May 19, 2017

The Bone-Crushing Brilliance of Logan

Hugh Jackman stars in Logan, the latest Wolverine film from James Mangold.

We’ve spent considerable time with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in six X-Men films and two past solo projects, yet there’s still more to mine with this character. In the latest incarnation in Logan, he’s a middle-aged guy slumping through a dreary life. He’s well over 170 years old, but who’s counting? The title character drives a limo and transports partying youngsters and other patrons through an oblivious world. This 2029 resembles our time, and it’s a sad place when seen through Logan’s eyes. Mutants have largely disappeared, which makes him a lost soul.

There’s a definite western vibe to this film, particularly once Logan returns to a dying Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) south of the border. This bleak landscape matches the depressed Logan’s outlook on life. He’s basically a weary Tom Doniphon watching civilization take hold. It’s no coincidence that James Mangold uses Johnny Cash over the closing credits. Logan is a true outsider that only sees the danger and violence surrounding him. Most of his friends (and apparently his love Jean Grey) are dead. He’s just moving slowly towards a sad end.

Parts of Logan resemble a post-apocalyptic film, especially the giant abandoned plant where an ailing Charles and his caretaker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) live. It’s easy to view this place as the next step in our ugly Trump-led world. We see working-class people and immigrants struggling while an abusive band of Reavers kills without a second thought. There are superhero elements to this low-key story, but they never overwhelm the connection to present-day life. It’s easy to sympathize with Logan’s emotional disconnect from everything around him.

Making Logan a mentor for the young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) is a standard plot trope, but the script from Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green dodges the obvious beats. Logan doesn’t magically find meaning in life through his fatherly connection and initially dismisses her. It takes a lot to get him to make the trip to North Dakota with Laura (also known as X-23). He also has little choice once Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and the vicious Reavers arrive. They’re interested in reclaiming their property and will kill any obstacles along the way.

Mangold tackled similar territory in The Wolverine, particularly with Logan struggling to overcome past trauma. I enjoyed the more serious take, particularly during its first hour. This film doubles down on that approach and works even better due to the R rating. There are many brutal stabbings and other grim violence, but it sets the right mood for the material. The fights are visceral and cruel, especially when innocent people end up in the crosshairs.

One lesson to grab from this film is to never help Logan. When Will and Kathryn Munson (Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal) invite him for dinner, they’re doomed to tragic deaths. Next time, Logan might want to warn kind people that he’s being chased by violent enemies. The way that the X-24 wipes out the Munson family (and their teenage son Nate) reminds us of this world’s unflinching cruelty. Created from Logan’s DNA, the X-24 has the skills but not the emotions. He’s basically the Terminator from the first film, not the friendlier Arnold from later projects.

There are quite a few connections between this film and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There isn’t an impending apocalypse here, but the atmosphere of doom is quite similar. Like John Conner, the mutant children are looking to escape from forces that would seek their destruction. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) is technically human, but his face is devoid of emotion. He’s a monster that has no compassion for anyone, particularly mutants. The bleak desert environment also matches James Cameron’s world of T2. Even before the world explodes, people already live off the grid.

I don’t want to undersell the thrills; there are quite a few action scenes, and most are very effective. The violence is right in your face, and Mangold doesn’t cut away before the killing blows occur. Viewers accustomed to the Marvel framework may not be ready for this level of bloodshed. There’s little security for anyone on screen, even our title character. Villains nonchalantly kill innocent bystanders that get in the way while pursuing their top prize. Few will survive unscathed during the ugly, difficult march to freedom.

Logan follows the classic road movie structure and finds room for character drama within the 137-minute running time. Unlike a bloated project like Batman v. Superman, the extra space here is refreshing. Jackman, Stuart, and newcomer Keen all give strong performances within this airy framework. It makes the final act more powerful because of how much time we’ve spent on the road with this trio. This resonance should bring staying power to this film beyond its original release. It’s a fitting end for Wolverine and a perfect swan song for Jackman in the iconic role.

