Now Playing: Logan

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I’m glad Logan doesn’t end with a bonus scene plopped in the midst or at the end of the closing credits. In the cinematic landscape that is slowly, steadily being engulfed by the mighty Marvel model of moviemaking, the choice is novel enough to prompt a flurry of online interviews that call upon director James Mangold to explain himself. He has a few different explanations, slightly nuanced from each other, but the crux of it is always the same, and it speaks to precisely why I so appreciate the choice. Logan is — being blunt about it — a real movie and not another largely interchangeable entertainment burger sliding down the chute.

If that rationale is needlessly dismissive of the better Marvel superhero movies that have been released in recent years — such as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy or Joss Whedon’s first crack at assembling the Avengers — it also speaks to a real and persistent limiting factor in the company’s output, including those they don’t hold as tightly in their creative grasp, like the X-Men movies. The movies serve a bigger picture and can feel a little purposeless when assessed on their individual two-plus hours of colorful mayhem. That’s also been true for the previous big screen solo outings of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), including the earlier installment directed by Mangold.

Watching Logan, I couldn’t help but feel this was Mangold’s endgame when presiding over The Wolverine, which hammered the character’s landmark 1982 comic book limited series against the anvil of dour self-seriousness. It’s as if he proved he could make the stern, safe corporate film in order to get the extra latitude to make a follow-up that resounded with artistic vision rather than felt molded into place by marketing department strictures. Logan is startling bleak and yet manages to be a bounding entertainment. It is witty and brisk and — more than anything else — fun.

Set around twenty years in the future, Logan (the alter ego of Wolverine, natch) is aged and grouchily depressed. His healing powers are clearly fading, and he’s traded in his adventuring for a dismal job as a rented limousine driver. This is in part because he needs what little money he can get to support Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now a doddering nonagenarian whose mental powers are going haywire as his intellectual capacities crumble away.

Reducing the sprawling casts of the X-Men movies to this core relationship is perhaps the smartest in the film’s many smart moves. It gives the film a welcome emotional grounding, a recognizable interpersonal conflict to keep circling back to. There is respect and affection, but the men have clearly worn one another out, a situation only exacerbated by the arrival of a mutant girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who has both powers and a temperament that bear a striking resemblance to those of the scruffy fellow that gives the film its name. Charles’s mission of mentoring young mutants is revived, as if Logan’s instinctual aversion to forging connections.

There are rickety planks to the narrative’s stage, but Mangold and his collaborators primarily impress with their thematic ambitions and overall staging of the material. There are splendid details throughout, including real thoughtfulness to how the drama plays out. The sort of evil scheming that can feel like hollow impetus for storytelling momentum in other similar films has the weight of consequence here. (On that front, it helps that Boyd Holbrook is terrifically charismatic as the villainous Donald Pierce, a character who is miles away from the comic book iteration with which I’m familiar.) Superhero movies often get by on clattering spectacle. With Logan, Mangold demonstrates that there’s a largely untapped value in committing to them as if they really matter.

 

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But Jesus fever’s fallin’ all over you believers and lovers

Sixty-fifth in a series….

talktojesus

(Source)

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The Art of the Sell: “The Silence of the Lambs” movie poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

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I could definitely be wrong, but this is how I remember it. There was a trip to Madison, an occasional necessity when attempting to generate content for a program filled with movie reviews on a radio station in a modest Central Wisconsin town. I was standing in the three screen bunker of a movie theater located in Westgate Mall, one of those ramshackle outposts of commerce that seemed to be on its last legs from the moment it opened.

The movie poster was on the far end of the lobby, close to the bathrooms and easy to miss since its view was blocked from most angles by the command post of a concession stand that dominated the space. Even so, I spotted it right away. This wasn’t a film I was anticipating. I don’t think I even had an inkling it was being made. And yet, it beckoned to me.

I was mesmerized by the poster. I stood before it, trying to discern its meaning. I wasn’t looking for clues, exactly. It didn’t matter to me how the moth covering Jodie Foster’s lips might fit into the plot, but I weighed the impact of the striking image on me. And that was before I properly took note of the unique visual construction of the skull on the moth’s thorax, my unfamiliarity with Salvador Dali’s In Voluptus Mors slowing down my recognition of the eerie tangle of human figures at the heart of the image.

