Atomic Blonde

ABDirector: David Leitch

Screenwriter: Kurt Johnstad

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, and Eddie Marsan

Maybe a movie like this could have flown before Netflix, before John Wick, or before Mission: Impossible, but not anymore. Atomic Blonde, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel series, The Coldest City, plays like a Cold War action movie, but it tries too hard to be anything else.

Set in 1989, at the peak of the Cold War, British agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to investigate the death of a fellow agent in Berlin. Cue all the tropes you associate with this genre: mistaken identity, betrayal, secret list of undercover operatives, and so on and so forth. It even does the very thing this clip from The Other Guys is making fun of; it starts at the end, then goes to the beginning, periodically returning to the end, giving various characters’ perspectives. Ridiculous.

The other characters? Hardly worth mentioning, but Broughton is teamed up with another agent named David Percival (James McAvoy) who may or may not be up to something. She also encounters a rookie French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), who Broughton finds much more amusing than Percival.

Does it matter that this movie paints by numbers? It certainly doesn’t have to matter. Movies like Mission: Impossible and John Wick have very little going on upstairs, but what they do have is unrelenting spectacular action sequences! Atomic Blonde has one of those, and while it may be one of the best examples of an action spectacle in a long, long time, it doesn’t do enough to hold the other 90 minutes of the movie afloat.

Atomic Blonde the film wisely immerses us in the music of the times. The best part about Atomic Blonde is its selection and execution of the New Wave/Punk music of the time. Like Baby Driver, none of this music is original; the art is not in the music but rather the selections, arrangement, and placement. I have an even deeper appreciation of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” now.

So what do we have here? Do we have the “female James Bond,” as some publicized this film to be? No. We have middle of the road espionage, set in a provocative time period with good music and one great action scene. That’s just enough to recommend it, but not without the caveat that it comes with a high risk of disappointment. C+

Atomic Blonde is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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It’s All About Choice

choice_mainThe recent film Baby Driver forced me to spend an unhealthy and inordinate amount of time contemplating film narrative development. My upcoming review of that film will go into more specifics in terms of how that film’s narrative is “driven” from a most unsuspecting source. In broader terms though, Baby Driver got me thinking about what at its core drives film narrative, and the answer I arrived at is one word: choice. Well choice, or the absence of it. Historically, there has actually been some debate about what the basis for Hollywood storytelling and narrative style is; however, in order to really arrive at any conclusions, we need to go back to the early days of film. There are actually two film theorists, Robert Ray and Jeanine Basinger, who hold two popular yet different views on the topic.  Robert Ray says in his book A Certain Tendency of the American Cinema 1930-1980, that classic Hollywood narratives revolve around the ideology of “the denial of the necessity of choice,” and this ideology can be utilized both in story as well as in film style/technique. What he means by this is that the narrative is propelled forward due to the appearance of a lack of choice for the protagonist and/or the filmmaker.  Jeanine Basinger, in her book A Woman’s View, on the other hand believes that choice, especially in the case of the movie female, is key to the storytelling and workings of classic Hollywood cinema.  Each of their views can be analyzed separately. For example, Ray’s view can be seen quite clearly in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach while Basinger’s view is well illustrated in Alfred E. Green’s 1933 film Baby Face.

