Capsule Reviews: Logan; Darkest Hour; The Post; Call Me by Your Name

Logan

Logan

Directed by James Mangold. Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant.

In retrospect, a 6-foot-3 Australian stage actor might not have been the most intuitive choice to play a 5-foot-3 Canadian mutant antihero. But the X-Men movie franchise turns 18 this year, which means we’ve been watching Hugh Jackman play Wolverine for 18 years, and as strong as some of the franchise’s casting has been, this seems to be the actor/character pairing that has endured best. Logan, the third in a series of unimaginatively-titled solo outings (it follows X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine), retires the Jackman version of Wolverine and it’s hard to see any other actor picking up the baton.

Logan takes place in the near future, its title characrter alcoholic and slowly being poisoned to death by the metal in his reinforced skeleton (I’m not clear on how that works), works as a limo driver in Texas. He stashed his former mentor Charles Xavier, now senile and suffering from seizures that can kill other people (kinda like Scanners, I guess), across the border in an abandoned factory, under the watchful eye of another mutant named Caliban. No new mutant has been born in decades, and the other X-Men are dead (victims of one of Xavier’s seizures, apparently), so these three might be the last mutants left in the entire world. That’s when Laura, an eleven-year-old Mexican girl who shares Wolverine’s mutant powers, enters the picture.

Of course, it falls to Logan and the intermittently lucid Xavier to protect Laura from the evil biocorp that created her, because an X-Men film just isn’t an X-Men film without amoral scientists who haven’t figured out that creating biological killing machines is not a good idea. Have none of these people seen the Alien movies?

This is one of those rare superhero movies where the talky bits are actually better than the action bits. Watching Wolvie impale faceless mercenaries in the face is fun for the first fight or two, but it seems to be the only maneuver in his arsenal. And for that matter, how is it that nobody’s figured out not to get within reaching distance of Logan anyway? But I could watch two and a half hours of Jackman sparring verbally with Patrick Stewart, who portrayal of Xavier is a career-best performance. Stephen Merchant, who plays Caliban, is similarly terrific, and even the kid (Dafne Keen) isn’t bad. I do, however, wish they’d done more with Richard E. Grant.

Overall, a fairly good superhero movie of the “gritty action” type.

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour

Directed by Joe Wright. Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn.

Darkest Hour serves as a sort of unofficial companion to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, portraying the Whitehall politicking that led up to the Dunkirk evacuation, and which coincided with the unlikely rise to power of Winston Churchhill, a widely-disliked bumbler and drunkard who was seen as having squandered his chances at greatness, and was only offered the post of prime minister because Chamberlain’s natural successor didn’t want it. (This is how it happened according to the film, anyway. The historical record is more complex.)

Unfortunately, Darkest Hour follows the pattern of most films of its ilk, delivering scene after scene of Churchill crushing the opposition (albeit in a distinctly genteel, upper-class way) with his pure overwhelming awesomeness. He suffers from only the occasional bout of emotional weakness, something easily cured by a trip down the Victoria Line, and in the end he emerges triumphant, Britain’s boys come home from Dunkirk, and the Allies defeat Hitler four years later. Only rarely does the film touch on the fact that Churchill was privately pessimistic about the country’s chances, even when using his fantastic oratory skills to boost the country’s spirits. (I did appreciate, however, that the film was more sympathetic to Chamberlain and those who desired peace than most films of this kind are. The First World War nearly wiped out an entire generation of young British men, for almost no real reason at all, leaving many with the feeling that future war was to be avoided at any cost.)

That being said, Darkest Hour functions very well as an actor’s showcase, with an almost-unrecognizeable Gary Oldman shining as Churchill, along with impressive performances from Kristin-Scott Thomas as Winston’s wife Clementine and Lily James (Baby Driver) as his personal secretary; and character actors Ronald Pickup (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones), and the always-awesome Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline and Rogue One) bringing up the rear as, respectively, Neville Chamberlain, Viscount Halifax, and King George VI.

The Post

The Post

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys.

With a pair of timely political themes—feminism and the importance of the First Amendment—up his sleeve, Steven Spielberg delivers a rousing, unabashedly liberal message movie in The Post. Making the decision to publish Daniel Ellsberg’s “Pentagon Papers” after the Nixon administration smacked down the New York Times for doing so would have been a risky move for any newspaper publisher. For Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, the first woman to hold that position at any major American paper (and who never expected to), the stakes were even higher, not least because the papers landed on executive editor Ben Bradlee’s desk on the eve of the paper going public.

Spielberg keeps the pace brisk and the tension high, achieving the rare feat of making journalism look exciting and—dare I say it?—a bit sexy. (2015’s Spotlight, which shares a screenwriter with The Post, also succeeded at that.) Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks deliver excellent performances (Hanks, in particular, looks more invigorated than he has in years), anchoring a staggeringly impressive cast that also includes the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, David Cross, Jesse Plemons, and even a glorified cameo from Michael Stuhlbarg.

Like any “message movie” there are bits where proceedings get a bit heavy-handed, but for the most part the lectures never detract from the entertainment. Plus…well, I shouldn’t have to tell you why we need a movie like this at a time like this.

 

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me by Your Name

Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Starring Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Cesar, Esther Garrel.

Stephen King once dismissed Joan Didion’s  The White Album as “the story of a wealthy white woman who could afford to have her nervous breakdown in Hawaii.” I had initially dismissed Call Me by Your Name on similar grounds—it looked like the story of a privileged white kid whose parents could afford to let him fall in love for the first time in the north of Italy.

The film turned out to be more than that, of course, largely due to the performances of Timothée Chalamet (as the kid, Elio, a 17-year-old prodigious polymath), Michael Stuhlbarg (as Elio’s father, an archaeologist), and Armie Hammer (as Oliver, Elio’s dad’s glorified summer intern and the object of Elio’s desire). The original music—a few new pieces by Ryuichi Sakamoto and two heartbreaking songs by Sufjan Stevens—certainly help, as does the lush cinematography.

Unfortunately, those strong points never offset the fact that I saw the environment as being as alien as any world in the Star Wars universe. It’s not just the physical environment, even if the days do seem to last longer than they should. Elio’s parents are almost comically permissive—I counted a grand total of three moments where they actually acted like parents instead of middle-aged roommates. Everybody’s dialog is overly poetic, something I couldn’t help but notice even if Stuhlbarg can deliver lines like “there’s not a straight line in any of these statues, they’re all curved, like they’re daring you to desire them” and make them sound like casual conversation. For me, these elements created an awareness of artifice that kept the film from ever totally casting a spell over me.

Which doesn’t mean I didn’t like it a lot. It has at least three great scenes (including that wonderful, wonderful dance scene) and no bad ones (although I have to admit the “if only you knew how little I know about the things that really matter” conversation irritated me), so I call that a net positive. Also, I have a bit more faith in the Suspiria remake now, as Luca Guadagnino is behind that as well.

The Blackcoat's Daughter

Rewatches

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Osgood Perkins, 2015)

Also Watched in January

Colossal and Atomic Blonde—Never got around to writing these up, sorry. I really liked Colossal and mostly liked Atomic Blonde.

The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960)—Steve McQueen binge continues

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Ishirô Honda and Terry Morse, 1954/1956)Godzilla Raids Again (Motoyoshi Oda, 1955)Mothra vs. Godzilla aka Godzilla vs. the Thing (Ishirô Honda, 1964)—Svelgoolie has been doing Godzilla movies lately

Starcrash (Luigi Cozzi, 1979)

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