I still believe The Silence of the Lambs stands as the strongest movie poster from the three years I regularly posed as a film critic on the Stevens Point airwaves. That the film it promoted is also one of the very best from that era is a happy bonus.

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 73 – 71

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73. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Two Tribes”

When Frankie Goes to Hollywood released their second single, in 1984, they faced the burden of following up a major smash. “Relax,” their debut, was one of those songs that grabbed pop culture by the shoulders and gave it a good shake, topping the charts in the U.K. despite (or maybe in part because of) its status as a track banned by the BBC. It just barely crossed into the Top 10 on the other side of the Atlantic, but it certainly seemed more ever-present than that peak suggests. For the next single, the band dove straight into the spirited Cold War protest rock that was surprisingly prevalent in the mid-eighties.”‘Two Tribes’ is just about peace, peace,” lead singer Holly Johnson said at around the time of the single’s release. “There’s two elements to the music — an American funk line and a Russian line,” he added. “It’s the most obvious demonstration of two tribes that we have today.” The original inspiration came from the opening narration of George Miller’s second Mad Max film (known in the U.S. as The Road Warrior), in which Harold Baigent intones, “For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” Despite the band’s evident commitment to taking on weighty issues in their music, that was hardly their driving force. Even as “Two Tribes” was climbing the charts, Johnson insisted it wasn’t “a Clash politico type number.” Quite the contrary, when the band was at their popular peak, Johnson regularly advocated for hedonism over introspection or any other deep reading of their songs. “People shouldn’t take us too seriously,” he said. “We say try to have a good time every minute of the day. We just want to give pleasure, entertain, and have fun doing it.”

 

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72. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, “Everyday I Write the Book”

By 1983, Elvis Costello was on his eighth album and was considered a major figure in rock ‘n’ roll. And yet he’d never had a Top 40 hit in the United States, which registered as more of an embarrassment for American culture than any sort of shortcoming on the part of the artist. In fact, he’d never even touched the Hot 100. The 1979 single “Accidents Will Happen” had skimmed the chart at #101. “Everyday I Write the Book,” released as a single from Punch the Clock, was the song that ended the drought. For Costello, the song was little more than a goof. “It was a song I wrote in ten minutes almost as a challenge to myself,” he later noted. “I thought, maybe I could write just a simple, almost formula song and make it mean something.” For Costello’s collaborators, the song’s relative simplicity was precisely the element that made it intriguing. “I was really excited by the idea that Elvis could make a calculated pop record,” said producer Clive Langer. “I wasn’t very interested in recording the band, you know as just a band. I was interested in the whole idea that Elvis could make incredible pop music.” The original notion was that the song would play like a modernized riff on the old Merseybeat sound, but when it came to record it, a new inspiration had taken hold. Costello had been listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye records and suggested the track skew towards a more soulful style. “Everyday I Write the Book” peaked at #36 on the main Billboard chart.

 

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71. Shriekback, “Nemesis”

Billboard took a crack at reviewing the first single from the 1985 album Oil & Gold: “Shriekback’s ‘Nemesis’ is a weird mix of rock and electro, as all of their records have been; its also very catchy and cute, and endlessly repeatable, like a work song.” That is relatively accurate, though “cute” seems an odd descriptor for a song that hinges on lyrics like “Priests and cannibals, prehistoric animals/ Everybody happy as the dead come home.” According to vocalist and keyboardist Barry Andrews, the song had its genesis in Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, particularly the half-mad philosophizing of Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. Andrews let his mind spin to other similar moral merry-go-rounds in the culture, including a couple of different figures who went by the name Nemesis. One was the Greek goddess who brought down retribution on the arrogant. The other was a beastie from the British comic book series 2000 AD named Nemesis the Warlock, described by Andrews as “an upright-standing deerlike alien with a nose like a harpoon.” That led to a characteristically blunt explanation from Andrews regarding the methodology of his songwriting. “I decided to conflate the Greek goddess of cosmic retribution with him because, let’s face it, while she embodies an important principle, she doesn’t have a nose like a harpoon,” he said.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: 3:10 to Yuma

For the opening weekend of Logan, I initially figured I’d simply link to the consideration of the old Wolverine limited series that I wrote for Spectrum Culture ages ago. For reasons I still can’t pin down, this “Revisit” piece was by far my most widely praised contribution to that site. Then I remembered I also have a stray review of a film by James Mangold, director of Logan, hanging out at my former online home, just waiting to get transferred over.