Coach-1In his book, Robert Ray uses the western genre as the best way to document the “denial of the necessity for choice.  He focuses on the western male individual and his “ad hoc solutions for problems depicted as crisis.”  Thus, Ray seems to believe the western hero, a man who is in complete control (or appears to be) of the world around him, is the ultimate example for his theory on how to drive a movie narrative.  Ringo (John Wayne) in John Ford’s Stagecoach is a character that strongly illustrates Ray’s theory.  Ringo is the perfect example for Ray’s statement that “the denial of the necessity for choice…discourag[es] commitment to any single set of values.”  Ringo has no solid set of values and the audience is well aware of this.  As the film progresses, the audience realizes Ringo is unique in the sense that they know the drunk is a drunk and the prostitute is a prostitute but they know very little, if anything at all, about Ringo.  Thus, he is the ultimate individual who can form his own values and not be labeled or expected to act in any particular way.  This frightens most of the characters in the film at first, but Ford demonstrates that Ringo’s qualities are reputable and add to his control of the narrative.  One scene that shows this is the famous dinner scene.  In this scene, everyone stops to eat at a dinner cabin and no one wants to sit near the prostitute, but Ringo thinks that everyone leaves the table because they do not want to sit by him.  Here the audience sees Ringo as completely nonjudgmental and honorable.  Much of this also rings true to the character of Baby (Ansel Elgort) in Baby Driver. He remains a mystery to most of the other characters in his “stagecoach,” yet his stoic silence and individuality propel the film. Watch the scene where Baby jams to his tunes while Doc (Kevin Spacey) lays out the plans for the next robbery, and tell me there are no similarities to the dinner scene in Stagecoach!

This also brings up Ray’s statement about the “law” versus the “heart.”  He says, “This sense of the law’s inadequacy to needs detectable only by the heart generated a rich tradition of legends celebrating legal defiance in the name of some ‘natural’ standard.”  In Stagecoach, Ringo shows that he defies the law for a moralistic reason, avenging his brother’s death, both when he went to prison as well as with the gunfight at the film’s finale (both instances also echoed in Baby Driver).  Ford also uses stylistic technique to show Ringo’s control over his environment.  In the scene where Ringo is first introduced, he climbs into the stagecoach with all the other passengers.  Here, Ford positions Ringo in a way so that every time the camera goes to him he dominates his own frame.  All the shots of the other passengers share the frame with other people, but Ringo is always shown as alone.  This preserves his individual characteristics as well as to allow the audience to identify with him and trust in him.  Furthermore, Ford also allows Ringo to wander freely in and out of frame throughout the film.  Several scenes show Ringo with this freedom of movement.  This represents the fact that Ringo is in control of his environment.  Therefore, Ringo is a strong example of how the western hero can demonstrate the “denial of the necessity for choice” forcing audience identification and, thus, drives the film’s narrative.

BabyfaceThe 1933 film Baby Face is a film that fits nicely into Jeanine Basinger’s theory about women in film.  The crux of that theory is that films on one hand show women with a passion for success where there are unending opportunities and outlooks for them.  However, on the other hand by the end of the film this power of opportunity and choice they once had is somehow deeply undercut and forced in one direction which usually adheres to the current cultural status of women.  Baby Face demonstrates this quite flawlessly.  One scene that brilliantly illustrates Basinger’s ideology is towards the end of the film.  In this scene, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) has received Trenholm’s (George Brent) fortune.  This money represents all that she has passionately and ruthlessly worked for since she joined the workforce.  However, when Trenhom’s bank is bankrupt, Lily is faced with the choice to either help her husband whom she may love or leave with the money.  She eventually chooses love but at the cost of her husband shooting himself before she makes up her mind.  This alone strongly depicts Basinger’s theory that the woman full of passion is forced to make a choice, usually involving love.  However, Basinger is truly correct when the audience learns that Lily and the recovered Trenholm move to the factory town to start a new life together.  Here the film shows that Lily’s choice that she was forced to make deeply undercuts the passion she had earlier and she is forced to conform to a more socially accepted role for women of her time.  Thus, supporting Basinger’s statement that many films show women doing amazing things, however, in the big picture, the life of the average culturally accepted housewife is the best way to end up. Watch the evolution of Debra (Lily James) in Baby Driver compared to that of Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). How does the narrative treat them? What choices were made? Where do they end up and how does that reflect the current cultural status of women? Also, I would be remiss to not mention the similarity in title: Baby Face, Baby Driver.