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May 11, 2017

Bosch: Season Three Review

Titus Welliver and Jamie Hector star in Bosch.

The Refreshing Mundanity of Bosch

In this era of peak TV, there’s no way to keep up with every must-see series. Who has the time to follow everything? Netflix and Amazon release new original shows every few weeks, and there’s no end in sight to that trend. Looking beyond obvious studs like The Leftovers and Better Call Saul, there are other solid stalwarts that deserve more recognition. These quiet successes carve out a comfortable niche yet are often lost behind the leaders. A perfect example is Amazon’s cop series Bosch, which keeps churning out effective seasons every year. The show’s willingness to meander helps it avoid the traps of most network police series.

Titus Welliver stars as the title character Detective Harry Bosch, a veteran cop that draws the ire of both criminals and fellow officers. Many of them spend the episodes spitting out a frustrated “BOSCH!” while dealing with the difficult guy. One reason is that he’s a skilled detective who’s rarely wrong. Police leaders and district attorneys don’t like being told they’re idiots by the detectives. Bosch is not a Vic Mackey type that skirts the rules, however. He often gets in trouble because he’s so concerned about doing the right thing. When he bends the rules, it’s usually in the name of catching the bad guys. Bosch may look the other way if it punishes evil.

Bosch is adapted from the long-running series of novels by Michael Connelly starring the title character. Beginning with The Black Echo in 1992, Connelly has written 21 books that feature the hard-nosed homicide detective. I have not read the source novels, so the TV series is all new. Given that each season pulls from multiple books, it’s easier to approach the stories from a fresh perspective. Connelly is directly involved in the show and co-wrote several episodes. I suspect that the tone matches the book, especially given the series’ slow-burn approach.

A Promising Start

The first season does a great job introducing the main character and his world. The L.A. environment feels lived in, even Bosch’s cool apartment overlooking the city. There are cases to solve but also time to enjoy local eateries and spin jazz greats at home. Bosch enjoys a low-key camaraderie with his partner Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector, Marlo from The Wire), Lieutenant Grace Billets (Amy Aquino), and fellow officers in the Hollywood Division. The sets also seem genuine without drawing too much attention and include subtle details that add to the charm.

The downside of season one is the focus on a serial killer that feels drawn from a lesser show. Jason Gedrick (Iron Eagle) tries his best to make Raynard Waits interesting, but there’s no mystery there. The potential remains because the cast is so good, especially Welliver in the lead role. The silent intensity in Bosch’s face says plenty about the determined officer. He’s still haunted by his past, especially the murder of his mother when he was 11. Bosch controls his emotions to focus on his police work, and it takes a toll on personal relationships. Everything clicks except for the main story, and the much-improved second season fixes those issues.

What makes season two succeed are the greater stakes for everyone involved. It also is less ponderous than the grim first outing. The arrival of Bosch’s daughter Maddie (Madison Lintz) and ex-wife Eleanor (Sarah Clarke, 24) brings levity to everything. Villainous supporting turns from Jeri Ryan and Brent Sexton also give Bosch and Edgar more to play against. Lance Reddick sometimes feels like he’s on another show as Deputy Chief Irving, and he also gets more directly involved here. There’s even a Matthew Lillard sighting as an undercover FBI agent! This season builds on the solid foundation and delivers across the board.

Titus Welliver stars as Harry Bosch on the third season of Amazon's Bosch.

A Confident Third Season

We’ve finally reached the main topic of this article — Bosch’s newly released third offering. Amazon dropped all 10 episodes onto their streaming video service on April 21st. They have already renewed the show for a fourth season, so this won’t be the last time we see Bosch. We ended the previous season with Bosch spitting on the grave of his mother’s killer, and that cynicism remains from our lead detective. He’s berating the DA in public, squabbling with his partner, and performing some questionable detective work. Even so, the moral center remains as part of this quest for justice. Bosch is still trying to be a good father and catch the bad guys.

