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Posted : 4 months, 1 week ago on 14 April 2017 11:39 (A review of Logan)

We have spent nearly twenty years watching the time-traveling, claw-heavy exploits of the X-Men, and Logan proves a fitting conclusion to many of these characters. In a perfect world, this would be the last X-Men film for a while, allowing enough time to go by for the audience to warm-up to the eventual reawakening of the franchise with entirely new players. (Baring, of course, the fringe players like Deadpool or the in-the-works New Mutants and X-Force.)


Logan plays out like a gritty Neo-Western, Shane but with claws and a dementia-addled telepathic genius. It is unquestionably the best of the three solo Wolverine outings and in the upper echelon of the X-Men franchise in general. Not only for its bloodstained hard truths and emotional complexities, but also for the ways in which is finally engages with the darker impulses and heart of Logan’s character that the prior PG-13 films could only flirtatiously blush at.


It would seem that co-writer/director James Mangold learned from his few questionable choices in The Wolverine, an already solid and terrific Wolverine film, to make something greater. There’s still a problem of bloated running time, something that’s gotten a strange-hold on our modern blockbusters in general, and the comic book superhero genre in particular. Personally, I could have easily trimmed a few sections here and there, and cut out a couple of the facial stabbings, but Mangold’s generally onto some thrilling sights and sounds here.


Not only for the ways in which the carnage is liberally dished out, but for the ways that he makes sure we pull back and look at the physical and emotional cost it takes out on our characters. The best of these films, like the Nolan Batman trilogy, never lose sight of the people beneath the heroics and the moral, emotional, and physical dilemmas and traumas they encounter in their pursuits for the greater good. This is felt throughout the script, but given visceral life in Hugh Jackman’s strongest showing in the role up to this point, and if this truly is the end for him then he’s going out on a glory note.


Jackman’s long been a charm bomb in any of his projects, and he makes the odd sight of an elderly Logan wearing reading glasses while wearing blood stained clothing strangely hilarious and nearly poetic in its world-weary and battered heroism. He gets a rich symphony to play here, acting as both surrogate son to a sundowning Xavier and father figure to Laura, a young girl with similar powers, claws, and rage issues. If you stuck this performance in an end-of-year drama without the superhero sheen, he’d be rolling in awards considerations and hosannas.


While reliable players like Patrick Stewart and Stephen Merchant are invaluable to pull your emotional interest, and Richard E. Grant is reliably oily as the big bad, it’s newcomer Dafne Keen as Laura that’s the most unexpected performance. Of course, X-23 is one hell of a character in the comics, another lab experiment alternating between taking their rage out upon the world and finding a place of peace, be it inner or a physical location. Keen is charismatic and enigmatic in the role, having to convey complex emotional shifts in a primarily mute role through body language and non-verbal grunting. I want big things for her in the future.


Logan is the strongest showing for an X-Men film since Days of Future Past, and one of the strongest recent showings for a Marvel property in who knows how long for its daring to shake up the formula. That near two-and-half-hours runtime can prove a case of too much (the aggressive clone, the farm scenes, protracted scenes of ultra-violence), but there’s just too much that’s good, smart, and emotional engaging here. If this is truly how we say goodbye to many of these characters as played by these actors, then it’s a near-perfect and deeply satisfying way to say goodbye to old friends.

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The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 10 April 2017 12:47 (A review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2)

The finale to The Dark Knight Returns is a stronger film, and one that is informed by the escalating paranoia, trauma, and nihilistic violence of its predecessor. It hits the ground running at full speed and never slows down until the dust settles between Superman and Batman’s climatic fight. It’s a strong showing for DC’s animated film branch, and a worthy adaptation of a towering piece of comic book iconography.


