Logan (Soaring Character Development – Low Budget)

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The struggle between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ is a real one. Content is regularly stripped of complexity to make stories more accessible to more people. Films are also regularly stripped of violence and profanity to achieve a PG-13 rating, making stories more accessible to the widest possible audience. Material is dumbed-down, focus-grouped, and manufactured ‘by committee,’ and the result is often a muddled, boring, effects-driven dumpster fire.

Wolverine Origins is a good example. It had stunning visuals and a magnificent opening montage to illustrate Logan’s near-immortal status and battle-hardened personality, but it also bastardized many beloved characters and fell flat to a passionate fan-base. More recently, we have the Suicide Squad and Batman V Superman debacles, films that spent a tremendous amount of money only to insult hardcore fans. Sure, these films performed okay at the box-office and appealed to casual fans, but they were roundly dismissed by critics and didn’t perform as well as the studio had hoped. With huge up-front costs, large action set-pieces, and remarkable visual effects – not to mention monumental marketing campaigns – these films ultimately did not pass muster.

Films made by committee, that attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, never endure. Marketing may contribute to successful opening weekends, but the numbers predictably dropped-off as the word spread. Home video sales take a huge hit in these situations, and movies like this quickly become bargain-bin offerings at Wal-Mart.

We’ve had a couple of wonderful object-lessons in recent years. Deadpool‘s monumental success is often cited as the only reason Logan was allowed to have an R rating. Both films were made with a modest budget compared to other films of the genre and both films performed exceedingly well at the box office. With smaller crews, practical effects, and lower budgets, the film-makers were given more freedom to execute their vision without interference from the studios.

A novelist doesn’t hire a crew of people to change his story in order to make it more palatable to wider audiences. Why is this model so routinely employed in Hollywood? The most celebrated films of all time are typically the realization of one person’s singular vision. The rise of the writer/director in the 1960s and 1970s is our evidence. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are two recognizable names, and they are notorious for their relentless control over their productions. I would shudder to imagine what Pulp Fiction would have been like if Bob and Harvey Weinstein had insisted on focus groups and a rating reduction.

We certainly wouldn’t be revering the film today.

Director James Mangold spun some magic with Logan, borrowing the tone from the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book series and allowing the titular character to be exactly what he has been on the written page for the past several decades. The budget was modest and the set-pieces weren’t heavily glossed over with digital trickery. The film was concrete and character driven, something that’s difficult to do with a large ensemble cast. The gravitas of a specific character’s arc is difficult to illustrate with an Avengers-style film, with over a dozen major players to consider. Logan focuses mainly on two characters, Logan and Charles Xavier, and the minimalist approach leads to meaningful and emotional character arcs.

Being smaller is a good thing for super-hero and comic-book properties. The source material is serialized story-telling anyway, and we’ve seen several new comic book properties being adapted for the small screen. Daredevil and Luke Cage, Dirk Gently, Preacher, The Walking Dead, and many others have proved to be successful adaptations of comic book stories, capturing the imaginations of not just children, but adults as well. This is where the R rated film comes into play. Comic books aren’t just for kids, as television networks and Hollywood executives have assumed for an entire generation. Comic books are our modern mythology. We’ve all been raised on comic books and there are plenty of 18+ viewers who want to see these stories told in an adult, mature way.

Logan effectively closes the chapter on the Wolverine story, passing the torch to a new Wolverine. It lays the groundwork for a whole new set of stories without overwhelming glitz and glamour, without throw-away exposition and forgettable characters. The film relies on character and story, not effects. It respects its audience, rather than insulting the audience’s intellect. It did something that few of these superhero films has been able to achieve – it has a heart. It has grounded characters whose struggle we can identify with on some level. In over fifteen years of playing Logan and Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart ended the saga in a beautiful way, paving the way for new stories.

After the success of Deadpool and Logan, let’s hope that the message has been read loud and clear. Audiences aren’t only ready for more mature stories. They want them.

