Logan: sad, beautiful and final

Film

James Mangold is a compelling director; in that a lot of his work has real emotional depth and nuance, and often benefits from repeat viewing. And he’s kind of underappreciated. I mean, Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 To Yuma and Walk The Line all had him at the helm.

And yes, granted, he’s also got The Wolverine on his filmography, but we’re all allowed a little stumble now and then, right?

And I have to say, with Logan – almost certainly Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s last portrayal of the characters – Mangold has finished with superheroes on a high (assuming he’s not coming back to direct again). Because, simply put, this film is poles apart from almost ALL superhero movies (even Deadpool), in that it’s a melancholy love letter to Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), as the two that are heart and soul – and indeed spine – of the X-Men franchise.

Theirs is the father-son dynamic that’s touched on consistently throughout prior films, but is really brought front and centre here. And, structure wise, we’re in somewhat different territory. Because whilst superhero films (these days) are often Westerns half in disguise, Logan wears this badge proudly, with Mangold really playing to his strengths as a director.

In that it’s a muscular, visceral, downtrodden and wistful story. One that’s gritty, painfully real, and lacks any semblance of a Hollywood shine. (I mean, within one scene more F bombs get dropped than the rest of the franchise put together.)

Indeed, Mangold has previously stated his touchpoints were Shane, The Cowboys, Paper Moon, Little Miss Sunshine and The Wrestler. And, for me, the latter two cited really shine through. Whether it’s the road trip structure or the fact Logan shares a lot of common ground with Mickey Rourke’s wrestler, in that he’s a ‘broken down old piece of meat’, you sense these influences keenly.

And, story wise, it also takes its cues from the Old Man Logan series of graphic novels. So within the opening scenes where we meet Logan, he’s a grey-haired, shabby limo driver. He drinks, he’s bleary-eyed, bent, broken and walks with a limp. So he’s oceans away from his body being the temple of earlier films. Now it’s more a urinal. In short, he’s a right mess and borderline suicidal.

Plus the fact he’s got a half-senile Charles to look after; shacked up in a metal bunker in Mexico (described in one scene as a man with the world’s most dangerous brain and a degenerative brain disorder to match. A lethal combination). So gone are the days of the mansion and gone are the days of mutants and the X-Men. Logan and Charles are practically all that’s left. And they’re barely clinging to life as it is.

But… they’re given purpose by the arrival of a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), who has certain familiar abilities. And so Logan is tasked – with Charles in tow – to attempt to evade bad guys and get her to the safety of Canada. So we end up with a sort of mismatched family road movie – with Logan as the cantankerous yet caring father, Charles as the doddering yet insightful grandfather, and Laura as the wild, precocious daughter looking for a family and sense of belonging.

And, whilst the whole film has many sweet notes, it’s also immensely sad and surprisingly violent (every Wolverine kill is far bloodier and more gory than ever before).

This is also, without a shadow of a doubt, both Jackman and Stewart’s best performances as these characters. The studio has clearly given Mangold license to do things a bit differently, and it’s really paid off.

The world feels more real. It’s the most emotional ‘superhero’ film yet (in any franchise) and it’s focused in its use of a handful of characters tops, which is really refreshing (the swollen cast of recent X-Men outings was beginning to bore me a bit).

So ultimately, this is a strong contender for the best X-Men movie to date, or at least a firm second place. And you could argue that without all the prior films the weight of emotion wouldn’t ring true here, and that this movie needs to stand fully alone to be considered the best. And that’s valid.

But it’s also worth noting that this movie does FAR more right than it does wrong. Coupled with the fact that more than a handful of scenes are truly heartbreaking.

Now how many X-Men films could you say that about?

A Monster Calls: deeply sad and moving

Film

Quality over quantity. That seems to be how Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has approached his career thus far. His first feature length was The Orphanage (2007), then the immensely sad The Impossible (2012), which was a critical and commercial success. And now, at the start of the new year, he gives us likely Oscar contender A Monster Calls; a tale of a 12-year old boy who struggles to deal with his mum’s slow fight with cancer. Tough stuff. But then, cynics would say it’s awards season, so we should be prepared for some difficult subjects at the movies over the next month.

With A Monster Calls we follow Conor (Lewis MacDougall) as he suffers a bully at school and a rapidly deteriorating mother (Felicity Jones) at home. Then one night a giant Yew tree in a nearby field comes alive, turning into a monster (Liam Neeson) and presenting him with an offer: hear three stories in exchange for one ‘truth’. Conor accepts and each night the monster serves up another tale which helps him deal – or fail to deal – with his family situation in some way. Right up until the inevitable conclusion that we know is coming.

