Sunday, April 30, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Alternate Title:  Viet-Kong
One sentence synopsis:   Near the end of the Vietnam war, A joint army-research expedition heads to a mysterious island to discover its terrible secrets.

Things Havoc liked:  I've never been a big fan of the King Kong movies, mostly because the majority of them suck. Leaving aside the original 1933 classic, which is hard to evaluate properly in a modern setting, all of the other King Kong movies (and there have between 7 and 13, depending on which ones count) have been godawful rubber-suit-monster affairs, over-effected "extravaganzas", or big-budget wastes of time, particularly 2005's Peter Jackson version, in which the Lord of the Lord of the Rings managed to give in to all of his worst habits while wasting a stellar cast. As such, I was not exactly chomping at the bit to go see this one, cast or no cast, but in the Doldrums season, one must often take what one can get, and so to the theater I went, to watch Samuel L. Jackson endeavor to get these motherfucking apes, off this motherfucking island.

... I'll stop.

Yes, Kong: Skull Island stars Samuel L. Jackson, he of the shouting and the myriad biblical quotes, as Colonel Packard, a hardcore military man of the sort that Jackson has played many times before, and God-willing, will play many times again. Bitter over the US' impending withdrawal in Vietnam, he leads an expedition in the best Doc-Savage-meets-Apocalypse-Now tradition to Skull Island, a hidden island that has peaked the interest of government agencies, corporations, and researchers for a variety of purposes, altruistic and nefarious. Jackson is amazing, because of course he is, a hard-bitten military officer who takes the Captain Ahab role after things begin to go FUBAR and King Kong beats the ever-loving crap out of his hyper-macho air cavalry force. I shouldn't have to tell any of you now that Samuel L. Jackson knows how to play a role like this, and his turn reminds me, in kind of a weird way, of The Rock's performance in the 2005 movie adaptation of Doom, a terrible movie whose one redeeming quality was the snarling, over-the-top macho military commander trying to seize control of the situation back from the demons in whose hands it lay. Or maybe he's doing a sendup to Robert Duvall's Colonel Killgore. Who knows?

The rest of the cast does not let the side down. John Goodman, America's slightly sleazy-but-fun uncle, plays Bill Randa, head of "Monarch", a government organization designed to investigate... well anything monsterous and dangerous it appears, who has stapled his own research team to the military expedition, and gets to look forlorn and world-weary as everything goes to hell around him. Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton) and Chinese actress Jing Tian, get the 'young, idealistic scientist' roles, and do a fine job with them, horrified civilians entirely unready for the pulp-movie insanity that is exploding all around them. But the biggest surprise within the cast is none other than John C. Reilly, who plays a WWII fighter pilot shot down (along with his quarry) on Skull Island some thirty years before. Though Reilly is known for buffoonish roles, he's an excellent actor, and here he gets to actually play the wise voice of reason for once, filling the characters (and the audience) in on what is actually going on in this mysterious island. Reilly wrings considerable depth and even heartfelt sentiment from his character, a man who has been looking to go home for thirty-something years, not precisely what I was expecting to encounter in a movie about giant apes and dinosaurs.

Oh, did I mention there were giant apes and dinosaurs? And giant tree-spiders that can impale a man with one stomp? Because there are those things, and there are also Huey attack helicopters, machine guns, grenade launchers and flame-throwers with which these things are repeatedly fought, and if that's not the sort of thing that interests you, then you should mentally chalk this movie up right now as "not for you" and walk away from it. For all the rest of us who appreciate the chance to see giant monsters beating the holy hell out of one another, this movie has plenty to offer. Unlike 2014's utterly useless Godzilla, this movie is full of Kong, from a thunderous opening sequence that calls back to the best of Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Copolla's work, only with a hundred-foot ape dropped into the middle of everything, to the obligatory monster-on-monster fights, shot in vibrant technicolor, in full daylight, with every bone-shattering impact there to see on the screen. I cannot believe that in 2017 I still have to express surprise whenever a filmmaker does something as revolutionary as show us what the movie is about, but one takes what one can get after a point. And when Kong isn't on screen, we have other monsters to tide us over, enormous dinosauroid-things called Skullcrawlers, arachnids so large that they can pass for bamboo stalks, and a host of other creatures with voracious appetites and an overabundance of teeth. Our heroes are devoured, stabbed, smashed, and crushed in their dozens (of course), but the film never gets to the creature-feature levels that the Jackson version did, remaining in the realm of campy action fun, the way these movies are supposed to.

