In The Summer Of ’69

Quentin Tarantino has wound his way through multiple movie genres, always giving them a twist that manages to subvert the form, even as his love for genre movies shines through. He started with the crime dramas Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, then ran through 1970s blacksploitation films, kung fu revenge flicks, cheap drive-in action double features, Italian war flicks, the antebellum south, and westerns. For his newest film, Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, Tarantino has chosen to do a behind the scenes movie drama, though once again in his own immutable style.
There have been some great flicks made about making flicks. The granddaddy would be the first version of A Star Is Born, and in the 1950s Kirk Douglas starred in two of the very best, The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks In Another Town. The best musical in my opinion, Singing in The Rain, looks at the switch from silent to talking pictures. The best modern example would be The Player, and recently the Cohen Brothers brought their particular sensibilities to the genre with Hail Caesar.

Tarantino has gone back 50 years to ground his film in the details of a pivotal year for the movies, 1969. It was questionable if the film industry would survive as it lost the entertainment war with television. The studios merged or found corporations to purchase them, and most of them made peace with the enemy and moved into TV production. The trend of the 60s was to separate films from television by making them bigger, but not necessarily better. However, the seeds of the 1970s renaissance for the movies started to sprout in ’69. The unconventional western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the box office winner that year, raking in over $100 million – twice the gross of the number two film, The Love Bug. Other major successes were Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, presaging the move to more adult themes and independent flicks. The year also saw the release of the titular godfather of Tarantino’s film, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West. Within a couple of years the young Turks of Hollywood – Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, and others – would make the movies bigger and better than ever.

The central focus of Hollywood is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who made an early splash on TV in a series called “Bounty Law,” jumped to the movies, but who is now fading fast. He’s taking guest shots on shows like “The FBI” and even the cringe-worthy music show, “Hullabaloo.” Rick’s companion and driver is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is also his personal stuntman. The first two-thirds of the movie takes place over two days in February as Rick prepares to do a guest shot on a Western. He also takes a meeting with an agent (Al Pacino) who recommends he leave Hollywood before he’s completely washed up and follow Clint Eastwood into Spaghetti Westerns.

While Rick prepares and then shoots his guest shot, Cliff handles several errands for Rick. Cliff’s career trajectory has matched his mentor’s, partially due to being blackballed because of an incident with Bruce Lee on the set of “The Green Hornet.” He lives in a trailer with his pit bull Brandy behind the Reseda Drive-In in the San Fernando Valley, much farther downhill than Rick’s home in the Hollywood Hills. However, Rick’s place pales in comparison to the gated house next door that’s been taken over by Roman Polanski, who’d just had a huge success with Rosemary’s Baby. Also in residence is Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and their houseguest, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). While Rick’s shooting his guest slot, we see Sharon living her life, from attending a party at the Playboy Mansion to stopping in at a theater to watch her own performance in the Dean Martin film, The Wrecking Crew, that was released just over a month earlier. But as Cliff does one job for Rick – fixing the TV antenna at his house – he sees a bearded hippie checking out the house next door: Charles Manson, looking for Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys who’d previously owned the house.

Six months later, in early August, was when the Tate-LoBianco murders took place, which marked the end of the Age of Aquarius for the 1960s. Tarantino weaves the Manson family into the narrative by having Cliff give a hitchhiker named Pussycat (a small but diamond-sharp performance by Margaret Qualley) a ride to the old Western movie scene where Cliff had worked many times, Spahn Ranch. Dakota Fanning is creepily effective as Squeaky Fromme (who’d eventually have her own claim to infamy apart from the Family) and the sequence at the ranch is goosebumps good.

As anyone who’s seen Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds knows, he can be telling a historical story then slip into alternate history. It’s best to simply go with the flow. But with Hollywood, Tarantino takes a person who’s known now almost solely for how she died and breathes life and vitality into her. Robbie is marvelous in as Tate, sweet and delightful, and Tarantino extensively researched the character, including interviewing several of her surviving friends. It’s balanced well by DiCaprio, especially when he’s intimidated by a child actor who’s methodical in her approach to the craft. The impetus of the plot, though, lies with Pitt, who never lets you catch him acting.

