I Am Not Your Negro (2016) / *****

i_am_not_your_negro_xlgI’ll confess, up front, to being largely unaware of James Baldwin before watching I Am Not Your Negro, a fascinating and powerful documentary by Raoul Peck. Oh, of course I knew the three major names around which Baldwin’s unfinished book – which forms the basis for this documentary – revolves; I knew how the dichotomy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X is used for so many to represent the polar opposite approaches to race relations in America. And of course, I knew the tragedy of Medgar Evers, and the pain that followed.

But Baldwin was unfamiliar to me, and after watching I Am Not Your Negro, I regret that very much. Anchored entirely by Baldwin’s words – sometimes recorded as he spoke, but generally narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in a world-weary, exhausted tone whose power never diminishes – the documentary takes, as its starting point, Baldwin’s unfinished novel about those three iconic figures in American race relations. But in Peck’s skilled hands, I Am Not Your Negro becomes something else, like listening to Baldwin talk about his life, his observations, and his feelings on America for an hour and half. And given that Baldwin is incredibly insightful, intelligent, compelling, and effective as a speaker, that’s a pretty incredible way to spend an hour and a half of time. Indeed, there’s little way to come away from I Am Not Your Negro unimpressed with Baldwin’s thoughtful approach to the world, and the accuracy of so much of what he says.

Nor does it hurt that so much applies still today. Peck skillfully ties Baldwin’s words to modern events, using images of Ferguson, Obama, Trayvon Martin, and other modern touchstones to draw the connections more obviously when needed. Other times, he’s willing to sit back and let the audience realize the connections for themselves; for instance, when you hear another academic lecturing Baldwin on being so “obsessed” with color, you can’t help but feel echoes of every “All Lives Matter” activist who’s ever spoken.

But Baldwin is fascinating, no matter what he’s talking about. From commentary on pop culture and films to politics, from his first meeting with Malcolm X to his memories of the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, Baldwin’s prose and voice are inimitable, evoking emotion and senses for things I’ve never experienced, and conveying far more effectively than I could have imagined his ideas. He’s matched, it must be said, by Jackson’s incredible narration; while Jackson is known for his bluster and anger, his quiet, weary voice here speaks wonders, immersing you in Baldwin’s contemplative, thoughtful prose and evoking the pain that he so often writes of.

But more than anything else, I Am Not Your Negro is a great film for the way it addresses directly, without flinching, issues of race in this country – issues that we’re still dealing with, and still running away from. Baldwin is never less than honest, and his perceptions are so accurate as to be painful. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” he says at one point, “and it is not a pretty story.” That is a painfully accurate quote, and one that makes this film and its words every bit as important and trenchant as they were when they were first written. I Am Not Your Negro will hurt you, will make you question yourself, will make you think, and will make you feel empathy for people you truly may be unable to understand – and for those reasons, and so many more, it’s the kind of film that I wish I could force people to watch.

IMDb

It Comes at Night / **** ½

it_comes_at_night_xlgLast year, at the Chattanooga Film Festival, I caught a phenomenal film named Krisha, written and directed by a newcomer named Trey Edward Shults. Telling the story of a family’s Thanksgiving that gets crashed by a long absent relative, it was a searing piece of drama, filmed with a natural talent that blew me away and telling an emotionally powerful story in an exceptional way. In short, it was one of those debut features that leaves you knowing that you just saw the birth of a new talent, and someone worth keeping an eye on.

Now comes Shults’s second film, It Comes at Night, which offers up no end of surprises, even before you actually see the film. For one, I wouldn’t have expected Shults to make the jump to bigger budget, wide release films so quickly; even more surprising, though, is the fact that Shults has left behind domestic drama for the tougher genre of horror. That’s a tough genre, and while Krisha was undeniably tense and emotionally fraught, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a horror film from Shults.

