Movie reviews: 'Logan' satisfies comic book fans with hybrid of brains and brawn
Published Friday, March 3, 2017 6:30AM EST
Last Updated Friday, March 3, 2017 9:25AM EST
LOGAN: 4 STARS
'Logan' takes a Canadian superhero played by an Australian actor and places him smack dab in the middle of the great American movie genre, the Western. The third solo Wolverine film stars Hugh Jackman in his ninth and final incarnation of the cigar-smoking X-Man but this one is different from the others.
Set in the near future, when 'Logan' begins the mutant world seen in the other 'X-Men' movies has changed. Mutants are almost extinct, their greatest champion, 90-year-old Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) is senile and his school, the Xavier Institute, shuttered. Wolverine, a mutant blessed with healing powers but cursed with a bad hairstyle and existential angst, tends to Xavier, but age and a lessening of his powers have reduced the superhero to working as a chauffeur in Texas near the Mexican boarder. “Charles, the world is not as it was,” he says ruefully.
He is drawn back into his old life when he takes a job driving an 11-year-old girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a mysterious safe haven in North Dakota called Eden. Turns out the youngster is a chip off the old block, a clone-daughter of Wolverine. Like her old man the silent but deadly kid -- she barely speaks a word until the last half of the film -- has regenerative healing powers and retractable adamantium-coated bone claws; like most adolescents she’s volatile, with mood swings and the potential for violence.
They are on the run from the Reavers, a team dedicated to the destruction of the X-Men. Led by part cyborg head of security Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), a surgeon whose father was killed by Wolverine, the Reavers are ruthless and possibly unstoppable.
Like the superhero at the heart of the movie, 'Logan' is angsty and dark, a film that drips with sweat and regret. Director James Mangold tosses away the pop psychology of earlier “X-Men” outings, replacing it with something usually lacking in comic book movies, humanity. Wolverine may have super powers, but he’s never been more human than he is in “Logan.” A lion in winter, he’s a mentor, a friend, a warrior nearing the end of his run. “You are dying,” says Laura. “You want to die. Charles told me.” Sure, he can slice your head off with a flourish of his claws but this time around psychological vulnerability is front and centre, not his physical prowess.
Mangold has also done away with much of the computer-generated clutter that have become a de rigour in superhero flicks. He’s turned Wolverine’s valediction into a traditional drama. Think 'Unforgiven' with claws. The character is wounded, wracked with regret for a legacy of bloodshed, a life he never asked for. It’s the kind of existential reckoning that fuelled Westerns like 'Winchester 73,' 'The Shootist,' 'Shane' and 'Ride the High Country' and while there are no cowboy hats on display, make no mistake, “Logan” is a call back to the days when antiheroes wore their wounds on their sleeves.
The movie works because Jackman digs deep. His portrayal of Wolverine has grown over the years from cartoon cut out to fully realized character. It would have been easy and probably commercially prudent to allow Wolverine to downplay his anguish and simply have him slice and dice his way through the 'X-Men' franchise but Jackman rides the line. This is a violent movie that should satisfy fans hungry for action but his remorse, his regret is palpable and the character is more interesting for it.
There are echoes of other comic book tropes in 'Logan.' There’s an evil Logan and an 'Iron Man 3-esque' child sidekick, but it still feels like the evolution of the superhero movie. A hybrid of brains and brawn it is unafraid to call 'X-Men' comic books “ice cream for bedwetters” while at the same time paying respect to one of it character cornerstones.
BEFORE I FALL: 2 ½ STARS
“Before I Fall,” a new supernatural thriller based on the young adult novel of same name by Lauren Oliver, is essentially an anti-bullying “It gets better” advertisement stretched to feature length.
Zoey Deutch is Sam, high school senior and along with Lindsay (Halston Sage), Allison (Cynthy Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi), one of a quartet of mean girls. “Till death do us part,” they chant in a clumsy bit of foreshadowing. Best friends, Lindsay says, they’ve “kissed the hottest boys, gone to the sickest parties” and, since grade five made the lives of those they deemed less cool miserable. One such classmate is Juliet (Elena Kampouris), an outsider they nicknamed Mellow Yellow after a long ago camp bed wetting.
On Valentine’s Day the four attend a wild house party but things don’t go exactly as planned. On what was supposed to be Sam’s big night with her boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley), he gets drunk and flirts with other girls. Worse, Juliet shows up to confront her tormentors. When the situation gets out of control the foursome storm out, piling into Lindsay’s SUV. Minutes later the vehicle veers off the road and spins through the air. All are killed.
Or are they?
The next morning Sam wakes up in her bed with a bad case of Déjà vu. It’s once again Valentine’s Day morning and she seems to be reliving the day all over again. “I feel I'm still dreaming,” she says, perplexed. “Or was yesterday a dream?” Is she destined to relive the worst day of her life over and over? Or can she change her fate? The opportunity to revisit the day brings with it some perspective on the way she has lived her life. Out go the eye rolls, in comes a wave of empathy. “Maybe everything done could be undone,” she says. “Maybe things could change and I could change them. If I had to live the same day over and over I would make it a worthy day… but not just for me.”
