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 of Thrones: Season 8

DIGITAL REVIEW:

HBO;
Fantasy;
$19.99 SD; $26.99 HD;
Not Rated.
Stars Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Liam Cunningham, Nathalie Emmanuel, Alfie Allen, John Bradley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Gwendoline Christie, Conleth Hill, Rory McCann, Jerome Flynn, Kristofer Hivju, Joe Dempsie, Jacob Anderson, Iain Glen.

The eighth and final season of “Game of Thrones” is certainly its most divisive, setting off a wave of Internet debates as to whether the final run of episodes was worthy of the extensive storytelling that had been laid out before.

Much of the ire seems to be focused on the creative decisions made by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in mapping out the final story arcs of the various characters once they no longer draw from the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels by George R.R. Martin, which formed the basis of the first five seasons.

A noticeable shift in the show’s pacing occurred in season six, once it was clear they had to create their own after reportedly receiving outlines from Martin about how he envisioned the saga more or less ending up. After season six, it was announced the show would wrap up in 13 episodes split into two seasons, with seven in season seven and six in season eight.

In hindsight, the argument goes, this timeline was insufficient in setting up the character development needed for the plot twists of the final episodes, leaving the final storylines feeling rushed while retroactively weakening the earlier seasons by both devaluing their story development and making it clear (particularly to readers of the novels) where the show missed opportunities to lay the foundation for the plot points the writers eventually decided to pursue.

The series has spent seven seasons seemingly maneuvering every character into two factions. One is the army gathering at Winterfell to fight the Night King and the White Walkers. This is the faction commanded by Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, who joined forces last season. However, their truce may be complicated by the lingering truth of Jon’s true heritage, which could present an obstacle to Dany’s claim to the Iron Throne.

Meanwhile. Queen Cersei has fortified her hold on King’s Landing through an alliance with Euron Greyjoy’s fleet and a mercenary army.

The first two episodes deal largely with various characters reuniting, setting the stage for the battle against the Night King, which takes place in the third episode. The final episodes involve the battle for King’s Landing and its aftermath.

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So, is the final season as problematic as the darkest corners of the Internet would make it out to be? Well, mostly no, but a little bit yes.

The ire seems to fall into two categories. The first, as mentioned, is the show rushing to get to the end. The second is the specific outcomes for some of the characters, which may have differed a bit from what some of the more entitled fans envisioned in their heads.

As to the second point, such is often the refrain of toxic fandom, and seems misguided. The character arcs themselves are fine and completely understandable, particularly when it comes to the most divisive of the individual stories, that of Queen Daenerys and her quest to reclaim the Iron Throne on behalf of her family.

The show has always been an examination of the dangers of tyranny and absolutism, even when the results of such governance may seem beneficial. The cycle of inherited power is itself the problem, not the potential for harm a new ruler may bring.

That being said, it’s hard to disagree that the final march to the end was a bit rushed, and perhaps could have used a few episodes to show events for the characters to experience that might reinforce their motivations in the final battles.

The final season is fine as it is, as easy as it is for fans to pick it apart, and will likely come to be better regarded once absorbed into the bulk of the show as fodder for binge viewing. While the asinine suggestion of fan petitions to “remake the season with competent writers” is beyond the realm of credibility, it’s hard not to at least entertain the idea of filming a few more episodes of material to expand on the character development, then re-editing them into the final couple of seasons (though, realistically, that ain’t happening either).

The show’s critics are also quick to overlook the many strengths of the final season, which offers some of the most stunning visuals of the series. This includes the purposefully dark and moody third episode, which uses its nighttime setting to great effect give viewers the same sense of unseen dread the characters would experience in fighting off wave after wave of undead armies.

There was some concern about the cinematography being too dark upon its initial airing, but this isn’t much of a problem with the digital HD presentation.

The other aspect of concern in fan circles were all the memes pointing out Starbucks cups and plastic water bottles left on the set for key scenes. The prominent coffee cup was subsequently digitally erased from episode four, but a few water bottles spotted under the chairs in the “Council of Lords” scene in the finale were still visible in the digital copy of the episode, at least within the first few days of its digital release. It will certainly be something to keep an eye out for in the eventual Blu-ray release that should arrive in a few months.

The digital package of the final season also includes a four-minute production featurette, a 17-minute profile of a key season from the third-episode battle, and The Last Watch, the feature-length documentary chronicling the making of the show’s final season that provides an enlightening look at the filmmakers and craftsman who brought it all together.