Thursday, 11 July 2019

Film Review - Midsommar (18)

It's fine. It's Sweden.
Midsommar is the second feature by writer/director Ari Aster and an exercise in sustained ambient dread. His feature debut, Hereditary, was the most starkly divisive film of 2018 - a masterpiece of cerebral horror to some, while others found it laughable, literally so. My experience was of two thirds' creep-inducing domestic nightmare, followed by a final act that drowned all the painstakingly-crafted familial psychodrama in hysteria and supernatural lunacy. It simply didn't stick the landing - for me. Horror is deeply subjective after all, plus maybe Hereditary will satisfy more fully on a second viewing. As for Midsommar, it worked like a shuddering charm first time around.
Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor play Dani and Christian, a young couple in a foundering relationship, who travel to Swedish commune, Harga, in order to experience the obscure folk festival that takes place there. For Christian and his college friends it's a fascinating anthropological adventure, for Dani an opportunity to flee the family tragedy that has recently overwhelmed her. But while the setting is idyllic and the locals welcoming, there is more lurking behind the community's pagan rituals than the visitors could ever imagine. The festivities within this unorthodox community become steadily more disconcerting, the sense of foreboding more acute.
I was on edge going in to Midsommar for two reasons. Firstly whatever the contention surrounding Hereditary, it demonstrated the uncompromising approach taken by Aster in both narrative and visual terms. I mean, this guy is willing to bring his audience some seriously uncomfortable places. Secondly the new film's publicity invited comparisons with The Wicker Man - not the oft-ridiculed remake with Nicholas Cage, but 1973's original, the ending of which scared me witless when I watched it as a teen. Small wonder I was pre-spooked.
While there's a lot of Wicker Man going on here, however, Midsommar starts off far from the cultic, portraying a whole different kind of horror in its harrowing domestic prologue. By the time Dani, Christian and friends arrive in Sweden the dysfunction in their characters - both personal and inter-relational - runs deep. And then surreal Nordic beauty takes over. All the shocking events that play out do so under sunlight so bright it threatens to bleach the movie's frames. Aster's striking achievement is to conjure menace from the broad daylight and flower-garlanded gorgeousness of a Swedish folk idyll, as effectively as if it were night. You'll honestly wish the sun would set.
The whole Harga culture is meticulously constructed - its costumes, architecture and vivid runic artwork reminiscent of existing traditions, yet with its own unique and vaguely unsettling flavour. The dance and music has genuine artistry to it - everything is exuberant, too exuberant. It's captivating and disturbing, like one of the hallucinogenic interludes taken by the characters, capable of switching to a very bad trip on any given instant. Aster's camera captures all to aerial or wide-angled perfection, hinting at what festers beneath the pristine, colour-corrected surface. Meanwhile Bobby Krilk's music shifts between shimmering orchestral beauty and atonal freakiness in a contender for most genius film score of the year.
All of this serves as a counterpoint to Pugh's astonishing performance as Dani, a portrayal of grief even more visceral that Toni Collette's in Hereditary. It's gut-wrenching stuff - pain way beyond words, from the girl who brought us the feel-good story of Paige in Fighting With My Family a few months back. The character's dark odyssey is truly mesmerising to witness. Reynor, so likeable in Sing Street, will provoke more ambivalent feelings as boyfriend Christian, though you'll maybe empathise with the sticky relationship territory in which he finds himself. And Will Poulter (Detroit), the obnoxious call-it-like-you-see-it member of the group, is a welcome source of dry humour.
There's a lot of humour in Midsommar, some of it excruciating, but all of it necessary to help you cope with the rising tide of apprehension. Not that the film is a conventional horror in any sense. Despite moments of pure shock, there's something much more insidious going on here. You suspect you know what's on the way, but have no idea how you'll get there, nor exactly how you'll feel once you arrive. This story unnerves, but it's also seductive - treacherously so. And it's not aimed at anyone who doesn't enjoy marinading in anxiety for over two hours, in a place where the prettiness can't distract from the sense that something is very wrong indeed. 

