Saturday, March 11, 2017

Review: "Frantz"

Director: Francois Ozon
Runtime: 113 minutes
At around the 50 minute mark, Francois Ozon pulls back the curtain on the big question lingering over his latest movie. It’s skillfully handled and beautifully acted, but then you realize that there’s still an hour left. What on earth can fill up that much time? Based on Ozon’s track record, anything is on the table. The remainder of Frantz, his latest endeavor, could meander and overstay its welcome. Or, just maybe, it has something else up its sleeve to justify laying its cards on the table so early. For those who have followed the director through his ups and downs, you can breathe easy. This time he’s not only sustained his narrative momentum, but actually built one of the most carefully layered stories of his career.
Ozon’s gift and curse has always been his efficiency. Like Woody Allen, he shoots quickly and hops from one project to the next. And, like Allen, this is not always a good thing. Ozon’s prolific nature means there are plenty of entries in his filmography that, while not bad, nevertheless feel half-baked. His previous effort, 2015’s The New Girlfriend, certainly suffered from his own speediness. As did 2014’s Young & Beautiful, which had its strengths (most notably its conclusion), but still felt a bit like a sketch, rather than a fully-realized idea.
But when Ozon really puts his mind to it, his efficiency can yield powerful dividends, as is the case with Frantz. In the tradition of Swimming PoolUnder the Sand, and 2013’s In the House (his most recent full-blown triumph), Frantz showcases the writer/director’s gifts working at full power. Ozon’s own restlessness, after a few cycles of disappointments, has once again manifested in the form of crisp, surprising storytelling anchored by intelligently chosen backdrops designed to enhance and inform the spare drama on screen.
Set in the the almost immediate aftermath of World War I, Frantz opens not in France, but in a rural village in Germany. There we meet Anna (luminous newcomer Paula Beer), a young woman mourning the death of her fiance (the titular Frantz), while doing her best to maintain a normal life among her would-be in-laws. Then one day she finds flowers on Frantz’s grave from an unknown mourner. Mere hours later, she meets the man responsible: a young Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney, adorned with a toned-down Dali moustache). Anna’s father-in-law to be (Ernst Stotzner) is initially abhorred by the Frenchman’s presence (in his mind, any and all French men are guilty of his son’s death), but Anna and her mother in law (Marie Gruber) are more receptive.

Ozon introduces Adrien so quickly that it’s almost a shock he waits until 50 minutes or so before the big revelation. Yet all throughout there are both clues and red herrings, rendered with great subtlety through both the dextrous script and intuitive performances. Even before we grasp the extent of what’s going on, the nimble movements on the actors’ faces speak volumes. Said volumes only increase in meaning in retrospect, when the full weight of the story reveals itself.
One can easily make the argument that Ozon is France’s answer to Pedro Almodovar, and it shows here, albeit with less florid execution. Shot mostly in crisp black and white (calling to mind The White Ribbon), there are times when the secrets and half-truths of Frantz seems like they might collapse in a heap of melodrama. But, delicate as the set up may be, Ozon uncharacteristically maintains his balance the whole way through. There are no odd diversions or subplots. The more traditional mystery gives way to a deeper, richer examination of grief and perception, all plotted with an efficiency that miraculously never undercuts the emotional depth of the story.
With its big twist planted squarely in the middle, Frantz risks coming off as two separate stories vying for attention. But Ozon’s playfulness with structure continuously reveals itself to be a tremendous boon. The two halves of Frantz clever play off of each other, with the latter functioning as an inversion of the former. And in the second half, Ozon avoids mere repetition, and instead deepens both his characters and their existential quandaries. Ozon refrains from directorial theatrics, focusing instead on simply telling a story full of movement with exceptional control.
Aside from one character’s change of heart in the first 20 minutes, everything in Frantz flows together authentically. These are ordinary scenes in the hands of a gifted storyteller with the skills to bring out the extraordinariness lying just under the surface. So often with Ozon’s work, the lack of immediate passion in one’s response signals that a viewer is shrugging off a well-crafted yet hollow provocation. Here, however, the delayed response is only a tease, with the real treat lying in revisiting and replaying the conversations that oh-so-delicately prop up this sumptuous exercise in melodramatic classicism.
Grade: A-
Frantz opens in NY and LA on March 15, 2017.

