Friday, July 12, 2019

Worth Mentioning - A World on the Brink

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Comic book heroes, Stallone, Halloween, and masters of horror.


X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not a movie I wanted to see, and I don't mean after I saw all the lackluster-to-negative reviews it received. From the very moment the film was hinted at, I didn't want it. At the end of the previous X-Men team film, X-Men: Apocalypse, the newly re-introduced mutant Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had to display great power to defeat the villain, and during this display the image of a phoenix appears. This indicated that the filmmakers wanted to do the "Dark Phoenix" story from the comic books all over again, after it was done and botched back in X-Men: The Last Stand, released in 2006. The timeline was reset due to the time travel shenanigans of X-Men: Days of Future Past, so they could do Dark Phoenix again. I didn't think they should. They did, and it seems like they shouldn't have.

I didn't want the Dark Phoenix Saga to get a new adaptation at this time because I didn't want to sit through the same story again already, and my feeling of dread increased once it was announced that the film was going to be written and directed by Simon Kinberg. I didn't trust that Kinberg would be able to do the adaptation justice, since he had co-written The Last Stand and already dropped the ball once before. Dark Phoenix would come with the added burden of being his directorial debut. Even worse, the talk of Disney buying 20th Century Fox - and gaining the rights to the X-Men property and characters for Marvel Studios in the process - began spreading around just a few months after Dark Phoenix was confirmed. Having two lesser versions of the Dark Phoenix Saga made at Fox would severely decrease the chances that we would ever see an MCU version of the story. The Disney/Fox merger has since gone through, and while we'll probably never get an MCU Dark Phoenix now, at least we'll have an MCU X-Men reboot to look forward to in the future after the franchise was run into the ground at Fox.

Although X-Men: Apocalypse hinted that the Phoenix power would just emerge from with Jean, as it did back in The Last Stand, Kinberg's re-telling of the story has an outside source overpower Jean, like in the comic book source material. Jean is hit by a solar flare during a mission in space.

The best scenes in Days of Future Past and Apocalypse involved the high-speed abilities of the mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters), but the same can't be said of Dark Phoenix, which severely underuses the character. If you're a fan of Quicksilver, the early sequence in which he and his X-Men teammates save a space shuttle that has run into trouble while leaving Earth's atmosphere is the only time you get to see him do anything impressive. Even then, it's not nearly as impressive as those scenes in the previous two films. Quicksilver is soon taken out of the action, a baffling bad decision. Not only is Quicksilver a fan favorite at this point, but Peters may be the actor most enthusiastic about his character - he has expressed disappointment that he wasn't given more to do and likely won't have another chance to continue his character's story. He was there to play, but he got sidelined.

Now Jean is filled with a power she doesn't understand and can't control, making her a danger to those around her. As is proven when she accidentally causes the death of teammate Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The choice to remove Mystique from the film makes total sense, since Lawrence has been the one actor most openly done with all this stuff. The death of Mystique takes place at Jean's childhood home, which is where she disintegrated Professor Xavier (played in this film by James McAvoy) in The Last Stand version of the story.

Jean ended up siding with the villainous Magneto in The Last Stand, and Dark Phoenix flips that around - although she does seek the help of Magneto (Michael Fassbender), he ends up wanting to murder her for killing Mystique. The X-Men's Beast (Nicholas Hoult) isn't too happy with her about that, either, since Mystique and Beast have had a relationship in the films since the 1960s-set X-Men: First Class. So Magneto, Beast, and a couple lackeys who don't amount to much go hunting for Jean while Professor X, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smith McPhee), and Jean's boyfriend Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) try to figure out how to help her.

Meanwhile, an alien shapeshifter played by Jessica Chastain shows up to play some mind games with Jean because her race wants to use the power of the Phoenix to take control of Earth. Several years ago, Chastain had to turn down a role in Iron Man 3 due to scheduling issues, and it's a shame that Dark Phoenix turned out to be the comic book film she was eventually able to take part in, because she is completely wasted in this role.