Things Havoc disliked: I could nitpick, of course. I could talk about how the weapons that the air-cavalry brings with them seem about as effective as potato guns, despite the fact that they are shooting at living, breathing creatures, and that the weapons in question were designed to punch holes in face-hardened steel plate. I could talk about the fact that people seem awfully willing to take the aforementioned useless weapons up against the monsters time and time again, despite the fact that the previous occasions have generally involved people firing the same useless guns at the same ravenous monsters before being turned into the same bloody smears. But this sort of thing is a convention of the monster movie, and it would be a bit churlish to get up in arms over it.

What is not churlish to object to are our actual two leads, Tom Hiddleston, playing an SAS/Lone Competent soldier named James Conrad (BEHOLD THE WONDEROUS SUBTLETY OF THE SYMBOLISM IN THIS FILM!!!), and Brie Larson, playing a peacenik photojournalist who is here to serve as our token "maybe we should not barge onto the island and butcher everything in sight" moral compass. I unabashedly love Tom Hiddleston in the Thor films of course, but I have to admit that, outside the MCU, he has not made a particularly good case for himself, appearing either in middling films like Only Lovers Left Alive and Crimson Peak, and utter dreck like High Rise. Hiddleston here plays a Great White Hunter archetype that really exists only to contrast with the macho military men who obediently waltz off to be slaughtered, and has little to no character beyond the fact that he does not believe in beating his head uselessly against sixty-foot eating machines. As to Larson... well I just can't quite figure out if Brie Larson is any good as an actress or not, as she keeps popping up in movies I don't care about, or playing roles that demand nothing of her. This is par for the course, as she's more or less here just to be a purely platonic love interest for Hiddleston, without even the token interest of having the giant gorilla fall in love with her, as is typical with the other movies in this series. Neither of these two are bad per se, it's just that there's nothing at all interesting about either of them, which makes all the time we spend with them as opposed to Samuel L. Jackson or the office-building-sized monstrosities that inhabit the island, something of a waste.

Final thoughts:   I expected nothing of Kong: Skull Island, as I have expected nothing of basically any giant monster movie for the last twenty years, but lo and behold, this one surprised me. It's not a masterpiece of the genre or anything (and I am not qualified to pronounce it one even if it was), but it's a fun, enjoyable movie, sufficiently campy and pulpy for the central conceit to work, and full of lush, vibrant action, several legitimately hillarious sight gags (the heroic last stand of a character played by veteran character actor Shea Whigham is amazing), and excellent Vietnam-style cinematography by newcomer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (as well as his co-director, his epic beard of power). Supposedly, this film, like every other film in existence nowadays, is supposed to be the start of a wider franchise of giant monster movies, one which includes Godzilla and several more films to come. I'm rather ambivalent on that subject at the moment, but leaving the future aside for the moment, Skull Island is a worthy film and a good use of time if, like me, you think Oliver Stone could stand to throw a few more giant monsters into his movies.

If nothing else, it would make his next movie (a hagiographic puff piece about how Vladimir Putin is the best person ever) considerably more interesting.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  Hollywood adapts a Japanese classic.  Goody.

Beauty and the Beast

Alternate Title:  Hermione Granger and the Castle of Hallucinogenic Allergens
One sentence synopsis:   A bookish girl from a parochial village in fairy tale France becomes the prisoner of a terrible beast locked in a castle until someone learns to love him.

Things Havoc liked:  Though it has its detractors, I stand by the notion that 1991's Beauty and the Beast is one of the finest works that Disney's Animation studio ever produced, a small step behind the Lion King as the best Disney film. A Golden Globe and Oscar-winning film, the first (and only) animated movie ever nominated for a Best Picture award at the Academy Awards, and a film selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant". And now, following the... success(?) of last year's Live Action Jungle Book remake, a film that has also been re-imagined in live action form, thanks to the unstinting efforts of the director of Twilight - Breaking Dawn (yipee...).

As you all know, I was rather lukewarm on the subject of the Jungle Book remake (my compatriot Corvidae went so far as to put on her list of worst films of the year), and did not actually intend to go see this one, unconvinced as I was that a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast could be anything but an awkward mess, given the strength of the original. Cooler heads prevailed (mostly due to the fact that I owed several people after the Suicide Squad disaster), so the question thus became, having been dragged into the theater by main force, what did I think of the re-imagined live version of an all-time animated classic?

The answer? I loved it.