Tarantino’s reputation allows him to fill the screen with an outrageous number of fine actors in character roles, including Timothy Oliphant, Bruce Dern, and Damian Lewis. One fun piece of casting is Nicholas Hammond as producer Sam Wanamaker. Hammond had played Friedrich in The Sound of Music when he was 15, then was a mainstay on TV in the 1970s and 80s, including as TV’s first live-action Spider-Man (1977-79). He moved to Australia in the 1990s and continues to work there. Hollywood also features Luke Perry’s final film appearance, as the star of the western series where DiCaprio’s a guest actor.

Clocking in at almost two and three-quarter hours, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood isn’t exactly brief, but it’s never slow, and for a cinema lover and someone well-acquainted with 1960s TV and movies it’s a feast of memories. Tarantino was 6 years old in 1969, and living in Torrance, California. But he handles the material and period details with such aplomb you’d swear he had to have lived it as an adult. And, in a sense, he did, the same way all of us can – at the movies.

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Still The King

It’s hard to conceive that the 1994 animated film, The Lion King, was a B picture. It was given to the secondary animation crew at Disney, while the A team did what was considered the more prestigious film, Pocahontas (1995). Its budget was $45 million, $10 million less than Pocahontas, and it wasn’t an easy film to make – the stampede scene took over three years to film and involved writing a new program for the computer graphics. The story truly was a tale as old as time, part-Hamlet, part-Egyptian mythology. A huge mistake was almost made when the Oscar-winning Best Song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was cut from the film; only lobbying by composer Elton John got it restored. But when it was released, The Lion King became a sensation, earning over $300 million and trailing the box office champ that year, Forest Gump, by a whisker. When it was released on home video, it became the all-time best seller with over 55 million units, and it spawned a hugely successful stage musical that’s still running on Broadway and in the London West End, grossing over $8 billion.

Now, 25 years after the original film was release, we have a photo-realistic remake. Director Jon Favreau had shepherded Disney’s first remake of an animated movie, The Jungle Book, to a huge success, earning just short of a billion dollars. The successes of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast underlined the market waiting for such fresh takes on classic. This becomes the third Disney adaptation of the year, behind the successful Aladdin (still in theaters and likely to pass a billion at the box office) and the disappointing Dumbo. The good news is that The Lion King is definitely on the Aladdin side of the scale.

The film is visually stunning, thanks to the great leaps in CGI. Favreau, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and the animators have essentially created a virtual reality world where the characters exist and interact. While it’s called a live-action version, almost everything is CGI of the highest order. In many scenes, Favreau recreates the images from the animated film, almost as if it served as a storyboard. But he’s also added his own touches, such as allowing Billy Eichner (Timon) and Seth Rogen (Pumbaa) to improvise much of their scenes. The new version runs over a half-hour longer than the animated film.

Another major difference is, apart from Eichner, Rogen, and John Oliver (Zazu), all the main characters are played by black actors, avoiding the cultural appropriation of the original film. The only actor to return is James Earl Jones because, frankly, who else could voice Musfasa. That bass voice has the same gravitas and warmth today, even with Jones in his 88th year. But along with Jones, Favreau assembled a dream cast for the movie, starting with the hugely talented Donald Glover (“Atlanta”, Solo: A Star Wars Story) to play the adult Simba. Glover had an advantage in preparing for the role – he’d watched the animated version over and over as a child, so the story and songs were already imprinted on his mind.

