The Best There Is At What He Does


I don’t know why I held that torch out for so long but ever since the marketing for director/co-writer James Mangold, producers Simon Kinberg and Laura Shuler Donner, and star Hugh Jackman’s farewell to the beloved X-Men character Wolverine titled Logan after his common (but not birth) name, I really really thought we’d be going for a father-and-daughter road trip type of movie like Alice in the Cities (really most Wim Wenders pictures) or Paper Moon. And indeed Logan is on the run alongside a young ward by the name of Laura who shares his abilities (Dafne Keen) and a now older and more jaded psychic Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, who also announced this would be his final turn in the role) broken by Alzheimer’s and it does have a sort of focused on the tired American landscape that makes a lot of sense for the film to receive all the comparisons to a Western that it has been getting (and kind of fishing for given how often Shane pops up as a plot point). But that means nothing! Nothing at all when Keen – wonderful as she is in the role – is not anywhere near verbose as Tatum O’Neal.

Unfairly stupid expectations aside, Logan is absolutely the best of the Wolverine solo series that begin back with 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green accomplish that by pulling the same “Steal Mark Millar’s general idea but leave his shitty plotting and writing behind” strategy that made Captain America: Civil War a decent movie and the sparseness and restraint of that attitude makes it the most grounded film since X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The crux of the story is that in 2029, the X-Men are no more and mutants are nearly extinct. Logan takes care of the mentally deteriorating Xavier with the help of mutant sensor Caliban (Stephen Merchant) when Laura falls into their laps with Xavier’s invitation and a squad of mercenaries named the Reavers headed by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) come bringing hell back into their lives in their hunt for Laura. Logan begrudgingly agrees to take Laura halfway across the country and while there is a bit more mythological fleshing-out (especially round the third act) than I am letting on, I don’t think that matters.


This is essentially a better version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to me, sharing all of its strengths like an interest in trying to make the film a solo story (without the weakness of being afraid to give Logan the main anchor of the story) or the absolute restraint and low-key design of the whole film (without the weakness of looking boring or indistinct). And what really sells it to me on its R-rating (even despite more f-bombs than I think necessary and a moment of nudity that’s totally gratuitous for the sake of “hey, this is an R”) is how it’s also willing to function as a modernized version of that aforementioned Shane as Logan attempts to express to Laura the regret and weight that his violent disposition has brought to his soul. This is something Jackman and Stewart are able to jump unconsciously given how long they’ve spent inside the skin of these famous characters and, from the reactions I’ve heard before even catching the film, fans are only more willing to give gravitas to the finality of this movie’s existence to tie up the Wolverine story. And as contrived and cliche and predictable as the revelation of Logan and Laura’s connection is, the two work together so well in energy and tandem that it just seems right to find out the things we find out. Keen could easily steal the show and yet somehow opts to stay in the back of Jackman’s own development of the character. And the violence is intense and harsh enough to push Logan’s world-weariness to the edge. Hell, the movie is even stopping during its long road movie structure to have a subplot function as Wolverine’s personal Shane moment helping a family of modern homesteaders against the angry armed land barons (albeit the end of that particular subplot is extremely mean-spirited even by the standards of Logan as a film).

I guess, what I’m trying to say is when Logan, Xavier, and Laura are on the road (and it does feel more like “on the road” – thanks to Stewart’s persuasive performance being on the leisure side of the trip – than “being chased” like they truly are) is when the movie is at its best and I could have done with another hour of that. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last as its third act and climax turns more towards the superhero movie tropes it spent 2 hours desperately avoiding by giving YET ANOTHER PERSON involved in Wolverine’s experiments and having a very poorly edited battle. It is the very worst sign when I have all my eyes on the screen and yet completely miss the moment the main antagonist was killed. And yet the movie is wise enough to utilize its last few shots to end the saga on its best note and to lay it to rest in a manner that your mind is precisely on that final beat and the mood it sets in you as you walk out the theater.


The Heart of the World

It’s International Woman’s Day in the world and I’ve been playing around for a while with this sort of post idea so if I may – under the limited time I have – I’d like to take you on a very cursory journey through the history of film by way of women who have heralded landmarks in the industry. (Also, I swear I’ll have the Logan review tomorrow night, Get Out and The Lego Batman Movie within the week, don’t yell at me).

Let’s start on the right foot, with somebody who essentially started off taking control of her art like all the other artists.

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Actress Mary Pickford essentially became in charge of her prolific silent film career early on (within three years in fact) and eventually to a point that she was de facto producer for $10,000 a week. And this landed her a seat when it came to the monumental creation of United Artists, a studio created for the sole purposes of maintaining the control and integrity of the future works of such peers to Pickford like Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks.


