Monday, March 20, 2017

How Good is Logan?

The most significant Sliding Doors–esque moment for 21st century Hollywood actually occurred in 1999, when the filming of Mission: Impossible 2 went over schedule. This forced the man playing the film’s villain, an up-and-coming Scottish actor named Dougray Scott, to drop out of his next project—playing Wolverine in a big budget X-Men movie. Instead, the role went to a little-known Australian actor named Hugh Jackman, whose screen career up to that point had totaled 18 episodes of various Australian TV shows, a remake of Oklahoma! for Australian television, and two Australian movies that didn’t open internationally.

To fully understand the implications of that casting switch, you must know three things:

1.  There hadn’t yet been a big budget movie based on a Marvel superhero, or a comic book movie that relied on modern special effects and CGI, and no one knew what to expect. In fact, there was wide speculation that the movie would bomb, and that characters like the X-Men simply couldn’t work in movies.
2.  The huge success of X-Men very directly led to the comic book movie boom of the 2000s, as well as Marvel creating their own movie studio and developing Hollywood’s first shared cinematic universe. Marvel movies now routinely make over a billion dollars per year (not a typo), and every other studio in Hollywood is now trying to create shared universes of their own.
3.  The huge success of X-Men, and arguably the reason the movie even worked at all, is probably because of how good Jackman was as Wolverine. It was a performance that had to be perfect for the movie to be anything but a joke, and Jackman nailed it.

So it’s really not that much of a stretch to suggest that, had Mission: Impossible 2 not gone over schedule, the movie landscape of the 21st century could have looked startlingly different.

It’s also amazing to think about the fact that Jackman has now been regularly playing Wolverine for 17 years, and Logan marks his 9th film appearance as the character. Those are numbers that, when taken together, are nearly unrivaled in the history of cinema. Sylvester Stallone has played Rocky Balboa over a period of 39 years, but only seven times and with two long breaks. Shintaro Katsu played the blind swordsman Zatoichi 25 times in a popular series of Japanese films, but those were all released in only 11 years. (He then did so again for a 26th time, but only after a 16-year break.) Several James Bond supporting players (M, Q, and Moneypenny) were played by actors that can beat both numbers, but they had bit parts that only required a day or two of filming. Christopher Lee played Dracula 10 times over 18 years, but there was an eight-year gap between the first and second film. Indeed, I can only find one example of an actor who regularly starred as the same character more than nine times over a span longer than 17 years—Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp, who he played well over 50 times from 1914 to 1936. So that’s how far back you have to go to better Jackman’s achievement—to Chaplin, more than 80 years ago.

Playing Wolverine has basically been Hugh Jackman’s entire adult life, and now he’s (allegedly) said goodbye to the character with Logan. The film has been widely acclaimed as one of the best superhero movies ever, but I have to loudly wonder why. As I’ve been thinking about Logan for over a week now, I actually keep finding myself wondering if it might be my pick for the most overrated movie of all time. Sure, there have been other movies loved by audiences that I didn’t like, but the critical community agreed with me. There have also been other films loved by critics that I didn’t respond to, but audiences didn’t respond either. Logan is the only movie I can think of that has been truly adored by both critics and audiences alike, yet leaves me alone in the dark, wondering why.

Reason People Love Logan #1: Because It’s “Grown Up”

The most common praise thrown onto Logan is that it (apparently) marks the moment that superhero movies grew up. But already, I have questions. Do people mean that it’s the first superhero movie with adult themes? Because I thought that was The Dark Knight, and seemingly everyone else in 2008 thought that too. So maybe people think Logan is “grown up” because of its R-rating? But Deadpool was rated R too. I guess maybe people could be referring to the fact that Logan showed superheroes aging and confronting their own mortality? But The Dark Knight Rises did that. I will grant that Logan is the first superhero movie to do all three, but once you shovel that deep to dig for specifics, every movie can be called the first of something.

Reason People Love Logan #2: It Portrays “Realistic Violence”

Ummm, well, first of all, no, it doesn’t. It portrays an old man with metal claws and his pseudo-cloned young ninja daughter fighting cyborgs and a faster, grunt-ier cloned version of himself. But okay, I know I’m just being sassy, so let’s dig deeper into what people mean when they laud the film for its realistic violence. Do they mean that it places the violence into a context of actual bodily harm? Well, no, not really, because the two principal heroes and the principal villain all possess powers that let them heal from anything. Is the violence just realistic-looking? Again, no, because the heroes are constantly defying gravity to fly through the air, and breaking the all-time on-screen grunt record while doing it. Seriously, if the Academy Awards handed men Oscars for grunting the way they hand women Oscars for scenes where they have to wipe their snot away, Hugh Jackman would be next year’s best actor shoo-in. So these aren’t exactly Bourne Ultimatum–level fight scenes in regards to realism. The only concession I can get to here is that I guess the fight scenes are bloodier than any other superhero movie, but blood quotient isn’t what makes a great film.

