Dec 312019
one reel

Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) sends his X-Men—Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee)—on a dangerous mission into space for…reasons…in an airplane that definitely can’t go into space, but does anyway. There, a lot of CGI happens, and afterward, Jean acts like she’d like to have some fun, which makes Cyclops suspicious because… just because. It seems she has absorbed the ultimate power in the universe, or something like that—it isn’t really explained—and that makes her libel to blow up people. After the X-Men get in a fight with her for…reasons…she goes off to see Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for…reasons. Then an alien (Jessica Chastain) comes to chat with Jean because…sure, why not? And then there’s more CGI. So… Yeah, that’s about it.

I expected Dark Phoenix to be bad. The Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics is very long, very convoluted, occasionally goofy, and only works because you have years of Jean being a dull prude, so her breaking free and going wild was an event. Of course they can’t do that with a movie, so they were going to have to chop it to something very simple. They did that before with X-Men: The Last Stand, and it didn’t work out well, and I had no reason to think it would this time. They’d already introduced the phoenix force in a previous movie in a way that suggested they were going to repeat past mistakes, but then I’d heard they were going to just drop that continuity and start over (which they did), and that seemed worse.

The last few X-Men films had put the series on a wrong track, and then Dark Phoenix had substantial production problems before they panicked about similarities with Captain Marvel and reshot the last act. Nothing says quality like ditching the entire direction of your film and replacing it with whatever random thing you could think of in the middle of the night. I saw Sophie Turner hit the talk show circuit only to have the film pulled from the release schedule a few days later. Clearly Fox had no confidence in the picture, nor did its new owner, Disney. I also knew that Jennifer Lawrence, now being a big star, no longer had interest in the project, nor sitting in a makeup chair—the result being the worst makeup in X-Men franchise history, looking like something from a lower budget 1950s film, and Mystique being written out of the story early simply so that Lawrence only had to be on set a few days. I’d also heard that they rewrote the nature of the villain while shooting (and reshooting).

So yeah, I expected it to be bad.

But it wasn’t what I expected. I expect huge, ridiculous moments. I expected something silly. I expected the likes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine or The Last Stand. No, what I got was emptiness. It isn’t bad in the way something is when people make stupid decisions or freak out when their plans fall through. It’s just tired. It’s as if everyone trudged to work each day, moaning softly and longing for bed. It’s as if the writers could barely lift a pencil. It’s like director Simon Kinberg was slumped forward in his chair, whispering “cut” before falling to the floor. Sophie Turner was there, at least it body, no doubt carried by slaves of the pit from set to set, and then left, uncertain of where she was, or even if she was. James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult seem too exhausted to say their lines, or look up. Maybe they were dreaming of a needle and the cold oblivion it brings. I can only assume that Michael Fassbender paused in his daily planned suicides to creep from his trailer to the set, yet, being Michael Fassbender, he’s still pretty good (that’s the only time “good” will be used in reference to this film). I’m not sure Jennifer Lawrence did show up. It seems clear that editing was done, with hundred year old equipment located in limbo, by insomniacs whose eyes no longer focus as they hold heavy rusted blades above the slowly moving film stock that never stops for all of eternity.

Maybe Dark Phoenix wasn’t made by a human-run film company at all. It sits in the shadows between life and death and the wind never blows, where there is no joy, no energy, and no care.

I’m not saying that Dark Phoenix is depressing, or at least much more than other X-Men films. “Depressing” is an attribute, and it has no attributes. There needs to be life for depression. Dark Phoenix doesn’t live. It exists, though I suspect most of those involved don’t care, or perhaps aren’t even aware. It’s not that they wish it didn’t exist—that would suggest some level of engagement. They don’t dislike Dark Phoneix, nor hate it, any more than I do. There is power in hatred, and there’s no power here. There is nothing here. Dark Phoenix is the void outside the realm of cinema.

My 1 star rating says to skip it, but that’s too strong a statement. You should skip bad films. You should see good films. This is neither. See it, or don’t see, but don’t try to do either of those things. No one involved tried to do anything. Why should you?

