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Perhaps no 21st century film franchise has been as utterly uneven as the “X-Men” universe.

The first movie – “X-Men” – came out back in 2000, nearly a decade before the MCU hit the scene with “Iron Man.” By all rights, the X-Men should have been the cinematic blockbuster team well before the Avengers even showed up.

Instead, we’ve watched as the franchise has been yanked all over the map in terms of quality. The heights of the early films were undermined by 2006’s unfortunate “Last Stand” and the nigh-unwatchable 2009 standalone “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” The ship was righted thanks to the timeline-altering reboot that began with “First Class” in 2011, a good Wolverine movie (“The Wolverine”) and a capital-G Great one (“Logan”) and the introduction of Deadpool.

Alas, “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t rise to that level. Or the level below it. Or the level below that one. The truth is that one could argue that this latest installment – the last before the characters pass from 20th Century Fox into the control of the Disney machine – represents the nadir of the franchise.

It’s the second effort by the franchise to tell perhaps the most important arc in the history of the X-Men – and the second failure. This is an iconic storyline, not just for the X-Men, but for all of comicdom. And yet it is peppered with sloppy storytelling, disinterested characterizations and unclear decision-making (both on camera and behind it).

Despite extremely low expectations, “Dark Phoenix” still managed to disappoint me.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 29 May 2019 11:44

Bad (Super)boy – ‘Brightburn’

Sometimes, it takes a while for me to warm up to the idea of a film. I’ll hear about it, maybe see a trailer or two, and then experience a gradual build in interest. Other times, all I need is one sentence.

A sentence like “It’s Superman’s origin story, only if he was evil.”

That’s the single-sentence synopsis of “Brightburn,” a super-horror movie directed by David Yarovesky from a script by brothers Brian and Mark Gunn (their other, more famous brother James – no stranger to superheroes – produced the film). It’s a far darker exploration of the superhero mythos than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in recent years, a bleaker (and better-executed) take than even Zack Snyder’s generally-reviled take on the DCEU.

By introducing elements such as body horror and moral corruption into the usually-sanitized realm of the superhero, “Brightburn” offers a very different – and often unsettling – look at the spandex-clad world-savers that have dominated the box office over the past decade.

Published in Movies

This is not going to be my typical review.

If you’ve seen “Avengers: Endgame” – and judging by the record-shattering $1.2 billion (that’s billion with a B) opening weekend at the box office, there’s a good chance that you probably have – then you have an idea of my dilemma.

How do you talk about an effort to wrap up nearly two dozen movies’ worth of storytelling without disclosing too much? How do you talk about a movie that is, in essence, three hours of ending? How do you avoid spoilers when discussing a film that is, by its very nature, practically constructed of spoilable revelations?

Very carefully.

Published in Movies

It’s no secret that DC Comics and their characters have been playing catch-up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the better part of a decade. Sure, DC cornered the early market on superhero cinema as high art (thanks almost entirely to Christopher Nolan), but their overall success lagged considerably.

One of the biggest complaints has been about tone. Specifically, that DC learned the wrong lessons from Nolan’s achievements and focused on gritty grimdarkness in its subsequent films. Sure, that works when you’ve got a dark-by-design character like Batman being brought forth by a brilliant actor and a transcendent filmmaker, but otherwise? Not so much.

The last couple of years have seen a course correction of sorts, with both “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” serving to show what can happen if these films are made with a different goal. And now, we get “Shazam!”, yet another big step in the right direction.

“Shazam!” is easily the most joyful of the DC offerings to date. It is pure escapist fantasy, distilling the essence of the wish fulfillment that is at the core of why so many of us fell in love with comic books in the first place. It is goofy and charming, wearing its dorkiness with pride. And the fact that it features a less well-known character (one who once shared a name with the Marvel character who just had a movie of her own hit theaters a few weeks ago) is just the icing on the cake.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 13 March 2019 13:07

Marvel at ‘Captain Marvel’

There’s no disputing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe rules the box office like nothing the entertainment industry has ever seen. Film after film drawing massive numbers, with grosses in the middle nine figures AT WORST. The MCU has produced some of the most globally popular movies of all time.

As we near the end of Phase Three – set to culminate with next month’s “Avengers: Endgame” – we are finally introduced to one of the characters who promises to be a major player in how that arc ends: Captain Marvel. The superpowered spacefarer stars in her own eponymously-titled outing, serving as the first female character to headline an MCU movie.

You may have heard about efforts from certain elements to undermine the film before its release. You may have also heard about how ultimately ineffectual those efforts were. Because a LOT of people saw this movie on opening weekend. And what they saw was pretty darned good, a quippy, zippy origin story that manages to stand on its own merits while also serving as connective tissue for the rest of the MCU out of necessity.

