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DARK PHOENIX

Producer: Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, Lauren Schuler-Donner and Todd Hallowell
Director: Simon Kinberg
Writer: Simon Kinberg
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Scott Shepherd, Sommer Fontana, Hannah Anderson, Kota Eberhardt, Lamar Johnson, Brian d'Arcy James and Jessica Chastain
Studio: Disney/Twentieth Century-Fox

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Simon Kinberg takes a second crack at the so-called Dark Phoenix Saga that Chris Claremont and John Byrne created for the X-Men comics in the late seventies and early eighties, this time serving as director as well as writer and producer. Unfortunately, “Dark Phoenix” proves little more successful than the first time around, Brett Ratner’s “The Last Stand,” was back in 2006, though fans might applaud the fact that it’s marginally more faithful to its source than the earlier version, which just folded Jean Grey’s story tangentially into a larger one.

In Kinberg’s slimmed-down account, telepathic Jean (Sophie Turner) is part of the celebrated X-Men team that operates under the command of paralyzed Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), having come somewhat to terms with her guilt over feeling responsible for the deaths of her parents (Scott Shepherd and Hannah Anderson) in a car crash when she was eight (played as a girl in the flashbacks by Sommer Fontana). She’s been raised by Xavier since then.

Now she serves as part of the mission sent to rescue the crew of the Space Shuttle, which has suffered some sort of accident and is whirling helplessly above the earth’s atmosphere. The endeavor, headed by wonky Hank McCoy/ Beast (Nicholas Hoult), also includes Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Using their special abilities, they save the crew, but in the process Jean becomes infused with the power of the mysterious cloud that disabled the Shuttle, endowing her with strength so great that even Hank cannot measure it.

To complicate matters further, Jean becomes aware that Charles has misled her about the crash that killed her parents. She goes off in search of the truth, and when her comrades follow to bring her back, she unleashes her new abilities against them, with tragic results. A visit to the idyllic camp that Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has set up for his mutant followers has an equally disastrous outcome The upshot is that all the X-men are soon in pursuit of Jean, some hoping to save her and others to destroy her.

But she’s being sought by someone else as well—an alien called Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of a group of space refugees whose empire was wiped out by that mysterious cloud and, having taken on human bodies, are now intent about extracting its power from Jean for their own purposes.

Much fighting—among the X-Men themselves, between them and Jean, with the army, and against the aliens—ensues, featuring many special effects of unexceptional quality. The big finale occurs aboard a train where the captive X-Men must face off against Vuk’s forces and Jean makes a final decision about her fate.

What’s most surprising about “Dark Phoenix,” given its place as the purported final installment of a lengthy series that goes back to Bryan Singer’s 2000 original and has witnessed numerous spin-offs and a good deal of chronological tweaking (another spin-off, “The New Mutants,” will be released next year), is how purely functional it seems. There’s little imagination or inventiveness to either the story or the telling of it; the result is a curiously pallid send-off for the characters. The previous installment, “Apocalypse,” was silly, stentorian and bombastic, to be sure, but at least it aimed for a degree of grandeur. Kinberg doesn’t even try; he’s content with a narrative, and execution, that feel utterly ordinary and generic.

The cast don’t give their best either. The regulars go through their paces as if they were doing chores (Lawrence has very little to do, and Peters’ Quicksilver seems simply to disappear abruptly midway through); the sleepy Turner, who takes center stage here, is especially soporific. The most embarrassing performance, however, comes from Chastain. True, Vuk is meant to be an emotionless sort of being, but the actress takes her to the point of absolute blandness. That makes for a picture in which neither the accidental anti-heroine nor the accidental villain is up to snuff.

The technical contributions are pretty flat as well, from Claude Pare’s production design and Mauro Fiore’s cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s score. And as mentioned, the effects are at best middle-grade; unlike “Apocalypse,” this hardly looks like a $200 million production.

Fans who have stuck with the X-Men franchise for nearly two decades might have hoped that their story would end with a bang, but “Dark Phoenix” is more of a cinematic whimper. It’s not as bad as John Trank’s “Fantastic Four” debacle, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for any future directorial aspirations Kinberg might harbor.

