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Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: X-Men films finally achieve cinematic glory with LOGAN

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Is Logan the best X-Men film yet? Yes. For sure. By a mile. And so on.
While it’s fair to grade a movie against the curve of its predecessors, in this case I think it undermines Logan to solely compare it to other X-flicks. Thinking about Logan leads me to think about the genres that influenced it, the impact of iconic directors who came before, and draws comparison to cinematic classics. I was someone who was almost ready to give up on this franchise after a fairly mediocre recent crop of films, but I forgot something. Or more specifically, someone: James Mangold.
James Mangold, he of the fairly engrossing 3:10 to Yuma remake, he of the now oft-parodied Oscar nominated biopic Walk the Line, and of course the man behind the camera on 2013’s The Wolverine. Say what you will about that effort and its flaws, of which that troublesome third act is a major one, but it’s surely the closest of these mutant-related excursions to resemble an actual film rather than a roller-coaster ride. Certainly, there’s no shame in approaching it as such, but you can feel the difference in a film that’s required to act as a vehicle to take a character from point A to point B. When an accomplished filmmaker is inspired to use pathos and character development, taking the story only exactly where the story wants to go, one has to stand up and applaud the work and heart put into it.
More than anything, Mangold understands the core iconography that gives way to the character Logan. He’s basically the Man With No Name or Kuwabatake Sanjuro, and he uses the strongest comics source material as a jumping-off point to serve the “tortured wanderer” archetype. With The Wolverine, he took a still in his prime version of the title hero, as presented within the quintessential Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries, and pitched him within a Japanese familial-crime drama, playing to the East meets West-stylings that produced many a samurai based classic (Yasujirō Ozu and Hiroshi Inagaki, among others, are marked sources of inspiration). That shot of Logan riddled with arrows still lingers in the edges of my memory.
For Logan, the film, his return to the character is one that moves further back in its inspiration. Here, Mangold reflects upon the epic Western and some of its respective masters (George Stevens, John Ford, Clint Eastwood) in his aim to adapt Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan. Much like the previous film, the comic pages really only provide a general starting point, as this presumed final trip to the role for Hugh Jackman has more in common with Unforgiven than anything that’s appeared between the covers of a Wolverine comic. In a way, both The Wolverine and Logan could be seen as two sides of a coin, to the point where there are shots that are reminiscent of one another, setting up some intrinsic cinematic language between the two. The fact that Logan is a wholly much better film, of course, helps immensely.
Set in 2029, five years after the final chronological scene of X-Men: Days of Future Past, mutant-kind is nearly extinct. Humans are no longer giving birth to them, and the ones left have mostly died out. The X-Men are, for reasons only hinted at, no more. Logan (Hugh Jackman), now going by the name of James, is a shadow of his former self – an aging, alcoholic limo driver scraping together cash to care for a dying elderly parent, living in a world that doesn’t look far afield from our own. Hobbled with pain, drinking away those memories he can’t toss aside, and growing sicker each day, this is a Wolverine that’s basically unrecognizable. He can’t even pop his claws out fully without intense agony. In between his nighttime tasks, he crosses the border to Mexico where he watches over an increasingly unstable Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) – whose aging and deteriorating, yet still powerful mind makes him an extreme danger to everyone within his general vicinity. Logan’s only support structure is the reformed mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a gaunt albino figure whose sibling-like relationship with Logan is marked with nearly as much animus as reliance on one another.
While in the midst of a funeral gig, a woman approaches the bedraggled warrior seeking “Wolverine” and his assistance in transporting a young, silent girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a safe haven north of the border and out of the clutches of the smooth yet menacing Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his cybernetic band known as the Reavers. This task, once finally taken, will set this struggling family on a dangerous road trip, with significant consequences and revelations that will deeply mark each of them irreparably.
While Logan does not necessarily want for action (and fear not: there is plenty of stabbing and gouging that earns it its “R” rating), this is a deeply considered drama first. It’s so far afield from the typical X-Men film in tone, pacing, and giving its performers a canvas to work off of, that my first reaction was shock. It’s a slower, more methodical and considered film, as prone to emotional outbursts as it is fisticuffs, but with less portentousness than that of the Nolan Batman joints. There are no real weighty themes on display, or meditations on a specific ethos. Instead it’s a film laser-focused on the relationships of its lead cast, which functions as a modern-day family. It’s funny, touching, and very sad in places. I teetered on the edge of getting choked up at times, and that’s something I’ve never said or felt about a movie of this type.
It’s also beautifully expansive, shifting between desert vistas and plains country and back again. Teaming here with X-Men: First Class cinematographer John Mathieson, Mangold has captured the inherent duskiness of the regions while hearkening back the very genre that inspires him. And yes, there’s a dab of Post-Apocalyptic George Miller in there too.
For his part, Jackman has always been an impressive performer in this now 17 year old role, and frankly my favorite ongoing strand throughout the entire franchise. But his talents have often been curtailed in service of clunky scripts and the next big CGI-entangled set piece. In Logan, the camera gives him every moment he needs, allowing the character to live and breathe in a way that never quite felt possible before. The weight he carries, the centuries lived, they all read on his face and physical stature and as the machinations of the plot present him with a very new kind of relationship dynamic. If this is Jackman’s last performance in the role, it’s a hell of a way to go.
But this is not the only wonder that Logan works, as Stewart, finally gets an opportunity to play the Professor in a way that is worthy of his acting chops. The tragedy of Xavier here is all Stewart, as he bounces between a confused old man, unable to recognize Logan and unaware of his surroundings, to the disapproving yet hopeful father figure he’s always been to Logan in this larger series. To see Stewart do something new with had been such a static fixture within the confines of this world is exciting. There’s even a tiny shred here or there where he’s taken cues from James McAvoy, perhaps underlining how in the twilight years we revert back to our younger presentations of self.
And then there’s Dafne Keen, who plays the third point of the lead triangle. To say she is an incredibly gifted actress both in physicality and expression would be an understatement. Her take on Laura is largely wordless, which would create a challenge for even the most experienced actor. The fact that an 11 year old commands the screen as fiercely as she does, regardless of those constraints, is remarkable. The relationship that develops between Logan and Laura is easily the most stirring bond that’s been presented in any of these films. It’s a pairing that becomes real from their first scene together and never lets up.
Logan has every trapping you’d imagine Mangold is aiming for: the tortured protagonist who must again take arms, the child who presents a new side of the hero, the wise old-timer that imparts moral support, the handsome blackhat rogue in pursuit, and multiple attempts at communal charity that lead to calamity. From that description you may think Logan lacks originality, but using these iconic tropes allows the filmmaker to pay homage not only some of the greatest motion picture visionaries to ever grace the screen, but also to the source material that embedded deep into Wolverine’s DNA. He’s had his Eastern. Now he has his Western.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 165