Beauty and the Beast, in its modern, live-action form, has lost absolutely nothing of the charm it evidenced some 26 years ago, and has, in fact, layered considerable additions on top of it. Despite all of my misgivings, despite the evident awkwardness that a live-action musical generally involves, despite the middling results the last time Disney tried this, this time, in this year, this movie is just wonderful, though whether this is because of careful production, the underlying strength of the source material, or both is somewhat difficult to say. But if we're going to discuss the virtues of this film, the best place to begin is, as is often the case, the cast. The film stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, the former of Harry Potter fame, the latter of Downton Abbey and little else, as the titular Beauty and Beast, and both are excellent, with Watson affecting the same sort of bookish charm she brought to the Potter series , while Stevens cuts the bestial rage with the pomposity of an over-educated aristocrat, which is not the worst decision ever. Both actors are called upon to sing quite a lot (naturally) and both do very well at it, particularly Stevens, whose big solo number Evermore (a new song written specifically for the film) is probably the strongest of the lot overall, no small feet given the songs that the rest of the movie is replete with. The big surprise though is neither Watson nor Stevens but Luke Evans of all people, the quasi-useless doofus from the Hobbit films and last year's High-Rise, who is almost perfect as the swaggering asshole non-hero Gaston. Though Evans lacks Gaston's oversized physicality (as would anyone not named The Rock), he lacks pretty much nothing else, delivering a performance that is melodramatic and over-the-top in all the right ways, the sort of performance that will make me forget an actor's flaws and embrace their strengths, strengths which appear to involve being campy as hell, something I've noticed before with actors I don't much care for (Jessica Chastain comes to mind).

But the real strength of the cast comes from the supporting cast, either on-screen or off, which includes Ewan McGregor taking on the role of Lumiere, a role previously played by the late, great, Jerry Orbach, using one of the most outrageous French accents that film records. McGregor, following in Orbach's footsteps, matches that accent with an awful one of his own, which is the manifestly correct move. The rest of the castle cast involves luminaries such as Ian McKellan as Cogsworth (bringing all his Gandalfian grumpiness to the role), Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts (the CG face of whom will give you nightmares), Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette (upgraded to a talking character), and several entirely new servants/furnitures including the irreplaceable Stanley Tucci as the irascible Maestro Cadenza, a harpsichord, and husband to the operatic Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald). Though these performers mostly serve as voice actors, their work is unformly excellent, and complements well the surreal rococo stylings of the various characters, from the over-elaborate brass finishings on Lumiere to the intricate arms and gears comprising Cogsworth's face, to an animate wardrobe that could only have cost the lives of fifty keyframe animators. But lest we all drown in computer-generated tchotchkes (that's a real word, people), we also receive the services of Kevin Kline, one of my favorite actors working, playing Belle's father Maurice in a more subdued role than the mad scientist of the previous version, and Josh Gad, an actor who continues to surprise me, playing Le Fou, in the 1991 version, a simple comic relief character from the original film who here is... well still a comic relief character, certainly, but with a very different slant, being portrayed as a screamingly gay sidekick whose unrequited love for Gaston is invariably interpreted as platonic admiration (to truly hilarious effect several times). This attribute got the movie banned in several regressive places like Malaysia, Kuwait, Russia (momentarily), and portions of northeastern Alabama. It's statistics like these that I must rely upon when making my weekly decisions as to which movies will make the cut around here.

The score of Beauty and the Beast has never been in question, as it's one of the finest musical scores to come from an animated film in history, a fact proven when Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman were nominated for three separate songs at the Academy Awards and won one of them. Most of the songs from the original film had a fairly rough style to them, sung as they were by actors who did not have a background in song, and who were occasionally saddled with ludicrous accents to boot. The new film retains those attributes, rough edges and all, supplementing them with new songs either taken from the Broadway musical or written specifically for the film itself, all of which fit in perfectly to the general symphonic aesthetic of the show as a whole. The world is visualized in absurd splendor, with the Beast's Castle being re-imagined into an elaborate riot of baroque artistry that could easily have been taken from the palatial estates of Louis XIV, while the pastoral bustle of Belle's village and the spooky atmosphere of the haunted woods surrounding the castle retain the sense of semi-animated artificiality that plays well with timeless tales like this. As to the plot, it obviously runs the same route as the original film, but with additions that tighten or expand on the story just a bit here and there. We get a renewed focus on the servants themselves, on their desperation to return to human form, and on what it was that caused the enchantress to curse them all in the first place alongside their noble lords. Belle's own backstory (and that of her father) is embellished upon to give her a bit more depth than 'the nerdy daughter of a lunatic'. But the biggest shifts come in the conversations and scenes between Belle and the Beast directly. Beauty and the Beast has long been subject to criticisms that it portrayed an abusive, perhaps Stockholm-syndrome-style relationship, and while the dynamic between the two is still strained, a great effort is made by the film to show why the two might fall in love, and what attributes they share, playing up the fact that, curse or no curse, the Beast was once a Prince, and thus well-educated and erudite, something which would naturally appeal to a bookish girl desperate to escape the limited intellectual horizons of her provincial town. A scene in which Belle mentions that she would like to see Paris results in the Beast reminiscing about the times he spent there, presenting (rather paradoxically) a wider world trapped within his castle than she was experiencing outside of it. I'm not going to pretend that the subtext isn't still awkward, it is, and unavoidably so in all likelihood. But the effort to update the story and polish it further with a narrative that fits a more modern conception of the fairy tale strikes just the right chord, and really serves to push the film into a truly superb work in its own right.