I do enjoy that feeling, apparently, but your experience might well be different. Think Scandi noir is unsettling? Welcome to Scandi blanc.
Gut Reaction: Harrowed, amused, moved, shocked, intrigued, dazzled, disturbed, freaked and appalled. Not necessarily in that or any coherent order. 

Memorable Moment: Look up. Keep looking up. It's not really happening, right?

Ed's Verdict: 9/10. Integrating themes of toxic relationships and grief into its horror, Aster's follow-up feature is an unflinching day-mare, which leads somewhere completely expected, yet weirdly not. It's messed up like Hereditary, only this time I unreservedly love it.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Film Review - Spider-Man: Far From Home (12A)

You are just a scared little kid in a sweatsuit.  
(This review includes spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.) 

A grand total of eight standalone Spider-Man films - that's including last year's animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - have swung across our cinema screens this still-young century. It's a testament to multiple individuals, starting with Spidey's creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, that the web-slinger remains as fresh and entertaining as in his movie debut seventeen years ago. We love this high-school superhero's teen exuberance, never more so than right here in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
The new movie begins with its youthful characters coming to terms with the world post-'blip', their word for the chaos perpetrated by arch-villain Thanos in Endgame. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is still feeling the loss of his mentor Tony Stark, and so embraces a school trip to Europe, intent on leaving spider-suit and alter-ego behind, while romantically pursuing classmate MJ. But ex-boss of SHIELD Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson of course) is pursuing him, so that the teenager might help counter new global threats. And the most imminent of these is a bevy of dimension-hopping elemental entities, being taken on single-handedly by caped newcomer 'Mysterio' (an impressively suited-and-booted Jake Gyllenhall). Peter's vacation, to quote best friend Ned, has been 'hi-jacked', and he must decide whether or not to shoulder the full weight of the super-hero burden.
Like it's predecessor Spider-Man: Homecoming, Far From Home must strike a fine balance between integrating itself into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole and telling its own tale. On the one hand it helps to know what the 'blip' stuff is all about and why the protagonist is so down in the mouth over Tony Stark (Ironman's checkered legacy looms over the whole story). On the other, the film takes off as a fast-paced and frequently hilarious high-school comedy in its own right, enhanced this time around by vividly coloured European locations. It's got a revitalised and joyous comic-book feed in contrast to the sombre stylings of Endgame, never more so than when Peter is tangling with elemental adversaries alongside his new pal Mysterio. And that's only the movie's first half, before a series of rug-pulling plot developments steer it into darker territory that make unexpectedly heavy demands on our hero.
For all its teen-based jokery and romantic complications, Far From Home has surprising dramatic depth. Fans of the Sam Raimi films have seen Tobey Maguire's Spidey go through all this 'power/responsibility' angst already, but here it's in the context of the turbulent post-Thanos world and has a consequent sense of - well - consequence. It's a challenge to which Holland rises. He's better than ever as Peter, whether zipping around Venice and Prague in hero-mode, fumbling his efforts at romance or facing up to loss and self-doubt as circumstances turn critical. Spider-Man has never been more fully human than this.
There's sterling support too from all sides. Zendaya (The Greatest Showman) comes into her own as a self-protecting emo version of MJ, while the other 'teens' and their incompetent teachers dependably raise smiles throughout. (There's a particularly funny subplot involving Jacob Batalon's lovable Ned.) Meanwhile Ironman fans will love how the relationship between Peter and Stark employee Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is developed, supplying nicely judged moments of humour and sadness. And Jake brings the Gyllenhall magic like you'd expect, as the enigmatic and magnificently attired Mysterio.
Intricately constructed by the same directorial/writing team as Homecoming, Far From Home balances comic-book thrills and weightier moments with expertise, while switching up gears towards a suitably explosive conclusion. (If it does go a bit too CGI-mayhem at the end, the character drama sufficiently compensates.) Marvel fans have been expecting epic developments in this movie and they get them, though possibly not how they expected. Hang around for a end-credits double-whammy to knock your socks clean off. This movie isn't over till it's over, and Spidey's world - to say nothing of the MCU - might never be the same again.
Gut Reaction: Grins, laugh-out-louds, cheers and gasps - all that a Spider-Man movie should provide and lots of it. 