In the comics, there was an alien race who wanted to destroy Jean/Dark Phoenix because she floated through space and decided to absorb the energy of a star she came across - a star that happened to be serving as the sun for an entire planet of living beings, so as a consequence she wiped out that whole world. This partially explains why trying to adapt the Dark Phoenix Saga for the Fox X-Men franchise is troublesome, because the movies started out relatively grounded and have never reached that level of cosmic events. This movie is the first time they're even going into space - and they just barely go out there - and the first time aliens have gotten involved, so of course this movie and The Last Stand before it weren't going to have Jean wiping out a civilization by feeding on starpower. They can only go so far with it. So we get the back story that the solar flare destroyed the home of these aliens before the film.

The aliens in this film are reminiscent of the Skrulls seen in the MCU film Captain Marvel earlier this year, and for good reason. They were Skrulls during filming, but got changed into a different race of aliens when Kinberg found out Captain Marvel was already using them.

I went into X-Men: Dark Phoenix with zero hopes for it, but I didn't end up disliking it as much as I expected it to. I didn't even dislike it as much as I did X-Men: The Last Stand when I first saw it, and that's probably because it feels so inconsequential. The Last Stand was a poor follow-up to two awesome movies in a franchise that was very active, but the Disney/Fox deal rendered Dark Phoenix irrelevant months before it was even released.

Not only does the movie not feel like it matters, it also feels like very little happens in it. The story is rushed through, the characters are presented in broad strokes. If you don't go into Dark Phoenix already caring about the characters from previous movies, I don't see anything here that would make you start caring about them. Somehow this movie had a $200 million budget, but for the most part it feels like it could have been made for half of that, like Deadpool 2 was. The fact that they shot the third act twice didn't help keep the budget down - originally the climax involved a battle at the United Nations building in New York, but now it's a fight on a train.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is thoroughly underwhelming. It's a relief to know Marvel has control of the franchise now.


Released in 2013, the first film in the Escape Plan franchise starred Sylvester Stallone as Ray Breslin, a man whose security firm tested the integrity of maximum security prisons by passing off Breslin as a convict, dropping him into the prisons, and seeing if he could escape from them. Breslin's business partner Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio) ending up betraying him and trying to get him stuck in a hi-tech prison called The Tomb for good, but with the help of a character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger our hero was eventually able to get out of the place and get some payback on Clark.

Escape Plan: The Extractors, the third film in this franchise, isn't on the same level as that big screen Stallone/Schwarzenegger team-up movie, but it is an improvement over last year's Escape Plan 2: Hades, which went too over-the-top sci-fi for my liking and also shifted the focus away from Stallone for a substantial amount of the running time. The Extractors is still an ensemble film, but it feels like more of a Stallone film than Hades did, and the prison in this story is the opposite of the hi-tech places from the previous films. This movie was shot in a real former prison, the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, which was built between 1886 and 1910, then closed down in 1990. Stallone has been there before - it's where the prison scenes in Tango & Cash were filmed.

The prison isn't the only Mansfield location this movie was filmed at; in fact, part of the story takes place there. Mansfield is very close to my hometown, it's the city where I have done most of my theatre-going over the years, so it was really cool for me to see familiar locations in this movie.

The events of Hades are of little consequence here. Director John Herzfeld, who also rewrote the screenplay by Miles Chapman (co-writer on the first Escape Plan and the only credited writer on 2), wanted the story of the film to be a direct sequel to the first movie. The villain who gets the story rolling is Lester Clark Jr. (Devon Sawa), who wants revenge on Breslin for what he did to his father and on the company behind The Tomb for getting his father mixed up in their schemes. To do this, he abducts the company owner's daughter Daya Zhang (Melise) and Breslin's co-worker/girlfriend Abigail (Jaime King), taking them away to Devil's Station, a hellish black site prison he runs in Latvia.

