REVIEW: Their Finest

14 04 2017

“Authenticity informed by optimism” – that was the motto of Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information when it comes to creating films, according to Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest.” Around the time that “keep calm and carry on” came into common parlance through Tube posters, the government was also hard at work shaping the national consciousness through the medium of cinema. In 1940, filmmakers came together to convey the seriousness of the war effort while also inspiring confidence and patriotism.

“Their Finest” specifically follows the course of one picture shoot about the sacrifices made at Dunkirk (luckily Scherfig got this out before Christopher Nolan’s epic). Welsh screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) approaches the evacuation with a creative, novel approach to a story whose validity and heroism do not immediately signal the traditional Hollywood ending. Her job gets even harder when the government hijacks the film to subtly goad the United States into helping the war effort – primarily through the addition of American actor Carl Lundbeck, a  blonde bombshell of machismo played with spunk by Jake Lacy. Before WikiLeaks, this was how covert influence worked. (I like this way a lot more.)

Gabby Chiape’s screenplay balances more than just a straightforward tale of film production in wartime. “Their Finest” also includes a significant feminist slant concerning women’s contribution to the war effort and their mounting preemptive fears about men relegating them back to the home as soon as combat ceases. That tension plays out in the dimly lit government buildings where Catrin toils over a typewriter with the charming curmudgeon Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) as well as at home with her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a disabled veteran whose “brutal and dispiriting” paintings don’t exactly jive with the national mood. This central tenet of the film bobs back and forth between serving as subject and subtext, and after nearly two hours, Chiape and Scherfig never quite figure out where it belongs. Between that and an enjoyable B-plot featuring Billy Nighy’s washed-up character actor Ambrose Hilliard, “Their Finest” simply fights on one too many fronts to come out on top. B-

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REVIEW: Logan

18 02 2017

Does “Logan” feel as good as it does because of its own merits – or because the superhero genre is just that bad these days? I’m tempted to argue for the latter if for no other reason than to cover my own ass. Skeptical reviews tend to hold up better than overzealous ones. (See my 2011 review of “I Am Number Four” for an example.)

Director James Mangold as well as co-writers Michael Green and Scott Frank succeed by avoiding so much of what makes comic book adaptations – including the “X-Men” series – flop. The film boasts a remarkably self-contained story free from a glut of new characters or excessive action sequences. Remarkably little happens over the course of “Logan,” even to the point where the opening sequences of Wolverine’s pensive limousine driving recalls the Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials.

This ability to ruminate on character and dwell in the submerged pain of the moment no doubt stems from the circumstances surrounding the film. Hugh Jackman has given a remarkable 17 years to playing Logan, a role that launched him into stardom – but also a character that helped stabilize the franchise throughout its different incarnations. Supposedly “Logan” marks Jackman’s last time sporting the claws, and such finality likely gave Fox and Marvel the confidence to begrudgingly let him go out on his own terms. Those terms include invoking the spirit of the old Western genre, specifically the archetype of the aging and world-weary gunslinger.

Heavy-handed “Shane” allusions aside, “Logan” earns the right to make these comparisons simply through Jackman’s decades-long commitment to the character. At least for now, it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the superhero arena with enough cultural cachet to earn this resolution. Jackman’s haggard expressions and general exasperation more than once gave me flashbacks to his gaunt appearance at the beginning of “Les Misérables.” He appears tired and weary – and as the character, not the actor! (An important distinction to make for many franchise headliners.) Logan has a clear antagonist in the corporation Transigen, although he’s mostly grappling with his own legacy and history.

Yet without eight serviceable “X-Men” films prior, the narrative stakes of “Logan” might not have felt as weighty. As the hero attempts to outrun, but ultimately acquiesces to, the definitive final battle, there’s simply no other way to convey the battle wounds of the past than to have watched them accumulate over time. But even so, Mangold still makes a convincing argument that the superhero genre need not only resemble the western in cultural functionality. It can also take on their form, tone and content for satisfying, incisive cinema. B2halfstars