Friday, 31 March 2017

Logan (2017)

One looks at the past, the other their potential future in bleak superhero thriller Logan

Director: James Mangold
Cast: Hugh Jackman (Logan), Patrick Stewart (Charles Xavier), Boyd Holbrook (Donald Pierce), Stephen Merchant (Caliban), Richard E. Grant (Dr Zander Rice), Dafne Keen (Laura), Eriq La Salle (Will Munson), Elisa Neal (Kathryn Munsun), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Gabriela Lopez)

What were you doing 17 years ago? Personally, I was still at school: but Hugh Jackman was being parachuted into X-Men to take on the role of Wolverine after Dougray Scott’s shooting schedule on Mission Impossible 2 forced him to drop out. Since then he has appeared in eight films as the clawed superhero, some good, some shockingly bad – and this is his swansong. Taking a paycut, Jackman wanted to make the Wolverine “you’ve seen in the comics”: did he succeed?

The year is 2029 and mutants are nearly extinct. Logan (Hugh Jackman) lives in Mexico on an abandoned farm, caring for former X-Men leader Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now suffering dementia and brain seizures with lethal effects on those around him. When young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) arrives needing their help, Logan and Charles find themselves (reluctantly in Logan’s case) on one last adventure, travelling to reunite Laura with other new-born mutants – with a band of lethal mercenaries on their tail. Naturally a string of bodies follows in their wake.

Firstly I think its fair warning to say this is a bone-crunchingly, head-skeweringly, blood-spurtingly violent film. It’s easily more violent than every other X-Men film put together quadrupled. It’s also littered with strong swearing. To be honest, I’m surprised it’s not an 18 certificate – lord knows what strings they had to pull. Mangold’s intention is to show us what battle would actually be like if you were fighting with impossibly sharp knives for hands: limbs are hacked off, chests ripped to pieces, heads are punctured, bits of brain litter the floor. 

There is no romanticism of any of this violence – and the film needs to show it, as its primary theme is the impact a life full of this sort of extreme slaughter would have. Even Logan, his regenerative powers severely decayed, stumbles and limps through the action, often totally outmatched by those he fights – even a gang of car thieves get the jump on him in the opening scene. In fact, that scene serves to establish the mood of the film very quickly: Logan is slow and out of shape and eventually has to resort to extreme and brutal violence to desperately end the fight as quickly as possible. 

The action in the film is impressively filmed but never triumphalist in execution, and the overriding emotion is pain and sorrow. In many ways, it’s a bleak and depressing film, with precious little hope (it does find some peace and optimism in the final frames, but it’s almost the first time this happens). It has a huge body count, and many of the deaths hit home as both deserving and undeserving suffer. In this world there are no good decisions – whatever Logan decides to do, people around him suffer: and it’s the truth of this throughout his life that has led to such pain behind his eyes. The film’s comparatively small scale compared to previous films in the franchise helps keep the focus intimate and personal.

Its setting of course brings Westerns to mind, but also in its sense of the grim passing of an age. Emotionally, both Logan and Charles are exhausted and struggling under impossible burdens of guilt and sorrow., it’s a nihilist Western, a homage to everything from The Searchers to Unforgiven. Mangold’s direction seizes these contrasts and infuses every frame of the film with visual and stylistic homages to this iconic American genre: even the inclusion of X-Men comic books “in-universe” gives the heroes the feeling of being, Wyatt Earp style, living legends, struggling to carry that burden.

Interestingly this is probably one of the first films that feels like a post-Trump movie. The future America it shows is grim and depressing, with big corporations ruling the roost and the little guy trodden down. The health system is a mess. The film is set partly across the border in Mexico (with brutally tight border control preventing easy passage). A large section of the plot even revolves around a desperate attempt to flee across a border before it is closed down. Of course it’s probably just part and parcel of the standard cinematic crapsack future, but right now the tone and mood of the film feels very much in sync with modern America. 

Hugh Jackman is of course front and centre in this film, and you can see straight away this project is a deeply felt one for him. Unlike any other X-Men film before, this is a character study and allows Jackman to first and foremost act. And he is terrific. With Logan’s powers failing, not only is he able to offer a very different physical performance than ever before, he also allows the character’s vulnerability, defensiveness and fear to come to the fore. Jackman explores the continual conflict in the character between his rage and isolation and his empathy and desire to be good. His protectiveness of Charles is balanced throughout by his deliberate distancing himself from Laura, as if he knows anyone whom he allows to get close will suffer. Jackman makes Logan feel old and beaten down, without losing the sense of fire under the surface.

There are in fact terrific performances throughout the film. Patrick Stewart similarly has never had a better written X-Men role in 17 years, and he makes the witty, profane, bitter but still optimistic and kindly Charles Xavier a stand-out. The interplay between him and Jackman is superb, drawing on the emotion of that years of working together on these films. Dafne Keen is a real find as Laura, convincingly feral and never less than compelling, even though she barely speaks for 2/3rd of the film – Mangold’s direction of her is perfect, drawing maximum impact from her performance. She perfectly captures the sense of being a younger version of Logan, struggling to understand the world and the impact of killing: is it any wonder Logan feels uncomfortable looking at her? Boyd Holbook is very good as a dry mercenary while Richard E Grant draws the maximum from limited screentime as a frightingly calm “mad” scientist.