Things Havoc disliked: Fair or unfair, a movie like a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast is going to be saddled with comparisons, generally unflattering, with the original, and while it stands quite well against the best that the original has to offer in many cases, there are obvious areas where more could perhaps have been done. A couple of the songs, particularly Gaston's number, Be Our Guest, and the Mob song are mixed quite poorly (this afflicted the Mob song in the original film as well), rendering it actually quite difficult to figure out what people are singing about, even if one knows the lyrics by heart, as I do. This tends to afflict the earthy ensemble pieces more than the grandiose ballads for which the movie is more famous, but it does spoil some of the charm of the numbers in question. Moreover the action in the movie, which was energetic, frantic, and frightening in the animated film, is here somewhat muted. Gaston looks almost bored as he calmly shoots at the Beast during his ultimate scene, the wolf attacks seem rather perfunctory, like the dogs-attacking-the-Hulk scene from Ang Lee's Hulk, and many of the human characters seem occasionally perplexed as to what sort of emotion they should be emoting at a particular moment. And while the makeup for the Beast is excellent (sharing even a few notes from the Ron Pearlman TV series of the late 80s), and the blend between CG and real life is all but seamless, there is nevertheless a certain loss of freedom when it comes to a movie that was once animated and is no longer. The Beast is less feral, the fight scenes less violent, the slapstick comedy less hilarious, and the camera work less unconstrained, thanks to the basic, unavoidable fact that real people are acting in a real location, even if it's a location covered with green-screens, with a bevy of computers on-hand to assist in producing the necessary magic.

Final thoughts:   One is tempted, at this stage, to ask the inevitable question of whether the new Beauty and the Beast is better or worse than its illustrious predecessor from the Silver Age of Disney Animation. I have thought much on that question in the weeks since I saw the movie, and have no answer for it, but I do know that the new film is worthy of the old, and that alone places it in rare company. Maybe it's simply the material itself that's so strong, the Menchin songs and timeless nature of the tale itself, which does indeed date back to the mid-1700s if not before. Maybe it's the quality of the cast or the new additions to plot and soundtrack. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for the right sort of fairy tale. But for whatever reason, I truly loved Beauty and the Beast, just as I once loved the original, and for a remake to induce anything like that to its audience is unheard of, even in these remake-obsessed days that we live in. But even if the film does not have the same impact upon you, either because you never much liked the original in the first place, or because you find that the deviations made from the original's template are simply not acceptable, we are still left with a charming, wonderful, and warm rendition of a timeless story.

Ultimately, Beauty and the Beast is a fantastic movie, one of the finest if not the finest that I have seen so far this year. Whether you take that statement in the context of its predecessor or not, all that really matters, in the end, is whether you will enjoy the act of watching the film. And to that, my only suggestion is to go forth and determine for yourself.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  Time for some Monkey Business.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Get Out

Alternate Title:  The Stepford Black People
One sentence synopsis:   The black boyfriend of a white girl visits her parents' house in upstate New York, only to find that things are stranger than he expected.

Things Havoc liked:  By now, regular readers must be aware that I'm a big fan of the sketch comedy duo Key & Peele, the funniest duo since the end of That Mitchell and Webb Look (I promise that I made none of the preceding sentence up). I've had occasion to mention this a couple of times in the last eighteen months or so, thanks to the fact that both Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key have spent that period making a series of films and film appearances. Between Keanu, written by the former, and Don't Think Twice, starring the latter, I've been seeing quite a bit of what the two have to offer. This time however, Mr. Peele has broken off on his own, writing and directing a comedy-horror film filled, at least ostensibly, with the same biting racial satire that the show involved. Worse ideas than this have been made into good movies.

