Review – Logan

It’s a shame it’s taken nine films and 17 years, but one of comic’s most iconic characters finally gets the film he – and we – deserve.

While not being nearly as good as it thought it was, the huge success of 2016’s profane and bloody Deadpool almost certainly helped pave the way for this, the third and final (we are told) solo outing for The Wolverine, aka Logan.

Logan PosterThe heavily elegiac tone of the film, mixed with the sort of graphic, savage violence hitherto absent from the character’s previous appearances marks Logan out as a genuine stand out in an increasingly cluttered universe(s) of superheroes torn from the pages of copious comics.

It’s to Hugh Jackman’s credit that he refused to reprise the role until he and Director James Mangold got to tell the story they wanted. Hints at what might have been were evident in their previous solo picture, 2013’s The Wolverine, before it lost its nerve and turned into a generic beat-‘em-up involving a giant robot.

LoganHere we finally witness the carnage adamantium claws can inflict and the consequences of “living with the killing”- to lift a quote from one of the film’s biggest influences, 1953’s Shane.

Indeed, while ostensibly a comic book movie, Logan has more in keeping with the western, particularly the sub-set of lone gunman pictures such as Shane and 1992’s Unforgiven; another picture that examines the stomach-churning impact of violence, both on its victims and perpetrators.

LoganSet in 2029, the film finds the titular character a broken man, drinking heavily and surviving day-to-day. Far from being the next stage in evolution, mutantkind is on the verge of extinction and Logan and fellow outcast Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are existing on the fringes, doing what they can to look after the increasingly senile Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

Logan finds himself sucked into a situation inadvertently of his own making when he is approached by a fearful employee of the nefarious Transigen corporation to ferry her and 11-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen) to a supposedly safe haven called ‘Eden’. Transigen’s Dr Mengele-esque chief surgeon Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) is prepared to go to great lengths to get Laura back, though and sends the relentless Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and a man in black (another nod to the western) after the fleeing Logan, Charles and co.

LoganIt’s been fascinating watching how Jackman has grown into his signature role over the years. Almost two decades after starring in 2000’s X-Men, the film that ushered in the new cinematic paradigm of comic book superheroes, it’s fitting that the actor’s final performance as the mighty mutant should arguably be the genre’s most mature work to date.

Based loosely on the graphic novel Old Man Logan, its themes of oppression, morality, death and the unrelenting march of time are similar to Frank Millar’s celebrated The Dark Knight Returns. Not for nothing is the film called Logan; this is the story of a man whose alter-ego he has been trying, and failing, to leave behind.

LoganWhile we’ve seen him fly into a berserker rage on screen before, here the gloves truly come off as Logan cuts loose to protect those around him in scenes often filmed in exhilarating, unbroken takes. It’s a breathtaking performance from Jackman, easily his best in the role, as he finally finds some form of redemption while having to say goodbye to old friends.

Stewart is equally excellent, expressing the frustration and guilt Charles feels at having “a degenerative brain disease in the world’s most dangerous brain (his seismic seizures are brilliantly filmed) and being so reliant on Logan. Their scenes together are wonderfully played by the two actors, whether it be the awkwardness of helping Charles to the toilet or the father/son bickering that takes place as Logan tries to get his former teacher to take his medication.

LoganHowever, they are both nearly upstaged by young Keen in her first feature, giving an impressively physical turn as the mysterious young girl who spends much of the film mute and expressing everything she needs to say with her eyes.

As the Marvel and DC cinematic universes get ever more crowded and elaborate in their scale, the last stand of Logan reminds us that there is another way, one that is prepared to take risks to intoxicating effect.

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Review – John Wick: Chapter 2

Superior action films are few and far between, but Keanu Reeves has landed himself another gun-toting franchise every bit as shamelessly over-the-top as his Matrix movies.

In much the same way as The Bourne Identity and The Raid, 2014’s John Wick crept up on audiences like a silent assassin and showed the numerous pretenders how to deliver the goods.

John Wick: Chapter 2 PosterIts no-nonsense approach, flab-free economy and sense of its own ridiculousness singled out Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s visually arresting original. In keeping with the unwritten rule of movie sequels, Chaper 2 amps up its predecessor’s unique selling points and expands the focus of the world it created.

