Film thoughts – Knives Out

Given that fan and critical reaction to The Last Jedi was mixed, if not polarising on either side of the debate, calling your next film Knives Out might be perceived as a tongue in cheek wink at those critics and fans who couldn’t take to the inversion of expected story points that Ryan Johnson did on the follow up to The Force Awakens, if it wasn’t for the fact that the story has in fact been brewing for several years now.

Rather than adapt one of Agatha Christie’s stories, or attempt another take on Poirot or even a newer version of Columbo or any other established detective, Johnson has instead opted to weave his own murder mystery plot and create a crime busting sleuth of his own to solve the crime. Although there is no updating of an older or familiar story,Knives Out is set in the present day, and does feature some familiar tropes of the genre – the large country house, a wealthy family matriarch, a family brought together with their individual divisions and angsts held back for the sake of a birthday celebration and a detective brought into their midst to solve the murder around which the plot revolves.

Something that becomes apparent soon on in the film is that it has been put together by someone with a love of the murder mystery stories and films tat have kept people guessing, before being shocked or bewildered at the finale or intrigued by the methodical unravelling of the case by the ace sleuth that cracks the case again, and for the first half of it’s run time Johnson enjoys ratcheting up the pressure around the possible suspects in the Thrombey family. Minor personality irritants and shaky recollections appear virtually from the start of the investigation,

It feels a slight pity then that the second half of the story contracts more to focus on various family members attempts to influence events that suddenly start to swirl out of their control – that isn’t to say that there aren’t any more nicely observed moments of humour or surprise yet to come. As the story starts to twist once more it becomes vital that you do care about some of the characters or at least have a vested interest and enjoyment when they are on screen and Rian Johnson manages this with the cast, managing to balance up enough scenes and moments for the cast to each make their own mark on the film without any getting lost along the way. It is to his well put together ensemble that the film hangs upon and fortunately it finds all of them delivering performances which carry the film through it’s moments of misdirection and humour.

Whilst Knives Out has brought together a stellar ensemble cast, it’s another thing to use that well and bring out the performances like Johnson has done here – from Michael Shannon’s trademark brooding intensity alongside more reflective moments, to Jamie Lee Curtis’ no bull Thrombey daughter coupled with Don Johnson, Toni Colette’s free spirited financially carefree lifestyle guru and later on Chris Evan’s spoilt playboy grandson to pick out the main players in the story. Moreover it looks like the entire cast is enjoying throwing off the impressions left by their most recent roles, most notably Daniel Craig who looks to be hugely enjoying himself crafting a brand new character, one that’s a world away from the Bond series, with his blue eyed stare used several times effectively for close up interrogation shots paired with a Kentucky accented drawl that is almost questioning the audience as much as his suspect. He can’t fully escape the world of Bond however, with the film’s main protagonist played by soon to be Bond co-star Ana de Armas, here featuring as Harlan’s nurse and confidant with the somewhat unique trait of being unable to tell a lie without vomiting, a neat if queasy upgrade on the proverbial human lie detector personality facet.

There’s more than able support from the rest of the cast as the mystery is developed at a fair pace, the layout of the house with it’s genre friendly creaking staircase, the sequence of events in the party the night before viewed through several contradictory viewpoints of those who might have more to hide or lose than others, all with the watchful elder eye of the grandmother by the window who will near inevitably know something that can help unlock the truth of events.

Whether Knives Out is ever considered in the lofty echelons of the murder mystery genre or not, it has been undeniably put together both in terms of script, setting and the actual film by someone with a genuine care and love for those films. It’s one thing getting well known actors into the roles, it’s another to make the most of them in those roles without feeling that any one or two are overshadowing the others and it’s a balance that’s achieved well by Rian Johnson’s script and direction, which also makes sure that there is a genuine sense of pathos for those who end up in the worst situations despite the likelihood of their innocence. Serving a timely reminder that there is life beyond their signature roles to date for Chris Evans and Daniel Craig, Knives Out also offers a redemption of sorts for Rain Johnson for those who viewed The Last Jedi as something of a nadir in the Star Wars series, and for those who enjoyed that a sense of justification for him getting chosen to helm a blockbuster story of that size and importance. In a year that has seen more complaints about remakes and more sequels Knives Out would stand out as it is for being an original piece, but deserves mention, and much praise, for being a highly enjoyable and entertaining watch throughout and worthy or the pre-release hype.

