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

The past is prologue


The X-Men storyline called “Days of Future Past” appeared in issues 141 and 142 of The Uncanny X-Men in January and February, 1980. I first read it in mid-1980s when I was 12 or so and had just discovered the comic about outcast mutant superheroes. The story has haunted me ever since. It is set in horrifying dystopian future of 2013, when giant robots called the Sentinels have started a world war after slaughtering or enslaving all the mutants they can find. Among the few remaining are a handful of aging X-Men and their progeny. Kitty Pryde, who in 1980 is the newest and youngest of the X-Men at 13, is one of the survivors and she and Rachel Summers, the daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey, have a daring plan to fix the world. They are going to send Kitty’s consciousness back to her 1980 body and convince the other X-Men to stop the assassination of anti-mutant demagogue Senator Robert Kelly, whose death at hands of shape-shifting Mystique and her Brotherhood of Evil Mutants justifies the anti-mutant hysteria and leads to the building of the Sentinels. “Days of Future Past,” as created by writer Chis Claremont and artist John Byrne, inarguably the greatest X-Men storytellers, was extraordinarily dark and full of death and existential dread, which was almost unheard of in mainstream comics at the time.

“Days of Future Past” is considered one of the most influential narratives in not just comics but science fiction in general, and it was adapted twice for animated X-Men televisions in the 1990s, and it is the basis for Bryan Singer’s latest X-Men movie, his third and the franchise’s seventh since 2000. While “Days of Future Past” is as perfect a story as any in comics history, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg drastically changed it for their film, partly because the Singer had decided (and was inexplicably allowed) to recreate and remythologize the X-Men for the first film, X-Men, back in 2000. In the latest film, it is franchise star Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) who is sent back, and this time it is to 1973, when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), by herself, is going to kill Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the inventor of the Sentinels.

Wolverine is sent by Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who somehow has developed the super-psychic powers needed for the time shift. He is tasked with convincing a young and depressed version of Professor X (James McAvoy), the Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and a superfast juvenile delinquent named Peter (better known as Quicksilver, played Evan Peters) to break young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of prison and stop Mystique, who at a younger age was the Professor’s adopted sister and Magneto’s lover. Meanwhile, in the future, the surviving X-Men, including Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and Bishop (Omar Sy), must battle the Sentinels to protect the Kitty and Wolverine’s entranced body.

If it sounds a bit overstuffed with superheroes, it certainly is, but Singer and Kinberg manage it well by making sure that only the drama in 1973 has any emotional heft, and giving the future’s characters barely any lines. (Oscar-winner Berry, for instance, is fifth billed and speaks maybe four times. Anna Paquin, another Oscar-winner, is seventh billed and doesn’t even speak during her one-second appearance, as her one real scene was cut from the film. No wonder the movie cost $200 million to make) McAvoy’s Professor X, who must find a way to escape wallowing in self-pity to save the world and mutankind, is the only character with a believable arc, since Fassbender’s Magneto changes his mind for unwritten and perplexing reasons, Mystique’s motivation never wavers, and Wolverine is always the same: kick ass, save the world, smoke a cigar, have mournful thoughts about Jean Grey.

Despite the thinness of the characters and the continued bastardization of the X-Men’s best stories, X-Men: Days of Future Past is still a pretty great action film, and undoubtedly the best of the franchise. Singer and Kinberg keep the adrenalin pumping from the first scene and only let up for scenes of exposition that are probably only too short for film critics. The massive superhero battles are choreographed well, and the production design, of both the 1970s and the dystopia, is impeccable. I have a hard time cheering for Singer, who is embroiled in a sexual assault lawsuit that few in gay Hollywood find remotely surprising, but X-Men: Days of Future Past is a triumph for him, his best film since his classic The Usual Suspects.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by Brian Singer
Written by Simon Kinberg
Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex
Unnecessarily in 3-D

Yet another teen-ager saving the world


The similarities between The Divergent Trilogy and The Hunger Games trilogy are impossible to ignore, so let’s get them out of the way. Both are about preternaturally capable teen-aged girls who help lead rebellions in dystopian futures, and both have been turned into big budget tent-pole movies with starry casts and critics-anointed leads. The Hunger Games has Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence playing warrior and heroic symbol Katniss Everdeen, while Golden Globe-nominee Shailene Woodley plays Tris, a brilliant and brave girl who diverges from the strict eugenic caste system, in Divergent. In both, there’s romance with a hunky fellow, a heaping dose of political intrigue, and some cool technology on which a lot of the plot points hinge. Both have training montages, big action scenes, lamentable deaths of good people, and some nasty villains. The Hunger Games books have a more complex and believable mythology, however, and both of the movies are better than Divergent is – which is not to say that I wasn’t entertained.

In the world of Divergent, everyone who has survived a horrible, global war now lives in Chicago, which is surrounded by a massive wall and where the population has been divided into five factions: Abnegation, who are selfless civil servants; Amity, who the peaceful, hippy famers; Candor, who are honest lawyers; Dauntless, who are the brave soldiers and police officers; and Erudite, who are the scholars and intellectuals. At age 16, you are given a hallucinogenic aptitude test that tells you which faction you should join, and 95% end up in the faction of their parents, either because the test told them so or they choose to remain. But you must join a faction; the Factionless become homeless and live on the street. There are those for whom the test doesn’t work. They show abilities and behaviors that indicate multiple factions. They are “divergent,” and their existence threatens social order. Usually, once they are discovered, they’re killed.

