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Misbehaving X-Men, Pets & Lovers in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Misbehaving X-Men, Pets & Lovers in Theaters
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Well, the blockbusters range from mediocre to poor, but there is one indie you need to check out. Here’s the skinny.

Dark Phoenix

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Hey, remember back in ’06 when director Brett Ratner and writer Simon Kinberg crashed the X-Men franchise into oblivion by telling the story of how the perpetually boring Jean Grey was really the most powerful of all mutants, plus maybe she was bad, and not even the love of two good mutants and the misguided belief of Dr. Charles Xavier could save her?

You don’t?! Because it was so bad it tanked the promising series until director Matthew Vaughn revived it five years later with Ashley Miller’s clever time warp, X-Men: First Class. Then there was another good one, then a terrible one—basically, we’re back on that downside of this cycle.

So why not put some polish on that old turd about Jean Grey, and this time give it the overly ominous title Dark Phoenix?

Some elements are the same: Jean’s powers are beyond anyone’s control and there’s a dark power that’s overtaking her. But this go-round, writer Kinberg also makes his feature debut behind the camera, spinning a yarn with more aliens, more girl power and less Wolverine.

The writing is just as bad, though.

How bad? Exposition and inner monologues continually jockey for position, with lines bad enough to choke even the bona fide talent of Jessica Chastain, who joins the fray as alien leader Vuk.

Sophie Turner returns as Jean – the role she took on in 2016’s abysmal X-Men: Apocalypse – with little more charisma than she wielded three years ago. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence all also return because, one assumes, contracts are contracts.

There’s really no excuse for a film with this cast to fail, but Kinberg’s story weaves and bobs with no real anchor, all the veterans repeat the same old conflict/guilt/resolution spirals and the newbies simply lack the charisma to draw attention away from the weakly choreographed set pieces.

Okay, some of the mutant vs. alien throwdown on a moving train has zip, but it’s too little, too late.

By then the attempts to make us care about a character that’s always been lacking in investment – for us and these X superfriends – have pulled up lame.

To paraphrase social historian Regina George: Stop trying to make Jean Grey happen, she isn’t going to happen.

Grade: D+

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Illumination, the animation giant behind all things Minion, returns to their blandly entertaining dog franchise for the blandly entertaining sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2.

In the 2016 original, Louis C.K. voiced a neurotic terrier named Max who needed to loosen up a little once his beloved owner brought home a huge, lovable Newfie mix (in a NYC apartment?!). And while life lessons were the name of the game, the real gimmick was to take the Toy Story approach to house pets, giving us a glimpse into what they’re up to when we’re not around.

Because we really don’t want to associate him with children anymore, C.K.’s been replaced by Patton Oswalt, whose Max has all new reasons for anxiety. There’s a new baby, whose presence suddenly reinforces all those fears about the big, scary world.

In a move that’s as disjointed as it is interesting, returning writer Brian Lynch sends Max, Newfie Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and family on a trip to the country, creating one of three separate episodes that will eventually intersect. Well, crash into each other, anyway.

The  main story deals with trying to alpha Max up a bit with some problematically “masculine” training by way of farm dog Rooster (Harrison Ford), who, among other things, disregards therapy as weakness.

Basically, Lynch and director Chris Renaud think we’re all a little too precious (the clear message of the original) and what they’d like to do with their sequel is beat us about the head and neck with that idea.

Meanwhile, back in NYC, Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) and Chloe the cat (Lake Bell – the film’s deadpan bright spot) train to retrieve a chew toy from a crazy cat lady’s feline-overrun apartment. And separately, Snowball the bunny (Kevin Hart), believing himself to be a super hero, befriends Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), and together they save a baby tiger from an evil Russian circus.

For real.

That last bit gets seriously weird, I have no idea what they feed this baby tiger the whole time, and on average, the actual lessons learned are troublingly old school (read: conservative).

Teaching boys that pretending they’re not afraid so they can take charge of every situation = literally every single problem on earth right now. So let’s stop doing that.

Otherwise, though, Illumination offers yet another blandly entertaining, cute time waster.

Grade: C-

The Souvenir

by George Wolf

The Souvenir rests at the hypnotic intersection of art and inspiration, an almost shockingly self-aware narrative from filmmaker Joanna Hogg that dares you to label its high level of artistry as pretense.

It is an ode to her craft and her experience, reflecting on both through an autobiographical tale of hard lessons learned.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne – Tilda’s daughter) is a young film school student with a privileged background and a cautiously supportive mother (played, of course, by Tilda, who’s customarily splendid). It is the early 1980s, and Julie has high aspirations for projects that will mine truths she has yet to experience.

That changes when she begins a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke) a complicated older man who preys on Julie’s naivete.

Hogg lays the relationship bare, literally opening her diaries and projects for a portrait of the artist on her own unapologetic terms.

While other cast members had scripted dialog, Byrne worked improvisationally from Hogg’s own journal, with Julie’s student films also closely resembling those in the director’s past.

In her first major role, Byrne is tremendously effective (which, given her lineage, should not be that surprising). In her hands, Julie’s arc is at turns predictable, foolish and frustrating, yet always sympathetic and achingly real.

The intimacy of Hogg’s reflection on a toxic relationship is worthy on its own, but her story’s added resonance comes from its unconventional structure, and the brilliantly organic way Julie’s thoughts on filmmaking tell you why that has to be.

The Souvenir is finely crafted as a different kind of gain from pain, one that benefits both filmmaker and audience. It is artful and cinematic in its love for art and cinema, honest and forgiving in its acceptance, and beautifully appreciative for how life shapes us.

Grade: A-

The Tomorrow Man

by Rachel Willis

I’ve never understood people who prepare for the end of the world: those who stockpile supplies or buy secret caves in the wilderness (I knew a woman) to survive nuclear war or the zombie apocalypse. I’ve always thought if the world ended in some horrible way, I wouldn’t want to stick around. If we’re in a Thunderdome scenario in the future, count me out. 

However, in writer/director Noble Jones’s film, The Tomorrow Man, Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) is readying himself for the inevitable end of days. Spending his time on online message boards, watching the news, and gathering supplies at the local grocery store, he’s as prepared as one can be. 

Into his well-organized life comes Ronnie (Blythe Danner). Ed immediately thinks he recognizes the signs of a fellow “prepper” and begins an unusual courtship to which Ronnie is receptive. 

The film suffers from an abundance of quirkiness. Jones seems to be trying for a vibe similar to Moonrise Kingdom, but where Wes Anderson wisely chose children to convey the magic of new love, Jones focuses on two elderly adults who act more like children than grown-ups. Watching the two characters connect brings more questions on the wisdom of them living independently than any sweet enjoyment of their budding December/December romance. 

Lithgow is endearing as the over-prepared Ed. Divorced and estranged from his grown son, it’s impossible not to root for Ed as he woos Ronnie. However, Danner seems as lost in her role as her character Ronnie is lost in life.

The supporting roles offer very little to the story, and no one is offered any opportunity to grow. These characters are the same people at the end of the film as they were at the beginning. Perhaps if Jones spent less time telling us about all of the characters’ various foibles, we’d get a meatier story. 

There are a few comedic moments, but not nearly enough to balance the tedium of watching two peculiar people try to build a relationship. Everything about that relationship, like the film’s idiosyncrasies, feels forced. It’s unfortunate when we’ve seen the formula work before. 

Sadly, The Tomorrow Man tries too hard to be something it’s not. 

Grade: D+

Also opening in Columbus:

Loopers: The Caddies Long Walk (PG)

Meeting Gorbachev (NR)

Roll Red Roll (NR)

Read more from George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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