MildredAlthough Ray and Basinger’s views are contrasting in some respects, I propose that the two theories can be reconciled.  An excellent example of this reconciliation can be found in an analysis of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce.  Although Ray and Basinger’s theories for the basis of classic Hollywood narrative success differs on many fronts, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce seems to correlate both theorists ideas into a very cohesive classic Hollywood narrative structure. It is at this reconciliation, that I believe we stand today in terms of what is driving our modern Hollywood narratives as well – Baby Driver being a strong example.  As Ray states, films of the classic Hollywood era were quite careful to try to draw as little attention as possible to the actual production of the picture itself.  That is to say, trying to make the audience forget that they are watching a movie or that choices are made for every step of the film’s progression.  However, as time passed many films began to deviate from this normal classic Hollywood style and create new genres of film style and mythology.  This transition away from the classic Hollywood style and storytelling did not occur over night and, thus, it is these transition films of the late 30’s and early 40’s that illustrate a clash of Ray and Basinger’s arguments.  Although they are still classified to be of the classical Hollywood style and narrative structure, these films also began to include new styles, choices, and techniques which, in the case of Mildred Pierce, were strongly focused towards the movie female.

choice2It is clear that Mildred Pierce demonstrates many of the characteristics Ray would say are commonly found in the classic Hollywood formula narrative.  For example, in the scene near the beginning where Mildred (Joan Crawford) is summoned to speak with Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen), Curtiz uses classic Hollywood style to show Peterson’s control and authority over the situation.  In this scene Peterson is positive that he has found the murderer and he explains the mechanics of how his detective work has succeeded.  In the first shot of the scene, the camera is positioned behind Peterson’s desk.  This shot allows Peterson to tower over Mildred as he stands up to greet her.  After he sits down, Curtiz cuts to a close shot of Peterson so that he dominates the frame as he begins to explain his case.  The camera then cuts to a longer shot of Mildred and then back to the same closer shot of Peterson.  This technique of cutting back and forth during a conversation while emphasizing one individual’s contribution more than the other’s echoes Ray’s theory of how there is very little choice involved here.  Like Ford, Curtiz too shows one character as completely dominant.  This method forces the audience to identify more with Peterson than with Mildred without drawing their attention to any camera movements.  This scene also uses other classic Hollywood techniques to show that Peterson is in control of this conversation.  Later in the scene Mildred wants to know who Peterson believes the murderer to be.  Peterson stands up and again the camera is positioned behind him allowing him to tower over Mildred.  After he tells Mildred that she is entitled to know who killed her husband, there is an eyeline match between Peterson and the buzzer on his desk, which alerts one of his officers to bring in the suspect.  Peterson is very much in control of his diegnesis here; all he has to do is push a button to make something happen.  This use of an eyeline match to reinforce Peterson’s control over the conversation helps suture the viewer into the film, and is also a common characteristic of the classic Hollywood cinematic style.  Before the scene ends, there is another shot that adds to Peterson’s control of the scene.  After Mildred’s first husband is brought in as the suspect, the camera cuts to another shot of Peterson.  In this shot, the camera is pointing slightly upwards at him to give him an aura of superiority as he confirms his position by saying calmly, “Yes, he did it, your first husband, Pierce.”  This technique again enhances the viewer’s trust and assurance in Peterson without drawing attention to the filmmaking process.  Thus, this scene is a very strong example of Ray’s theory that the classic Hollywood narrative is driven by an appearance of a lack of choice by the filmmaker as well as for the audience.

Basinger’s voice can be heard in another sequence of the same film. Mildred Pierce is one of the films of the late 30’s and 40’s that experiments with adding a distinct and noticeable style to the film and, thus, beginning to deviate from the transparent classic Hollywood style of filmmaking.  It seems that it is these stylistic sequences that hold strongly to Basinger’s theory of the movie female in classic Hollywood narratives.  A scene that demonstrates a deviation from classic Hollywood style is the final scene of the film.  Here Curtiz uses bright imagery contrasted with dark imagery in the same scene.  After Mildred’s daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) has been discovered as the murderer, Mildred exits the police station.  As she exits, her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett) is waiting for her.  As they leave the police station they walk out from the shadows and out through a bright sunlit arch.  This obvious contrast of darkness to brightness stylistically implies a positive future for the couple.  Here Basinger shines through as Curtiz creates an establishment or reestablishment of a man/woman couple.  He does this with rather expressionistic style as well as constructing his narrative so that the woman has made a very hard choice; Mildred realizes she had always neglected her husband for her daughter and, thus she chooses to start over.  This scene comes quite soon after the audience learns that Mildred lost her restaurant to Wally (Jack Carson).  This connection strongly supports Basinger’s statement that while movies say women should be both woman and wife, these same films show, (as in Baby Face) these “woman” options fail leaving the woman left to become the wife.