While this is something very different from previous X-Men films, it’s not a perfect film. In terms of violence, I would argue it sometimes goes too far, like an excited child looking to see how far it can push us. It’s main problems are with narrative: far too many plot devices in the film are signposted like Chekov’s Guns, drawn to our attention in a forced way (often twice in case we forgot) so that most audiences could guess where events are going (there is only one real surprise in the film, and that one I defy you to really see coming). Similarly, while the film’s debt to classic Westerns is clear, to have the characters actually sit down and watch Shane seems a little too much (as well as giving a massive hint about the eventual destination this film is heading towards). Mangold’s direction is good but he lacks the profoundity of a Christopher Nolan to give these comic book happenings a shattering depth – their emotional impact comes from our familiarity with these actors in these roles over many years, not quite so much the film itself.

Saying all that, this is something strikingly different and showpieces some terrific performances. It also feels like it has something it wants to tell us about the burdens of violence on a man and how the past always eventually catches up with us.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

WarGames (1983)

"Would you like to play a nice game of Chess" - if only he had said yes...

Director: John Badham
Cast: Matthew Broderick (David Lightman), Dabney Coleman (Dr John McKittrick), John Wood (Dr Stephen Falken), Ally Sheedy (Jennifer Mack), Barry Corbin (General Beringer)

If you worked in a nuclear launch centre and received orders to launch out of the blue, would you want to make a phone call to confirm? That’s the compelling idea that opens this tense but engagingly playful film on nuclear politics that successfully balances teen high-school drama with the possibility of Armageddon. For the record, the man who wants to make the call (played by Leo McGarry himself, John Spencer) outrages his subordinate so much with this breach in protocol that the subordinate pulls a gun on him and demands he follows the orders.

David (Matthew Broderick) is that staple of high-school drama, the geeky genius who coasts through school. He’s a computer genius and, attempting to impress cool girl Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), one-day he finds a back-door into NORAD’s weapons control system WOPR (aka JOSHUA). Thinking he’s found a computer games company, he accepts its invitation to play “Thermonuclear Global War”. Before he knows where he is, he’s in custody and bombs are fueling in their silos. 

The opening of the film (a brilliantly self-contained mini-movie) perfectly encapsulates the swiftness of escalation in a nuclear war. At least three more times in the movie, we see how swiftly events can push on from DEFCON 5 to 1. This is a film that questions the very purpose of both the nuclear deterrent and nuclear war itself. There isn’t a single character who truly advocates the purpose of the weaponry, and none of them is anything but terrified at the prospect of pushing the button. But this questioning is handled lightly, and Badham’s direction never allows it to dominate proceedings. The film tackles such a big topic with such a sharp and fun script, and at such a rollicking, enjoyable pace with laughs and thrills, that it must count as a some sort of minor classic.

The film is also of course about computers and hacking. There is actually a lot of charm in watching, on my tablet, a film where a computer takes up the space of a room and an actual telephone is used to hack into an external network. This is probably one of the first films ever to demonstrate hacking and the potential influence of computers. Thrillingly, the film has both a warm acceptance of the advantages computers could bring, and a suitably sci-fi dread of what they may (unwittingly or not) unleash on the world if granted full power over us. 

Because this film recognises, arguably ahead of its time, that the mechanisation and omnipresence of computers is terrifying. Like John Spencer in the film’s opening, most of us (I hope!) would want to speak to another human being before pressing the buttons. JOSHUA is scary because it is so benignly controlling – it believes that nuclear war is just another game, and has no understanding at all of the impact on the world its actions will have. JOSHUA isn’t a villain at all – it’s literally an ill-educated child that hasn’t learned its actions have consequences and can’t tell the difference between simulation and reality. It’s the nightmare scenario of having all the empathy and emotional intelligence removed from the world of decision-making.

This isn’t just a film about technology and nuclear politics though – far from it. It’s an engaging human story, told in a tight and streamlined way, and staffed by a very well written selection of characters who all feel tangible and real. Broderick and Sheedy are wonderfully engaging leads, with a great deal more depth than the cliché: David is far more assertive and determined than you might expect, while Jennifer has much more sense and humanity than a high-school Queen. This extends to our NORAD location: Dr McKittrick is far more empathetic and willing to listen than first impressions suggest, and General Beringer is a thoughtful, sensitive man at odds with his obstructive, gung-ho first impression. John Wood (a great stage actor who never quite got the film roles he deserved) plays Dr Falken with wit and a knowing wink, his disillusionment with the world sitting alongside a wry delight. 