What I got, though, was superb, marrying the “family under pressure to the breaking point” themes of Krisha with the paranoia and isolation of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and using shadows and silence to phenomenal effect. It Comes at Night is the story of a family who’ve isolated themselves in a cabin in the woods; while the specifics of what’s happened to the rest of the world never become entirely clear, it’s obvious that a disease has wiped out much of the population, and left the rest fending for themselves. But when the family gets discovered, questions of trust and loyalty come into play, and the characters are forced to deal with a simple question: how far do you go to protect your loved ones?

Shults’s strengths as a writer and director are evident from the get-go here, especially as regards the performances, which are uniformly excellent, with nary a missed step in the batch. Joel Edgerton is one of the only “names” you might recognize, but he’s rarely been better, getting a role that befits his masculine practicality and gruffness. And Kelvin Harrison, Jr., the film’s de facto lead (as much as there is one), uses his youth to phenomenal effect, internalizing the horrors around him as he attempts to make his peace with the violent world he’s forced to live in, and figure out his own moral compass.

But as great as the performances are, what really floored me here was Shults’s command of mood and tone. This feels like a low- to mid-budget film; the scares are few, with more reliance on an atmosphere of dread and unease than on jump scares. More than that, Shults keeps us in the head of his characters more than we realize, leaving us questioning people’s motivations and understanding the stakes at any given moment. The result is maybe more of a psychological thriller than a true horror film, but the lines are blurred, and the film’s use of night and darkness leave no doubt as to where its genre roots lay. And it’s in keeping with Shults’s independent-film roots all the way to the film’s ending, which is destined to leave some mainstream audiences grumbling and unhappy, but which floored me pretty well.

It Comes at Night is going to be one of those cult horror films soon, one held up alongside The Witch and The Babadook and others as a reminder of how the decade was home to a rich new burst of creative, interesting horror movies. And more than that, it’s a sign that Shults is a talent to be watched; with his first two films, he’s hit two home runs. You better believe I’ll be there for attempt #3.

IMDb

Documentary Day

tickledBy now, you’re probably aware of some of the story behind Tickled, the fascinating, bizarre documentary from David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. How Farrier, a journalist with a penchant for offbeat stories, got tipped off to a series of videos of an underground “competitive tickling” competition. How Farrier started looking for interviews, only to get far more blowback and pressure than would seem logical for the situation. How Farrier and Dylan Reeve began investigating the situation, only to realize that there’s a much bigger – and stranger – story behind these videos. But even knowing some of that won’t prepare you for how gripping Tickled really is as a piece of investigative journalism, as Farrier and Reeve move step by step through this insane story that starts with what are clearly fetish videos, but end up in a world where money can let you get away with anything. Tickled struggles a bit along the way; without giving too much away (although there’s little here that’s truly out of nowhere, it’s still best to watch things slowly unfold), this ultimately becomes an effort to find someone who has no interest in being found, which leaves the documentary with a hole to be filled. (The long section where the film tries to present the tickling fetish as something far weirder than it is is a prime example of that, and easily the film’s weakest point.) That leads to a bit of a fizzling end to the documentary, which is why I’m so glad that HBO has released a short follow up, The Tickle King, which follows what’s happened since the film’s release, including confrontations at film festivals, legal threats, and more. It’s a far more satisfying conclusion to the film, even if it leaves out the most recent – and most final – update to the story (which happened in March). But watching them back to back makes for a riveting, bizarre experience, and a wonderful piece of storytelling that immerses you bit by bit into a strange world of fake identities, blackmail, bluster, and more. Even though there are some issues, and the better film would cut out some of Tickled and replace it with the end of The Tickle King, the pairing makes for a riveting night’s viewing that leaves you pondering the strangeness of human nature. Rating: ****