Beyonce brings her Sasha Fierce-ness to the role of Nala, with Favreau expanding the scenes as Nala leaves Pride Rock to search for help to make it a truly thrilling moment. For Sarabi, Queen of the pride and Simba’s mother, Alfre Woodard is regal and strong. But the best part is the casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar. While Jeremy Irons was coldly calculating (and definitely British) in the original, Ejiofor’s Scar is barely contained anger and resentment, a powder keg ready to explode. It makes for a much more dynamic – and scary – expression of the character.

This version of The Lion King is as good, and in some ways better, than the original. Think of it like getting a newer model of a Rolls Royce with more bells and whistles, but the same strong quality underneath.

Midnight Bright

Last year, Ari Aster scared the bejesus out of moviegoers with his dark and disturbing film, Heredity. With stunning visuals and excellent performances, it exposed the toxic secrets of a family after the death of its matriarch. Particularly effective was Toni Collette who was discussed for an Oscar nomination for best actress, a rare feat for a horror picture. Now Aster is back with his second film, Midsommar, and his new film again features a stunning performance, this time by one of the best young actresses in film, Florence Pugh.

Pugh plays Dani, a university student who suffers a deep family tragedy. Six months later, she’s still devastated by her loss. Her callow and self-centered boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), complains about her neediness to his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), but then he invites her to join the others on a trip to Sweden to observe the midsummer festival at Pelle’s isolated village in the hinterlands of the country. Pelle has explained his village follows arcane rituals over the course of 9 days surrounding the summer solstice, and Josh, an anthropology student, is excited to document them, while Mark just looks forward to a good time. Pelle describing the village as “isolated” hardly does the location justice. It takes an hours-long drive, followed by a substantial hike, to reach the site, which is more a small collection of buildings in an open field than a village.

Midsommar in Sweden is a national festival time, but the visitors discover that in the village it’s become more of a religious celebration of the circle of life. The villagers all wear white clothes and there are plenty of crowns of flowers to be seen, along with some natural drugs to help set the mood, so it seems more like a hippie commune left over from the ‘60s. At least until the rituals begin.

Writer/Director Aster has said he’s not interested in making horror movies over and over again, and while it has violent aspects and it definitely isn’t for the fainthearted, Midsommar isn’t truly a horror movie. Think of it as a combination thriller and relationship movie, seasoned heavily by the 1973 movie The Wicker Man (and not the horrendous Nicholas Cage remake from 2006). Aster lets the story spool out at a slow pace – Midsommar has a run time of almost 2 ½ hours – that gives it a feel of creeping dread rather than jump scares.

Since her breakout role in 2016’s Lady Macbeth, Pugh has been busy on both the large and small screen. She did the excellent BBC/AMC adaptation of John LeCarre’s “The Little Drummer Girl” along with Amazon Studio’s Robert the Bruce biopic Outlaw King and the excellent English wrestling movie, Fighting With My Family. She’ll appear next (with Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, Saorise Ronan, Laura Dern, and Timothee Chalamet) in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, and she’s currently filming Marvel’s Black Widow. She’s a subtle actress who commands the camera’s attention and draws you into her character’s world, whatever world that may be.

Reynor has a thankless job playing Christian, who not only provides little support to Dani but also casually betrays another friend. He deserves credit for embracing the role as written. All three of the male friends have their moments in the course of the movie, though Dani is truly the character with whom the audience identifies.

It’s hard to realistically portray a subversion of a person into a cult, but Aster manages it here. Much of it is based in the creation of a dynamic, new family that embraces the person. It’s such a powerful need in our disconnected world that it can overcome resistance to behavior that for most people would be unthinkable. Reasonable people can’t see themselves as members of the Manson family, or the People’s Temple in Jonestown, or the Heaven’s Gate group. Yet they had their adherents. While Midsommar doesn’t go nearly as far as those, it does illuminate the path taken by their members.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Note: If you’re one of the two or three people in the world who haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame, be aware that this review contains spoilers.

