The Wolverine (2013) – James Mangold
Some undisclosed period of time after The Last Stand, and believe me, the further we can get from The Last Stand, the better, Logan’s gone completely wild; he’s grown even more ill-tempered than usual and rarely comes out of the wilderness; when he does venture into civilization, it’s to start stabbing drunks and breaking barstools, if you get my drift. Then an old friend from Japan bids him come with a strange promise: he can end Logan’s immortality. Logan, still devastated by Jean Grey’s death, is in a mood, almost, to accept. Soon enough, he’s caught up in the machinations of the Yakuza and a family with more than a few secrets. Jackman is very good, maybe as good as he’s been yet in this role (unless you count his five second appearance in First Class), finding the emotional vulnerability Logan’s always been kind of missing in this series, without losing any of his anti-social rudeness. Mangold, still a vastly underrated director, captures both the rural peace and the urban neonscapes of Japan very well. There are two fantastic action sequences early on: a fight that begins at a memorial service and then spills onto the mean streets is old-fashioned and gripping; a sleek, perfectly calibrated fight on top of a bullet train actually brings something new and exciting to old “top of train” fight. The film goes off the rails in the third act; once Logan falls into the enemy’s hands and the giant robot samurai shows up and the snakewoman pulls her skin off, we’re into the area of cartoon. But the bulk of the film works as a surprisingly meditative, neo-noir thriller. There’s something wonderful about it being such a small story too; just one family’s machinations and lust for power on a small-scale. This is kind of the comic book movie I’ve been waiting for: the world isn’t at stake, just a lot of money and the run of a small chapter of the Japanese mafia. The world’ll be at stake in the next one, if that mid-credit stinger is any indication, and I bet it is. Let this one be the small, unpretentious thriller that it is. Even with Mangold, I couldn’t help but wonder what Aronofsky would have done with it; oh, well, as it stands, it’s a good movie on its own terms.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself (2012) – Tom Bean, Luke Poling
This film ought to be fascinating. It’s a documentary about George Plimpton, a journalist who came up in the sixties. He had an unorthodox theory about journalism; if he’s going to write about football, he really has to PLAY football. Against pro players. In a pro stadium. In a pro game. In front of millions of people. He takes this ridiculous “must experience before writing” theory to some real extremes, trapeze art for instance. Yes, he takes the swing and plummets down into the net almost immediately; well, time to try again, right? A guy this crazy should be awesome. But the film never rises above the standard clichés. Yes, he was a charming, pleasure loving guy who was secretly unhappy and unable to connect with his family; yes, he was one of the first journalists to craft their own media persona; yes, he rolled with the high rollers (he was standing behind and to the left of Robert Kennedy when Sirhan Sirhan did the thing he did). And the movie just really has nothing of any insight to say; the clichés don’t seem to really help us understand Plimpton at all. Neither do they help us extrapolate anything about human existence or own lives. This one got really good reviews, but I didn’t take to it at all. By the time the first hour is over, you’ll be fighting sleep; you really shouldn’t be doing that at a movie about a guy this nutty. It can’t be the subject, obviously; let’s blame the directors.
Still Mine (2013) – Michael McGowan
James Cromwell stars as an octogenarian farmer in Canada; his wife, Genevieve Bujold, is beginning to suffer the effects of dementia. He hits on an idea that will allow her live more safely; he’ll build a small one story house for them to move into – this will enable him to keep a better watch on her than the multi-story, creaky old house where they live now. Unfortunately, there’s a bureaucracy and Cromwell soon finds himself buried under a torrent of laws, permit applications, standards, building plans, etc. The film has nothing at all new to say as far as the relationships go; Cromwell and his wife are struggling to adjust to her new stage of life; father and son have a tense relationship; father and daughter are estranged, etc. Cromwell’s character is your stereotypical crusty old curmudgeon. The plot about building the house is somewhat unique and based on a true story, but by and large there are no surprises here and nothing that you haven’t heard before. Still, it may just be worth a watch. The performances are exquisite. Just seeing Cromwell helming a film again is a massive pleasure and he’s perfect for the role, of course. Bujold finds a real humanity in what could be a one dimensional character. Rick Roberts plays the son to perfection; it’s a much more insular performance than most actors would have given. Even in the moments when he’s most frustrated with his father, he retains, like his father, a deeply laconic air. Jonathon Potts is fantastic as the meddling government bureaucrat. Michael McGowan’s direction captures the beauty of the rural Canadian countryside to perfection and the score is low-key and ambient. Two other small pleasures: 1. It’s just refreshing to see a quality film with a genuinely conservative perspective on government; they rarely come along and when they do, they’re usually hysterical and annoying. 2. You may not believe it, but this movie actually posits that people in their eighties do, occasionally, have sex. Now, there’s something you don’t see in a movie very often.