large_2iu7m8zs5fha4ct3c55ah38bc5sWhat I expected from Nick Broomfield’s Tales from the Grim Sleeper was another piece of investigative journalism. This was the story of a serial killer who preyed on South Central, a largely African-American community in Los Angeles, for nearly 25 years. And as such, what I expected was that the film would open with the early murders, then follow the case as it unfolded up until the arrest. Instead, Tales of the Grim Sleeper opens with the arrest of Lonnie Franklin, a largely beloved local man, and then investigates the obvious question: how did this take 25 years? And what does a revelation like this – that a local institution could be capable of possibly more than a hundred murdered women – do to the neighborhood around him? Director Nick Broomfield mainly stays out of the way for much of Tales‘ running time, instead letting the inhabitants of South Central – Lonnie’s friends, the activists, but also the prostitutes, the crackheads, the criminals – tell their stories largely uninterrupted. What emerges is a film that accurately reflects its title: this is tales from the world of the Grim Sleeper, a world where the murder of prostitutes were dismissed with the acronym NHI: No Humans Involved. It’s a world where black women didn’t feel safe going to the police to ask for help, and a world where the Los Angeles police didn’t feel the need to alert the community to the threat living among it, nor to investigate the evidence given by the lone survivor of the attacks…not until 20 more years (and countless more victims) had passed. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a haunting, heartbreaking film, one that exhibits endless empathy for its interviewees. There is no judgment for their bad choices, be they crack or prostitution or both; instead, the film constantly reminds us that no matter what people have done, they don’t deserve to have been killed in such a horrific way. More than that, it’s a film that makes it impossible to ignore the racial double standard at work with the Los Angeles police, and forces us to grapple with the ways in which that double standard cost the lives of so many women. And most hauntingly, it shows us what it must be like to have to come to terms with the fact that we may never truly know the people around us, and what it would be like to deal with the revelation that someone you knew and cared for could be so violent. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a haunting, powerful piece of filmmaking, one that’s far more about the world that allowed this man to prey on women and the damage he left behind than it is the man himself – and is all the more powerful for that choice. Rating: *****

weiner-posterIf you’re at all interested in the political process, or the role of the media in that process, or in the line between public and private lives, I can’t recommend Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s fascinating, uncomfortable documentary Weiner, which follows infamous former New York congressman Anthony Weiner as he makes an ill-fated attempt to run for mayor of New York City. Knowing how Weiner turns out – that a new sex scandal will break midway through the election, dooming his chances – doesn’t take away in the least from the fascination of Weiner, which attempts to take a “fly on the wall” approach to Weiner’s campaign and marriage; instead, it makes the campaign all the more excruciating, as we wait for this bomb to explode, destroying all of this work. Weiner does a phenomenal job of staying neutral in its reporting, and the result is fascinating, showing Weiner both as a savvy, intelligent politician and a capricious hothead who’s unable to think sometimes before he acts. In other words, we get both the sense of how great of a leader Weiner could have been, but also why he’s completely unelectable. The film never judges Weiner for his actions, allowing him to explain how little they have to do with his public persona or his platforms, while never flinching from the face of Weiner’s long-suffering wife Huma Abedin, whose strained, placid face reflects the pain she’s in all too often. Whether Weiner should be judged for the actions of his private life, whether the media’s focus on those issues prevented the real problems from being addressed, whether Weiner deserved to be constantly raked over the coals for his actions – the film raises all of these questions, but leaves them to the viewer to decide for themselves. Instead, it shows Weiner as a human being, letting us see both the energetic, avid politician and the conflicted, wounded private individual – and even the blurring of the lines between those two that so often hurts his marriage. Weiner is fascinating as a snapshot of a political landscape where private and public lines blur, as a snapshot of the modern political machine and how it reacts to scandals, and as a humanizing portrait of a flawed human being. All in all, a fantastic watch. Rating: **** ½

