Logan (2017)

Logan (2017) movie poster

director James Mangold
viewed: 03/05/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My daughter was very excited to see that Logan was to be released on her 13th birthday. And for her birthday, I took her and a couple of her friends to see Logan. It’s a small sample size, but based on my experience, 13 year old girls LOVE Logan. It even brought tears to their eyes.

Surprisingly violent and successfully gritty, Logan takes the Wolverine character as played by Hugh Jackman into the future, the year 2029, where Logan is ailing from blood poisoning, alcoholism, and the bitter, brutal events that led up to the elimination of all mutants. It’s only him and Caliban (Stephan Merchant) left, caring for the very ill Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

That is until his clone daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen) shows up. She’s like him, with those claws, and when she’s unleashed, she’s a killing machine.

The story then turns to a run for the Canadian border, to some safe haven for Laura and her test tube mutant brethren. There is an amazing poignancy in this, with the current state of affairs and the plight of immigrants in the United States at the moment.

The film has some political commentary, but really it’s a character-driven film, with a lot of brutal dismemberment, slicing and dicing. And for my money, not just the 13 year olds in our party, it works well. Jackman and Stewart and Keen derive their pathos.

It’s a superhero film stripped of costumes and magic, humanized, or at least de-superhero-ized. Easily the best film in the series.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 06/04/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The X-Men movies keep surprising me.  Rising from the ashes of The Last Stand (2006), the re-booted franchise that kicked off with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) and renewed yet again by Bryan Singer’s surprising return to the franchise that he first brought to the screen in 2000, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), this (currently) 2nd trilogy has managed despite odds and levels of narrative complexity, turned out some really decent movies.

Not great movies, mind you, but good movies.  Entertainment.

This series took on the added challenge of a reworked timeline, setting the films in the past:  First Class in the 1960’s, Days of Future Past in the 1970’s (as well as in the present?), and now Apocaplypse in 1983.  Frankly, even trying to get my head around the whole timeline thing is more than I care to strain for myself.

But I think I know why this works, at least to some extent.  The X-Men were always a more interesting crew than Marvel stablemates, The Avengers.  The Avengers were always sort of Marvel’s mainstream, while the X-men were sort of their “alternative culture”.  And ultimately are a more interesting gang of characters.

It’s 144 minutes of mind and butt-numbing action, so incredibly much packed in to this sprawling cataclysmic story.  An almost all-powerful villain Apocalypse (a heavily CGI & make-up-buried Oscar Isaac) rises from nearly 6,000 years of slumber to re-boot the Earth.  It takes all of the X-men to come together to take him and his associates down.

I often think that one shortcoming of the modern superhero story is that every villain is an existential one, every one is bringing an apocalypse to Earth (or even the universe) and the heroes have to “save the world”.  Old school comics had heroes and villains on smaller scale stories that were still compelling.

This story isn’t quite so complicated unless you’re trying to tie it into the prior movie’s narrative (which was complicated and is essentially extended here with the action taking place a decade later — almost 20 years since First Class).

For its broad spectrum of response (seriously “mixed” reviews), Apocalypse hardly seemed like a sure thing.  When I told my superhero-loving 12 year old daughter we were going to it, she said, “Yusss!”  And when I found myself walking out of the movie thinking, “Gee, I really kind of liked that…”   I started realizing that despite the fact that I stopped reading superhero comics around 1983, that I guess the X-men were the ones I liked, far more than a lot of the others.

Lastly, quite as in Days of Future Past, the film’s singular best sequence features Evan Peters as Quicksilver, saving the day in a prolonged time-stretched action scene, here saving the whole Xavier school’s populace from an explosion.  Talk about a character crying out for his own movie.  It’s kind of clear that Singer has made the case for him, perhaps made the case that Singer should make it himself.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 05/25/2014 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Who thought that this new X-Men movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, would turn out to be this year’s first good superhero movie?  Not I, necessarily.  The trailers seemed a muddle of complexity and confusion, with a tonality of overwrought drama.  The return of director Bryan Singer, who helped to usher in this latest wave of superhero movies with his X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003), didn’t necessarily guarantee success.  After all, the previous X-Men movie, X-Men: First Class (2011) was a whole different creative team with director Matthew Vaughn at the helm.  So, really, who knew?