My first thought was that this film shares a lot with Pan’s Labyrinth (and a fair helping of Where The Wild Things Are). It’s a fairytale, it has a young character seemingly having to tackle big problems on his or her own and grow up fast, it has magic and fantasy and, naturally, it has a big bad monster or two (some are human some are pure fantasy).

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That’s it though. Here, this story is different enough. Where the girl in Pan’s Labyrinth is faced with violence (in her fascist father) and how she deals with that in order to protect her baby brother, the boy in this tale is forced to confront – and deal with – the anger within himself in terms of how he copes with his mother’s illness and truly faces his own sense of conflict.

And you’d think a giant talking tree (voiced by Neeson) wouldn’t manage to put us in the right headspace to feel deeply, but somehow, between Bayona, Neeson and MacDougall, the filmmakers manage it, quite cleverly too. Before you realise it you’re right there with Conor, desparately wishing you could take away his pain and acutely aware of the despair and helplessness he must be feeling at the fact that he’s slowly losing his mother and is powerless to stop it.

Casting Felicity Jones was a clever move, too. In someone that beautiful it’s even more painful to watch her slowly waste away (not that attractiveness has much to do with it, but seeing beauty decay, to me, is somehow more heartbreaking). And, whilst her scenes are not lengthy, you get a true sense of the bond she has with her son, and the chemistry they have feels real and credible.

Perhaps in this, MacDougall is the real revelation. Often child actors get surrounded by older ones to prop them up, but here MacDougall is in almost every scene, and you get the feeling he needs very little propping. And it’s testament to his screen presence that his performance will tug at your heartstrings from the off, but you almost don’t notice it’s happening.

Even if you’ve never experienced loss in any significant way, this film will still resonate deeply. We all fear losing a loved one and this will put you right back to childhood and straight into the shoes of the main character, having you care passionately about his fate, all the way until the credits roll. And we can’t ask for any more from a film, other than that it speaks to – and moves us – in some way.

Joy: Lawrence adds strings to her bow

Film

Let’s say, in some other reality, Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t met David O. Russell and her career had (thus far) just been built upon an impressively gritty debut (Winter’s Bone) and a teen action franchise (Hunger Games), would we hold her in such high regard?

I rather doubt it. And this really isn’t a dig, but it’s fair to say her collaboration with writer-director David O. Russell over three films now (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and now Joy) have hugely elevated her career – in terms of dramatic credentials – and evolved her talent as one of Hollywood’s top actresses.

One thing it’s worth noting is that she’s always been able to hold the screen well and could carry a film right from the start of her career but, each time she works with O. Russell, he pushes her further. She evolves and matures.

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Now it’s arguable that Silver Linings Playbook may be a more satisfying film for audiences, but in Joy she perhaps gives a more complete and complex performance. Oscar material some say it may be, but first and foremost we as the audience must connect with her character and journey. Which we do, of course.

When we meet Joy she’s a young girl with hopes and dreams who likes to make things. Flash forward and she’s a young mother looking after a demented father (Robert de Niro) who’s been booted out of his latest relationship and a cabaret singer ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who both end up living in her basement. Oh, and a mother (Virginia Madsen) who spends her time in bed endlessly watching soaps and no one appears to be doing much to hold the family together, except Joy. And so she’s lost her lust and vitality for life, scraping a living trying to make ends meet.

Then she has a dream and invents a mop. And we go from there.

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On paper you might say this has quirky Wes Anderson written all over it. But David O. Russell tends to do things his own way and it’s almost always substance over style and character drives everything. And Joy is a character, that’s evident. She evolves in clear and distinct ways. From the moment she invents her Miracle Mop she’s focused and more driven. There’s an edge to her and she becomes more hardened and glassy-eyed each time she faces a new challenge, whether it’s from those closest to her putting her down in well-meaning but ultimately rather tactless ways, or those she meets in business who try and get one over on her and more often than not, emphatically fail.

And Lawrence gives her a wonderful texture and believability.

She’s always been good at delivering lines with gravitas for one so young, but she does make it look rather effortless at times, completely drawing us into her performance. The rest of the cast ain’t half bad too. If only De Niro stuck to these kinds of films from now we’d all be happier. For every Joy he does a Dirty Grandpa or some other type of drivel not worth his talent. But hey, he’s Robert de Niro, he can do what he likes.

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Another David O. Russell alumni present is Bradley Cooper; more front and centre in Silver Linings Playbook here he has a smaller part, but makes an impact sharing a few rather touching scenes with Lawrence as the man who gives Joy her first big break on the QVC channel.