9e436d15140d704796d42283497ed5275ff2edf7John Huston’s Let There Be Light first came onto my radar after the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, when he cited it as a major influence on that film. It wasn’t all that familiar to me, and once I started looking into it, I understood why. A surprisingly controversial documentary, Let There Be Light was Huston’s effort to capture the realities of PTSD at a time when that phenomena was little understood or even acknowledged. By modern standards, Let There Be Light is a little slow-paced; more than that, it definitely feels of a piece with a lot of the World War II propaganda documentaries that we’ve seen over time, only with a different focus. And yet, none of that detracts from the power of this footage, which simply sits and observes these men as they attempt to come to terms with their experiences. Some have developed twitches or stutters; some have psychologically-induced amnesia; one has even developed psychosomatic paralysis. And over the course of the brief running time, Huston walks us through some of the therapies being implemented, from hypnosis to talk therapy sessions. It’s a calm, non-judgmental film, one that simply depicts these men’s psychic wounds and their efforts to heal. And yet, the government repressed the film for years, worried that it would lead to decreases in morale or a reluctance to enlist. But what’s evident from watching this film is that Let There Be Light is an important piece of work, a way of showing people that war doesn’t just destroy people physically; it takes a toll on the mind, and those wounds are no less deadly. It’s a remarkable, and even an important, piece of film that has earned its place in the pantheon of military documentaries, even if it feels a little slow and overstated by modern standards. Rating: ****

IMDB: Tickled | The Tickle King | Tales of the Grim Sleeper | Weiner | Let There Be Light

Horror Triple Feature

mpw-39550One of my favorite auteurs of 80’s trash horror is Frank Henenlotter, director behind the wonderfully gonzo Basket Case and its equally twisted, entertaining cousin, Brain Damage. But as much as I love those two, I hadn’t managed to see Henenlotter’s famous follow-up Frankenhooker until today. Luckily, it was worth the wait; while it may have leaned more heavily and clearly on comedy than the other two films, it’s no less wonderfully silly and demented than any other Henenlotter I’ve seen. A very loose retelling of FrankensteinFrankenhooker follows a mad scientist who decides to resurrect his girlfriend after a gruesome lawnmower accident. The problem? There’s not exactly enough of her left…which means it’s time to hit pre-Guiliani Times Square and find some women of the night to use for parts. The result is gorey, splattery insanity, with self-induced cranial pressure relief (in other word: drilling into your own skull), electrified kisses, and, oh yes, exploding hookers. It’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek, with Henenlotter steering more overtly into comedy, but the result is absolutely entertaining as anything, from the mad scientist’s constant self-encouragement to the ludicrous facial expressions on the reconstructed girlfriend. I don’t think Frankenhooker is as good as Basket Case or Brain Damage – I enjoy those film’s ability to balance horror and comedy more than this – but I had a blast watching it anyway. Rating: ****

poster_thirstTo say that Thirst is easily the weakest film I’ve seen to date by Chan-Wook Park sounds like a harshest criticism than it necessarily should be. After all, this is the director behind such films as OldboyLady VengeanceStoker, and The Handmaiden, just to name a few – it would be awfully hard to make it to the top tier of that kind of filmography. And even with Thirst‘s flaws – which largely spring from the film’s pacing issues – there’s little denying that Park brings his usual flair, bizarre sensibility, and beautiful style to bear to this vampire story. After all, who else would let his vampire film largely render its vampiric elements almost irrelevant, instead turning it into a twisted love story about a priest who becomes a vampire thanks to a medical experiment gone wrong, and who then falls in love with the unhappy wife of a childhood friend. If that doesn’t sound like your typical vampire film, well, Thirst really isn’t typical in any way, apart from using vampirism much as Bram Stoker did back in Dracula: as a metaphor for repressed desire, lust, and a wish to break beyond the social and religious strictures that are governing one’s life. Of course, this being a Korean film, exactly how far the characters are willing to go…well, let’s just say that things escalate quite a bit from the early scenes where our “hero” is trying to stick to stolen blood from hospital patients. Thirst is too long by at least twenty minutes, and it doesn’t quite make its lead female character work as well as I wish it did; she feels more simplistic than Park tends to let his female characters be (especially in something like The Handmaiden). Still, even with those flaws, Thirst is rich, interesting fare – a more thoughtful, complicated take on the vampire tale than we often get, and one with enough substance to keep thoughtful audiences satisfied while still delivering violence and horror (and style) to spare. Rating: ****

