X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain

Director: Simon Kinberg

Writer: Simon Kinberg


Dark Phoenix marks the end of a two-decade journey for one of the franchises that helped launch the superhero phenomenon that has overtaken the world. As the genre has involved so has the series, going from a modestly-budgeted action flick with a mostly serious tone and black, leather costumes to a more campy sci-fi/fantasy style with larger effects-driven set-pieces and more inventive varieties of outfits and powers. Since then the franchise has also branched out to deliver a cartoonishly crude lampoon satirising the customs we’ve come to associate with the genre and an elegiac, western-inspired drama that explored and reflected on those conventions in complex and profound ways. The eleven films that came before have led the series to soaring heights and dreadful lows and, while the Disney-Fox deals guarantees that this is nowhere near the last we’ll see of the mutants, Dark Phoenix marks the end of an era all the same. That the film opted to once again draw from the ‘Phoenix Saga’ in the comics, the go-to character-killing storyline for the franchise when the actors are ready to be released from their contracts, should indicate this if nothing else. If ever there was a time for the series to pull out the big guns, be bold and daring, and make a loud, definitive statement for all to hear, this was it. Instead Dark Phoenix has turned out to be their weakest, most uninspired film yet (which is saying something).

The movie isn’t as terrible as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it may not even be as bad as The Last Stand, but what both of those movies had that Dark Phoenix does not is personality and purpose. Wolverine was abysmal on almost every conceivable level, but it at least had the courtesy to be so laughably bad that it offers some entertainment value for those who enjoy hate-watching movies. The Last Stand, the last movie to adapt the ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga, was similarly condemned by audiences, but I’m still prepared to defend it insofar as it took actual chances with its story and characters, something that too few blockbusters are willing to do today. Dark Phoenix meanwhile is so dull and unimaginative in its approach and so pointless in its very existence that I can hardly believe it is technically considered a movie. Not only does it utterly fail to deliver its own compelling standalone story or to advance the overarching narrative of the franchise in any meaningful way, it hardly seems to care enough to so much as try. Not even the talented cast at its disposal could overcome the dismal script they were made to work with nor the failings of the first-time director the studio saw fit to entrust with their coda to the series. When Fox appointed longtime X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg to captain this conclusive title, what they doubtless expected was something safe, standard, and uncontroversial and that is exactly what they got in all the worst ways.

After opening with a brief flashback featuring Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) tragic backstory, the movie picks things up in 1992, precisely eight years before James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (once again reprising their roles as Professor X and Magneto) are due to morph into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Since the events of X-Men: Apocalypse human-mutant relations have improved and the X-Men have been embraced as heroes and saviours (the Oval Office even has an X-shaped phone for the President’s use when their services are needed). Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters has also flourished into a haven for mutants in need of community and guidance and there Jean has grown to become one of the Professor’s brightest and most capable students. Xavier acknowledges that this harmony they’ve attained is more the result of necessity than it is of acceptance and that mutantkind is only one bad day away from returning to square one, but the contemporary connotations of such a concept are quickly brushed aside so that the X-Men series (as created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee as a metaphor for racism in the 1960s) may remain blissfully apolitical. Jean joins the team, as led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), on a risky space mission that ends up going badly as she gets struck by some solar-flare-like force of energy. Jean inexplicably survives the blast and emerges not only unharmed but feeling stronger than ever. Her powers soon grow out of control however and it isn’t long before she finds herself heading down a destructive path.

Jean, having served as little more than a minor role in the last film, is the protagonist this time around and so much of why Dark Phoenix doesn’t work has to do with how much the movie takes our investment in her character for granted. The film for example assumes that we’re already on board with the romance between her and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) despite their relationship barely amounting to a sub-plot in Apocalypse because the leg-work for these characters was already done back when they were played by Famke Janssen and James Marsden. Turner, as demonstrated in her tenure on Game of Thrones, is a talented enough actress that she ought to have been able to make the character her own and find some meat in the role of a conflicted woman with a fractured mind furiously at odds with herself and her loved ones. She never gets that far however because the movie has little interest in exploring her psyche and, more crucially, her feelings about the man responsible for perpetuating her rage and trauma. The shock from the cosmic explosion reawakens a lost memory that Xavier chose to repress in his first meeting with Jean, that of the tragic car crash that she inadvertently caused with her powers as a young girl and the harms it inflicted on her parents.

