Sunday, April 22, 2018

Super Troopers 2 (2018) *****

You know how sometimes you'll hope and pray for something, and then it doesn't turn out as well as you expected? Well, this is not one of those times. The sequel to 2001's genius comedy “Super Troopers” is every bit the sequel we fans would hope for. After 17 years, it's the sequel we deserve. (This is literally true, as it was a 2015 crowdfunding campaign that provided the seed money to make the movie happen. Fourteen years after the original “Super Troopers,” devoted fans ponied up more than $4 million to bring these characters back.)

Super Troopers 2” picks up an unspecified period of time after the events of the first movie. Thorny, Rabbit, Mac, Foster, and Farva are working construction, having lost their cop gigs following a tragic incident on a ride-along with actor Fred Savage, a ride-along that they never should have done, because, “Actors shouldn't play cops anyway. They always get it wrong.”

The guys jump at a chance to be cops again, in a tiny sliver of Canada that is getting annexed into Vermont. Needless to say, the Canadians there are less than thrilled to be becoming Americans. They don't buy into the “We're all Americans...North Americans!” theory. The locals, the mayor (Rob Lowe) and the existing Canadian Mounties give the super troopers a hard time, but the guys fight back with shenanigans of their own. Meanwhile, they discover stashes of drugs, guns, and fake iphones along the border.

Maybe you are thinking this sounds pretty similar to the plot of the first “Super Troopers”? You'd be right. It's almost the same movie, which is exactly what I wanted in a “Super Troopers” sequel. That movie was perfect: raunchy, irreverent, poking lighthearted fun at pretty much everyone. “Super Troopers 2” revisits everything that made the original so great, and I loved every minute of it. The movie is loaded with back-and-forth Canadian/American insults, riffs on French-Canadians, and dick jokes, lots of dick jokes.

“Super Troopers 2,” the original “Super Troopers,” and a handful of other films including 2006's "Beerfest" star the Broken Lizard comedy team: Jay Chandrasekhar (Thorny), Kevin Heffernan (Farva), Steve Lemme (Mac), Eric Stolhanske (Rabbit), and Paul Soter (Foster). These guys don't always knock it out of the park. 2004's “Club Dread” was pretty lame, and 2009's “The Slammin' Salmon” was just alright. When they are on, though, these guys produce a brand of intelligently coarse comedy that allows smart people to laugh uproariously at bathroom humor. It's hard for me to explain why it works, but it does. I laughed 'til I cried at jokes about ball-shaving and anal sex, and never felt bad about it.

Admittedly, “Super Troopers 2” is not for everyone. If you didn't think the first movie was an instant classic, you will hate this one, too. For all of us civilized people, the 2018 Oscars race is already over. “Super Troopers 2” wins! You should drive as fast as you can to the theater to see this one. Just watch out for the cops!

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Diner (1982) **1/2

There are some movies that we remember as being way better than they are. I recently wrote about how "Alien" is one of these, for me. Well it turns out 1982's “Diner” is another. I was probably in my late teens when I saw the film for the first time, and I had fondly recalled it as a classic, a funny and poignant depiction of friendship, from a time that seemed simpler, but really wasn't. Watching it now, I just found it mildly amusing and mostly annoying.

Packed with stars and future stars, “Diner” is about a group of friends: Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), Shrevie (Daniel Stern), Boogie (Mickey Rourke), Fen (Kevin Bacon), Billy (Tim Daly), and Modell (Paul Reiser). Friends from high school, the boys get together over Christmas Vacation to drink, chase girls, and most importantly, hang out at their late-night diner. The diner is where they meet to eat disgusting food and unpack the details of their dates with girls, mainly how far they got with the girl and what their prospects are for getting further next time. They also bullshit about music, movies, and all the usual stuff guys talk about with other guys.