Film thoughts – Terminator: Dark Fate

The logic used to go with Terminator films that you would be and to make one with Arnie in it, so strong was his association with the character that had helped propel him towards being one of the most bankable action stars available from the mid 80s onwards, however as the prologue of Terminator: Dark Fate suggests it may well be the case that it’s Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor that the series has missed most.

It’s that opening scene that reminds of Sarah’s helplessness and horror of knowing about a nuclear fate for mankind that seems impossible to prevent lifted from one of Sarah’s interviews in the psychiatric ward from Terminator 2: Judgement Day that firmly establishes this as a sequel to that film, with an opening scene that blends from the Skynet dominated future glimpsed in the first two films fades out into sunny serene beach scene. Enough time has passed to suggest that the human v machine war has been completely avoided only for two arrivals from the future to herald an entirely new battle to begin in a first act that sets off at a cracking pace, introducing both Mackenzie Davis’s future soldier Grace, an enhanced human, and Gabriel Luna’s Rev 9, which although it is essentially a T-800 Terminator combined with a T-1000 crucially isn’t either, instead given the designation of a Rev 9 created by the Legion software which has essentially replaced Skynet’s position in the future war to come. Both are wise choices of casting, with Davis’ lithe but powerful future warrior more than capable of holding her own in the physical battles in the story but also able to convincingly carry the human emotional sides of the character and her mission and Luna finally portraying an antagonist that carries a very real and deadly threat, moreso than the other adversaries that have featured since Robert Patrick’s T1000.

Noticeably one aspect of the script is how it handles its few comedic moments. Commenting on a deleted scene from Terminator 2 that showed Arnold’s T-800 trying to smile James Cameron observed that once you make the Terminator a figure of fun it ceases to be a threatening presence, something that was realised all too readily in some moments in Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines and moreso in Genisys and thankfully with Dark Fate where there are a few moments of light relief they are handled with much more subtlety and as a result much more effectively. It’s also an instalment that prefers to have occasional nods to the earlier films in the series rather than slavishly recreate some of the more memorable moments and shots that will be familiar to long term fans. It does share the same broad basic storyline as the first Terminator film, unsurprisingly given this is another attempt to kick start a Terminator trilogy after Salvation and Genisys failed to do so, with Natalia Reyes’s Daniella “Dani” Ramos the target for termination, and like David and Luna is another good casting choice, even if she is essentially following the template for Sarah Connor established in the very first film, albeit this time as an automobile factory worker rather than a waitress.

It’s this mission of protect/terminate that leads to the encounter with Sarah Connor, at this point having disposed of several Terminators off screen in the intervening years, has seemingly gotten better at it, more battle hardened but yet crucially hasn’t lost a sense of empathy or emotion as she so nearly did in the encounter with Miles Dyson in T2. Her and Davis repeatedly clash over the best way to protect Dani, both of them with knowledge and experience they think can gain the upper advantage over the other which is tempted at the same time by a sense of distrust over the motivations and history each of them has.

Though the mid section of the film is essentially an echo of the escape/get away from the cyborg pursuer/end up having to face said pursuer down format that was prevalent in both the first two films, more prevalently in the first, it’s at the point that Schwarzenegger is reintroduced to the fray that things start to feel like they’re going slightly awry. The time travel machinations and their repercussions are dealt with with a verbal wave of the hand, those who found Genisys’ use of time travel and it’s cause/effect and nexus points too much will be glad to know, but it’s a point in the story where the logic of the plot does feel stretched and ends up with the audience asking more points and questions than it really should do as a result of some of the later developments.

One aspect of the first two films, and the third as well in fairness, was that the action was kept within the bounds of grounded realism and never felt like it went bigger, louder and more spectacular for the sake of it – Salvation broke that to an extent with it’s giant Terminator units (and the less said about the moto-terminators probably the better), whereas Genisys went several steps further especially with a bus smash that seemed barely survivable even for Arnie’s lightly battered T800. Dark Fate looks to one up that with a plane sequence that damn near rips an escape plan right out of the A-Team remake, going again for spectacle over something smaller scale that might have made more sense and more likely to be achievable in the real world. Tim Miller certainly isn’t a newcomer to action and handled that aspect of Deadpool well (as well as others) and does again here, the Davies/Rev 9 face offs in particular being well handled, like wise an early vehicle chase sequence, although the use of CGI turns out to be surprisingly shoddy in some places, with some renderings outshone by the mix of practical and CGI effects that were used in T2 nearly 30 years ago, which for a film with a budget heading up towards the 200 million dollar range is at best shoddy, at worst unforgivable for what is aiming to be a tentpole summer sci fi action blockbuster.