X-Men: Days of Future Past taps into one of the comic book’s most venerated story tropes, one that involves time travel and alternate realities.  Bryan Singer gets to re-connect his “old” X-Men (e.g., Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier and Ian McKellen as Magneto) crew with the newer X-Men actors of X-Men: First Class (e.g., James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto), all in one movie.  And it all gets to make sense, which is even odder.   And of course we’ve got the irreplaceable Hugh Jackman reprising his Wolverine role for like the seventh time.

The bottom line is the the story is complicated.  It has to do with a future in which giant killer robots with the ability to morph to destroy every mutant have taken over the world and track and kill every mutant or potential would-be progenitor of a mutant in the world.  With the last surviving mutants scrambling around to escape the Sentinels (as they are called), a last ditch hope is to project Wolverine back into his 1973 self to go and warn the earlier versions of everyone that the assassination of the head of the robot program needs to be stopped, the only hope to change the future for the better.  And the assassin?  Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.

While there is nothing simple about trying to relate a thing about this movie (maybe why the trailer was doomed to a lack of clarity), the film is actually an engaging, action-packed ride, managing to keep the whole thing’s momentum in constant thrust and entertaining, largely, the whole way through.  Now, I’d read the comics from which this was adapted, so I had some familiarity with the concepts and characters.  The film doesn’t spend much time trying to teach you who is who.  I stopped reading the comics in the 1980’s so there are a number of characters with whom I too am unfamiliar.

But, you know, it’s actually pretty good.  X-Men: Days of Future Past is the first superhero movie this year that I’ve walked out actually feeling like I enjoyed it.  Which is a testament in a way itself because I’ve been beginning to wonder (as others have no doubt) whether the superhero movie has played itself out for the time being, despite being the template for years to come for movie studios.  There is a doubtless cynicism in some of the future films, though there are some things to which I am looking forward.

Now, I guess, I’m looking forward to the next X-Men film, too.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Matthew Vaughn
viewed: 06/17/2011 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

It’s kind of ridiculous, the pure quantity of superhero movies that have been rolling out for the past couple of years.  Marvel Comics in particular has amped up its production of movies, preparing for next summer’s Avengers movie, giving each of the characters their own solo film in the build-up.  While that run is quite unprecedented and a somewhat interesting, though also deplorable marketing beast that it is, the situation of The X-Men as well as other franchises, is the “re-boot”.

While re-boot or re-imagining is the common style of re-make these days, what’s even more unusual is how short the cycles are now between one run of movies and a whole new era of directing, producing, casting to attempt to re-invigorate a franchise when it’s hit its first commercial failure.

The first X-Men series of films (X-Men (2000), X2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)), spanning 2000-2006 with its own one-off spin-off (so far) was a success story for Marvel and the comic book movie in general.  The X-Men have long been a fan favorite, but the characters’ designs and powers would have been very difficult to create without digital special effects.  And the casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the comic’s most popular character, made him a star and probably helped pave the way for all comers since.  But the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, which had the feel of a final installment to a trilogy of sorts, was also a bomb of a film.

For X-Men: First Class, the re-boot does something akin to the successful Star Trek (2009) re-boot, going back to a time before the other series came together, an origin story in which the main characters are younger and more vital.  Of course, the Star Trek re-boot had a clever angle of telling a story that hadn’t been told before.  X-Men: First Class goes back to paint the origin of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and others, perhaps re-tweaking tales that have been told in comic books before.

They set it in the early 1960’s, centered around the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a tweak on real world history.  It’s also interestingly close to the real world creation of the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, so there is an uncanny sense of aptness in this setting.