I’ve spent quite some time trying to figure out how to approach the review of the new film 3:10 To Yuma. It’s not that I’m especially conflicted about it or that I find the film so drab that it’s had to conjure up a big batch of words about it (this certainly happens from time to time). Instead, I kept coming back to a single observation that can be applied redundantly to several principle collaborators. So, in the spirit of another regular feature ’round these here parts, I offer to you…

Five Contributors To 3:10 To Yuma Who Seem Especially Well-Suited To Westerns

1. Russell Crowe. The combative Aussie thespian has long been hit-or-miss for me, far more than most actors with similarly serious reputations and extensive acclaim. His self-regard shows up too often in his performances, a seeming personal satisfaction with his command of the craft that oozes through his performances. I watch A Beautiful Mind or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and see the actorly choices and an accompanying stiffness that I guess others see as something far more transformational. One of his first American films was Sam Raimi’s blissfully bonkers western The Quick and the Dead and none of these shortcomings were apparent there, which I always chalked up to the relative humility of an actor who hadn’t yet broken through with anything approaching permanence. Now I think it may have been the manly restraint of the genre that held him in check (certainly those flaws that rankle me are fully apparent in his other studio film from around that time. He is more willing to subsume himself in the role and let the material come through without his mannered tinkering. It help that any glimpses of egotism nicely fit the character he plays, a legendary outlaw, who finds himself unexpectedly captured after a stagecoach job.

2. Christian Bale. If Crowe tends towards overly fussy work, Bale is in many ways the opposite. He’s an actor that withdraws to the point of disappearing, often flattening his British accent until it is a verbal pattern devoid of any nationality or region. There’s a reason why strapping himself into the batsuit and inhabiting the dehumanized focus of Bruce Wayne was a breakthrough performance for him. As a failing rancher who finds some sort of personal redemption in his part in capturing the storied villain and delivering him to the long train track of the law, Bale settles into the character’s hesitancy and restraint. There’s a coldness and focus that feels right on the hard, baked dust of the plains, and the freedom from the need for bold outward gestures lets Bale do what he does best, signal the inner conflicts and wounds of his character.

3. James Mangold. The director of Walk the Line has spent ten years churning out sturdy enough films for about a decade, following up the heartfelt stillness of his indie debut Heavy with a series of endeavors that always seem to promise a little more than they deliver (for awhile Entertainment Weekly could be counted on to tout each developing project as a surefire Oscar contender that every actor in town wanted to dive into). Mangold is a solid craftsman, but hasn’t ever brought real fire to a project. That very sturdiness free of flash is a perfect match for Mangold’s stalwart camera. The most grounded of filmmakers meets the most grounded of genres and the results are, as might be expected, deeply satisfying.

4. Ben Foster. Foster is a good actor in a moviemaking world stripped of roles that benefit from his fervent invention. Here he plays one of the more off-kilter members of the criminal gang intent on freeing their former boss before his placed on the titular train to prison. It’s not necessarily a great performance, but it’s a fearless one, feathered with colorful details and carefully warped line readings. And yet he keeps it grounded enough that key moments of recognition or tethered thought processes are right in character.

5. Elmore Leonard. While I’ve read some of the punchy works of the author, I’ve missed the westerns from early in his career. Of course his work is right at home: the precise, piercing dialogue placed in the mouths of men who feel the effort and ease of being men with every step, laced with dry humor that is black as campfire coffee. I don’t know if the strained character shift in the closing act is his doing or some sort of Hollywood invention, but the closing moments seem purely a product of his typewriter. And, like most work that bears his literary signature, it is a pleasure to take in.

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One for Friday: Martini Ranch, “World Without Walls”

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There’s a long strange history of actors moonlighting in the music biz, from Robert Mitchum’s bizarre shimmy with calypso music to Ryan Gosling’s membership in the indie goth outfit Dead Man’s Bones. Things got especially weird during the nineteen-eighties, the wildest of musical decades. Only on that cultural roller coaster could Eddie Murphy nearly top the charts and Bruce Willis absolutely redefine the scope of vanity project by roping major stars into a fictional rock god history to accompany a record of appalling R&B covers. And only in the nineteen-eighties could character actor Bill Paxton be one-half of a new wave act that was signed to a major label.