These boys have got some issues. Boogie, the lady's man, has a gambling problem. Eddie is engaged, but looking to back out of the marriage by making his girlfriend take a football-trivia test. Shrevie is already married, and has no idea how to interact with his wife as a human being. Fen is brilliant, but mentally unhinged.

My problem with “Diner” is that I found it difficult to care about any of these doofuses. Frankly, they are annoying. These are grown-ass men acting like teenage boys. Admittedly, there are aspects of the film that are so ludicrous, like Eddie's fiance agreeing to submit to that football quiz, that the story should probably be viewed allegorically. Even suspending disbelief to that extent, it's impossible for me to like these guys. Mickey Rourke's Boogie probably comes the closest to being a fully-developed, sympathetic character. Rourke really flexes his limited acting muscles to make Boogie seem redeemable. The Billy character is meant to be the most reasonable of the crew, but Tim Daly's wooden acting makes him feel less substantial than Paul Reiser's Modell, who isn't even supposed to be one of the main characters. Reiser manages to steal quite a few scenes with his clever patter, but when you pay attention to him, he is really just doing his standup routine, not conversing.

“Diner” won quite a few rave reviews, and it gets credit for pioneering the “Seinfeld” style of scene-making, filled with characters talking about banalities. The movie also packed a lot of talent into a small space, launching the careers of Rourke, Bacon, Reiser, Guttenberg, and Ellen Barkin, who plays Shrevie's wife. I've been pretty critical here, but I should note that “Diner” has its moments. Some of the conversations feel stupid and contrived, but there are moments that feel genuine, and a couple that are hilarious. The popcorn scene, in particular, is a classic piece of comedy that makes the film worth seeing. I would say it's worth seeing once, but for me it didn't hold up to a repeat viewing.

Maybe the reason I remembered “Diner” so fondly is that I saw it when I was young and callow myself. I shudder to think that I might have actually identified with these scrubs at some point, but maybe that's the explanation. Fortunately, I grew up into someone who has better things to do than hang out with these annoying characters for a couple of hours. Let's hope Eddie, Boogie, and the gang find it in themselves to do the same.

2.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Leftovers (HBO, 2014-2017) *****

This is usually a movie blog, but I just finished watching this 3-season HBO show, and I had to write about it. “The Leftovers” is an absolute tour-de-force, better than any movie I saw this past year. I had previously considered “Breaking Bad” to be the best story I ever saw told on television, and it is a great show. But where “Breaking Bad” sprawls over 5 seasons, sometimes losing the narrative arc and repeating story lines, “The Leftovers” is tightly-crafted within its 3 seasons, with nothing wasted.
The show is based on the book of the same name by Tom Perotta, and Season 1 starts out much like the book. We enter the small town of Mapleton, New York in a world where, 3 years earlier, a seemingly-random 2% of the world's population vanished in an event called the “Sudden Departure.” This event left mothers suddenly pushing empty strollers, babies without a babysitter, cars without a driver, and prison cells empty. Naturally, Christians try to view the event through the lens of the Biblical Rapture, but with murderers having departed while faithful believers were left behind, no one can make sense of it.

In the wake of this, traditional religions have declined, while cults have sprung up like mushrooms. One of these cults is the Guilty Remnant, a group of nihilists who view the Departure as a sign that nothing matters, not family, not personal happiness, not life. Members give up speaking and take up smoking, and they silently follow regular people around to remind them of the Departure.

Police Chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is one of the lucky ones who didn't lose any family in the Departure. Unfortunately, the aftermath of the event drove his wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman) to join the Guilty Remnant. This leaves Kevin alone to raise their daughter Jill, worry about their son Tom (who is secretly off in another cult), and deal with his own mental demons. He meets Nora (Carrie Coon), a tough, but bruised woman who lost her husband and both kids in the Departure. The two fall in love, while Kevin tries to keep Mapleton from tearing itself apart, as the Guilty Remnant works to recruit new members and enrage the rest of the town.

