Let’s get this out of the way right now: The X-Men timeline doesn’t make a lick of sense. Reality and continuity bit the dust for this franchise a long time ago, and it continues to become more and more undone and puzzling with each film. Characters have died, come back and died all over again. They age, are digitally de-aged and recast. Stories have been erased and rewritten, but still, have just as many problems as before.
If you can’t ignore the fact that 42-year-old Michael Fassbender is just eight years away, in this franchise’s reality, from looking like Sir Ian McKellen, you'd best move along. Unless he’s discovered Paul Rudd’s secret of eternal life, Fassbender’s Magneto is a stretch for a dude who survived the Holocaust and looks like he’s in his 40s in the 1990s. It’s also a stretch that Magneto’s sole purpose is to go into hiding at the end of each movie because of his differences with others, only to come out of his shell when the script calls for it. And the wheels on the bus go round and round.
That said, who cares? I am not emotionally invested in the X-Men movies (save for Logan) like I am with the Marvel movies. 20th Century Fox didn’t have someone like Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige calling the shots and making sure most of the holes were patched up before sending this film out into the world. (Well, now they have Feige after the recent Fox and Disney merge. But they won’t have this terrific cast.)
The X-Men movies are best watched as individual films. Don’t try to connect them, even if they make an effort to do so. If you can do that — and if you can put logic aside — Dark Phoenix is an impressive popcorn spectacle that offers a surprisingly contemplative conclusion to Fox’s 20-year run with the characters.
Set in 1992, Dark Phoenix somewhat picks up after the events of 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, the series’ worst outing. The story centers on Jean Grey/Phoenix (an awkward Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones fame) as she reveals herself to be the most powerful mutant ever. She and the X-Men — including Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast and Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers/Cyclops, among others — are tasked with saving a space mission gone awry. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) wants to prove once and for all that mutants and humans can coexist.
Dark Phoenix isn’t a perfect cinematic creature. It’s messy, yes, but it’s not dull. The action causes it to soar above the other X-Men movies while the story’s lack of motivation keeps it perched — it rests around the middle. I enjoyed it and will happily watch it again. No burn notice necessary.
Extras and picture quality: The 4K release gives the film that sharp quality that genuinely makes it pop. There are a lot of different colors in this entry, especially when the whole alien matter comes into the picture. The action scenes also lean more into the wow factor with the picture boost. Scenes like Magneto tossing train carts and Jean putting her powers to use strongly support this claim. There are no special features on the 4K disc, but the Blu-ray has some goodies. There are a few deleted scenes. However, most of them are a few added seconds to already established moments. They are too short, except for one emotionally rewarding alternate ending with Professor X. If you listen to optional commentary with director Simon Kinberg, he explains how the scene was difficult to omit because it shows an incredible acting moment with McAvoy. The scene shows Professor X shedding some tears and slowly entering his car (in one shot) from his wheelchair. The concept is to show the reality that even the most powerful mutants face. As good as it is, the film’s final moments with Professor X and Magneto are more fitting for this story.
Other extras include an audio commentary (with Kinberg and producer Hutch Parker) and a five-part making-of documentary. The documentary covers areas like saying goodbye to certain characters, the visual look, and how the filmmakers put more focus into its characters as opposed to losing control with a complicated plot.
The Hills Have Eyes Part II (3 stars) Filmmaker Wes Craven apologized for making this 1984 sequel, believe it or not. When you watch a little of it, you know why. At the time, Craven was allegedly broke and was desperate to make anything. He was developing this film at the same time as A Nightmare on Elm Street — and I bet you could guess which film between the two had his creativity juices at 100 percent.
Arrow Video is releasing this movie in a stunning collector’s set. Few home distribution companies would still go the extra mile when the film itself is a dumpster fire. Sure, it doesn’t fall in line with Oscar-winning material, or with the original 1977 The Hills Have Eyes, but fun can still be had. With the horror genre, there’s more forgiveness that goes around. Part II is like watching Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 disasterpiece The Room. Even bad movies can be a joy to mock and laugh at.
What makes this movie so bad is that you can tell right away how lazily it was put together. A good chunk of it is flashbacks, which is what you do when you don’t have enough material (or enough money to film that material that was written). The 1987 film Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 also cannibalizes its material and vomits it back up to be repackaged as new. At least this movie takes some inspiration from Mad Max.