Regular readers will also know by now that horror is not my genre, by and large. Part of that is just personal preference, but part of it is also that most horror movies are just boring, trope-laden exercises in jump scares and contrivances, lacking all artistry or subtlety. I appreciate that the same could be said for 90% of most genres, and further that it's a bit churlish of me to dismiss a genre of film that I admittedly don't partake of terribly often, but when you see as many movies as I do, hard choices must be made. That said, I've always had a bit of admiration for movies that combine horror with other genres, particularly comedy, as in the case of the original Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, or 2012's standout The Cabin in the Woods. Get Out is another addition to that genre, this time bringing not slapstick or deconstruction to the horror genre, but modern satire replete with clever touches that start with a reversal of the typical urban horror movie opening scene, as a black man tries to convince himself that everything is going to be fine as he walks through an affluent suburban neighborhood, only for things to go just as horribly as he fears they will. It's a scene combining ironic humor with bitter reflections on race and society, and strikes just the right tone for the rest of the movie to follow. Scenes where our protagonist, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a burgeoning photographer, is visiting the wealthy parents of his white girlfriend, involve endless moments of perfectly ripe awkwardness, as legions of rich, old white people, who likely have never spoken to a black person in their lives who didn't work for them, struggle to find something to say to this person who might as well be from Mars for all they know, and grasp at the same tired, unprompted declarations concerning their appreciation of black athletes, their admiration of hip hop culture (something they plainly know nothing about), and their constant and loudly affirmed support for Barack Obama, even when politics is not being discussed. There's a weary familiarity to this whole concept, to being an outsider who is not allowed to forget that he is an outsider by the simple fact of people refusing to see him as anything else, that rings absolutely true, and while I would never claim I have the first idea of what it is to be Black in America (or anywhere else), I have been in such situations before, standing in a theoretically convivial setting as people sputter and stammer and desperately try to regurgitate something socially acceptable to say when they are confronted, for the first time in years no doubt, with a member of a group they are not a part of. In my case it involves a lot of unprompted lectures about Israel. In Chris' case, it leads to actual mad science.

Indeed, lest I make Get Out sound like an after-school special about how to treat people like people, the movie is, at its core, a horror film, and things begin to get very weird very quickly in this quaint hamlet in the New York woods. Fortunately, unlike roughly every other horror movie made in the last thirty years, this one anchors itself around suspense and unease more than gimmicks and blood. Lest I sound too critical of horror directors, the reason the majority of them eschew subtlety, is that absent gore and jump scares, they would be forced to rely upon such unpredictable things as "acting", which this film has the temerity to place front and center. Both Kaluuya and Alison Williams (playing his girlfriend, Rose) are perfectly fine as the leads, but the stars of the show are the supporting characters, particularly Bradley Whitford (who also stole the show in Cabin in the Woods), playing Rose's neurosurgeon father who is up to far more than he appears to be. Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson play the family's black servants, who are convincingly and comprehensively creepy as hell. Standup comedian Lil Rel Howery, meanwhile, plays Chris' friend Rod, a TSA agent who investigates the nefarious goings on and provides some welcome comic relief. For a film built entirely on mood and disquiet, the actors all do a spectacular job, providing the creepy, right-angled atmosphere that any proper horror movie, even horror-comedies, require.

Things Havoc disliked:  I won't pretend that the resulting film is perfect, of course. The ultimate explanation for why everything is happening as it is happening is, of course, demonstrably goofy, which is fine, but also doesn't really fit the satirical and socio-political themes that the movie has been stirring up, which is not. Even within the context of a horror-comedy like this, there are a lot of questions left unanswered as to why characters are acting the way they do, and why certain terrible things are happening to particular characters. To say more would be a fairly serious spoiler, but I'll just point out that had the movie not raised these questions in the first place, I would probably have given it a pass for not answering them.

There's also, of course, the end of the film, which is a violent, ridiculous act of lunacy (this is not an objection), but which does require an awful lot of characters to spontaneously start acting an awful lot different than they have been established as acting, in a way that exceeded, at least for me, the bounds of suspension of disbelief and began to enter the bounds of script contrivance. Again, normally this wouldn't be such a big deal, save that the movie plays around with questions such as the pre-established assumptions about people based on race in modern society, and then seems to miss the fact that it is asking us all to accept that a black man, confronted with a weird and dangerous situation, will immediately transform into the Punisher, capable, without any hesitation, of killing half a dozen people in cold blood that he has just met. To be clear, I'm not calling the film racist, or anything so stupid as that, lots of horror movies assume the exact same thing of their protagonists when the ending approaches and we need to winnow the cast in an efficient manner. I'm just saying that there were opportunities for yet sharper satire left on the table untouched, and that consequently a lot of what is there seems a bit... shall we say 'obvious'? At least to my Bay Area-trained social senses?