Memorable Moment: There were any number of those during the feature, but it has to be the first of the end-credits scenes. Cheer-inducing, then jaw-dropping. Nothing short of sensational.

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. A fun-packed ride for the casual viewer, with chewy delights for the dedicated MCU fan. In a perfect world all summer blockbusters would be this good.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Film Review - Yesterday (12A)

Sometimes it feels like someone else has written all the songs.
Some movie pitches just sound like gold. Yesterday taps into a notion many of us have considered - how the world would have differed without this or that cultural phenomenon. What if there'd been no Mozart, or Shakespeare, or (heaven forbid the thought) Doctor Who? How impoverished would we all have been? Danny Boyle's new film puts a Beatles-shaped hole in history and asks an unlikely hero to fill it. The results, while not the pure eighteen-carat I might have hoped, are shiny enough to light up a darkened cinema space this summer movie season. Here comes a considerable amount of sun.
Himesh Patel is Jack Malik, an aspiring singer-songwriter whose career is resolutely failing to launch, despite the encouragements of his manager/best friend Ellie (Lily James). Some bizarre cosmic fluctuation causes all the lights on Earth to blink off and on, during which time Jack sustains a traffic-related head injury. When he wakes, he is the only person who remembers The Beatles or any of their music. The band, it seems, has been erased from all of history, aside from Jack's mind. So when he begins to sing and play their songs, it opens up the possibility of that elusive music career - just so long as his conscience can cope with passing off John, Paul, George and Ringo's creativity as his own. 
Yesterday is almost destined to be divisive. Writer Richard Curtis is the doyen of the high-concept British rom-com, while director Boyle is chiefly known for the edgily propulsive feel he brings to challenging screenplays. Fans of the Trainspotting films, or even Slumdog Millionaire (which has a lot more grit than you may remember) may simply not be on board with Curtis' patented brand of romantic optimism. On the other hand those who found Love Actually a bit too sentimental may well appreciate the tempering of the writer's more sugary inclinations by some of Boyle's bite.
There's much that this duo's love-letter to the Fab Four gets right, not least the fun it has with that delicious central premise. Jack is burdened with a mission to re-introduce The Beatles to the world, while simultaneously indulging in an opportunism that will grant him the success he lacked. His first faltering steps with tunes he already knows to be great are mined productively for laughs, as is his wrestling with half-remembered lyrics. There are great moments too as the Beatles' songs clash with a 21st century music industry that in some cases doesn't know what to do with them. (Kate McKinnon has fun here as a grotesquely avaricious music executive.)
That the classic tunes work so well is due in no small part to Patel (Tamwar Masood in BBC soap Eastenders), who reinterprets them with a freshness and passion enhanced by their extraordinary context. Boyle meanwhile emphasises the growing sense of guilt and lostness the musician feels, as success and Malik-mania begin to escalate. James radiates her trademark earnestness as lovelorn Ellie (she makes everything better, Mamma Mia 2 included, just  by showing up), while Ed Sheeran proves willing to be the butt of the film's jokes as an understated version of himself. Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal are good comic value as Jack's genially clueless parents and Joel Fry nimbly steals a clutch of scenes as shambling roadie-pal Rocky, even if he the character is a clear rip-off of Notting Hill's Spike.
That ripping off of past Curtis movies is perhaps Yesterday's biggest issue. Jack and Ellie's unrequited love-plot is written in a way that can distract from the central vanished-Beatles idea, particularly in the final act. It's played with admirable conviction by the leads, but still has a tendency to drag things back into overly familiar Four Weddings and a Funeral territory, rather than dovetail unobtrusively into the story as a whole.
Thankfully the story sticks to its guns re its core premise, even if it does embrace classic Curtis rom-com tropes towards the end. What we're really interested in is Jack's whole non-existent Beatles dilemma and on that front the film follows through, avoiding any narrative cop-outs and refusing, Groundhog Day-style, to explain the weird glitch in reality. Admittedly the underlying notion is fundamentally daft and begs all kinds of knock-on time travel-ly issues that the film barely addresses, but brush all that aside. It's a neat conceit with which both writer and director have a lot of fun, more than enough to make the enterprise worthwhile. Plus it's great to hear all those magnificent songs reworked. In the circumstances what else could Jack have done?