The story is very much about how Magneto and Xavier started as colleagues and how they came to be on separate sides of a political spectrum, and eventually arch enemies.  The film gets a lot from McAvoy and Fassbender, who both have charm and give the film some of its striven for depth.

It’s directed by Matthew Vaughn, who only a year ago brought out the fun and ironic superhero movie Kick-As (2010).  Here he’s working with some heavy comic book lore, the origin story of one of comic-book-dom’s favorite gangs, and telling it alongside historical portents of WWII and what almost became WWIII.  And he does a pretty good job of it, considering the sprawling amount of narrative that the film has to pack in.

With your average single superhero movie, one villain/one hero can make for a more balanced story, a little more time to invest in the good and the evil.  When films add more and more heroes and villains they often get off-track.  For a film about a team, each hero and villain needing some significant back-story to give them depth, not to mention the big build-up to when the hero(es) have to save the world in a big showdown…there is just a lot of exposition to contain in a two hour plus movie.

I took the kids, who were nonplussed about going to the movie, but they both enjoyed it.  I do have to give it to Clara who observed to me that “All the characters have superpowers but the women have to take their clothes off to use theirs’.”  Which is an astute feminist criticism from a 7 year old girl.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Gavin Hood
viewed: 09/27/09

What an un-great title for a movie: X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  You know, that would have been pretty lousy title for a comic book.  All it indicates is branding and that this is a series of stories that go back to tell the “origin” of a superhero from the X-men team of characters from The X-Men comic books.  In other words, it is a title that serves clarity and marketing over anything more artistic or interesting.  Which is why suck a lousy title might yet be apt for such a film as this.

Really, what Marvel Comics and their film production side managed to do with successes around their Spider-Man and X-Men franchises was notable at the time.   I’ve noted it before, that their biggest success with X-Men (2000) was casting Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, their most-beloved character from the comic books, going a step further than “just not screwing it up” and actually getting it pretty right.  They carried this over into X2 (2003) and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), though watering down the qualities, especially with the latter film, a sloppy piece of crap compared to the marginally above-average first two films.  And it was only a matter of time before Jackman got a film all to himself (so to speak).

If anything, it’s a little surprising that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is actually an improvement on X-Men: The Last Stand, especially given the negative reviews that the film received.  I mean, it’s not a great film, not even by comic book adaptation standards, but it does merit from the casting of Liev Schrieber as Jackman’s brother, the character of Sabretooth, a big step up from the version played by Tyler Mane in the first X-Men movie.  Enough at least to give relative weight to the Biblical-esque love-hate relationship between the siblings.

For me, who left the X-Men comics behind in the 1980’s, a lot of the “origin” story was new, elaborated upon from earlier suggestions and mysteries in the comics over the years.  And while much of the story is hokey as hell (or all of it for that matter), there is relative reward in understanding the “story” such as it is.

For me, this is the kind of entertainment that can’t hardly go wrong on DVD.  If I’d paid to see this in the theater, I might well have felt differently overall, which is what I did with the X-Men: The Last Stand, unfortunately.

It’s all product, all marketing, all building more groundwork for sequels and spin-offs, for which this film already has several in the works.  With comic books, at least in the old days, there was a series and you could follow it.  Since I stopped collecting/reading these comics, though they did it before to an extent, there are so many fractured variations and products along these product lines that I wouldn’t even know where to start to find their tropes.  I think they’ve splintered the main series jillions of times, offering various re-namings.  Maybe in that case it justifies this “branding titling” “X-Men Origins:” if it’s so hard to know the full bore of the product line.

Hardly a pure thing in anyone’s version of filmmaking, adaptations of existing narratives from pre-existing forms, but still…  They could attempt to aim a little higher.