That the good Professor elected to suppress a little girl’s emotional development in a sorely misguided attempt to protect her is a questionable act worthy of interrogation, but that would mean confronting issues of underlying misogyny that the movie would prefer to leave unacknowledged. The film wants us to be critical of Xavier, but not so critical that he ceases to be sympathetic. Instead the film simply chastises him for his actions insofar as they enraged an increasingly powerful and unstable mutant and triggered a lethal rampage and tries to score what cheap feminist points it can through empty gestures and lip-service. With Mystique’s eyeroll-inducing declaration that the X-Men ought to consider calling themselves the X-Women, the film appears to be operating under the assumption that female empowerment amounts to meaningless ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ statements, caring not whether the substance even supports the statement being made. When Jean reaches the conclusion that it’s her emotions that make her strong, the words ring hollow coming from a character who is defined far more by her abilities and her connection to her previous incarnation than she is by her own personal feelings. It’s all there to provide token gestures towards a vague notion of progressivism without pressing any buttons in a world where people’s intolerance for the sexist exercise of patriarchal power and control over women is gradually increasing.

Ethical objections aside, Dark Phoenix ranks lowest in my estimation of the X-Men canon because of what a continual slog it is to sit through. Compared to First Class where each performer, most notably McAvoy, Fassbender, and above all Lawrence, brought so much spirit and enthusiasm to their roles, here they put in all the effort of mildly acquainted co-workers taking part in a mandatory team-building exercise. McAvoy and Fassbender do at least act like they somewhat care about what’s happening in the film if only because both men are physically incapable of phoning in a performance, but Lawrence, who in Apocalypse could barely disguise how bored she was of starring in these films, is so wooden and uninterested that they might as well have employed a CGI duplicate. Chastain however comes the worst out of the whole deal as a villain whose personality and motivations are so ill-defined that I’m honestly struggling to remember a single substantial thing about her character. She’s a shape-shifting alien with some kind of connection to the space energy consumed by Jean and manipulates her into performing hurtful acts towards her loved ones for… reasons. What she essentially amounts to is as an unambiguously villainous diversion (so that Jean’s dark turn need not be blamed solely on the objectionable mind games of Xavier) and an eventual antagonist for the whole team to combat in the film’s serviceable third act.

There isn’t much to talk about in terms of how the movie is shot and constructed. The style is so bland and nondescript that I can hardly remember a single image that had any kind of memorable effect on me in the whole movie. The climatic train battle does at least offer some basic thrills, particularly in the way it uses Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but even that scene boils down to nothing more than each mutant dutifully performing their single trick in turn. So little happens in this film that I am honestly confounded as to why it was made in the first place. There’s no sense of momentum or direction to any of it; everything just more or less unfolds along the parameters of the plot points they decided to include and the movie doesn’t care enough to try and understand how or why. This movie was specially designed to be as broad, harmless and generic as is cinematically possible and the result of that endeavour is a movie so unbearably bland and meaningless that the reason for its very existence escapes me. If this is to be the final statement on Fox’s X-Men legacy and its place in the superhero movie canon, then this is the weakest, feeblest note on which they could possibly have ended especially compared to the poignant swan song of Logan. Talk about ending with a whimper.

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The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, Sam Claflin, Rob Brydon, Jessica Chastain

Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos, Craig Mazin


Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. This is the tale of a princess who possesses magical powers that allow her to manipulate ice and snow. An accident involving these powers leads her to isolate herself from the world and from her sister in a self-imposed exile. She flees far away into the mountains where she creates her own kingdom with a palace made of ice an- No, really. This all happens in the first five minutes of the movie. I could probably spend all day highlighting the similarities with Frozen and even longer outlining the reasons why it is a far superior film to Winter’s War. The former has lovable characters, enjoyable comedy, a terrific soundtrack and a moving story about love and the bond between two sisters whereas the latter does not. It’s Frozen without any of the things that made it good. Those have all been replaced by a myriad of subplots and a dreary tone that serve to create a messy movie almost completely void of feeling and enjoyment.

Before the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, Ravenna (Charlize Theron) was the sister of Freya (Emily Blunt), a princess with ice powers who kills her love upon being betrayed by him. She flees into exile and creates her own kingdom with an army of huntsmen. Her two best warriors are Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) who share a secret romance in violation of Freya’s laws. Freya learns of their affection and sees to it that it ends in tragedy. Seven years later (after the events of Snow White), King William (Sam Claflin) tracks down the Huntsman and informs him that Ravenna’s magic mirror has been stolen. Believing the mirror poses a threat to Queen Snow White (not Kristen Stewart) he requests Eric to find the mirror and recover it. Eric sets out on this quest with the two dwarves Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon) and ends up on a path that brings him in direct conflict with his past.