ChoiceRobert Ray and Jeanine Basinger have two very strong arguments about what drives a film narrative.  Ray has strong evidence to support his view that a film that guides the audience thematically and stylistically by displaying a “denial of the necessity for choice” is the best way to drive a narrative.  Stagecoach is a good example of this theory through use of the western hero.  Basinger, on the other hand, finds that characters, usually woman, forced to make a choice is what makes a film work and is seen in the film Baby Face.  However, most remarkably, is the fact that both theorists can be represented in one film, Mildred Pierce, and more modernly – Baby Driver, where their theories are demonstrated separately while still making the film work as a whole. This has lead to the evolution of the American film narrative paving the way for pioneers like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and most recently Edgar Wright.

Wonder Woman (2017)

wwDirector: Patty Jenkins

Screenwriter: Allen Heinberg

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, and David Thewlis

It was inevitable that some movie in the Detective Comics Extended Universe would eventually get it right. It wasn’t Man of Steel, it wasn’t Batman v. Superman, and it definitely wasn’t Suicide Squad. Did I think it would be Wonder Woman? No, but it was. Regardless, whatever it was, that particular film would be laden with praise far better than it deserves simply because it’s the film that stopped the DC bleeding. That’s the case with Wonder Woman. A fine film, but not to the degree that its being touted.

We open in modern day with an established Diana (Gal Gadot), working in her office at the Louvre, when she receives a curious brief case courtesy of Wayne Enterprises. Within is the original photo of the image Wayne (Ben Affleck) uncovered of Diana and a group of soldiers posing for a picture in war-torn Belgium mid World War II. With the photo, Wayne enclosed a note hoping to be able to sit down and hear the story that lead to this photo someday. Fortunately for us, that day is today, as the film flashes back to the War-era 1940s on a mysterious Mediterranean island populated with god-like Amazon women training as warriors.

The isolated island is hidden from all other people of Earth and is so protected that all inhabitants are unaware of the World War going on around them. Diana, now a child runs through the training areas, locking eyes with Antiope (Robin Wright), General to the warriors who seems to see some potential in young Diana that her sister, Diana’s mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) seems to be ignoring. While Hippolyta’s goal is to protect her daughter, the fact has not escaped Diana that she is the only child on the island and it is clear Hippolyta and Antiope know why, and it has something to do with the why their mysterious island remains hidden from the world of man. Diana, however sides with Hippolyta on the matter and eventually Antiope agrees to allow her sister to train Diana on the condition that she train her harder than any warier she’d ever trained previously.

The world of man does not stay hidden for long, however. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) American CIA agent working for British intelligence posing as a Nazi crashes his plane and Diana, now grown, witnesses it and rushes to his rescue. What she doesn’t know is that Trevor is being pursued by the Germans and by rescuing Trevor, she leads the Germans right to her home. The ensuing battle between her Amazon warrior race and the pursuing Nazis introduces her to the conflict in the outside world, and with Trevor, she decides to leave home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

There’s actually quite a bit to this movie, not in terms of complication, but in terms of its reach; think Captain America meets Thor meets Elf. In the end, Wonder Woman is more successful at what it represents than of what it actually is. As I mentioned in my opening, the first DC movie to strike a chord with audiences and critics will receive enhanced accolades. Wonder Woman represents a change in course. It is funny, heartfelt, romantic, and exciting. None of these adjectives can be used to describe the previous DCEU films. Furthermore, this disconnectedness in tone is further illustrated  by the film’s execution. This is a stand-alone film in every way. There are no pandering cameos or obvious Easter egg plot points to lessen the film’s impact. Wonder Woman strikes out to sink or swim on its own, and for the most part it swims just fine.