cronos-mondo-criterion-posterI’m a big, big fan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose fantastical sensibility – and how it blends together with his grasp on horror – has led to some truly great cinema, including Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone, and most recently (and one of my favorites), Crimson Peak. But somehow, I had never gotten a chance to see del Toro’s feature debut, Cronos, until my wife bought me Criterion’s new Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro box set. Even here, as he’s just getting started and working under a limited budget, there’s no denying del Toro’s rich visual style, his astonishing imagination, nor his unique approach to creatures and horror. The tale of a Mexican antiques dealer (played by Federico Luppi) who stumbles across an ancient invention said to hold the secret of immortality, del Toro brings his usual mixture of fairy tale and horror to bear here, spending equal time establishing the charming relationship between Luppi and his granddaughter and the surreal horrors that this invention can unleash. Like many of del Toro’s films, it slides between fantastical visions and bloody horror  without warning, which makes for an even better watch for the daring viewer (and that doesn’t even get into the genre elements that del Toro allows the film to slowly incorporate). Even better, there are signs even here of del Toro’s astonishing imagination, as he dives into the gears – and weirdly organic elements – of this invention, turning something simple into something arcane and eldritch in the process. That Cronos is a solid, inventive, strange piece of horror goes without saying, knowing del Toro’s involvement; that it largely holds its own against his later work, even with its lower budget and learning curve, is all the more impressive and wonderful. Rating: **** ½

IMDb: Frankenhooker | Thirst | Cronos

Action/Comedy Movies x3

deadpool_ver5Even with all of the good buzz surrounding Deadpool, it’s taken me a bit to get around to seeing it. As much as I worried about Logan being self-consciously “edgy” and “extreme” with its adult rating, those worried paled in comparison to my fears about Deadpool, which I worried would be smug and crass rather than clever. Thankfully, it turned out that, against all odds, Deadpool manages to be gleefully profane, wonderfully childish and chaotic, and somehow nonetheless avoids trading in shock value or anything truly offensive (that is, it may mock everything mercilessly, but there’s a welcome dearth of ethnic jokes, gay panic jokes, and the like). Even better, the result is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny; even without the fourth-wall breaking, Ryan Reynolds’ constant patter and jokes somehow manages to be both entertaining and surprisingly unexhausting (for us, at least; the movie manages to have fun with the amount of hatred he inspires in the villains, and even some of the friends, around him). Yes, at times, Deadpool falls into the standard Marvel formula – origin story, big villain, etc. – and yes, really, beyond Reynolds, most of the characters never really come to life very much beyond what the plot requires. (That’s most true for the film’s use of Colossus as a stand-in for the rest of the X-Men, who really never brings much to the table other than being there.) Even so, with Reynolds and the film constantly taking jabs at itself and its dramatic beats, the result feels surprisingly enjoyable and light, never taking itself seriously for too long. In short, the Marvel movie parts? They’re okay – nothing special. But the humor and patter makes for a really fun watch that I enjoyed more than I expected. Rating: ****

commando-posterOkay, sure, Commando isn’t technically an action-comedy; it’s, on paper at least, a pure 80’s action movie. It’s also perhaps the most quintessential, archetypal example of what we’ve come to think of as the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle – absurd masculinity, lots of gun/fist fights, Arnie being Arnie, and ridiculous one-liners after every major death. Really, Commando has basically enough plot just to lead to lots and lots of action sequences – there’s a man (the always welcome Dan Hedaya, even though he doesn’t get much to do here) who wants Arnie to overthrow a South American country, and to motivate him, he’s kidnapped his daughter. As you might guess, Arnie’s not super on board with this, and decides to take them all out. Every part of what you imagine as 1980’s Arnie action movies is here – gratuitous nudity, sleazy chauvinist bad guys, a love interest who doesn’t really have any chemistry or purpose in the film, lots of absurdly big explosions, homoerotic tension and plenty of one-liners. In other words, it’s not like it’s a good movie, but it’s a really fun one to watch; sure, there’s some regrettably 80’s approaches to the world in here (particularly if you’re a woman), and no, it never really makes any sense. But if you can’t get behind Arnold picking up a phone booth with a bad guy in it and throwing it around, or his fighting about twenty cops at once and throwing them all off at the same time, well, what kind of garbage film lover are you? Rating: *** ½