This sorta-prequel, sorta-sequel that nobody really asked for and that does not even include the protagonist from the first movie is a mess. It features a dynamic relationship between two royal sisters both of whom are villains, a forbidden love between the two huntsmen, the threat of a war against Snow White’s kingdom (without Snow White), the dwarves who are each given their own romantic subplots and the various divergences that take place as Eric and his party attempt to find the magic mirror. Jumping between these stories might have been more tolerable had I been able to find one of them engaging, but I didn’t. I would have loved to have seen a film about two villainous sisters facing each other, especially with these two actresses playing them, but what this film did was just so dull and unenjoyable. Neither Blunt nor Theron were diabolical enough to be fun or menacing enough to be threatening. Whatever my issues with Maleficent, at least Jolie was clearly having fun with the character. The problem with this film is that it takes itself too seriously for any fun to be had without being either strong or compelling enough to be taken seriously.

Snow White and the Huntsman did receive two Oscar nominations for costume design and visual effects, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they were the high points of the prequel/sequel. The film does feel like it takes place in a world of creatures and enchantment and manages to look pretty convincing for the most part. The action scenes however are wholly uninspired and utterly lacking in investment or tension. As a costume designer Colleen Atwood has excelled in this genre time and time again and this film is no exception. It is through her work that Blunt and Theron are both able to look the part, even if they don’t act it. The performances are pretty humdrum with the only real surprise being Sheridan Smith as a feisty, foul-mouthed dwarf. Chastain’s attempt at a Scottish accent is good for a few laughs but otherwise there isn’t much to enjoy.

I wasn’t a fan of Snow White and the Huntsman but at least that film kept its focus where it was needed and offered something that was a little different from what had come before. Winter’s War has no focus to speak of and has nothing new or original to offer. It is dull, clichéd, predictable, derivative, drab and lifeless. Although the visuals and costumes remain impressive, you won’t really get anything out of them that you cannot get from watching the first film. It’s just a prequel/sequel that had no reason to exist and no idea of what to do with itself, so it just decided to draw ideas from Disney’s most profitable product and hire a few bankable stars to sell it. I don’t know if the decision to leave Kristen Stewart out was the studio’s or her own but, either way, she’s better off. To anyone interested in seeing this film, my advice is to give it a miss and just rewatch Frozen instead.

Crimson Peak

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunman, Jim Beaver

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins


When the film’s protagonist shows the manuscript of a novel she has written to a would-be publisher, he expresses his confusion over what he labels as a ghost story. She replies that it is not a ghost story but a story with a ghost in it. Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to the depiction of supernatural beings in his films but to label them, along with other films of this type, as ‘ghost stories’ does not do them justice. The ghosts of these stories often come in figurative forms as well as literal and are not simply there to provide scares. Ghosts often appear in a certain place because of an emotional attachment they have and, while scary, are not manifestations of evil. Instead they can appear as manifestations of fear, loss, grief, pain and other themes we associate with death. True evil instead lies in the hearts of men, the ones who create these ghosts. The ghosts are not the focus of these stories but are instead there to reinforce and enhance the emotional journey or conflict taking place. This is the type of story that Crimson Peak is trying to tell.

The story is that of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who as a young girl was visited by her mother’s ghost and was warned to “beware of Crimson Peak”. Now a young woman, Edith is an aspiring author very much in the vein of Mary Shelley. She is also at the age when she must start thinking of marriage and catches the eye of the alluring English baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) senses something awry about Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and so tries to prevent any sort of a union between him and his daughter. When Carter dies under mysterious circumstances a grieving Edith weds Thomas and goes to live with him and his sister in the rotting, decaying estate of Allerdale Hall. Edith however learns that this estate is haunted by ghosts both literal and metaphorical and starts to suspect that this forbidding place might be connected to the warning she received all those years ago.

One thing that Guillermo del Toro has stressed while promoting this film is that it is not a gothic horror, but a gothic romance. The film certainly has elements of horror such as the haunting atmosphere, the sinister characters and elements of the supernatural. However the focus of the film is not on them but on the romance between Edith and Thomas and on the terrible secret that he and his sister share. In any case I cannot think of any director working today who is better at depicting gothic settings and themes than del Toro. The production and style of this film harkens back to such classics as The Innocents, Black Sunday and the works of Roger Corman. The antiquated sets, costumes and visuals are all wonderfully dark and mystifying. The film makes gorgeous use of colour with an ominous emphasis on red, reminiscent of the Hammer Horror films. The atmosphere del Toro creates, complete with the looming shadows, eerie environment and melancholy music, is thoroughly absorbing and is a refined homage to the fine line-up of gothic cinema that has preceded this film. I really wish I could say that the story and characters were worthy of them.