That’s not to say the film is not without its faults. There is a fairly forced thread involving the origin of Wonder Woman and her immortal Olympian ancestry, which paves the way for at least one too many villains for me. Villainy should have started and stopped with Elena Anaya’s haunting performance as Dr. “Poison” Maru. Furthermore, I have a little qualm with the film’s supposed message in combination with the history it presents, or shall I say decides not to present. I won’t say more, but it’s hard to ignore a certain historic event that does not play out in this film, which would certainly complicate its overall theme.

And then there’s the costume reveal, which came off kind of hokey, in my opinion. I costumeknow it’s a big deal, and I know it needs to happen in a big way, but as Diana trekked across “no man’s land” in her Stars and Stripes Amazon armor in slow motion, I was lost in in an female objectified patriotic feminist paradox! Later I would read that director Patty Jenkins did not change or reshoot a single scene for this film…except for this one. Which makes me wonder, what was it like before reshooting?

Still, this is an almost entirely satisfying, fresh, and enjoyable summer blockbuster.  The two main stars, Pine and Gadot, are terrific together, and finding Gadot for this role is an absolute miracle. She embodies the nearly 80 year history of the character brilliantly and will serve the character greatly in her various appearances in other DC films. Wonder Woman, while flawed, is a good time at the movies, which is all anyone is really hoping for in her next film as the Amazing Amazon, this fall’s Justice League, slated for November 17th. B+

Wonder Woman is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

gogDirector: James Gunn

Screenwriter: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell…Sylvester Stallone?

Well I feel both sorry and a little validated to report that on the topic of guardians who are of a said galaxy, I told you so. These films are bloated, overrated, and in the case of the second volume, boring.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, opens with our heroes banding together to protect the galaxy from some massive, disgusting, toothy intergalactic creature. It’s a battle. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) strikes first and is quickly thwarted, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is next, but her speed is no match. Rocket fires his blaster at will, but his blasts don’t penetrate the creature’s skin. Drax (Dave Bautista) determines, he will attack the creature from within and leaps down its throat. What follows is difficult to decipher. Not because of confusing filmmaking, but because the focus shifts to Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing and narrowly avoiding blasts, shrapnel, and slimy tentacles whilst dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” All of the fighting remains blurry background action. This is a funny, clever scene. This also marks the high-water mark of the film, and it’s downhill from here.

Spoiler alert (not really), the mighty foe is vanquished, and the guardians bask in the glory of victory, accepting possession of Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Killan) as reward from a group of golden skinned beings known as the Sovereign race. That is until Rocket pockets a few valuable batteries from the Sovereigns, causing them to pursue the guardians in an epic space chase culminating in the fortuitous arrival of Quill’s father, Ego (Kurt Russell).

This sets the table for Volume 2 where Quill is forced to face and reconcile the deep-rooted feelings about his father’s seeming abandonment of him and his mother. There is much to discuss about Ego, but it would tread into spoiler territory, so I’ll simply say that Ego’s name is not misplaced.

As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this film does not improve on its already humdrum predecessor.  Like all the worst sequels, the filmmakers looked at what made the first film successful and just poured more of that on, with no regard for congruity. This time the soundtrack is no longer accompanying the film. In the first film, the soundtrack was a device to set a tone for the film. This time, it’s forcefully shoved into our face and ears to the point that the damn songs are actually plot devices. In one scene, Kurt Russell takes the time to give us a Master class on the lyrics of Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Also, Gunn and company crowbar the romantic subplot in there in such a haphazard way, I almost thought it was an attempt at being Meta. Quill refers to the romantic tension between Gamora and himself as an “unspoken thing,” so I thought perhaps this self-reference to a “will they or won’t they?” thing might go somewhere interesting. Instead, it simply becomes demonstrative of the same thing that a Meta version would condemn. This is not satire. This is not irony. This is just soap opera scriptwriting.