Final thoughts:   Still, with or without such decisions, Get Out is a fine movie, perceptive without being monomaniacal, timely without being datable, funny without losing its focus on the fundamental horror of the situation, and satirical without being absurdly strident. All of these virtues, have, of course, not stopped most of the mainstream critics who have reviewed this movie from falling all over themselves in efforts to out-do one another's stupidity, with some claiming that it "finally indicts the dark terrors at the heart of limousine liberalism" (apparently the reviewer in question believes that rich white people who vote democrat are doing so because they secretly wish to use mad science to enslave black people?), and others indicating that it "plays like anti-miscegenation propaganda from the 50s" (which is kind of like claiming that Alien was designed to advocate repealing the 20th amendment). I could reflect here that, as usual, the instant you try and talk cogently about race in America, everyone involved becomes an idiot, but none of that is the film's fault. Get Out, whatever purposes people choose to put it to, is a strong, funny, tense, and well-crafted film. I heartily look forward to what Jordan Peele has to offer us in the future. And I'd be lying if I denied that I also look forward to seeing how dumb those offerings make the rest of my fellow critics sound.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Stories which are as ancient as chronology itself.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Alternate Title:  Requiem for a Wolverine
One sentence synopsis:   In a dystopian future bereft of all mutants, Logan and Charles Xavier must protect a young mutant from a PMC intent on taking her into custody.

Things Havoc liked:  For seventeen years and ten films, the X-men movies have existed in one form or another. Seventeen years and ten films, some good (X-Men 2, First Class, Days of Future Past, Deadpool), some execrable (Origins, The Wolverine, X-Men 3, Apocalypse). If nothing else, here at the end of all things, it's worth stopping and recognizing just how long and how important this series has been in the ongoing godzilla-like rampage of Superhero movies at the box office. And while the question of whether or not Logan represents an end to the entire affair is more open than I anticipated when I first saw the movie, for whatever it's worth, Logan feels like an ending to a series of weight and importance, and deserves to be judged as such. The promises of the ad campaign that preceded it were that we had never before seen a superhero movie like this, and that, for better or worse, was no lie.

The year is 2029, a dystopian time of brown skies, corporate dominance, and wind-blown grit. Logan (Hugh Jackman), AKA the Wolverine, is an old man at last, his body ravaged by the abuse he has suffered over the years (centuries if you believe X-Men Origins, but I can understanding why one would not), and by the fact that his unbreakable adamantium skeleton is finally starting to poison him to death. Kept going only by his preternatural healing factor and the need to care for a nonagenarian Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose brilliant mind is finally disintegrating under the weight of raw age and raw despair. Together with a new-to-the-series precognitive mutant named Caliban (a barely-recognizable Stephen Merchant), these three may well be the last mutants on Earth, due to a combination of an unexplained cessation in mutant births some twenty-five years ago, and a horrible accident, only hinted at in the story, in which Xavier's faltering mind obliterated a large number of mutants and humans some years previously. I normally try not to go so deep into plot matters in these reviews, but what's important here is how distinct this setup is from anything else we've ever seen in X-men movies, or really in comic book movies whatsoever. The style is not high adventure, as is the common theme for these films, nor mystery or thriller or heist or space opera, as in many of Marvel's recent outings, but modern western, ala Hell or High Water or No Country for Old Men. The scenes are elongated, the characters exhausted and worn, the tone funereal and bleak, the shot selection (by Kingdom of Heaven and X-Men: First Class' cinematographer John Mathieson) positively Coenesque. If only by sheer novelty, in consequence, Logan is a revelation for the entire Superhero genre, an application of dramatic cinematic language to a genre still dismissed by many critics as having no soul. I've never seen someone try to adapt a Cormac McCarthy book to the screen with superheroes in it, but if I ever do, I expect it will look exactly like Logan.