The central romance of this film just didn’t do it for me. I thought it felt quite melodramatic and flat and that neither character had much going for them despite the great talent behind them. Mia Wasikowska is a formidable actress and has done great work in the past but she keeps making the mistake of starring in films that require her to look impassive and disinterested at all the action around her. Her lack of personality made her journey less compelling and her motives less identifiable. Tom Hiddleston has shown that he knows how to do creepy and charming well and while that does come across with this character it just never felt to like there was any life beneath it all. I never felt any of the passion or fire between these two that is clearly supposed to be there. Jessica Chastain delivers a campy, over-the-top performance but at least she looks like she’s having fun doing it. Once you have a clear idea of who each person is the story itself becomes fairly predictable and steals much away from the film’s mysteriousness.

This is a film that I admired more than I enjoyed. I admire del Toro as a director whose inventive imagination, meticulous attention to detail and uncanny command of mood and tone has been employed to spellbinding effect in such films as Pan’s Labyrinth. The atmosphere he evokes in Crimson Peak is haunting and beautiful, just like gothic cinema should be. The characters however seem lifeless in comparison and the story less engaging. What results is a film that is moody and atmospheric on the outside but dispassionate and hollow within. Audiences might enjoy this film for the visual spectacle but the romance and the mystery left me feeling overall underwhelmed.

★★★

The Martian

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Drew Goddard


This is a film that surprised me for two major reasons. Firstly the film was much more enjoyable than I was expecting it to be. When I heard about the film’s premise I was expecting something much darker and more despairing, kind of in the same vein as 127 Hours. I was not prepared for how funny and exciting this film turned out to be. Secondly is because the film was directed by Ridley Scott. It occurred to me after I saw The Martian that it’s been quite a while since Scott has made a great film (heck, it’s been a while since he made a good film). I initially found this film to be a bit out of character for him until I realised what a versatile filmmaker he really is. In his time he has made a claustrophobic horror film in Alien, a philosophical mystery in Blade Runner, a heartening buddy movie in Thelma and Louise and a historical epic in Gladiator. Therefore why not an uplifting survival story as well? In any case I think The Martian marks a return to form for Scott and I hope there’s plenty more to come.

The story is that of the astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a part of a manned mission to Mars that gets cut short by an intense storm. In the chaos that ensues Mark is injured and presumed dead and so the mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is left with no choice but to go on without him. Stranded on a planet with a limited amount of food and supplies and without any means of communication, Mark must rely on his intellect, skills and spirit to make contact with NASA and to ensure his own survival until a rescue mission can be arranged. The team at NASA, led by its head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and the mission directors Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), soon learn of his survival and work vigorously on the effort to bring him home safely. Meanwhile Melissa and her crew are wracked with guilt from leaving their crewmate and friend behind and therefore undertake to ensure his rescue by any means necessary.

Any film that features Matt Damon as a lone astronaut being stranded on a forbidding planet as well as Jessica Chastain is bound to receive comparisons with Christopher Nolan’s visual spectacle Interstellar. However, whereas Interstellar was (mostly but not entirely) characterless, anaemic and self-indulgent, The Martian is positively bursting with life, flavour and colour. The characters actually talk and act like real people. The emotional stakes of the film’s conflict feels authentic. The planet even feels like a character in itself, a great red desert both beautiful and ominous that is so full of majesty and wonder and yet so desolate and remote. Being stranded in such a place with little to no hope of survival or rescue is a daunting concept and the isolation and futility of such a prospect would be enough to drive any man insane. Yet this film depicts Mark’s harrowing ordeal with such humour and heart that The Martian becomes an absolute delight to watch.

Matt Damon kills it as Mark in his effort to stay alive and to keep himself sane. Given the dire situation he faces Mark resorts to using humour as a defence mechanism in order to keep his spirits up, which I felt was a very human way to handle such a predicament. He records daily vlogs detailing his thoughts and endeavours as he attempts to “science the shit” out of his resources in order to keep himself alive and does so with such an anxious yet heartening attitude that he becomes all the more relatable. This could have been compelling enough as a one-man survival story, much like Gravity, but amazingly the rest of the ensemble shines as well. The scientists at NASA are made up of interesting and diverse characters all working together to deal with this crisis. I really like how the film resisted the urge to include some sort of clichéd, bureaucratic antagonist trying to halt the rescue mission as a means of generating conflict. These characters are all on the same side and are all working towards the same goal, even when they disagree with each other. The only characters I didn’t feel that much of a connection to were the crewmembers. I thought they were likeable but underdeveloped.