My only concern before seeing this movie was Baby Groot. I was worried about the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Teaser
James Gunn (screen grab) CR: Marvelproblematic nature of this “cutesy”, silly, obvious merchandising stunt, but Baby Groot ended up being the strongest quality of the film in the same way that “Adult Groot” was the heart and strength of the first film.  Additionally, as with all Marvel movies, Dr. Strange included, there are other elements of this film that do work. The world is expanded with this film to include some new characters including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the aforementioned Ego, and a bazaar turn from Sylvester Stallone as Ravager leader Stakar Ogord. These characters are introduced and developed to various degrees in effective ways. Michael Rooker also returns as Yondu to positive effect, and I do get a kick out of Bautista’s dry, honest portrayal of Drax.

Still this is a dimmer, starker Guardians film. Humor is downplayed, and Volume 2 comes off angrier than the first one. I am looking forward to these characters’ appearances in the Avengers: Infinity Wars films, as I think they will benefit from less screen time. Still, Volume 3 is already green lit and slated to be released in 2020 kicking off phase 4 of the MCU, so apparently my opinion of the greatness of this franchise is off the mark. C+

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 16 minutes. There are also several stinger scenes sprinkled throughout the credits and one after the credits as well.

Logan

LoganDirector: James Mangold

Screenwriters: James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, and Stephen Merchant

Seventeen years, appearances in nine separate X-Men related films (credited/uncredited), and about 27 different timelines – Hugh Jackman is finally hanging up his claws. Citing fatigue, age, and skin cancer as factors, Jackman has made it clear Logan will be his final film as the iconic Wolverine. But don’t worry, Wolverine will not go GENTLE into that good night.

We open in the year 2029, and time has not been kind to Logan. A glorified, Uber driver, Logan (Jackman) is a limo driver for hire scraping together cash in order to buy a boat where he and an ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) can live out their days isolated, yet out of harm’s way. Logan also has some health concerns of his own. His healing abilities are nothing like they used to be, which was the only thing protecting him from adamantium poisoning; he’s also a little too friendly with the bottle.

Mutants are all but extinct at this point, none having been born in over 25 years. Also, a catastrophe has basically wiped out the X-Men altogether. This event is but glossed over, but it clearly has to do with a seizure condition affecting Xavier. His mind being the most powerful the world has ever seen, as it deteriorates, the fallout can be alarming. In order to keep him safe, undetected and from doing harm, Logan, with the assistance of a mutant tracker named Caliban (Stephen Merchant), keeps Xavier medicated and contained in a large, empty water tank. This temporary measure is mostly effective, but as Xavier’s seizures get worse, it becomes clear Logan needs to speed up his plan. Things are complicated, however, with the arrival of a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who possesses the same mutant ability as Logan and is being pursued by a powerful corporation, Transigen. If one were to connect the dots, it would imply that the DNA William Stryker used to “create” Wolverine has been stolen and repurposed by Transigen, which it has. More specifically, a mad scientist type by the name of Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) is using the stolen mutant DNA to design, grow, and patent a militant mutant force who are now child aged, Laura being one.

Laura hopes to escape Transigen’s clutches by finding a safe haven called Eden across the Canadian border North of North Dakota, and she needs Logan’s help. Logan wants no part, but thankfully Professor Xavier sees Laura as someone who can begin to repair the damage that has annihilated his gifted youngsters. She can be the start of something new and someone who can teach Logan to love again.

What follows is your basic cat and mouse chase with Logan shepherding Professor Xavier and Laura while being pursued by an army of sinister figures, mutant and human alike.