While not quite in the same class as its forebear, the second chapter in the story of “the man, the myth, the legend” is still better than it has any right to be and offers enough balls-out action to satisfy any bloodthirsty cinemagoer.

John Wick: Chapter 2Picking up shortly after the events of the first film, assassin John Wick (Reeves) is trying to return to the retirement he had been pulled out from following the murder by Russian mobsters of his puppy, a gift from his terminally ill wife.

The bargain he struck to get out of the game comes back to haunt Wick when he is given no choice by Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) but to honour a blood oath and travel to Rome to take out a member of the ‘high table’, a council of high ranking crime kingpins.

Unsurprisingly, such a hit carries its own consequences and soon Wick is having to use all of his skills to fight his way out of the hellish nightmare he’s found himself in.

John Wick: Chapter 2

Right from the off, Chapter 2 cranks up the action (often filmed in pleasingly long takes for added effect) and rarely takes its foot off the gas over the course of its 122 minute running time. The immediate aftermath of the original is dealt with swiftly as Wick takes back his beloved Mustang car from Russian gangster Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare in one of those ‘one-dimensional foreigner’ performances he gives from time to time) – a sequence that allows for much motor mayhem.

The sequel settles into its groove with Wick’s arrival in Rome, a second act that owes more than a passing debt to Bond as the assassin visits numerous Q-esque contacts to tool himself up for the task ahead.

John Wick: Chapter 2The celebrated night club shoot-em-up from the first film gets a fresh coat of paint here as Wick goes to work on a gamut of gun-wielding goons at an elaborately staged concert. Refreshingly for a film of this ilk, while there’s no denying Wick’s superhuman ability to wipe out countless red shirts, the impact of each blow he receives gradually wears him down to the extent that, come the end, he’s virtually staggering to get away, his face cut to ribbons.

The world constructed around its leading man is one of the film’s strongest assets and Chapter 2 takes the time to invest further, giving extra running time to Ian McShane’s Winston, owner of New York’s Continental hotel where blood-letting is a strict no no.

McShane is, as always, great value and isn’t the only memorable supporting player. Lance Reddick stands out as concierge Charon, while Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne (looking like Brando and Welles in the latter stages of their life; i.e. large) gnaws at the scenery with a wildly exaggerated performance (“somebody PLEASE get. This. Man. A gun.”).

While we didn’t realy need to see the pencil trick he’s famous for, the high gloss brutality of John Wick: Chapter 2 bodes well for the insanity guaranteed in the inevitable third act.

Review – Manchester By The Sea

To paraphrase the title of his debut picture, you can count on Keneth Lonergan to deliver the kind of quietly devastating domestic drama that all-too-rarely graces our screens.

It’s a sad fact that Manchester By The Sea represents only the third feature from Lonergan in the past 16 years. While You Can Count On Me (2000) was a critical success and turned a profit, his belated follow-up Margaret endured the sort of tortuous journey to release that normally goes with most Terry Gilliam films.

Eventually seeing the light of day in 2011, Lonergan’s originally conceived three-hour version of Margaret was finally released in 2012 and further elevated the writer/director’s status as one of America’s most compelling cinematic voices.

The wait for this third feature has, thankfully, been considerably shorter and it’s once again filmmaking of the highest calibre, telling a wrenching drama about the debilitating effects of guilt, regret and remorse on people’s lives.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, an insular figure working a simple routine as a janitor whose blunt conversations with other people tend to be either matter-of-fact or, in the case of a needless bar brawl, self-destructive. His withdrawal from the world, mixed with his seeming need to be punished suggest a pain and darkness in Lee’s past that slowly reveals itself when he is forced to return to his childhood home of Manchester-by-the-Sea upon discovering that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died.

This fresh trauma compounds a tragic event from his recent past that rears itself in Lee’s mind due to having returned home, while he also discovers that he’s been made sole guardian for Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Manchester By The Sea could so easily have embraced the same tropes that afflict countless ‘aw-shucks’ Hollywood melodramas whereby the central character overcomes adversity to find redemption and a happy-ever-after ending. That, however, isn’t how life works most of the time and Lonergan is to be applauded for resolutely sticking to his guns when it comes to the narrative path trodden by the film.

