successful entry for the franchise.

The bottom line:  With the same level of fun and excitement as Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse is a pleasing addition to the long running series, featuring some promising new cast members amongst beloved familiar faces.

X-Men: Apocalypse is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in U.S. theatres and other territories on 27th May.

Oscar Isaac prepares to wreak havok in 20th Century Fox's 'X-Men: Apocalypse'.

Oscar Isaac prepares to wreak havok in 20th Century Fox’s ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’.

Film Review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (spoiler free)

The Force is strong once more…

Starring:  Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / Written by:  Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt / 135 minutes

What’s it about?

As the evil First Order rises, young defector ‘Finn’ crosses paths with Rey, a scavenger who comes into possession of a star map that will lead them to the mythical last Jedi, Luke Skywalker…

In review

Unarguably the most anticipated cinema release of this year, perhaps even this decade, The Force Awakens – Episode VII of the Star Wars saga – is unleashed upon global audiences on a wave of positive buzz and record breaking opening box office numbers.

The Force Awakens is an important film not only to entertainment goliath Disney, following their $4.5 billion purchase of Lucasfilm, but also legions of Star Wars fans eager to see the beloved science fiction film franchise return to its former glories.  Turning to director J.J. Abrams seemed a wise move, not only a great filmmaker whose reputation was solidified when he refreshed Star Trek for a new generation with epic big screen reboots Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), but more significantly a life-long fan of Star Wars himself.

With The Force Awakens, Abrams and his production team have delivered a pleasing new entry in the Star Wars saga that restores much of the magic diluted by George Lucas’ overly polished, CGI littered ‘Prequel Trilogy’.  Whilst it’s all a touch familiar with several plot elements repeated from earlier instalments (mainly A New Hope) and some heavy doses of fan service, The Force Awakens reigns triumphant thanks to a rich mix of engaging characters, edge of the seat drama (peppered with a smattering of humour) and thrilling battles, bound by Abrams’ skilled direction and the quality craftsmanship on display.

Set some 30 years or so after the events of Return of the Jedi (1983), The Force Awakens presents the heightening threat of the First Order which has risen from the ashes of the Galactic Empire and seeks to continue its plans to dominate the galaxy, far, far away.  Luckily the Rebellion, which has now become known as the ‘Resistance’ survives to fight the forces of evil and it’s this conflict and the search for last Jedi Luke Skywalker that serves to reunite old heroes as well as introduce new ones.  Of the returning cast of the Original Star Wars Trilogy, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo (together with pal Chewbecca, with Peter Mayhew once again donning the fur) that is given most prominence – it’s great to see him in action once more – yet The Force Awakens really belongs to its new cast of heroes – lead by Rey (Daisy Ridley) and defecting Stormtrooper ‘Finn’ (Attack the Block’s John Boyega) together with daring Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, villain of the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse) and his faithful (and adorable) droid BB8.  Feeling the draw of the mystical Force, the new generation are thrown into the path of the First Order and central villains Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has been seduced by the Force’s ‘Dark Side’, Stormtrooper commandant Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), their quest for galactic domination lead by Supreme Leader Snoke (a creepy CGI motion capture creation brought to life by Andy Serkis).

The new cast is great and it will be exciting to see their characters develop over the course of this ‘Sequel Trilogy’ much in the same vein as we saw the likes of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia grow.  It’s true that some characters are given more time in the limelight than others but it’s obvious that The Force Awakens is merely the beginning and we’ll no doubt see more of them in the next instalment.

The Force Awakens is a well-crafted visual feast with J.J. Abrams leading the charge of melding CGI with practical filmmaking, the elaborate physical production design complemented by computer generated elements rather than overwhelming it.  With the era of practical miniatures largely surpassed by CGI, Abrams brings a real, weighty feeling to the requisite spaceship battles and stages some truly thrilling action sequences that will please and wow fans as well as casual viewers, from X-Wing dogfights to the Millennium Falcon’s hyperspace jumps to lightsabre duals – it’s all here and offset nicely against John Williams’ music score.  There’s also some beautiful imagery from director of photography Dan Mindel, enhanced by Abrams’ insistence on the use of physical 35 and 65mm film (the latter for the film’s IMAX sequences) with the blistering deserts of the planet Jakku being a particular highlight.

Overall, The Force Awakens is only hindered by that slight touch of familiarity (and to an extent it’s dangling threads reserved for Episode VIII), yet it was never intended to reinvent the wheel and J.J. Abrams and his cast and crew have delivered the Star Wars sequel many were hoping for, whilst not quite the masterpiece that A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are, it’s at least as good as Return of the Jedi and superior to the controversial prequels and a great new start for an enduring franchise.