Season 2 finds Kevin and Nora and their crew moving to Jarden, Tx, a small town renamed Miracle because no one from there Departed. The town's seemingly protected status has made it a magnet for seekers from all over, and it is fenced off and managed as a national park. Nora buys an outrageously overpriced house in Jarden, and they settle in to make a life in what they think is a safe place. Jarden, of course, turns out not to be as placid as it seems.

The third, and final, season details the days leading up to the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure. Seven is a number of recurring biblical import, so people are attaching a lot of significance to this anniversary. Many, including Kevin's insane father (Scott Glenn), believe it will be the end of the world, so crazy behavior is even more prevalent than usual. Kevin and Nora outwardly have their acts together, but we find that there is a lot of turmoil under the surface. Meanwhile, Nora's brother, Matt (Christopher Eccleston) is writing a holy book based on Kevin's life. It gets weirder from there. Ultimately, many, but not all, things are explained, and the show wraps up in a somewhat mystifying, but beautiful, finale.

Producer Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) and author Tom Perotta co-wrote the series, and they have succeeded in turning Perotta's excellent book into something much greater. The book covers roughly the same events as Season 1 of the show. From there, they are in completely original territory.

The show is a deep exploration of loss. We all fear losing people we love, and the Sudden Departure caused a significant proportion of humanity to experience that loss all at once. This leads to a secondary loss, for many, of their religious faith, which suddenly seems to make no sense. One of the lessons of the show, however, is that loss is universal. The Departure leaves people feeling like they have experienced a world-ending cataclysm, but to put things in perspective, only 2% of the population was taken in the Departure. The Black Plague killed 30-60% of Europe's population in just a few years. Of course, the Black Plague also caused massive religious, cultural, and political upheaval. The story of humanity is a series of such convulsions. “The Leftovers” is simply an individual look at what it might be like to be part of one of those events.

The show is also about Family, and the many ways of defining and re-forming a family after things go wrong. Even the Guilty Remnant is a type of family, giving its members something they couldn't get from their previous relationships.

This story has incredible empathy for the characters that inhabit it. Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon are the stars, but there are no small roles in “The Leftovers.” Every character owns their own story, their own arc. Matt, for example, is first introduced handing out flyers detailing the sins of individuals who departed. He is trying to convince people that the Departure could not have been the biblical Rapture, and he comes off as a pious jerk. As the story progresses, however, he turns out to be a guy who consistently puts aside his own interests to help others, and whom you can call to help bury a body.

The worst tv shows string the audience along, with their only goal being to get you to keep watching for as long as the network can squeeze money out of the show. At its best, tv tells a narrative, which ends when it should, not when the audience quits watching. “The Leftovers” is TV at its best, with a narrative arc that makes sense, and a gigantic heart.

5 stars out of 5

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Lady Bird (2017) ***

So this is one of the movies everyone was buzzing about this awards season. The semi-auto-biographical, coming of age tale is written and directed by actress (now director) Greta Gerwig, and stars Saoirse Ronan. Lauded by critics, the film won Best Comedy at the Golden Globes and earned an Oscar nomination. All the critics seemed to agree this movie was AMAZING! I was skeptical, though. I had a feeling this would be just another story about a quirky outsider who has a fraught relationship with a parent, dealing with the tricky teen issues of friendships, sex, and finding her identity, and it turns out I was right.

Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, a teen who has decided to go by the name Ladybird. For Ladybird, renouncing her given name is a way of distancing herself from her family, their modest financial circumstances, and her town of Sacramento, which she feels has no culture. Her family really isn't all that poor; she just goes to a fancy private school (on scholarship), where most of the kids have fancy cars and big houses, which she does not. Ladybird is bright but lazy, and her grades don't support her dream of getting into an East Coast liberal arts college. Neither does her mom, who tends to be pretty hard on the girl. When the guidance counselor tells Ladybird, “It's my job to help you be realistic,” Ladybird says, “Yeah, that seems to be everybody's job.”