20 Feet from Stardom (2013) – Morgan Neville
This exuberant, joyous documentary explores the life of backup singers. It starts in the sixties with the rise of the black backup singer and moves to the present, introducing and studying certain figures all the way down the line. These women are incredibly charismatic and unbelievably talented. Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and others come across the screen by sheer force of their energy and zest for life. There are some amazing moments here. The filmmakers sit down with Mick Jagger in the present day and play an isolated track of Merry Clayton’s vocals from Gimme Shelter; he’s absolutely dumbfounded all over again. Seeing a talent like Jagger absolutely at a loss for words, slowly shaking his head in amazement is incredible. Then there’s Darlene Love, reuniting with two of her fellow back up singers from the sixties; they’re all in their seventies now and haven’t sung together for thirty-five years, but they effortlessly belt out an a cappella rendition of Da Doo Ron Ron with no rehearsal at all. Lisa Fischer sits, staring right into the camera, and goes into a breathtaking bit of scat singing that must last two to three minutes. A family of back-up singers, two sisters and one brother, sit at their kitchen table and sing hooks from their biggest hits, some of which are genuinely surprising. Ultimately, this film feels like a genuine tribute; there’s not a hint of condescension, not even when the film looks at all the failed efforts of backup singers to make it as headliners. It’s an ode to great artists and the satisfaction they feel, even when no one knows their name, even when they’re so close to superstardom they could touch it. For them, it’s the music, and after this wonderful, life-affirming film, it’ll be the music for you too.
A Hijacking (2012) – Tobias Lindholm
This movie will eat your lunch, okay? Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s a Danish film about a freighter being hijacked by Somali pirates. As time stretches out, negotiations between the CEO of the company that owns the ship and the pirates become increasingly tense; life for the hostages becomes increasingly miserable and despairing. The film starts slow and it’s a pretty minimalist in direction and writing. For a while, you’ll wonder what the big deal was with all the amazing reviews this movie got. But hang with it. By thirty minutes in, you’ll be hooked. The film then takes its sweet time in smashing every single bit of hope you’ve ever had in your world. The ending is the most devastating I’ve seen in a really long time. This isn’t a spoiler; the ending isn’t quite the one you’re expecting. But those final two, nearly silent scenes, are heartbreaking. When the film ends, you’ll be cut off at the knees; I haven’t been this destroyed by a movie since Midnight Cowboy, which I saw about ten years ago. All praise to the performers. Soren Malling is iconic and wonderful as the company CEO; he starts off as emotionally repressed and he grows simultaneously more withdrawn and yet rawer as the negotiations drag on. Johan Asbaek is wonderful as the ship’s cook, the main character among the hostage crew; his slow descent from a happy, comfortable man to his final fate is communicated with a tightly wound, minimal performance. When he finally does snap, it’s a jolting moment. Abdihakin Asgar is masterful as the designated negotiator from among the pirates; his moral self-righteousness and increasing frustration is wonderfully played. I can’t recommend this gripping, horrible movie enough, really. After this merciless, harrowing movie, I don’t think I’ll be able to stand the Tom Hanks vehicle Captain Philips, which will doubtless be a massive Hollywood spectacle and will be seen by more people in its first weekend than A Hijacking will be seen by in its entire theatrical run in this country, I’ll bet. See this one instead; it’ll break you down.