Logan (*****): Take a moment. Feel it.

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Logan – 2017

Director James Mangold
Screenplay Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green
Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Dafne Keen, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Eriq LaSalle, Elise Neal, Doris Morgado, David Kallaway, Han Soto, Jayson Genao and Krzysztof Soszynski

After grinding down so much earth into dust, they finally found a single diamond. Logan is the Wolverine our hearts always thought was there, even if we wasted many years wading through several mediocre movies to get to it. The X-Men universe was brought to a silly dead end last summer with Apocalypse. It was truly a movie that exemplified all that has been wrong with the film version of the hero troupe.

What should have been a crescendo of a decent second trilogy turned into another version of the Last Stand. Filled with colorful weirdos showing powers for no particular reason, we see parts of the planet destroyed and quickly repaired. No consequence and zero impression left.

To say that this movie was intended to counter that film would be cutting it short. Jackman has his own trilogy in the midst of the X-Men films, and in his own series, each film was better than the previous entry. It’s a sad truth, though, that many will find the entire series disposable prior to this opus.

The film starts in 2029 near El Paso, Texas. Logan is living on the wrong side of the border, mainly because he wants to stay hidden. He’s taking care of an aging and ever more erratic Charles Xavier (Stewart). Why? That’s for you to discover.

Adamantium is taking a toll on Logan’s healing powers. To the point that he carries around a bullet made of the stuff to just end it all sooner than later. He can’t end it though. One reason is Charles, who insists he’s been talking to a mutant. This is important because mutants are almost all completely wiped out.

The mutant he is talking to comes into their lives, even though the erstwhile Wolverine would prefer to just take his old friend and go out to sea. That ain’t gonna happen because X-23, or Laura (Keen), as she’s called, comes with some baggage.

Mangold and Jackman score quite a few home runs in this movie that pretends to be playing station to station. Stewart is a Godsend, as he makes even the silliest dialogue seem at once literate and heartfelt. This is nothing compared to what happens when Stewart is given some truly eloquent and memorable words to express.

As antagonist, Boyd Holbrook is an above average placeholder. There is nothing special about him, and this is a wise choice. They have other things to do in this film than to pretend that the bad guy in the ad has a chance.

I won’t say much about the other antagonists in the film, other than to say that the writers hate expositional explanations as much as old man Logan does. This is comes to a welcome relief.

Keen has an excellent, ravaging energy. She is berserk when she needs to be and definitely doesn’t waste words or screen time. Many in the theater really enjoyed her performance, laughing much and snickering as she attacked with ferocity any who crossed her. I found the performance impactful and there definitely were a few funny moments.

The key to Keen’s performance, though, is seeing how she, Stewart and Jackman play off of one another. There is little joy in Logan. For our older heroes, the entire exercise is a drawn out torture that is exacerbated when they see how easily she is drawn into conflict.

When lucid, Xavier believes she is a light in the world, capable of improving on what mutant kind was before now. Logan refuses to invest too much emotion in the little girl who so desperately needs to cling to something solid. Life is hell for her now, he knows. Why should he pretend it ever won’t be?

Clint Eastwood made a remarkable 2nd career out of playing the guy hobbled by age, injury and heartache. Hugh Jackman has always channeled a bit of Eastwood in his portrayals of Logan. This film is different. Jackman owns this version of The Wolverine and he treats it with the utmost care. His emotional range is beyond anything even Eastwood has done. One has no choice but to feel every blow Logan receives in this film. Neither his flesh nor his spirit is willing this time around. When he fights, he fights scared. But not scared stupid.

Jackman has never been better. Stewart has rarely reached this level. Keen is remarkable for such a relatively inexperienced actress. Any or all of the three deserve nominations for their performances here. I won’t hold my breath, though. If they didn’t reward Stallone for his portrayal of Rocky, the Academy will likely assume the Oscars are too good for this astounding film.

The carnage is breathtaking in Logan. There is much mutilation and severed limbs and heads. As bad as it is, it is matched unnecessarily with an over reliance on profanity. Yes, I know that is the image of The Wolverine comics, but moderation might have made a more distinct impression. I will say it does work in relation to Charles. Something must be wrong if that refined and dignified person is throwing curses like punches.

