Logan (2017): written by James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green; based on characters and situations created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Romita, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Herb Trimpe, Christopher Yost, Craig Kyle, Len Wein, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Marc Silvestri, and many others; directed by James Mangold; starring Hugh Jackman (Logan/Wolverine), Patrick Stewart (Professor Charles Xavier), Dafne Keen (Laura/X-23), Boyd Holbrook (Pierce), Richard E. Grant (Dr. Rice), and Stephen Merchant (Caliban):
The third and probably final Wolverine movie, Logan, is an enjoyable, 2-hour+ trip fueled by nostalgia and rage. My on-going existential crisis as related to the popularity of superhero movies helped me appreciate Logan, which aspires to be something other than a superhero movie. It aspires to be a late-period Western, and mostly succeeds.
Logan explicitly refers to the Alan Ladd Western Shane at least twice. Three times if you include the fact that Logan‘s title, like Shane‘s, is the chosen name of its battle-weary hero. It’s an interesting choice, given that Logan‘s violence level is more on the Spaghetti Western side of things. Thematically, Logan hews closer to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and its famous line (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) than Shane at certain points, never moreso than when Logan/Wolverine explains to his young charge that the X-Men comic books she’s read are only about 10% true and that he’s no hero.
Yes, just as in the original Marvel Universe of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and others, there are comic books within the Logan Universe that are devoted to the comic-book heroes we’re reading about in our universe. Nice work by the screenwriters on this point.
One welcoming thing about the Wolverine movies (and perhaps the fractured Cinematic X-Men Universe in general) is that continuity has never been maintained the way it is over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Logan doesn’t even seem to take place in the same universe as the first two Wolverine movies (and of those two movies, neither Wolverine: Origins nor The Wolverine relates well to each other or to the X-Men movies). It definitely doesn’t seem to coordinate well with last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse — the Calibans of those two movies really don’t seem the same, to cite just one example.
The hard-R of Logan gives us bloody hand-to-hand combat and a whole lot of swearing, both of which make this feel like the first ‘real’ Wolverine movie.
The plot basically involves Wolverine, a dementia-addled Professor Xavier, and a young mutant refugee attempting to drive from Mexico to Canada in the depressing future of 2029. Yes, it’s a road movie. And a pretty good one.
Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have been paradoxically rejuvenated by the need to play exhausted, dying versions of their famous characters. Comparisons to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns are apt; apter, though, is a back-up comic series from DC in the 1980’s with the series title “Whatever Happened To…?” The last stand of Professor X and Wolverine has some of the hopeful, mournful spirit of a terrific short piece entitled “Whatever Happened to the Crimson Avenger?”.
There are many fine moments in Logan. The fight scenes stay close to the ground and mostly eschew fast-editing tricks, thus making choreography important — and the fight choreography works. Dafne Keen, the young actress who plays child-mutant Laura, is a fine addition to the mutant ranks. Her performance reminds me of the young vampire in Let the Right One In, spanning the feral and the tender and the curious and the furious throughout.
Logan‘s villains aren’t all that enthralling, but I don’t think they were ever meant to be — they’re the occasionally smarmy, smirking agents of an all-conquering Corporate America. And their secret weapon is… genetically modified high-fructose corn syrup? Wait, what? Recommended.
Star Trek Beyond (2016): written by Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, Roberto Orci, Patrick McKay, and John D. Payne; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Simon Pegg (Scotty), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Idris Elba (Krall), and Sofia Boutella (Jaylah): The jolliest, most Trek-like of the reboot movies — which probably explains why it’s lagging behind the first two in box office, given its relative lack of sturm-und-drang. The NuTrek cast is in fine form and the script gets in a lot of zingers and a certain amount of drama, along with the biggest Starbase we’ve ever seen.
Director Justin Lin delivers a few too many Fast-and-Furious chasey moments, but otherwise does solid work. The movie misses its chance for a true Star Trek moment late in the game involving the villain, Krall, whom Idris Elba tries to invest with the menace the script mostly leaves out. Given Trek‘s normal box-office levels pre-reboot, Paramount really needs to find this series its own Harve Bennett before it prices itself out of existence: these need to be $100 million movies that look like $200 million movies, not the other way around. Recommended.
Concussion (2015): based on the Jeanne Marie Laskas article “Game Brain”; written and directed by Peter Landesman; starring Will Smith (Dr. Omalu), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Bates), Albert Brooks (Dr. Wecht), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Prema), and David Morse (Mike Webster): Excellent, factually solid docudrama about the unlikely doctor behind the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players. Will Smith returns to actually acting as African-born forensic pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu, who encounters a whole lot of resistance from the NFL as he attempts to find an explanation for the horrifying dementia of several deceased NFL players. It’s a grim picture of football in America, perhaps never moreso than when it shows actual footage of six- and seven-year-old players engaged in full-contact games. Because you’re never too young for chronic brain trauma. Recommended.
Avatar (2009): written and directed by James Cameron; starring Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Augustine), and Stephen Lang (Colonel Quaritch): Dumb as a post and lovely as a 1970’s Roger Dean album cover. James Cameron understands pacing and editing to achieve dramatic effect, and he’s always utterly invested in the ideology of his own movies, no matter how much they lift from other sources (Avatar is essentially a New Age version of John Carter of Mars). When a villainous Colonel tells someone to “Shut your pie-hole!’, you know you’re in the hands of a great writer of dialogue. Still visually stunning a whole seven years after its release, and at least possessed of a pro-environmentalist message, no matter how simplistic. Recommended.
