Dark Phoenix

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 4:42 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book action peril and violence with some disturbing graphic images, guns, explosions, superhero fights, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 16, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
The Marvel Avengers movies showed surprising range for very different characters operating in a single universe, from the outright comedy of “Thor Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” to the “Captain America: Winter Soldier” hark back to the political paranoia films of the 1970’s, the grappling with historical divides and cultural identity in “Black Panther” and the existential issues of “The Hulk.” But “Dark Phoenix,” this latest entry in the not (yet) integrated X-Men franchise, also based on Marvel comics, veers unwisely into a genre best left out of the superhero category: soap opera.

In this version of the X-Men universe (don’t try to tie it too closely to the original series or we would have to try to understand how Professor X and Magneto could age several decades in seven years, not to mention several other major disconnects), Jean Gray is brought by Professor X (James McAvoy) to his school, a sort of Hogwarts for mutants, when she is a child. Devastated by the loss of her parents in a car accident and terrified by powers she does not understand or control, she at first refuses. Professor X assures her that he can fix whatever she breaks, and that she herself is not broken. Note that just before the car flips over and crashes, which Jean survives without a scratch, the radio plays two significant songs: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Werewolves of London.” The first is a reference to the regenerating mythical bird that will give Jean her new nom de superhero/persona. The second is likely a nod to Jean’s relationship with Wolverine, otherwise not referred to in this film.

By the time Jean grows up (played by “Game of Thrones'” Sophie Turner), she is in a strong romantic relationship with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and very much a part of the group of young adult X-Men. (Raven/Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, points out that the women have been saving the men so often they should consider changing the name to X-Women). The team goes on their first mission to outer space, to rescue a crew of American astronauts. Jean is almost killed, but is exposed to and possibly saved by some mysterious cosmic radiation. She says she is fine and nothing shows up in a quick medical examination, but later that day she faints, and when she is tested again, her powers are literally off the charts. As in, so far past anyone else they need to build a new machine to measure.

Whatever she has learned from the trust, guidance, and support of Professor X dissolves as the new powers bring back the same feelings of guilt, shame, defiance, and being out of control that we saw in her just before her parents’ car flipped over. She will try to find answers from her past, including a visit to the secret place where Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and his team are hanging out, a hidden safe zone that is off the grid.

As in all X-Men movies (and in last week’s “Godzilla” except with monsters), the core tension is between those who want to find a way for humans and mutants to live together in peace and mutual support (astronaut rescue!) and those who want to wipe each other out. This war seems to be going on inside of Jean, as she discovers that her real and substitute fathers lied to her and as she fears she will not be able to control her new powers.

Meanwhile, some aliens have landed and taken over human bodies. Their leader (Jessica Chastain) is searching for Jean to help them take over the planet. It is a shame to see this versatile, classically trained actor relegated to one of those roles where all of her lines are recited in the same languid but threatening monotone and her superpowers is primarily striding around in stilettos without mussing her impeccably shaped blonde hair.

The action scenes are capably staged, but the non-action scenes are close to inert and some of the special effects look cheap and insubstantial. Can we just all agree never to ask an alien character to say that emotions make humans weak? This is a disappointing placeholder that suffers by comparison with the vastly more dynamic and imaginative superhero movies we’ve already seen this year.

Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy/comic-book peril and violence with characters injured and killed and some disturbing and graphic images including characters being impaled, shot, and dissolved, and some strong language including one f-word.

Family discussion: Why did Professor X lie to Jean? Did he “fix” her? Would you like to have Jean’s powers and what would you do if you had them?

If you like this, try: the “X-Men” movies and comics and “Captain Marvel”

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Posted on May 24, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 27, 2016
Date Released to DVD: October 3, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01G9AXWH2
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2016
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2016

We love superheroes, but most of the time what makes a superhero movie work is the supervillain. Just as the Avengers on the other side of the Marvel Universe move into X-Men territory by having the supes fight each other, with a villain in “Civil War” who is a mere human, with the most human of motives and goals rather than Loki’s “let’s blow up the universe and roast marshmallows on the flames” sort of threat, the X-Men, whose primary plotlines rest on the shifting loyalties of its mutant members, switches direction toward a more Loki-esque bad guy.

That would be the first mutant of all, going all the way back to ancient Egypt, where he was a god. He is resurrected, he is nearly omnipotent, and he is played by one of the most exciting actors in movies, Oscar Isaac. But there are three big problems with Apocalypse, and that means there are three big problems with the movie.

First, we never really understand that “nearly” part about his powers, and therefore we cannot judge the threat he poses in any given confrontation. Second, Isaac is a superb actor with deeply expressive eyes and voice. Yet he is put into a mask that conceals his eyes and given a double-tracked distortion of his voice. The big, hulking outfit also impairs the precise, distinctive physicality he has brought to roles as different as “Star Wars” ace Po Dameron, the title folk musician of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and billionaire Nathan Bateman (“Ex Machina”). The power of his presence as a performer is all but muted just when we need a character to be terrifying.

Plus, we’ve seen ancient Egyptian super villains before. After the many versions of “The Mummy,” we need something more than he’s from the time of the pyramids plus chanting. But there is a very cool opening sequence that brings us through history to 1983, the pre-digital era when overhead projectors in classrooms represented cutting-edge technology. And Magneto seems to have found peace, in a small town, with a factory job, and a loving wife and daughter.

Of course, that can’t last. And soon he has experienced yet another devastating loss, and returns to his bad, furious, destructive self — until someone who is even more furious and destructive comes along.

When I say that this episode is a “Muppet Babies” take on the X-Men, I do not necessarily mean that in a bad way. Origin stories are intriguing, and the X-Men have always had an adolescent quality, with the onset of their mutant powers coming with puberty and acting as a heightened metaphor to examine the sense of uncertainty, anxiety, and isolation that comes with the physical and emotional changes that separate teenagers from their childhood. It is intriguing to see Scott (Tye Sheridan) rubbing his red eyes as he becomes Cyclops. But Sophie Turner does not have the screen presence of Famke Janssen as the young Jean Grey, in part because her telepathic gift is not as cinematically dynamic.

Quicksilver (Evan Peters) once again provides the high point, not just in a darker showpiece callback to the sensational Pentagon kitchen scene in the last film but in the film’s brief but most emotionally authentic scene, involving his relationship to Magneto. In a movie about mutants with superpowers, the best moment is human.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic book-style action violence, with characters injured and killed and some disturbing images, skimpy costumes, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What is the biggest challenge in getting the X-Men to work together? Which powers would you like to have?

If you like this try: the other X-Men movies, especially “Days of Future Past”

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