Speaking on D.W. Griffith, one such filmmaker that was heralded highly as a contemporary in the early days of American filmmaking was Lois Weber. While she was not the first female director or writer (that largely being credited to Alice Guy-Blache, who worked with Weber in American Gaumont Chronophones), the output of Weber’s work is overwhelming numerous (sadly, almost all of them lost – though one that is retained, Hypocrites, is a masterwork) and the highly moral attitudes of Weber’s work and her willingness to push the envelope on attitudes of female nudity, religion, and experimentation with split-screen, narrative length, and sound lends to a career that left so many fingerprints in cinema’s evolution.


Later on, as Metro Pictures was growing, one of the biggest figures within its walls was the great screenwriter June Mathis heading the story department and later one becoming one of their first executives as they became a powerhouse in the film industry. How influential was she, you say? To the point that she had the biggest hand on the production of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of the most essential Hollywood films.


… aaaaaaand none of Leni Riefenstahl, BYE!*

*I mean, ok, she did change the game on documentary filmmaking and how the aesthetic can be used to powerful persuasion but she also was a… yeah…


Before even trying to came the actors’ contract system like she did, Olivia De Havilland was already an immortal face in Hollywood history in her association with such big bombastic and ambitious productions such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gone with the Wind. But then in 1943, when Warner Bros. tried to add six months to her almost-expired contract as was common, she challenged this practice and the studio in court and won, breaking herself out as a free agent and setting precedent for actors to charge for their own projects like Pickford before her. And rather than waste that freedom on remaining a romantic epic ingenue, De Havilland pursued challenging roles that demanded of her like The Snake Pit and The Heiress, suddenly turning her career to the ever more-interesting.


Do you have eight Oscars? Edith Head sure does and earned that record by her awareness of mood and culture as demanded by the productions such as in The Hurricane and yet making it so low-key that you don’t realize how she visually codes her characters until AFTER the dress has left the screen.


Including faces of the golden age of cinema would not be complete without possibly the most recognizable face in Japanese cinema that isn’t Mifune Toshiro. The eternal Hara Setsuko maintained her longevity as mainstay of the legendary Ozu Yasujiro‘s pictures on family and life. After he died, she mysteriously receded from the acting and the public eye (her death wasn’t reported until months after the fact), but she was never forgotten by the cinematic world.


If any editor could be considered an auteur in the field of cinema, history favors Dede Allen as that particular figure, being trusted with multiple filmmakers in the New Hollywood era to experiment with audio overlaps and jump cuts among other flourishes, essentially trying to make the film pop rather than dedicate her work to continuity. The result is among the most memorable elements of the likes of the finale of Bonnie and Clyde and the overall patient tension of Dog Day Afternoon.


Another female filmmakers whose documentaries are the lifesblood of personality and authorship would come by within a few 30 years, though with a start in narrative features. When the French New Wave began changing the game on cinema, standing on the Left Bank camp of the movement was Agnes Varda who brought in a feminist voice to the heavily male crowd of filmmakers with films such as Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond, playing with structure and style but turning away from the self-gazing New Wave focus on cinema as subject to give a lens into the marginalized (she and her husband Jacques Demy make up my favorite New Wave filmmakers just behind Alain Resnais).

Mid 1970s, Los Angeles, Pam Grier

When blaxpoitation began really turning over the world in the 1970s, Pam Grier stood out over all the big masculine black heroes as a presence of attitude, power, and hard-boiled grit, never playing any less than an assertive ass-kicker in any form for her American International Pictures productions. That while still taking full autonomy and authority of her sex appeal and using it as a weapon like the likes of Theda Bara and Louise Brooks before her.


Now back while Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were “killing” New Hollywood Cinema in the late 70s, who do you think was behind them the whole time making sure they were properly organized? Producer Kathleen Kennedy, the co-founder of Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment, associating with the filmmaker ever since its founding in 1981 and then by 2012 becoming attached to LucasFilm as its president, thus becoming the brand manager for Star Wars and essentially one of the most powerful people in Hollywood or at least moreso than you could already be when you’re the producer of E.T. and Jurassic Park.

Pauline Kael

I won’t say I wouldn’t be doing this sort of stuff if Pauline Kael weren’t around (especially when we don’t entirely see eye-to-eye), but she’s certainly one of my favorite critics for a reason and an outstanding influence to me. Her personal tone in her writing, the high opinionated emotion behind it, made me realize just how possible it is to contain my thoughts and feelings about cinema and to keep it a fair balance between the academic and the emotional.