Like computer whiz Hush (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) and receptionist turned field agent Jules (Lydia Hull), Abigail is a character who has been around since the first movie, where she was played by Amy Ryan. Jaime King took over the role in part 2, and honestly I didn't even realize she was supposed to be the same character Ryan played until I was about to start watching 3. She and Breslin had a flirtmance in the previous movies, but now they're in a full-fledged relationship, making her abduction an even more emotional situation for Breslin. Stallone is great at displaying rage, I would not want to get on that guy's bad side.

So while the previous films were about people trying to figure out how to escape from prisons, The Extractors flips the concept around and is about people trying to figure out how to infiltrate a prison. Breslin is aided in this endeavor by Hush and Jules; problem solver Trent Derosa (Dave Bautista), who was introduced in Hades; Daya's current bodyguard Bao (Harry Shum Jr.); and Daya's former bodyguard / love interest Shen (Jin Zhang).

The set-up works fine, the story has an emotional element, there are personal stakes for both the heroes and the villains. I was somewhat surprised to find that the guy from Final Destination and Idle Hands has grown up to become someone who can play an effective action movie villain. Sawa doesn't seem like he'll be a physical threat to the heroes - it's tough to seem like you could beat up Stallone or Bautista - but Clark has an anger and a willingness to kill that makes him feel dangerous.

Breslin and his pals begin their raid on the prison at about the halfway point, leading into a second half that is full of violent physical altercations and shootouts. Stallone, Bautista, and Zhang all get a chance to shine in the action sequences, with Stallone and Bautista bringing the brute strength while Zhang engages in more dazzling martial arts fights. The fights are well choreographed and well shot, with Herzfeld making sure we can see his actors performing the moves instead of pulling any quick cut shaky cam tricks. There are some bone-crunching brawls in here, and one standout moment involves a henchman played by Daniel Bernhardt, an action regular who got his acting career started by replacing Jean-Claude Van Damme in the Bloodsport sequels back in the day.

There's not much to The Extractors, the story is quite simple: get characters to Devil's Station and then have them fight there. I was entertained by it, though, and it delivered exactly what I wanted it to, which is some good action and the sight of people beating the hell out of each other. The fact that both sides of this disagreement are understandable was a nice touch, and it's always good to see Stallone get another chance to be the cinematic badass he has been for more than 40 years.

If you're in the mood for some modestly budgeted action, Escape Plan: The Extractors does the job. And if you don't like it, at least the end credits start rolling after just 79 minutes.

The review for Escape Plan: The Extractors originally appeared on


Last year, the Hulu streaming service and the horror makers at Blumhouse announced that they were teaming up for a project I found fascinating, a series called Into the Dark. Every month for a year, Hulu would release a new Blumhouse-produced feature film under the Into the Dark banner, with each movie being related in some way to a holiday, or at least a notable day, in the month of its release. The first Into the Dark movie was released in October, so of course it's set on Halloween.

That first movie is titled The Body, as it's about a hitman called Wilkes (Tom Bateman), who spends the night trying to properly dispose of the corpse of the extremely wealthy man he has just assassinated. Dragging around a plastic-wrapped body is less suspicious on Halloween, with people in costumes running around everywhere, which is a good thing for Wilkes when he finds that someone has slashed the tires on his car so he can't just drive the body where he needs to take it. He ends up seeking alternative transportation at a rowdy party hosted by Ash vs. Evil Dead's Ray Santiago as rich "artist" Jack.

Wilkes's time at the party goes wrong when Jack and his pals Dorothy (Aurora Perrineau) and Alan (David Hull) realize that his costume prop is an actual dead body. With Wilkes threatening their lives, the trio of friends manage to escape from the party with the dead body, planning to take it to the police. Their plan doesn't go well, either, and that leads to the majority of the movie's 82 minutes consisting of Wilkes pursuing the partiers and the body through the city.