Archie #17
by Tula Lotay

Another bold cover from Lotay which has strong design elements as well as excellent (and a little scary) character work!

God Country #2
by Geoff Shaw

Ah, the widescreen cover. A rarity, and always very striking when done right. I love that the title is integrated and absolutely huge, but doesn't take away from the beautiful landscape.

Star Trek: Boldly Go #5
by George Caltsoudas

I love that this design defies a quick look. The way the background symbol is mimicked by the angles and curves of the characters hair and staff, and the optical illusion of the background becoming the foreground is visually fascinating. Well done!

The Rift #2
by Nicolas Ely

I hope Ely is able to keep this clever design idea going for all four issues of this series–the first two covers have been extremely striking and poster-worthy!

Trinity #6
by Bill Sienkiewicz

I like the almost 3D look here, and the unique perspective gives this one an interesting edge.

Unfollow #16
by Matt Taylor

I love the gritty shading style Taylor uses on these covers, and the movement of the characters and the menacing rocky visage in the background create a real sense of urgent action.


That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: THE SALESMAN Is A Revenge Tale Only Asghar Farhadi Could Make


It's nearly impossible to open a discussion of The Salesman, the newest film from Iranian powerhouse Asghar Farhadi, without talking about its opening scenes. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) are a happily married couple living in a large, well-furnished apartment, but there are cracks in the wall. Literally. One night, they are forced to evacuate their home with what appears to be an earthquake shakes the foundation of their home. But this is no natural disaster; what upends their lives is a man-made phenomenon, imprecise nearby construction. It's a simple mistake, but one that upends their lives. This is a fairly blunt metaphor for what is to come, but it's also a canny, fitting introduction to this story.

With their home in shambles, Emad and Rana are forced to look for a new place to live, but finding a place they like within their budget in a hurry proves difficult. Thankfully, a member of their theater troupe is a landlord who recently had to evict someone from his apartment - so recently, in fact, that much of her stuff remains in the second bedroom. It's a godsend to the young couple, at least at first, but when a former client of the prostitute who used to live there comes in while Rana is alone, their life is upended. Assaulted and hospitalized, Rana is panicky, nervous, suffering all the effects of PTSD; it is Emad, however, who begins to come apart at the seams. As he does, The Salesman begins to transform from domestic drama to low-key thriller, but as with About Elly's heightened turn, Farhadi's strong character work prevent it from slipping into genre cliche. Instead, the slow ratchet of tension in the background comes almost entirely through Emad and Rana's relationship, which Farhadi makes sure is always the focus of the drama. Emad might be on a quest for vengeance, but that matters far less than what Rana's going through.

