Movie review: “Logan”

When I was about nineteen, I saw X2 at midnight with a crowd of rapturous fans in varying degrees of costume, from “Marvel t-shirt” to “blue body paint”. The better costumes got nods and chuckles as we shuffled into the theater, but the only attendee to get a real rouse was the guy, otherwise unremarkably dressed, who’d styled his hair like Wolverine. He got a full round of applause.

That’s Hugh Jackman’s doing. No other actor in the “X-Man” franchise is so identified with their character—Patrick Stewart, while he makes a tremendous Xavier, will always be Jean-Luc Picard to the majority of the planet, and Ian McKellen, Gandalf. But Hugh Jackman is Wolverine. He’s been doing it longer than about 25% of the world’s population has been alive[1], and he looks it—now sinewy and greying at the temples, he’s more weathered limestone than carved marble. Which makes playing an immortal character difficult; hence, “Logan”. In Jackman’s final curtain call as the character, we meet a Wolverine whom time has finally chased down. Weathered and exhausted, he’s driving an El Paso limousine and commuting nightly across the border to an unspeakably depressing hideout, population four: himself, the dying professor Charles Xavier, the albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant), and their shared misery. Caliban tends to Xavier and doles out a grating ration of criticism; Xavier has nightmarish seizures that send his psychic power washing through others like radiation; Logan is stuck between a Prof and a nursemaid. No help is coming over the horizon, either. As the mutants slowly die off, private companies hunt the last stragglers for biological experimentation. And one of those stragglers needs help—a young girl, mute and furious, is rescued from a lab and thrown into Logan’s care like a stray kitten. His resistance to her need is the hard emotional kernel around which the plot is wound. If you’re picking up whiffs of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, that’s not coincidental. “Logan” is a Western, from the unforgiving light to the barren landscape to the increasingly Eastwoodian set of Hugh Jackman’s squint, but most especially in its harrowing formula: put a group of characters in a vise and squeeze. It wouldn’t be sporting to reveal who survives the squashing, but I will say that fewer will escape than you’d like—the movie’s pitch-perfect dialogue pulls you in like real family squabbling, with all the attendant intimacy and frustration. Dafne Keen (as the young Laura) especially holds up her corner of the tent, which, given that she is twelve and playing against 166 combined years in Stewart, Jackman, and Merchant, goes well beyond impressive and into the realm of suspiciously supernatural. Someone should get that kid tested for the mutant gene.

[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.0014.TO.ZS

Movie review: “The LEGO Batman Movie”

Three years ago, “The LEGO Movie” surprised everyone by being genuinely funny and heartfelt, with a tear-jerking final twist balanced like a lemon peel on the edge of the movie’s sugared rim. For many, the best part of the movie was a cameo appearance by Batman as a sullen, brooding tool who “only works in black—and very, very dark shades of grey”. Now, he’s been given his own movie in which to work out his issues, beatbox, and punch criminals, sometimes at the same time. This Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is as spoiled and puddle-shallow as any trust-fund baby, but his life is echoingly empty, a condition beautifully illustrated by the sequence in which he comes home, heats up a Lobster Thermidor in the microwave, and eats it while floating on an inflatable donut in the center of an enormous, empty swimming pool. Being rich has never looked like so little fun. Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) tries to push Batman towards human contact, but the vigilante doesn’t work or play well with others: he regards civilians only as audiences, and the rest of the Justice League are avoiding him. Even his old nemesis, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), wants more from the relationship—try as he might, Batman can’t quite choke out the three little words every archenemy wants to hear (“I hate you.”)