Reason People Love Logan #3: It’s Not a Superhero Movie, It’s a Western

Okay sure, there are several ways in which Logan has more in common with a classic western than with modern superhero movies, but again, we’re not in new territory here. We’ve seen multiple Marvel movies try to structurally and/or thematically evoke other genres, such as Ant-Man (heist flick), Captain America: Winter Soldier (conspiracy thriller), and Guardians of the Galaxy (space opera). Yes, this is arguably the first superhero movie to try and be a western (at least in as much as all superhero movies aren’t already westerns), but that brings us back to the “getting too specific to identify how it’s the first” problem.

Reason People Love Logan #4: It Cared More About its Characters Than its Plot

Nope, disagree. Every single scene in the film is about advancing the plot, except, arguably, the Eriq La Salle farmer segue—but I would posit that sequence wasn’t about advancing a character arc, but rather about introducing greater stakes and consequences to the story.

Reason People Love Logan #5: Because it has Powerful Themes About Friendship, Fatherhood, and Responsibility

Okay, sure. I’ll take beef with the use of the term “powerful,” but yeah, those themes are there. Tell me again how that makes Logan so amazing? Most bad movies still have major themes of the human condition.

Reason People Love Logan #6: Because it’s “Just Great Filmmaking”

And now we get down to it. All of the “is it really the first to…” talk is just that: talk. Being the first to do something doesn’t make a movie great, and not being the first to do anything doesn’t make a movie bad. They’re all just reasons we concoct to develop or attack an argument of taste. Is Logan great filmmaking? I say no. I didn’t find any nuance in the film. As mentioned above, the fight scenes are all grunting, growling, and leaping. The film kills major characters, but doesn’t wrestle with death. It also kills scores of minor and unnamed characters, but doesn’t ask the audience to experience the gravity of so much killing, it just asks us to think its cool. And, by the way, I find nothing wrong with cinematic violence being cool, but I do think we can’t have it both ways—we’re either dealing with awesome cool violence or consequential violence, never both. But Logan asks us to watch its cool violence and then feel it to be consequential and weighty, and my pleasure centers don’t quite work that way. I’ve never really found myself thinking, “That was so bad ass! And it gave me so many feels!” One or the other.

Logan also suffered from a villain problem that I’ve come to think of as the “Iron Man Problem”—once the first Iron Man movie gave us a villain that was basically just a bigger, more powerful version of Iron Man, the sequels could only up the stakes from there. (Dozens of Iron Men!!) Logan doesn’t give us a real villain; it only gives us a younger, more savage version of our hero. And, conveniently, one who can’t talk, because the movie implicitly knew it had nothing for him to say.

Ultimately, I think to love Logan requires a kind of “I didn’t know superhero movies could be like that” type of thinking, and maybe I’ve just read far too many comic books to ever have that train of thought go through my head. I’ve read dozens of adult, violent, superhero stories that dealt with mature themes and mortality, and I’ve seen them done better than Logan. My requirement to loving superhero movies, of which I love many, has never been to show me something I haven’t seen before, because I already assume that isn’t happening. I merely want to see something done really well, and devoid of any “it’s not like everything else” modifiers, I just don’t think Logan was a well-crafted story or movie.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all still tip our hats to Hugh Jackman. I had just graduated high school when he first donned his prop claws, and now I’m 35 years old. Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine for my entire adult life, and his performance as the character has done more to plot the course of 21st century Hollywood than probably any other thing or person.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

2017 Oscars Post-Mortem

I heard Wesley Morris, a New York Times critic, say on a podcast the other day that the most unfortunate thing about the Best Picture gaff at the Oscars is that now, to even get to coverage about Moonlight winning, you have to trudge through several other paragraphs (of what is basically scandal reporting) first. He’s right; that sucks. So I won’t do it. We’re talking about Moonlight first, and then the Best Picture kerfuffle.

Moonlight is Your 2016 Best Picture Winner. Forever.

I always wait at least a full day (or three) after the Oscars are over before I write about them. This is 49% laziness and 51% strategy. I like to read and listen to everyone else’s hot takes first, and see what pundits think the takeaways are, before I respond with my own. Part of the reason the Oscars matter so much is because people think they matter so much. So discovering the precise ways that people think they mattered is an essential part of discovering why they actually mattered.

