Another summer-movie weekend; another threat of impending global annihilation. Yet even if, like me, you've dutifully and, for the most part, agreeably stuck with the superheroes since the mutants' cinematic start in 2000, it's impossible to imagine anyone shedding even a hint of a tear at Dark Phoenix, the apparently final X-Men entry before the team gets an inevitable makeover in a few years' time. I recently asked my brother, a longtime Game of Thrones fan who'd become increasingly disappointed with the HBO series, what he thought of the show's widely disliked final season. He said, “I'm not angry so much as just done with it all,” and that feels like the appropriate response to writer/director Simon Kinberg's franchise conclusion, as well. How we got from haunting Holocaust imagery and Hugh Jackman's feral screen debut to shape-shifting aliens and Jessica Chastain in an Edgar Winter wig is, quite frankly, beyond me. But by this point, I'm more than ready to say goodbye.
When a series' penultimate release is subtitled Armageddon, as Bryan Singer's 2016 X-Men outing was, it's probably difficult to effectively raise the stakes. So I actually rather appreciated Kinsberg's decision to essentially remake 2006's much-derided X-Men: The Final Stand (which he and Zak Penn co-wrote) with this decade's current cast and without the participation of Brett Ratner. Like The Final Stand – a movie I'm not ashamed to admit having enjoyed – this revised version is another Jean Grey saga, its central conceit finding the telekinetic Jean (Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner) absorbing unparalleled amounts of space-energy whoozy-whatsit and finding herself unable to control her god-like powers. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his teachers and charges at their mutant boarding school realize this as a very bad thing. So does former antagonist Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). The only ones who don't are a race of recently homeless space beings led by a creature named Vuk, who interrupts Chastain's dinner party, assumes the woman's identity (and evidently bleaches her eyebrows), and plans to enlist Jean as the creator of a brand-new Utopian universe – at Earth's expense, of course. Despite Jean's and the aliens' threat to the planet, and every other planet in the galaxy, this is actually a somewhat low-key way for a comic-book franchise to climax, especially when compared to Avengers: Endgame (which came out six weeks ago and feels like a lifetime ago). Intentional minimizing, though, is one thing. Dark Phoenix, by contrast, suggests that loads of talented people simply stopped caring, and the feeling is sadly infectious.
Even when the main storylines have disappointed – and I honestly couldn't tell you the central plot of a single X-Men film since 2011 without looking it up on Wikipedia – these movies, like the Avengers', have been filled with memorable fringe touches, be they Magneto's woodland retaliation in Apocalypse or the dark JFK gags in Days of Future Past or, best of all, the antics of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) as he slo-o-owly broke the sound barrier accompanied to tunes by Jim Croce and Annie Lennox. So I presumed that dull, or at least disheartening, times were in store here when the film unceremoniously sidelined Quicksilver with a major head injury before he had time to fully display his previously show-stopping magic. (While it's only minor solace, at least Evans is allowed to deliver the only two recognizable jokes in Kinsberg's entire script.) Yet much of the rest of the movie is waylaid by similarly “whatever” presentation. Jean Grey successfully consumes all that cosmic energy before we're ever made aware that she shouldn't be able to do that. Xavier is revealed to be a shameless media whore despite nothing about his previous film appearances suggesting a taste for the limelight. Jennifer Lawrence, reprising her role as Mystique, reads her lines with such bored indifference that I'm amazed she was able to summon the will to leave her trailer every morning. (To be fair, some of Lawrence's visible detachment might be due to Mystique having to give Xavier an embarrassing, ham-fisted #metoo dressing-down, telling him that given how often she and others have saved male X-Men asses, he should really change the team's moniker to “X-Women.” It's a moment as gratuitously condescending as that shot of female warriors in Avengers: Endgame posing on-screen and then doing … absolutely nothing.)
A few performers transcend the apathy. Despite her wobbly American accent, Turner attacks her close-to-impossible role with just the right blend of wonder, terror, and ballsiness, and is appropriately intimidating when Thanos-ing adversaries out of existence; Turner's many years in Westeros have paid off beautifully. Fassbender's default intensity is again put to stellar use, as he makes traditionally dreary comic-book-balloon dialogue sound almost off-the-cuff and, eight years into the role, looks like he's still entertaining himself as an iconic über-villain. (The actor's subtext might read, “Yeah, this movie is a mess … but hey, I'm having fun.) And once you adjust to Jessica Chastain in Tilda Swinton mode, you're more able to recognize her witty, insinuating line readings, as well as Vuk's comically puzzled and curious reactions to damned near everything these ridiculous Earthlings say and do.
The effects, too, are almost uniformly first-rate – not necessarily because of Dark Phoenix's substantial budget, but because the visuals are employed in clever, narrative-enhancing ways. Although he only gets a few seconds in which to make an impression, Quicksilver's essential stopping of time as he races up airborne rooftop debris is particularly winning, as is Magneto's artillery-laden defense aboard a speeding train car. Yet while the film is blessedly free of the lazy big-city demolition we just endured in the most recent Godzilla, blockbuster-ized mayhem of any scale doesn't much matter if the fates of the characters don't matter, either. And despite the contributions of Turner, Fassbender, Chastain, and, for a couple of scenes, a rock-solid Scott Shepard as Jean Grey's dad, they don't. I'm a couple seasons behind on GoT, but despite fan grumblings, I can't imagine that the final episodes bid adieu to Tyrion, Cersei, Turner's Sansa, and the like with the disinterest that this X-Men expresses toward Cyclops and Storm, both characters having been vital to the series for 19 years. (Others treated as afterthoughts include Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and a depressingly ill-used Brian d'Arcy James.)