Lee is a damaged soul still in limbo from the tragic events that ultimately destroyed his marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams) and his return home is emotionally traumatic. Lonergan’s honest and complex screenplay about a mentally scarred figure haunted by the ghosts of his past never rings false and Affleck’s career-best performance is a masterclass in understatement right until the final scene.

There are no big emotional outbursts here, no Oscar-bait speeches, rather the film slowly and deliberately observes Lee and Patrick as they try to work out a way forward following a death in the family. Sporadic flashbacks serve as memories to what came before, in particular a series of heartbreaking scenes that unravel the devastation that befell Lee and are held together by Lonergan’s inspired use of Tomaso Albinoni’s overwhelming Adagio Per Archi e Organo in G Minor.

While Affleck shines, he’s supported by a stellar cast who don’t squander the material they’ve been given. Hedges is entirely believable as an imperfect, but good 16-year-old kid who isn’t yet emotionally mature enough to fully deal with what life has thrown at him. As such, Patrick makes some foolish decisions, but the bond he gradually forms with Lee is central to the narrative and, like the rest of the film, has a truthfulness that never feels forced.

Williams also makes an impact in the limited time she is on screen, in particular during an agonising exchange late on with Affleck which underlines just how much collateral damage has been caused to both their lives.

Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea is a work of genuine profundity, an all-too-human tale that leaves its mark on the soul long afterwards.

Review – Inherent Vice

There’s a moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s chaotically brilliant latest when Joaquin Phoenix’s perennially baked private detective asks someone what inherent vice is, only to be told “I don’t know”.

Like much of Anderson's work, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly reward repeated viewings and, though not his finest picture, it remains an experience to inhale and imbibe

Like much of Anderson’s work, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly reward repeated viewings and, though not his finest picture, it remains an experience to inhale and imbibe

It’s a telling exchange in a film that’s stuffed with plot threads, but is enjoying itself way too much to want to stitch them together into a traditional narrative. As whacked out as Inherent Vice is, though, it is filmmaking on a higher plane of existence that reinforces PTA’s credentials as one of cinema’s most distinctive and timeless auteurs.

The 70s are generally regarded as a paranoid come down from the flower-powered counterculturalism of the previous decade, but it’s also the same decade that produced the New American Cinema and Inherent Vice is a wistful and melancholic throwback to such classic ’70s revisionist detective films as The Long Goodbye and Chinatown.

Ouija believe it: 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) with Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) and Shasta (Katherine Waterston) in Inherent Vice

Ouija believe it: ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) with Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) and Shasta (Katherine Waterston) in Inherent Vice

This mood is mirrored by the film’s evocative soundtrack, that includes Harvest and (appropriately enough) Journey Through The Past by Neil Young, whose mutton chops and wide-brimmed hat provided the visual way into the California dreamin’ character of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello for Phoenix.

Doc is hired by ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to look into the disappearance of her wealthy real estate lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). As Doc disappears down the rabbit hole, his increasingly mind-altering investigation takes in black activists, nazi bikers, double agents, dodgy dentists, a weird cult (shades of his 2012 film The Master) and something called the Golden Fang. Meanwhile, hippie-hating LAPD Detective Christian F. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) makes his presence known from time-to-time and proves to be a curious love/hate companion to the shambling Doc.

What's up Doc: Private detective 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in Inherent Vice

What’s up Doc: Private detective ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in Inherent Vice

Anderson’s free-spirited adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel fits perfectly with the tone and mood of a film that, whilst not as goofy as the misleading trailer would have you believe, nevertheless has plenty of laughs courtesy of Phoenix’s irresistible central performance. His hilariously over-the-top reaction to a picture of a baby is priceless, while his irreverent scribbles during interviews and exchanges with Brolin’s square-jawed square are among the film’s many highlights.

Me and my shadow: 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and Detective 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) in Inherent Vice

Me and my shadow: ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and Detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) in Inherent Vice

Anderson and Phoenix counteract this with moments of introspection, not least of which when he periodically looks out the window of his ramshackle beach house with a nostalgic yearning for a time that is already fading into memory; or chats with the wise Sortilège (Joanna Newsom); a character whom you suspect is possibly a figment of Doc’s febrile imagination bearing in mind her sudden appearances and disappearances and the fact nobody else interacts with her.

