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?

Westworld: season one review

TV

Now I’ve called this post a season one review because, as we all know, Westworld has been renewed for a second go round. Hardly a surprise, given it’s a flagship show on Sky Atlantic, it’s got a sickeningly talented cast (Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood etc), clever, tricksy writers (Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy), strong concept (sci-fi meets Western) and has been a storming hit with audiences (89% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).

It’s also fresh because it bucks the modern trend of drowning us in nudity and violence (Game of Thrones we’re looking at you) and doesn’t serve up that much story in one go. That’s not to say it’s light on story and character. In fact it’s quite the opposite. This is a slow burn, but one that’s worth your time. And it’s also somewhat rare for a show to start with the number of characters that it does. In that at least four or five of them have key storylines. (So maybe it’s a little like Game of Thrones.)

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For the uninitiated though, at its basic level, Westworld is a theme park, albeit a giant one, where the population are made up of ‘hosts’ (synthetic robots) that are so lifelike that you cannot tell them apart from humans. The park’s purpose is for humans to visit to get away from the world, to fight and have sex and enjoy the wild west. And the series starts with The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who’s been coming to the park for years. He’s no longer interested in the park’s base attractions, but is searching for its centre, the centre of the maze, as he calls it. To give his life meaning and purpose.

We also have various hosts who evolve throughout the story, becoming more human as they go. In particular both Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood’s characters are searching for who they really are. Their purpose.

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In fact, most characters are searching for meaning, trying to discover who they really are and why they’re here. Why are they a part of this world? What makes them who they truly are? What makes humans real and hosts not? Tugging the strings and playing God with barely concealed glee is Dr Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who’s treading a fine line between villian and a mysteriously benevolent creator. It would be easy to play him as a straight up bad guy, but Hopkins gives us more, adding layers and nuance to Ford. And by the end of the season you’re still not sure of his motives and whether he’s playing a trick on everyone, as all the best magicians do.

So this show has laid down a big and bold marker; in that it’s fairly different from a lot out there. A bit more thinky thinky and less smashy smashy. But it gets the balance right and answers enough questions to keep season one satisfying, but holds enough back so that season two promises to be worth waiting for.

Magnificent Seven: all glory no guts

Film

Ok, I fess up. I’ve not seen the original. There, I’ve said it. Yet another classic Western that’s passed me by. And yes, maybe one day I’ll get round to it, but for now at least, I have to make do with the modern version.

And I say make do because it’s OK.

Not bad, just not that great either. Which, let’s face it, is a darn tootin’ shame given the cast and director. I mean you’ve got Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Antoine Fuqua – the dream team, reunited after their success on Training Day. Plus Chris Pratt, everyone’s favourite leading man these days. And Peter Sarsgaard as the bad guy, complete with suitably evil moustache.

Slam dunk, surely? Sadly not. I’ll explain why, but first, the story.

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Should you be unfamiliar with the plot, it centres on sauve man in black, a bounty hunter called Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington); who gets recruited by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and other townsfolk as they’re being bullied and oppressed by evil industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), because he wants their gold mine all for his greedy self. So Chisolm – initially after the bounty but his motivation evolves as things go on – recruits six sharp shooters/brave idiots to help protect the town and the whole thing builds to one almighty dust-up come the finish.

Simple right? As we know, simple stories are the best. Now all the filmmakers need to do is add character and they’ll be on to a winner. Make us care about the whole gang, make us see things from the bad guy’s point of view, and perhaps even sympathise with him. Surprise us. Do something unexpected. Take risks.

Unfortunately we don’t really get any of this. Granted, the film treads the path you expect it to, ticking the Western boxes, it looks good enough and is shot well. And yes, people like Denzel can do charismatic with his eyes closed. Yet you need more.

Ensemble films are tough when it comes to building character and, whilst I feel like a broken record here (after saying much the same thing for Suicide Squad), it can be done. Marvel, for example, are great at it. And so are Disney, with J.J. Abrams having a crack at Star Wars. Oh, and the modern Star Trek franchise (Abrams again)

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My point is you can make audiences care about numerous characters in a short space of time, but you can’t rely on gunfights and beautifully framed shots to achieve it alone. Or if you do take that route, you’ve got to pepper the action with character beats. Otherwise it’s just a Western we’ve seen a hundred times before… or a battle scene from Gladiator or Braveheart or Lord of the Rings. Take your pick.

The problem I had is that I kept thinking of relatively modern Westerns I’ve preferred (Tombstone, Open Range and 3:10 to Yuma all sprang to mind), ones where I was hooked on the fate of the characters almost from the off, which is never a good sign in this case, because it just didn’t grab me the same way. I suppose there’s one thing going for this film, in that it’ll never be a franchise as (spoiler!) not all the seven make it through to the end. It is what it is, but it’s a stand-alone story.

Maybe I’m being harsh.

Maybe there was a lot of subtle character development buried deep within scenes that I simply missed. Stuff that really made you care about their fate, you know? Maybe it gets better on repeat viewings. Some films do. Or maybe Antoine Fuqua will just have to chalk this down as a swing and a miss. Or a misfire, wahey.

Either way, it’s worth a watch if you spot it on TV, or fancy a fairly mindless night at the cinema where thinking caps are not required. But no more than that. Sorry Antoine, the wait for you, Denzel and Ethan to strike gold again continues.

Trailer park: Victor Frankenstein, Joy, The Revenant

Trailer park

Good tidings we bring to you and your, er, fellow cinema fans. Here’s my latest ‘trailer park’ entry, highlighting a few that have caught my eye for films coming up soon.

Victor Frankenstein
Seemingly stealing the style straight from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock films, here we have James McAvoy’s Dr Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor in a sort of irreverent buddy movie – with monsters. And Andrew Scott, naturally.

Joy
David O. Russell reunites the dream team of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert de Niro (after Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) once again for this hugely obvious Oscar grab. That said, it looks really good, and Lawrence looks to be on fine form.

The Revenant
In this film DiCaprio plays a fur trapper left for dead by his hunting party and then hunts them down seeking revenge. With credible Oscar talk this could be DiCaprio’s time to win one. And with Tom Hardy as the bad guy and Alejandro G. Iñárritu directing this promises to be an epic Western survival yarn.