X-Men: Dark Phoenix

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Fox;
Action;
Box Office $65.85 million;
$29.99 DVD, $37.99 Blu-ray, $45.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language.
Stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain.

With Dark Phoenix, the Fox era of “X-Men” movies comes to an end not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Of course, looking back at the franchise, while it has left its mark on the landscape of superhero cinema, the films have never really been the most consistent in terms of quality. And a lot of that might owe to the filmmakers’ dubious relationship with not just the source material, but the other films in the franchise as well.

Some have been standouts — X2, Days of Future Past, Deadpool and Logan being the biggest highlights on most lists — and some, such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, were forgettable enough that even the film that used time travel to reset the timeline ignored it.

Going in, the 12th “X-Men” movie, Dark Phoenix, had a few factors to overcome. It would be following up the disappointing X-Men: Apocalypse with a first-time director, Simon Kinberg, albeit someone who was at least familiar with the franchise having written several of the previous films. And it would be coming out amid Disney’s takeover of the Fox studio, meaning that future “X-Men” movies would likely come from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and feature a whole new cast and creative team and have nothing to do with the Fox movies. That lack of a narrative future combined with the release date for Dark Phoenix getting pushed back further and further left an impression that it was more of a remnant of a bygone era than an entry audiences could really care about.

In that regard, at least it made it to theaters. Fox also left over a New Mutants film that still needs a final polish if it is to ever see the light of day.

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Even so, the signs are evident within Dark Phoenix of a franchise on its last legs even without the intrigue of inter-studio transition (much of this carrying over from Apocalypse).

For his part, Kinberg wanted a second chance to take on the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” one of the most famous “X-Men” storylines from the comics, and one that was adapted somewhat in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which Kinberg co-wrote. But where it was just one of several storylines serving that muddied third “X-Men” movie, the reboot that came with Days of Future Past would allow Kinberg to spend an entire movie on it.

Dark Phoenix also picks up the tradition begun in 2011’s First Class of setting subsequent “X-Men” movies in a new decade. So the action picks up in 1992, nine years after the events of Apocalypse. Now seen by the world as heroes, the X-Men conduct a mission to rescue a space shuttle crew from a mysterious space cloud, which ends up being absorbed by Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).

The power contained within the cloud ends up unlocking hidden secrets involving Jean, which puts her at odds with Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the rest of the X-Men. As she sets out on her own, she is pursued by an alien leader (Jessica Chastain) who wants the power for herself.

So in that description lies the elements for a big, sprawling epic — space adventure, mysterious superpowers, alien invasions. And yet, instead of going big, Kinberg chooses to go small, trimming the potential for more world-building in favor of focusing on Jean’s personal struggles to deal with her new abilities and what that means to Charles. And the aliens are treated as little more than another nuisance for the mutants to handle, rather than the film realizing that this is the first time these films have had to deal with cosmic matters.

This could have been the Avengers: Endgame of Fox’s “X-Men” franchise, but its scope is so limited it ends up feeling more like a direct-to-video sequel.

According to Kinberg in both the feature-length commentary and several behind-the-scenes featurettes, this was by design, as the constraints of a psychological drama more more appealing to the kind of director he wanted to be. So while it’s very much the film he wanted to make, and any director would still have had his script as a starting point, the question of whether his directorial sensibilities were the right fit will always loom over the final product. (And, to be fair, the question of who else they could have gotten to direct also is fair, especially considering how much of a Hollywood pariah franchise stalwart Bryan Singer turned out to be.)

A couple of other factors contribute to the film’s sense of disconnect from the rest of the franchise. First, despite the time jump from the previous film, there is very little sense of character development in the interim. The team is the same as it was at the end of the previous movie, and any new characters are reduced to little more than fan service cameos (a complaint that could be lodged against a number of the previous movies too). Kinberg in one of the featurettes mentions thinking of this film as more of a reboot with the same cast, rather than a continuation of previously established plot threads. This isn’t the first time this kind of approach seems to have been applied to the “X” movies, as numerous potential story points and character relationships are hinted at only to be ignored later, it does seem more in force with Dark Phoenix, which is a shame.

And while musical consistency has never been a strength of this franchise, the previous “X” movies at least demonstrated a musical progression through the themes that composer John Ottman originally introduced in X2. All of that is abandoned here though in favor of the generic synth tones of Hans Zimmer and his musical score factory. It serves Kinberg’s low-key approach but does nothing for sparking the sense of nostalgia this film could have used to send this particular iteration of the franchise out on a higher note.

