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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Movie Review – Deadpool

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Marvel and DC have mapped-out a half-decade of comic book movies. The market is saturated. Superhero movies are way overdue for self-satire and tonal variation. And that is precisely what we get with “Deadpool,” an incredible breath of fresh air in a crowded arena.

Mainstream reviews of Marvel’s recent release have been mixed, but this isn’t a shocking revelation. The titular character in “Deadpool” isn’t the most accessible – at least not to a broad audience. With self-referential humor, endless threads of inside jokes and constant forth-wall breaks, it takes a genuine fan to fully appreciate this cinematic gem. But a gem indeed it is. Regardless of what the naysayers have published, first-time director Tim Miller has cracked the code of the R-rated comic book movie in stunning fashion. The numbers speak for themselves.

While we have other R-rated movies like “Watchmen,” “300,” and “Sin City,” those are all dark horse examples, and their success remains somewhat questionable. “Deadpool,” on the other hand, is the first R-rated release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this is significant; the success of “Deadpool” will determine whether or not Marvel Studios will roll the dice again. The production is already famously stalwart for facing-down pressure from Twentieth Century Fox to make a PG-13 cut. Larger audiences and a boost to box offices sales is the primary pressure of adventure properties like this (can you imagine what an R-rated “Star Wars” movie could accomplish?), but an R-rating gives directors much more latitide. Tim Miller & Co stood their ground and the gambit is paying off handsomely.

As of this writing, “Deadpool” has already outperformed the previous Thursday box office record for an R-rated feature. In fact, “Deadpool” blew the top spot out of the water. The previous record holder was “Fifty Shades Of Gray,” banking $8.6 million on its Thursday release. One year later, “Deadpool” managed to rake in $12.7 million. This is a coup that nobody predicted. The weekend total is expected to top $123 million, a tall margin ahead of Fox’s $60 million projection.
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“Deadpool” is, at its heart, the smart-ass teenager too clever for his own good, filled with fits of irreverence that hinge on nihilism. He’s been described by some as that kid “who pretends to be too cool to care, but wants you to like him so badly it hurts.” This isn’t an entirely unfair description, and it identifies where the film character is separated from the print character. The comic book anti-hero is a sharp-tongued mercenary anti-hero. The film character is, more or less, a sarcastic hero-hero. He tickles our reptilian brain with slaughter, but he only slaughtering bad guys, and he’s made sympathetic and accessible by the love story that drives the plot forward. These are perfectly acceptable concessions – unavoidable, even – in the superhero movie marketing system. If we elect not to split hairs, “Deadpool” is an incredibly fun movie that brings a larger-than-life personality to the screen with a deep sense of respect for the source material.

The film establishes its irreverent tone straight at the open, with title cards that intentionally mock Hollywood (“Directed By: An Overpaid Tool,” “Produced By: Some Asshats,” “Starring: A Gratuitous Cameo,” “Starring: A CGI Character,” and on and on, to wonderful comic affect), as well as thumbing its nose at The Director’s Guild of America, which has famously sued directors like George Lucas for not crediting the director of “Star Wars” (himself) and “The Empire Strikes Back” (Irvin Kershner).*

After an action sequence opening, most of “Deadpool” plays out in flashback. We learn that Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) used to be a mercenary named Wade Wilson. We’re introduced to his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and his best friend Weasel (TJ Miller). Wade and Vanessa are veritable quip-machines, whose quirky and fast-paced humor seem to be the linchpin of future marital bliss. They’re both crazy, and both crazy in love with each other. Then, an unexpected late-stage cancer diagnosis burns the Happily-Every-After to the ground.

A mysterious recruiter gives Wilson an offer he can’t refuse: enlist in the Weapon X program (the same program that created Wolverine), and cure your cancer. Distraught by how his illness is affecting Vanessa, Wilson reluctantly agrees. He is experimented on, and tortured ruthlessly, by a man who calls himself Ajax (Ed Skrein) and his masochistic partner Angel Dust (Gina Carano). He becomes a mutant, with strength and regenerative powers, but is left horribly disfigured. When Ajax leaves him in a burning building, Deadpool begins preparing for his revenge.

Debut director Tim Miller is the head of Blur Studios and is well-equipped to tackle a project like “Deadpool.” His background in animation led to the dazzling title sequence to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and an astonishingly effective TV spot for the video game “Batman: Arkham Origins.” With a pedigree like that, he has created an energetic movie that vacillates between serious romance/tragedy and humorous (albeit violent) superhero antics. Some may find this manic pacing off-putting, but it effectively balances the action with the slower (and necessary) narrative beats.

Die hard fans may criticize how the film handles the forth-wall breaks, and a sense of humor that could have been more intelligently satirical of the comic book genre. Instead, the humor opts for the faster-paced machine-gunning of smaller meta-jokes. This is a stylistic choice that I think serves the film adequately. More sophisticated satire is better left on the printed page. Some jokes miss their mark, but they’re thrown around so rapidly that it barely matters. Ajax isn’t the most memorable villain, but this, too, is no surprise in a Marvel property; superhero movies seem constitutionally incapable (or unwilling) to spend the necessary time to flesh-out a compelling bad guy.

Weasel is a wonderful pace-shifting character that gives breathing room to the narrative. TJ Miller seems to strike the perfect balance of calm in his scenes, which serve as punctuation marks throughout the story. That being said, Reynolds flat-out owns this film, from beginning to end, leaving little room for the other characters to shine. This isn’t a bad thing; it plants the seeds for future iterations of the “Deadpool” story.
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If you knew who Deadpool was ahead of this weekend’s release, you’re going to love the film. It constantly makes fun of the X-Men franchise that gave birth to the Deadpool character, so it’s fair to say that fans of the franchise are going to “get” the humor. The famously bad Deadpool origin story that was shoe-horned into “Wolverine: Origins” is directly addressed during the film’s opening moments. When dragged away by Colossus (a beautiful motion-capture performance by Stefan Kapicic) to visit Professor X, Deadpool shoots a quick look to the camera and says “McAvoy or Stewart?” referencing the two actors – James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart – who have played the Charles Xavier character in previous X-Men movies. These nods are continuous, warranting multiple viewings, and the post-credit scene at the end of the film (which I will not spoil here) is worth the price of admission all by itself. Anybody outside of the bubble may not understand why the auditorium is erupting with laughter so frequently, and may walk out of the theater scratching their heads.

If you’re a comic book freak, step away from the computer and head straight to the multiplex. It’s worth it.

*George Lucas was fined $250,000 for his transgression, which ultimately led him to resign from the Directors Guild of America. Something tells me Lucas got the last laugh.

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