Friday, March 3, 10 a.m.-ish: I've managed to avoid them for more than seven months, but it's time for yet another quadruple-feature, and this one begins with the comic-book movie Logan. I take that back. It actually begins with a comic-book mini-movie whose title I wouldn't reveal even if it had one, and whose star just might make genre fans wet themselves with happiness. (A crude image, yes, but one not nearly crude enough for this particular anti-hero.) From the employment of John Williams' Superman theme to the unexpected nudity to the climactic image of a blood-soaked alley and a carton of ice cream not going to waste, it's a true beauty of a short-film-slash-coming-attraction, to say nothing of the thus-far-funniest four minutes of the movie year. Enjoy the laughs while you can, Logan viewers – you'll be wincing and jumping and weeping soon enough.
That's not to say that Marvel's latest, which boasts Hugh Jackman's tenth go-around as Wolverine, is completely grim; Jackman, to our good fortune, may be incapable of playing this role without frequent flashes of mordant humor, and director James Mangold provides plenty of comic grace notes, such as Logan ending a convenience-store melee by grabbing a fistful of stogies. But this is still serious stuff. Set in 2029, the road-trip narrative finds Logan/Wolverine and mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) attempting to get a little girl (Dafne Keen's Laura) from Mexico to a mutant safe haven in North Dakota, and it's the rare – only? – franchise entry that's less superhero adventure than neo-Western, and with symbolic snippets from 1953's Shane to prove it. With a sadistic geneticist (Richard E. Grant), his robot-armed crony (Boyd Holbrook, outstanding), and many corpses-to-be in hot pursuit of our heroes and their young charge, the plot is merely serviceable. Its presentation, though, is close to spectacular.
Mangold stages humdinger action sequences – the finest involving a heart-stopping few minutes of intensely slow movement in an Oklahoma City hotel – and the editing, especially when Logan faces off against a fearsome doppelgänger, is first-rate throughout. The film also takes full advantage of its R rating without egregiously overdoing either the violence or the profanity; those adamantium claws – Laura's got 'em, too – do exactly the viscera-spewing damage you imagine they would, and freed from restrictive X-Men manners, Logan drops the F-bomb as often as you always presumed he did. (I didn't, however, expect Professor X to also have quite the potty mouth.) Yet what's most memorable, and startling, about Logan are its deep reserves of legitimate emotion. Jackman's lone wolf has always been the most conflicted and soulful of superheroes, and here, looking like a more unkempt version of Mel Gibson's mug shot, the star routinely out-does himself. He has wrenching exchanges with the marvelous newcomer Keen, who's like a feral version of Stranger Things' Millie Bobby Brown, and the rapport between Jackman and a career-best Stewart is nearly Shakespearean in its tragic grandeur, with Logan playing an unwilling Cordelia to Xavier's decaying Lear. I loved much of Logan: Stephen Merchant as the self-described “glorified truffle pig” Caliban; a frightening highway scene featuring escaped horses and driver-less trucks; Logan's need for reading glasses. But I never adored the movie more than when it grabbed me, claws and all, by the heart, suggesting how great it would be if this was the true future of comic-book franchises, with recongizable behavior and honest pain replacing all those enormous and meaningless vortexes in the sky. 'Nuff said.
12:45 p.m.-ish: There was a sizable crowd for Logan, but it's nothing compared to the jam-packed house for Friday's first screening of The Shack, director Stuart Hazeldine's adaptation of William P. Young's 2007 bestseller. It's pretty easy to see the appeal of the material – a faith-based fantasy in which a grieving father spends a lakeside-cabin weekend with physical embodiments of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And I guess it's easy to see the appeal of the movie, which seemed to give its target demographic all the gentle chuckles and copious tears and Octavia Spencer it could have possibly wanted. (I'm not complaining, mind you, but Spencer was well on her way to becoming the new Morgan Freeman even before she followed in his footsteps by playing God.) Yet as decently produced and touchingly acted as the film is, I can't quite join in my fellow patrons' rapture.
Part of the problem, for me, is that it's just so darned sedate. While Hazeldine's outing opens with beatings and an implied murder not long before another, more sickening murder, the tone remains unremittingly tranquil – even the yelling is sotto voce, and every single sentence uttered at The Shack is preceded by a thoughtful three- to five-second pause that quashes any kind of satisfying rhythm. (The movie runs 132 minutes, and could have shaved off a good 20 if the actors, or the editor, had just tightened up the cues.) Its bigger failings, however, are ones of deflection. When protagonist Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) demands explanations from Spencer's “Papa” regarding earthly horrors, God, I'm sorry to say, passes the buck, essentially claiming responsibility for all the good in the world and none of the evil. When Mack has similar confrontations with Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and the Holy Spirit Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara), they offer vague, New Age-y platitudes without giving Mack anything in the way of concrete answers – or even concrete apologies – he's clearly desperate for. (Why would the heavenly triad even arrange this woodland get-together if they were going to be so coy?) When Mack meets the figure of Wisdom (Alice Braga) and hopes she'll be more forthcoming, the woman turns the tables and accuses Mack of being a closet racist – a charge unsupported by anything we've seen the man say or do. (Arguments aside, he seems wholly untroubled by spending the weekend with the African-American Spencer, the Israeli Alush, the Japanese Matsubara, and the Brazilian Braga). And what of that little bit of presumed patricide at the film's start? You'd think God might want to, you know, acknowledge it at some point, yet the issue is only glancingly addressed, and not by any of the figures who actually have some say in what happens to Mack's soul. The supporting performances, including those of Radha Mitchell as Mack's wife and Tim McGraw as his neighbor, are perfectly pleasant, and if you can ignore the only-occasional Noo Yawk accent he employs for his Oregon native – by no means an easy feat – the charisma-challenged Worthington is certainly more empathetic than he's previously been on-screen. Yet The Shack is still mostly a drain, with none of the personality of the similarly themed Heaven Is for Real or Miracles from Heaven, and I left baffled by both the movie and, especially, Spencer's odd, vocalized endorsement for Neil Young. Grammy-winning musicians thank God all the time. I didn't know God occasionally returned the favor.