Beatrice (Woodley) was born into Abnegation, of which her father (Tony Goldwyn) is a leader and her mother (Ashley Judd) a dutiful supporter. When Beatrice and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) go for their test, the tester (Maggie Q) nervously tells Beatrice she is divergent but must never tell anyone. At the choosing ceremony, everyone expects Beatrice and her brother to go to Abnegation, but she chooses Dauntless and her brother goes to Erudite, which is run by a coldly scheming Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Beatrice leaves with the others from Dauntless, who like to run everywhere, climb things, and jump without knowing if they’ll survive. She renames herself Tris, befriends other initiates (including Zoe Kravitz as Cristina), and while training, makes an enemy of her dastardly trainer Eric (Jai Courtney) while falling in love with her other trainer, the serious and smoldering Four (Theo James). Meanwhile, Jeanine is up to something, conspiring with Dauntless’s leaders to overthrow Abnegation’s rule.

Woodley is a spectacularly gifted actress (if not as charismatic as Jennifer Lawrence) and she makes the movie better than it should be. Her chemistry with James is the best thing in the film, and her righteous indignation and almost foolish courage are great propellers of the mostly character driven plot. Nevertheless, despite showing great talent in other movies and TV shows, Judd, Goldwyn, Kravitz, Q, and Courtney give off little heat. And Winslet, one of the world’s great actresses, says evil things but just doesn’t have the temperament to chew the scenery the way a sci-fi villain needs to. Most of the faults in the film are in overly schematic story, but director Neil Burger provides little urgency and even less grit. In the moment of Tris’s greatest tragedy, I was impressed with Woodley, but I didn’t feel the emotions I was supposed to feel. The film keeps your attention and has enjoyable, if clichéd, scenes and sequences. But you may forget about it after you leave the theater.

Directed by Neil Burger
Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and Kate Winslet
Rated PG-13


Katniss Everdeen is my hero


I’ve started to think that when judging movies we should not compare them all on an equal plane. They should be placed into specific categories, and these shouldn’t be based on genre, like comedy or drama, but rather on budget. A movie with a $5 million budget, for instance, doesn’t deserve to be placed next to a movie with a $150 million budget. They are usually being made for very different reasons, for very different audiences. The makers of Fruitvale Station, for example, hope their movie will be seen by as many people as possible, but even if they pandered to sentimentality, they were not pandering towards mass audiences’ desire for blood, flash, and obvious emotional resolutions. Massively expensive movies like Thor: The Dark World pander to those things while being vehicles for selling toys, selling TV shows, selling the next Marvel movie. They are meant to be easy to dub in other languages, because the international market for special effects laden films is now bigger than the US market is. As one of those films, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the best of the year.

When last we saw our heroes at the end of last year’s The Hunger Ganes, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) had won the 74th annual Hunger Games, a battle royale pitting tributes from the 12 districts that comprise the dystopian future nation Panem. Two champions are randomly selected from each district, and they are thrown into an arena and told to kill each other while a nation watches; the last survivor wins. But Katniss refused to kill Peeta, who was also from her home, District 12. Because she had become so popular, and the masses had come to believe Katniss and Peeta were in love, the government of Panem allowed them to live.

But in defying the government, and its dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss and Peeta became symbols of hope for the people oppressed and enslaved by Snow’s government and the people in the capital, who live like Roman dilettantes. Snow decides Katniss needs to be eliminated, and with the help of the new producer of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the 75th Hunger Games is used to pit former winners of the games against each other, to get rid of Katniss as well any other potential symbol of resistance. Like much of the behavior of Snow and the Panem government, it’s horrifying and cruel, and the former winners, while resolved to their fates, are furious. Peeta and Katniss end up allied with the dashing Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), the elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen), the bitter Johanna Mason (a revelatory Jena Malone), the brilliant Beetee (the great Jeffrey Wright), and the probably crazy Wiress (Amanda Plummer, doing what she does best). What happens during these games is thrilling, disturbing, and, unless you’ve read the book by Suzanne Collins, surprising. The parallels to The Empire Strikes Back, in both quality and themes, are clear by the end of Catching Fire.

Like its predecessor, the success of Catching Fire lies in both the rich and layered source material and the inspired casting. Lawrence, who won an Oscar in March for Silver Linings Playbook, is the rare actor who is completely convincing as an action star and a dramatic lead, and even rarer, she can do both at the same time. Katniss is both the emotional and moral center of the story, and Lawrence expresses Katniss’s complexities – a fierce hunter, a confused lover, an enraged subject — with a raw fury. It’s unexpected for a blockbuster to be so resonant, but they all can’t have Jennifer Lawrence.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex



American Idol x Lord of the Flies

So, The Hunger Games opened today, and my review won’t go to print until next Thursday, so I’m putting it up now. I couldn’t have written a book about this movie, but I stayed within my word count, mostly. Here it is.

Over the last ten years, Hollywood has been obsessed with turning young adult sci-fi and fantasy series into billion dollar film franchises, and not always successfully. For every Harry Potter and Twilight there have been movies like The Golden Compass and The Dark Is Rising. While the Harry Potter movies eventually became watchable, even good, the rest of the franchises have been cinematic porridge: mushy, dull, forgettable. Compared to all of these, the film adaptation of The Hunger Games is Citizen Kane. Based on the first novel in the wildly popular Suzanne Collins trilogy about a post-apocalyptic dystopia where former rebel districts must send teen-agers to an annual fight to the death, The Hunger Games is a relative, not actual, masterpiece. It is exciting, inventive, infuriating, weird, long, and ultimately very entertaining. Continue…