That last piece becomes clearer when you watch the films in one go, as a deluxe two-and-half hour descent into how a legend dies and reemerges in the underground. It picks up with the mutant gangs dispersal into various sub-groups after Batman defeats their leader and we get to witness the brutal fight between Batman, Robin, Bruno and her gang. This sequence also quickly introduces us to Superman, here reconfigured as the lapdog of the Reagan administration. From there we plow through the final confrontation with Joker, Gotham descending into chaos, a nuclear strike, and, of course, the infamous battle that closes out the story.


That’s a lot of material to get through, but the film never feels rushed or incomprehensible. A lot of that triumph goes to just how engaging and fluid the animation is. Some of Frank Miller’s more bonkers sequences and ideas look incredibly dynamic and unique in motion, like the two plump robotic children that work for the Joker or the sight of Batman and Robin emerging into self-destructing Gotham on horseback. Even better is just how astounding the action sequences translate here. Part 1 had a few minor sequences of action and violence, but that was more of a prelude to the never-ending violence on display here.


Sure, I can rhapsodize about just how awesome it is to see Superman and Batman’s Thunderdome-style death match, but the real sequence that stuck with me is the Tunnel of Love last stand with Joker. Michael Emerson’s vocal work is astounding, marrying to Miller’s more feminine, ambiguously queer psychotic reading of the Joker like a hand in glove, and his unhinged cackle and daring brings a certain elevated height to the scene. Joker’s eventual snapping of his own neck pushes the nihilistic violence of the sequence into even darker and more brutal territory than it existed on the page, and that’s really saying something.


Peter Weller’s vocal work in Part 1 was consistent, but there’s a few moments here that his line readings completely deflate. His reading of the “I am the law!” monologue doesn’t really jive with the scene playing out. He lacks a certain mania and guttural push that would have really sold the scene. Weller’s too even-keeled in a few scenes where Batman’s sanity should be questioned, too controlled when his obsession should be reaching a scary, near breaking point. He’s still solid for most of the film, but these moments of tonal inconsistency stand out.


There’s still a lot that’s good to great about this film. The reunion between Batman and Catwoman, however brief, is filled with unresolved emotions and a lived-in intimacy that’s quietly heartbreaking. The scene where Superman becomes a zombie-like creature after a nuclear bomb explosion is terrifying in all the best ways. While Ariel Winter’s vocal work brings a youthful sense of gumption and verve to every scene she’s in, and Mark Valley’s Superman is a worthy new addition to the stable of voice actors who’ve brought him to life. How exactly the managed to reign this material into a PG-13 zone is anyone’s guess since so little of it is watered down or elided instead of shown outright. While neither one is a complete home-run, both of them are uniformly strong and out-epic many of the live action brethren. This is what Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was supposed to look like.

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The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 April 2017 09:46 (A review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1)

Adapting Frank Miller’s iconic deconstruction of the Dark Knight mythos is a herculean effort for any creative team ballsy enough to try it. Not only was it a meta-commentary on the logical end-point of Batman’s borderline-insanity and obsessive nature, but a pitch-black satire on the entirety of the superhero enterprise. There’s just so much narrative that adapting proves a challenge of which tone to stick with, what material to exercise, and just how long do they want this thing to last?


Well, by this point, the minds running DC’s direct-to-video animated film line deserves your trust that you’ll figure it all out. The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is an immensely satisfying work that acts as something of a vocal warm-up for the operatic mayhem to follow in Part 2. It begins with Batman living a dull life in retirement, watching as Gotham has descended into chaos with its savior/symbol, and ends with the reemergence of his greatest villain from a catatonic state. In-between these well-known moments Batman takes on the mutants, Carrie Kelley becomes the new Robin, and panel-after-panel is giving vivid life from the source text.


It’s notable that despite the numerous flirtations various other Batman properties have done with this material, including Tim Burton’s 1989 film, the Nolan trilogy, and a segment in Batman: The Animated Series’ episode “Legends of the Dark Knight,” just how well this material takes to the film medium. BTAS’ tiny segment was proof that Miller’s distinctive angular artwork could translate well to animation, but seeing it here is really something else. Not only were they faithful to the look and feel of the original work, but they fine-tuned it enough for fluidity’s sake.  