The action is relentless, and now would probably be a good time to address the R rating. This is one brutal film both visually and emotionally. The violence is also off the charts. Director James Mangold always planned to make this film a darker, heavier Wolverine film, even before the success of Deadpool last year. The source material for the storylines came from some of the bleaker, more recent Wolverine graphic novels, including Old Man Logan (2008). This is truly a departure and another progression for the Marvel universe. While still under the 20th Century Fox studio and not officially a Marvel Production, Logan gets to be something different without too much disruption to other properties. With Logan, continuity is an afterthought, we have a more personal film, there is limited CGI, we get to spend time considering the value of aging heroes, and most of all the case is made that superheroes are not just for kids.

There’s a scene in Logan where Professor X and Laura are watching the movie Shane in a hotel room just as Alan Ladd says, “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mould. I tried it and it didn’t work for me.” There’s no finer epitaph for this movie or superior way to express it. Referencing a 1953 western to make your point is cinematic gold and a far more mature approach than in most “superhero” fare. I don’t think we are far from seeing the evolution of the superhero genre substantiating itself into cinematic art of the finest regard. Logan may not quite be that film, but it will likely be cited as the influence for that film. It’s important to take this film for what it is, and that is a character-driven action film. Logan does fine work with that, and while Logan may be Shane, Logan is not Shane. Still, this is certainly the finest of the Wolverine films, and its limited cast and mature perspective make it one of the most important comic book films yet. Furthermore, Jackman is outstanding as the tortured hero once again. This is the role he was born to play, and that is likely why he took it so seriously every time he played it. Unfortunately, nearly every role Jackman takes, he seems born to play, so it is fitting that he, like his character, is ready to move on to what’s next. A-

Logan is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes. There is no after-credit scene with this film, but there is a humorous Deadpool 2 teaser before the film, so get there early.

Hidden Figures

hfDirector: Theodore Melfi

Screenwriters: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner

No matter how you felt about 2016, I think most of us could use a little pick-me-up in 2017. Well, enter Hidden Figures to provide a brief respite with a little chicken soup for the soul right when we desperately need it.

Hidden Figures is the true story about a group of African American women employed by NASA who were instrumental in the success of the now iconic and historic space missions of the 1960s. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, who along with her two friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), work as human computers for NASA, doing calculations that the engineers need worked or verified. This proves to be a skilled yet monotonous task, and all the while the women working as Computers look on as the first International Business Machine (IBM) is being assembled across campus, threatening to render their roles obsolete.

An academic prodigy, Johnson’s prowess for Geometry gets her promoted to personal Computer for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of Guidance and Control, the branch responsible for calculating the trajectory for NASA’s first manned space launches. This sounds all well and good, but Harrison is not the warm, fuzzy type, and a room full of egotistical White, male engineers in the Jim Crow South does not exactly translate to a respectable work environment. The movie unfolds henceforth as tensions rise over the space race between America and Russia. Johnson must grapple with the hostilities of being a Black woman in a White man’s world while Jackson and Vaughan adapt to a changing world where computers are machines, not people.

There is a lot going on in this movie; far too much to summarize in a simple movie review. Each of the heroines’ stories is compelling and outstanding in its own special way. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi is wise to begin the film where he does and allow each of these characters to forge her own path in the face of societal and cultural stifling. While many of the tropes of traditional period biography are present, it’s the ones that don’t get played that make all of the difference. Several times, I set myself up for the inevitable and predictable harassment scene or cartoonish bigotry, and each time I was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t happen. Hidden Figures does not go for the cheap jab at your sensibilities, and instead takes the high road exposing the institutional racism of the time, not just the blatant form. We’ve seen many films depicting the shame and cruelty of “separate but equal,” but not as many that also reveal its inconvenience or question its complacency.

Furthermore, we have fantastic performances all around, of course from our leading ladies, but also from Costner and supporting players like Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons. Movies like this do come around every year, but Hidden Figures feels uniquely appropriate for right now. Additionally, the film aptly depicts the great John Glenn whom we lost last year and who deserves to be lionized as part of this story as well. Melfi is fast becoming a go-to writer and director when it comes to creating emotional and satisfying films. His previous film, St. Vincent was equally crafted, and Hidden Figures furthers his budding trademark theme of exploring the unconventional (and sometimes “hidden”) goodness in the world.