For the most part Terminator: Dark Fate does, if not living up to the first two films in the series, at least serve as a worthy follow up to them and at the very least easily betters Genisys and avoids some of the pitfalls experienced by other sequels post T2. It is a shame though that by taking the path it does and with the story it creates that the future world which was only tantalisingly glimpsed in the first two Terminator outings has been cast off into the cinematic ether, particularly as there was much left to tell, such as the rest of John Connor’s story and how despite Reese insisting the war was won before he travelled back in time something must have happened past that moment of departure for more Terminators to be sent back.

Whether this latest attempt to kick start the franchise does enough to generate interest in more sequels is up in the air somewhat, especially with Genisys still relatively recent in cinemagoers memories – though Dark Fate is undoubtedly a step up from that effort – and it’s failure to deliver the sequel fans will have wanted. Rating more at the same level as Rise of the Machines, Dark Fate does at least for the first half deliver some well worked action scenes and shows what the series has missed since T2 with the returning Linda Hamilton rightly back as one of the central figures and still more than capable of delivering in the action and emotional scenes throughout.

Film thoughts – Joker

When DC and Warners decided that their cinematic universe would be better off going down the solo movie route, abandoning for now any plans for big crossovers in the style of Marvel’s massive interconnected MCU, it’s unlikely they envisioned that they would end up in with the style of one off film that they have gotten with Joker. Particularly after Zack Snyder’s dark and brooding visual style that began that universe with Man of Steel then permeated deeper into Batman v Superman and his original vision for Justice League

Throughout his history the Joker has never really had a definitive backstory and creating one for him was always going to prove a difficult proposition especially to long standing fans, given his take on his own past has always been shrouded by his own lies about his circumstances and become one of the main facets of his character, with the 1989 Batman film’s use of a backstory for the villain not an overly popular decision. One immediately notable step that has been taken to place this iteration of the Joker out on his own from the recent DC crop of films is to set the film in 1981 (never explicitly specified on screen but referenced in the pre-release material) and in a Gotham city that’s sense of desperation, dirt and grime almost feels like it is ready to seep out of the screen. If Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a realistic bordering on hyper-real take at times at least there was a sense of some prosperity and hope in his Gotham city, but here moreso than any other version of the city that has been put onto the screen, this is a Gotham that feels completely real and in dire in need of hope for it’s inhabitants and the start of a restoration of the city itself, inundated with rubbish due to a binman strike. 

This real to life grounding of Gotham that helps shape the character of the man that would be the Joker, the clown for hire comedy hopefully that is Arthur Fleck. From the start Fleck is marked out as something of a loner and outcast, whether it’s amongst his fellow clown entertainment for hire group, or in his life outside of work, living in a small flat with his unwell mother with a fixation on his neighbour (Zazie Beetz’s Sophie Dumond) and thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s physical transformation that rivals that of Christian Bale’s in The Machinist, is almost a human representation of the ever decaying nature of the city that surrounds him. Suffering from Pseudobulbar Affect which causes episodes of uncontrollable laughter, his one escape from his world and caring for his mother is that of comedy, trying to construct enough of a routine in a notebook to perform at comedy club open nights, and his hero worship of talkshow host Murray Franklin, the first echo of influences by past Robert De Niro/Martin Scorcese collaborations, with Franklin portrayed by De Niro, who Fleck dreams about one day appearing with and visualising him almost as a, empathetic, encouraging father figure he never had. 

What follows on from that opening is clearly influenced by another of De Niro/Scorcese’s classic team ups Taxi Driver, as the story becomes a slow, harrowing, dark and in several brief moments brutal story of a loner on the fringes of society’s descent into a dark personal world as the world around him slowly beings to take away more and more of the few hopes and stability he has left around, pushing him further towards a point of self destruction. All of which hinges on a performance by Phoenix that ranks as one of his career best, creating a character that at first is very much an empathetic protagonist, before events and circumstance turn him into something much more dangerous and driven by rage and anger.