While this season’s villains lack the flair of the previous one, there’s still plenty to enjoy with the intersecting cases. Armin Vosloo (aka The Mummy) is so obviously evil from the start, and he knows how to play the arrogant henchman. Less effective is film director and murder suspect Andrew Holland, played like a complete fool by John Ales. The real excitement comes from watching the great Paul Calderon pursue Bosch as the relentless Detective Robertson. He seems more dangerous than the ex-military operatives led by Dobbs (Jeffrey Pierce). Robertson correctly senses than Bosch isn’t telling the whole truth, but he’s wrong about the specifics.

By this point in the show, I just enjoy spending time with these characters. Billets’ application for captain doesn’t connect directly to the main plot, but it’s still interesting because we root for her. Irving spends the season finalizing his divorce and deciding whether to take the full-time role as chief. It’s obvious from the start that he’ll accept it, but this thread remains interesting for two reasons. First of all, the quiet sadness on Reddick’s face reminds us of the loss of his son. Irving is gruff and rarely shows emotion, yet he still works as a character. The other reason is the set-up for events in future seasons involving the death of Bosch’s mother. The writers know how to play the long game, especially when it comes to emotional scars from the past.

Madison Lintz stars as Maddie in the third season of Bosch.

Spotlighting Everyday Scenes

Bosch was developed for television by Eric Overmyer, who was a producer and writer on Homicide: Life on the Street during its final two seasons. They’re quite different shows, especially due to the Los Angeles and Baltimore settings respectively. What made Homicide so unique was its mundane look at the life of a police detective. No car chases or shootouts occurred, at least in the early years. Bosch has a brighter setting yet also shows the less glamorous side of police life. Characters spend time on stakeouts, doing paper work, and waiting for the right opportunity. Shootouts and chases happen, but they’re still rare.

Beyond the main plots, it’s the low-key moments that stick with me. The writers find time to show Bosch teaching his daughter to drive and watching her play volleyball. There’s also a new romance with the Deputy District Attorney Anita Benitez (Paola Turbay) that mostly works. In a strange way, it’s the lack of a dramatic break-up that makes their scenes click. They just drift away in the midst of an ugly case, and then it’s over. Bosch is a nice guy but not what you’d call a warm person. His reputation in the department also might not be best for her career. The workplace politics grounds this show in reality and keeps it from losing focus.

An important benefit of understanding the characters is the increase in stakes when things go wrong. When a major character is seriously wounded by a sniper, it’s not a cheap trick to enhance the drama. The show has laid the groundwork to make that moment connect. We’ve also seen the skills of the villains, so there’s a true sense of danger when they strike. Despite some dissension between Bosch and other cops this season, that slips away when a threat emerges. Robertson suspects Bosch of not being on the level, but he also has a begrudging respect for his skills. That uneasy alliance comes together in an interesting way.

Paul Calderon and Amy Aquino star in Bosch.

The Thrills of the Slow Burn

Welliver’s slow gait makes Bosch seem less imposing to suspects that don’t know any better. When the action heats up, his precise moves remind us of his Special Forces training and sharp instincts. The way that he dodges an approaching car and then shifts into attack mode is a perfect example. There’s no wasted effort or over-the-top histrionics. The show essentially functions in the same way. Regular directors Ernest Dickerson and Alex Zakrewski both shot multiple episodes of The Wire, and they understand how to shoot action scenes. Shootouts are brief, brutal affairs that get to the point quickly.

Bosch’s third season concludes with an epic one-on-one pursuit on a gorgeous island that gives Bosch a chance to show his skills. It also extends the case of his mother’s murder into surprising territory. Those revelations should lead to significant conflict in the fourth season. The ominous final shot of Bosch’s face tells us all we need to know about his next target. Each season finale leaves enough threads open to keep us engaged, but they never feel like a cheat. This effective storytelling is consistent throughout the season and makes Bosch worth a serious look.

