In all its messy, bloody, thrilling glory

Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman in LoganI received my first issue of The Uncanny X-Men in my Christmas stocking in 1985. I was 10, and it was the comic that all of my friends were reading. These boys were fixated on Wolverine, the cigar-chomping killing machine with unbreakable bones and long metal claws. He seemed to be half wild animal, half Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

A deeply sensitive and conflict adverse proto-gay, I was unnerved by Wolverine’s violence and unpredictable rage, and I was much more enamored by weather witch Storm and teen genius Kitty Pryde; their stories moved me when Wolverine’s scared me.

But Wolverine was and is the most popular of the X-Men. This isn’t just because the teenage boys who are the majority of comics’ readers love hyper-masculine violence. As the years went by, the writers and artists of the various X-Men titles turned Wolverine into an emotionally complicated, psychologically tortured, and reluctant hero who works in the grayest areas of the moral universe.

I read through many of these stories as a less fearful adult, and it’s this complexity that has made me love the character so much. But when he finally ended up on the big screen in 1999, with Hugh Jackman perfectly cast, the pressures of family-friendly film franchising sanded down Wolverine’s roughest of edges. Or, the edges were there and the films’ mundanity covered them with a polyurethane sheen.

Then comes Logan, the third Wolverine film, ninth appearance of the character on the big screen, and Hugh Jackman’s last time playing the role. Logan is not only one of the best X-Men films – if not the best – but it’s also the best representation of the Wolverine character in all its messy, bloody, thrilling glory.

The new film was inspired by the now classic graphic novel Old Man Logan, but departs from that text in many ways, which will disappoint that title’s ardent fans. It is several decades in the future, mutants have mysteriously stopped being born, and Logan, whose nom de guerre is Wolverine, is grayer, limping and coughing, his mutant healing ability clearly no longer adequate. He is working as a limo driver, trying to save money to buy a boat where he can take a decrepit Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), also known as Professor X, as he dies of something like a cross between Alzheimer’s and epilepsy.

Patrick Stewart in Logan

The most powerful telepath alive, Charles’ seizures are like psychic bombs, so Logan and the albino mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) keep him drugged and hidden away across the border in the Mexican desert, away from innocent bystanders.
One day, a Mexican nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) finds Logan and tries to hire him to take her and a young mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a haven for mutants in North Dakota. Logan is resistant, even though Charles is insistent that they help. When a pack of vicious mercenaries called the Reavers show up and Laura slaughters more than a few with very Wolverine-like abilities, Logan reluctantly agrees.

The basic plot is very “Just one last job!” but director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line) and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green use that structure to investigate Logan as a character without much cliché; through crackling dialogue and one exhilarating set-piece after another, we watch Logan wrestle with mortality, guilt, filial piety and his own instinctive brutality. His interactions with the mostly mute Laura are funny, gruff and moving, giving filmgoers the first glimpse of a side of Wolverine so important in the comics and absent from the films: his counter-intuitive mentoring of teenage girls like Kitty Pryde and Jubilee.

The film also showcases extreme, sometimes jaw-dropping violence, earning the film its R-rating by a mile and then some. It makes Deadpool seems like a Tom & Jerry cartoon. But this violence, which is perpetrated not only by Wolverine but also by a pre-teen girl, is what makes Logan’s physical and psychological pain so believable. It is also what makes his redemption so powerful. For the first time in 30 years, an X-Men story earned my tears.

Directed by James Mangold
Written by Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green
Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Dafne Keen
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

SCRE4M: Just stop. Please.

Here’s my latest review. The edited version is here, but there are some edits that, um, don’t work, so I’ve past my version here:

“Scream for them to stop”

Scream 4 (aka Scre4m)

Directed by Wes Craven
Written by Kevin Williamson
Starring Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

I’ve never liked horror movies or slasher films. As a genre, they’re usually exploitative; they go for the basest emotions, the simplest reactions, using buckets of blood to gross you out, gratuitous sex to get a rise out of you, and the lamest of surprises to get you jump out of your seat. The villains are usually cartoonish boogey men in masks, actually scary only to children or people who haven’t discovered that the true terror is in the collapsing world economy, the security of former Soviet nuclear arms, or the popularity of torture porn like Saw. These movies are all id, and it’s rare to find in them any art, emotion, or lasting resonance. For every brilliantly terrifying movie like Psycho, 28 Days Later, or The Descent, there are five movies like Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Final Destination, and the never-ending string of their sequels.

That’s why the original Scream, now 15 years old, was such a breath of fresh air, or, rather, a whiff of fresh blood. Sure, it’s a high-body-count slasher film, but it’s also, and more importantly, a hilarious, almost high-brow commentary on slasher films. In his script, Kevin Williamson (gay and out) had his characters dissecting the misogynistic gender politics and silly genre conventions of movies like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street, which was directed by Scream’s director, Wes Craven. But Scream was more than a critique. Williamson and Craven refused to play to the audience’s expectations, and in doing so redefined and rebooted the genre.

Scream’s gender politics were progressive; the female heroes played by Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox weren’t virgins, they kicked ass, and they survived. The male hero, played by David Arquette, was a bumbling, nervous cop who often needed to be saved by a woman. Ghostface, the killer, was not an evil demon like Freddy or a violent halfwit like Jason; he was a smart, bitchy sociopath with a real grudge. While Williamson and Craven embraced some of the conventions of the genre – it was a slasher film, after all – you never knew which ones they’d keep and which they were going to turn on their head. That’s what made it so thrilling.

And that’s why Scream 4 isn’t thrilling. After two sequels that tried to do the same thing as the first film, to be witty and bloody at the same time, everything is expected. After Drew Barrymore’s star-remaking slaughter in the opening of the first film, quick and bloody cameos by famous actresses are predictable, and in 4, we have, uh, four: Aimee Teegarden, Shenae Grimes, Anna Paquin, and Kristen Bell. After seeing Campbell, Cox, and Arquette survive every massacre, you know they’ll survive this new Ghostface rampage. After three previous “And the killer is…!” revelations, you should see a pattern. Who’s the least expected? Oh, the killer, that’s who.

After Jamie Kennedy’s high geek monologues about the slasher genre in the original movie, you can only wait for the requisite film school commentary, this time coming from Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin, and Hayden Panettiere. This time, they’re talking about reboots and sequels. But unlike in the first film, they aren’t merciless. If they were, they’d point out the desperation of reboots and sequels, that they’re done for the money. Neve Campbell hasn’t had a hit film since Scream 3 ten years ago, and while Courtney Cox is in a successful sitcom (Cougar Town), her soon-to-be-ex-husband David Arquette is hardly a sought-after commodity. Craven can sit on his laurels, but Williamson peaked at the same time as Campbell. The Scream franchise has become everything that was mocked in the first movie.