Though presented as a stand alone effort there are ties to the wider Batman world that could yet be followed upon, with Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne interestingly being presented in a much less sympathetic way than in any previous outings, as well as cameos for a young Bruce Wayne and Alfred, with Arkham Asylum also featuring throughout. Although a part of the comic book film genre this is certainly not a film for younger viewers – although the violence that plays out as the story progresses might be sporadic it is presented in a brutal manner, particularly in the beatings that Arthur takes in the early scenes and soon afterwards on a subway train, acts that are presented as part of the reasons for Fleck’s transformation into the full Joker personality. 

There is a clear intent by Todd Philips and Scott Silver’s script to bring the issue of mental health and the effects of a society that is increasingly geared towards enabling the rich and the wealthy over those who need help the most, echoing current day issues of cutbacks to mental health services and support and the impact that has, and the repercussions misdiagnosing and mistreating mental illness can have, as it does with Arthur. There are further revelations that come together to further take Flecks’ world apart and unbalance him mentally, but despite the best of intentions there is perhaps a valid criticism to be made about how the film does handle Fleck’s mental health and the ends he is driven to. 

There are echoes back to The Dark Knight through some moments of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, particularly in it’s quieter more classical moments that mirror the unsettling tones used for Heath Ledger’s definitive Joker, and one particular shot that almost matches one used by Nolan. Mention should also be made for the visual look given to the film by Lawrence Sher’s cinematography although questions should be asked about whoever made the decision to include a song by Gary Glitter on the film’s soundtrack. 

More character study than a comic book adaption or adaptation, It is hard to escape the feeling that Joker is perhaps too derivative of Taxi Driver and not at the masterpiece level that film found, despite it’s similarly violent and disturbing plot points. Despite that though, Joker is a powerful watch that does stay with you after watching it, especially for some of it’s more impactful scenes and parallels to modern day social and mental issues and encouraging debate about them afterwards, raised to a higher level than it perhaps might have been due to the engrossing performance of it’s lead. 

Film thoughts – Angel Has Fallen

It almost seems disingenuous to talk about the next Die Hard when the original series is still going on, six instalments and counting, but the Fallen series starring Gerard Butler’s secret service Mike Banning has been one of those mentioned as a potential successor, more because of the same guy having a really bad day situation than the actual quality of the films themselves. Angel Has Fallen does continue that tradition with Banning thrown right into the midst of a conspiracy to kill the president, this time played by Morgan Freeman, finding himself framed for the assassination attempt which leaves president Trumbull in a coma unable to exonerate him and Banning, suffering migraines and back pain as a result of the previous two films escapades, under arrest and subsequently on the run from the FBI.

Subtly isn’t one of Angel Has Fallen’s bywords, both in terms in aural terms with director Ric Roman Waugh turning any explosion in this film up to 11, and the film practically signposting its antagonists practically from the get go. That Danny Huston’s Wade Jennings, a former colleague now the leader of technological company Salient Global, is one of the architect’s of Banning’s troubles, helping to frame him for the attempt on the president’s life is practically signposted early on and revealed in fairly quick time, with one of the other main players in the plot pretty easy to deduce as well. Having set up the key players where they need to be and what they’re aiming to do the midst of the film is much more of a cat and mouse game as both Jennings’ men and FBI Agent’s Helen Thompson and Jospeh Ramirez (a largely underutilised Jada Pinkett Smith and Joseph Millson) pursue Banning and start to untangle the conspiracy around the attempt on the president’s life, as Jenning’s co-conspirator begins a bid for presidential power in the White House itself. 

Things are given something of a off-kilter turn with the introduction of Nick Nolte as Banning’s father – a former tunnel rat in Vietnam, Nolte hasn’t so much given the character a quirky edge so much as am eccentric bordering on conspiracy theorist, living alone as he is in a lodge in the forest with enough buried explosives to give the sound mixer a fun time in the editing suite. The involvement of his father is an a attempt to make this third outing feel more personal, with his own family at risk and the main threat against him coming from a former friend practically family member in Wade Jennings, and gives Butler something different to work with, filling in a little more of his own family background and helping round out his character some more rather than him just being a dependable action star. Opposite him it’s the sort of role we know Danny Huston can easily do, stepping in in this case for Holt McCallany, and evokes comparison with the role of William Stryker he portrayed in Wolverine: Origins, spending most of his time as a schemer to the travails that Banning goes through rather than being involved in several physical confrontations with him. 