czqsvbgumaayhmz-jpg-largeMeanwhile, if Commando is an action movie that occasionally gets ridiculous, Keanu, the first film by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key after the end of their series Key and Peele, is a comedy that occasionally becomes an action film. The story of two African-American friends who pretend to be ruthless underworld criminals in an effort to get back a missing cat, Keanu is undeniably uneven and a bit thin at times, stretching a solid premise for a few skits to the breaking point and a bit beyond. Luckily, Keanu also features the ridiculous charisma and comic timing of Key and Peele, who never look like they’re working hard to make you laugh, but whose comic timing is absolutely impeccable and dead on at all times. (Also working for the film: an absolutely adorable kitten.) As you might expect, coming from a sketch show background, Keanu feels a bit disconnected at times, with some sequences feeling like sketches loosely connected to the story. That doesn’t make it any less funny to see Key attempting to sell a bunch of hardened street kids on the cred of George Michael, or to see Peele trying to convince everyone in a Truth or Dare game just how hardened and ruthless he is. But it does mean that the film is fairly hit and miss, with more plot than we really need (a fact I think the movie is in on, given how silly it gets in the final stretch). Nonetheless, all I can say is that I laughed pretty frequently throughout Keanu, and if a lot of that is simply thanks to Key and Peele’s fantastic comic presences, well, that’s no small thing. Rating: *** ½

IMDb: Deadpool | Commando | Keanu

Get Out / *****

get-out-new-posterThere’s a lot that I love about horror, but one of my favorite aspects of the genre is the way that it so often reflects the fears and worries of a society. From the way that Vietnam influences so many horror films of the sixties and seventies to the way that technology becomes a source of influence into itself in modern times, horror is often a response to our worries, and a way of making clear fears that we’re already suffering. That’s led to a burst of great horror novels as of late that grapple with racial fears in the guise of horror novels, from Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom to Matt Huff’s Lovecraft Country.

And now, you can add to that mix Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a superb, taut piece of horror filmmaking that’s not always as scary as the best horror, but manages to wring astonishing tension and unease out of its premise, beautifully satirizes and makes explicit its commentary and worries about race relations, and does it all while telling a fantastic story and delivering a brilliant, tight script that only floors me more and more as I pick it apart.

In its early going, Get Out is only a horror film in terms of the discomfort and awkwardness it raises, as it follows an interracial couple home to meet the (white) girl’s family. Once they arrive, things get uncomfortable quickly, although not in the way you might expect. There’s no overt racism here; indeed, the girl’s parents are liberal, and go out of their way to make her African-American boyfriend feel comfortable. They praise Obama, they talk about Tiger Woods, they bring up NBA…in other words, they end up being every bit as racist, condescending, and uncomfortable as more overt racism might be, and the discomfort and awkwardness is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And in the able hands of Jordan Peele, who’s making his feature debut here, we’re immersed in the perspective of Daniel Kaluuya’s calm, exasperated male lead, giving even (and maybe especially) well-meaning white audiences a taste of what it’s like to put up with this sort of garbage. It’s a bravura piece of directorial work, and does a bang-up job of making its points clearly and carefully, and using its unease to maximum effect.

Because there’s more to Get Out than just this racial discomfort. There’s also the few other African-Americans Kaluuya sees in his time with the family, all of whom are unfailingly kind, and servile…and strange. There’s an awkwardness to them, an unnaturalness that’s hard to pin down. But it adds to the discomfort, as we, like Kaluuya, are forced to wonder, is this just a truly awkward, really bizarre, ultra-white family get together? Or is there something else going on here?