Ladybird goes through the usual stuff, experimenting with sex and drugs, and feeling sorry for herself. As befits her callow age, she is completely oblivious to everyone else's problems. She falls for a guy in her theater class, and is bummed when her chubby friend, Julie, gets the juicy role opposite him, complaining, “Now you get to be all romantic with Danny on stage.” When Julie replies, “Yeah, that's realistically the only chance I'll get to do that,” Ladybird is totally unmoved by the pathos of Julie's life as the less attractive friend. This pattern repeats itself again and again, as Ladybird focuses on her own disappointments, failing to see that everyone has a struggle.

This is, of course, very realistic for a girl her age. “Lady Bird” is full of realistic touches, from Saoirse Ronan's visible acne, to the hot girl at their school, who isn't objectively all that hot.

The key relationship in the film is that between Ladybird and her mom. As with many teenage girls, it's a rocky one. Marion (Laurie Metcalf) is pretty critical of her daughter, and she often vents her general frustrations on her. Ladybird is just a callow teen, un-driven as a student, and insensitive to the hurt she inflicts on her parents by being so obviously ashamed of their small house and modest car.

There is really nothing not to like about “Lady Bird,” except perhaps for the slightly clunky ending, which I actually liked. It's an ending that doesn't wrap things up in a neat package, with Ladybird suddenly becoming a better person or having the perfect life. This is an ending that makes clear that this is still the same girl, with the same issues, but starting to grow up a little.

It's an enjoyable movie, but I can only explain the outsized hype surrounding it as sexism. With the Me Too and Time's Up movements going on, this is an Up With Women kind of year, and everyone in Hollywood wants to celebrate movies made by women. It's a laudable instinct, but it has led to virtual canonization of what is really a pretty basic girl's-coming-of-age movie. There are any number of better, more memorable films from this genre, including "Me Without You"  and "An Education".  Once this year's hype dies down, “Lady Bird” will still be worth checking out, but I doubt we will still be talking about it in 10 years.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) **1/2

I didn't watch this action flick back when it came out, but I wanted a movie to watch while riding the spin bike, so I gave this remake of a 1974 B-movie a go. My soul died a little bit when the opening credits said, “Jerry Bruckheimer Productions.” I mean, the guy is known for the most mindless, explosion-filled action movies made for absolutely the lowest common denominator of moviegoer. Still, I stuck with it, and I will say that at least it got my heart rate up.

Giovanni Ribisi Plays Kip Raines, a car thief who fails to deliver the 50 cars he promised to a ruthless gangster. The gangster agrees to spare his life if Kip's older brother, Memphis (Nicolas Cage), a legendary car thief, delivers the cars by the deadline. This isn't just 50 random cars, mind you, but a list of 50 specific models. Memphis knows that he and Kip can never meet the deadline alone, so he puts together his old team, including Robert Duvall, as Otto the mechanic, and Angelina Jolie, as Sway, Memphis's old girlfriend.

Together with Kip's younger, technologically savvy crew of thieves, the team puts together a plan to boost all the cars in one night, before the police have a chance to figure out what is going on. It's too late for that, though, as Detective Castlebeck (Delroy Lindo), who knows Memphis well, knows that with Memphis back in town, some cars are going to get stolen.

And get stolen they do! The team goes on an absolute orgy of car theft, dodging the police and local thugs. None of it makes a lot of sense. Some of the cars on the list are classics or expensive supercars, but a lot of them are just boring SUVs and luxury sedans. Maybe I just don't understand the stolen-car market. Also, for people who have to steal 50 cars in one night, the team seems to find a lot of time to just hang out and talk. They never display the kind of urgency that I would think fits the situation.

What strikes me the most about “Gone in 60 Seconds” is how shabby the film looks in the light of 2018. When it came out, the trailers made it look like, well, a slick, high-budget, Bruckheimer movie, with an all-star cast. Hell, Angelina Jolie alone had enough star power to open a movie back in 2000, but watching her now, she just looks skinny and skanky, like she smells bad.