While not everything is a successful translation of the bleak source material, or its abundant dark humor. Look no further than the media’s various talking heads. In the comic, they acted as something of a Greek chorus and response to more paranoid and unhinged mental ramblings of Batman, and losing much of Batman’s inner monologue weakens the presence of the media’s interjections. It feels tilted too far to one side of the equation instead of finding a nice balance.


And for all of the grit and darkness on display, there’s also a few instances too many of the animation being brightly lit or somehow dulling the grittier, darker tone of the material. This is slightly to be expected given how inky and scratchy Frank Miller’s drawings can be, but when something like the fight with the mutant gang leader is so expertly done, then moments of a too sleek and shiny looking Gotham-in-chaos tend to standout more.


This isn’t enough to hamper the overall work as it sets up the pieces beautifully for the carnage that’s about to unfold. I mean, we still have Batman fighting Superman, the Joker, and heaps of Cold War paranoia (which for a while there felt antique, but appears to be making a comeback). It’ll take you a minute to not expect Kevin Conroy and company’s infamous voices to emerge from these characters, but give Peter Weller and the others a chance, they do solid work. (Highest points goes to Ariel Winter who is positively perfect as Carrie Kelley/Robin.)


The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is a deeply entertaining and engrossing adaptation of the first half of the material. I swear, ending it on Joker’s awakening was a stroke of genius that gets you pumped for the real visceral action that’s about to happen. It pays homage to the material while effectively working as a solid variation of it. Isn’t that all you can really ask of an adaptation?

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Only the Lonely

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 7 April 2017 02:02 (A review of Only the Lonely)

A bittersweet romantic comedy riff on Marty that’s also the final big screen appearance of a cinematic legend? Yep, I didn’t know that this was a thing either, but Only the Lonely has its awkward charms in enough of the right places to give it a mild recommendation. Much of this praise goes towards John Candy and Maureen O’Hara mining the material for all its worth and doing their best to make the uneven tonal shifts work.


There’s only so much that multi-dimensional performances can do to distract you from slapstick that brushes up against more humane comedy, or loud moments of cartoonish behavior that takes some of the tenderness and sting from the more emotional ones. Dream sequences of Candy’s lonely beat cop fantasizing about his domineering, emotionally abusive mother encountering various bloody ends or guilt tripping him into taking different actions are cute in small doses, but Only the Lonely throws in far too many of them. The final one, where O’Hara and Anthony Quinn do battle on an airplane with hijacking terrorists, is an eye-roller of great magnitude.


The Catholic guilt of these dreams would work better more sparring, and their presence intrudes on more tender romance between Candy and Ally Sheedy. They sound like an incompatible pair, but Candy dives into the truth here and emerges with a portrait of a kind, lonely, man who glows with a sense of basic goodness and decency. Sheedy’s neurotic, awkward artistic type (something of a type for her) generates a believable romantic attraction and tension with O’Hara meddlesome mother. Even better is O’Hara as an iron willed and hyper-critical mother, and the ending scenes where Candy shakes off her domineering control reveal the vulnerable cracks in her exterior. O’Hara came out of retirement for this part, and she makes a meal out of it in the ways her tart sarcasm makes a lovely repartee with Candy’s gentler humor.


Perhaps Only the Lonely has no bigger sin than Chris Columbus’ bland, impersonal sense of direction. Even this becomes something of a virtue given how the film moves propels forward and doesn’t descend too far into treacle or grossly manipulative sentiment in the ways that films like Stepmom and Bicentennial Man do. There’s nothing here that’s terribly original, but it’s pleasantly old-fashioned in its romance and family dynamics. It’s something of a testament to how integral strong performers are to selling weaker material.