Peele has been vocal about the way he’s using The Stepford Wives as a tonal inspiration for the film, and it shows here, giving us a weirdly placid society that seems like it would be utopia for some people, but truly unnatural for others. And like Stepford Wives, much of the film’s unease comes from that careful balancing act, where we’re never quite sure if the film is going to become a true horror film, or if the horror is more personal and less actual, if that makes sense. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Peele does a masterful job here, foregrounding his character’s unease, answering questions satisfyingly but leaving doubt, and turning the screws carefully but unrelentingly.

Because, yes, Get Out isn’t ever quite truly scary, but it’s monstrously tense and unsettling, with some true knockout scenes that work like gangbusters (my favorite is the bizarre image of one of the servants doing his running at night, although Peele’s visualization of the therapy session with his girlfriend’s mother is a beautiful, spectacular image). More than that, Peele has a gift for pacing, letting our discomfort and unease with the racial tensions build, then pushing into more and more upsetting moments before finally giving us some elements that feel beyond what could easily be explainable.

I don’t want to get into what is or isn’t going on; suffice to say, though, that Get Out ends up being a thematically rich film, one where there’s so much metaphorical and thematic depth that you could unpack it for days. Even beyond the satire of well-meaning liberalism, there’s material here about cultural appropriation that’s pretty stunning, to say nothing of the way the film engages with historical and contemporary racial flashpoints. That the film does all that is spectacular; that it does so while never forgetting that it’s telling a story, and a thriller, is even better. The film holds its metaphor together tightly, trusting the audience to pick up on the themes it’s laying down without ever feeling the need to hold our hands. That goes doubly for some of the film’s rich, complex foreshadowing, which delivers payoff after payoff, often so subtly that you won’t realize them until afterward.

(At this point, I’d like to pause and say how much I recommend The Next Picture Show podcast’s episode about Get Out, which features not only some incredible analysis and discussion of the film, but unpacks much of the script’s cleverness, and left me sitting with my jaw agape half the time at the brilliance of it all. And as I read more and more about the film, I realized not just that every single moment is weighted with meaning, but that it’s the rare film that never hammers home its points, trusting its audience to unpack its secrets and be rewarded.)

Yes, Get Out is ultimately a little more successful as a dark satire than it is a horror film. But given how rich that satire is, how thoughtfully complex it is, and best of all, how well executed it is – from the directorial choices to the great acting, from the brilliant script to the tight pacing – it’s hard to complain too much. I loved it when I finished watching it, but as I’ve gotten further and further from it, and thought about it more, I’m all the more swept up by it, and just want to see it again to take it all in a second time. And the fact that Peele says he has several more horror films to come – as well as a TV series based off of Lovecraft Country? Even better.

IMDb

Logan / **** ½

logannewposterWhen I was a kid, I absolutely loved the X-Men comics. And sure, there were the powers, and some great fights…but honestly, I found myself more swept up in the stories, and the way they seemed to be introducing me slowly to bigger, more universal, more adult themes. No, not sex, really, but themes like discrimination, hatred, parent-child relationships, forgiveness, mercy. These were big ideas, and in the best X-Men issues, the stories and the characters worked together to convey those ideas.

I say this because seeing Logan – not only the best Marvel movie to date, bar none, but a legitimately good movie, full stop – helped clarify for me much of what I’ve found frustrating about the Marvel films on the whole. When your stories are entirely focused on some bland “big bad,” there’s no substance, no ideas. It’s all empty flash and style, and while that can be fun for a while, it loses something quickly. It’s why even the best Marvel films – Iron Man 3Guardians of the Galaxy – often fall apart during the requisite “final battle”. There’s no ideas, no themes, no moral battle – just superpowers being hurled at each other. And who cares anymore?