Farhadi's two leads, both familiar faces to those who have watched his films before, are excellent. Alidoosti was the title character in About Elly, but her Rana follows a very different emotional arc. Rana is reasonably outgoing, a comfortable and confident woman, an actress in the local theater troupe with her husband. Her assault drives her sharply inward, and Alidoosti plays her character's emotional breakdown powerfully. Hosseini, who was in both About Elly and A Separation, has a bigger role, as his own breakdown mirrors and then almost exceeds his wife's. He has to remain recognizable as the kind educator of the film's first third while still slipping into arrogance, hostility, and hyper-masculinity as it continues. The two of them together play off each other perfectly, building to a powerful, wordless moment that gave me chills.

Much like another one of my favorite films, Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet, The Salesman is concerned especially with the fragility of masculinity. The Salesman has been compared to Charles Bronson's 1970s cult franchise, Death Wish, another film about a man who seeks vengeance after his wife is assaulted, but Death Wish is a film that celebrates toxic masculinity, whereas The Salesman is a film that critiques it. Farhadi isn't interested in revenge, but in where the drive for revenge comes from. As in Loktev's film, a moment of crisis forces the character to call his own manhood into question, and the question eventually becomes: Can he see that this isn't about him in time to prevent irreparable damage to his relationship? But where Loktev's film was meditative, Farhadi's morphs slowly into a thriller, as Emad's desire to find out who did this and why begins to take precedence over his desire to make sure Rana is safe and healing.

Farhadi's greatest skill lies in mining class and gender in modern Iranian society to find breaking points within relationships, a talent that often creates surprisingly intense domestic drama. These are the essential skills that let him reimagine something like Death Wish as a contemplation on masculinity, trust, and helplessness. It is insightful and humanistic, an exploration of familiar feelings and angsts that never betrays its characters. The Salesman is perhaps lesser Farhadi (About Elly and especially A Separation will be tough to top), as its climax cops out a bit in comparison to his strongest work, but lesser Farhadi is still unquestionably essential viewing. By the time The Salesman reached its instantly iconic final shot, I knew this was a film only Asghar Farhadi could make.


The Salesman is out now in select theaters, and it arrives at the Atlanta Midtown Art Cinema tomorrow, February 10th. It is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in this year's Oscars. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman stars Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini.
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Review: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 dives deeper into its world, outshining its predecessor

One of my favorite redemptive arcs in comics is Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Born Again" in the pages of Daredevil. The story of a man being utterly torn down to the ground floor of his being, left penniless and seeking vengeance has never been done better in that medium though many have tried to lesser success. But regardless, it's a formula that generally works well, and in his return trip to the world of John Wick, Chad Stahelski (now helming solo with his co-director for the previous entry, David Leitch, moving on to other projects) utilizes it in a way that refreshes this burgeoning franchise and points towards an intriguing future for where it can go next.

I moderately appreciated the initial John Wick film. It was a good fit to display the still vibrant action chops of Keanu Reeves, while minimizing his performance weaknesses through dialogue-light role. Most importantly though, it went beyond just the standard "beat 'em up cause my dog was killed" premise by way of introducing some surprising world-building. After letting that film settle, my biggest regret was that we only got whispers of this unique world of assassins, and gold coins, and hotels where blood cannot be shed. It was a tease of something that you knew could have been expanded and played with on screen to great satisfaction, especially as the film wore on with its numbing brand of fight choreography. As luck would have it, John Wick: Chapter 2 provides exactly the kind of elaboration on these ideas that I was looking for, to the point where it becomes central to the entire conflict.

The sequel basically picks up where its predecessor left off, with the title hero hunting down a member of the Tarasov family in order to finally return back to his retired life that was promised to him after striking a deal with a former associate. After getting his stolen car back in pretty spectacular fashion, that same associate, an Italian mafioso type/fellow assassin named Santino (Riccardo Scamario) calls upon John to take on a task for him that will clear the way for Santino to ascend to the top of the criminal food chain internationally. John, of course, being the stoic hero that he is refuses. But, as we learn, when you make a blood oath in this world, there's no getting out. Santino wreaks a terrible vengeance on John, which forces his hand, and he's off to Italy to get embroiled in an even tougher situation. One that will send an entire cadre of killers after him.