Wilkes also picks up an ally at the party, Rebecca Rittenhouse as Maggie, who was working with Jack on a virtual reality project. Any interest in seeing that project through with Jack goes out the window when Maggie sees Wilkes kill someone - and instantly becomes deeply enamored with him. Maggie is even creepier than Wilkes. At least he's a professional who lays out his twisted view of the world. Maggie has always wanted to kill someone, and loves seeing Wilkes kill people.

Director Paul Davis, who wrote the script with Paul Fischer, is able to derive a lot of humor out of this crazy situation. The Body deals with some dark, unsettling, gross subject matter, but the way Davis and his cast bring it to the screen is often quite amusing. If you enjoyed watching Ray Santiago play Pedro on Ash vs. Evil Dead you'll enjoy watching him play Jack here, as he's the funniest of the bunch. I felt this movie got Into the Dark off to a great start, especially since it  turns into a full-on slasher in the final act, and a slasher is something I'm always up to watch.


A decade down the line from working together on the 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, genre filmmakers George A. Romero and Dario Argento decided to make another movie together - one which would be split into two stories, one for each of them to write and direct, both based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Romero, Argento, and Poe sounds like a winning combination if there ever was one, but I've never been able to stir up much enthusiasm over the resulting film, Two Evil Eyes.

Romero's half of the film is based on the story The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, which some elements of crime and betrayal added in. Adrienne Barbeau plays Jessica Valdemar, trophy wife of a wealthy older man - Bingo O'Malley as Ernest Valdemar - who is now in his last days as he succumbs to a terminal disease. Jessica enlists the aid of her lover Dr. Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), an expert in hypnosis, to hypnotize Ernest so he'll sign his estate over to her while under Hoffman's spell... but when Ernest dies while under hypnosis, he becomes trapped in a limbo between life and death.

Apparently Argento had originally been planning to produce multiple Poe adaptations. The idea fell apart, but before that happened John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Michele Soavi, and Richard Stanley were approached to bring other Poe stories to life. Stanley was going to do The Cask of Amontillado. Romero wanted to do The Masque of the Red Death, but it ended up in the hands of Soavi. So with Red Death out of reach Romero got Valdemar, and it's kind of disappointing that he had to make a zombie story of sorts even with this project. He didn't get to break away from zombies often enough in his career.

At least Valdemar isn't about shambling flesh eaters. The idea of a person's consciousness getting trapped between life and death is pretty creepy, and Romero keeps the story intriguing by throwing in an issue for Jessica and Hoffman to deal with: they have to keep Ernest's corpse preserved for three weeks before they reveal that he died, otherwise the estate transfer might not go through.

Argento and co-writer Franco Ferrini took on an adaptation of the story The Black Cat that casts Harvey Keitel as alcoholic crime scene photographer Roderick Usher, introduced taking pictures of a woman who was killed by a pendulum that cut her in half, reminiscent of Poe's story The Pit and the Pendulum. That's one of many Poe Easter eggs Argento dropped into his segment, the name "Usher" being another.

When Usher's live-in girlfriend Annabel (Madeleine Potter) brings a black cat into their home, man and animal take an instant disliking to each other. Usher ends up killing the cat, which doesn't go over well with his girlfriend. Later, in a fit of madness, he kills Annabel as well. Usher conceals Annabel's body within a wall, but finds it tough to get away with his crime when everyone around him is so suspicious. And all these black cats keep crossing his path.

Keitel has always been great at playing intensely unlikeable sleazy scumbags, and The Black Cat is further proof of that.

The biggest issue with Two Evil Eyes is that it's two hours long, with both segments going on longer than they needed to. They're padded out and drag. If they were both a bit shorter I would enjoy the overall film more. This didn't need to be over 90 minutes total. Even the way it is, feeling like it goes on and on unnecessarily, it's a fine movie, but it could have been better if Romero and Argento were more ruthless in the editing room.

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