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Dumb And Dumber – Don’t Fall Off The Jetway Again

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It’s unfortunate when we have to forgive a franchise it’s latter-day sins, but it happens. Sometimes we stand on the shoulders of giants, and sometimes we fall off those shoulders. “Dumb & Dumber” was one of the unique films that was tremendously effective in its comedy specifically because it didn’t know it would be so great. It was earnest in its approach but knew how to take risks. It respected its audience and it never pretended to be anything other than what it was: a story of two dimwits on a road-trip. It’s a “buddy comedy” through-and-through. Even though the sequel appears to have been a nostalgic cash-grab, that alone cannot unseat the genuine brilliance of the 1994 classic.

The real train-wreck is a film that aspires to dramatic greatness when, at best, it’s a soap opera. We’ve all watched a comedy that over-clocked the same joke, much to our boredom and disappointment. We’ve seen humor recycled ad infinitum and we’ve seen movies that desperately hope a successful punchline from one feature will lead to success in another, a laziness and hubris of film-making that plagues the Hollywood circuit to this day. One of the reasons the new “Ghostbusters” trailer has caught so much negative criticism is because of this. The “that’s gonna leave a mark” gag stretches back as far as Jack Benny and Peter Sellers; it has been uttered by John Candy in “Spaceballs,” Chris Farley in “Tommy Boy,” and Michael Richards (Kramer) in multiple episodes of “Seinfeld,” and this is naming only a very select few.

In the end, audiences recognize when a film is out of its depth, trying too hard for an Oscar, or taking its audience for granted. “Dumb and Dumber” never did this. The characters were honest and three-dimensional, with their own histories and aspirations and shortcomings. A quick glance might reveal a flimsy animated cartoon cell, but an honest viewing of the whole movie shows us characters of agency, two outsiders fumbling about in a world they don’t (and because of their intellectual limitations, can’t) understand.

The Harry and Lloyd characters of “Dumb and Dumber” fulfill the “fish out of water” trope on two important levels. On the first level, they’re too dumb to function in society in any meaningful capacity. They struggle to hold down simple jobs, can’t pay their bills on time, are gullible enough to be swindled by a disabled elderly woman on a motorized cart. On the second level is where we, the audience, can actually meet them halfway and begin to relate to them rather than just laughing at them. On the second level, after finding a suitcase full of money, the duo winds up attempting to blend-in with high-society, a subterfuge that clearly doesn’t work but motivates us to think about how wealth is expressed in our society. It’s never the nugget ring or the gaudy fringed cowboy boots, no matter how expensive, that ever expresses refinement. It’s always something more subtle – the brand of watch, the fold of the pocket square, the part of the hair.

The premise of “Dumb and Dumber” is absurd, yes, but the characters are deployed with such gleeful honesty that it’s difficult not to want to see them succeed. That the film is goofy and recognizes that it’s goofy is what makes it successful. So strap into the Shaggin’ Wagon, stock up on your Binaka, and please, be sure not to fall off the jet-way again.

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A Word About Dr. Quinzel

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Any comic book aficionado or perennial nerd – every video-game, graphic-novel, pop-culture freak – can tell you what they think about this character and why. Most of us can tell you which version of the character we were first introduced to, and which iteration we prefer, from the after school cartoon to the decidedly more gritty and demented video game character from the award-winning “Arkham” series of Batman video games.

The more recent comic book and video game depictions of the character aren’t just grittier, but also much more sexualized, and this appears to have informed the direction of the character for the new “Suicide Squad” film. This makes sense for a film targeting a teenage and adult male audience. The character is perfectly tailored to play the seductive role while maintaining her dignity; complete insanity can be fun that way. What’s interesting and attractive about the character goes beyond sex appeal, though, which is probably one of the main reasons why so many people are interested in her. She isn’t a two-dimensional comic foil in a tight outfit. Or, I should say, she isn’t just a comic foil in a tight outfit. Her character is fully formed, she has agency and motivation, and this elevates her from many of the cinematic adaptations of female super-heroes and super-villains. There aren’t any one-liners to pigeonhole this one.

What we might also consider is that Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel isn’t a throwback to the 1950s, or any other earlier era of antiquated Americana. Many comic book stories from the early days of Marvel and DC weren’t very kind to women and their portrayal in popular media. This one is very original. Harley Quinn – a pretty ‘on-the-nose’ pun on the word ‘harlequin’ – was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm back in 1991. Her first appearance was in an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series” in September of 1992.