The setup is solid, but the movie falters in the second act; newly minted city commissioner Barbara Jordan (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and beguiling orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) stumble into Batman’s life, but they don’t strike up much chemistry or fun with him, and the movie’s “found family” dynamic feels stilted. The Batman/Barbara Jordan relationship in particular never gels; we’re supposed to see growing mutual respect, but Batman alternates between treating Jordan as an inconvenient meddler and a sex object, while Jordan is stuck endlessly intoning concern. When, at the end of the movie, Batman refers to Jordan as his “totally platonic” coworker and friend, then tries to steal a kiss (only to be dropped on his ass), the awkward muddle feels emblematic of the entire relationship. As is so often the case, it falls to the villain to redeem things—parachuting back into the scene with an entire raft of Warner Brothers baddies (including Voldemort, King Kong, and Sauron), the Joker brings all the oxygen back into the movie in time for the climax, which registers as a burst of explosive, Simpsons-colored yellow whirling with pink and black bricks. As in the first movie, the actual building and disintegrating happens at a pace too fast to examine, which left me feeling a bit cheated; anyone with a LEGO piece or two buried in their couch cushion would want to see how such dazzlement fits together. But it’s hard to be peeved during a perfectly deployed Michael Jackson song, just as it’s hard not to walk out of the movie with a bounce in your step and a growl in your voice. “Always be yourself,” the meme goes, “Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.”

There are worse things to be.

Movie review: “John Wick: Chapter 2”

 

In case you’ve just joined the most straightforward franchise currently running, a brief recap: in the first movie, John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a recently bereaved widower and master assassin, is flushed out of retirement when some young miscreants steal his car and kill his dog. He spends the next two hours implacably hunting his revenge, like a Komodo dragon patiently shadowing its bitten prey over the course of many days, waiting for the prey’s inevitable death from infection. (Any comparisons between the emotive powers of a Komodo dragon and those of Mr. Reeves are purely coincidental.) Along the way, we learn that criminals occupy a mannerly realm of social niceties that would confound Jane Austen—they all stay in the same chain of white-glove hotels, where violent confrontation is strictly forbidden, so they must settle for eyeballing each other in the bar. Off hotel property, garrotings and guttings and headshots abound. No middle ground exists.

 

The second movie presents a neat inversion of the first movie’s stakes: Wick fetches up against a hipsterish scion of an ancient crime family, who promptly demolishes Wick’s house, leaving him with his (retrieved) car, (new) dog, and a fresh gang of thugs to destroy. And he destroys with assembly-line efficiency—when confronted with three attackers at once, he grabs the first by the arm and flips him, dislocating the arm, then takes aim at the other two onrushers while pinning the disabled attacker to the floor beneath him. Once the other two have been dispatched, he shoots the first attacker in the skull at his leisure. The first few times we saw this trick in “John Wick”, it thrilled. Seeing a protagonist expend as little energy as possible to kill made the needlessly protracted fights of other franchises look shabby—compared to John Wick, every other hero looked like they’d forgotten how to use their gun. But the novelty of the maneuver wears off between the 14th and 30th time Wick uses it, which I’d place sometime in the first act of “Chapter 2”. Without new choreography, the film tries to eke novelty out of locations and side characters, but wastes both—a fight in a subway car stays off the seats and walls, and both Common and Ruby Rose are squandered as killers pitted against Wick. In the demilitarized hotel bar, Wick drinks with Common’s Cassian; their conversation teeters on the edge of partnership, then inexplicably backs away, and the two go on to fight as if no such detente had ever occurred. Even more unforgivably, Wick turns down a drink offered by Rose’s Ares—besides being a bafflingly pointless character interaction, it threatens our belief in Wick’s intelligence. When Ruby Rose offers to buy your drink, you say yes.

 

Still, a few elements sparkle: Ian McShane, as the imposing hotel manager Winston, who rules with a jaded eye and an iron fist; a light-hearted, jokey shootout (who knew that was possible?) in a train station. The movie sets up its sequel expertly, leaving us on a clever cliffhanger; we can only hope that by Chapter 3, that drink offer still stands.

Movie review: “La La Land”

“La La Land” is like a young Labrador retriever: gorgeous to look at, eager to please, and exhausting. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has set himself a daunting task: create a movie that will rekindle Americans’ affection for both A) big, showy Busby Berkley musicals and B) live improvisational jazz. Reviving one of these flatlining patients would be a miracle; in trying for both, Chazelle stretches his movie’s energy too thin.

