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Baby Driver

A red subaru pulls up to a city bank.  A thumb starts a song on an ipod (not an iphone or an ipod touch mind you, we’re talking 5th generation, with a tiny screen and a click wheel — oh yeah!).  “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion fades on over the monotone ringing that carries over from the opening logos.  Three people leave the car and walk into the bank with masks on.  The driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort) stays.  For about 3 minutes, we see no action, just baby jamming out in the car.  He mimes singing with a water bottle as a mic and makes record scratching sounds with windsheld wipers.  When the song hits its break, we see the robbers coming back to the car. Baby shifts gears; he revs the engine; as the song builds, we wait for him to start the car, practically leaping with urgency.

The vehicle shoots…backwards? Baby spins it around though, and shoots through a car chase like you have never seen.  With the entire sequence choreographed beat for beat to the music, this is not a conventional chase where the cops give pursuit until the escapees escape.  There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the robbers will get away; rather, the thrill of this sequence is that of seeing a martial arts master deftly dispatch a group of clueless opponents.  This is almost more of a dance number than a car chase: a piston pumping disco, a ballet with a gearshift.

Edgar Wright is a director who has been around since the early 2000s and has attracted a devoted following.  I am not one of those people, and this was the first Edgar Wright movie I’ve seen, but I was very impressed by his unique way of looking at a crime movie. Though it is jarringly violent and sometimes extremely vulgar, it posseses a joyous quality that yearns, like the protaganist, to be free of all that.

As aforementioned, Baby Driver is a psudeo-musical, with nearly every second of the film accompanied by a very intentionally curated soundtrack.  Though similar in concept to Guardians of the Galaxy,  Wright uses the soundtrack not as an ironic or grounding force for the film, but as a base for every scene.  I’m told that the script was written with the songs already in mind and that they were played during shooting, which explains the excellent flow of the editing.  Though the plot may be branded sparse by some, it strings its events together just well enough to give us things like a gunfight scene set entirely to the song “Tequila”.

Seeing this movie definitely delivers a distinct feeling of exhilaration; the excellent sound design and quick-cut editing make you feel like you are actually in whatever danger the characters are, but its all thrills because of the constant music.  This movie is loud and in your face, sometimes (especially in the finale) alarming.  It makes me wonder if the aura of this movie might be akin to what theater audiences in France felt 121 years ago when they leapt out of their seats in fear of the train rushing toward them. I can’t know for for sure what they felt, but I know this much: it’s a good era to be a fan of movies.

Spider-Man Homecoming

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Spider-Man Homecoming’s existence is a bit of a miracle.  Set within Marvel’s cinematic universe, but produced by Sony, its nature is that of a laughable infrequency in today’s world of risk-free movie making.  It is a completely baffling notion that a studio would dare make a movie for the profit of another, but it all makes sense nonetheless, if one considers that Tom Holland’s iteration of the character from Civil War in 2016 is probably the best version of the character to date.  For one thing, he is believable as a teenager, his voice has a certain squeak to it, and he plays the part of someone who thinks he is mature enough to handle anything, but absolutely isn’t.

The world of Spider-Man is actually the most engaging thing about the film.  Action is fun, but there is an infectious vibe to just seeing Peter going about his everyday routine.  Dogging his way through classes, and bantering with the storekeeper of a New York deli before sneaking into an alley and changing into his suit to become his alter ego. Homecoming is, by the way, probably one of the first movies I’ve seen in a while that realizes that high school climate has in fact changed since 1995.  Peter’s existence as the stereotypical nerd is sort of downplayed in favor of a general shyness that is much more effective in portraying him as an underdog, and Flash Thompson is less of a “Jock” than  just a competitive jerky person.

Most relieving of all, to my memory, the words “With Great Power Comes Great responsibility” are not spoken once throughout the whole movie, nor is Uncle Ben mentioned at all.  This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the original origin story and signifigance of that line, but I did see it in a theater five years ago, and it would have taken a lot out of this film’s enjoyability were it to echo this thematically.  Responsibility is still important to the story’s moral however.  This time around Peter is eager to do good, and he possesses a youthful passion for heroism that is admirable but ends up causing a lot of trouble.  The lesson that must be learned here is not to throw oneself at every problem there is, but to realize one’s own limits.  At the same time, he learns to trust in himself, and his inner abilities.