Seriously, imagine there's no Beatles...
Gut Reaction: A pretty high laughter-to-joke percentage rate, while the music simply made me happy. One iconic song intro had we properly tearing up.

Memorable Moment: Jack endeavours to 'Let It Be'. 

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. The resorting to romantic cliche is too obvious, but as an exploration of Jack in a Beatle-less world this hits all the right Mersey beats. 

Friday, 28 June 2019

Film Review - Brightburn (15)

I wanna do good, mom. I do.
Some films are best experienced cold. The less you know about Brightburn going in, the more impactful it's likely to be. (I had the misfortune to catch the trailer, a wretched affair that preempts the best surprises this original story has to offer - read my thoughts on that same topic here.) So if you're planning on watching this movie, go see it and then read on afterwards. Seriously, don't mention it. It's all part of the service.
Okay, to business. Brightburn, from its earliest scenes, has a strong familiarity - one that rapidly becomes discomfiting. Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are a Kansas couple unsuccessfully striving to become parents. The universe appears to answer their prayers in the form of an alien spacecraft that crashes onto their farm with a baby inside. For a decade they raise him as their own, to all appearances a healthy human child, albeit one immune to physical injury. Then with his twelfth birthday imminent, young Brandon Breyer undergoes an awakening - of superhuman abilities, but also of a nature very different from the loving boy he's thus far appeared to be. Brandon is connecting with whatever technology brought him to Earth, and the rural town of Brightburn needs to brace itself for the consequences.
It's a neat central pitch: 'Superman' arrives on Earth, but not as a force for good. The structure of the movie - particularly in its early stages - is all Smallville, but overlaid with multiple horror movie tropes. Director David Yarovesky has limited feature experience, but his understanding of the genre is assured; there's an effective build-up of menace as the traditional superhero version of this story is methodically subverted. The camera pans about the farm creepily and the barn interior glows demonic-red, while the score thrums like a portent of very bad things to come. This might all be lifted straight from the scary-playbook, but it's executed efficiently with a few grisly shocks along the way and some visually creative moments linked to Brandon's developing abilities.
As Brandon's too-trusting mom, Elizabeth Banks steers away from the comedy that has become her stock-in-trade. She delivers a convincingly emotional turn, retaining our sympathies even when she refuse to believe the staringly obvious truth. David Denman is a likeable blue-collar papa bear as the dad, while Jackson A. Dunn perfects a chilling deadpan as the increasingly sociopathic super-boy. Any nature-versus-nurture debate is dispatched quickly - perhaps too quickly for the story's own good. The pre-teen's narcissism becomes all-consuming once his extra-terrestrial puberty kicks in, making the movie as reminiscent of The Omen as it is of Superman. (These parents really need to talk about Brandon.)
Where the film falls down is a screenplay by Brian and Mark Gunn that never rises above the predictable. (Their brother James, of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, produced the movie, suggesting immense family faith in the project.) The pace and the visuals hold attention, but the dialogue is unfortunately mundane, failing to capitalize on the movie's super-gone-wrong premise and its potential for wicked fun. Character choices and behaviour are ill-explained throughout, the actors salvaging what they can, while at least one major plot thread is left straggling. And don't ask to know why Brandon is breaking bad. We're really not digging that deep.
Shortage of ideas isn't the issue here. Brightburn has enough going on to remain engaging throughout, plus it benefits from a compelling final act that saves up its punches and delivers them in a knockout salvo. Sadly it doesn't have the words to back up its deliciously dark concept. A thorough redraft with proper attention to character would have helped. Then this film might have reached a whole other level of Superbad.
Gut Reaction: A bit of creeping dread, a few jumps and a couple of flinches. And that ending brought a certain grim satisfaction.

Memorable Moment: Mom discovers Brandon's talent for art.