Extras: While Arrow Video cannot fix the movie (aside from a nice 2K restoration), they do manage to put some tasty frosting on this sheet cake — the most significant element being the newly commissioned documentary, "Blood, Sand and Fire: The Making of The Hills Have Eyes Part II." Some of the most engaging documentaries about movies (arguably) are ones that focus on doomed projects.
Similar to the 2014’s Lost Soul (about the making and failure of The Island of Doctor Moreau), the documentary features the actors and filmmakers dishing on crazy things that happened during the making of the film. Of course, you don’t have stories about voodoo and big-headed actors (yeah, The Island of Doctor Moreau is weird, folks), but the subjects don’t hold back. For those familiar with the film, it’s a real treat to listen to everyone talk about the famous dog flashback sequence.
Another reason to add this film to your collection is its candy shell. The reversible cover art and cardboard slipcover art by Paul Shipper are frame-worthy. It certainly makes the movie look more exciting than it really is. What seals the deal is a foldable poster, six postcards, and a limited edition 40-page booklet (featuring new writing on the film by Amanda Reyes and an archival set visit article from Fangoria).
Rated R, 90 minutes.
The Witches (3½ stars) The Warner Archive Collection picked an excellent time to bring back this forgotten gem. Director Robert Zemeckis is in the process of producing the remake, starring Anne Hathaway and Stanley Tucci, which releases next year. As cool as it will be to see a modern touch on the film, there’s a charm to watching Jim Henson’s 1990 original. If you’re eating up the Dark Crystal series and its practical effects, The Witches will cast a spell on you.
Angelica Huston turns in a killer-good performance as the Grand High Witch in this enchanting fable. The story concerns a 9-year-old boy (Jasen Fisher) who stumbles into a witch convention and comes out a mouse. Using mesmerizing puppets and prosthetic makeup, the film follows the boy-turned-rodent as he searches for a way to stop the witches’ plan to eliminate children and return himself to human form.
Although some areas run a little long, The Witches is an absolute delight. It’s also quite terrifying. The sight of Huston’s warty witch is the stuff of nightmares. It scared me as a child, and not much has changed. It’s a bummer the release doesn’t include any special features.
Rated PG, 92 minutes.
Hell Comes to Frogtown (3 stars) Closing off this week’s home entertainment is the weirdest chapter of all: 1988’s Hell Comes to Frogtown. If you have never heard of it — oh, boy. You'd best pull up a chair, because it might sound so bizarre that you might feel the urge to add the Vinegar Syndrome release to your cart out of curiosity.
After a nuclear war, the world’s survivors are divided between these mutated, toadlike creatures and fertile women searching for healthy men to repopulate the Earth. I swear this isn’t a porn movie plot. It stars the late, great Roddy Piper as a macho man with a healthy sperm count. He’s a rare breed, and the government has to protect his downstairs. They do so by using a chastity belt that brings about pain if he tries to get busy in any way.
It’s a male fantasy movie that feels like it’s told from the female perspective. Even though it was written and directed by men, the women on screen are a group of Sarah Connors from Terminator 2. They wield big guns, and they don’t take crap from no one, certainly not from Mr. Piper’s character.
Hell Comes to Frogtown is a total blast. I genuinely had a good time watching this movie, no shame about it. There are great Piper one-liners and wonderfully eccentric makeup effects. Seriously, the creatures are one step away from belonging to the Koopas group from the Super Mario Bros. movie. It’s amazing.
Rated R, 86 minutes.
Extras: The Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray and DVD combo release (available through vinegarsyndrome.com) contains a newly scanned and restored feature film (in 4K from its 35mm interpositive), a filmmakers’ audio commentary, a slew of interviews from the filmmakers and talent (including Piper, who gives it to you straight about the experience and how it took him years to come around to liking the film), an extended scene, original trailer and reversible cover art.
Also available this week on Blu-ray and DVD: Biloxi Blues (1988, a Shout Select release), Dead Water, My Favorite Year (1982, a Warner Archive Collection release), and The Prey (1984, an Arrow Video release).