Like a teenager, Marvel Entertainment has been going through phases. Phase 1 began with the first Marvel movie, Iron Man, and continued through the first Avengers film. Phase 2 ran from Iron Man 3 through Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. Captain America: Civil War began Phase 3, leading up to a climax – and changing of the guard – with Avengers: Endgame, which is $15 million away from displacing Avatar at the top of the all-time international box office list, last time I checked. While it’s officially the kick-off for Phase 4, I’d count Spider-Man: Far From Home as Phase 3.5, since it is suffused with a sense of melancholia as Peter Parker deals with the loss of his mentor Tony Stark.

After Thanos’s snap was reversed, the half of the world’s population that dissolved into ashes at the end of Infinity War suddenly blinked back into existence exactly where they’d been, as if nothing had happened. (Apparently exceptions were made for all those who were in airplanes of on ships at sea, etc., when the snap happened.) For everyone else, five years has passed. As far as Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and others in his High School like Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya), the country handles it by essentially ignoring what they now call “the Blip.” If you were a junior in high school when you disappeared in the Blip, you come back as a junior in high school, though half of the class were sixth-graders when you vanished. After finishing their year, Peter plans to head to Europe with a group of his school friends, chaperoned by two of their teachers. He’s hoping the trip will give him a chance to express his feelings for MJ.

Before he leaves, Peter appears as Spider-Man at a charity event emceed by Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) shows up with one of those 2’x3’ checks, a donation from Stark Enterprises, though his real attraction to the event may be May. While there, Peter receives a call from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Intimidated by the former head of SHIELD, Peter lets the call go to voicemail.

We’ve already seen the reason for Fury’s call. He and Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) had come to a South American town that’s been pretty much destroyed by what the locals described as a cyclone with a face. While there the cyclone reappears, and Fury and Hill only have small weapons with which to fight. But then a man in a superhero costume appears in a swirl of green smoke to fight the monster.

Peter keeps refusing to talk to Fury, but Fury isn’t one to let Peter off easy. Instead he shows up at the group’s first itinerary stop – Venice – and recruits Peter directly, taking him to a cellar in the city where Fury has set up shop. There Peter meets Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a superhero from a different version of Earth who was brought to this earth by a rip in the universe caused by the snaps. Beck explains that he wasn’t the only refugee to end up on earth. Four monsters, called Elementals, who had destroyed Beck’s home version of Earth, were also sucked through as well. Now Fury needs Spider-Man to work with Beck to fight the Elementals. After seeing him in action, the others on Peter’s trip christen Beck Mysterio.

Jon Watts is back in the director’s chair, after the success of Spider-Man: Homecoming, again working from an excellent script provided by Chris McKenna. Between the two Spider-Man movies, McKenna also wrote Ant-Man and the Wasp as well as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, so even before Far From Home opened the movies he’s written have brought in about $2.5 Billion dollars. Watts and McKenna have created a roller-coaster ride around Europe with a story that moves at breakneck speed. Yet they also pay homage to the roots of the Spider-Man comics: Mysterio has appeared there for decades, first in the 13th volume in 1964.

Holland gives a deeper and a bit darker performance, still reeling from the events of Infinity War/Endgame, but if Homecoming dealt with coming to grips with his power, Far From Home focuses on the next step, finding his place in the world and taking on responsibility. In a real way, Tony Stark is the Uncle Ben character for this Spider-Man. Batalon’s Ned is as delightful as in the first movie, and Zendaya gets to move from the periphery to center stage, and do some kicking of ass as well. Gyllenhaal sells his role beautifully, and it’s a delight to see him enter the Marvel Universe. (Now he has super-hero cred like his sister, Maggie.)

Ever since Fury first showed up after the credits in Iron Man (where we first heard of the Avengers Initiative), Marvel has used the post-credit scenes as either a final comedic moment, such as Captain America’s final taped appearance in Homecoming, or to set up the next movie, like the early appearances of Thanos. Far From Home has both mid-credits and post-credits scenes, and they are not to be missed as they turn expectations upside down. There’s also an appearance by a Spider-Man character from an earlier version of the story.

