Saturday 19 October 2019

Paul Whitington: Charles Xavier and his fellow mutants bow out in an underwhelming CGI-muddled mess

Good riddance generation X-Men

Sophie Turner is miscast as Jean Grey
Sophie Turner is miscast as Jean Grey
Michael Fassbender does not feature enough
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Sic transit gloria mundi. It's not often you get to use Latin in a film review, but that well-worn phrase seems apt in this case. Dark Phoenix marks the effective end of Fox's X-Men franchise, which stretches back 12 films and almost 20 years, and includes some memorable moments.

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At their best, the X-Men films had a strong emotional core, finely honed comic sensibilities and an interesting subtext about diversity and inclusion that was ahead of its time: the mutants, you see, were the outcasts, and oppressed viewers from sundry minorities could - and did - empathise.

The Hamlet of the whole enterprise was Wolverine, a tortured, moody soul lumped from birth with powers he never wanted and prone to suicidal strops.

In the 2017 film Logan, an aged Wolverine limped across dystopian America with a gravely ill Charles Xavier, hotly pursued by many enemies. Tackling head on such knotty themes as ageing and mortality, it was the most grown-up superhero film ever, Shakespeare with a dash of Cgi.

From those dizzy heights, the X-Men franchise plummets to Earth with a dull thud in this daft and muddled coda. The original trilogy chronicled the battle for the soul of mutants between two charismatic leaders with diametrically opposing views.

Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) was a peace and love guru who believed that man and mutant could co-exist in harmony: Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) expected nothing but cruelty from humans, and formed a quasi-terrorist organisation to defend his kind. When those films ended, Fox and Marvel plunged cannily back in time for this series of prequels, with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender playing the young Xavier and Lehnsherr.

They started well, ingeniously melding the travails of mutants with real historical events: the Cuban Missile Crisis in X-Men: First Class (2011), Watergate in X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014).

That latter film saw them go back in time to avert a grim future in which weaponised robots would wipe the mutants out. They succeeded, but in doing so have altered the course of history in unpredictable ways. Dark Phoenix is set in 1992, and while Xavier is cosying up to the US government, Lehnsherr has retreated grumpily to a kind of mutant hippie colony in the woods.

Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is the most promising of the young mutants at Xavier's school. He took her in after she accidentally killed both her parents, and she's grown up into a powerful telekinetic warrior. When a NASA Space Shuttle gets into difficulty in Earth's outer orbit, Xavier sends up a mutant team that includes Jean, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan).

While rescuing the astronauts, Jean confronts and ingests an apparent solar flare. She returns to Earth intact but greatly changed, possessing a vast power that overwhelms her whenever she gets emotional. This will lead to major problems and, meanwhile, a sinister, shape-shifting group of aliens have arrived on our planet looking to extract Jean's new-found gifts. Led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain, drained of all colour, her hair dyed an unfortunate shade of silvery white), they will prove a powerful adversary for the mutants.

As soon as the aliens began talking in a subtitled language, I realised we were in trouble. It's not hard for these superhero yarns to slip into risible silliness, and Dark Phoenix does so early and often. There's a stiffness in the screenplay, a gloomy inevitability to the plot, and Sophie Turner may be slightly miscast as the young Jean Grey.

The Cgi effects are overused and, at times, seem oddly perfunctory. While there are several very decent actors on display, they don't get many opportunities to shine. Fassbender isn't on screen enough, Lawrence looks like she'd rather be somewhere else, and Chastain's role requires her to behave like a dead-eyed automaton.

By the time the credits rolled, I felt a bit like a dead-eyed automaton myself. At least it's all over, I thought, but of course these superhero franchises never actually end. Disney, which has taken over Fox, will next year release what it's promising will be the final X-Men film, The New Mutants. On this evidence, we won't be getting too excited about it.

At the movies: Your guide to all the week’s new releases

Late Night (15A, 102mins)

A comedy set behind the scenes of a TV show is hardly a new idea, but Late Night has its moments. Emma Thompson is Katherine Newbury, the rather terrifying host of a late night talk show. She lords it over her cowed all-male writing team, but ratings are slipping and Newbury is about to be replaced. Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a go-ahead young woman who works in a chemical factory but dreams of being a comedy writer. Kaling's script has moments of indulgent sentiment and not quite enough jokes, but Late Night has a certain charm, and Thompson gives it socks as the fearsome host.

Papi Chulo (15A, 99mins)

In Papi Chulo, writer/director John Butler abandons the verdant backdrop of Ireland for the parched splendour of suburban Los Angeles. Matt Bomer is Sean, a gay TV weatherman who's forced to take some leave after he has a breakdown on air. While recuperating in his plush Hollywood Hills home, he hires a Mexican handyman called Ernesto (Alejandro Patino) to repaint his peeling deck. Butler milks this unlikely relationship for laughs very efficiently, and Bomer is genuinely touching as the lost and confused Sean. Papi Chulo looks fantastic, but seems out of its depth when it follows Ernesto to his Hispanic neighbourhood.

Gloria Bell (15A, 102mins)

Not too many people saw Gloria, Sebastian Lelio's insightful 2013 drama about a middle-aged Chilean woman, and perhaps that's why he's decided to make it again, relocating his story to Los Angeles, a move that turns out to be more than cosmetic. Gloria (Julianne Moore) is divorced and has two grown-up children. She works, is sociable, loves disco dancing, but is starting to feel lonely. Hope flares when she meets a diffident divorcee, but Arnold (John Turturro) has problems. The LA setting allows Lelio to play with the Californian rejection of age and death, and Moore is magnificent as the irrepressible Gloria.

Films coming soon...

Men In Black: International (Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson); Diego Maradona (Diego Maradona); We The Animals (Evan Rosado, Raul Castillo); The Hummingbird Project (Jesse Eisenberg, Salma Hayek).

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