You’d have a harder time trying to find a career more short-changed despite all she’s done for Hollywood than the great Elaine May who had proven to be such a natural at the complex art of comedy until suddenly audiences decided Ishtar was so bad it disqualified all her previous masterpieces like The Heartbreak Kid. Audiences are stupid. Fuck you, audiences.


Before Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to snag a Best Director Academy Award (snatching it away from her ex-husband James Cameron no less, but with no hard feelings), her action-heavy genre work like Near DarkPoint Break, and Strange Days made damn clear that she had her own finger on how to make films rugged enough to make the gender of its filmmaker invisible, suddenly becoming a clear signal to the possibility of women to play rougher than boys. When suddenly her films became a window to present day issues like in The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty, and the upcoming Detroit Riots film, her maturity as a storyteller showed as well, suddenly taking on restraint towards a subject without succumbing to conformity.


UCLA graduate Julie Dash was one of many African-American voices at the very front of the L.A. Rebellion, based in Black American stories and cinema. After her short film Illusions made her a staple of independent filmmaking in America, her masterwork Daughters of the Dust became the first feature by an African-American woman to get a theatrical distribution, thereby kicking open the door for another marginalized group to be heard in the industry.


If Bigelow comes across as unstoppable in her success, Penny Marshall covers even more commercial ground than Bigelow could hope to aim for (though Bigelow clearly was not aiming that way with her filmography), becoming the first female director to break the $100 million profit barrier with Big and then doing it AGAIN with A League of Their Own in 1992 (which remains the highest-grossing baseball movie, adjusted for inflation. A SPORTS MOVIE FOCUSED ON WOMEN is the highest-grossing baseball movie. Yeah, boi.)


To date, there is only one female filmmaker to have won the prestigious Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival and it had to be one of the best films ever gracing that festival – nay, the world – to break that mold. Jane Campion‘s The Piano and its ensuing success (also earning her a screenwriting Oscar and a nomination for Directing) made Campion an eminent face of Oz/Kiwi cinema and gave her a prominence in the arthouse world like Varda, Chantal Akerman, Liv Ullmann and Claire Denis before her while being just as incisive on society and gender politics as her predecessors.


You know why Quentin Tarantino’s movies are so fucking good? Because Sally Menke edited them with such a brilliant thumb on what makes pacing and style in her cutting. Wanna know why the last few Quentin Tarantino films have felt longer than they should have been, Menke sadly died way too abruptly and unfairly. Perhaps the most important collaborator in the career of one of America’s most recognizable filmmakers.


Last, but not least, Alison Bechdel is not really a big figure in film, as her main claim to fame is moreso making one of my favorite graphic novels Fun Home (which in turn was adapted to one of my favorite stage musicals). But she essentially brought about in recent years a rubric known as the “Bechdel Test” that tested gender representation in filmmaking and while it’s by no means an objective measure, it brought about a lot more self-consciousness about the usage of women in storytelling that a lot more attempts to throw them into different roles than those expected due to their sex and for that I’m always for.

And that’s about it. There’s a great deal of more prevalent women in film history that I had no chance of getting to without overwhelming myself, but I hope I illustrated well enough how they weave themselves into this industry and make damn sure their footprint is seen while being involved in some of the most important work you could catch on a screen. Happy International Woman’s Day! Don’t be awful!

The Day…s After Oscar Commentary


Y’all know the usual excuses on why I’m late on this so I won’t bother. But I gotta give some attitude and response to the ceremony and the wins, so first thing…

There is no way I am going to count how predictions I got right. Shit was pretty low, like in the early teens given how easily everything went against expectations in a most logical way (I am very very miffed that I just gave in to peer pressure when submitting my prediction for Best Actor most of all). We’ll just recognize that I did not get most things right, especially the Best Picture winner given that great big plot twist ’round the end with the gaffe. I did get 3/4 Acting Categories right on (I weep for Huppert’s lack of an Oscar), both screenwriting, and Chazelle’s directorial win. It’s just a damn shame that Jenkins and company didn’t really have enough time to savor their win and present their speeches (especially given La La Land‘s producers all gave speeches before they revealed the win). And while Jordan Horowitz was 100% gracious as opposed to the producer who finished his speech right before adding a “we lost, by the way” to the end and yes his actions are worthy of laudability (especially in this day and age), I hope it doesn’t get used to overshadow Moonlight‘s accomplishment and what it represents.