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The Wise Kids

Posted : 5 months ago on 23 March 2017 03:18 (A review of The Wise Kids)

Color me shocked about this little film that’s surprisingly touching. A story about three close friends slowly drifting apart in that awkward moment between the end of high school and the beginning of college, The Wise Kids offers all of its characters moments of tenderness and grace. The uncertainty of what the change will bring, what the personal revelations will do to their relationships, and questions of faith and sexuality bring about these moments of humanity and connection.


The story follows three friends: the pastor’s daughter losing her religion (Molly Kunz), the devoutly religious friend (Allison Torem), and the gay boy slowly taking part of the coming out process (Tyler Ross). It’s not surprising that Torem is slowly losing the other two as they become ‘different’ from the body of the suburban Baptist neighborhood. The stasis of this society gets rocked, but not in the volcanic ways one would expect but in smaller ways with longer lasting ramifications.


The Wise Kids could easily be loud or provocative, but it refuses to do so. These moments would provide some technical fireworks but wouldn’t provide anything close to reality. It is much more likely for stolen kisses to lead to both parties agreeing to just never talk about it and go about their days as if nothing happened. The Wise Kids is smart in these instances, and the bottled up emotions build up and crack out in sideways spouts. There’s too much at stake here, the fragility of the situations requires a more delicate touch to really hammer home their points. 

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Posted : 5 months ago on 23 March 2017 02:43 (A review of Beira-Mar)

I’m not sure if this is an entirely bad movie, or just a well-made boring one. It hovers in-between these two zones throughout its brief running time, which feels far longer than it is. Minimal scripts can work, but Seashore is minimal to the point of feeling like the script boiled down to three paragraphs mostly consisting of details of how they two main characters stare awkwardly at each other.


It’s not surprising or shocking that the two friends eventually transition into a romantic/sexual relationship, but it saves it for the last ten minutes. Finally embracing his best friend as a romantic partner leads one of the friends into staring down his fears of water. That is the entirety of the story. Well, no, that’s partially a lie, there’s also some vagary about one of the characters having a complicated relationship with his father and having to return to his childhood home for…reasons? It remains murky and frankly uninteresting.


It doesn’t help that Seashore focuses more on the less amiable or charismatic character. There’s nothing wrong with Mateus Almada’s work, it’s just that he’s sacked with a character that’s entirely internal with nothing much to work with externally. Mauricio Barcellos gets the more demonstrative role, and he’s all flirtatious smirks and fluttering looks. They work well together and generate a pleasing chemistry both as friends and eventually as something more, but Seashore is a short film stretched thin into feature length. As the final frames play out, the haunting voice of Peggy Lee popped into my mind chanting “is that all there is?”

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Last Summer

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 1 March 2017 04:03 (A review of Last Summer)

Mark Thiedeman may eventually prove a director worth watching, but he needs to learn when to edit things down. I firmly believe that Last Summer is a great short film stretched out to feature length, if only just barely qualifying as such. There’s no prosaic exposition apart from the opening scene which quickly lays out the entirety of the drama, but there is a most pleasing lyrical quality to the images.


But beautiful images will only get you so far in effectively telling a story. Last Summer’s plot can be summarized in one sentence: two gay teens are spending their last few days of idyllic teenage romance together before college will tear them apart. There’s little in the way of dialog, character development, but there’s plenty of stolen glances and quiet moments of emotional shorthand between longtime friends and lovers.


For all of the good in Last Summer, it eventually proves slightly tiresome in just how prolonged the inevitable feels. It doesn’t help that the performances also imbalance the romance, with Samuel Pettit providing a solid anchoring study while Sean Rose feels slightly awkward in conveying his character. We’re thrown tidbits of information about their stories, but none of it is deeply explored.


There is one moment of tenderness and heartbreak in Last Summer that the film needed more of. Rose’s Jonah, yearning to break out of their Arkansas small town life, asks Pettit’s Luke, content where he is at, to tell him to stay. Jonah’s afraid of not only leaving his home, but losing his emotional support and having to reorganize his life without Luke around. Luke refuses each time, and he knows that if he did ask him to stay that Jonah would and that this would probably become a point of contention between them. Love and growing up are hard, and losing your first love is an ache you never quite forget.


