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logan (james mangold, 2017)

There are good superhero movies and bad superhero movies and everything in between. It's not my favorite genre, but it's hard to avoid them at least once in awhile in an era when it feels like half the movies you see in the theatre fall into that grouping. I do like some of them ... Wonder Woman and Dr. Strange, to note a couple of recent ones. A lot of the time, though, I can't remember if I've seen one or not. And the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe thing just confuses me. Iron Man seems to turn up in all of them, but there are only three movies with Iron Man in the title, and while I'm sure I saw the first one, I'm not so sure about the others. And there are things like the X-Man being owned by a different studio, so they aren't in the MCU, so they invented the Inhumans (I have no idea if I'm getting this right), who are basically X-Men with different names. The Inhumans got their own TV series that flopped, and they turn up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is fairly popular. I know there are people who really care about this, whereas my involvement mostly revolves around wishing they hadn't cancelled Agent Carter.

All of which is a long way of saying I'm not the audience for superhero movies, but I'm not immune. Still, what makes Logan stand out is all the ways in which it isn't typical. Arguably the biggest difference is that it is rated R. It's well-earned. The IMDB Parents Guide calls the violence & gore "severe" ("Realistic depictions of bloody violence are shown", "On-screen body count: 76"). Profanity also gets the "severe" marker ("48 uses of 'fuck', similar number of uses of 'shit', one use of 'dick' and several uses of 'motherfucker'"), and "Frightening & Intense Scenes" ("Numerous intense scenes throughout, including a home invasion, child abduction, a torture scene and attacks on children and adults."). I watch plenty of movies like this, but they aren't usually big franchise pictures.

One result of this is that Logan might appeal to people who didn't bother to see other Wolverine movies. The film doesn't really require any knowledge of the backstory, although that would help. Despite the violence, it's a character study in its essence. Even the action scenes struck me as different, less CGI, more like a Daniel Craig Bond movie.

You know Logan has crossed over when you learn that it got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. There is simply more going on here than just a bunch of powerful mammoths throwing each other around.

What I'm saying is, Logan is a very good movie. In her film debut, young Dafne Keen as Laura is great ... I can see her turning up in future X-Men movies. Her ferocity is another reason Logan affects us ... seeing a kid performing Wolverine-style killings is startling. It's one of the things Wolverine passes along to Laura, when she admits she has done terrible things: "You're gonna have to learn how to live with that." 

The film makes calls to other movies ... Shane is obvious, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome a bit more subtle. Even then, it reminds us of older movies that exist outside the superhero universe. Unlike most of those films, Logan can stand on its own.


film fatales #36: mudbound (dee rees, 2017)

It's difficult at times to figure out what a director's contribution is to a film, since movies are such a collaborative art form. One assumption I make is if a movie has a bunch of good performances by the actors, the director should get at least part of the credit. Well, the director and the person in charge of casting. Mudbound has several actors who are perhaps lesser known than big stars, but who have a track record of good work. Garrett Hedlund will always be Dean Moriarty to me, which is silly, but he has a charisma that warrants a bigger profile. I may just be lucky, but I've seen several of Carey Mulligan's movies, and every one of them has been at the least good. Jason Clarke is always popping up in things where I first think "hey, it's that guy" only to realize he's more than that. Jason Mitchell is just getting started, but he made quite an impression as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. Jonathan Banks really is a That Guy (IMDB says he has 167 acting credits). And, of course, Mary J. Blige has been nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here (she also has a nomination for Best Song).

So yeah, I think Dee Rees deserves praise for the universally strong performances in Mudbound. (Don't want to forget those heads of casting, Ashley Ingram and Billy Hopkins.) Honestly, I'm a bit surprised Blige got an acting nom ... she's fine, for sure, but she doesn't jump off the screen. Maybe that's why it works ... she underplays a role that could go into all sorts of excesses. And whenever she and Rob Morgan (who plays her husband) are on screen together, they avoid sentimentality and are more believable for it.

Mudbound looks great, which gives me a chance to tip my cap to history: Rachel Morrison is the first woman to get an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

Rees does a good job of showing us who these characters are. None of them are mere stereotypes.  The history of America is such that we always know things can take a dark turn, and in fact they do ... very dark. But we are especially affected by the darkness because Rees takes her time getting there. It hurts more knowing these people as intimately as we do. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

music friday: 1970

Derek and the Dominos, "Layla". Not the unplugged version, fer chrissake.

James Brown, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine". JB always had a knack for complicated song titles with a parenthetical inclusion, although this one is especially good in that it sticks the parenthesis in the middle.

Freda Payne, "Band of Gold". Supposedly, Payne balked at singing the song, feeling the lyrics were meant to be sung by a young teenager or woman. She was 27 at the time. It became the biggest hit of her career.

Neil Young, "After the Gold Rush". According to the ever-trustworthy Wikipedia, the Trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, who were recording the song, asked Young what the lyrics meant. "We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said, 'Hell, I don't know. I just wrote it.'"

