FilmSpace: X-Men: Dark Phoenix; Late Night

Film critic Calum Cooper looks back at the week’s additional releases, including the vastly disappointing new entry into the X-Men franchise, and an intelligent, sharply observant new comedy from Nisha Gantara.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix – ★☆☆☆☆

When people tell you that they’re getting tired of comic book films, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is precisely the kind of film they have in their minds. It’s big and loud, but all the heart and intricacy that once made the franchise so distinct has been disintegrated. Unlike the titular character however, nothing stronger rises from the ashes. Only something devoid of passion.

Conceived as the beginning of a series of films focusing on the younger X-Men, Dark Phoenix serves as the conclusion to Fox Studios’ involvement with the franchise, as they will soon belong to Marvel again. When she was a child, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a mutant with telepathy and telekinesis, was in a car accident that killed her parents. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) brings her into his school for mutants as one of the X-Men. Years later, during a mission into space, Jean absorbs a colossal amount of energy from an alien entity. This increases her power to frightening levels. When she begins to lose control, she finds herself on the run, while Xavier, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and a mysterious woman played by Jessica Chastain all seek to find her first.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying shut your brain off films, for they at least offer entertainment value. Dark Phoenix offers nothing. There’s no joy or thrills to be found. It’s not even terrible enough to get angry over. I hated the new Hellboy, but it at least made me care about how bad it was. Dark Phoenix is the blandest rendition you could’ve asked for of this story, which Fox already tried to adapt once before with X-Men: The Last Stand.

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Much of that blandness comes from the amateur nature of its craft and the obvious lack of heart within the project. Simon Kinberg makes his directorial debut with this film. Although he’s had a hand in the X-Men franchise for a while now, his inexperience behind the camera is apparent. Not only is the overreliance of basic techniques like reverse shot depriving the film of the visual or artistic flair of previous films (such as that Quicksilver scene in Days of Future Past), but the action scenes are clumsily thought out. The climactic train fight has its moments, but it suffers from distracting shaky cam and a murky look. Meanwhile other fight scenes, like in a suburb, in a forest camp, and even one that involves crossing the road, feel lacking in imagination or scope on top of having mediocre effects, and questionable, almost comical choreography. They go in one ear and out the other.

The actors clearly aren’t as invested as they once were too. Jennifer Lawrence has made her boredom of playing Mystique known in the past, and can no longer supress her lack of enthusiasm with this entry. McAvoy and Fassbender have had great chemistry together, but they seem to be here purely because their contract said so. Meanwhile Chastain, a great actor with considerable range, has nothing to work with given her one dimensional villain, and so generically wonders through the film occasionally delivering villainous stances and monologues.

In defence of the actors, the script is beyond uninspired. Corny speeches, overused one-liners, and the dullest of tired setups plague the screen, with each plot point following the next in robotic fashion. It feels like a template for a story more than an actual story. The film’s complete disregard for events and character growths from the previous movies (the ones that are still technically canon anyway) only adds to this feeling of compliancy the movie emits.

Dark Phoenix offers nothing. There’s no joy or thrills to be found. It’s not even terrible enough to get angry over. I hated the new Hellboy, but it at least made me care about how bad it was.

Most disappointingly however, the film doesn’t seem to be saying anything. X-Men was conceived as an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement in its inception, and ever since then even the most lethargic of stories has some kind of subtext on outsiders or how being different isn’t something to be feared. There’s no such commentary here, instead opting for big set pieces and popcorn thrills, only done poorly. It may be framed as a swan song to these characters before their integration into the MCU, but it comes off instead as an attempt to squeeze a wee bit more cash out of the franchise before it changes hands. The bland execution only further supports that idea.

If there’s anything positive to be taken from the film it’s Sophie Turner. She’s a gifted actor with impressive depth who deserves so much better than the bare minimum this film gave her. I have no doubt that with the right material she’d be more than capable of carrying a film. She does the best she can, but the heart that once went into this franchise is nowhere to be found, meaning her generally strong performance falls on deaf ears, masked by a completely flavourless experience.

I didn’t despise Dark Phoenix like a lot of other people – I just found it dull and insipid – but I’m giving it one star anyway as there’s simply nothing to latch on to. I could be generous and give it two stars, but what would I really be defending? The right to be bored to death? It feels like going to a restaurant and solely being served the napkin, which is such a shame for a franchise that was once so predominant among superhero cinema. Only time will tell what Marvel plans to do with this property, but I can guarantee that I’ll have forgotten this film by then. In fact, I can already feel my memories of it slipping away.