The director of Logan, James Mangold, also directed Wolverine's last solo instalment, 2013's The Wolverine, which was distinguished only in that it was better than its predecessor. For Logan, though, Mangold has chosen a very tight story, wrapped closely around three characters, trusting that the actors involved will sell the material themselves, as they have been doing for the better part of two decades now. It's a wise decision. Jackman has always been the original genius-casting for a superhero character, even in the worst of all movies. Here, he's given an opportunity to dig down into the soul of the character in a way he was only ever allowed to hint at before, and the result is everything it should be. He plays Wolverine like a broken, beaten man going through the motions because he doesn't know what else to do, who has grown accustomed to losing, and whose primal rage is no longer sufficient to carry him through. Stewart meanwhile, in the character he defined, is the picture of sadness, his high-minded ideals in ashes, his life's work a failure. The sudden shift to an R-Rating (a first for the X-men series if you don't count Deadpool, and you shouldn't), only re-enforces things, as listening to Professor Xavier, the grandfatherly mentor of the mutants of old, cursing and weeping in a deserted steel foundry that has become his jail cell and hospice room is a more startling image than I expected it to be, accustomed as we are to seeing the character in a totally different context. And with none of the rest of the panoply of X-men characters on-hand or even mentioned, much of the film is given over to the interplay between Logan and Xavier, as though in the end of this epochal series, we have returned at last to its original roots. But the final element the film cores itself around is a new addition, a young mutant girl named X-23 (Laura, eventually), lab-grown by the inevitable evil super-corporation, and now on the run from their army of paramilitary hitmen, played by Spanish-English child actress Dafne Keen. There's a lot of you out there who, upon hearing that Wolverine was to be paired with a child sidekick, no doubt reached for vomit bags, but let me assure you, this girl, and this character, are goddamned incredible. Entirely mute for most of the film save for guttural growls of tempestuous rage, and possessed of a violent potency that makes Hit-Girl look like Kit Kittredge (the introduction to her mutant powers involves a freshly-severed head), this is not your average child sidekick, but a violent blender in the shape of a pint-sized girl, and Keen, whether speaking in English, Spanish, or not at all, is transcendently-good in the film, not merely the physicality demanded by the action, but also in holding her own against two titans of the superhero genre in the quieter, more desolate scenes that the movie is replete with.

And that's... more or less Logan in a nutshell, folks, an experiment in character and tone and the capabilities of superhero violence, as the R-rating allows the movie to get sublimely brutal with its action, befitting the darker tone of the movie and thrilling any long-time fan of ultra-violence (hi). Snapshots of Americana, such as an extended sequence with a black farming family somewhere in Kansas (headed by ER's Eriq LaSalle) are interspersed with moments of quiet desolation, allowing the characters to reflect on the irrecoverable ruin that their lives have become. The classic comic relief that comes naturally when a character as broody as Wolverine is forcibly paired with small children breaks up the tension now and again in the right spots, but the film is overall a dark and funereal mediation on the end of dreams, on the grim side of human nature, and on the human condition in its most agonizing forms.

Things Havoc disliked:  That does not make it a good movie.

I wanted to like Logan. I wanted to love it. I wanted to use it as ammunition against every snobbish artistic oligarch who have been spitting on this entire genre for twenty years, and implicitly or explicitly on those who enjoy them. I wanted to herald it as a sea-change in the makeup of Superhero filmmaking, as proof positive that these films are the Greek Myths of our modern world, re-shaped and re-packaged to deliver the universal truths of the human condition by exaggerating what it is to be human. I wanted Logan to blow me out of my seat, and to leave the theater showering it with praise. And maybe that was my mistake in the first place, because for all of the very good things in Logan... I didn't like it at all.

Why not? Well, let's see if I can illustrate.

Logan wishes, very very much, to be its own film, to be viewed as its own film, unrestrained by the decisions and canon of the nine movies that preceded it. To an extent, I understand. Ten films is a lot of films, particularly if you are not Marvel, and have not been comprehensively building your cinematic universe in a holistic manner. We've already retconned one film (X-men 3) out of existence entirely, after all, and I can fully understand the desire to break with tradition in this regard. The problem though, is that the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too. It relies entirely on those previous movies for the establishment of the characters of Logan and Xavier, to give weight to what's actually going on here. Otherwise we're just watching two ornery old men snap at one another for two hours with no context. And yet, having invited us to remember all of the previous adventures of Xavier and Logan and their band of merry mutants, the film expects us to selectively forget everything else in those movies, from Magneto to Mystique to the X-men to the fundamental themes of the X-men movies themselves, all without comment. That is a huge order for any franchise, the equivalent of releasing a Star Wars movie that has no spaceships, no Jedi, no Empire or Rebellion, no Force, no aliens, no adventure, and no fun, and then pretending that any confusion that results is the fault of viewers who are afraid of change.