The animated series was undeniably for kids, but it adopted a wonderfully dark tone and took it’s subject matter seriously. The show was illustrated in muted tones and was heavily influenced by art-deco design. The stories were also genre-defining, presenting conflicted characters, gothic atmosphere, and emotionally intelligent plots. The production team respected its audience even though most of them were children; this might explain why the series is still considered relevant today. It’s one of those timeless classics that’ll likely extend much further than it’s original run. Heck, it already has.

In the animated series, Harley Quinn isn’t given an origin story. She just appears as an obvious, humorous female sidekick to The Joker, who disregards her extreme admiration and devotion to him. With a thick Jersey accent and an almost innocent, bubbly desire to please the man of her dreams, much of the humor comes from her obliviousness. She scarcely seems to recognize how psychotic the object of her affection is. This worked well in the cartoon format, with a characterization that remained consistent, more or less, throughout the series.

The origin story didn’t appear until the 1994 graphic novel in the “Batman Adventures” series, titled “Mad Love.” We learn that the good Dr. Quinzel began as an ambitious and uniquely brilliant young psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. Through a drawn-out attempt to psychoanalyze The Joker, she is eventually manipulated by the madman into setting him free. It’s a Stockholm-Syndrome-esque turn-of-events, and the doctor is subsequently twisted into one of The Joker’s puppets. The narrative is under-girded by Harley’s intellectual gifts and her emotional frailty, conflicting characteristics that make her a fascinating victim  – she’s both dangerous and vulnerable. The story was widely praised and won the Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best Single Issue Comic of the Year.

From the look of things, this origin story will not be a part of the new “Suicide Squad” film. The origin story may be hinted at, but it won’t be a focus of the film’s narrative. Not enough is revealed by the movie trailers alone to cast judgement, but commentators and fans appear to be split regarding this new incarnation of Harley Quinn. Some say the look is perfect, others wish there would be a more true-to-comic presence. Others are concerned that she doesn’t have that thick Jersey accent that helped define her cartoon countenance (an understandable critique when we watch the trailer and hear the classic ‘joker laugh’ from actor Jared Leto, a clear homage to Mark Hamill’s voice acting in the animated series).

The only way to know if the new Harley is worth a damn, of course, is to buy the ticket, take the ride, and see if works. I, for one, am optimistic that this is going to be a fun ride.

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Remembering Harold Ramis

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A little over two years ago news came that a beloved creative personality had passed away. Harold Ramis, widely known as Egon Spengler from “Ghostbusters,” was also an insanely talented writer, a renowned director, and all-around decent human being. His works have undeniably influenced an entire generation of filmmakers, writers, and comedians.

One of the original writers for “Animal House,” his other writing credits include “Stripes,” “Caddyshack,” “National Lampoons: Vacation,” among many, many others. His particular talent revolved around sophomoric, slapstick comedy with an undercurrent moral and social philosophy. His work is known for critiquing “the smugness of institutional life,” a theme exquisitely expressed in his ultimately pleasant, non-fatalistic narrative in “Groundhog Day,” which has since achieved a cult status.

With such a pedigree behind the original “Ghostbusters,” it’s no wonder the May 3rd release of the new “Ghostbusters” trailer – a reboot project with an all-female cast – has been met with intense criticism. The original film was such a monumental, immortal hit (in part due to the genius of Harold Ramis), the deck was already stacked. The cast and crew of the upcoming release have terribly large shoes to fill; it may prove to be an impossibility.

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Movie Review – Jane Got A Gun

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It isn’t possible to have a frank discussion about “Jane Got A Gun” without mentioning it’s labored creation. Originally announced in 2012, an avalanche of problems tossed this movie into production purgatory. It’s important to note these troubles because, without mincing words, it absolutely shows in the final cut. I can scarcely recall a film with such a short run time that felt so relentlessly long.

Billed as a western co-starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, and Michael Fassbender – to be directed by Lynne Ramsey – this esteemed property hit a wall at breakneck speed. In 2013, Fassbender abandoned the project in pursuit of a more ambitious “X-Men” feature. Edgerton was shifted into the vacated role and Jude Law was hired to replace Edgerton. Director Lynne Ramsey then abandoned the project, thrusting the whole production into legal proceedings before Gavin O’Connor stepped in to direct. Director of photography Darius Khondji then left. Then Jude Law left, expressing that he’d only stepped in to work with Lynne Ramsey.