Review: "Logan"

Director: James Mangold
Runtime: 135 minutes
In Hugh Jackman’s 17-year tenure as Wolverine we have had two Batmans, two Supermans, two Hulks, two James Bonds (the most recent of whom is soon to be done), and now three Spider-Mans. Even Jackman’s co-leads in the X-Men films like Patrick Stewart and Halle Berry have seen other actors play their younger selves. In that span, superhero movies dug themselves out of their graves and burst forth as key priority for the major studios. Before X-Men‘s release in 2000, a sequel (let alone a franchise) was anything but assured. Now, we have interlocking stories being planned and scheduled through the start of the next decade. With all of those seismic shifts, the end of Jackman’s time in his star-making role is momentous in its own way. The character will always outlive the actor, even if that actor is how most envision said character.
The very good news, however, is that this swan song for the Australian actor corrects the mistakes of past X-Men films, while also building on the promise of a previous installment. After the enjoyable but run-of-the-mill X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the next film in the franchise was a prequel centered on Wolverine’s origins. It came out in 2009, and it was a bit of a mess. Redemption followed with 2013, when James Mangold (Walk the Line, the 2007 3:10 to Yuma remake) helmed The Wolverine, chronicling the clawed mutants exploits in Japan. But The Wolverine‘s success came with an asterisk: it was a big step in the right direction in many way….until the third act, which went heavy on cartoony effects at odds with what came before.
Yet ultimately The Wolverine did enough to pave the way for Logan, so we owe it that much. With Mangold back in the director’s chair, and the freedom of an R-rating, the third time really is the charm for the cigar-chomping anti-hero. It is a Wolverine story that has its own look, its own feel, and despite references to events in other movies, enough narrative confidence to stand on its own.
Opening in 2029, we first meet Logan sleeping in his car, drunk out of his mind. His hair is greying, and his body, though still imposing, looks worn. The character used to be able to heal from nearly all injuries, and now he looks like a man on his last legs. In a world where most mutants have been eradicated (and no new ones have been born), the likes of Logan and Prof. X (Patrick Stewart, also bowing out of the franchise) are relics. They live modest lives, hidden away from general society. No coordinated costumes, no fancy lairs, no custom jets.

Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman

And then along comes a One Last Job opportunity, which our hero reluctantly takes just for the money. At first. The task is to escort a young, “gifted” girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) from the Texas/Mexico up to North Dakota. Naturally, there are obstacles, including a scheming scientist (Richard E. Grant) and a mercenary with a robotic arm (Gone Girl‘s Boyd Holbrook). At its heart, Logan is a Western-tinged road movie, albeit one with a stray few sci-fi elements.
But its also a movie that generally takes as much care with its interpersonal scenes as it does with its carnage. The characters are often on the move, but it’s rare that Mangold’s storytelling feel rushed. This is heightened by the surprising plot structure, which builds to a major moment that could serve as an ending, only to launch immediately into that story’s sequel. But it doesn’t feel jumbled or inelegant. Mangold is in his element here, crafting a story that has its share of action (a vehicular chase is the standout of the first half), but isn’t afraid to throw in the occasional long stretch of quietude.
It’s easy to sneer at idea of a script being a valuable component of a superhero blockbuster, but a good deal of credit belongs to the foundation Mangold and his two co-writers set. Logan takes into account the past stories of the X-Men, while also demythologizing them. In the film’s world, a comic series about the mutants exists, and one key scene involves Logan telling Laura that most of what’s on those brightly-colored panels is bullshit.
But even if the mutant exploits have been exaggerated, they stem from a shred of truth, even if it’s a truth that Logan would rather avoid: he has gifts that he (and others) can use to help the defenseless. That rediscovery is crucial to the character’s development. It’s certainly been done before (perhaps one too many times), but in Logan the arc comes across as a genuine priority, rather than an obligation.
This is never more clear than when looking at the work from the cast. No one’s here to just fool around, pose, and collect a paycheck. The central trio of performances (Jackman, Stewart, Keen) are excellent and unexpectedly moving. For the two gentlemen who have been with these characters from the outset, it’s a chance to bid farewell to a role (and the audience that came with it) with conviction. Wolverine/Logan in his normal state can be one-note. But this figure, who shows actual signs of wear and tear, allows Jackman the chance to put some emotional weight behind the gruff exterior. That the villains are a bit pedestrian ends up not mattering much. The more frightening enemy is the ravages of time, making themselves felt on a character who spent over a century never fearing them. Who knows, maybe Cormac McCarthy ghost wrote a draft of the script.
Logan is undoubtedly striving to be something “adult” and “grounded,” and it succeeds because when it has a chance to go big, it subverts expectations and goes small. Even when Logan goes into full, R-rated berserker mode, it doesn’t last forever or totally save the day. This is a superhero movie with limitations and consequences (many of them involving dismemberment).
The violence and the special effects are there, but they are always in service of a story where violence continuously bequeaths violence, and takes no prisoners (including children) along the way. It is solemn, but with a few flickers of levity to prevent portentousness. There are references to cinematic influences both subtle and overt (at one point several characters watch Shane on TV), but the tributes have been assembled to tell a story that uses familiar settings and tropes to create a tale with its own identity.
Will Logan/Wolverine rise to fight another day, with another face? Almost certainly. With iconic characters like Superman or James Bond, certain faces stick with roles more than others. But new casting does allow for variations on how a noteworthy role is portrayed (contrast Connery’s suaveness with Daniel Craig’s Bourne-like grit) can reflect changes. Few, however, have played a character through so many stylistic evolutions and remained a constant. So, to the person tasked with filling the shoes with nearly 2 decades of work from Jackman, I can only say: good luck; you’ll need it.

Grade: B+/A-