“Captain Marvel” could have floundered under the storytelling load it was asked to shoulder, but instead manages to (mostly) soar, giving us a fun and engaging narrative, some decent gags and some solid action set pieces (along with a killer ‘90s soundtrack). Excellent performances (particularly from star Brie Larson) serve as the glue that binds it all together.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 20 January 2019 18:47

‘Glass’ more than half full

It’s always nice to be truly, genuinely surprised by a movie. It doesn’t happen all that often, so when it does, it’s a treat.

For instance, the most delightful surprise of 2016 was the ending of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split,” whose closing scene revealed it to be part of the same universe in which his 2000 film “Unbreakable” took place.

A surprise sequel? To a movie that I personally loved and whose deconstruction of the superhero predated the MCU-led super-movie explosion of the last decade or so? Yes, please.

And of course, the series – dubbed the Eastrail 177 trilogy, after the train crash that kicked off the events of “Unbreakable” – must be completed.

“Glass” marks the culmination of a decades-spanning story, one that addresses the aspirational mythologizing behind our fascination with the superhuman. It’s a chance to once again grapple with what a world of heroes and villains might actually mean – both to them and to the rest of us.

While “Glass” has its share of flaws – namely Shyamalan’s inability to fully divest himself of some of his more self-indulgent tendencies – it is still a worthwhile final installment. The ethical ambiguity of heroes and villains, the general implications scaled both small and large – those are here, albeit occasionally a bit muddied. And with some top-notch performances and a handful of sharp aesthetic choices, the movie succeeds far more than it fails.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 23 December 2018 00:06

‘Aquaman’ works swimmingly

It’s no secret that DC is trailing Marvel significantly when it comes to their respective cinematic universes. Marvel has turned the MCU into a content-churning, money-printing machine, while DC’s process has been a good deal less smooth. Marvel is celebrated, DC is denigrated.

It appears that DC might be learning their lesson, though. While many of their early efforts at developing their shared universe have focused on the bleak grimdarkness that the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films convinced them that they needed, later films have shown glimpses of something resembling fun.

And while no one is going to mistake “Aquaman” for the cream of the MCU crop – or even last year’s excellent “Wonder Woman” – there’s no question that the movie marks a sizable step in the right direction. This movie is big and loud and unashamed of either; a collection of one-liners and guitar licks, a veritable smorgasbord of wide-ranging action, nonsensical cinematic physics and weirdly vivid settings. It definitely makes a splash.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 10 October 2018 12:08

‘Venom’ an uninspired antihero

As the superhero industrial complex continues to grow in Hollywood, we can expect to start seeing more material featuring secondary and tertiary comic book characters. The studios have churned through the A-list characters and many of the B-listers – it’s inevitable that they’re going to keep reaching.

Now, one could certainly argue that noted Spider-Man foe Venom isn’t a deep cut – he has been one of Spidey’s primary antagonists ever since he first made the scene 30 years ago. He has had connections to other heroes and villains and a fair number of stand-alone outings over the years, but he remains indelibly connected to Spider-Man.

And yet, it the new film “Venom,” there’s not a Spider-Man to be seen. And while that absence isn’t the only reason the movie fails to pass muster, it’s a significant one. The movie is a tonal mish-mash, one that seems happy to outright refuse to decide what kind of film it wants to be. Add to that the fact that the character has long been defined by a sort of reactionary emptiness and you get a movie that offers flashes of quality, but largely collapses beneath its own indecisiveness.

Published in Movies

The notion of superheroes as kid stuff has largely fallen by the wayside thanks to the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the less-massive-but-still-pretty-huge success of the DC Extended Universe. These are movies that young people can enjoy, but they are very much made for adults; the DC side especially leans into that aspect of the genre.

But there’s still a lot of kid-friendly fun to be had with superheroes. The animated TV series “Teen Titans Go!” – a staple on the Cartoon Network for the past five years – is a non-canonical DC property aimed at lighthearted fun and parodic takes on comic book tropes.

And now there’s a movie.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 11 July 2018 12:13

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ comes up big

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become one of the primary driving forces in the world of movies over the past decade. Each of these films makes hundreds of millions at the box office and continues the ever-evolving and unfolding story, moving toward massive paradigm shifts and crossover events.

But here’s the thing – operating on global and cosmic scales presents some issues. Namely – you can’t just keep raising the stakes; narrative stakes can only be raised so many times before things begin to lose their impact and feel forced. To avoid reaching that point, some sort of reset is necessary. With the 20th film in the MCU, the powers that be have chosen to cleanse our palates after the cataclysmic consequences of “Avengers: Infinity War.”

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” brings the MCU back down to Earth, choosing to tell a smaller, largely self-contained story. Taking place before the events of “IW,” the film doesn’t deal with fate-of-the-universe-level consequences. Instead, its impact is primarily on a more individual plane. It exists mostly independent of the other films, without the numerous cameos and tangential MacGuffins that often riddle MCU offerings. That freedom allows “AM&TW” to be lighter and funnier while still providing the superpowered set pieces audiences have come to expect.

Published in Movies
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