What Moonlight represents is why I’m pretty glad it won Best Picture, even if my vote was on La La Land and Manchester by the Sea before Moonlight. Even if my favorite film won Best Picture, the Oscars would never have been any objective qualitative measure for film and it’s always been more about exposure (which is part of why #OscarsSoWhite was a thing, though not as much that Creed and The Hateful Eight were snubbed for some very worthy nominations over… Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl?). I don’t want to just fix everything down to “political messages” because that implies that Moonlight isn’t already a great film in its own right, but I don’t have a problem with political messages when I… frankly agree with them (petty on me, but I’ll call you when I care). Moonlight is a 1.5 million dollar budgeted movie made by two young black men inspired by their early life, based on school assignment by one of them that he didn’t even finish, portraying issues with masculinity and identity involved in the life of a black gay man shot in Liberty City in Miami. This is not the sort of movie you’d expect the Academy to be even willing to touch until the hype became so powerful they heard it out and nominated it. And that’s as far as the dream went for most people (myself included) until suddenly Moonlight won. This is only a stepping stone, rather than the endgame, to have more LGBT and black cinema recognized in Hollywood, but what a stepping stone. To say nothing of what it promises for aspiring young filmmakers (who also happen to be from Miami, hello there!). Don’t let that sort of accomplishment be stifled down by anything – the gaffe, the next win, the “politics”, whatever – Moonlight deserved the win and its win is a landmark.

Besides which, we don’t need another movie about movies winning in the same decade as The Artist and Argo.

This is likewise why – while I think Toni Erdmann is obviously the better film (y’know given that it was my number one movie of the year) – The Salesman‘s win and Farhadi’s subsequent message to the Academy and America was an essential necessity that I’m glad to have witnessed on TV. It was my favorite moment in a ceremony that I kind of enjoyed.


Ay, I enjoyed the Oscars and Jimmy Kimmel’s job hosting. Even the more problematic spots like his Moonlight happy endings joke or implying that “there should be two winners” during the gaffes came from a eager sense of trying to make everybody in the room happy. That didn’t stop him from dishing out receipts against Mel Gibson very early on the performance and somehow Gibson was a good sport (though he probably would have dug his own grave reacting any other way). Certainly his ever-going feud with Matt Damon didn’t get old to me, especially during the presentation of Best Original Screenplay (given by Damon to his own production Manchester by the Sea and good friend Kenneth Lonergan) where Kimmel goes and plays Damon right out of the ceremony. Or even right before “Presenting the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Ben Affleck and guest.”

It was a lot more relaxed than I was expecting out of a ceremony that was coming on the tail end of a horrible political climate and somehow got out clean despite having Gibson (and his crazy faces to his Oscar-winning editor – “Wait we had an editor?!” probably went through his mind) in the room. To say nothing of the absolute lowest point of the Oscars… having Brie Larson hand Casey Affleck the Best Actor Oscar is completely tasteless. Larson’s status as a feminist and having just won her own Oscar for a performance of a sexual assault victim having to hand an award to a man with the accusations Affleck did should say it all. And the outright silence about Affleck was expected but disheartening. But still, I’m not going to pretend Affleck didn’t give my favorite performance on the slate (sorry, Denzel… any other year, you replaying Troy Maxson would have been the best – at least Davis got her damn due as Rose) and while there’s the obvious answer that Larson could have declined, the action of having the previous Best Actress winner present the Best Actor award has been a tradition of the Oscars for a long while. If she had backed-out, in the environment we’re in, people would start spraying vitriol against her for “virtue-signalling” and being “ungracious” and generally being the fucking worst. In any case, Washington was the favorite by a sliver to win and I’m sure this was expected by Larson but not anticipated. It’s a messy thing that I don’t think has a clear answer, but it doesn’t erase that bad taste out of my mouth by any means.

I don’t think there’s anything else that I have a real reaction to besides the fact that Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress), Piper (Best Short Film – Animated) and The Jungle Book (Best Visual Effects) were all the most deserving wins of the year by far and that it’s a shame this was the lowest viewed ceremony in a long while because I also think it was the best in a long time. Incredibly loose (especially when they brought over the tourists and “Gary from Chicago” stole the show in a way you couldn’t possibly script) thanks to Kimmel and all, definitely as evidenced by the congratulatory attitudes of the Moonlight and La La Land cast and crew despite their fan camps trying to turn them against each other (and still… there’s no way La La Land is racist rants won’t keep going and going). We could only hope more awards shows have their frontrunners giving as little a shit about their awards potential as these guys, the reward of which being both Jenkins and Chazelle’s classy fashions are displayed for all the world and both are young filmmakers with practically carte blanche for whatever they want to do next. From the ashes of 2016…