JACKIE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for brief Strong Violence and some Language

Directed by: Pablo Larrain

Written by: Noah Oppenheim

Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Beth Grant, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson & John Carroll Lynch

JACKIE was built up as a potential awards contender during last year’s Oscar season and wound up being nominated for three awards (Best Actress, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design). Those three categories seem appropriate for a film that has a great performance and looks good, but boils down to being nothing more than style over substance. Those looking for a straightforward biopic of Jackie Kennedy had best look elsewhere, because director Pablo Larrain treats this film as his own personal art project. Loud classical music and overbearing camera work frequently work against a narrative that weaves together events in Jackie’s life through a non-linear fashion.

JACKIE mostly takes place in the days following JFK’s assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has to battle her grief, break the news to her children, and plan a funeral ceremony that will go down in history. The film frequently cuts to an interview between Jackie and an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) who was loosely based on a LIFE magazine reporter. There are also flashbacks before that terrible day, involving Jackie’s time with her husband and her historic televised tour of the White House.

JACKIE’s best quality is easily Natalie Portman’s performance. If you watch footage and interviews with the real-life Jackie Kennedy, you realize how much Portman nailed the most famous First Lady through her acting. From the shy, yet determined attitude to the soft-spoken, uniquely accented way of talking. Jackie Kennedy had a strange voice and Portman’s voice sounds equally as strange in the same ways. Portman also captures the melancholy sadness of the assassination aftermath that ranges from sobbing as she cleans blood off her face in a mirror to small lines of dialogue as she slowly begins to cope with her loss.

The supporting performances drastically range in quality. Billy Crudup is amusing as the journalist, while Greta Gerwig (as secretary Nancy Tuckerman) and Richard E. Grant (as family friend William Walton) have a few stand-out moments. John Hurt resides over some of the best moments as a priest who consoles Jackie and gives her advice. His last scene with Portman is incredibly powerful, if only of the rest of the film was up to this level of emotional insight. Disappointingly, the usually great Peter Sarsgaard is bland as Bobby Kennedy and his accent frequently fades in and out. Equally as much of a letdown is a well-cast John Carroll Lynch being underused as the newly presidential LBJ.

My initial good will towards this movie started to fade with its messy script. This screenplay is less a biopic and more a collage of moments in Jackie Kennedy’s life. That sounds like it could make for an interesting viewing experience, but it’s frequently botched by jumbled storytelling. This might be a case where showing the events in chronological order would have greatly benefited the narrative. At the very least, JACKIE could have given the viewer complete events out-of-order, instead of frequently editing these events together. This narrative jumps around far too much for its own good and becomes downright tedious at points.

My boredom wasn’t purely the result of a so-so script, because JACKIE is a definite example of style over substance. The score is overbearing to the point where it almost drowns out dialogue and becomes an annoyance. This music seems like a blatant attempt to tell the viewer how to feel because the movie itself couldn’t be bothered to. The cinematography is all over the place as the camera style frequently shifts from scene-to-scene. Some of these moments are more visually interesting than others and a few echoed the close-up effect from haunting Holocaust drama SON OF SAUL. This beautiful camera work becomes overbearing to the point of distracting the viewer from the content of the scenes.

JACKIE has a great performance from Natalie Portman and a handful of great moments, but comes off like a messy piece of experimental filmmaking. A scene in which Jackie verbally destroys pompous Jack Valenti over her funeral plans is more than a little satisfying to watch. Another great scene has Jackie breaking the emotional news of her husband’s death to their children. Scenes like this and a stellar performance of the titular First Lady both make JACKIE worth watching for those who might interested. However, brace yourself for lots of overbearingly pretentious filmmaking techniques and an unfocused screenplay. JACKIE is shameless Oscar bait that has great positives and a draining amount of negatives.