However, just as a flawed wedding cake is still cake, there are delights aplenty to be had, chief among them Emma Stone: any movie featuring her questioning eyebrows and lippy attitude has already made several correct decisions. Lots of attention will be justly paid to the costuming in this movie, specifically the use of a yellow dress (and Emma Stone can wear yellow) against a periwinkle sky. But even wearing a coffee-soaked uniform shirt and polyester anorak, Stone’s riveting, capable of communicating snark and humor and despair almost telepathically. Which is helpful, because her character, Mia, is an aspiring actress, and must summon up tempests from thin air in audition after audition, usually in front of bored, texting producers. (The ludicrous lines Mia must recite for these failures are a gem-like recurring bit.) Stuck in a similar position of despair, Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, an achingly earnest young man who storms off his job when asked to play audience-friendly holiday medleys: his heart belongs to old-school, live jazz. Just as Mia is convinced that if she but writes, directs, performs and controls every aspect of her own one-woman play, audiences will respond in droves, Sebastian is convinced that if he could only own, renovate, design, name, and book his own jazz club, people will suddenly rediscover their long-dormant love of extended drum solos and piano improvisation. Both actors are charming and youthful enough to make this kind of winsome naiveté charming (as opposed to, say, incredibly grating), but you still want to see them grow up a bit—even, potentially, encounter a rogue spore or two of reality. John Legend, in an understated and excellent cameo as successful musician Keith, gently tries to talk some sense into Sebastian: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” His point struck me as tremendous good sense, but the movie’s hell-bent on painting him as a compromising panderer, and Mia and Sebastian as True Artists—Mia produces her play, which takes place entirely in a bedroom and centers on girlhood dreams of Paris, in front of a tiny, disengaged audience, but later discovers that it touched one very important person in a very special way. If your eyes are beginning to roll, welcome to the cynic’s bench in hell, where I have saved you space. By the time Mia launches into her breathy final number, which includes the phrase “Here’s to the dreamers”, the movie has left all earthly cares, and most of its earthly audience, behind. We know that we’re supposed to be uplifted, even enchanted, but the characters’ struggles feel trite and their triumphs unlikely, and that’s the real sticking point—we can accept a world where someone might spontaneously burst into song, but running a successful bar themed on improvisational jazz?

Give us a break.

Carrie Fisher

It’s a cliché to say of any actress that “you feel like you could be friends with her”. Usually, that feeling of accessibility is formulated as carefully as Coke: add two parts recipe- and lifestyle-focused magazine articles to one part romantic comedy lead role, season with one public heartbreak or klutzy episode on a red carpet, and boom. Instant celebrity friend. Jennifer Aniston is the ultimate celebrity friend; more recently, Jennifer Lawrence has taken her crown. Others have tried and failed: Anne Hathaway by being annoyingly perfect, and Reese Witherspoon by revealing herself to be a drunk-driving, tantrum-throwing terror. There are a lot of ways to fail at being America’s celebrity friend.

But Carrie Fisher succeeded where others failed, precisely because she went about it completely wrong: by going publicly crazy. By talking about her crazy, by owning it, by picking an unpopular and misunderstood therapy and then talking about that. By owning her family drama and talking about that. By owning her drug addiction, and then talking about that, too. In general, America does not like women who talk too much about themselves (other topics, such as holiday recipe traditions, are fine). But Carrie Fisher never stopped talking about herself—she wrote several books on the topic, and a one-woman play, and as she got older she talked about that, too. She was un-shut-uppable on the topic of her personal truth: what it was like to get electroshock therapy, what it was like to get collagen, what it was like to be manic depressive, what it was like to fall in love with Harrison Ford when she was nineteen and he was married. (When she told him she was planning to talk about that, he said, “Lawyer.” She talked about it anyway.)