These people do drive fast,though, to an upbeat soundtrack, which is perfect for cranking at high resistance on the spin bike. “Gone in 60 Seconds” is not a good movie by any definition, but it's way more fun than an exercise video.

2.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Triplets of Belleville (2003) *****

I have written before about how the Japanese get all the anime-hype, but in my opinion the French actually do some of the best animated films. “The Triplets of Belleville” is one of the best examples of French superiority in this area.

With no dialogue, the charmingly-drawn film tells the tale of Madame Souza, a little, old lady raising her grandson. Champion is a rather depressed boy, presumably due to losing his parents. Even a puppy doesn't draw him out of his ennui; it just gives him a companion to lay around and mope with. Then Souza notices that Champion has an interest in bicycle racing. When a tricycle shows up at the house, Champion is transformed, like a switch has been turned on.

Fast forward several years, and Champion is an avid cyclist. With Souza as his trainer, he relentlessly rides the hilly, brick streets of Paris in preparation for the big race, the Tour de France. During the race, however, Champion is kidnapped by French gangsters, who cart him across the ocean. There, the gangsters force him to race on a stationary bike in a bizarre, gambling racket.

Souza and the dog follow Champion and his captors across the waters and into the city of Belleville, where they meet a trio of eccentric old women, once famous as the jazz-singing group, The Triplets of Belleville. The triplets take Souza in and wind up helping her in her quest to rescue her grandson.

It's impossible to describe how delightful “The Triplets of Belleville” is. Sometimes it's a little hard to understand what is going on, and some of the jokes develop slowly, so you have to just be patient and go with it. The music, the crazy animation, the charming characters, and the story conspire to richly reward multiple viewings of this film.

The film is hilarious, but by the end, you also feel that you have seen something meaningful. Unspoken in the film is the suggestion that Champion's parents are dead, which means that Mme. Souza has lost a son or daughter. Champion, as a boy, mopes around, while his grandmother gets on with life. Even the adult Champion, who has devoted himself to cycling, still seems rather depressive. He seems to sleepwalk (sleep-ride?) through his life, and as a a result he almost has his life taken from him. Mme. Souza, an old lady with an orthopedic shoe, is constantly on the go, finding solutions to problems and finding the joy in life. The Triplets, too, long past their heyday and living in a slum, are making the best of what they have and enjoying each day. These tropes are cliché because they are important. We hope, in the end, that Champion takes a lesson from these old ladies whom he is so lucky to have in his life.

5 stars out of 5

Monday, March 05, 2018

Aliens (1986) ****

I never thought I would say this, but I actually like a James Cameron movie better than a Ridley Scott movie. Scott is the fabled director of top-notch sci-fi from “Blade Runner” to “The Martian.” He directed 1979's “Alien”, which is widely lauded as a classic itself, but upon re-watching it recently, I found it wasn't all that great. The 1986 sequel, “Aliens”, was directed by James Cameron, famous for big-budget, soulless blockbusters like “Titanic” and “Avatar.” So, “Aliens” is a sequel, and it's directed by a guy more known for putting asses in theater seats than for artistic cred. By all rights, it should not be the better movie, but I'm here to say that it is.

At the end of “Alien”, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) put herself into cryosleep in her shuttle after just barely defeating the alien monster. “Aliens” picks up with her shuttle being discovered years later, drifting through space. She is awakened and tells her story to representatives of The Company, who are naturally skeptical of her tale of an insatiable killing machine with acid for blood. They point out that in the years since Ripley went to sleep, the planet on which she and her crewmates found the alien has been colonized, and no one has reported any giant, killer bugs.