I could go on, but it’s the same game of “musical chairs” that isn’t worthy of further discussion. Slated for an August 2014 release, the date was postponed – twice. It finally landed in the post-holiday wasteland of mid-January 2016. With virtually no marketing, no press screenings, and no hopes of finding a staid audience, it’s a near-miracle it’s even in theaters. No resemblance to an Aerosmith song title could help. This one was dead on arrival.

If we consider these woes, however, we aren’t surprised to learn that “Jane Got A Gun” missed its mark. To its credit, the film isn’t half as bad as one might expect, delivering a couple of well-staged scenes and solid performances  (especially by Natalie Portman). The film plays like a classic Western, and this is where it simply doesn’t work. Rather than attempt to reinvent or deconstruct the genre – as contemporary moviegoers might mildly expect – the narrative is weighed down by poorly developed characters and a staggering snail’s pace, with a series of ham-fisted flashbacks used, poorly, to elucidate the emotional complexity of the characters.

The film is clunky, and where modern audiences might expect dynamism in the characters, we see tired archetypes, caricatures that hop about the stage like marionettes. We can barely bring ourselves to care about their fates. That’s a problem.

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Set in 1870s New Mexico Territory, the film opens as retired outlaw Hammond (Noah Emmerich) returns to his remote home where his wife (Portman) is waiting. Riddled with bullets, he collapses from his horse and informs her that “The Bishop Boys are coming.” So-called “mystery box” setups like this are a wonderful device – “who are the Bishop boys?” – that can engage the audience, but in this instance it carries no gravity. We don’t know who he’s speaking of. All we see is that Jane knows who they are, and that they’re definitely bad news.

She dresses his wounds and leaves him to convalesce, delivering their daughter to a neighboring ranch for safety. She then seeks help from from Dan Frost (Edgerton) to help defend herself from the inexorable onslaught.

Through a series of clumsy flashbacks, we learn that Frost was once Jane’s fiance. He left to fight in the Civil War, unaware that she was pregnant. He is eventually declared dead and she she decides to leave their Missouri home, heading west in search of a new life. Believing John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) will help secure safe passage, she is instead sold into sexual slavery and her daughter is murdered by one of Bishop’s underlings. She is rescued by another of Bishop’s cohort, Ham, who steals her away to start a quiet life together.

Enter Dan Frost, who we learn is alive and well, and has tracked Jane across the country only to learn of her new life and her new daughter with another man. Needless to say, he isn’t excited about the prospect of defending Jane and her wounded husband. Naturally, he shows up at the last minute to lend a hand. What the film establishes is that at least four or five years have passed since Ham betrayed his dapper and ruthless employer (his daughter with Jane is our clue), and the film never adequately explains why Bishop is so hell-bent on exacting his revenge. Sure, one of his men quit. Perhaps Bishop took a loss when Jane escaped the brothel – but we don’t even know if the brothel belonged to Bishop or if he simply sold her, in which case he wouldn’t have lost anything. Is it his pride that was wounded? Is there an “honor among theives” theme that’s playing out? We are never satisfied with an answer.

There is a final showdown, but I will spare the details. It plays out largely as we might expect, with a shoe-horned twist at the very end that the cast does its absolute best to play seriously. The bad guys lose, of course, but I won’t tell you what happens with Ham and Frost and their uncomfortable love triangle with Jane.

The stand-alone performances are admittedly good. Edgerton plays a terse and heartbroken rancher as stiff and stoic, nihilistic and whiskey-sipping as we might expect from a heartbroken lonely man. Throughout most of the film he staggers around like a haggard ghost who’s lost its way. Portman does an excellent job breathing life into her character. Half the appeal of the film is seeing her in boots and dress, smudges of dirt on her face, confidently wielding a rifle. I never would have imagined her in a role such as this, but hers is a compelling performance of feminine strength, spitting words through clenched teeth with a convincing mid-western Oklahoma drawl. McGregor is good, too, playing the snake-like villain so expertly I expect some viewers will fail to recognize it’s even him.