One side note: the trailers for Far From Home have all included scenes that don’t appear in the final version. They were likely deleted because of the run time, but usually you only discover them in the extras on the Blu-Ray release.

The Fab One

After starting out in TV comedy in England (“Blackadder,” “Spitting Image”), Richard Curtis moved into films where he wrote some of the best romantic comedies: Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the Christmas perennial, Love Actually, which he also directed. After 2013’s About Time, he essentially retired from films, only doing shorts or TV. But then fate stepped in. Jack Barth, another TV writer, asked if Curtis would like to read a script he’d written about a world where no one remembered the Beatles. Curtis responded he’d pass on reading it, because he’d rather write it himself. And thus came Yesterday. (Barth has credit for the story.)

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician whose biggest fan is his manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James). She’s also almost his only fan, as well as his roadie and driver in the evenings after spending her days teaching. After almost ten years with little success, Jack’s ready to hang up his guitar. But then one night there’s a strange, world-wide power outage, during which Jack’s hit by a bus in the darkness. He awakens in the hospital and soon discovers that no one remembers the Beatles except him. (Other things have disappeared from the world, but I won’t spoil the fun of discovering what’s gone.)

He tries to remember all their songs – a running joke is the inability to figure out what phrase goes where in “Eleanor Rigby” – and passes them off as his own. His life takes a major turn when Ed Sheeran hears him on a TV program and invites Jack to open for his European tour. Soon a predatory agent (Kate McKinnon) with a penchant for honesty has her hooks in him. But while his future seems limitless, Jack must face losing what’s truly important to him.

Himesh Patel is a true gem as Jack. He’d started out on the hugely successful English soap opera “EastEnders” and did some other TV, but this is his first starring role. He nails it, not just the acting but also the singing and performing. Patel is ably supported by James, who’s winsome and winning and lights up the screen in her every scene.  Ed Sheeran is Ed Sheeran, but he’s very good at being Ed Sheeran. Probably the weakest aspect of the movie is McKinnon, who goes so far over the top the role has a broad SNL skit feeling to it that’s out of synch with the sly and wry style of the film.

That aside, the story is well told by director Danny Boyle, especially when showing the painful embarrassment every musical artist endures in the hope that lightning will strike. Boyle’s never been constrained by genre, having done Trainspotting, 28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours, among other films. And there are surprising moments, including one scene that throws an emotional wrench into the story.

But the greatest strength within the movie is the music of the Beatles. Around 20 of their songs are included, and it brings home the genius of their writing. While they were the soundtrack of the ‘60s, the music is truly timeless, and it’s a joy to hear the pieces again. The end credits roll to the Beatles doing “Hey Jude,” which is long enough to cover the whole length of the crawl. I sat there letting the brilliant music flow over me.

Every summer, mixed in amongst the big action tentpole flicks, there’s usually one or two small gems that are antidotes to all the explosions or car chases. Yesterday fits that bill perfectly.

His Song

Coming a matter of months after Rami Malek’s stunning, Oscar-winning performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, we now have Rocketman, the biography of Elton John. While they might seem similar on the surface – gay rock icons of the 1970s and 80s – the tone of the two pictures is completely different.

The opening shot says a lot. The camera looks down a corridor to double doors. Suddenly they fly open and Elton John (Taron Egerton) stomps toward the camera dressed as a fantastic and fabulous orange devil, complete with huge horns and wings. He pushes through the next doors, where you expect you’ll find the stage he’s set to perform on. Instead he joins the circle in a group therapy session. And essentially that’s what the movie is, a therapy session, though with a killer soundtrack.

We see John as a child, desperate for even some lukewarm affection from his distracted parents. Mama Shirley (Dallas Bryce Howard) is a self-absorbed ice queen who looks at young Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) as an inconvenience, while Papa Stanley (Stephen Mackintosh) is a stiff cuckoo who retreats into music. The only support he gets is from his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). It’s a horrible situation, but Reggie has a gift that helps him survive – any song he hears, he can play on the piano.