Truthfully, I'm not sure John Wick: Chapter 2 will make a believer out of the non-committal. It's still an outright action spectacle, and while the early set-ups filled my audience with glee and verbal exclamations, after awhile, the sheer pummeling that your senses receive from the constant carnage will wear you down. There was a point where one of the better looking sequences set in a colorful hall of mirrors didn't even phase anyone because it started to become such old hat. The action remains rather weightless in places, as there's still a good deal of John killing random schmoe after schmoe; though when he's doing battle with better drawn out characters, even slightly, that is where the strengthening of the plot takes over.

The problem with the previous film, is that once you got past the fun quirks of it, the thrill of its bone-crunching violence, it was Keanu Reeves taking on boring, personality-free Russian bad guys. And regardless of how today's political context could reframe that, there's little that's memorable about its big finale, or much of it at all beyond those aforementioned wrinkles that set that film apart from your Transporters and the like. But with this second chapter, screenwriter Derek Kolstad really nails down the uniqueness of this property. We get to learn more about how contracts are established among this network of rogues, how the Italian iteration of The Continental hotel operates, the concept of a Ward, and just what happens when some of these very important doctrines are broken. There is indeed honor among assassins.

Equally impressive is that this sequel doubles down on the idea of a world operating beneath the surface of our own beyond the behind the scenes business of tatooed receptionists that send mass text messages to every contact across the globe. There's an inventive set-up that plays out like They Live, with John and a fellow member hunting him firing silent shots at one another while a crowd of everyday people walk on by unaware, and there's another bit involving an even deeper network of individuals that came awfully close to putting me in mind of The Invisibles (for more reasons than one). John Wick: Chapter 2 has its focus laser-beamed into a society beyond the one we can see, but might if we looked hard enough.

The other major element that stuck out to me, other than its additional stylishness (it adds large fonted subtitles for emphasis and humor, but not much else) is that Reeves is given a lot more to do in terms of dialogue and character development. Because of the enormity of the task(s) ahead of him, he has to be more than "The Bogeyman", and that of course is a double-edged sword. We want to have a reason to care about our hero here, but Reeves has some notable deficiencies as an actor. To Stahelski's credit, he plays with that pretty significantly. Everyone is having to act around him, but the camera then tightly focuses on Reeves' face as he delivers a both hard-ass and laughable line. It washes out to the point where it ends up working far better than one could imagine, as if everyone involved is in on the joke.Were a more capable thespian involved, some of that charm would be lost.

A smattering of better villains helps, Common steps in as Cassian, a character who is outright one of John's equals and their conflicts are a highlight of the film. The rather stunning presence of Ruby Rose's silent constant antagonist Ares adds another memorable obstacle. Once you toss in a violin playing, beret wearing enemy, and one that's basically a sumo wrestler, suddenly you're building a line-up worthy of a Dick Tracy story. This all creates an experience that's more involving and fun than the previous film. Stahelski knows he's working in a ridiculous genre anyway, so why worry about verisimilitude?

John Wick: Chapter 2 is all about confidence, confidence in its concept, its own internal universe, and its lead. It doesn't quite avoid all of the pitfalls of the initial entry, but what it adds creates far vaster potential, with an ending that is quite enticing...something I never thought I'd imagine saying about this franchise. I could do with another one, thank you.

   
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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The GeekRex Podcast Episode 142: Oscar Predictions


As we do every year, the GeekRex team and special guest Jason Maldonado discuss and debate the will-wins and should-wins for most of the Oscar categories. Make sure to listen and take notes so you can win your Oscar party betting pool!

You can listen below, or subscribe on iTunes to never miss an episode! If you like the show, or have any comments or ideas, we'd love to hear them! Check us out on Facebook or Twitter. See you next week!

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review: A CURE FOR WELLNESS, three movies inelegantly stapled together


I don't have a great sense of what Gore Verbinski is all about. I saw The Ring in 2003, was terrified by it, and still get chills whenever I think of its long-haired antagonist climbing out of the TV. From there, I never saw another film of his, barring the sometimes interesting, sometimes meandering 2005 Nicolas Cage-starrer, The Weatherman.

But if you were to sit me down and ask what the override aesthetic in Verbinski's work was, I might say, a good deal of style. And...? (My face would quickly reflect the fog that enshrouds my mind on the subject).