The most disheartening thing I read and heard yesterday, from multiple sources, was people being elated that a movie “which had no business being at the Oscars” won Best Picture. This killed me. The funny thing is, everyone saying this meant it as a compliment. They were all happy that Moonlight won. But it’s a compliment that is severely backhanded, self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s get something straight: Moonlight had every business being at the Oscars. It was probably the best film of the year, and the critical community unanimously agreed on this. It was gorgeously written, acted, shot, edited, and scored, and those five things intertwining in artful ways is the very heart of great cinema.

When people express some variation of shock that Moonlight could win Best Picture, these people are tacitly suggesting that only big spectacle films like Titanic, historical dramas about Great Complicated Men like A Beautiful Mind, or occasionally films about why Hollywood is so awesome, à la Argo, are what are “allowed” to win Best Picture. But this view of what the Oscars are has been tenuous and only barely true for a long time now.

In the last ten years, we’ve seen narratively ambiguous art films like No Country for Old Men and Birdman win Best Picture, as well as a film that actively sought to make its audience uncomfortable (12 Years a Slave), a film that opened in the summer and made no money (The Hurt Locker), a silent film (The Artist), and a film about a reality show contestant in India (Slumdog Millionaire). Of the last ten Best Picture winners, only three of them nicely fit into any traditional Oscar narrative—The King’s Speech, Argo, and Spotlight. The point is, “traditional Oscar narratives” don’t matter anymore, and that’s been the case for a while. The new narrative is, what are the best films of the year? Seriously, what’s the last movie you can think of that was objectively in the conversation for the best film of the year, and it *wasn’t* considered a serious possibility to win Best Picture? For me, the answer to that question is Wall-E, and that was nine years ago. According to Metacritic, the three best-reviewed English-language feature films of 2016 each won at least two of the top eight Oscars, and collectively, they won seven of the eight. The Oscars are still changing, but more importantly, the Oscars have already changed.

Is the Academy still full of out-of-touch old men? Yes, absolutely. That’s how you get Hacksaw Ridge getting nominated for, and winning, several Oscars. But crucially, the Academy is now even more full of young, diverse artists. Just last year, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs inaugurated the largest new member class in Academy history, and that class was full of women, people of color, and non-Americans. Nominating, and awarding, the best films of the year should be the new normal for this Academy, and we need to stop being shocked when it happens.

I was one of the only people to predict Moonlight would win, and I partially wonder if that’s not because I’m actually any good at predicting, but rather because I’m one of the only people that’s fully realized these aren’t your parents’ Oscars anymore, and haven’t been for a while. Part of the reason so many experts didn’t think Moonlight had a chance is because they inherently don’t believe the Oscars award films like Moonlight. I inherently did believe that, because I’ve been watching it happen for a decade. Now it’s time for all of us to believe that. Whatever film ends up being the best of 2017, we should believe that merit is plenty reason enough for it to contend for Best Picture. These are our Oscars. Let’s normalize them.

La La Land Didn’t Win Best Picture. But it did for 2 Minutes.

If you haven’t heard the official explanation for what happened, it’s actually far less nefarious than it seemed at the time. It’s even happened once before, when Sammy Davis Jr. was presenting the Oscar for Best Score in 1964. The only difference that time was that the winner in the incorrect envelope he was given was lucky enough not to be a nominee in the category he was presenting for, so everyone knew it was wrong right away. No one was giving their acceptance speech before the mistake was corrected.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the accounting firm that tabulates the Oscar ballots, actually prints two envelopes with the winners for every award. Each set of 24 winning envelopes goes in a separate briefcase, and they situate one of the briefcases at each side of the stage. This is probably partially for safety, in case anything happens to one of the briefcases, and partially for convenience, so that presenters can enter on either side of the stage without worrying about which envelope is where. So there were always two Best Actress envelopes, just as there are two for every category. And when it came time for Best Picture, the PwC accountant accidentally handed Warren Beatty the backup Best Actress envelope instead of the Best Picture envelope.

But, of course, within that, is lots of bad luck. The most fascinating aspect of the bad luck to me is that it ended up being the Best Actress envelope, an award in which Emma Stone was the only one of the five nominees to even be in a Best Picture nominee. So if anyone else won Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert, Natalie Portman, etc.), then this whole snafu wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. It’s also amusing to imagine if it had been the envelope for Best Actor instead of Best Actress, because then Manchester by the Sea—which was produced by Matt Damon—would have been announced as the wrong Best Picture winner, and Jimmy Kimmel would have literally gotten to take the Best Picture Oscar away from Matt Damon on live television, without it even being a prank or a rehearsed bit.