Phoenix is given plenty to work opposite a stellar cast, all of whom are able to put flesh on the bones of their characters thanks to PTA’s Oscar-nominated screenplay. Martin Short leaves you wanting more from his all-too-brief cameo as deranged tooth doctor Rudy Blatnoyd, while the excellent Waterston floats along as flower child femme fatale Shasta; the love of Doc’s life who may or may not be the best thing for him.

Inherent Vice does da Vinci's The Last Supper

Inherent Vice does da Vinci’s The Last Supper

Individual frames also lodge themselves in the mind; not least of which a throwaway moment around a busy dining table involving Owen Wilson’s missing-believed-dead Coy that looks like it’s lifted straight from da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Like much of Anderson’s work, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly reward repeated viewings and, though not his finest picture, it remains an experience to inhale and imbibe.

Review – It Follows

With a premise that’s as ingeniously simple as it is terrifying, David Robert Mitchell’s masterful low-budget chiller stalks our primal fears with a potency that’s all-too-rare in today’s horror cinema.

A bona fide modern horror classic, the cold, clammy sense of dread of It Follows will mean you're looking over your shoulder long after the credits roll

A bona fide modern horror classic, the cold, clammy sense of dread of It Follows will mean you’re looking over your shoulder long after the credits roll

The brilliance of It Follows is in the way it borrows from the likes of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1998), Ringu (1998) and Whistle And I’ll Come To You (1968), the little-seen screen adaptation of M.R. James’ classic short story, and comes up with something that’s both refreshing and bloodcurdling.

Based on a recurring nightmare Mitchell experienced as a child, the horror of It Follows stems from the spine-tingling concept of being pursued by an unrelenting figure that only the victim can see.

Jay (Maika Monroe) gets way more than she bargained for thanks to Hugh (Jake Weary) in It Follows

Jay (Maika Monroe) gets way more than she bargained for thanks to Hugh (Jake Weary) in It Follows

Mitchell’s script injects sex into the equation, both as a nod to the horror trope of punishing those who engage in intercourse, but also as a sideways observation on the consequences of sexually transmitted disease; in this case one spread as a deadly curse that can only be lifted by having sex with another person.

The film’s disturbing prologue tracks a terrified teenage girl who perplexes her father by running out of her house and speeding off in the family car; all the while looking behind her at what appears to be nothing.

Another victim of 'it' in It Follows

Another victim of ‘it’ in It Follows

The grisly aftermath points to something very real, however, and the next teenager on the chopping block is Jay (Maika Monroe), whose sexual encounter with Hugh (Jake Weary) takes a disturbing turn when she’s informed she’s now the target of a malevolent figure that will stalk and kill her unless she passes the curse onto someone else.

Despite not being able to see the supernatural figure, which constantly changes its appearance, Jay’s sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Greg (Daniel Zovatto) come to her aid and try to find a way to stop Jay’s relentless pursuer.

Scared

Scared

In the wrong hands, this could so easily have been just another limp-wristed horror flick, but Mitchell gives us a genuinely taut and unnerving experience. The use of the camera is inspired; from the artful 360-degree pans which are as slow and methodical as the assailant, to the way he cuts between tight close-ups and empty corridors or doorways that invite us to imagine the worst is just out of shot. Furthermore, Mike Gioulakis’ oppressive cinematography uses light and dark to terrific effect.

A superbly edited sequence on a beach leads to a – literally – hair-raising moment, while a key sequence in a swimming pool is a masterclass in grinding tension.

Scared #2

Scared #2

It Follows distinguishes itself from the crop of lazily edited cash-grabbing products loosely defined as ‘horror’ by giving us characters we actually care about. Jay is sympathetically played by Monroe and the friendship she shares with the others is believable and engaging.

One of the film’s strongest threads is its jagged and percussive synth score by Disasterpeace that evokes the very best of Carpenter and serves to amp up the terror rather than smother it, while geek fans will note the use of the Serif Gothic font in the title is a further nod to Carpenter’s Halloween.

A bona fide modern horror classic, the cold, clammy sense of dread of It Follows will mean you’re looking over your shoulder long after the credits roll.