Although the film’s action is not used as a crutch, it is phenomenal nonetheless.  It is a credit to director Jon Watts, and cinematographer Salvatore Totino that, after seeing blockbuster superhero flicks steadily for about ten years now, this film creates a fresh sense of dread and fear.  When Spider-Man climbs to the top of the Washington Monument, and the camera looks down with a pov shot at a 555 foot fall, It is completely understandable is you feel some butterflies in your stomach.  The villain, played by Michael Keaton creates a different sense of dread when in action; with his haphazardly pieced together metallic suit, and slightly demonic appearance it feels like Parker is in actual danger, like he really could lose.  Granted, Vulture is no less dangerous than any MCU villian of the past, but from Peter’s point of view, he is terrifying.  Its this type of on-the-ropes, barely-hanging-on variety of action that marvel hasn’t shown us since The Winter Soldier that sets this film apart, and makes us feel the way Peter does; as if we were the ones fighting for our lives.

Speaking of Keaton’s vulture, he may also be the most complex villain ever to grace the frames of an MCU production.  Definitely the most relatable.  He is simply a scavenger, trying to make money to support his family and his crew, who he believes have been disenfranchised by Tony Stark and his capitalist influence.  In a weird twisted way he sees himself as something of a working class hero, and Homecoming‘s real triumph is that we catch a glimpse of a reality where that is actually true.

Last month’s Wonder Woman was an undisputed smash hit, both critically and financially.  Many viewers, myself included, were absolutely blown away by the film.  Some even testified to being moved to tears.  I can honestly say, nearly without a doubt, that Spider-Man Homecoming will not make you cry, but then it isn’t really trying to.  Spider-Man (2002) ends with a funeral.  The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) ends with another funeral.  Spider-Man: Homecoming ends with a joke and a Ramones song in the credits.  The change of pace could not be more welcome.

Wonder Woman

I’ve seen Wonder Woman for the second time now.  The first was on release day, and the second was a week later.  I fully intended to see The Mummy, but at the last minute, I choked;  I just couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t justify spending sixteen dollars on a ticket for a movie that could be — for all I knew — amazing, but had the potential to be anything but.  (At the time of my publishing this, it has become clear that the latter is the case.)  Watching a movie that was not as good as Wonder Woman, while this perfectly synthesised historical fantasy epic was playing in a room a mere hundred feet to my right, was simply something I could not stomach.

Wonder Woman, prior to its release, had a labor of Sisyphean proportions to complete.  The poorly received Batman Vs. Superman and Suicide Squad left a lot to be desired in terms of movie quality, although I must confess, I enjoyed both films immensely.  Nonetheless, I recognized the need for some critical acclaim, and for the universe to be taken seriously.  I don’t actually mind morose, brooding heroes, but for the time being, they had to go.

The Amazons

Thankfully, Wonder Woman delivers on all fronts, with perfect amounts of action and organic humor, but also a story that is an entity of its own.  Wonder Woman is merrily free of any universal setup.  I remember the days when I sat through a full fifteen minutes of credits to see a thirty-second clip at the end of Captain America, but this time around, I rejoiced at the absence of anything other than names rolling up a screen.  Really the closest we get to any hint of an interconnected universe is a Wayne Enterprises truck, and an email sent to Bruce himself.

Wonder Woman features an excellent cast of Chris Pine, Gal Gadot, Robin Wright, and David Thewlis, all of whom perform to levels of immaculate perfection, Gadot and Pine especially.   Pine’s character, Steve Trevor, is the perfect foil to Gadot’s naive and sheltered warrior of peace.  He reacts to her absurdities not with disbelief or wide-eyed wonder, but with a calm acceptance.  When she imparts the story of her creation to him — “I was sculpted from clay and brought to life by Zeus,” — he simply answers, “Well that’s neat”.

Chris Pine in Wonder Woman

I was extremely relieved that Trevor was not written to be a bumbling buffoon, fawning over Diana and balking in need of her protection.  He is her equal; she just happens to be the hero of the story.  This phenomenon really speaks to the philosophy at the core of this movie.  Director Patty Jenkins has not given us a case for why women should have prominent roles in movies, or a vehicle of revenge on Hollywood for years of second-rate female characterisation.  It simply goes about its business as if movies with strong female characters are the norm; the way these things ought to be.