Last Summer explores this in a Terrence Malick-like manner, but it’s stretched too thin with too many pretentious diversions (like a soundtrack made up of classical pieces). A shorter running time would have fixed some of these problems, forcing Thiedeman to narrow his focus and make the emotional moments like the one mentioned above hit harder. There’s good here, but it all feels too inconsequential or too imbalanced or too lackadaisical to really bring it on in during the home stretch.

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The Red Turtle

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 28 February 2017 09:21 (A review of The Red Turtle)

Is this a dream, a fairy tale, a hallucination, or simply a story told with elements of magic realism? It doesn’t demand our attention with a complicated narrative or character development. It’s quiet and maintains our attention with the beauty of its animation, the stillness becoming something of a lulling and hypnotizing strength like the sound of the wind and waves on the soundtrack.


What exactly is The Red Turtle about? Well, it’s mainly a mood piece about man’s conflict with nature slowly transitioning into his love and peaceful cohabitation with it. He begins the narrative as a desperate player, trying in vain multiple times to flee the deserted island he’s found himself stuck upon. Each attempt finds his makeshift raft destroyed by an unseen force, a force later revealed to be a giant red turtle. The man later finds the turtle on the beach, where he strikes it, flips it over, and leaves it to die before his guilt causes him to run back to check on the poor creature.


Then the weird stuff really starts. The turtle’s shell cracks and a beautiful red-headed woman appears. They eventually fall in love, have a child, and the film continually jumps ahead to little episodes in the rest of their lives. When the man finally dies in old age, the woman turns back into the red turtle and crawls back into the ocean. In-between, there’s scenes of the man’s various dreams where the dead turtle’s body takes flight or he flies across the waves towards a bridge that leads to civilization.


The Red Turtle begins life as a Robinson Crusoe-like adventure story of survival and escape, then becomes another one of Studio Ghibli’s near spiritual meditations of man’s need to commune with nature and find a way to live with it harmoniously. The transition between these story points is smoothly done so the leaps between them are carried off. We see that the invisible force keeping him on the island is merely a benign presence with a curiosity that causes inadvertent strife. This is the easiest story beat to grasp, it’s the transition into magic realism and romance that could trip most of us up.


Luckily, The Red Turtle does the sense of discovery remarkably well, and this helps immeasurably in getting us to buy into the ecological messaging. We witness the turtle’s presence at the same moment the man does, and we watch the magical transition along with him. It’s the constant daydreams and fantasy sequences that prep us for the eventual twist, and then the return to lulling quietness and stillness of the animation and story that helps keep it from flying off the rails. There’s a beguiling no-frills approach at major work here, and The Red Turtle’s power abounds in the ways it transfixes us into a quasi-dream state while the animation hammers home the mystery and power of the dynamics in the fable.  

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My Life as a Zucchini

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 28 February 2017 07:39 (A review of My Life as a Courgette)

An animated story about a group of orphans that looks like moving Play-Doh and is a co-production between France and Switzerland. Does this sound like something you’d be interested in watching? Well, it should be. My Life as a Zucchini is a bittersweet tale of dealing with trauma with quiet resolve and imagery to convey depths of sorrow or joy.


We meet Icare, dubbed Courgette (French for zucchini) by his alcoholic mother, in the first scene. His large eyes have deep blue circles around them to match his hair, and he’s generally somber and quiet, preferring to keep himself. His childhood ends abruptly when an accident leads to his mother’s death, and a kindly policeman takes him to an orphanage. My Life as a Zucchini is evenly split between Icare/Courgette’s growing relationships between his fellow orphans and the kindly policeman who brought him here.


Many of the young kids begin with the routines of social hierarchy and typical behaviors, then moments of grace and connection pop up. For instance, a red-headed bully quickly becomes a friend when he says that “there’s nobody left to love us,” and those words are delivered with a kind of just-so statement of fact. If the tone feels like anything, it’s the combination of charm and melancholy that Charles Schultz imbibed into Peanuts. But with a heavy French accent.