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Dec 202019
two reels

All the galaxy knows that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned and has a huge fleet at a secret Sith base which he plans to use to conquer the universe. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), with help from Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) hunt down information on the location of that base so they can stop him. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) also wants to stop him as there can be only one supreme leader, and his plans involve Rey. Leia Organa is also around…just because, and Rose occasionally pops her head in

Ah, what the hell, let’s just restart the trilogy. That’s what the poorly titled The Rise of the Skywalker does. The last two movies matter for character, but for story, not at all. We start with new villains, a new threat, a new big bad, and a new quest. We meet new allies, and are given new histories. By “new” I mean re-purposed, but they’re not the ones from the last two films. So we start all over, jump around with multiple climaxes till we reach the grand finale. Yes, it isn’t just a new start, but an entire new trilogy in one flick.

Actually, it plays like a serial. Star Wars was based on ‘30s & ‘40s serials and no Star Wars film has ever been closer to that source. For a good portion of the runtime, its three friends off on adventures. This is also when the film works best. It’s fun and exciting and quite mindless, with some great banter between Poe and Finn. Poe gets the award for most improved as his digs and sarcasm are pure gold. And of course there’s lots of running, fighting, things blowing up, and general action mayhem. But it’s just adventure serial fun. The Last Jedi tried to be more. The Rise of Skywalker puts in real effort to be less.

Where is does rise is in the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. Whatever heart and depth the film has is with them. Their interactions, no matter the form, resonate. Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley have fantastic chemistry together, more than in the previous two films.

Of course this is J.J. Abrams, the man whose main skill as a director is “borrowing” from other directors, and he plies that craft with enthusiasm. As should be a surprise to no one, he starts with a copy of Return of the Jedi as all the new trilogy films have copied the original trilogy ones. But of the three new films, this one resembles its foundation the least—though it is still noticeable. No J.J. isn’t making a remake or a re-imagining. He’s got more swiping to do. He (clearly with the support of Disney) just grabs everything he can from the older films. I’d call it fan service, but is it still fan service if everything is fan service? There are multiple characters who exist in the film only because they existed in earlier films. We have captures like we did before. We have escapes like we did before. We visit planets because we visited them before. J.J. seems scared to death to do something new. This makes the ending disappointing, though it should be expected. In 1977, or 1983, or even 1999 I might have been more excited, but I’ve seen it too many times, and the entire last third of the film is so blatant about everything happening because that’s what happened before. Apparently, Star Wars is always the same.

Funny, I felt it was quite different in 1977.

J.J. also does his best to ignore The Last Jedi. He undoes several important points from that film, and shifts characters’ personalities. Rose is also sidelined, even though she could have easily replaced several of the new characters in scenes. He may have done this in response to fan-boi whining, or just because that wasn’t his story. It doesn’t matter why, though it is annoying. However it is less annoying than it might be if The Rise of Skywalker was a weightier film.

Another problem was forced upon him. The death of Carrie Fisher left a hole, and it is noticeable. Since all of her shots were leftovers from the last two films, for her scenes the script couldn’t be what was best for story or character, but whatever could stitch together the frames they had. The result is underwhelming.

For two-thirds of the way, they had me. Oh, I’d seen it all before but it was fast and fun and engaging, and I can excuse a good deal of pandering. But the last third, particularly the scenes without Rey and Kylo were a bridge too far. Taken piece by piece The Rise of Skywalker is a better film than Rogue One, which was a mess for a full half. But you’ve got to stick the landing.

If my review sounds dire, remember this is a Star Wars film and I’m grading on a curve. It looks great. Not The Last Jedi great, but The Force Awakens great, and that’s a high mark. The music is thrilling. The CGI is stunning. The sound is awe inspiring. And unlike the first six films in the series, the acting isn’t a detriment. It’s cheap, lowest common denominator fun. Who doesn’t like cotton candy?