May 3, 2017

Two by Chris Marker – Three Cheers for the Whale and Junkopia

A fish from the Junkopia space near San Francisco in Chris Marker's film.

French director Chris Marker is known primarily for his 1962 sci-fi short La jetée, which inspired the Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys. That film remains quite powerful today, but it only scratches the surface of the work from this prolific filmmaker. Marker worked steadily for more than six decades going back to the early ‘50s. A large portion of his career has included documentaries like 1983’s Sans Soleil, a brilliant look at connections across different cultures.

Marker rarely takes the expected road when approaching a documentary subject. His films often maintain an eerie quiet because they aren’t packed with explanations. He is a skilled thinker who is able to put together an interesting film with limited resources. La jetée is mostly just a series of still images, but its story resonates because of the excellent craftsmanship. A large collection of Marker’s work is now available for streaming on Filmstruck. For this article, I caught up with two of his documentary shorts that had previously escaped my attention. Each is remarkable in its own way and shows the breadth of Marker’s talent.

A painting from Chris Marker's 1972 short film Three Cheers for the Whale

Three Cheers for the Whale (1972)

For this 17-minute short film, Marker teamed up with Italian filmmaker Mario Ruspoli to offer a quiet plea for protecting whales. Composed mostly of still photographs and paintings, this piece makes a convincing case against industrial whaling. Leonard Lopate and Emily Hoffman provide the narration for the English version, which was prepared by Marker in 2007. Their words help chronicle the history of whaling from the Eskimos’ utilitarian approach to the factory-like approach of Japan. To the latter group, the whales’ status is now solely for commercial use.

This material hardly feels new today, particularly given the spotlight on films like Blackfish and The Cove plus the TV show Whale Wars. There’s an interesting connection between that series and this film in the form of the Japanese whaling vessel the Nisshin Maru. It appears briefly here and was pursued by the Sea Shepherds on the show. It reminds us of the long history of whaling, which was already a major issue in the ’70s. The message of this film is positive about love for whales yet doesn’t shy away from the dangers posed by humans.

The final section of Three Cheers for the Whale includes harrowing footage of a whale being shot and killed by a harpoon gun. The idea that “nature is no longer neutral” continues today with regular attempts by politicians to gut the environment. It’s too easy to look at countries like Japan and Norway as the lone enemies. We do plenty on our own each day to make wildlife the enemy. Marker and Ruspoli’s work remains poignant in our ugly modern climate.

Some artwork from the Junkopia short film from Chris Marker

Junkopia (1981)

Our modern world is constantly moving, particularly for those who live in the cities. It’s rare to experience a moment of calm without cars, machines, and other people infringing on our space. When we see a quiet place, it can feel eerie to escape the madness. Marker captures that sensation in his 1981 film Junkopia. The six-minute short presents a collection of artful contraptions on the beach near San Francisco. Ominous music and ambient sounds just add to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of this undisturbed spot.

The “junk” in this location includes driftwood sculptures in the shape of a turkey, an airplane, and even a moon lander. The work from the anonymous artists washes away due to the tides, so a few are seen floating out in the water. Although they occupy a tranquil setting, the art can also deliver chills when presented in a different way. Marker shoots the shadow of an old sign that resembles a looming monster when shot from that perspective. He reveals a mastery of creating moods and shifts gears with a single cut.

The illusion of Junkopia is shattered when Marker cuts to a highway and reminds us of the daily grind. There’s an ugly contrast between the cars slowly moving along the freeway and the creative expressions on the beach. It’s a glimpse at a place that no longer exists, and the sense of loss permeates this footage. Marker shot it with a Zoetrope Studios crew during the production of Sans Soleil and captured a moment in time. The final shot of a wooden boat drifting away in the waves says it all. It may seem like junk, but Marker finds plenty to make them worth a look.