Hidden Figures is not groundbreaking or particularly edgy. What it is, is a spectacular, and relatively unknown story of progress and perseverance, without feeling cheap or going to the same old well. It feels fresh and inspirational, and while not especially deep, it does make for a good time at the movies. A-

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogueDirector: Gareth Edwards

Screenwriters: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, and Riz Ahmed

George Lucas must be laughing his way to the bank now. I mean, imagine you made a mess, I mean a serious, disastrous, offensive mess. Then someone offers you $4 billion to clean it up for you and still keep you on the payroll? Rogue One: A Star Wars Story represents more than just an extension of the Star Wars brand and cinematic scope. It frees the franchise up to allow more dynamic and complex voices to influence the future of the characters and stories.

Rogue One takes place just before the events of 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The film opens with Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) along with a flank of Empire forces landing on a remote planet where Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is hiding out with his wife and young daughter. Erso’s history as chief scientist for the Galactic Empire has made him indispensable in the Empire’s construction of a new weapon, and Krennic is not leaving without Erso. When things go bad, Erso is abducted by Krennic, but his daughter Jyn (later played by Felicity Jones) manages to hide and escape with the help of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).  Jyn ultimately comes of age with a chip on her shoulder against the imperial forces and after a host of actions including forging imperial documents, aggravated assault, and resisting arrest, she is tossed into an imperial prison. Fortunately for Jyn, the Rebels manage to break her out only to task her with helping them on a secret mission. Why her? I’ll leave it at that for now since the answer to that question is actually the answer to a question that has been bouncing around the galaxy since Star Wars debuted in 1977.

Rogue One is an enjoyable film for all levels of fans. One does not need even a passing understanding of the other films to enjoy this film. However, I would strongly recommend watching Episode IV before watching Rogue One if you want to catch all of the nuanced touches left in there for super-fans. Director Gareth Edwards designs and directs this film to feel connected but not tethered to the other films, and I think that is a delicate task to accomplish. From the first moment when the classic text, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” we are introduced to something familiar but slightly different (no trademarked scrolling text accompanies this film). Also, Edwards allows his characters to interact, talk, and feel. The opening scene between Krennic and Erso feels more like a Tarantino scene than a Star Wars movie.

Not that the film doesn’t have its small share of missteps. First of all, in his defense, Forest Whitaker is having a great year starring in quite possibly two of the year’s best films: Rogue One and Arrival. Still, his performance is odd and a little annoying. Additionally, his character’s whole purpose seems arbitrary in that he acts as a shepherd and plot device that is then appropriately “put away” once those tasks are served. Furthermore, much will be discussed about the film’s use of CGI. In an effort to not spoil, I will say that this CGI is not the Jar-Jar Binks kind of CGI, so don’t worry. It’s more of a principled approach that will have its detractors and its supporters. I reluctantly dip my foot in the supporter pool for now, but with reservation. Nonetheless, a precedent has been set where things could get goofy, which would be problematic.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a strong, balanced, and entertaining film that plays how we wish the original prequels could have played. There’s a hint of nostalgia along with new and fresh perspectives, which make us forget that we all know where this is going and “forces” us to care and root for these new characters. Rogue One also continues the recent track record of introducing another classic droid character that will be beloved in K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk); I imagine we haven’t seen the last of him. Jyn is also a strong dynamic lead. Parallels are destined to be drawn between Jyn and Rey (from last year’s The Force Awakens, but Jyn is starkly different and Jones plays her with an edge. Like the best Star Wars movies, there is plenty to interpret including some theoretical connections to The Force Awakens and the continuation of the latest trilogy. There are also some major bombshells and any misgivings you have about the film are wiped clean away with the final 20 minutes. If you have any level of appreciation for Star Wars, you will leave the theater in high spirits!  Easily immersed, we are, in this new/old environment, and knowing what is going on just over in Tatooine, Mos Eisley, and Dagobah only enriches the fabric of this film that much more. A-

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.