Grade: C+

LOGAN (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time:  2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence and Language throughout, and for brief Nudity

Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: Scott Frank, James Mangold & Michael Green

(based on the WOLVERINE comic books by Ray Thomas, Len Wein & John Romita Sr.)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant & Dafne Keene

Out of the 21st century superhero cinema boom, the X-MEN films are among my favorites. Besides having a vast catalog of colorful heroes and complex antagonists, these movies utilize smart social commentary through mutants and paranoia. I don’t think that anybody could argue against the series’ biggest highlight being Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. This character is a fan favorite for plenty of reasons. He’s brash, straddles the line between hero and antihero, and has a strong moral compass (even if he won’t admit to it). LOGAN marks the tenth X-MEN film and the final time that Jackman will portray Wolverine. This is a dark, mature, excellent closing chapter to the saga and a fitting final film for Jackman’s character.

The year is 2029. Almost all of the X-Men are dead and mutants have pretty much gone extinct. Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is past his prime and succumbing to old age. He works as a limo driver and takes care of an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) in an abandoned factory off the Mexico border. Logan just wishes to live out his final years with the Xavier on the ocean, away from people. However, his plans change when he meets 11-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen). Laura is a mutant (very much like Logan) and some very bad people are hunting her. In an effort to save a life and do some good, Logan makes a dangerous cross-country journey to get Laura to a safe haven…but the healing-impaired Wolverine may be in over his head.

In the course of seventeen years, Hugh Jackman has given us an iconic big-screen superhero. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine someone else playing Wolverine. I mean, just try to think of someone else in the role. Try it right now. You can’t do it, can you? Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine provides an intensely dramatic and emotional side to the character that was seen in previous films, but never to this extent. Wolverine’s smart-ass sense of humor and animal-like nature is still in play, but he becomes an all-out tragic hero in this film.

On the supporting side of things, Patrick Stewart reprises his role as Professor X and gives us a grim look into what happens when a deteriorating disease attacks the world’s most powerful brain. Stewart’s latest outing as the wheelchair-bound psychic is easily one of his best stints as the character, while also serving as X’s saddest story ever. Stephen Merchant stars as an albino mutant, whose power is tracking other mutants. Though he mainly seems to be a means to an end, Merchant’s Caliban is a colorful addition to the X-MEN cinematic cannon. Newcomer Dafne Keene is a stand-out as preteen mutant Laura and delivers one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen (right up there with Jacob Tremblay in ROOM).

As far as the villains go, Richard E. Grant has a small, but powerful role to play. I won’t go into specific details for fear of spoilers, but he’s memorable for most of his screen time. The bigger antagonist is Boyd Holbrook as the psychotic leader of a mutant-hunting team. Holbrook sports a country bumpkin accent alongside charisma that quickly becomes a downright despicable attitude. I was rooting for Holbrook to die a horrible death. That’s how good he was in this role as a robotic-armed baddie.

Besides stellar performances, LOGAN’s screenplay smartly sets up a near-future that doesn’t seem too futuristic. Instead, this is a grim look at the fate of mutants and nicely sets up potential for some interesting future installments (assuming the studio is smart enough to greenlight more dark, mature mutant stories). LOGAN’s R-rated approach is refreshingly grown-up. The film feels like an adult superhero story that was made for adults. We get Wolverine cursing (much like he does in the comics), mature themes being tackled (age, life, purpose) and lots of graphic violence.

Further encapsulating on the film’s R rating, Wolverine and Laura rip through armed thugs like paper and it’s so cool to watch. Limbs and blood cover nearly every action scene, making for some of the best serious R-rated action since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. This is Wolverine doing what he does in the comics…and now we get to see it in all of its gory glory on the big screen. The plot’s darker tone almost seems like a violent Western that happens to star Wolverine and is set in the near-future. While DEADPOOL‘s cheeky over-the-top violence was fun and entertaining, LOGAN’s approach is darker, bleaker, and played with a straight face. Every kill has weight behind it and a few deaths left me shocked.

I still can’t decide if LOGAN is my favorite movie in the X-MEN series (it’s definitely in my top three), but this was the perfect way to end the original saga. This isn’t a happy, fun superhero movie, but rather a depressing and emotional final chapter in a long-standing film legacy. Hugh Jackman will always be Wolverine to me and this was a fitting film for him to end on. LOGAN is fantastic and stands out as one of the best superhero films that I’ve ever seen! If you’re a fan of X-MEN at all, then you owe it to yourself to see this film!

Grade: A+

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