Ed's Verdict: 6/10. An undeniably entertaining piece of genre-splicing, this could have been an 8 or higher, if the script had matched everything else.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Film Review - Toy Story 4 (U)

You can't teach this old toy new tricks.
Was anyone delighted when Toy Story 4 was announced, or were we all thinking that Pixar should have left well alone? They had created that rarity after all, an immaculately crafted trilogy of stories, one in which each successive entry builds imaginatively on what's gone before. It all resolved in such a satisfying fashion too, with Andy's toys surviving near-incineration and receiving a new lease of life with Bonnie the little girl next door. 4 didn't even feature on my 'Most Anticipated' list for 2019, because frankly the thought of it made my heart sink. Don't risk your legacy for a cash grab, was my instinctive response. And should Pixar have taken that rubbish advice, we'd have missed out on a truly magical fourth episode.
The loose ends may have been tied up regarding Andy's toys as a whole, but for Sheriff Woody it's a different story. Accustomed to his role as team organiser, he finds himself relegated in Bonnie's girlish affections and in the play-room pecking order. He finds a new sense of purpose when the youngster creates a toy from a plastic spork and other assorted trash on her kindergarten orientation day. The newly conscious 'Forky' is a walking existential crisis, ready to consign himself to the bin. Woody, however, makes it his mission to integrate the confused fellow into the group, while persuading him of his importance as Bonnie's new favourite toy. But then a family road trip pitches Woody back into frantic adventure, confronting him with some tough existential questions of his own.
See that's the kind of depth that marks out the Toy Story franchise, never mind its visual quality. By now the series' cutting-edge technical aspects are a given. As the first feature to be entirely computer-animated, 1995's original was ground-breaking, and each successive entry has served as a new benchmark for industry quality. 4 is no exception, consistently pushing back the frontiers of photo-realistic animation. Whether it's the rush of water in a storm drain, the reflective surfaces of a crammed antiques store or the luminescence of a night-time funfair, you only have to stare at those detailed vistas to be entertained. And that's saying nothing about the wealth of high-octane, toy-related action on display, all of it ingeniously captured by first-time feature director Josh Cooley.
But it's the deep-seated sense of humanity that has always given this series its resonance. Previous Toy Story movies have dealt with loyalty, friendship and family, before going for broke and getting stuck into universal fears of abandonment, obsolescence and mortality. (If you think I'm over-egging things here, go re-watch the first three and feel the grown-up chills.) 4 goes full-on philosophical through Forky's struggles with meaning and self-worth, before considering via Woody how we're sometimes forced to redefine our whole existence. What's this film all about then? Nothing short of the entire human condition.
And if that makes it sound too earnest and serious, trust me it's not. Toy Story 4 is a blast from start to finish - both thrilling and wonderfully funny. The old guard raise plenty of smiles (Tom Hanks' voice-work as Woody is always a delight and Buzz's role includes one great recurring gag), but it's the newcomers who deliver the most hilarity. Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep) brings naive charm and pathos to Forky, while one-time TV double-act Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele enjoy a triumphant reunion as not-so-street-smart plush-toys Ducky and Bunny. And if you think Keanu Reeves is impressive as John Wick, wait till you hear him as Canada's greatest stuntman, motor-cycling daredevil - with a surprisingly fragile heart - Duke Caboom. 
Throw in one very unusual antagonist with potentially child-terrifying henchmen and the empowered return of someone we haven't seen since 2 (and didn't realise we'd missed so much), and Toy Story 4 jostles with so many great characters, it's a wonder it can contain them all. Inevitably some favourites take a background role, but it's all in the name of balancing the nostalgia factor with fresh ideas. Other sequel-makers should be so wise.
Basically this film has all the technical prowess you'd expect, along with the brain, the heart and the humour you might have feared would be lacking. So if like me you considered 3 an ideal wrap and that anything more would be an unnecessary franchise-flogging, prepare to be proved wrong - and in the most glorious way. There was one more Toy Story to be told, and those clever people at Pixar had the wisdom to see it. 