Carrie Fisher owned her entire life, and thus got out ahead of everyone else who could have wished to own her. Which (given that she was the privately cherished first love of an entire generation of straight men and quite a few women) was a lot of people. Even Jabba the Hutt wanted to own her, and he was a gigantic slug. But Carrie Fisher was her own person, a real human being, flawed and aging and fragile in all the ways celebrity best friends aren’t supposed to be. Which made her more than our cocktail buddy, more than our shopping pal, more than our confidante. It made her royalty.

Long live the Princess.

Movie review: “Rogue One”

Note: this review contains some spoilers. 

I have a well-aired gripe about most war movies: there are too many happy endings. This is for obvious narrative reasons: an accurate depiction of war would involve dozens of abortive attempts at resolution; both pro- and antagonists cut down at random moments in undignified manner; exhausting stints of boredom punctuated by chaos; above all, no clearly discernable message. To market such a movie would be impossible; even movies famed for their “gritty” and “realistic” portrayals of war, such as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Black Hawk Down”, still obey basic laws of narrative—someone survives to “tell” the story to the viewer. Last weekend, I was pleased to watch this rule be broken. I was astonished to watch it be broken by a Star Wars movie.

In “Rogue One: A Star Wars story”, the survivor is not a who, but a what—a tiny strip of golden film containing blueprints for the massive, planet-destroying Death Star. Everyone involved in its creation, theft, and handoff dies. The movie is the story of their sacrifice—a sacrifice made in the shadow of a mounting threat from an aggressive fascist government willing to pawn civil liberty for security. In case the critique is not yet pointed enough, “Rogue One” sharpens the stick and pokes harder: the nascent Death Star makes its weapons debut by destroying a large desert city with the vaguely Arabic-sounding name of “Jeddah”. Unfortunately, the analogy breaks down when it comes to the good guys: a scrappy group of outgunned rebels is all well and good, but whom exactly on the current world stage are they supposed to represent? An obvious answer presents itself, but one would hope “Rogue One” isn’t endorsing any fanatically violent suicide cults, no matter how scrappy. The film leaves the uncomfortable question hanging, and it’s still bothering me a full week after seeing it—which is, perhaps, exactly the point.

Movie review: “Gimme Danger”

“Gimme Danger” suffers from an unusual problem: its subject matter is far too cool. If Iggy Pop and the Stooges were the type of band to have twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures of their every evolutionary stage, they wouldn’t have been Iggy Pop and the Stooges, or worth making a documentary about. This is the bind Jim Jarmusch finds himself in—how do you make a movie about a band that found most of its success outside the notice of anyone with a camera?

“Gimme Danger” is a vigorous, but unsuccessful, attempt to get out of the bind: using family photographs and the still surprisingly sharp memory of Iggy Pop (James Osterberg), Jarmusch constructs a detailed scale model of 1960s Detroit, where Osterberg grew up in a tiny trailer with his parents, who may be eligible for sainthood on the basis of one detail alone: while living in a tiny trailer with their teenaged son, they allowed him to take up the drums. Jarmusch goes to great lengths to recreate the formative sounds Osterberg recalls from childhood, and gives ample time to his experience at the University of Michigan—unlike most rockumentaries, “Gimme Danger” is clearly interested in the music, more than the drugs or the lifestyle or the glamour of rock. Unfortunately, this leads to a laggy second half, because (as it turns out) when you subtract drugs and glamour from the rock scene of the 1970s, there is not a hell of a lot to discuss. The band tries, and fails, to make an impression commercially; personal matters are tactfully alluded to; members come and go with little acrimony. The nearest we come to heat is when Osterberg takes a gentle, almost mannerly swipe at CSNY—the remark passes with nary a ripple. Jim Jarmusch digs around for nearly two hours, and reveals exactly one surprise about the man who wrote “I Wanna Be Your Dog”: he is, at heart, a polite Midwestern boy.