Hugh Masekela, "I Can't Dance". He died on Tuesday.

Joan Baez, "Joe Hill". Recorded at Woodstock in 1969, but the album wasn't released until 1970, so here it is.

Black Sabbath, "Paranoid". Their first charting single.

Curtis Mayfield, "Move on Up". From Mayfield's first solo album.

Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi". My favorite Joni Mitchell song. So shoot me.

John Lennon, "Working Class Hero". From the best-ever album by a solo Beatle.


film fatales #35: first they killed my father (angelina jolie, 2017)

There is a big Hollywood name attached to this movie: director Angelina Jolie. But Jolie manages to helm a film that has little of the feel of Hollywood. It's easy to imagine a more mainstream approach ("mainstream" meaning "easy for U.S. audiences to watch"), but Jolie does nothing to make the movie easy. The cast is all-Cambodian, as is much of the crew, and the film is in Khmer. We can be forgiven for wondering what this rich white woman knows, what she can contribute to a story that seems to demand a Cambodian perspective. But First They Killed My Father never seems like anything but a Cambodian movie. Jolie doesn't disappear ... it's not like there is no director serving as a guiding force for the film. But she gives herself over to the material. Jolie read the original memoir by Loung Ung and reached out to the author, beginning a long friendship that eventually resulted in this film (the two collaborated on the screenplay). And while Jolie works to let the Cambodia story emerge from a Cambodian perspective, she is not just a typical rich white woman. She has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Cambodia.

The key artistic decision was to tell the story from the point of view of young Loung, who was five to nine years old during the period depicted in the movie. Jolie sticks to this point of view almost without fail, giving a strong, centered feel to the film. There isn't a lot of explanation here ... you learn a lot about Cambodia, but this may not be the best place to start if Cambodian history is your interest, because the insistence of the focus on what Loung experiences effectively narrows what we see. When you are living through troubled times and you are five years old, you might not know why things are happening, but you nonetheless experience them. Ultimately, First They Killed My Father is one of the finest movies about war from a child's perspective.

Special mention must be made of Sareum Srey Moch, the young actress who plays Loung. Like the movie itself, she offers greatness without exactly drawing attention to herself. You can't always see her acting, not because she seems amateurish, but because she seems naturally "real". Without her, the movie would still have good intentions, but with her, the movie approaches greatness. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

atomic blonde (david leitch, 2017)

You've got Charlize Theron as a stylish, ass-kicking spy. You've got some good fight sequences. What more could one ask for?

Well, I could ask for Mad Max: Fury Road, for starters. Atomic Blonde promises a fun time, and for the most part it delivers, but that's it. Without Charlize Theron, you've got nothing. She looks cool, she did most of her own stunts, and she's reasonably believable in the ass-kicking scenes. (Heck, she's taller than her Fury Road co-star, Tom Hardy.)

But, as is usually the case with spy thrillers, the plot lost me ... I'm not sure I even understood the final reveal, which is OK, because I didn't understand most of them. You're left with Theron and those fight scenes, and she's fine, but I just rewatched Fury Road last week, and Atomic Blonde is no Fury Road. And the fight scenes are pretty good, but the standard has been raised in recent years. Anyone who has seen The Raid or The Raid 2 will be unimpressed by Atomic Blonde. Theron is good, but sometimes she seems like Tricia Helfer with an Oscar. (If it's not clear, I mean that as a compliment to both actors.) 6/10.


music friday: 1969

The Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter". A perfect record, right down to Charlie's drums and Keith's solo and Merry Clayton's imperfect cracking voice. Not for the only time, I find myself wondering about a Stones' track, "Where did this come from?" It's too good. And it's a perfect picture of 1969, and it still sounds perfect today.

The Jackson 5, "I Want You Back". What was in the water in 1969? This is also a perfect record, and Motown's finest moment. Ironic: the Merry Clayton of this one is the bass player, yet no one knows for sure who it was. I've always assumed it was the great James Jamerson, but most folks now believe it was Wilton Felder.

Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin, "Je t'aime moi non plus". As "glivingston73" says on YouTube, "I think for a song like this, a description becomes somewhat meaningless". Vocals by Charlotte Gainsbourg's parents.

The Beatles, "Come Together". I generally prefer the less-perfect early Beatles to the more-perfect later version, but I can't complain about Ringo's drumming on this one.

Dusty Springfield, "Breakfast in Bed". Written by Eddie Hinton and Donnie Fritts, it makes an interesting pairing with "J'taime moi non plus".

Sly & the Family Stone, "Stand!". Definition of a great three-album run: Stand!, Greatest Hits, and There's a Riot Goin' On.

King Crimson, "21st Century Schizoid Man". It is very hard to find the original studio version of this monster cut, so I'm going with this: "Power".

B.B. King, "The Thrill Is Gone". Muhammad Ali was in the audience for this 1974 concert.

Fairport Convention, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes". The singer is Sandy Denny, who wrote this oft-covered classic.