Martini Ranch formed in the early eighties, but didn’t release their debut full-length, Holy Cow, until 1988, well past the point that their synth-driven pop could still feel novel. Still, there are benefits that come with having Hollywood pals in one’s corner when it comes time to make and push an album. The band starred in a music video directed by James Cameron, in his usual over-stuffed style. And Holy Cow is stocked with guests, including Bud Cort, Mark Mothersbaugh, and major eighties get Judge Reinhold.

Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s, maybe the most notable visitor on the album, appears on three tracks. One of those is “World Without Walls,” which opens with a clip of Ronald Reagan’s famous call to tear down the Berlin Wall. (When the song was released, the Cold War structure in question was still standing.) It isn’t a great song, by any means. It sounds a little bit like something that might be delivered by the sort of half-spoof new wave band that would be set up for derision in a movie like Tapeheads. But, like just about everything else Paxton did (there are exceptions), the track is informed by an earnest eagerness to please that’s kind of irresistible. As far as movie actor side projects go, that’s a rare and wondrous attribute.

Listen or download –> Martini Ranch, “World Without Walls”

(Disclaimer: To the best of my knowledge, Holy Cow and the other products of Martini Ranch’s relatively brief existence aren’t available as physical objects that can be purchased from your local, independently-owned record store in a manner that properly compensates all involved. This song is offered here with that understanding. Still, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

 

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Greatish Performances #30

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#30 — Bill Paxton as Dale “Hurricane” Dixon in One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

Bill Paxton’s most iconic performances tend toward emotive intensity. To a degree, that’s simply a product of the films that crossed over into broader public consciousness, especially since Paxton was one of director James Cameron’s go-to supporting actors, briefly playing a punk with a hair-trigger temper in The Terminator and famously wailing, “Game over, man!” in Aliens. (The one time Paxton got to try out understatement in a Cameron film, in Titanic, he was saddled with some of the most leaden exposition dialogue in the history of cinema.) The pinnacle of this thespian excess was arguably Paxton’s turn as Chet, the epitome of bullying masculinity in Weird Science, the John Hughes exercise in the purely ludicrous.

Paxton’s willingness to approach these roles with unashamed gusto was admirable (and surely contributed to his steady work schedule over the years), but it also obscured that he had the capacity to operate in a more subtle timbre. There are plentiful examples of that in his career, but they tend to get lost in the celebrated bombast. That helped one of his finest turns come across as downright revelatory when it arrived.

In One False Move, Paxton plays Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, the police chief of Star City, Arkansas, a humble little town when nothing much even happens. When a trio of thieves (played by Michael Beach, Cynda Williams, and Billy Bob Thornton, the latter also co-credited on the screenplay) commit several murders in Los Angeles. When the the Los Angeles authorities find evidence that the wanted criminals are heading to Star City, the investigation moves there, and Dale is enthused by the chance to do some real police work.

A lot of films would settle on a depiction of Dale as a genial yokel, and there are hints of that to Paxton’s performance. Mostly, though, he emphasizes Dale’s capability. He might not have ample experience with brutal felonies, but he knows his town and the people in it. He navigates with confidence through the most mundane day-to-day activities, included the flare ups of local malcontents. He knows precisely when to shout aggressors down, and he knows when the wisest route is talking to them calmly, coaxing them to sounder choices.

With that baseline, Paxton shows how tremors of doubt enter into Dale. The case proves more complicated than Dale initially imagined, especially when his own compromised history edges through the door. Anxiety and tension swirl to the surface without ever quite lapsing into desperation, even when the situation is at its most dire.

By the end of the film, when Dale is simultaneously triumphant and gravely injured, he a true moment of grace, making a connection with a previously ignored young boy who nonetheless figures mightily in his life. Paxton was often called upon to go big. This scene — and much of One False Move — gave him the chance to withdraw a bit, to play it small, restrained, tender. He is marvelous at it, imbuing the scene with a lovely humanity. It’s far from his most famous moment on screen, but I’d argue it’s his very best.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged

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