What’s notable about this film (in that it’s absent) is the complete lack of a romantic subplot or character with whom she ‘has to have’ steamy moments to keep the audience interested. As the film starts with the fact she’s divorced we get a flashback to their time together, but purely for character development as the story doesn’t linger there long. And rightly so, that’s not what’s being told and it would be distracting. Kudos to O. Russell for staying the course.

So what we have, at the end of it all, is quite an inspiring tale to keep pushing tenaciously for your dreams and to believe in yourself – held together masterfully by Jennifer Lawrence, who probably gets better every time I see her in a film (always a good sign).

Incidentally, not a bad way to see in gloomy January I’d say.

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I am the one who boasts

Poetry

Anything you can do I can do better.
It’s time you learnt I’m a bona-fide trendsetter.
While we’re sharing I’m gonna boast in party situations I’m the world’s best host.
Hell… I’m a social butterfly.
People flock to me as I dance and flutter by.
No word of a lie it’s true, the fact that I’m best is far beyond you.

But out there, people cause trouble.
Looking for a weakness to burst your bubble.
You want a single shot, they want doubles.
You apply the brakes as they up the stakes.
They’re out there, showing they’re best.
But they’ve always got issues to get off their chest.
You gotta sack ’em off… that’s what I say.
Put ’em in the dirt and leave them where they lay.
You don’t need them bringing you down.

Mentally agile I’m a brutal intellectual.
Your IQ is nothing if not ineffectual.
Pound for pound I’m the champ with anecdotes.
You the smart Alec but as usual you choke.
For if you can’t beat the problem then let it be broke.

In the world of business I’m a CEO.
You should see me in meetings when I’m in full flow.
People hang on my word, my God it’s absurd.
But they’re my soldiers, my little herd.
Now budgets and spreadsheets, that’s my thing.
I make those cells dance and the numbers sing.
To negotiate you’d better step to the plate.
There’s no time to hate if you think it’s same-same.
You’d better up your skills and bring your A-game.
If not you’ll fall fast and flat on your ass.
Which I find is when I call time when faced with a mind like mine.

When it comes to family I’m the world’s best dad.
Honestly though, it drives my wife mad, with desire of course.
For our fires burn bright and we’ll never get divorced.
But back on the market I’m a swinging bachelor.
I ratchet up the pressure on the single fellas.
‘How do we bag a bride?’ they cry, ‘Please tell us!’
Instead I smile, look away and stay silent.
I’ll take that to the grave, don’t make me get violent.

And so.. To sign off, a confession.
Consider this a humility lesson.
None of what I’ve said has a grain of truth.
From middle age back to my bad boy youth.
But then again, you knew that didn’t you?
I used to think that you never had a clue.
I used to think that you liked to play it smooth.
I used to think that you’d push it for the sake of it.
Piling on the pressure just to make it fit.
I’d be out there giving it large.
Yet all along, you were in charge.
But like a vapid spectre, an empty ghost.
I still remain, the one who boasts.

Team Gleeson: It’s a family affair

My musings

gleesonWhoosh, a wisp of fire. Fiery red hair to be precise. First came Brendan, entertaining us with many rambunctious performances (I say entertaining like he’s done, he’s going from strength to strength). Then came Domhnall, son of Brendan, himself having enjoyed a rather varied career up till now, spanning comedy, romance, action, quirky indies and more.

Yes, Team Gleeson is a cinematic family affair, one that deserves recognition and perhaps hasn’t sufficiently had it yet. It’s time to celebrate this dream team, time to rejoice and revel in their acting prowess, and indeed single out some of their best performances and look forward to what they’ve got coming up.

TEAM BRENDAN
Brendan came late to the acting game, getting his break aged 34 in The Field. From there he’s continued to grow, particularly as a lead actor in the last five years or so with a string of career-high performances.

  • Braveheart
  • The General
  • Gangs of New York
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • In Bruges
  • Perrier’s Bounty
  • The Guard
  • Calvary


TEAM DOMHNALL

Interestingly, Domhnall has quietly become a potent and chameleonic force in the acting world, never putting in the same sort of performance twice. In the last few years he’s stepped up to lead roles with great success.

  • Never Let Me Go
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  • True Grit
  • Black Mirror
  • Frank
  • About Time


What’s next for Team Gleeson?

Well Brendan has Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise out now and Domhnall has not only the intriguing Ex Machina out next year, but has also found himself part of one of the most sought after cast lists in years, Star Wars: Episode VII.

So things are going well for the team. Gleeson senior is maturing like a fine wine and Gleeson junior is set to go supernova in a galaxy far, far away. And the next time you see either of their names on a film poster, be sure to get excited and tell your friends.