DOMINO

Producer: Michael Schannemann and Els Vandevorst
Director: Brian De Palma
Writer: Petter Skavlan
Stars: Nikolaj Coster-Waldon, Carice van Houten, Guy Pearce, Soren Malling, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Eriq Ebouaney and Mohammed Azaay
Studio: Saban Films

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How the mighty have fallen. Brian De Palma, who once made iconic films like “Carrie” and “The Untouchables,” has now been reduced to directing inferior material like “Domino.” He pulls out his old bag of cinematic tricks to try to invigorate the movie—and adds a music score from his regular collaborator Pino Donaggio—but even they can’t enliven the stale tale of a disgraced cop chasing the killer of his partner and, in the process, getting involved with foiling a terrorist plot.

The cop is Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a Danish plainclothes detective who makes the mistake of leaving his gun behind at home after enjoying the company of a lady. Called along with his partner Lars (Søren Malling) to investigate reports of violence in an apartment building, he confronts a suspicious guy (Eriq Ebouaney) with blood on his shoes, and takes him into custody, leaving the man in Lars’s charge while he looks into the source of the evidence.

Christian finds a dead man in an upper-story flat, but while he’s away Lars turns his back on the captive to take a phone call, and the man struggles out of his cuffs and cuts his throat, climbing out a window to escape. Without his gun Christian clambers onto the ledge in pursuit, but both man fall to the pavement. Some unknown figures arrive to take away the killer, leaving Christian behind.

This opening sequence already shows the old De Palma technique at work—not only in the protracted scene of Lars getting attacked while distracted, but in the action on the gutters and rooftops, where he indulges his passion to do homage to Hitchcock via obvious parallels to “Vertigo.”

Even here, however, something feels slightly off: the timing isn’t as perfect as it once was, the staging less assured. It seems that the director isn’t entirely in sync with the actors, cinematographer José Luis Aleaine, and editor Bill Paukow. One sees flashes of the old magic at work, but as a whole the sequence comes across as second-rate self-imitation.

Even worse, it’s followed by script developments that reek of cliché and triteness. Christian is put under internal scrutiny for how he handled the entire business, and is partnered with another detective, Alex (Carice van Houten) to track down the killer. He turns out to be Ezra, a Libyan émigré who’s been nabbed by Joe Martin, a freewheeling CIA agent with a southern drawl who intends to use him to track down Sheik Salak al-Din (Mohammed Azaay), head of an ISIS-linked terrorist cell that has not only been mounting mass suicide killings but showing them live on the Internet via cameras carried by the perpetrators. One, at the glitzy opening ceremony of a film festival, is presented by De Palma in his customarily florid style, complete with split screens, color commentary and encouragement from al-Din, who’s watching from afar.

The two storylines becomes linked, ending at an arena in Spain, where al-Din’s latest attack—involving a bullfight, a massive crowd, confederates disguised as concession-sellers and drones controlled from a nearby skyscraper—forms the basis for one of the director’s elaborate set-pieces, with more split screens, a good deal of slow-mo, and lots of intercutting between the various loci of the action.

But while as carefully choreographed as the famous steps scene of “The Untouchables” (and accompanied by the insistent strains of a bolero), it too feels slightly off, lacking the precision and sheer panache of De Palma’s earlier work. Once again, the camerawork and editing contribute to the problem, but the inescapable conclusion is that the director is trying, but failing, to recapture the style and energy of his best films.

There are elements in “Domino” that are promising. One is the connection drawn between acts of terror and the media that effectively glamorizes them. Another is the quasi-Hitchcockian predicament of Ezra, whom Martin coerces into becoming his instrument by threatening his family. But the first isn’t sufficiently explored, and the latter becomes virtually an afterthought, subsumed in Pearce’s very broad performance, though one sees suggestions of what might have been in Ebouaney’s more nuanced one.

Instead too much attention is given over to the relationship between Christian and Alex, which frankly is rather a bore, despite—or because of—the fact that it’s revealed that Alex was Lars’s mistress, shocking Christian, who believed his partner to have been happily married. The two frankly strike no sparks, giving performances that come off as more dutiful than exciting. In addition, the terrorist cell is depicted in a flat, simplistic fashion, with Azaay a one-note villain. (Of course, the CIA is also portrayed without shading, with Martin shown as utterly cynical and unprincipled.) Still, dramatic depth has never been the director’s forte; it’s how the story is told, rather than the quality of the narrative itself, that has always been his strength. In the best cases, that’s been more than enough; here, it’s not.

To be fair to him, De Palma is on record as describing “Domino” as a troubled shoot, with inadequate financing and intrusion from the producers. But whatever the cause, while the finished product shows occasional flashes of the director’s erstwhile brilliance, as a whole it’s a dispiriting failure to recapture it.