If you’ve skipped all of the X Men films after the 2nd, this might be a good place to pick up again. Heck if you skipped all of the films, but want to see an incredibly well played drama, partake in this feature. Much care went into this film, and it feels like everything is balanced on the edge of a knife. And then the knife slips and goes right through.

It’s worth all of the pain, just to know how Logan feels in the moment.

(***** out of *****)

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Jane Got A Gun (***1/2): Hell’s coming with me

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Jane Got A Gun – 2016

Director Gavin O’Connor
Screenplay Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, Joel Edgerton
Starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Boyd Holbrook, Rodrigo Santoro, Noah Emmerich

Sometimes things don’t turn out like you planned. At one point you can have a hot script as yet unproduced. Then you snag an Oscar winning actress and a renowned female director. Then you get Michael Fassbender and Jude Law. Then Jude Law is replaced by Bradley Cooper. Somehow out of that you get Joel Edgerton and Ewan McGregor and a new director in Gavin O’Connor. Adding to this we get Tambakis and Edgerton of O’Connor’s beautiful Warrior to rewrite parts of the script. Then they say this means the film is in trouble. I don’t understand how one comes to this conclusion in these trades. It seems like the film wins in every trade except possibly Cooper for McGregor. I will call that one a draw. Overall, at this point, the only drawback is that they get the name from an Aerosmith song that has nothing to do with old west justice.

Prior to Jane Got A Gun, there has not been a lot that this reviewer has been excited about in Portman’s career. She started out like gangbusters with Leon: The Professional. Since then it’s been a middling collection of estimations on what a beautiful young actress should do. It’s like she and Keira Knightley took the same class on career advancement. She won an Oscar for Black Swan in a performance for which she really had no business being nominated. She has two modes: severe and affected. Her range has to expand before her looks recede. This is a good start.

The story starts out with Jane Hammond (Portman) and her daughter waiting for the arrival of her husband (Emmerich). When he arrives, he is near dead and Jane fixes him up as good as she can. They are on their way, he tells her between gasps and screams of pain. She should take their daughter and leave.

She does take her daughter to a safer place, but then she seeks out assistance in the form of her ex-fiance Dan Frost (Edgerton), who initially refuses her after reminding her of the obvious. In her effort to secure more supplies at the general store in town, she is assaulted by one of the gang of John Bishop (McGregor) who is in pursuit of Jane and her husband. She escapes and makes her way back to her home with some help.

From here it is a series of preparations and flashbacks. Each one is placed in an effort to answer each question as it arises. To move the story along, essentially. It does it’s job, even if it doesn’t leave any room for nuance or questions. If you wonder what happened at any particular moment, just hang on a few beats and the answer comes.

What the script does not answer adequately are any of the questions surrounding the pursuit of Jane and her husband. He’s been a wanted man for years, yet he lives outside of town. How far away they both are from the Bishop gang is never adequately addressed. When they decided to settle down and raise a family, what kept Bishop and his numerous men from stumbling across them unless they were states away.

Better handled is the progression of events that conspire against women in the old west. As she admonishes her husband for cursing as she dresses his wounds, one thinks, my what an environment she makes in her home. Later, we discover a whole host of atrocities that have been performed on her in the recent past, it occurs to us the strength and resilience one woman must have had among all of those grotesque and evil men in the dust.

Portman does a great job putting us in her shoes but in no way overselling it. This is the actress I have been waiting for since Leon. It has to be no coincidence that she produced this film. Let’s hope she acts in more of her own productions in the future.

Edgerton is excellent in the meaty role of a man betrayed. He releases his aggression in interesting ways and does not let it interfere with his compassion. There are a lot of ways one could play this role between the lines, but Edgerton finds the margins are much more memorable.

Emmerich has little to do in the present, but his flashbacks are neat. He shows us a character who finds right and wrong have a clear delineation and when he decides to act for righteousness, it’s one of the best moments of the film. Leave it to O’Connor to give the fourth lead this kind of gravity and it’s nice to see an actor of Emmerich’s experience seize upon it.