The movie shows the progression of Reggie into Elton John, master musician, and then on to flamboyant showman with a prodigious appetite for sex, drugs, booze, and shopping. There are some fine moments, such as when Elton first meets Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and the close collaboration that grows between them. On the more negative side, there’s Elton’s relationship with agent John Reid (Richard Madden) who exploits him while inflicting psychological and emotional abuse.

Throughout the film, Elton’s song catalogue is used to illustrate the different scenes. Different from Bohemian Rhapsody, which took the music pretty much in chronological order, Rocketman flies all over Elton’s discology. For a scene of a teenage Elton playing pubs while toughs get rowdy, you have “Saturday Nights All Right For Fighting.” But it works. Director Dexter Fletcher deserves a lot of credit for pulling it all together, even outrageous scenes such as everyone levitating when Elton plays the Troubadour, or a scene where he falls into a pool while in a drug-induced stupor and finds his younger self playing the piano at the bottom – a great metaphor for bottoming out. Mostly Fletcher’s been a supporting actor in films, with over a hundred credits beginning with Bugsy Malone when he was 10, but he also directed the well-received biopic Eddie the Eagle a few years back.

The therapy group becomes the narrative anchor, as Elton processes his life and finally reconciles with the good and the bad. It’s a nice touch that as the therapy progresses, Elton slowly loses the devil costume, replaced by sweats and a bathrobe more appropriate for a patient in rehab. Screenwriter Lee Hall is known in particular for originally writing Billy Elliot, but he’s also done War Horse and Victoria and Abdul, along with the upcoming adaptation of Cats.

Taron Egerton’s best known for Eggsy in the Kingsman movies, though he also played in Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle. (We’ll forget about his appearance in the most recent incarnation of Robin Hood; nearly everyone else has.) His embodiment of Elton is perfection and is matched by his voice. At the climax of the film, Fletcher switches from Egerton to one of Elton’s classic videos, and you’re not sure if you’re seeing Elton or if Egerton’s been digitally inserted. It helps to have Elton as a producer and resource for the filmmakers. During the credits, there are photographs from Elton John’s career that inspired the shots Fletcher uses.

The main difference in the feel between Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman is, at the end of Bohemian you’re wrapped in wistful sadness, knowing that Freddie Mercury only has a few years left in his life. With Rocketman there’s more triumph, with Elton celebrating decades of sobriety and embracing happiness with his husband, their children, his charity work, and his retirement from performing. Sometimes you make it to the end of the Yellow Brick Road and find your home.

Phoenix Descending

In the 1990s, Marvel Entertainment was in trouble financially. While they’d done well with animated TV adaptations of their characters, live action was another matter. So they sold the rights to their two best-loved series, X-Men to Fox, and Spider-Man to Columbia. It must have been galling to watch the success of the characters. Fox struck first in 2000, with X-Men becoming one of the most successful movies of the year, taking in almost $300 million worldwide. Then Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was an even greater success, breaking $800 million at the box office. Along with the Dark Knight trilogy, it was clear the time had come for superheroes. Marvel began making movies themselves with their second-tier characters: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the others. They, of course, struck gold, platinum, oil, and diamonds with a series of 22 films grossing over $21 billion dollars – an average of $930 million a movie!