Regardless, yes, I sure did like The Ring. And on first blush, A Cure For Wellness seems to hearken back to that same creepy imagery Verbinski built his career on in the first place. Set in and around a European "wellness spa", Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is tasked with recovering his company's CEO from said spa in order to secure a merger that will make both he and the members of his board incredibly wealthy. Lockhart is a troubled man with a past marked by loss, which we see flashes of every now and again as he embarks on his journey to Switzerland. Once he arrives, he the wellness retreat is built upon the old ruins of a burned down castle with a tragic backstory of its own. That backstory comes with a bit of an antagonism between those that run and participate within the facility and the townspeople, who live an impoverished existence, a relationship not unlike something presented in Metropolis or even James Whale's iteration of Frankenstein.

And much like those paragons of classic cinema, what's happening at the top of the mountain is quite out of the ordinary. Lockhart's CEO is unwilling to leave until the bizarre treatment regiment that digs deep into the history of the area finally "cures" him, while Lockhart's his own sanity and physical wellbeing are strained as he looks further into the treatment's methods. 

There's a wonderfully creepy movie within A Cure For Wellness' particularly in the first 45 minutes or so, when Lockhart is first introduced to the machinations of the spa. Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bozelli create a chilly atmosphere not unlike that of the director's breakthrough feature, including one sequence that outright plays homage to the famous videotape of that film. There's a Jeunet-like absurdist strain that Verbinski plays fast and loose with that highlights the inherent terror of aging - that our once perfect bodies will inevitably begin to sag, our teeth and hair will fall out, our minds will begin to fail us. For that opening act, A Cure For Wellness makes a strong case for its own existence, acting as a seeming return home for a filmmaker who has not played in these confines in more than a decade, while also playing - if a bit broadly - to our basest instincts.

But: A Cure For Wellness is two and a half hours long.

Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe have little other story to tell here beyond that first 45 minutes that is even remotely a match for the visuals presented. A pretty miscast Dane DeHaan - who it needs to be said, drinks water in the weirdest fashion I've ever seen - tries to escape but he can't, tries to escape again but he can't, ad nauseum. And when DeHaan's character isn't trying to find his way out of the spa, the script goes to great pains to unveil another detail about the former master of the estate: the ubiquitous Baron and his sister, whom he wanted to marry. The film constantly takes the opportunity to remind you of the former Baron's creepy backstory, to the point that some passerby Lockhart engages with will just go ahead and say "Remember the Baron who once owned the castle that was killed by the villagers?" For a film that makes its enigmas so paramount, it's strange to see it treat its audience so disdainfully. This is also where Verbinski and company take the entire effort into a much duller, thriller-esque direction. This comprises about an hour and some change of the film's middle section.

Had it stopped there, there's a very clear cut-off point that might have served as an adequate ending in a sort of tragic, if predictable vein. Instead, this is where A Cure For Wellness decides to take as hard a 90 degree angle as I've seen in a film in quite some time. Suddenly a visually striking, if lethargic mystery film transforms itself into a monster flick of the Universal variety (but not the good Bride of Frankenstein kind). This is straight out of Van Helsing. The villain of the piece becomes an unstoppable Terminator-like killing machine a la Robert Englund in The Phantom of the Opera, in an underground laboratory, while people dressed up like pseudo-KKK members waltz at a lavish ball in the floor above - and that's not even the stuff that made our audience laugh out loud. I'd say you'd have to see this thing fall apart to believe it, but then you'd have to waste almost three hours of your life for something that isn't quite insane enough to reach Gods of Egypt party-watch levels.

Also, eels play a significant role. I'm still not sure why.

Beyond looking great throughout, there's little else to offer here, you'd be better off treating your family to a nice steak dinner and watching something on streaming. Surely, your couch is more comfortable than that theater seat anyway.



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Monday, February 6, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 164

Batgirl and the Birds of Prey #7
by Yanick Paquette

A very nice concept that's very well executed–I love the interplay between the flat constellations and the dynamic characters.

 Birthright #22
by Andrei Bressan

Once again, we see the teal and orange contrast create a very striking cover. There's also a ton of really interesting detail in this one!

Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #5
by Javier Rodriguez

Javier Rodriguez continues to be one of the finest cartoonists of our time. A fun concept that manages to fit a lot of characters and ideas without feeling too busy.

 Inhumans VS X-Men #4
by Michael Cho

Cho continues to be the master of retro designs, and this is one of his best!

Moonshine #5
by Juan Doe

There's some very nice line work in the the smoke, and I like the way the image creates a 'V' that draws the eye downwards.

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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