Whilst it does make for a more fun viewing experience from the halfway point, particularly with the appearance of Nolte and seeing him let loose on any henchman that crosses his path, it’s a pity that for the most part Angel Has Fallen won’t live long in the memory afterwards, either as a whole or for its action sequences. There is at least a real kicker of a mid credits scene that’s worth sticking around for, but despite the action hero reliability of its star Angel Has Fallen wastes several actors that it could have made better use of. A competent rather than spectacular entry to the action film genre, whether it bests the two previous instalments is arguable, and whether Gerard Butler can go on to best the number of bad days Bruce Willis has had to date.

Finally conquering an Insanity workout!

Finally! After several years it’s a very happy and proud moment to have finally pushed through one of Shaun T’s Insanity workouts without an unscheduled break! Almost didn’t do it but as the saying goes dug deep and got through the Cardio Power & Resistance workout!

Wasn’t sure if it was possible but having Shaun T’s Instagram post where he did it after years of trying I did know it was possible, whether I’d actually do it, well there was always hope and determination but to finally do it, it is one of those proud of yourself moments.

Tabata strength – session done, break free!

That moment when you’re not sure if it’s the first time you’ve managed to get through an Insanity Max 30 routine without needing a break (turns out not!) but near certain that it’s the first time without stopping through the Tabata Strength workout with Shaun T and the gang!

Film thoughts – Hobbs & Shaw

It has gotten to the point now that surely anyone who walks into a Fast and the Furious film knows what they’re expecting and what they’re paying the price of their ticket for, and the spin off, potentially the first in a series to run alongside the main Fast and the Furious films, is no different. Clearly there are moments that are set up in a way to deliver audience pleasing comedic and action highlights for fans of either Johnson or Statham, the logic seems to be if you don’t like The Rock then don’t worry here’s a big moment for the Stath, if you don’t like Statham then he’s about to get outdone by the Rock in the next exchange in an ongoing exchange of verbal and physical one upmanship. 

The plot that sees these two brought together revolves around a programmable supervirus codenamed Snowflake, and it’s retrieval from the Eteon terrorist group, which counts Iris Elba’s cybernetically enhanced superhuman operative Brixton Lore amongst its numbers. There’s little time wasted in showcasing those physical abilities in the opening skirmishes against an MI6 team led by Vanessa Kirby’s Hattie Shaw, sister of Statham’s Deckard Shaw, trying and failing to retrieve the virus, culminating in Hattie injecting herself with the virus and being framed By Brixton for the other MI6 agent’s death, resulting in her going on the run. Tasked with finding and stopping the virus from falling into enemy hands Hobbs and Shaw are brought reluctantly to work together, and though Hobbs is successful in locating Hattie a subsequent attack on a CIA black spot sees Hobbs, Deckard and Hattie framed as traitors thanks to Brixton manipulating the global media thanks to the level of control Eteon possesses – leaving all three on the run not just Hattie.

Subtlety hasn’t exactly been a watchword of the Fast and Furious series so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Hobbs & Shaw is much more of the same and by this point there shouldn’t be any surprise as to what it promises and what it delivers. Though there is a lack of organised street racing and heavy dance tracks with dancing girls in front of souped up supercars in this this spin off, director David Leitch, having co-directed the first John Wick outing and subsequently Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, certainly doesn’t hold back or fall short in terms of the action sequences that keep the story moving from location to location throughout, with several highly kinetic well shot and sequenced vehicle chases and physical brawls between the fleeing trio and Elba’s superpowered pursuer. The story also keeps up with the Fast and Furious globetrotting tradition as the pursuit moves from London to Ukraine to Samoa, with the family motif from the last two Fast & Furious films in particular present here again for both Hobbs & Shaw, especially in terms of reconciliation and estrangement. 

Something that Hobbs & Shaw shares with Leitch’s previous directorial assignment Deadpool 2 is a long running time that overly stretches the story for what it is to the point where more prudent editing could’ve cut the film down to a shorter and better suited version (there are also three, count ‘em, mid-post credit scenes for those that still haven’t had their fill after over two hours). Well directed as the action scenes are there are some jarring uses of CGI that pull the viewer out of some moments, but credit should be given for balancing out the scenes with Hobbs & Shaw and for Vanessa Kirby’s performance as Hattie, and positioning her as more of a mental and physical match against both Johnson and Statham whilst Idris Elba looks like he’s enjoying himself, given time and range to bring a presence that poses more than a capable physical and mental challenge to the headline duo. Though it doesn’t match the better of the franchise’s films and might not do enough to win any new fans to the series, Hobbs & Shaw unapologetically is what it is and does deliver on the expected level of action and comedic asides that is expected from it, whether it does spawn future sequels might be another matter, but fit should provide more than enough satisfaction for fans of the series and casual action film fans looking for a pure action popcorn Saturday night movie.