Tim Buckley, "Gypsy Woman". Because of his experimental approach, you could never assume you'd like one of his albums just because you'd like others. Goodbye and Hello remains my favorite, Happy Sad has some great stuff, and after that, he lost me.

electric dreams, "real life"

Finally got started on Electric Dreams, an anthology series co-developed by Ronald D. Moore and based on stories by Philip K. Dick. Shouldn't have taken me so long, given my love for both RDM and PKD. Wasn't going to write about it, at least not yet, but a couple of people asked what I thought, and by the time I was done responding, I'd written enough for a blog post. So here goes, with the caveat that as I write this, I've only seen the first episode.

Diana Keng made a good comparison of this episode to Total Recall. I have said many times that the scene in that movie where they are trying to convince Arnold that he's really having a dream is, for me, the most Dickian moment in movies until A Scanner Darkly. It's not just that Dick creates worlds where characters question reality ... his particular skill as a writer in sucking the reader into those questions, so, like the characters, we are never quite sure what is real. I often find that when I am reading him and I put down my book, I have to take a moment to adjust to "real life" because I have become a part of the confusion of the book. Ron Moore did good.

Electric Dreams has been compared, perhaps inevitably, to Black Mirror. Virtually every episode of Black Mirror revolves around technology, recognizable today but "advanced" in the future, and how what is becoming ordinary to us will eventually expose a dark side. Based on the "Real Life" episode, Electric Dreams won't necessarily go that way, but it's interesting to compare it to Dick's original story, "Exhibit Piece", where technology isn't really the kicker. A guy in the future has a job creating exhibits of the past, and he's really good at it and his exhibit is quite detailed. He enters the exhibit, and something unexplained puts him into the reality of the exhibit, as if he's living in the mid-1950s. (The story was published in 1954, and Dick had a habit of making the future seem much like the present, even though all sorts of bizarre alien creatures are wandering around.) The question becomes whether the "real" world is 1954, or the world he "came from", which also allows an interpretation where he is from 1954 and time-travels to the future when he is, well, in the future. Anyway, a common thread in his work is that reality is fluid, and his characters often aren't sure which reality is "real". This works in "Real Life", but partly because we're used to Black Mirror now, we gravitate towards the technological vacation creator on the forehead and think it's a show about technology.
This is like a show made for Steven Rubio: based on Philip K. Dick, with Ronald D. Moore one of the creators. Moore is confident enough that he can mess with the story while still getting the essence. He wrote, "Very little remains of this story in the show, but the heart, and perhaps more importantly, the brains behind the episode originate in this tale". Looking forward to more.

strong island (yance ford, 2017)

Yance Ford presents this documentary as if it were an art film. Of course, all documentaries, indeed all films, are to some extent "art films", but documentaries often rely on a straightforward offering of facts. There are "facts" in Strong Island, but Ford's use of unusual transitions (fading into and out of black in order to shorten lengthy interviews) and the specificity of his camera shots (Ford's mother, a key interviewee, almost always appears in medium shot, while interviews with Ford show him in extreme close-up) work to direct us away from the narrative. Ford has a story to tell, but he seems more interested in the arc of the lives of the characters than he is with giving us "what really happened".

This is not a Rashomon-style film, with multiple perspectives describing the same event from different perspectives. Ford wants to show emotional realities, and when the various people tell their stories, he shows how events change their lives. Strong Island is about the murder of Ford's brother, but there is no recreation of that event, and only a few times do we even get details about the murder. Whenever we do get details, the purpose isn't to explain the crime, but rather to demonstrate how it affects the people who lived, family, friends, all of whom have their lives changed by the murder. Everyone at some point blames themselves, trying to figure out what they might have done differently to prevent the situation that resulted in death. Throughout, Strong Island is extremely emotional ... at times it's hard to watch, especially when Ford speaks in closeup.

The underlying theme ... it's more than subtext, but it's secondary to the emotional trauma ... is of race in America, and how it destroys lives, one at a time. Ford worked on the film for ten years, and when he started, names like Trayvon Martin were still in our future. Ford carefully constructs the history of his family so that we know that the story would be quite different if they were white. And in the ten years he was making Strong Island, it gradually seemed like every week there was another story of a dead African-American male taken down under racist circumstances. The story of Strong Island fits into those patterns, but Ford mostly leaves it to the audience to place things in a social context that reflects on our country's racism. Ford wants to show how his family was destroyed by the murder of his brother ... we can extend that to a general dissolution of society, but what grabs us as we are watching is the intense emotionalism of the Ford family story.

Ford doesn't present the material in a chronological fashion, and he cheats a bit by withholding some information until the movie has run for an hour. But by the time we get that information, Ford has given us equally important information about the Fords and their history, from the time the parents married, to the birth of their kids, to their move to Long Island, so that when tragedy strikes, it hurts especially hard because we know these people. 9/10.


where do we go from here

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?" These are words that must be said.

-- Martin Luther King

I've posted this the last couple of Martin Luther King Jr. Days. I used to assign it to my students. It still hasn't lost its relevance.