Ripley gets a job operating a robotic forklift, and settles down to a shabby, quiet life with her cat. Then Burke, a company rep (Paul Reiser), shows up to tell her that communication with that colony on Ripley's alien planet has been lost. Burke wants Ripley to come along with him and a bunch of space marines to see if it has anything to do with the killer bugs. As you can guess --- it does!

Where the original “Alien” was full of plot holes and nonsensical character choices, “Aliens” is a tightly-crafted thriller, well-paced, and internally consistent. Sigourney Weaver, the bright spot in “Alien”, continues to shine as one bad-ass heroine, exuding maternal instinct as she protects a colonist child named Newt. Paul Reiser is appropriately morally shifty as the Company Rep, and Bill Paxton is hilarious as the pessimistic marine, Hudson. Lance Henriksen, in particular, shines as Bishop, the ship's android.

More importantly, the screenwriting is way better than in “Alien.” The plot doesn't depend on characters making stupid, inexplicable choices. They sometimes lose their cool, but you would, too, if the walls suddenly came alive with giant, killer bugs! Even the seemingly ridiculous coincidence of the colony being attacked the same year that Ripley is rescued eventually makes perfect sense.

Some critics write “Aliens” off as a shoot-em-up action flick, but that clearly isn't fair. The first shots aren't even fired until something like an hour into the movie. When the shooting does start, the marines quickly get their asses handed to them, their weapons all but useless in the face of an unfamiliar threat. Some suggest that the film is a comment on the Vietnam War, at that time the best example of the limits of superior firepower in the face of an enemy fighting on its own turf. The film takes its time setting up the characters, including the overconfident marines, the inexperienced lieutenant, and Ripley, who approaches the mission with dread.

Ultimately, “Aliens” does devolve into shooting, explosions, and awesome hand-to-hand fighting. It IS an action flick, after all, but it's one of the great ones!

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Alien (1979) ***

I know this is sacrilege, but I have some problems with the movie “Alien”. I hadn't watched it in years, and I remembered it as an absolute classic. RE-watching it now, though, there are some issues. While the movie still shines for its sets and cinematography, the plot and characters leave something to be desired.

Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, First Mate on a spaceship that is headed home to earth when it gets sidetracked by an automated radio signal. The crew assume it's a distress signal, but Ripley eventually decodes enough of it to figure out it is some kind of warning. It's too late for a warning, though. One of the crew members who went to investigate has been attacked by some kind of alien creature, which has attached itself to his face. They bring the injured crewman back to the ship, where the alien eventually menaces the entire crew.

Out of respect for the 2 people in the entire Free World who haven't seen the film, I will try not to spoil all the surprises. What surprised ME, watching it now in 2018, is how poorly the film has aged. It isn't even really science-fiction. “Alien” is straight up horror, with the typical jump-scares and asinine, wandering-off-alone behavior on the part of the characters that typifies the worst of the genre.

Characters in “Alien” don't do things because they make sense in the context of the story; they do them because the plot demands it. Thus, Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer, lets the landing party, including the guy with the alien on his face, back into the ship without any kind of quarantine or protective measures. They repeatedly enter the infirmary to examine him with no masks or gloves. When the alien falls off his face and he seems to be alright, they don't keep him in the infirmary for observation; they invite him to a meal in the chow hall. This sets up an iconic scene, but it makes no sense. Later, when the suddenly-massive creature is hunting the crew, they repeatedly do the stupidest things possible, the space equivalent of “going down into the basement.”

To be fair, “Alien” is still fun to watch, and scary as hell. It just doesn't qualify as a classic when I compare it to films that came before, like 1975's “Jaws”, or what came after, like 1982's "The Thing". The movie does get credit for introducing a fascinating, new monster and a new hero (Ripley), setting up what I consider to be a superior movie, 1986's “Aliens.”

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Logan (2017) ****

I had read that the Wolverine spinoff movies from the X-Men universe, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Wolverine” weren't very good, so I haven't seen them. Then “Logan” came along and started getting great reviews. I was pleased at the excuse to watch it, because, really, who doesn't like Wolverine? Turns out the reviews were right. “Logan” is excellent. It's also the most atypical comic book movie I've ever seen.