Like the time travelling child of “Groundhog Day” and “Mean Girls” (but without Bill Marie or Rachel McAdams), “Before I Fall” is a study of teen angst magnified by a glitch in time. For its young adult audience it will likely raise questions about tolerance, bullying and behaviour. Those for whom high school is a long distant memory may have a harder time finding a great deal of depth in Sam’s revelations.
As portrayed in the film Sam has some edge—she’s not very nice to her sister and ignores her parents—but her journey from sinner to saint might have had more oomph if we had seen more of her terrible behaviour. As it is Lindsay is the true mean girl and yet we’re never really sure what happens to her. “Before I Fall” is a redemption story about a teen who doesn’t seem as much mean as she does moody. Hollywood doesn’t like to make movies where the lead is unlikable but in this case it would have added to Sam’s story of salvation.
Deutch is a likable (perhaps too likable) presence and the story has good and timely messages about bullying, teen suicide and the cause and effect of high school life, but “Before I Fall” needs more edge to be truly cutting. Also, since this isn’t an episode of “Star Trek” I’ll forgive the disregard for the space-time continuum rules.
BALLERINA: 1 STAR
Paris’s 19th-century cityscape has ignited filmmaker’s imaginations for decades. Everything from “Charade” to “Rush Hour 3” have used the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame cathedral to add glamour to their stories. A new film, “Ballerina” does as well, but with a twist. Instead of real locations the story showcases the City of Lights with state-of-the-art animation.
Set in the 1880’s, Elle Fanning voices Félicie Milliner, an 11-year-old orphaned girl from rural Brittany with dreams of becoming a ballerina dancing in her head. She has no training but her will is strong and soon she and her inventor friend Victor (Dane DeHaan) make their way to la Ville des Lumières. Using a bit of trickery—she assumes the identity of the snobby Camille Le Haut (Maddie Ziegler)—Félicie gets the chance to audition for the Paris Opera Ballet. Tough times follow as her lack of experience slows her progress. “You have the energy of bullet,” says the dance master, “but the lightness of a depressed elephant.” It’s only with the help of Victor and mentor Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), a former prima ballerina turned cleaning lady, that Félicie gets the gumption to follow her dream and win the role of dancing the role of Clara in The Nutcracker.
Part “Cinderella” and part “The Karate Kid,” “Ballerina” feels like less than the sum of its parts. Like it's "never give up" message the movie feels generic. The animation is fine, occasionally beautiful, but the character work and storytelling is strictly by the book. Standard-issue pop songs litter the soundtrack, providing Félicie with a chance to indulge her passion, although much of the ballet dancing is fetishized to such an extent it often looks more like martial arts than ballet.
“Ballerina” feels second tier. From the predictable story to that most 90s of showdowns—the dance off—it feels lazy, as though it is content to not only borrow from, but also sit in the shadow of Pixar, Dreamworks or Disney.
TABLE 19: 2 ½ STARS
“People do weird things at weddings,” says Huck (Thomas Cocquerel), a handsome stranger who takes Eloise (Anna Kendrick) for a spin on the dance floor in the almost-rom-com “Table 19.” Maybe that’s true, but in the case of this movie, they do quirky and sometimes unpredictable things, but weird? Not quite.
On the day of her childhood friend’s wedding Eloise (Kendrick) repeats the mantra, “Today will not suck.” She may be close to the bride but is attending the wedding begrudgingly. Her ex-boyfriend Teddy (Wyatt Russell), a flame-haired dim wit who dumped her by text with the words "good luck in your future endeavours,” is the best man and she still hate-loves him.
She arrives to find herself seated at Table 19, a collection of misfits she says, “should have known to send regrets but not before sending an expensive gift.” There’s Jo Flanagan (June Squibb), a pot smoker who was once the bride’s nanny, the Kepps (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow), distant friends of the family of the groom, ex-con Walter Thimple (Stephen Merchant) and Rezno Eckberg (“Grand Budapest Hotel’s” Tony Revolori), a young man who introduces himself with, “I have achieved puberty and I'm in the band.”
Because they are the outcasts, invited out of politeness and seated far from the action, they spend the day together. Secrets are revealed and the complex nature of relationships is explored. Will Eloise be able to speak to Teddy? Will the Kepps’ marriage survive the weekend? Will Renzo ever get a date? What will become of Jo and Walter?
“Table 19” is a rom com, but not a traditional one. It’s a super-reverso-rom-com that begins after the couple already has a history and broken up. It’s no secret that the heart of the movie will be their relationship so your enjoyment of the movie will be related to how much you care about this quirky collection of folks.
