“I always know who you are. It’s just sometimes I don’t recognize you.” Logan

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Logan, the latest entry in the now ten (!) film X-Men movie canon from 20th Century Fox, really, really, really wants to be seen as serious cinema. Any time Johnny Cash’s now-cliched bluegrass cover of Nine Inch Nails’ tortured soul anthem “Hurt” is used in a flick’s trailer, you know you are in art school-aspirational territory.

(Dammit, Christopher Nolan, but your somber, bruise-black tone poem The Dark Knight must have been a real decade-long buzz kill for other directors in the comic book film genre. Folks, pretension ain’t entertainment. Movies can be smart and fun. Unclench. See: Deadpool.)

For 50% of its overlong running time, Logan comes within a razored-claw’s-breadth of hitting the mark. Yes, the allusions to George Stevens’ far superior Shane (including Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier actually watching the flick on a hotel room TV) and to just about any blood-and-dust-caked entry in Sam Peckinpah’s oeuvre are a bit too on-the-nose. However, those allusions are refreshing (if not downright surprising) in a film universe where we are supposed to accept Halle Berry’s ongoing struggles with stultifyingly bad wigs as the height of character development. (Bar none, Hugh Jackman is the best special effect these films have had in their arsenal in their nearly 20-year run.)

With 2013’s The Wolverine, director James Mangold did yeoman’s work rescuing the X-franchise’s beloved Wolverine from the character’s first solo outing – 2009’s disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood). Lord, saving the character from that clunky title would have been enough. As evidence of Mangold’s leaning toward nihilistic simplicity, in fact, the titles have gotten more streamlined and look-I’m-a-grown-up grim with The Wolverine (just stick a “the” in front of anything … it sounds epic … seriously … try it: THE Mousepad, THE Saucepan, THE Q-Tip) and, now, Logan, which sounds less like a superhero movie and more like an artisanal bistro.

The Wolverine gave us a mutant-on-the-lam chase through the Japanese underworld with a zippy French Connection vibe that breathed new life into the character while honoring his comic book roots as an occasional samurai-for-hire. It was grounded by but also popped with a panoply of espionage thriller tropes, and Jackman seemed to be having a ball. Like all the films in the X-Men film universe, it suffered from a junky final act that was the cinematic equivalent of an eight-year-old throwing all of his/her action figures into a washing machine and setting the cycle to “spin,” creating more narrative loose ends than it resolved.

Logan is a logical next step, especially in this new era where “Hard R” (blood! guts! nudity! random eff-bombs!) superhero flicks now make truckloads of cash. (Thanks, again, Deadpool). While, heretofore, Wolverine’s legendary “berserker rage” has been safely shielded behind the no-gore filter of a toy-aisle-Taco-Bell-kids-meal-friendly PG-13 rating, Logan assumes all the tykes who saw the first X-Men film (2000) in wide-eyed wonderment at their parents’ knees are now safely beyond the age of R-rated consent. And, boy, does the carnage reign free in this movie.

The film begins in yellow-hued, grungy Texas in the year 2029, and Logan (hundreds of years old at this point, as we’ve learned from earlier films) is at the end of the line. His body is shot, his soul is worse, he is driving a limousine for moolah, and he and Professor Charles Xavier are living a hardscrabble existence in what appears to be an old grain silo. Their onscreen relationship here could best be described as one-part The Odd Couple, two-parts King Lear, with a pinch of Sam Shepard’s True West. They cohabitate with a fussy majordomo and mutant nursemaid Caliban (a haunting Stephen Merchant) as Xavier spirals into the latter stages of dementia, a diagnosis which is kind of a big deal when you also happen to possess the psychic power to wipe out half of the continental United States if your migraine gets out of hand.

This odd little band plans to ride out their days until Logan saves up enough money to buy a yacht (yes, a yacht), so that they – the only mutants remaining after some nebulously described cataclysm in the recent past – can escape the mutant-hating governmental rabble that runs ‘Murica (sound eerily familiar?). Oh, and Logan is probably going to commit suicide after they leave, but that just adds to the existential “fun.”

This set-up sounds odd. Hell, it is odd. I think that’s why I really dug the early scenes of the film, establishing this off-kilter “new normal” in the typically sleek, escapist X-Men universe. It reads like a stage play you might catch on PBS’ Great Performances on a Sunday night, when you’re feeling too lazy to change the channel – a piece that is not profound enough to have had a long run on Broadway but is peculiar enough to hold your interest on the small screen.

Into this mix, a young mutant appears, bearing strangely similar attributes to Logan, analogous enough that questions of parentage are raised. Newcomer Dafne Keen plays Laura (known in the comics as X-23), a preteen whose feral tendencies, extremely violent outbursts, and mute glowering are initially transfixing but wear a bit thin as the film proceeds. Naturally, the feds are chasing Laura, which brings the military-industrial complex as represented by a ham-bone Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant to Logan’s front door … er … grain silo and sends the entire mutant band on the run across Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota.

Jackman is soulful throughout, and he channels the same world-weary tension of straining to keep a moral high ground while being consumed by the righteous rage of marginalization that he rode to an Oscar nomination in Les Miserables. Alas, he doesn’t sing this time, but he looks ten times as haggard … so that’s something. Jackman and Stewart have some touching moments, and Jackman has great chemistry with Keen in the film’s first half when they are still at odds with one another, like caged animals sizing up the competition.

There is a harrowing yet lovely scene where Professor Xavier reclaims a bit of his youthful nobility, rescuing horses that have gotten loose on a frighteningly busy freeway, which in turn leads to a brief respite where our mutants break bread with the gracious and grateful family to whom the equines belong. ER‘s Eriq LaSalle is quietly impressive as the patriarch – good to see him again. However, the film then takes a decidedly nasty turn, really embracing that R-rating (the horses are all fine, but – spoiler alert – things don’t work out quite so well for anyone else), and the silly and gratuitous horror movie carnage that follows left me disaffected – and saddened for where I had hoped the movie would have gone. Subsequently, I never quite reconnected with the brooding and pastoral quality that the first half of the film engendered, and the film’s final poignant moments – intended to deliver emotional payoff – don’t feel earned, ringing hollow when life seems so disposable to the filmmakers.

The talented cast and the film itself suffer from a running time (nearly two and a half hours) that doesn’t withstand the conventionality of the film’s road movie second half, and the flick’s final act is uncomfortably reminiscent of the denouement of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I didn’t much enjoy seeing a bunch of young mutants run pell mell through the woods fearing for their lives as they were brutalized by government thugs back in 2009, nor again in 2017. I wonder what a little cinematic discipline – a tighter running time and curbing the grand guignol indulgences – might have offered Logan. I suspect that a bit more restraint would have gotten Mangold’s film closer to those classic allegorical Westerns to which he clearly aspires.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Early in the film, Stewart’s Xavier, in deshabille and surrounded by the discarded detritus of a decaying life, looks ruefully at Jackman’s Logan and says, “I always know who you are. It’s just sometimes I don’t recognize you.” Using these iconic characters to explore the ephemeral nature of existence, Magold made a good film. It’s just too bad he didn’t have the self-control to make a great one.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.