Now lay it to rest, guys, and be proud. Your work here is most definitely done.
Gut Reaction: Warmth, reassurance, laughter - and tearing up for one complex bunch of reasons.

Memorable Moment: Woody's reunion with an old friend - so perfectly judged it took my breath.

Ed's Verdict: 9.5/10. Superbly executed on every level, Toy Story 4 consigns your cynicism to the trash and lands you squarely back in the toy-box. An undiluted source of joy.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Film Review - Men in Black International (12A)

Come on - the world's not going to save itself.
I remember my reaction some months back on seeing a poster for Men in Black: International at my local Odeon cinema. Really? Eh... Why? 1997's Men in Black original was fresh and funny, but bore sequels that doubled down on jokes, while doing little to expand the universe it had created. Hardly a franchise ripe for revisiting. I went into the screening with expectations on a level with those for last week's Dark Phoenix... and once again came out a shade more entertained than I'd expected. June 2019 is proving the month of the 'adequate'.
Tessa Thompson (Creed, Creed II) plays Molly, who as a little girl witnessed an extra-terrestrial creature being pursued by Men in Black agents, but escaped having her memory wiped in that MiB 'look at the flashing light on my neuralyzer' fashion. She has spent over a decade searching for the mysterious agency that regulates alien activity on Earth, finally tracking down their US headquarters. Here she pitches herself to high-ranking Agent O (Emma Thompson even more dramatically coiffed than in Late Night) as perfect recruitment material. Swiftly Molly is abbreviated to M, dispatched to London and teamed up with Chris Hemsworth's Agent H, an MiB playboy-hero credited with the defeat of a parasitical alien race called the Hive. As our new heroes bicker and spar their way to friendship, however, it becomes apparent that the Hive might not be as vanquished as originally believed.
Word from Hollywood's overactive rumour-mill is of a troubled Men in Black: International production, where the 'edgier' original script that enticed the two main stars (and which supposedly tackled the issue of immigration in a 'timely' way) was reshaped into something more generic against the director's and actors' wishes. Certainly the end result feels less than inspired. This is a film that's quite engaging, quite exciting, quite funny. To say that it lacks the spark of originality that made the original such a memorable ride... Well, quite. There's much that's recognisable here, too much really - the tech, the obligatory McGuffin that everyone is chasing, the goofy array of ETs, with not enough to push the limits of the MiB cosmos or even to subvert our earthly expectations a little.
Lacklustre story regardless, there are aspects here to enjoy. (Glass half-full is the way of Filmic Forays after all.) Chief among these is the rapport between Thompson and Hemsworth, a chemistry already proven in Thor: Ragnarok. They simply ease into their characters, finding a different but equally relaxed rhythm to the one they had as Thor and Valkyrie and quickly becoming the movie's comic lifeblood. Add The Big Sick's Kumail Nanjiani voicing their third wheel, a sentient chess piece referred to as Pawny, and you have a likeable central dynamic throughout.
Rafe Spall adds needle as H's obnoxious work colleague (not for nothing is he named Agent C), while Emma Thompson adds her customary class in what few scenes she's in. And it's interesting to watch Liam Neeson as UK's MiB boss, the pun-tastically named High T, if only to ponder how well he can salvage his career following that high-profile PR disaster he inflicted on himself back in March. There's fun to be had with new locations too: London makes a fine backdrop for the agents' investigations, while there's a nice visual contrast in the street markets of Marrakesh and some jaunty escapades on a Mediterranean island. 
In short there's enough to keep things ticking over entertainment-wise, but not the ideas nor the conviction to set them alight. It's a waste, because the central team establish a great connection, one that might have been explored sometime again. (While the movie doesn't embarrass itself by trumpeting an intended sequel, it's obvious that Agents M & H have been set up for further adventures.) Ultimately, though, the question to be asked of any sequel is the one that occurred to me on catching sight of that poster. Why? Sadly, despite its plus-points, Men in Black: International simply can't muster a really good answer. 
Gut Reaction: Prepared to be bored, but reasonably amused and engaged instead.

Memorable Moment: Pawny to the rescue.