For all the celebration of Zack Snyder’s lack of major involvement in the direction of Wonder Woman, Jenkins does rip out a considerably large page from his book in her shooting of the action scenes.  With liberal use of slow motion and integrated CGI, Jenkins asks us to sit in awe of the feats of legend happening all around.  Every flip Diana executes, every toss of an Amazon’s dagger, and each beautiful explosion is rendered in exquisite detail.  We see wide takes of most of the action sequences; the days of Chris Nolan’s quick-cutting shaky cam fights are all but forgotten here.

The landscapes and palette of Wonder Woman are also beautiful.  The bright colors of Themiscrya clash perfectly with the muted industrial London landscape, and the smoky battleground of the German front.  The sandy beaches and shimmering water emphasize the divide between Diana and the world of humankind, which is characterized by death and muddy trenches.

The team assembled for the movie’s mission is a compelling one.  There are of course, Steve and Diana, the former the team’s official leader, and the latter the de facto one.  There is the team’s tracker, known only as the Chief, and Sameer, a master of disguise, who’s true passion is as an actor.  Finally, there is Charlie, a marksman who really never shoots.  His arc is an incomplete, but fascinating one.  One night after a battle, we see him singing and playing the piano.  The people of the village begin dancing, Diana and Steve included.  This is a sweet reminder of the world that exists when war isn’t happening, and serves to highlight Diana’s true motivation.  She isn’t fighting Germany, although many a soldier seems to be caught on the wrong end of her blade.  She is really fighting against war itself, personified in the film’s antagonist, Ares.

In the film’s midpoint battle sequence, a liberation of an occupied German village, Patty Jenkins deftly showcases Diana’s various strengths and abilities.  She leaps through a stone wall and brutally decimates the ranks of the enemy with sword, shield, and kicks — many many kicks.  The fight moves back to the ground level, and the band of heroes is threatened by an armored tank.  I expected Diana to cleverly breach a chink in the hull’s armor to throw in an explosive, or leap on top to cut through the roof with her sword.  To the amazement of all watching, within the movie and without, she simply leaps over and overturns the behemoth with her bare hands.  Wow.

Throughout the movie, Diana is bent on finding and killing Ares, which she believes will liberate men’s minds, and allow them to stop fighting so the world can be at piece.  She sees general Ludendorff and the power he has as a clear indicator that he is in fact, Ares in human form.  In what feels like the film’s climax, she finally kills him with one dramatic sword thrust.  Nothing happens.

This is the point at which the film does something interesting.  Diana, shocked by the lack of indication that the globe-spanning coflict has ended, is surprised and crestfallen.  Steve Trevor tries to explain that maybe it isn’t Ares, but humanity instead that is the cause of all conflict.  Diana won’t have any of it.  This was a fascinating concept, and still is.  We see the loss of innocence in Gadot’s eyes as she realized that man is not perfect, and that her mission has been a sham all along.  Had the movie ended there, it would have been perfect.  So unconventional and unexpected, this would have been one of the boldest and most creative thing to have been done with a superhero movie.  The film  keeps going; not neccessarily to a bad ending, but to a considerably less thought-provoking one. The film concludes with a half hour action setpiece that, while not really neccessary, is enjoyable nonetheless.

Understand, Wonder Woman isn’t “an important” movie as rallying call of empowerment or any of that nonsense.  It is quite simply a great story of heroism, and though it is empowering, it does not in any way appear to favor either gender.   It is a movie that, in addition to being the DCEU’s best constructed vehicle, is a solid story about valor, sacrifice, and love.  Here’s hoping that the next entries in the franchise live up to this one’s example.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2

How does one begin a sequel to a picture as bombastic and gonzo as the original Guardians of the Galaxy?  An ominous zoom into an exotic planet? A high speed space battle? How about a battle with a monster, shown in the background as Baby Groot wanders along the battlefield to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”.  Now possessing the maturity of, well, a baby, Groot is easily upset, and takes his anger out on various small creatures that happen scamper by.

The crew is defending a special variety of battery that an uptight gold-plated species values immensely.  When Rocket Raccoon half jokingly, half spitefully steals some, the gang finds themselves pursued almost immediately.  This sequence — which begins with some rapid action, and rapid-fire cockpit dialogue, and ends with Drax dangling out the ship’s cargo  bay laughing hysterically at the peril around him — brilliantly informs anyone who hadn’t picked up on the tonal cues already, what this movie is really all about.