The bottom line:  The Force Awakens is a triumphant, if at times familiar, new entry in the Star Wars saga that will please and thrill both fans and novices alike.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in cinemas now.

Director J.J. Abrams stages some thrilling action in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'.

Director J.J. Abrams stages some thrilling action in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.

Film Review: ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ (spoiler-free)

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen

Directed by:  Bryan Singer / Written by:  Simon Kinberg (story by Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg & Matthew Vaughan) / 131 minutes

What’s it about?

In a war torn future where mutants are being hunted to extinction by robotic ‘Sentinels’, the surviving X-Men send Wolverine back in time to the year 1973 to change the course of history…

In review

Following the surprise hit of the rather excellent prequel X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past is an assured entry in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men film franchise – bolstered by director Bryan Singer’s return to the series.

Based on the classic Chris Claremont comic book story (itself adapted for the 1990s X-Men animated series), Days of Future Past successfully melds the X-Men cinematic universe into a relatively cohesive whole by neatly combining the casts of the original X-Men trilogy and First Class to provide an ambitious slice of comic book film entertainment with some laudable dramatic weight.

With the narrative set-up by the film’s opening Terminator-esque dystopia, the bulk of DoFP takes place in 1973 with Wolverine (the ever reliable Jackman) on a mission to prevent Raven/Mystique (The Hunger Games’s Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Bolivar Trask (Dinklage) – creator of the future mutant-slaying Sentinels.  To do so, he must unite a withdrawn and despondent Charles Xavier (a suitably dishevelled McAvoy) with former friend and ally Erik Lensher (Fassbender) – aka Magneto.

With DoFP, Kinberg delivers a much stronger narrative than X-Men: The Last Stand, no doubt assisted by his collaboration on the film’s story with First Class director Matthew Vaughan and screenwriter Jane Goldman.  There’s a lot to take in given the scope of the story and the plethora of characters yet DoFP remains relatively focused and its slow-burn approach allows the viewer to keep up with proceedings.  It’s also notable that just as First Class neatly incorporated Cold War zeitgeist into the comic book universe, DoFP also ties in with real-world events and concerns, at least, as they were in 1973.

The franchise is once again lead confidently by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine but that’s not to say others are side-lined.  McAvoy and Fassbender continue where they left off in First Class and make use of every opportunity to develop the complexities of their characters’ relationship and Lawrence bring us a more intense version of Raven given the character’s significant role in the story.

The film’s biggest surprise though is Evan Peters who provides a healthy dose of levity and fun via his performance as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver but unfortunately the excellent Peter Dinklage is hindered by lack of exposure and character development and a missed opportunity to deliver a truly compelling villain.

Although Ellen Page’s role of Kitty Pride isn’t significantly larger than it was in The Last Stand it’s at least functional and as with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s appearance as the elder Xavier and Magneto (respectively), is key to the story.  There are of course many cameos from X-Men past and present (some surprising, some not so much) and to name-check everyone would probably require a post of its own.

Despite the film’s darker themes there’s still a healthy dose of fun and humour, mainly via those sequences where Wolverine, Xavier and Beast (Hoult) team up with Quicksilver to ‘liberate’ an imprisoned Magneto.  There are also numerous pleasing nods and winks to the X-Men universe that will provide fans with endless delight.

The film’s exciting climax is a showdown of epic proportions (and oddly reminiscent of Iron Man 2) that provides dramatic as well as visual punch, wisely saving the best of the film’s action until last.

DoFP is a HUGE film in terms of casting, design and narrative scope and luckily Bryan Singer (already attached to X-Men: Apocalypse, due for release in 2016) once again proves his abilities to handle such a production with skill and precision.  It’s a welcome and triumphant return for the director who seems to have fallen from grace since his decision to exit the franchise in favour of helming the divisive Superman Returns.

So, is DoFP the best X-Men film yet?  Well, no, whilst it may sit comfortably more-or-less on equal footing with First Class, X2 easily still wears that crown.  Those expecting an indisputable rectification of continuity errors between the original X-Men and the Frist Class universes may be disappointed that DoFP raises more questions than it answers but the end result is an effective marriage of dramatic, cerebral storytelling with strong cast performances and epic action set-pieces that points to a bright future for X-Men on the big screen.

The bottom line:  With Days of Future Past, the X-Men film franchise continues to prove its worth amongst the current slew of comic book blockbusters.  It’s a pleasing and bold entry in the series that will raise anticipation for future instalments.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is in cinemas now.

What are your thoughts on X-Men: Days of Future Past?  Leave your spoiler-free comments below!

X-cellent entertainment from 20th Century Fox with 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'.

X-cellent entertainment from 20th Century Fox with ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’.