Despite only being a brief 66 minutes, My Life as a Zucchini feels like an epic portrait of kids trying to hold onto some semblance of normalcy despite heavy burdens and psychic scarring. It never feels bogged down in tragedy, and it always manages to shock in its charms and whimsy. Seek this one out.  

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20th Century Women

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 February 2017 09:46 (A review of 20th Century Women)

As with his prior film, Beginners, Mike Mills excels at telling stories in which the major drama is just the pains, sorrows, and growths of everyday life. There’s no overpowering personal crisis to overcome and grow out of, just the normal frustrations and aggressions of being a teenager and flailing about for your identity. 20th Century Women could play as the spiritual cousin or response to Beginners’ story of a father and son repairing their relationship and finding romantic partners.


We meet five specific characters, each of them fully realized and complete, each of them an absolute joy to spend two hours with. There’s Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening, never better), the chain-smoking single mother with the piercing gaze and yearning to connect with a teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), she doesn’t quite understand. There’s Julie (Elle Fanning), the troubled and depressed best friend of our main character, prone to sleeping in his bed (platonically) while forcing him to listen to her stories of sexual escapades. And Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a cherry red haired photographer overcoming cervical cancer who introduces Jamie to punk music and feminism. Also hovering around in the background is William (Billy Crudup), a leftover hippie that is helpful with household chores and generally directionless.


Centering all of these characters, I suppose you could call them quirky, is Jamie as he struggles to develop into manhood. By his own admission, he wants to be a good guy. By god, he means it, and I think he’ll turn out ok in the end. We believe in and root for these characters thanks to the strength of Mills script. He creates fully realized people, complete with their own eccentricities and failings. As 20th Century Women comes to a close, I wasn’t entirely ready to say goodbye to these characters, especially Dorothea who remains one of the most intriguing.


The backbone of the film is Dorothea’s realization that her presence alone may not be enough for Jamie’s development as he transitions into adulthood, and she asks each of the other characters to share their lives and thoughts with him to aide his growth. How exactly this will help him no one is quite sure, but they agree to it anyway. It’s this kind of tenderness and compassion that makes 20th Century Women such a wonderful experience. I also appreciate the subtle, and poetic, imagery of Dorothea’s, and by extension Jamie’s, house being permanently under repair and renovation, as if it too was trying to build itself into a better version of itself.


There’s a novelistic sense of character and history that pervades throughout Beginners and 20th Century Women. We could just as easily followed around Julie’s coming-of-age developments with Dorothea, Abbie, and Jamie playing supporting players while she experimented with sex and drugs as a rebellion against her therapist mother. We could have followed Abbie’s early punk days in the New York art scene where she got into a relationship with an older man and discovered the cancer that sent her back home. These characters are afforded the type of internal lives and behaviors that other films invest in only one or two. It’s operating on a level that could easily transpose itself into a documentary format.


Even better is how Mills weaves in the soundtrack into the frame of the narrative. 20th Century Women is something of a memory piece of Jamie’s, with each of the other characters narrating parts of their lives and their futures, so it makes sense that the soundtrack of his youth occupies such a large space. This also affords us the sight of Annette Bening listening to Black Flag with complete befuddlement before dancing around a bedroom with Billy Crudup to Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food. It’s a tiny moment, but one that I treasure deeply for the way it expresses Dorothea’s anxiety about connection and understanding with her son.


As 20th Century Women closes, with Dorothea driving and Jamie holding onto the car while he skateboards, it reveals as a love letter to these extraordinary women who molded him. Memories can easily tilt into neurotic acts of self-mythology or molding, but Mills finds the perfect balance to keep everything feeling grounded and real. There were bigger movies that dominated the Oscar season this year, but many of them will be forgotten in short order while something as quiet and lovable as this will hopefully outlive them to find the bigger audience it deserves.

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