Two things I do find interesting are 1) how Warren Beatty seems to have taken so much blame for this when it was clearly more the fault of Faye Dunaway, who just blurted out the first words she saw, and 2) what this means going forward for whether the Oscars will stick with PwC as their accounting firm. The accountant who handed out the wrong envelope was busy tweeting a photo of Emma Stone from backstage at the time, which he also apparently wasn’t supposed to be doing. And, even worse, it seems he didn’t react to the incorrect announcement nearly fast enough, with the La La Land team having given three full speeches before the mistake was corrected. It’s very possible he’ll get fired, and at least conceivable that the Academy will fire PwC from the Oscars. And if that happens, it could be a much bigger deal than it seems. If a new accounting team is hired to tabulate the votes, that could be an impetus to re-evaluate and possibly overhaul the entire voting system that the Oscars use. Certainly a new firm would have new ideas on how best to do things, and this is happening both at a time when the Academy seems especially open to change, and the Academy President is aggressively seeking it. We’ll see where this goes from here, but there’s a real possibility that it wasn’t merely a gaff with no long-term repercussions.

Other Thoughts and Notes

  • I was impressed with the job Jimmy Kimmel did, and I say that as someone who was not optimistic about his hosting potential. There was nothing as good as Fallon’s La La Land-swiped musical opening to the Golden Globes, but generally speaking, I thought everything worked, and some of the bits, like the mean tweets and his mocking of We Bought a Zoo, were hilarious. I even seem to be in the minority of people that thought the tour bus segment was pretty funny. My only complaint about it was that people who are on a tour bus during the Oscars are clearly people who do not care about watching the Oscars, so they didn’t appreciate, or emote, the grandeur of the event.
  • Every Oscar producer changes the show in minor ways, and one minor change this year that I particularly loved was the inclusion of montages of previous winners being announced, and giving their acceptance speeches, for the four acting awards. I’ve long thought the Oscars do a bad job of appreciating their own history, and this was an improvement in that area.
  • The eight major Oscars (Picture, Director, the four acting categories, and the two Screenplay categories) all went to the right films and performances. There isn’t a single winner of the bunch that we’ll look back on and loudly lament, “How did Film/Person X lose to that?” (as we do with so many Oscar winners).
  • Two long losing streaks came to a close. Pixar won Best Animated Short for the first time since 2002, toppling a losing streak of eight nominations over the past 14 years. And even better, sound designer Kevin O’Connell finally won an Oscar on his 21st nomination. His previous 20 nominations came in just 25 years, from 1984-2008. He owned the all-time Oscar record of most nominations without a win, across all categories. Now, O’Connell’s former partner, Greg P. Russell, is the new record holder, having been nominated 17 times (12 of which were in partnership with O’Connell) without winning yet.
  • The most bizarre win of the night was certainly the Best Editing Oscar that went to Hacksaw Ridge, and it’s really difficult to know what to make of that. Both La La Land and Moonlight were far more deserving here, and perhaps the only explanation is that they split the vote of the cinephiles in the Academy (as it’s truly difficult to try and make a cogent argument for which of them is “better” edited), which allowed the Steak Eaters to swoop in and carry their pick to victory here. It does make me wonder how different the results would be across the board if the preferential ballot were instituted in every category. For instance, Casey Affleck won Best Actor because he clearly received the most first place votes, but if a preferential ballot were used in that race, it likely would have strongly favored Denzel, who had no controversies to keep him from getting the most second place votes. It’s interesting to think about.
  • A few other records and firsts: O.J.: Made in America is now officially the longest film to ever win an Oscar, beating out 1966’s War and Peace, a winner for Best Foreign Language Film, by 40 minutes. Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. Damien Chazelle is now the youngest Best Director winner ever, beating the 1932 winner, Norman Taurog, by several months (though both were 32 at the time of their win). Moonlight is the first film to win Best Picture without having a white actor in the principal cast, as well as the first Best Picture winner directed by an African-American. (12 Years a Slave’s director, Steve McQueen, is British.) And, of course, Suicide Squad officially and unarguably became the worst movie to ever win an Oscar—a record that I truly hope we never see broken.
  • For my part, I went 14 for 24 in my predictions, so definitely not my best performance. Four of my misses—Costume Design, Editing, Makeup, and Sound Editing—were categories that every single expert got wrong. Three of my misses—Sound Mixing, Documentary Short, and Live Action Short—were categories that every expert but one got wrong. And three of my misses—Documentary Feature, Foreign Language Film, and Animated Short—were categories where I picked upsets that didn’t happen. I did, however, correctly predict Best Picture and Best Actor, which almost every expert got wrong. The final score tally is that I beat Variety by one; Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Ringer each beat me by one; Anne Thompson (of Indiewire) beat me by three; and Vanity Fair won the year, going 18 for 24 and beating me by four. I was, however, the only person to get all eight major categories correct, and this is the second year in a row I’ve correctly predicted Best Picture while all of the experts got it wrong. So I guess I’ll take it.