Sinister 2 (2015): written and created by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Ciaran Foy; starring James Ransone (The Deputy), Shannyn Sossamon (Courtney Collins), Robert Sloan (Dylan Collins), and Dartanian Sloan (Zach Collins): Any and all name actors having been eradicated in the first movie (or in between the first and second movie in the case of Vincent D’Onofrio’s literally phoned-in performance in Sinister), Sinister 2 comes across as comfortably anonymous.
That’s a good thing for some horror movies, this one included. Bughuul the demon still remains regrettably visualized from the neck down, the scary, half-glimpsed face of the early scenes of Sinister still burdened with a blazer-and-pants combo that suggest the Sumerian boogeyman just got off his yacht. But the performances by the kids are pretty good, Shannyn Sossamon has a sweet desperation to her character, and James Ransone brings a goofy charm to the hero of this one. Yet another stupid ‘stinger’ ending ruins some of my good feelings towards this movie. Stop it, horror movies. Stop it right now. In a demonstration of ‘less is more’ in horror, the scariest scene in the movie involves a ham radio. Recommended.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): adapted by Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman from the comic-book story by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin; directed by Bryan Singer; starring Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), James McAvoy/Patrick Stewart (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellan (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/Mystique), Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), Peter Dinklage (Trask), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman), Halle Berry (Storm), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Omar Sy (Bishop), Evan Peters (Quicksilver), Daniel Cudmore (Colossus), Bingbing Fan (Blink), Adan Canto (Sunspot), and Booboo Stewart (Warpath): Despite some flaws, this is the best X-Men movie, though its emotional beats will resonate a lot more if one has watched X-Men, X-Men 2, and the horrible Brett-Ratner-helmed X-Men: Last Stand. Bryan Singer keeps the acting low-key, which helps when delivering lines of sci-fi portentousness. Highly recommended.
The Witch (2015): written and directed by Robert Eggers; starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Grainger (Mercy), and Lucas Dawson (Jonas): Just about as dark as it gets for a horror movie. Robert Eggers riffs on everything from “Young Goodman Brown” to Kubrick’s The Shining in this tale of dark Christianity, Satanic goings-on, and extreme isolation.
Set in New England in 1630, The Witch begins with its family of protagonists being exiled from a Puritan settlement for their religious beliefs (which may be even more Calvinistic than the Puritans). We see the first steps in that exile subjectively, from teen-age girl Thomasin’s point-of-view. Her POV will dominate what comes after, though there are scenes that she isn’t witness to. Probably.
Eggers drew on folktales, witch-trial court documents, and period testimonials for his inspiration. The film itself can withstand multiple, sometimes contradictory readings. Is it a paean to feminism? Is it a straight-up piece of Satanic horror? Is it a tale of madness in the woods? Is it a commentary on Calvinism? Is it a light-hearted romp? Well, no. It’s not a light-hearted romp. Unless you actually are a Satanist. OK, so it could be a light-hearted romp for a certain type of person.
Filmed in the dark and humanless woods of Mattawa, Ontario, The Witch is ultimately a disquieting and unnerving 100 minutes of film-making. That it got a major release in theatres is something of a miracle — audiences expecting another Blumhouse boilerplate horror movie clearly didn’t like The Witch. So it goes. I think it’s a major work of art from a young film-maker I’ll be watching. And Anya Taylor-Joy is superlative as the sympathetic, frustrated Thomasin.
But the actors are all really good, from Ralph Ineson as the bumbling, weak but well-meaning patriarch and Kate Dickie as the increasingly paranoid (towards Thomasin) matriarch through Harvey Scrimshaw (what a last name!) as adolescent Caleb all the way to the two kids playing the unnervingly carefree, creepy young Jonas and Mercy. A black rabbit delivers a fine performance, as does a black goat.
Blood and gore are minimal, but when they come, they shock. Even the minimal score is creepy. This is about as good a film as one could hope for, and one that will probably spark conversations for years to come. Highly recommended.
Deadpool (2016): written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; Deadpool created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicienza; directed by Tim Miller; starring Ryan Reynolds (Wade Wilson/ Deadpool), Stefan Kapicic (Voice of Colossus), Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead), Ed Skrein (Ajax), T.J. Miller (Weasel), and Morena Baccarin (Vanessa): Deadpool‘s success suggests that people wanted funnier, raunchier, R-rated superhero movies. And can you blame them? Deadpool may not be as funny as it seems to think it is, but it’s still pretty funny.
It’s also a perfect showcase for Ryan Reynolds’ brand of smirky hunkiness. The script is still a bit too boilerplate for its own good — the romance, the origin story, and the vengeance plot are all things we’ve seen before, though Deadpool‘s ongoing meta-commentary on everything that’s going on keeps things lighter than the usual superhero movie: he’s Bugs Bunny as Wolverine. It might be nice to see a bit less programmatic story for Deadpool 2, which looks like it’s going to be Deadpool and Cable and not another revenge story.
The supporting turns from CGI Colossus — finally used to good effect in what is, technically, an X-Men movie — and the hilarious, angsty Negasonic Teenage Warhead (thank Monster Magnet via Grant Morrison for that name) as unwilling sidekicks/frenemies to Deadpool are quite funny. And while this Fox-Marvel movie doesn’t share the same universe as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s also pretty funny to see a climax that really does seem to occur on, over, around, and ultimately under what looks an awful lot like a SHIELD helicarrier someone dumped in a junkyard. Recommended.