But what could any performers do with profoundly stupid moments such as the X-Men team's dawning recognition of Jean's growing powers, with Xavier – the purportedly brightest mind in the world – asserting, “I think whatever happened in space … did something to her.” Or Professor X's definition of Jean's new Phoenix persona as “all desire, all rage, all pain.” (Much like the personae of those of us watching the movie.) Or the laughably “emotional” encounter between Mystique and Beast that suggests a pair of Smurfs enacting the climactic scenes of Titanic. Perfunctory at best and grievously insulting at worst, Dark Phoenix is a not-at-all-fitting farewell to characters, and a screen series, that some of us have determinedly supported for almost two full decades – a franchise, it's worth remembering, that effectively jump-started our collective 21st-Century need for superhero franchises in the first place. Make fun of fan service all you want. It's still preferable to fan ennui.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2
You know how, in most sitcoms, there are A plots and B plots – the A plot being the episode's main thread and the B plots being the goofy detours generally reserved for comedic sidekicks? The Secret Life of Pets 2 is like an animated-sitcom episode devoted solely to B plots. Director Chris Renaud's sequel to Illumination Entertainment's 2016 smash finds its focal narrative in the continuing escapades of the Jack Russell Terrier Max (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who now has a toddler to over-protect and a bushel of life lessons to learn from a no-nonsense sheepdog voiced, with typically amusing gruffness, by Harrison Ford. But I can't say that this rural segment held any more weight, or evinced any more personal interest, than the subplots involving the Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) retrieving Max's lost bumblebee chew-toy or the hyperactive rabbit Snowball (the hyperactive Kevin Hart) saving the dignity of a Bengal tiger. Consequently, I just resigned myself to toggling between three equally bland narratives and enjoying the rare bits of pleasure that this fastidiously well-animated sequel could conceivably offer an adult viewer: Max trapped in the ultra-intense waiting room for pets with severe behavioral problems; Lake Bell's obese kitty Chloe stoned on catnip while “White Rabbit” plays on the soundtrack; the readings of Tiffany Haddish that are still enjoyable in their brash inflections … even though, without access to better material, time is quickly running out on my appreciation for that particular Haddish talent. Dark Phoenix might mark the end of its series' particular iteration of the X-Men. But the perfectly competent, profoundly unmemorable Secret Life of Pets 2 suggests that the adventures of Max et al might just be beginning, and with increasingly diminished returns. Ice Age, after all, has thus-far produced five sequels, each more insufferable than the last. I'd hate to one day feel like abandoning these Pets the same way I'm dying to have that obnoxious squirrel Scrat put down.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM
Beyond the inevitable sequels, moviegoers in our area are currently also able to catch the engaging, somewhat fairytale-ish documentary The Biggest Little Farm – or, as I preferred to think of it, The Secret Life of Pets, Too. (Had that been the approved title, I likely would've seen more people at my Friday screening than the two others who showed up.) Our human heroes are wildlife photographer/documentarian John Chester (who also directed the film and served as its chief cinematographer) and his blogger-chef wife Molly, who are evicted from their Santa Monica apartment due to their adorable dog Todd's incessant barking. The Chesters consequently decide to live out a longtime dream of owning and maintaining a self-sustaining 240-acre farm in Moorpark, California, whose expanse is largely void of animal life and whose ground is as dry as a bon mot by Dorothy Parker. How the apparently middle-class-at-best Chesters are able to afford this Eden-on-Earth is brushed off in a couple of quick, not entirely convincing voice-over mentions, and while there's a lot of information about farming practices, it feels as though a lot of specifics are being intentionally glossed over. Yet the movie – which shows how the Chesters, with the help of many, turned their near-barren acreage into the hugely successful Apricot Lane Farms – has a sweeping, storybook charm.
We're treated to loads of fascinating factoids regarding irrigation practices and the tending of the soil, and Chester's doc really makes you aware of essential catch-22s of farm life: the healthier the crops, the greater the pest population; the riper the fruit, the more birds that will show up to devour it. But The Biggest Little Farm's grandest selling points are the animals – not just Todd, who (to my memory) never once barks after escaping the big city, but the many four legged beasts and feathered critters whose survival becomes nearly as imperative as the Chesters'. Between the immense pig Emma who births 17 piglets in one long night to the skittish rooster Mr. Greasy to the orphaned lamb to the grouchy bull to the dozens of baby chicks and ducklings that arrive in UPS boxes, the movie boasts the makings for about a dozen different Disneynature features, each of which I'd happily pay to see. (The only creatures not granted much in the way of empathy are tree-killing snails – 90,000 of which are blessedly consumed by the farm's ducks – and coyotes, who, I'm sorry, are just assholes.) The movie doesn't hide the fact that farm work can be brutal and backbreaking, and the framing device involving the recent California wildfires adds significantly to our emotional investment. But in the end, The Biggest Little Farm is as friendly and upbeat as nature docs come, and kids should have a great time at this thing, especially when it's shown just how much the animals' manure augments the success of the Chesters' passion project. As the director says in voice-over, “Their poop is our gold.” For viewers of this movie, it's ours, too.