While Marvel’s fortunes went stratospheric, Fox and Columbia stumbled badly. The first two movies in the series did well, but for films, too often the third time is the nadir. You had the disco Spider-Man, so hated by fans that it was lampooned in the opening of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. X-Men fared no better, with Brett Ratner taking over from Bryan Singer for the third entry in the series. (Both men are now blackballed from Hollywood, paying for their past behavior with the advent of #MeToo.) Ratner took the most celebrated arc of the X-Men, the Phoenix saga, and turned it into a painful mishmash. Both studios tried to reboot their franchises themselves. The Andrew Garfield Spider-Man had an okay first film but crashed and burned with the second. Fox did better, going back in time with a new cast for X-Men: First Class and then blending the new and old casts with X-Men: Days of Future Past, which blessedly changed the timeline so the third movie essentially never happened. But again, they couldn’t make a good third film, and X-Men: Apocalypse tanked. Strangely enough, Fox’s attempts to spinoff Wolverine into his own series reversed the third film problem; the first two films were horrible – they made Deadpool a mute! – but the third film, Logan, was perfection.

Marvel has now reclaimed their characters, thanks to their alignment with powerhouse Disney, and Spider-Man: Homecoming shows what good news that is for fans. The X-Men will also be redone, but Fox had one last stab at the series with the newly released Dark Phoenix – the first X-Men movie without the tag before the title. Long-time series producer and writer Simon Kinberg took over the director’s chair as well for this film.

Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey first appeared in X-Men: Apocalypse, using her mental power to defeat Apocalypse. An earlier scene showed her instability; she shakes the foundations of Professor X’s school because of a nightmare. Dark Phoenix starts before that. A very young Jean is on a trip with her parents when an argument over tuning the radio leads to a horrific crash. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) comes to the hospital where Jean’s been checked over, though she’s emerged from the crash unharmed. Xavier tells her that she’s orphaned but offers her a new home at his school. Jean’s reluctant, afraid she’ll “break things,” but Xavier says they can fix them if it happens, calming Jean’s fears.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, when a mysterious force has disabled a space shuttle. Xavier volunteers to save the crew by sending a team of X-Men into space in a customized X Jet, even though Beast (Nicholas Hoult) isn’t sure it can make the trip. Jean is worried, but Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) reassures her. They make it to the shuttle, where Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) manage to rescue most of the crew as a shimmering cloud – the Phoenix Power – approaches the shuttle. But a final trip for the last astronaut, with Jean accompanying Nightcrawler to mentally hold the shuttle together, leads to Jean being in the ship when the cloud hits. The shuttle’s destroyed, but instead of killing Jean the cloud bonds with her, allowing her to survive. Back on earth, Jean exhibits no bad effects from her experience at first, but when her mental instability comes out, it shows the cloud has magnified her considerable powers.

The massive cast also includes Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, living on a private island with his crew of mutants until Jean’s actions cause him to seek revenge. New to the series is Jessica Chastain as Vuk, an alien of the D’Bari system whose home planet was destroyed by the Phoenix Power. But the excellent cast of actors is hamstrung by a pedestrian script that became mushy with extensive re-writes. The whole third act of the film was rewritten and reshot, with a promised Outer Space finale removed. The trailers feature several shots not in the final product, evidence of the changes. This pushed the budget into the $200 million range, about the same cost as the more ambitious Days of Future Past, though that film ran twenty minutes longer. (Different from most superhero flicks now, Dark Phoenix doesn’t make it to two hours for its run-time.) The aesthetics, too, are not up to the earlier films. The makeup for Mystique is pedestrian, while the costumes for the X-Men look like baggy, double-knit jumpsuits.

Originally Dark Phoenix was scheduled for last fall, but the reshoots pushed it back to February. That would have interfered with another Fox offering, Alita: Battle Angel, and James Cameron prevailed on Fox to keep the field clear – not that it did Alita any good. It was moved once again to early June, far enough after Avengers: Endgame to give it a chance, and in a week when the competition was a sequel to a middling animated movie from Illumination Studios. But even The Secret Life of Pets 2 was too strong competition for Dark Phoenix, which came in second at the box office with the poorest showing of any film in the series.

The showing is justified, as the film feels listless. It’s not overtly awful like X-Men: The Last Stand, but it doesn’t connect emotionally. There’s no tag after the credits, which makes sense since it’s the end for this version of the series. But it would have been nice for it to go out on a high note.