Another thing to say is that this film is a technical marvel. The visuals are simply gorgeous to look at, particularly the Martian landscape which I thought had a real otherworldly feel to it. The 3D also works really well by drawing the viewer further into the world they’ve created. I thought the film did a wonderful job of depicting this alien environment and the challenges Mark faces in inhabiting it. As someone who doesn’t even have a GCSE in science I can hardly account for the film’s scientific accuracy. I did however find the science to be both interesting and coherent. I think it’s probably safe to assume that the film isn’t 100% accurate but, as a standard inexpert viewer, I went along with it just fine. The methods adopted by Mark seemed reasonable and plausible given the context and my suspension of disbelief was never stretched beyond reason.

There really isn’t much I can fault about this film. The characters are great, the humour is hilarious, the story is well told and the visuals are superb. My only real criticism is that I think the survival theme could have been taken a bit further. When I compare this film to, say, Gravity, I didn’t really feel like this film ever really expressed that same level of danger and desperation. Mark does have moments of uncertainty but he never loses his charm or wit through any of it. So upbeat is this film’s tone that I thought the tension never really reached the point where the possibility of Mark’s survival was brought into question. That aside, The Martian is nevertheless an excellent viewing experience and a wonderfully entertaining film that provides a funny, moving and epic account of the human spirit.

★★★★★

A Most Violent Year

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno

Director: J. C. Chandor

Writer: J. C. Chandor


In A Most Violent Year we are presented with a moral tale about a man who follows a path of truth and honour in the face of violence and corruption in his pursuit of the American Dream. It is a perilous path that he chooses as outside forces beyond his control threaten to bring him down. However, no matter how desperate his situation becomes, he refuses to abandon his principles and stray from his path. He carries on regardless, all the while placing his trust in the belief that whatever choices he must make along the way there is always one choice that is “most right”. He trusts that all will be well so long as he follows his moral compass and does what he believes to be the right thing. This proves to be very difficult and dangerous as he stands to lose everything that he has worked for.

The film is set in the backdrop of New York City in 1981, one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who runs a successful oil business, is in the process of making the biggest deal of his career when a series of his lorries are commandeered by armed men as they make their deliveries. Abel is an ambitious, strongly principled man who prides himself on having built a business from honesty, hard work and integrity. Even after one of his drivers is beaten to a pulp during one of the hijackings, Abel refuses to allow his employees to carry weapons. These incidents indicate that someone has targeted Abel and his company and that he must try to find and stop them. However things become worse for Abel when the district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) informs Abel that a case is being built against him, accusing him of corruption and embezzlement. This takes a toll on Abel’s business as none of his partners will participate in this deal anymore.

The troubles that Abel faces threaten not only his business, but also his family. When Abel catches a man trying to break into his house in the middle of the night, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) demands to know what is happening. Abel tries to assure her that everything is under control, only for Anna to later find their daughter playing with the intruder’s gun. Abel is left with no option but to tell his wife the truth. Chastain plays a Lady Macbeth type of character as she pushes her husband to resort to dishonest methods. She is just as ambitious as her husband but does not share his sense of morality. She has no qualms about keeping her family safe through immoral means, a view that often leads to clashes between her and Abel.

Isaacs, who appears to be channelling 1970’s Al Pacino in his performance, plays Abel with a calm and collected demeanour coupled with an underlying sense of panic. This is a man who is trying his utmost to keep everything under control, but finds himself struggling to cope as more of these problems keep slipping through his fingers. He is adamant that this business deal must happen and that it cannot wait until his legal troubles are over, and so he finds himself scrambling around trying to borrow the money that he needs. On top of that he struggles to keep his situation with the district attorney and the police under control, especially when they show up in the middle of his daughter’s birthday party with a search warrant for his house. His legal troubles become even worse when one of his lorry drivers is involved in a gun-related incident. He attempts to face his troubles with all the dignity he can muster, but he exhibits a clear sense of desperation beneath it all. As his difficulties get worse and worse, one wonders how long it will take before he finally snaps.

Despite the compelling struggle of Abel Morales and his ideological clashes with his wife and his associates, I found A Most Violent Year to be a somewhat underwhelming film mostly due to its lack of payoff. When all is said and done, the film never really builds up to anything and never really finds a resolution. I’m not convinced that Abel as a character has learned anything by the end, and so I find myself wondering what it was all for. The inaction that Abel displays may be necessary as a character motif, but in the end it ultimately builds up to something of an anti-climax. It certainly isn’t by any means a bad film; in fact I believe it to be a worthy addition to J. C. Chandor’s filmography. But ultimately I did not find it to be particularly effective or memorable.

★★★