The story picks up in 2029, a near-future in which mutations have stopped happening, and almost all of the existing mutants have died off. Wolverine, aka Logan (Hugh Jackman), is a physical and mental wreck, arthritic and alcoholic. He survives as a limo driver, and secretly has an aged, demented Professor Xavier hidden away down in Mexico. Logan and an albino, photophobic mutant named Caliban care for Xavier, whose condition is even more heartbreaking than Logan's. Xavier often fails to recognize Logan and is wracked by epileptic seizures during which his psychic powers radiate out uncontrollably. We eventually learn that the first of these seizures killed several civilians and most of the remaining mutants in New York, which is why Logan keeps the Professor out in the middle of nowhere.

It has been years since any mutants were born, or so everyone thinks. Xavier, as befuddled as he is, has made telepathic contact with a child mutant who has a lot in common with Logan. Reluctantly, Logan is drawn into an effort to help this little girl and get her somewhere safe.

“Logan” is the grittiest, saddest, and most real comic-book movie I have ever seen. Logan, the aging warrior, no longer seems the least bit invincible. Based on his fast-healing genetics, Logan seemed potentially immortal, but we see that that is not the case. It took him longer to age, but age he did, and now he faces the fight of his life, with a body that he doesn't recognize. Xavier, of course, is in even worse shape, which puts the remarkable Logan in a very unremarkable position: dealing with his own loss of health while caring for a decrepit parental figure. This is sober stuff for a comic-book movie. It takes the concept of depicting superheroes as real people to a whole new level.

The fight scenes are better, too. Most superhero fights look like carefully choreographed martial-arts katas, and with the outcome never in doubt, the spectacle just becomes numbing. Wolverine is still a badass, but when he fights in “Logan”, it looks real and it looks like he could lose.

“Logan” isn't perfect. The plot is fairly thin, and the story only obliquely explains how the characters wound up in this disorienting, mutant-free world. Still, it's a step or two above the usual comic-book film, and in its depiction of a broken-down warrior, it reminds me of John Wayne's epic final film, "The Shootist".

In depicting a post-X-men future, the film begs the question of whether any of that superhero stuff was worth it, a similar theme to that of 2009's "Watchmen". While the film doesn't tackle this head-on, there is some deep, existentialist food for thought here. The X-men formed, they fought evil, and now they are gone and evil still exists. Perhaps Wolverine, who starts the film wondering what the point is, comes to learn that victory lies not in defeating evil, but in fighting it.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Big Sick (2017) ****

Kumail Nanjiani is best known for his work on the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley.” He and his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon have created this movie about how they got together, and it's surprisingly good. There is some fictionalization of the story, so I'll describe it as the movie presents it.

Kumail meets Emily at one of his stand-up comedy shows. They hook up and become a couple, but eventually break up when Emily learns that Kumail has been hiding her from his parents, who want him to marry a Pakistani girl. Soon afterwards, Emily becomes ill, and Kumail winds up keeping vigil with his ex-girlfriend’s parents for days on end while she is in a medically-induced coma.

Sounds like a blast, right? Well, believe it or not, it is! Despite the seemingly dark subject, “The Big Sick” is hilarious and fun to watch. It helps that you know that the real Emily survived to become Kumail's wife and co-writer. It also helps that the film has a crackin' cast, including Zoe Kazan as Emily, and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents. Hunter and Romano especially light up the screen. We get treated to some of Kumail's standup work, but the funniest line in the movie is a joke about 9/11.

Despite featuring stars like Romano and Hunter, “The Big Sick” has an amateur feel to it, which actually works for the film. The movie somehow manages your expectations and then exceeds them, which I attribute to the charm of Nanjiani and Kazan. It's the perfect date movie, and one of the best films of 2017.

4 stars out of 5