Getting through an Insanity Max 30 session in the summer heat

Got to raise a smile when you finally complete one of Shaun T’s #maxout30 routines without maxing  out once even on a hot evening! Nothing else involved, just sheer perseverance, and on this occasion a case of seeing that timer creeping towards the 30 minute mark, knowing that if you can just push on through a tough exercise or series of them to the last set, you can get through it and not letting yourself stop as a result.

Film thoughts – Men in Black International

If you’re looking at producing a sequel to a trilogy without bringing back any of the previous leads, why not take a look at another long running series that’s just had hugely enthusiastically received sequel released relatively recently and pick two of it’s stars to team up once again? That certainly seems to be the thinking for the team behind the latest instalment in the Men in Black series, Men in Black International, as it teams up Chris Hemsworth with Tessa Thompson, hoping to utilise their comedic chemistry that worked well in Thor 3. Rather than a full reboot, the fourth entry in the franchise instead opts to use a couple of nods to the previous trilogy of films, and carries on Emma Thompson’s presence as Agent O, the head of the MIB who operates in the US, wth the Men in Black organisation now operating on a worldwide scale to act on any intergalactic threats. 

It’s through the eyes of Thompson’s Molly Wright that the story develops, using her as a way into the MiB organisation much like Will Smith’s Agent J in the original film, after an encounter with aliens on the run and two MiB agents from her youth leads her to obsess over joining the mysterious organisation. Having snuck into the New York version of the agency, Molly is given probationary status and sent to the London branch, getting herself assigned to Hemsworth’s Agent H, a cocksure agent who’s ongoing mistakes are routinely covered up or excused by Liam Neeson’s Agent T, the agent in charge of the London branch who owes a debt of gratitude to H for saving his life in a case years before. A routine meeting with an old friend of H ends with the death of alien royalty at the hands of two twins, seemingly made of pure energy, and an accusation that a parasitic alien force called the Hive has infiltrated the MiB organisation, merging with agents DNA to act as a growing trojan horse within it. 

With the story heading out to Marrakesh, just to reinforce the international aspect of the title further, the duo pick up an ally in the the miniature form of Pawny, the only survivor of an alien attack on his group, a move that usually causes concern as to how well handled a comedic sidekick will be. Fortunately Pawny strikes the right balance between comedic relief without becoming an unbearingly unwelcome presence in the storyline. It won’t come as much surprise that Hemsworth can pull off balancing H’s overconfidence with his more grounded responsible agent side, keeping him likeable even when he is on the verge of becoming too cocksure of himself. Those parts of his character and his matter of fact approach to the alien visitors and their conflicts and alliances provide an important grounding point to Thompson’s more wide eyed eager to learn and please newcomer, who at times might be harder to take depending on how audiences view her over eagerness to learn and gain approval and acceptance into the MiB organisation, as the two are essentially set up to echo the master-learner pairing carried off so successfully by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith way back in the original outing – and whilst mentioning the original it seems a pity that even 3 sequels on Linda Fiorentino’s promotion to the MiB team at the end of that first film, which would have torpedoed some of the women in black comments that pop up early on here, seems to have been overlooked or just forgotten about.

With partnerships in mind it seems a pity that more isn’t shown of the Hemsworth/Liam Neeson team up glimpsed in flashbacks, though at least he and Rafe Spall, as the Agent H doubting C, fare better than Rebecca Ferguson’s intergalactic arms dealing Riza Stavros, who is barely given enough time to make that much of an impact on the story. Mib International does feature some nice executed action scenes, a speeder chase in Marrakesh being the high point, and there has been a notable effort to keep the originals’ creativity around the agent’s weapons and vehicles flowing through from the previous films. There are times though when the arguments that went on during the production process and tensions between director F. Gary Gary and one of the producers Walter F Parkes have resulted into an uneven finished film – the original script was said to have an edgier feel to it with more social commentary going on than there is present in it’s final incarnation. Undoubtedly the freshness that made the first film standout has worn off by now and though it is a likeable and entertaining enough entry in the series Mib International ultimately, like it’s two processors, feels like more of the same and as a result never reaches the standards set by the first.

