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

Logan, Call Me by Your Name, The Post, and more

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)

Capsule Reviews: Kedi; A Ghost Story; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Marjorie Prime

A Ghost Story, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and more

Kedi

Kedi

Turkey. Directed by Ceyda Torun.

I knew that Islam reveres cats, but Istanbul takes that reverence to a whole ‘nother level.

The documentary Kedi portrays the stray cats of that ancient capital as a dominating force. Director Ceyda Torun ostensibly focuses on seven such cats—Aslan Parçasi, Bengü, Deniz, Duman, Gamsiz, Psikopat, Sari—to keep things easy to follow, but they stand in for the city’s entire feline population as a whole. The cats’ influence on the day-to-day life of Istanbul seems to equal that of their human compatriots, and Torun gets some remarkable footage (much of it shot at cat level) as they beg for food at restaurants, steal fish from outdoor market stalls, commune with people at cafés and street-corners, come and go as they please, and generally be, well, cats. I’m in awe of the patience Torun must have exhibited during filming. “Like herding cats” became a cliché for a reason.

But, as enchanting as an eighty-minute-long cat video or a visual travelogue of Istanbul would be, Kedi isn’t merely these things. It occurred to me that in an American city, a population of strays this large and visible would be considered a public nuisance. Torun interviews a number of people whose lives intersect with the cats’ in various ways—phrases like “owners” or “masters” or even “human companions” lack accuracy when describing these relationships—and it seems like Istanbul’s residents (these residents, at least) regard the felines almost as fellow-citizens whose claim to the streets of the city is as valid as the humans’ own.

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story

United States. Directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara.

Casey Affleck dies and then becomes a cartoon-style ghost (a white sheet with two eyes painted on it) and stares at the changing world around him for an hour and a half.

About half this movie is really, really good. Mostly these are the bits where things actually happen. Unfortunately the other half is as dull as dirt, unless you’re the sort of person who fetishizes on spending five minutes watching Rooney Mara eat pie.

Also, I’m glad that Will Oldham showed up at the end of the second act to lecture the audience on the themes of the film, because I wouldn’t have been able to figure out what the movie’s about otherwise.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming

United States. Directed by Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau.

The Marvel creative team took an odd approach to Spider-Man’s first solo outing in the MCU: they made it as much about the Avengers (specifically, Iron Man) as it is about the friendly neighborhood web-head. The screenplay roots the origins of Michael Keaton’s villainous Adrian “Vulture” Toomes in the aftermath of the first Avengers film. The dominant relationship of the narrative is between Peter Parker and Tony Stark. In fact, Stark spends so much time in RJD’s patented “alpha-male-douchebag” mode that he effectively serves as the antagonist of the first half of the film.

It really doesn’t help that director Jon Watts doesn’t bring anything to Homecoming’s action and effects scenes that I haven’t already seen in a bunch of other superhero movies. Lots of herky-jerky camera work, incoherent CGI fight sequences, and the requisite footage of recognizable landmarks being destroyed. I hope everybody learns from Patty Jenkins’ work on Wonder Woman that it is indeed possible to construct an action sequence that’s both exciting and easy to follow.

Beyond that, I have a bunch of nitpicks that don’t really matter much. Tom Holland is the perfect Peter Parker—he’s Hollywood handsome but able to pull off geeky awkwardness; unfortunately the script places Parker at a STEM-oriented specialty school (even Flash freaking Thompson is a nerd here!), thus undercutting his outsider status. Was it really necessary to point out how hot Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is more than, say, zero times? Did the screenwriters really not realize how lame a certain supporting character’s last-five-minutes-of-the-film twist was?

The good news is enough works to make Homecoming worth watching even if it doesn’t exactly transcend its issues. I already mentioned Tom Holland. Michael Keaton delivers one of the year’s best performances, and I loved how the screenplay entwined his motivation with social commentary. Best of all, they got the tone of the non-effects and action sequences exactly right. Spider-Man works best as a local hero, keeping the streets of New York safe, and having a blast while doing it. Leave the world-saving to those whose powers, resources, and experience are more suited to the task. You know, people like Tony Stark.

Marjorie Prime

Marjorie Prime

United States. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins.

One of the programs I had for my Commodore 64 when I was a kid was “Eliza.” It was a conversation simulator, kind of like a chatterbot: you’d type in sentences, it would respond. The conceit was that Eliza was a “Rogerian psychotherapist” and you were its patient. “I am dissatisfied with my life,” you’d tell it, and it would respond “Why are you dissatisfied with your life?” It wasn’t really artificial intelligence; it just spat whatever you said back at you.

I kept thinking about Eliza while watching Marjorie Prime. The titular “Prime” is an AI and hologram set up to simulate a specific person—for example, your dead husband Walter, who when he was 40 looked exactly like Jon Hamm. The thing about Walter Prime is that he has the real Walter’s voice and good looks, but you actually have to teach Walter Prime how to be Walter, by telling him what Walter was like. This can be quite helpful if you’re Walter’s 85-year-old widow Marjorie and you’re suffering from dementia.

We’ve seen something like this before, in the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” and although Marjorie Prime isn’t as dystopian as “Be Right Back” it still exhibits a certain ambiguity as to whether the interactions Marjorie, her daughter Tess, and son-in-law Jon (respectively Lois Smith, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins) have with various Primes are indeed healthy. How creepy is it to watch an elderly parent talk with a simulation of a younger version of another parent? And while our experiences and memories make us who we are, how can someone recreate us when they don’t know the things we wouldn’t talk about? (That’s quite apart from the theory, discussed early in the film, that when we remember something we don’t remember the actual event but the way the memory went the last time we remembered it, which is why memory is so wonky.)

Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff, to be sure. However, the movie itself comes off as very actory and talky. I didn’t find this a problem, because Davis and Robbins put in career-best performances; I’m less familiar with Smith and Hamm, but they are excellent here as well. But Michael Almeryeda’s direction betrays the film’s roots as a stage play, which could alienate some viewers. Still, if you’re in the mood for a science-fiction film whose fantastical elements are so subtle you don’t realize you’re watching SF until someone throws a drink through Jon Hamm, give Marjorie Prime a try.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I also watched…

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, 2017). Two more times!

Christmas Vacation (dir. Jeremiah Chechik, 1989) And why is the floor all wet, Todd?

Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Seven

Day six gives us: Hannibal‘s Mads Mikkelsen in Men and Chicken; the superhero farce Lazer Team; In Search of the Ultra-Sex, assembled from scraps of porn movies; the Turkish horror film Baskin; and the horror anthology Southbound. Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Seven”