X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Brett Ratner
viewed: 06/02/06 at the AMC Loews Metreon 15, SF, CA

Not surprisingly, with the departure of Bryan Singer, director of the first two installments, and the insert of director Brett Ratner, whose claim to fame were the action/comedy Rush Hour series, the X-men franchise hit the rocks of mediocrity rather hard. Singer, whose work is probably above average at best, left to make the coming Superman reprise and left the super-mutant group struggling with one another for screen time.

Eh, it’s exactly what everyone else is saying about it. Too many characters and plot lines vying for the spotlight, with none of them getting proper treatment. There is an aspect of “last gasp” to this film, feeling like everybody has to get their 15 seconds of screen time since it might be the last shot.

I’ve felt that the main success of the X-men movies has been that they got a lot of the characters “right”. This simply means that they were able to bring them to the screen with casting, effects, make-up, and narrative in a way that really captures their comic book origins. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is the prime example of this. And this time, they bring The Beast, played by Kelsey Grammer, in bright blue, which I thought was pretty good. Grammer’s voice I think found its greatest role in Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons and I can hardly hear him speak without thinking of that character.

The comic has long portrayed the “mutant condition” as a metaphor for racism (originally) and later for homophobia and other societal fears of non-mainstream culture, non-white culture. In X-men: The Last Stand it’s a myriad of things, but the “cure” for mutantism echoes I think a bit more of historical psychological approaches to homosexuality, seeing it as an aberration that must be “fixed” rather than a variation that can be accepted. Ultimately, it’s simply “difference” that is being eradicated (and I want to say that with the French accent on difference). I don’t think that this film really has anything to say in particular on this issue, but merely rides existing rhetoric in the comic narratives to suggest a sense of something more than lots of explosions and characters with “real cool” superhuman abilities.

As a summer movie denuded of all this comic book expectation, it’s not too bad. It’s entertaining enough, hyperactive and overfull of material and characters, but enjoyable. Being a San Franciscan, I enjoyed the major set-piece with the Golden Gate Bridge being moved from Marin to Alcatraz.

Lots of characters are either killed or made powerless in this film, though the ending leaves the door open for future installments. Certainly, as many others would suggest, one hopes that they will find a more interesting director to take the helm next time.

X2

(2003) dir. Bryan Singer
viewed: 12/11/03

I had a period in my life, like many teenage boys, in which reading and collecting comic books was one of my primary activities. And like many others, too, one of my particular favorites was The Uncanny X-men. This period for me ran between ages 13-15 or so, I think, and it petered out completely. I mean, I haven’t read one of these comics in probably 15 years. Still, I am familiar with the characters and storylines (since in some ways they don’t seem to have significantly progressed in that timeframe.

The first of these live action adaptations, X-Men (2000), also from director Bryan Singer, was a decent flick whose greatest strength was getting the characters right, and namely getting the character of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) right. And in many ways, that is more of a feat than making a good movie and is probably what won the film its positive reaction from fans.

This time around, the film isn’t that much more interesting overall, though it’s entertaining pretty much throughout. The most significant development is the addition of the character of Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) who is similarly well-cast, designed, and rendered (all except for his tail which looks like a badly animated tag-along).

The themes of the comic and the film have always been one from a culturally “outsider” perspective, dealing namely with equivalents of racism and potentially homophobia, and certainly any negative cultural fears of the “other”. The narratives side sympathetically with the good, dynamic, cool mutants and general human society is rendered as fearful, hateful, and harsh. This has been probably one of the characteristics of the series that has appealed to fans, the strength of a fairly clearly defined subtext and one that is easy to identify with.

It is interesting how in this adaptation the contemporary political landscape is shed in a harsh light. The government and military is full of fear and loathing for that which they do not understand and mobilizes against the mutants, utilizing flashpoint words like “terrorism” to justify actions for rounding up mutants and forcing them to register with a government agency so that they can be “tracked”. As I said, you don’t have to dig deep for the subtext here. It is interesting how the film strives for relevance in the contemporary world schema.