Film thoughts – X Men: Dark Phoenix

X Men, and film goers in general, might have been forgiven for being slightly confused about what kind of film they were expecting to see given that during production the film was touted as being “not superhero movie”, “a drama”, “a Logan inspired character piece”, “inspired by Thor Ragnarok”, “the The Dark Knight of the franchise”, “a hitchcockian psychological drama” and if that weren’t enough, ”a movie that would revolutionise the superhero genre”. Perhaps feeling the pressure on his first official gig as director, as well as writer, Simon Kinberg felt the need to namecheck recent and past popular comic book genre films to raise hopes for Dark Phoenix, especially as he is re-treading old X Men story ground, and looking to make good on his second go at the Dark Phoenix story after 2006’s The Last Stand delivered a distinctly unsatisfactory take on the classic story.

The new take on the story does at least get off to a promising start – Batman TV series style Presidential X phone aside – with the X Men flying off to assist the astronauts of the space shuttle Endeavour, after their mission starts to go critically wrong with the shuttle disintegrating around them in space, with a solar flare rapidly closing in, with a train sequence that signals the beginning of a completely reshot third act to the film also providing some nicely put together action sequences.

It’s a pity that between those two sequences that the rest of the film wobbles badly and fails to live up to it’s premise, never mind the aforementioned pre-release pomp. It is of course no ordinary solar flare that threatens the shuttle crew and in turn the X Men, containing as it does a force of great power and potential destruction, never actually named as the Phoenix Force oddly, which Jean Grey absorbs, a decision that will go on to have unforeseen consequences for her and the team, as she starts to become affected by a heightening of her powers and the inability to fully control them. One incident leads to Jean revisiting her childhood home in a sequence that does of course mirror one in the middle of X3, with fatal consequences for one major character, mindlessly spoiled in one of the film’s trailers, which in turn threatens to split the X Men apart as the argument is set up as to whether Jean can be saved or whether she is too much of a threat to mutant and humankind alike. 

Kinberg has spoken previously about his favouritism for Magneto so it’s no surprise that the story finds a way to shoehorn his charter into the proceedings, even though you could arguably remove him and not impact the story at all, bar introducing the mutant haven island Genosha which comes over as more of a tick box on Kinberg’s part rather than a development that’s meaningfully explored or used. After a visit to Genosha by Jean brings about a set piece with the army and unwelcome news, Magneto opts to step back into the world and kill Jean in a mark of vengeance. The prequel films other headline star James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier is given similar treatment to that of X3, displaying character traits that don’t fit in with what we’ve seen before, and arguably shouldn’t even happen given his experiences in Apocalypse and even Days of Future Past but are deemed necessary by Kinberg’s script to provide another source of conflict for Jean.

Prior to filming Sophie Turner delved into studying real-world mental illness including schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder for the arc she would go through as Jean Grey and in fairness to Turner she turns in an accomplished believable performance throughout the story and the acting challenges it brings. X Men Dark Phoenix does at least try to right one wrong of X3 and put Jean Grey more front and central to the plot but it’s a pity that it doesn’t devote the time needed to fully exploring it’s themes of mental illness as a result of being corrupted by a super powered extra terrestrial entity. As a potential source of her corruption, the film also manages to waste Jessica Chastain, given smaller involvement in the story than her billing might have warranted especially given she makes the first appearance in the X Men series of n alien entity, one that apparently demanded a huge secrecy in the pre-release marketing, yet she is given relatively little to do or chance to really stand out here as any kind of memorable villain in the series.

One of the main problems that does help to scupper X Men Dark Phoenix though is that the level of emotional involvement that the audience needs to have for the characters and the established friendships and relationships it hinges around, between the characters and abidance to to meet the dramatic levels it aims for, just haven’t been established anywhere near fully enough in this section of the X Men series yet. The earlier films were criticised to varying degrees for attempts to balance out the characters and the emotional beats in the stories yet the first two X Men films manage several moments of genuine emotion that are far above anything managed by this script. Whilst it isn’t the complete flop some feared it doesn’t go anywhere near redeeming either the previous attempt at the Dark Phoenix story or the disappointment that preceded it in the form of Apocalypse, and it’s a shame that with a full MCU reboot destined in the next few years that this series doesn’t go out with a more deserving final film given it’s contribution to the perception and appreciation of the comic book genre in film over the last 20 years.