Of course, getting pushed to a summer release date didn’t do Dark Phoenix any favors, as it simply invited comparisons to Endgame, which traded heavily on its sense of nostalgia for the characters, especially in how it presented the music for them.

The important lesson here is that in adapting a particular comic book storyline into a long-running series (films or TV), is that the ongoing storylines should be serviced by, not sacrificed to the adaptation. The movie, show or franchise still needs to stand on its own, and the best adaptations are able to appease both longtime fans of the material and new viewers unfamiliar with it, often by adhering to the spirit of the work if not a literal re-creation of it.

That doesn’t mean Dark Phoenix is unwatchable. Just the notion of revisiting the “Dark Phoenix Saga” makes the film a curio, if only to compare it to The Last Stand. And make no mistake, there are quite a few echoes of that previous film here.

In addition, there are plenty of dazzling visual effects when the film bothers with them, and the film looks great, particularly during the shuttle rescue sequence.

And it’s still good to see the cast return, even if the story isn’t quite sure how best to utilize them. Ultimately, the film does provide enough of a sense of closure to the Fox era, particularly the four films of the “First Class” continuity.

The Blu-ray is also fascinating in how the bonus materials demonstrate the clear disconnect between how the film unfolds in the filmmakers’ minds, and what it ended up being.

In addition to Kinberg’s commentary (shared with producer Hutch Parker), the Blu-ray also includes three-and-a-half minutes of deleted scenes that mostly offer redundant information to what’s established in the film, but also provide an alternate ending of sorts.

The centerpiece of the extras is the five-part documentary “Rise of the Phoenix: The Making of Dark Phoenix,” which runs about 81 minutes in total and offers a comprehensive view of the production. Supplementing it is a 13-minute scene-breakdown of the creation of a battle on New York’s 5th Avenue (re-created on a stage in Montreal).

Rounding out the package is a lighthearted two-minute video of Beast (Nicholas Hoult) teaching viewers how to fly the X-Jet.

 

 

Game-Based Feature ‘The Division’ Starring Jessica Chastain and Jake Gyllenhaal Coming to Netflix

The Division, a feature to be based on Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy video game, is coming to Netflix.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain will star in and produce the project.

Rafe Judkins, who is creating the upcoming series “Wheel of Time” based on the fantasy novels for Amazon, will adapt the screenplay. David Leitch (Deadpool 2) will direct.

In the film, set in the near future, a pandemic virus is spread via paper money on Black Friday, decimating the city of New York and killing millions. By Christmas, what’s left of society has descended into chaos. A group of civilians, trained to operate in catastrophic times, are activated in an attempt to save who and what remains.

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At launch, The Division quickly became the fastest-selling new IP in video game history and currently has more than 20 million players, according to the Netflix release.

The Division 2 launched in March 2019. During E3 June 10, Ubisoft announced it would offer the game free to play June 13-16 on Xbox One, PS4 and PC. Players have the option of purchasing it at a discount through June 24, keeping progress made during the free period.

‘Waterworld,’ Del Toro’s ‘Crimson Peak’ on Tap in January from Arrow and MVD

The Kevin Costner dystopian tale Waterworld, Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, and the blacksploitation classic Willie Dynamite are among the films coming to Blu-ray in January from Arrow Video and MVD Entertainment Group.

Willie Dynamite debuts Jan. 8. Director Gilbert Moses balances action and social commentary in this story of Willie Dynamite (Roscoe Orman), the flashiest pimp in New York, who sports a personalized purple-and-gold Cadillac and eye-catching clothes. Dynamite wants to be No. 1, but he has the police, the D.A., fellow pimps and a tough-talking social worker on his tail. The score by J.J. Johnson features Motown legend Martha Reeves. Special features include “Kiss My Baad Asss,” a guide to blaxploitation hosted by actor and musician Ice-T and featuring interviews with Richard Roundtree, Melvin van Peebles, Isaac Hayes and others; the theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and for the first pressing only, a fully illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by Cullen Gallagher.

