You don’t need a degree in X-Men to enjoy this origins story centred around Sophie Turner’s Jean going rogue, while Emma Thompson excels as a battle-hardened TV host in Late Night
X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12A) ***
Late Night (15) ***
Gloria Bell (15) ****
Given the time-jumping, chronology scrambling trajectory of the X-Men movies over the last 19 years, you’d be forgiven for not really caring about whether the series links up as a whole the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe does. That turns out to be something of a blessing for X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Continuing on from the woeful X-Men: Apocalypse, the film rejoins the younger versions of the characters introduced in X-Men: First Class for a do-over of the titular comic book arc that the third X-Men film, The Last Stand, botched so thoroughly. If that already sounds confusing, the good news here is that writer/director Simon Kinberg (who actually wrote that third instalment) has crafted something that doesn’t require a whole lot of deep knowledge to enjoy. Comic book aficionados can argue all they like about the ins-and-outs of the Dark Phoenix saga’s importance to the overall X-Men mythology, but its prime function here is to provide this 12th instalment – and the first not to feature Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in any form – with a compelling origins story that imagines what might happen if an all-powerful superbeing turned bad instead of good.
That superbeing is the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey, who you might remember being played by Famke Janssen in the first batch of these movies. Now she’s played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner, who reprises the role with a lot more conviction than was evident when she was introduced as the character in this film’s aforementioned, 1980s-set predecessor. Put that down to making Jean the focal point of the story, which begins with a 1975-set prologue filling us in on some of her backstory, then jumps forward to the early 1990s to show how her involvement in a space-bound rescue mission imbues her with powers she can’t control. Not only does this make her a sort of bizarro Captain Marvel, it causes a further schism among the mutants, driving a wedge between Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier as Jean’s fate reinforces the former’s misgivings about Charles’s approach to mutant/human relations.
That lets the film work in a sly critique of the gender imbalance in these movies, one that will doubtless annoy the more regressive fanboys out there, but does make for a livelier film. “You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women,” says Lawrence as Mystique points out the frequency with which the female mutants are the ones doing the rescuing. The film attempts to take that idea further by casting Jessica Chastain as the chief villain, though it lets the side down by barely developing her character beyond a stock cosmic villain (she’s some sort of alien shapeshifter). Still, this a movie that, unusually, is carried along by the strength of its cast’s performances, not the showiness of its special effects. Chastain, McAvoy, Lawrence and Michael Fassbender (returning as Magneto) ground their characters in ways that make their dilemmas and motivations plausible, while Turner does a good job of exploring the complexities of someone forced to reckon with suddenly being the most powerful person on the planet.
As the only woman on the writing staff of the American version of The Office, writer and actor Mindy Kaling has plenty of experience to draw on for her debut feature as a writer/star. But Late Night – about a female talkshow host (Emma Thompson) who hires a female writer (Kaling) to help save her show – feels curiously flat. Pitched as more of a mainstream comedy than an edgy industry satire, it feels devoid of the sort of insider knowledge one might expect and also suffers from a deficiency of actual laughs. That said, while the somewhat accidental way Kaling’s character (a chemical plant worker called Molly) gets her job does feel ridiculous, it makes a smart point about the degree to which the white male dominance of writers’ rooms is often as much about knowing the right people as actually being qualified for the job. Thompson, too, is good as the super-smart talk show host whose battle-hardened personality reflects the reality of making it to the top in a male-dominated industry. It’s a cliché-ridden role, but Thompson finds the grace notes in it.
As a disco-loving middle-aged divorcée, Julianne Moore is an absolute joy to watch in Gloria Bell, Sebastián Lelio’s English-language remake of his 2013 film Gloria. Revolving around the title character’s efforts to figure out if the guy she’s started seeing (John Turturro) is worth the effort at this stage in her life, it’s a funny, illuminating portrait of a woman testing the relationship waters again with the wisdom of someone who has spent decades raising a family, but who has come to terms with the fact that she’s no longer needed in quite the same way by her grown-up children or her newly married ex. That puts Gloria at a different stage from Turturro’s Arnold, whose divorce is so new he hasn’t quite figured out where his priorities should lie. The tension this creates makes the film come alive almost as much as the sight of Moore on the dance floor getting lost in the music of her character’s youth.