McGregor, called in late to replace two actors, does the most with a role that demands nothing so much as twirling his mustache and dying last. How he goes is very entertaining, though. Hang in for it.

O’Connor has not done nearly as much as a director of his caliber since his incredible last effort, Warrior, mentioned earlier. If nothing else, Jane Got A Gun shows that he can take other people’s material and make something that we can feel. It’s a good, memorable western that allows us to know we come from a stark reality. It is a film that college students of today should watch before they make another demand for safe space. People can survive a lot tougher battles than words.

(***1/2 out of *****)

A Walk Among The Tombstones (***1/2): Deliberate, with a few surprises

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A Walk Among The Tombstones – 2014

Writer and Director Scott Frank
Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roché, Brian “Astro” Bradley, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson
Based upon the book by Lawrence Block

There is something very lived in about Liam Neeson’s Matthew Scudder, the protagonist from A Walk Among The Tombstones. Given the this story takes place in the 10th of 18 of the Block novels featuring Scudder, we get the feeling of the history that he lives with every labored step and every hesitant breath. There isn’t much that he has not seen, but that doesn’t matter much, because people end up in the same place, no matter how they get there.

This is the second Scudder novel turned into a film. The first being a labored effort starring Jeff Bridges and featuring the writing efforts of Oliver Stone and Robert Towne. It was one of the last big budgets given to Hal Ashby, and he was fired right after principal photography wrapped due to Ashby’s past erratic behavior and that he pretty much discarded the script. Having the cast shoot from the hip was a bad choice, because Block makes his characters work through dialogue.

Scott Frank has written some of the best adapted screenplays ever. Get Shorty and Out of Sight belong on every one’s top 50, while he made The Wolverine more real than he ever has been before or since on the big screen. The work he does here feels respectful to the point of being deliberately clunky. Taking place before Y2K, we see a film that would have fit in that time or even earlier. Cell phones were still used primarily for calling then, and so were pay phones. Both play a big part here, too.

Scudder is a recovering alcoholic who is fully in tune with the process. He’s made peace with who he was and who he continues to be: an unlicensed P.I.. When he is approached by an addict after a meeting, he goes to see the man’s brother, Kenny (Wilson, nothing like the guy one would remember from Downton Abbey). Kenny is a drug dealer who recently lost his wife to men who ransomed her. When he could not meet their financial demands, they literally cut a deal. Now he is out for revenge. He asks Scudder to find them and let Kenny know where they are, and that is it.

In the process of finding the men, Scudder discovers there is more to the case than anyone would have guessed. He also finds some help in the form of a homeless boy, TJ (Bradley). The relationship they strike up is near to every cliché one could think of for the situation, but Frank takes Block’s work and steers just clear of each one, leaving the film feeling fresher than it probably should.

It’s after the extortionists meet up with one of Kenny’s dealer friends that the action and Scudder’s dialogue begins to heat up. There is something about Neeson speaking frankly on the phone that gets the old engine revving. We know who’s going to come out on top, even if the person on the other end of the phone does not.

There is a lot to appreciate in Frank’s adaptation of the material here. The direction is somber, but not Se7en level despair. Scudder and TJ live in the same reality, even if TJ does not quite understand yet. He’s smart enough to survive it. The nemeses are a breath of fresh filth. Their approach to their lack of sanity works because we don’t hear them explain it, even when they try to start blabbing. Frank is smart enough to leave everyone damaged by what they’ve experienced, because, well, we were kicked out of Eden at the start of all stories.

Conversely, there is not a terrible amount of mystery to the general direction of the plot. The characters start at point A and we can tell by who they are who makes it to point B, C, or D. There is enough here, though, to call for another venture, perhaps even a series. There’s definitely more here than in the Taken ventures or the dreadful November Man. It’s the little things that make one feel the difference between an enjoyable story and one that makes you feel you just gave up precious minutes.

(***1/2 out of *****)