Late Night – ★★★☆☆

Late Night has a lot more on its mind than merely being a funny film, although it is indeed humorous. At its core is a film about the complexities of diversity, and the importance of the individual experience. It’s not just a progressive film for the sake of it. It takes its time to fully explore the humanity in its characters, and how the inclusion of all is only a good thing.

Emma Thompson is Katherine Newbury, a late night talk show host, ala Jimmy Kimmel style, who has been in comedy for decades. However, despite her initial popularity, her views are dwindling and there is now a real chance she could be replaced with somebody juvenile and provocative. When an employee calls her out for supposedly hating women – her entire writing staff consists of white men – Newbury demands her agent hire a female writer just to get the issue off her back.

That hire comes in the form of Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who also pens the script). She’s passionate about comedy and Newbury’s show, but has no experience, having previously been a chemical plant worker. Yet because she’s a woman and a woman of colour she’s hired regardless. It’s the definition of tokenism, and Molly can tell that from the moment she enters the writing room and gets snide looks from everyone there. But, now that she’s got a foot in the door, she vows to prove her worth to her peers, and more importantly to her boss.

It sounds like quite heavy material, and in many ways it is. It’s hard to bring up issues of this calibre without somebody getting set off one way or the other. But what makes Late Night such a unique case is how light-hearted and even-handed it is. It places the characters front and centre, allowing the audience time to spend with them so that we can get to know them as people, while still offering a fruitful range of comedy throughout.

The commentary it does offer is as refreshing as it is intelligently thought out. It’s one of the least cynical films I’ve seen in years as it treats everybody involved with the same level of empathy.

The performances, writing, and direction all converge on this idea. Kaling’s script effectively uses exaggeration both for comedic value and for the sake of the message. Take the male writing team. One was hired purely because his dad was in the position before him, one turns out to be your typical “nice guy”, and another is the embodiment of those neckbeards you see on YouTube constantly moaning about The Last Jedi or Captain Marvel. They create amusing scenarios in which their personalities all clash with Molly’s and with each other. But the film never forgets the humanity all these personas still have. Even if it’s only for a few moments, we still get the chance to see things from their perspectives, and learn of their own experiences. They’re not the problem – it’s the system that is. As such, we find ourselves at the very least empathising with even the most patronising of characters.

Anchoring the film is the chemistry between Kaling and Thompson, who hands in one of her best performances in Katherine Newbury (which is saying a lot given her career). Kaling’s anxious yet bubbly personality contrasts splendidly with Thompson’s uptight and lofty one. But again, we understand where they’re coming from. Thompson is desperately trying to cling on to a show she’s poured her life into, and Kaling is simply trying to demonstrate her abilities. The hostility and eventual kinship the two of them share is as heart-warming as it is funny, with as much credit going to Kaling’s sharply satirical writing as well as her and Thompson’s magnetic portrayals.

But I do think the film’s strength comes from its message, and the intelligent, thoughtful way it is delivered, much to the credit of director Nisha Ganatra. Diversity is the film’s prime concern, but it’s not just about diversity concerning gender. It also concerns race, age, and class. The film argues that although some may have more advantageous starts in life, no one has an invalid voice. Context is everything, and the film believes that people should be judged and assessed based on the strength of their personality, regardless of where they come from. It shows this via the growth of its characters, and clever spins on modern issues, such as a sex scandal at work that emerges in the third act. Even the choice of centring the film round a talk show platform adds urgency to its themes. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, man or woman, upper or working class, etc. Everyone deserves the chance to have their voices heard, and the film champions this astutely.

Late Night is hardly surprising narratively speaking. Much of the plot points are easy to predict, and it doesn’t go quite as far as I think it could’ve concerning its themes. But the commentary it does offer is as refreshing as it is intelligently thought out. It’s one of the least cynical films I’ve seen in years as it treats everybody involved with the same level of empathy. Even if you don’t find yourself on board with what it’s saying, the film still offers a vast abundance of giggles and laughs for you to indulge in. Much like Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, this is the kind of comedy that fits into today’s changing world perfectly. After all, the more voices we can hear the better.

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