The problem isn’t in the performances. It’s mostly the pacing and the flashback structure, which attempts to fill in the background story before the guns-blazing finale. This serves to distract more than inform the film, not necessarily for their content but for how inelegantly these rocks are thrown through the windowpane of the story. The Bishop character is poorly written. He is the most archetypal “Snidely Whiplash” villain one could possibly expect. Perpetually clad in black, swarthy, mustachioed, a cigar clenched between his teeth in every single scene. All that this cartoon character lacked was a moment to twist his mustache and laugh exaggeratedly at just about nothing for just about too darn long.

This film must be filed under “potential for greatness but didn’t get there.” The skeletal structure is there. Not every story needs to be complex in order to be eloquent and compelling. The problem is that the emotional undercurrent isn’t properly expressed; the connective tissue of the plot just isn’t good. Gavin O’Connor brings this story to the screen, but it doesn’t have any personal touch to it, nothing to elevate it to greatness.

I can’t remember rolling my eyes so much at a feature film. It’s a forgettable movie that could have been special but just doesn’t make it. It isn’t worth the price of admission, although it could make for a fun home viewing. At the very least, I’m happy to see films like this and “The Hateful Eight” coming out – the western genre is in need of a revival. We are almost at full saturation with comic book films, and the comic book bubble will eventually burst – mark my words. It looks like the western might just be making a comeback.

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A Self-Indulgent Birthday Post (and Claire Danes)

Claire Danes

It doesn’t always have to be serious, now does it? It’s my birthday, and I’m feeling nostalgic.

Four years ago, I had the extreme pleasure of driving hours in early-morning darkness north from the Mexico border to Tucson International Airport to visit my sister in Boston. About an hour into the drive, going through Tombstone, my car punched through a thick fog, crawling at a twenty mile-per-hour pace. Before me, like an apparition, more than a dozen deer, wreathed in fog, trotted confidently down the main stretch of road through the town like a team of brewery horses.

Watching them clop at an even unbroken pace, I felt as though I had been teleported. Steam blew out of their nostrils. My car didn’t frighten them. It was a sight.

I met my first-born nephew when I finally arrived in Boston. After climbing an ungodly number of flights up from the red-line to Harvard Square, my brother-in-law was waiting to take me to their flat. Having lived in a small southwest town for several months, it was an exceptionally peculiar transition into the bright-light bustle of Boston. Overwhelming even, but not frightening. It’s amazing how quickly we adapt to our surroundings, how quickly everything else becomes alien.

The squealing sound of the rails, the parade of lights rushing through the streets, the mass of rigid shoulders marching about, fists buried in winter coats – I had almost forgotten what winter was like for the rest of the country. I still prefer a chilly Arizona mountain to drifts of snow.

My sister and I went out for lunch the day after my birthday, a lovely restaurant with the gayest of the gayest of all hosts leading us to our table; lisping, delicate-wristed stereotypes abounded. Every cafĂ© and restaurant feels like paradise when you walk in from the forbidding cold. My sis was happy to have some time away from the apartment and the rigors of raising a new-born child, and I was happy to drink a beer and warm my hands in a corner pub with my sister – someone I’m confident still knows me better than anybody else, despite years of living thousands of miles away.

When we eventually emerged onto Harvard Square, the ‘Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year’ parade was winding it’s way through. I wasn’t aware of this tradition, but it’s an event put on by the Hasty Pudding Theatricals Society at Harvard. Beginning in 1951, the society bestows an award to performers deemed to have made a “lasting and impressive contribution to the world of entertainment.” The television series “Homeland” had just wrapped it’s first season and had attracted a significant amount of acclaim, and at the head of the procession was Claire Danes.

I only managed to nab a few little snapshots, but it was still a lot of fun to walk up to the snowy street, not expecting anything, only to have a brass band and a load of wagons dig through the thoroughfare with crowds of people all about. Excitement is contagious, and the streets were lined with people. My birthdays, ever since I left home, have always attracted tragedy – break-ups, job losses, frustrations with family, work, or school. But this was a good one. The last good one I can remember. The only good one I remember since I left home for college.

I’ll never forget it. I have the pictures to remind me.