I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed this film and how well it stands up. It’s thought-provoking but it’s also a lot of fun and very well written, acted and directed. There is a very good mixture between “action” sequences – a wild drive and run to get into NORAD before it is locked down is particularly exciting – and conversation scenes that, due to their high stakes and impassioned acting, play like verbal action scenes. It’s superbly designed too, with the NORAD “war room” in particular setting the pattern for all such locations in future movies.

This is a perfect marriage between the blockbusting mindset of the 1980s and the cynicism of the 1970s. Because it’s a blockbuster and has kids in leading roles, it’s never got the credit it deserves – but this has as much merit as many political and conspiracy thrillers of the cynical 1970s.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Butler (2013)

Forest Whitaker takes on a lifetime of service, as the Civil Rights movement meets Downton Abbey

Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Cuba Gooding Jnr (Carter Wilson), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), Colman Domingo (Freddie Fallows), Yaya DeCosta (Carol Hammie), Terrence Howard (Howard), Adriane Lenox (Gina), Elijah Kelley (Charlie Gaines), Clarence Williams III (Maynard), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Vanessa Redgrave (Annabeth Westfall), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Robin Williams (Dwight D Eisenhower)

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grows up on a plantation in the South; after his mother is raped and his father killed by the son of the house, the family matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) takes him on as a house servant as a token gesture of regret. His training here sets him on the path to working in a succession of increasingly wealthy hotels and, finally, the White House. Over 30 years, he serves the Presidents in office, never involving himself or commenting on policy, proud of his service to his country. This often puts him in conflict with his Civil Rights activist son Louis (David Oyelowo), with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) stuck in the middle.

This is the sort of film that feels designed to win awards. It’s based on a vague true story (it changes nearly all the events of course) and it’s about a big subject. It’s got big name actors doing acting. It aims at big themes. What it actually is, is a film that misses its marks. It’s a film that spends time with big themes but has nothing to say about them, or in fact anything interesting to say full stop. It assumes that the historical context will do the work, and leaves it at that. Instead, it settles for trite sentimentality and cliché, personal stories played on a stage that makes those stories seem slight and inconsequential rather than giving them reflective depth.

The biggest problem about the film, leaving aside its heavy-handed sentimentality and mundane predictable storytelling, is that all the way through it feels like we are following the wrong story. It’s such a vibrant and exciting period of history, so full of events, passion and struggle: and instead we follow the story of Cecil, essentially a bland passive character who achieves very little and influences even less. There are vague references to leading “the regular life” and how working in domestic service is like some sort of subversive act to demonstrate the education and hard-working possibilities of the minority, but to be honest it never really convinces.

The film promises that Cecil was a man who had a profound impact on the people he served – but this doesn’t come across at all. Instead, the parade of star turns playing US Presidents are there it seems for little more than box office: we see them speaking about Civil Rights issues or planning policy, but we get very little sense of Cecil having any bond with them. The cameos instead become a rather distracting parade, as if the film was worried (perhaps rightly) that Cecil’s story was so slight and bland that they needed the historical all-stars to drum up any interest in it. It doesn’t help that the cameos are mixed – Rickman, Schreiber and Marsden do okay with cardboard cut-out expressions, but Cusack in particular seems horribly miscast. A braver film would have kept these pointless camoes in the background and focused the narrative on Cecil and his colleagues below stairs, and their struggles to gain equal payment with their white colleagues. This film is seduced by the famous events and names it spends the rest of the time backing away from.

The performance at the centre is also difficult to engage with. Forest Whitaker is such an extreme, grand guignol actor that it’s almost sad to see him squeeze himself into a dull jobsworth such as Cecil. Whitaker seems so determined to play it down that he mumbles inaudibly at great length (it’s genuinely really difficult to understand what he is saying half the time), slouching and buttoning himself into Cecil’s character. It doesn’t come across as a great piece of character creation, more a case of miscasting. Oprah Winfrey does well as his wife, although her character is utterly inconsistent: at times a drunk depressive, at others level-headed and calm. The link of either of these characters to the hardships of life as a Black American or their role in racial politics is murkily unclear.

The star turn of the film – and virtually all its interesting content – is from David Oyelowo, who ages convincingly through the film from idealist to activist to elder statesman. His story also intersects with the actual historical events that are taking place in America and he is an active participant – unlike Cecil the passive viewer, just as likely to switch the TV off as follow the news. Often I found myself wishing the film could follow his character rather than Whitaker’s.

That’s the problem with the film: what point is it trying to make? The film seems to want to honour Cecil’s service in the White house – but the film is a slow journey towards Cecil’s sudden revelation that maybe his son’s campaigning for Civil Rights was the right thing to do. This flies in the face of the film’s tribute to Cecil’s decades of quiet, unjudging service: the film can’t make up its mind whether it wants to salute Cecil for being an unjudging, dedicated servant to a long line of Presidents, or for having the courage to take a political stance towards the end. It’s having its cake and eating it. It’s this shallow lack of stance that finally makes it an empty and rather dull viewing experience.