“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.

“There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” Hell or High Water and Southside With You

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterDancing between the raindrops. One of the most powerful and essential things that film can do, arguably unlike any other medium, is to transform the smallest moments of daily life into something poetic, allegorical, epic, and identifiable. Film, at its best, is a concise narrative, simultaneously immediate and retrospective, exploring an embedded assumption that one exchange, one decision, one day can change a lifetime.

Two movie gems, exemplifying this remarkable storytelling attribute, are currently eking out a quiet subsistence in a far corner of your local multiplex. Stroll past the escapist CGI gargoyles, laser blasts, and gross out gags of those late summer wannabe blockbusters taking up the IMAX screens, and make your way to that tiny, itty bitty screening room. You know the one, beyond the garish birthday hall, clanging arcade, and Dippin’ Dots (“Ice Cream of the Future!”) outpost, at the far end of the hall … the one that seems like its sole existence is as a concession to the public television/NPR crowd or because an extra broom closet wasn’t needed? And catch Hell or High Water and Southside with You on the big-ish screen before they are consigned to Netflix next month.

Hell or High Water is as perfect a Valentine to people who love movies as I’ve ever seen. It wears its cinematic influences proudly and confidently, like that person in  your office who has figured out how to mix stripes, plaids, and polka dots into a breathtaking ensemble. Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) mines A Touch of Evil (the tracking shot that opens Hell or High Water is a smooth, small-town honey), No Country for Old Men (dusty postmodern desperation), Giant (watch Hell or High Water‘s final front-porch confrontation and tell me I’m wrong), East of Eden (imagine Cal and Aron as kinder, gentler, floppy-haired Natural Born Killers), and Dog Day Afternoon (shaggy, sweaty bank robbers who have Robin Hood-aspirations to right the personal wrongs that corporate America has inflicted and who are destined to fail … spectacularly). Throw in one of the best depictions of Dust Bowl brotherly love/hate since Sam Shepherd’s classic play True West and pair it with the corrosive antipathy toward American Big Banking and the mortgage industry that The Big Short failed to capture compellingly, and you have a film for the ages.

Star Trek‘s Chris Pine (all dreamy, haunted dissipation) and 3:10 to Yuma‘s Ben Foster (Sean Penn 2.0 … damn, but he is SO good, and Foster even was engaged to Robin Wright Penn – twice – after she divorced Sean) play Toby and Tanner Howard, locked in a toxic cycle of arrested development, one a loyal son but failed husband and the other a loyal brother but ne’er-do-well prodigal. Toby has cared for their dying mother and stands to inherit the dilapidated family homestead (with its recently discovered oil reserves) if he can climb out from under the crushing reverse mortgage that mama foolishly, but necessarily, took out and which is now careening toward foreclosure. Tanner, whose lengthy prison record includes time for bank robbery but surprisingly not for murdering their abusive father, is the anarchic muscle, a Looney Tune with nothing to lose who helps support the otherwise straight-arrow Toby’s scheme. Their plan? Swipe just enough cash from the teller drawers of that very predatory lending bank holding the deed to the family home, pay said bank back the money, secure the land and the oil rights, and leave it all in trust to Toby’s two sons. It’s like the perfect Playhouse 90 – on steroids.

Oh, and the whole enterprise is set among the Great Recession-scorched badlands of Western Texas, where the endless dirty, rusty miles between neon-lit casinos are dotted with billboards touting “Instant, Easy Debt Relief” like Faustian blood-pacts with the financially damned. The long (and folksy) arm of the law is ably represented by True Grit’s Jeff Bridges (absolute mumble-mouthed perfection as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger who views his impending retirement as more of a death sentence than an earthly reward) and Twilight‘s Gil Birmingham (as Alberto Parker – comically poignant gold, playing the stoic straight man, enduring a steady stream of Marcus’ jabs, zingers which shock for being as loving as they are racist).

The film is picaresque, taking place over the course of just a few days. And it is a beauty, well-acted and crafted with such thoughtful precision that it stuns in its quiet verisimilitude. It is an indictment and celebration of the day-to-day crushing dreariness of American life – divorce, mortgages, child care, jobs, ambition, law and order, vanquished dreams – depicting a society that by dint of its unintentionally intentional design oppresses the brightest of hearts, turning mere survival into insurmountable distress. And don’t get me wrong, the movie is still an entertainment of the highest order, bleak but funny and engaging as hell.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Southside with You – otherwise known as the “Obamas’ first date movie” – is a fabulous companion piece to Hell or High Water … believe it or not. Whereas Hell or High Water tweaks the template of “caper flick” into allegory for the complex economic forces that damn the American Dream while simultaneously dangling it before our collective faces, Southside with You takes the “romantic comedy” genre and infuses it with a subtle condemnation of the race/class warfare that squelches opportunity for too many Americans.

Zero Dark Thirty‘s Parker Sawyers (a fellow Wabash College graduate, though our time in those hallowed halls, alas, did not overlap) and Sparkle‘s Tika Sumpter (also acting as a producer on the film) are luminous as the eventual First Couple: Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Director Richard Tanne grounds the proceedings in a lush but gritty depiction of the scruffy joys of Chicago-life, and his two leads reward him (and the audience) beautifully. They are so good, subtly evoking mannerisms and vocal stylings, without ever resorting to caricature.

The film opens as these two prepare for the date – Michelle in denial (sort of) that it actually is a date – interacting sweetly with family members, electric in their nervous anticipation of the day before them. There is a gangly charm to these early scenes, humanizing two historical figures whose global accomplishments may have placed them in that unreachable classification: icon. It’s a smart narrative move for all involved.

As the film progresses, we learn that Barack is a summer associate at Michelle’s firm, and she has been assigned as his mentor. Set in the summer of 1989 (and, wow, does Tanne get that right from the fashion and the set direction to the cars and the music, including vintage Janet Jackson and Al B. Sure! playing on the radio), Michelle is cautious about the challenges facing her as a woman of color in a white man’s world, and she will be damned if this upstart intern is going to derail her career with his romantic overtures. He, on the other hand, is as earnest as he is charming, and it is evident that the engagement of each others’ impressive intellectual capacity – their beautiful minds – is how this romance blossomed and flourished.

Southside with You mostly sidesteps the pitfalls of movie biography (the pressing need to tell a whole lot in two short hours) by focusing on just this one day. Given that the narrative hook is a date, the characters have the latitude to ask a lot of questions as they get to know one another, and, by extension, we, as audience members, catch up on essential biographical detail and helpful context. Ninety-five percent of the time this works beautifully, aided and abetted by the naturalness of the performers, but a few moments are jarringly expository (particularly the discussion in the park about Barack’s upbringing) and make Southside with You feel like more of a stage play than a film. Nonetheless, those flaws are few and far between, and as the film moves toward the inevitability of its conclusion, we as viewers are gifted with consummate appreciation for the challenges this partnership overcame – culture, economics, race, gender – to step onto the global stage and effect needed social change.

Early in their date, Michelle and Barack debate the merits and downsides of working in a corporate law firm when there is so much need outside the business world for legal minds to provide community leadership: “There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” It is this existential riddle that drives both Hell or High Water and Southside with You, and, whether you are two down-on-your-luck siblings weighing a life of crime just to pay your mortgage, two lawmen putting in a brutal day’s work and hoping you emerge unscathed, the future First Couple of the United States mapping out a future together, or just some lowly audience member chomping popcorn in the movie theatre, that resonates.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.