Ed's Verdict: 6.5/10. Solidly made and nicely played, this MiB reboot needs some bold new conceit to justify its existence. As a Friday night out it's enjoyable. Quite, not very.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Film Review - Dark Phoenix (12A)

You are NOT broken.
There's discussion in this latest X-Men film as to whether Jean Gray, the 'Dark Phoenix' of the title, is indeed 'broken', or simply different like all the story's mutant heroes. Many X-fans are claiming with some justification, however, that the entire franchise was broken some time ago, due to the manner in which Days of Future Past's time-travel element wrecked its entire continuity. Add to that the fact that Dark Phoenix has a second stab at a plot-line first attempted in 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand and you've got a lot of negative press surrounding what will be the final movie in the saga. Setting all that aside though, and taking the new movie purely on its own merits, and dampening down any misplaced expectations of greatness - well, it's not a bad night out at the flicks.
It kicks off with a elementary school-age Jean Gray tapping into her latent telekinetic abilities in deeply traumatising circumstances. A mutant with formidable powers she is taken in by the young Professor Xavier to live and be educated in his 'School for Gifted Youngsters'. A decade or so later she's a fully fledged 'X-Man' (played once already by Sophie Turner in X-Men: Apocalypse), but - it turns out - lacking a full understanding of the dubious circumstances in which she entered the School. One space-mission-gone-wrong later she's invested/cursed with a mysterious cosmic power that intensifies her already extraordinary gifts, transforming her into a potentially devastating force. That's especially since a rift is developing between her and the adoptive mentor. Call it X-tension, if you like.
With all the critical negativity washing about, my experience of watching Dark Phoenix was basically waiting for it to get as bad as people were saying. Thing is, it never actually did - not to a Godzilla: King of the Monsters level of direness or anywhere close. The opening was arresting, startlingly so, and the tricky dynamic between Jean and Prof X was neatly established in the opening act. The latter (James McAvoy doing his best 'young Patrick Stewart') showed an unexpected layer of hubris that added to the role's complexity, while Turner's emotionally tortured turn as the eponymous Phoenix was terrific, like she was truly blossoming post-Sansa Stark/Game of Thrones
There were committed return performances from Nicholas Hoult (having a good year with The Favourite and Tolkien) and regular class-act Michael Fassbinder, even if neither was given a fully-fledged story arc. And franchise newcomer Jessica Chastain was in imperious form as cosmic entity - eh - Vuk. Add to that an effective build-up to a mid-point confrontation that landed considerable dramatic punch, some emotional character moments and a typically compelling score from Hans Zimmer and you've got a movie that's not so disastrous as some would have you believe.
But neither is it top-tier X-Men, or anywhere near the level of the franchise's best outings. The starry cast is working with sadly predictable dialogue (literally so - I kept successfully predicting how lines would end), and any intriguing character arcs established early on are more of less derailed in favour of a huge multi-character punch-up in the final act. (The rank and file X-Men get very little to do other than flex their powers now and then.) It's technically solid throughout, if a bit choppy in the way the bigger fight scenes are edited, but dramatically it fizzles out in a conclusion that wastes a whole lot of story potential. Hey, maybe we're all just spoiled following the satisfyingly complex storytelling in Avengers: Endgame.
Speaking of which, it's not insignificant that the rights for X-Men have reverted to Marvel, having been held for over twenty-five years by 20th Century Fox. That's a heartening thought for all fans of Professor X, Magneto and co, that sometime down the line the MCU may bring its consistently well-crafted storytelling to these beloved characters. Then we'd have something a bit less hit-and-miss - a franchise in which the films would all tie together, and where any given title would be more X-2 than Last Stand. In that kind of universe Dark Phoenix would be essential viewing, not merely-adequate screen filler.
Gut Reaction: Entertained for much of the running-time, with a few electric jolts along the way. Then it all went a bit 'meh'. 

Memorable Moment: Little Jean discovers her powers - the hard way.

Ed's Verdict: 6/10. Dark Phoenix has enough fine performances, powerful moments and intriguing character traits to provide that final vague sense - of missed opportunity.