Jan. 15 comes Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro’s (The Shape of Water) gothic romance Crimson PeakMia Wasikowska stars as an aspiring author struck by family tragedy. The film also features Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston. Special features include audio commentary by co-writer and director Del Toro; “The House is Alive: Constructing Crimson Peak,” a newly edited, feature-length documentary with cast and crew interviews and extensive behind-the-scenes footage; a previously unseen Spanish-language interview with Del Toro; “A Primer on Gothic Romance,” in which the director and stars talk about the key traits of gothic romance; “The Light and Dark of Crimson Peak,” in which the cast and crew talk about the film’s use of color; “Hand Tailored Gothic,” a featurette on the film’s costumes; “A Living Thing,” a look at the design, modelling and construction of the Allerdale Hall sets; “Beware of Crimson Peak,” a walking tour around Allerdale Hall with Hiddleston; “Crimson Phantoms,” a featurette on the film’s ghosts; a newly filmed interview with author and critic Kim Newman on Crimson Peak and the tradition of gothic romance; “Violence and Beauty in Guillermo Del Toro’s Gothic Fairy Tale Films,” a new video essay by the writer Kat Ellinger; deleted scenes; original trailers and TV spots; a double-sided, fold-out poster; four double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions; limited edition packaging newly designed by Crimson Peak concept artist Guy Davis; and a limited edition 80-page, hard-bound book featuring new writing by David Jenkins and Simon Abrams, an archival interview with del Toro, and original conceptual design illustrations by artists Guy Davis and Oscar Chichoni.

Also due Jan. 15 is the horror film The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, from Italian director Luciano Ercoli. The twisting tale takes viewers through a triangle of friendship, sex and murder. Special features include new audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine; “Private Pictures,” a newly-edited documentary featuring archival interviews with actress Nieves Navarro and director Luciano Ercoli, and new interview material with writer Ernesto Gastaldi; “The Forbidden Soundtrack of the Big Three,” a new appreciation of the music of Forbidden Photos and 1970s Italian cult cinema by musician and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon; “The Forbidden Lady,” a Q&A with actress Dagmar Lassander at the 2016 Festival of Fantastic Films; original Italian and English theatrical trailers; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil; and for the first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Michael Mackenzie.

Jan. 22 comes the Costner actioner notorious for its expensive budget, Waterworld, a dystopian tale about Earth being completely submerged in water. The new release features a 4K restoration and three cuts of the film, including the extended U.S. TV cut that runs 40 minutes longer than the theatrical release. Other special features include six collector’s postcards; a double-sided fold-out poster; a limited edition 60-page book featuring new writing on the film by David J. Moore and Daniel Griffith, archival articles and original reviews; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper; “Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld,” a new, feature-length, making-of documentary including cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage; an original archival featurette capturing the film’s production; “Global Warnings,” in which film critic Glenn Kenny explores the subgenre of ecologically aware Hollywood blockbusters; a production and promotional stills gallery; a visual effects stills gallery; and original trailers and TV spots.

‘Woman Walks Ahead’ Due on Disc Aug. 28 From Lionsgate

Woman Walks Ahead, a Western starring Jessica Chastain, arrives on Blu-ray (plus digital) and DVD Aug. 28 from Lionsgate.

Directed by Susanna White (Our Kind of Traitor), and also starring Sam Rockwell and Michael Greyeyes as Chief Sitting Bull, the film tells the fictionalized account of the true-life events of New York portrait painter Catherine Weldon and her time in North Dakota with the Lakota Sioux tribe.

Blu-ray (plus digital) and DVD will be available at $21.99 and $19.98, respectively.

Special features include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette and an audio commentary with White.

Molly’s Game

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 4/10/18;
Universal;
Drama;
Box Office $28.78 million;
$29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for language, drug content and some violence.
Stars Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp.

With its exploration of the tawdry world of underground gambling, not to mention a tour of the criminal justice system after its protagonist gets caught, Molly’s Game seems like the perfect subject matter for the Aaron Sorkin treatment.

The film is based on the same-titled memoir by Molly Bloom, a former competitive skier who ended up running a series of illegal, high-stakes poker rooms in Los Angeles and New York.

In making his directorial debut as well as writing the screenplay, Sorkin must have had a field day with the material, as the story allows him to indulge himself with the kind of expositional flourishes that often populate his trademark witty banter, as he gets to have the characters explain to each other (and the audience) all the intricacies of poker, gambling, shady business dealings and legal minutiae.

The film is structured a bit like The Social Network, in that the main story is told through a series of flashbacks in discussions with lawyers in preparation for court. Chastain shines as Bloom, front and center and in command of the proceedings as she refuses to be bullied or outmaneuvered, even in the face of pure physical brutality.

Molly’s Game clocks in at 141 minutes, but despite its wordiness it doesn’t feel like a chore to sit through thanks to a brisk pace and good performances from the rest of the likeable cast as well, particularly Idris Elba as Bloom’s attorney, and Kevin Costner as her father.

Unfortunately, the disc is rather barren of bonus material, featuring just a single three-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that appears to have been culled from the promotional campaign.