3:15-ish: Although I'm unsurprised by the paltry turnout, there are at least a few others joining me for director Jeffrey Blitz's Table 19, and I again find myself wondering who, beyond critics, shows up for mid-afternoon weekday screenings of unheralded, under-marketed indies such as this one. Those who'll follow lead Anna Kendrick no matter what low-budget trifle she finds herself in? Fans whose DVD shelves boast previous titles by screenwriting brothers Jay and Mark Duplass? People who caught Stephen Merchant in Logan earlier in the day and just can't get enough of the guy? It feels rude to ask and so I don't, but considering the talent involved, I'm thinking all three presumed demographics – and plenty of others – would probably find Table 19 a disappointment. Not a bad one, just a bland one.
A kind of shrink-wrapped reprise of Robert Altman's The Wedding, Blitz's and the Duplass' comedy concerns the potentially least-wanted guests at a posh post-nuptial reception, a sextet composed of Kendrick, Merchant, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, June Squibb, and Grand Budapest Hotel lobby boy Tony Revolori. They're a small group, but that's a lot of eclectic comedy styles for one table, and the ensemble seems so random and ill-matched that you can't help but hope for laughs as wonderfully weird as the seating arrangement. Unfortunately, they never arrive. Everyone has a moment or two to shine, with Revolori's virginal-nimrod turn a particularly sweet one, and added smiles are provided by Becky Ann Baker, Andy Daly, and – this being an indie comedy – Margo Martindale, if only in voice. (Wyatt Russell, as Kendrick's former beau, is allowed a few fine moments, too, but spends most of the film looking like he just bit into something sour.) The tone of Blitz's film, though, is nearly impossible to gauge, careening from barely convincing melancholy to overripe slapstick with little regard to the characters' emotional reality. (Kudrow and Robinson appear to be starring in their own Eugene O'Neill one-act until it's time for Robinson to do a pratfall or Kudrow to be mistaken for a maître d'.) And like too many movies of its type, by which I mean the Duplass type, there's a fundamental lack of energy in everything from the readings to the compositions to the soundtrack lousy with sad-bastard acoustic numbers. Can this really be by the same director who won an Emmy for that episode of The Office in which Dwight started that hysterical fire-alarm frenzy and Angela's cat tumbled from the ceiling? The most apt visual metaphor for the whole experience is actually the wedding cake, which, for plot purposes, doesn't feature any message of congratulations or fancy detailing or even colored icing – it's just a cake. Table 19 is just a bummer.
5:15-ish: Sometimes, by the time I reach my fourth quadruple-feature screening, I start to feel like I'm living my own personal Groundhog Day, especially when I'm in Davenport and on my fourth viewing of that obligatory but insanely adorable Cinemark commercial with that sextet of peppy, singing, movie-going pals. (All together now: “No-o-o-o one ca-a-a-an stop / Me when I taste the fee-ee-eelin' …!” Hundreds of viewings later, I'm still not sick of that thing. I especially dig the kid with the gray vest and magenta T-shirt. He's smooth.) But my final feature on Friday, director Ry Russo-Young's Before I Fall, really feels like Groundhog Day, at least if the Bill Murray character were played by Zoey Deutch, and the Andie MacDowell character were played by the Heathers.
Like Harold Ramis' 1993 classic, this more dramatic – well, “dramatic” – take on the eternal-loop conundrum finds Deutch's high-schooler Samantha reliving the same day in endless repetition. But instead of Groundhog Day, it's actually the invented Cupid Day that our heroine is forced to repeat – a day in which Samantha drives to school, preps for a party, goes to the party, and drives home from the party with her three mean-girl friends before a traffic accident starts everything over again. To say that this might be the single least interesting day I ever hoped not to revisit is probably underselling things, and matters certainly aren't helped by the obviousness of Samantha being cosmically punished only until she learns to be nicer to her family and stop throwing beer on the class outcast. Thankfully, though, this irritating and aggressively sentimental teen flick does have a couple of things in its favor. One is the basic premise, because even though Maria Maggenti's script (based on Lauren Oliver's YA novel) is pure formula, there's enough built-in enjoyment in the sci-fi predicament to make the sit an easy one; you can groan at the sameness and still get a kick out of Samantha finally telling her bitchy bestie to go eff herself. And the other asset is Deutch, who continues to be one of the most refreshingly natural performers of her generation, and who, in “bad girl” mode, gets to exude a prickly vivacity that real-life mom Lea Thompson never did in her 1980s heyday. (Considering how much Deutch resembles Thompson in her youth, I really hoped the latter would be cast as Samantha's mother, but Jennifer Beals – speaking of '80s heydays! – is a totally acceptable compromise.) Yet as awesome as Deutch is, she's forced into so much needless, thematically explicit voice-over narration that I started to tire of her long before the film ended, and it was also a bit of a drag seeing her in the first place; after articulating Richard Linklater philosophy in Everybody Wants Some!! and romancing James Franco in Why Him?, Before I Fall feels like a major backward step. One of the film's recurring motifs, and hardly a subtle one, is of Samantha's teacher introducing his class to the Greek myth of Sisyphus. I know that boulder of his was huge, but I'm still not sure the guy had to push a bigger load than the one we're given here.
7:10-ish: Driving home, and thinking about what to make for din- … . No-o-o-o one ca-a-a-an stop / Me when I taste the fee-ee-eelin' … ! Damn it, Cinemark!