Kendrick is an agreeable presence, bringing equal parts edge and vulnerability to Eloise. Robinson and Kudrow banter like an old married couple and Squibb radiates warmth while Revolori and Merchant dial up their eccentricities. It’s an interesting group who by times are quite funny but most often feels like a collection of characters rather than real people. They shuffle from one set-up to another—Whoops! They knocked over the wedding cake!—lurching through the wedding on the way to the end credits and some sort of relationship resolution.
“Table 19” will raise a laugh or two or three, but the artificial nature of the situation isn’t weird enough to truly embrace the quirkiness of the characters or interesting enough to engage the audience.
THE SHACK: 1 STAR
“The Shack” is Canadian author William Paul Young’s look at healing from a Christian point of view. Praised and condemned equally upon its 2007 release, it became a bestseller which begat a film of the same name starring Sam Worthington and Octavia Spencer. Some loved the book’s depiction of how God works in our lives; others called it heresy. The movie is likely to ignite similar theological conversations but my complaints are of a more cinematically secular nature.
Worthington is Mack Phillips, God-fearing family man. Loving husband to Nan (Radha Mitchell) and dad to Kate (Megan Charpentier), Josh (Gage Munroe) and the precocious Missy (Amelie Eve); he goes to church, works hard and spends as much time with his family as possible. A weekend trip with the kids is a wholesome good time—there are endless choruses of the campfire classic “I Met a Bear” and loads of roasted marshmallows—until little Missy goes missing, presumed of abducted by a fugitive from justice. When her little red dress is found marinating in a puddle of blood in a shack in the woods all hope is lost. Missy is gone and she won’t be back.
Her disappearance changes everything. Mack has a crisis of faith and feelings of guilt and remorse haunt the family. When Mack finds a note in his mailbox reading, “Meet me at the shack,” he becomes upset and confused. There were no footprints in the snow to and from the box, and, more mysteriously, it was signed “Papa,” Missy's nickname for God.
Borrowing his best friend’s (Tim McGraw) four wheel drive Mack heads for the shack. “I gotta do something,” he grunts, “and this is all I got.” There he finds the rundown shack where his daughter’s dress was found, a desolate building almost buried in snow but just around the corner is something else, something otherworldly. Steps away is an Eden, a sunny, warm and welcoming place with a shack. Inside the humble home are Jesus and Sarayu (Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara), led by a woman named Papa (Octavia Spencer). Is it a dream? Has he died and gone to heaven? “Why did you bring me back here?” he asks. “Because here's where you got stuck,” replies Papa.
Here he begins the most painful journey of his life, the road to forgiveness.
“The Shack” is the very definition of a church basement movie, a film programmed with a very specific audience in mind. Aimed at a Christian audience willing to embrace its message of love and forgiveness while overlooking some of the controversial parts, i.e. the depiction of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is a sermon come to life but with too much off screen narration, really heavy-handed imagery and clunky dialogue like Papa’s declaration that, “God is especially fond of Neil Young.”
“The Shack” is very earnest, a movie that tackles one of humanity’s great questions, “Why does God let bad things happen?” without adding much to the argument. Bad things happen, we’re told, simply because it is God’s will. It is eternal wisdom wrapped in a movie that never met a point it couldn’t belabour or a scene it couldn’t overplay.
Worthington and Spencer are good actors but the precious material sucks any kind of grit out of their performances. We’re left with Worthington’s one-note portrayal of the stages of grief coupled with Spencer’s calm to the point of dull work as the all-knowing and slightly sassy deity.
Bad things in life may be God’s will but I lay the blame for this bad movie directly on the shoulders of director Stuart Hazeldine who infuses this story with all the depth and insight of a “Davey and Goliath” cartoon.
BITTER HARVEST: 2 STARS
“Bitter Harvest” is a wannabe historical epic set against the backdrop of Joseph Stalin’s genocidal policies against Ukraine in the 1930s. I say wannabe because despite the sweeping nature of the story this is more melodramatic war soap opera than “War and Peace.”
Set at the time of the Soviet famine of 1932–33, “Bitter Harvest” is the story of two lovers, Cossack grain farmer and artist Yuri ( Max Irons ) and Natalka ( Samantha Barks ). Childhood sweethearts, they are torn apart and will only see one another again if they can survive the Holodomor, a Soviet regime “extermination by famine” policy that claimed millions of Ukrainian lives. Jailed in a Soviet gulag, Yuri stages a daring escape so he can join the anti-Bolshevik resistance movement and find his way back to Natalka.
“Bitter Harvest” is the story of an underreported atrocity, a genocide that didn’t become widely known until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s an important slice of history but by the time an evil Russian is forcing Natalka to not only wash his feet, but then dry them with her hair, any hope for nuance has been thrown out the window. Trading in stereotypes of the most banal kind the movie tries but fails to bring us inside the horror of the situation.