Where, for instance, are the X-Men? This is not an unreasonable question to ask given that the plot of the movie is entirely contingent on the fact that they no longer exist, and that nine previous films were entirely or in part about the X-men in one form or another. I'm not asking that the movie be identical to First Class or Days of Future Past, or upset that Cyclops and Jean Grey didn't get cameos. I'm annoyed that the question of where all the mutants are is not answered in any manner save by one of the most perfunctory, stupid, and ill-thought-out plot excuses imaginable. This isn't a minor question. The entire series was built around mutants' position in society, as allegories for homosexuality or other forms of discrimination. I don't expect Logan to chain itself to the themes of previous films, but if it's going to position itself as the last word to a twenty-year series of films, it has a goddamned obligation to remember that they existed, at the very least. But no, those movies are entirely separate from this one, except for when we say so. Or indicate so. Or decide retroactively that it is so. And it doesn't stop with that question alone, indeed Logan seems almost perversely uninterested in answering any questions, whether brought up by previous films or by its own plot. If Wolverine's adamantium is poisoning him to death, then doesn't that indicate that Laura, who is established to also have Adamantium grafted to her skeleton, is also at risk of being so-poisoned? Never addressed. If the X-men have been destroyed (which I think is where the movie is going, but it hardly makes things clear), then what happened to all the other mutants of the world, particularly the world-shattering ones that the X-men fought? Never addressed. How is it that a PMC is operating throughout Mexico, Canada, and the US with massive military deployments, utterly unchecked by even a modicum of government oversight, up-to-and-including drone strikes and massive civilian casualties? Never addressed. These aren't minor nitpicks, like how Laura's growing skeleton is going to respond to adamantium grafts, or why evil corporations always think that living-weapon super-soldiers are going to pay for themselves despite their propensity to kill everyone nearby (I call this the Wayland-Yutani Paradox), these are core elements of the story, logical questions that anyone, let alone the fans of the series that the movie has gone out of its way to attract, would wonder at the instant the subjects were brought up. And the film's response is to ignore them all entirely as unimportant, because they might take valuable time away from the misery on screen.

But all of this I might have forgiven if not for the ending of the film, an ending that is so deliberately unfulfilling that it can only have been intentionally designed that way. After an hour-and-a-half of confusing but interesting buildup, of morbidly funereal tone, of the nadirs of human experience being showcased on screen, we get to the end of the film, and the filmmakers reveal that there was no point to any of it save to wallow in the misery of human suffering. Make no mistake, there are great movies that exist solely to wallow in the misery of human suffering, as films as diverse as Requiem for a Dream, Grave of the Fireflies, Dancer in the Dark, or Breaking the Waves can attest to. But those movies were trying to make a statement about their characters, their world, and what it is to be human. Logan is not, in fact Logan rejects the notion of such things so violently as to appear contemptuous of them. Not only does it seek to end the X-men movies with a whimper, but it implies in doing so that the themes around which the previous films lived or died were so unimportant that they aren't worth a mention, and that the movie's own plot, independent of what came before, is similarly unimportant. Nothing is resolved by this film, not from previous installments nor from this one itself. We never even get to know if the purpose that Logan and Xavier drove themselves out of retirement for, the driving force of the entire film, was a success or not. Some might call that decision bold. I call it lazy. And the film ended, I realized that the whole business, the quantum canonicity, the alternating respect for and rejection of the previous works, the wild and unexplained shift in tone, the casual discarding of the hallmarks of the series in favor of something else entirely... all of it spoke to me not of a movie in a series, but of Fanfiction. An experiment in fiction by those who want to take what they want of the canon and discard the rest without comment. And while I remain a stalwart defender of, and yes, even practitioner of the art of Fanfiction (come the fuck at me), Fanfiction is not what I go to the movies to see.

Final thoughts:   Logan is a movie of great paradoxes. It has many admirable qualities to it and many decisions that baffle me even now, a month after seeing it, and it is this paradox that has kept this review so-long delayed (among other things). I cannot, in good conscience, call it a great film, as many others have, though I also do not deny that it is in many ways a daring and admirable experiment in how one may take Superhero movies. As such, I remain of two minds about Logan, as I likely always will be. On the one hand, it is a film that has finally managed to be taken seriously by all and sundry, critics, audiences, and filmmakers alike. It has proven that not only can Superhero movies be serious, but that they can be R-rated and adult-themed and dour and reflective, and still make money at the box office. On the other hand though, it has also, probably inadvertently, sent a message to the critics that Superhero movies can indeed be good films, assuming that they jettison all that childish "superhero" stuff in favor of a grim deconstruction of the genre that borders on the monomaniacal at times. There is a consequent part of me that is concerned at the fact that a movie that many are calling the Greatest Superhero Movie of All Time is a film that regards the genre of Superhero movies as being stupid and lightweight to the point where it does not deserve consideration or thought.

Ultimately, Logan is a movie that many will love, some will despise, and I will not know what to do with for as long as I live. I did not, ultimately, enjoy it particularly, nor do I think that its gross ignorance of the basic conceits of plot, and its palpable contempt for and embarrassment by its predecessors somehow makes it a great film. But like it or not, Logan feels like a sea-change in how Superheros can be represented on the silver screen. I can only hope that the lessons we learn from it are to the genre's credit.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  White People:  A Cautionary Tale

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