Which brings us back to Logan, a superhero film that succeeds by having almost no interest in being a superhero film, and instead, just wants to be a film. There are no costumes, no heroic speeches, no villains in a column of light destroying the world. (Indeed, the film’s biggest villain is all the more unsettling for his calm rationality and his lack of any physical threat. His threat comes in the form of ideas.) And our hero here…isn’t a hero. And I don’t mean that he’s an antihero, like Deadpool, or lovable rascals like the Guardians. No, when the film opens, Logan is old – there’s grey throughout his beard, he wears glasses to read, he limps, and he drinks. He just wants to be left alone, and live with his sins. And Charles Xavier, the once proud mutant leader? He shows signs of dementia, and is kept locked away from the world for not his own safety, but the safety of others. No, our heroes aren’t heroes anymore. They’re old men, and they’re nearing their deaths, and need to reckon with their lives.

Hugh Jackman, James Mangold, and numerous others have been quick to point out how much Logan feels like the Marvel universe’s take on Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and the resemblances are obvious. Logan is undeniably a Western, with its bleached desert settings, its rugged heroes, its one-on-one showdowns. But there’s another touchstone that Jackman has named, and it’s equally important to understanding Logan – Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which follows a broken, beaten professional wrestler who’s still doing his best to make his way in a job that he’s rapidly getting too old for, and making his peace with the broken relationships he’s left behind. And to me, that’s the more important touchstone for Logan, because Logan is not a typical Marvel movie. It’s melancholy, and bitter, and feels like a paean to a once-iconic figure who’s trying to figure out what his life was even all about, now that he’s nearing the end of it. In other words, it’s a film about aging and mortality, and never shies away from that fact.

It is also, like Unforgiven, a film about violence and the toll it takes on you. When Logan‘s R-rating was first announced, I wondered if it wasn’t going to fall into the “grimdark” category – being basically a generic superhero film, but full of angst and over the top violence without purpose. Instead, Logan is merely unflinching. The violence is undeniably brutal, but it’s never glamorous, never fun. We’re not meant to cheer as Logan disembowels these men – it’s just a sense that violence is his life, and all he can do anymore. Like Clint Eastwood’s aged gunfighter in Unforgiven, he’s a man who’s made his way with violence, and has learned to live with the consequences.

What all this adds up to is a legitimately powerful, rich Marvel film, a film that’s not just good as a comic book movie, but good as a film. There are no tie-ins, no set-ups for the next story, no cute in-jokes. There’s humor, but it springs from the characters, and their rapport. (Jackman and Stewart are a joy together in this film, and it makes me wish that Logan wasn’t so clearly a final chapter in this story; this pairing of them feels human and rich in a way that almost no Marvel movie ever has to me, and single-handedly elevates the film to another level.) Yes, there’s a plot, but it’s a simple one, like Unforgiven – an iconic figure, trying to hide from the world, gets drawn into the fight one last time – and one that’s more interested in its characters than it ever is in its story. (Indeed, I love how the brief explanation we get of the villain’s plan is almost entirely in the background, as though it barely matters.) And yes, there’s a final fight, and in many ways, it’s the least interesting aspect of the film, although the symbolic importance is obvious in how it’s handled.

But really, what lingers with Logan is the mood and tone of it all – the hushed, melancholy, elegiac feel as characters look back at their lives and question what it means. That’s a hard set of questions, and far scarier than any supervillain who’s trying to destroy the world. What’s more, how do we keep fighting for a world that’s largely moved on without us, and doesn’t seem to want our help – or care what it does to us? Logan takes these on and takes them seriously, giving us a comic book film that’s interested in telling an adult story – not in a childish or ridiculous way, but in a thoughtful, effective one. It’s a reminder of why I loved comic books in the first place, and a rich piece of filmmaking, showing that not every comic book movie has to be all quips and cosmic stakes. After all, what’s far scarier is being faced to wonder whether you’ve ever been the hero everyone thought you were.

 IMDb