The plot of Guardians is rather disconnected, which may be a problem for some, but isn’t really as much of a problem as it seems on paper.  James Gunn proves his mettle as an excellet writer as well as director.  This is the first MCU sequel I can think of that isn’t satisfied by mere rehash of previously posed concepts.  The themes of family, kinship, and aceptance that were so poignantly brought up in the original of the series are brilliantly expanded upon here.  The pirate Yondu, and Rocket Raccoon discover an interesting bond through their similarities; Gamorra and her adopted sister Nebula reconcile years of hatered and learn to love eachother again, and Peter Quill learns that his surrogate family — the other Guardians — is all he’ll ever need.

Easily the most enjoyable aspect of Vol. 2 is its implementation of retro tracks from the ’70s and ’80s.  Gunn never underestimates the power that a shot of characters walking in slow motion to a Fleetwood Mac song can pack.  What’s more, the “Awesome mix-tape” is  not an assembly of vaguely cool sounding songs, added in post-production, but a motley collection of perfectly timed musical set pieces curated by James Gunn himself.  “Seven Nation Army” is a song that is capable of slickly improving virtually any scene ever recorded.  Jay and the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer”  however, feels idiosyncratically linked to the scene where we hear it — an epic prison breakout aided by Yondu’s signature arrow.  The best part of the melodies peppered throughout the film is that the script finds excuses for them to be there.  When Rocket and Yondu escape captivity, they first wire music through the P.A. system.  Who does that?  The Guardians of the Galaxy, that’s who!

And what a glorious ten minutes that breakout scene is.  Rocket, Groot, and Yondu casually stroll through the metal-grated hallways of a ravager starship as Yondu whistles a deadly tune, guiding his arrow through each and every foe.  they walk down a catwalk as bodies fall in droves down the impossibly large chasm below them.  When the trio enters the ship’s control room, the sequence kicks into higher gear.  Writing this today, I really can’t say if the audio fades in louder, or an added backing track makes it fuller, or maybe the experience is just so powerful that my subconscious imagined this increased intensity.  Either way, there is some stellar sound design at play here.  As our heros slam, blast, and impale the various foes from the circular control room, the camera zooms out with a bird’s eye shot, giving us a full view of the ship’s apparent floor plan as Yondu’s deadly arrow paints a dizzying portrait with its crimson trace lines.

Vigorous cinematography and a soundtrack that deserves outside listening (Awesome Mixtape Vol.2 has more or less played on loop in my house for the past five days) are these movies strengths, but its defining attribute is its nonpariel character depth.  This is, from a certain standpoint, Yondu’s movie.  He ended the last volume as something of a sympathetic antagonist, but this is his redeption story,  He and Peter Quill reconcile their differences and grow closer together.  Yondu overcome’s his selfish impulses and becomes a part of something bigger than himself.    When he makes the ultimate sacrifice, saving Quill from suffocation in the process, it is a heartfelt moment; as inspiring as it is saddening.

I love the way Gunn casually infuses space violence with classic rock, but by far the most visually and emotionally beautiful scene is Yondu’s funeral.  Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” accompanies the scene.  As Yondu is cremated his body disintegrates into a cloud of richly colored dust, drifting out into space.  His fellow ravager compatriots blast flares from their ships adding more brilliant tones to the mix.  Right hand man Kraglin lets out a feral cry.  As the song crescendos, the movie reaches a new beauteous level of excellence.  Seemingly free of studio interference,  Guardians Vol. 2 trancends the universe in which it resides; nay, the superhero genre.

 

Watching this movie reminded me of something my great grandfather used to say at the dinner table.  I fondly remember him polishing off a plate of something — chicken parmasean if I recall correctly — and saying “That food has a funny taste to it, I need to have some more so I can figure out what it is.”

I’m beginning to realize, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the food with a funny taste.  Try as we all might, we really can’t put our finger on what it is that makes Guardians so bleeding entertaining.  Is it the way the characters shrug off and crack wise at deadly combat, but get teary eyed when familial conflict rears its head?  Is it the fact that James Gunn appears to have been given an absurd amount of freedom by Kevin Feige Co.? (Seriously, there’s not a single infinity stone in the whole movie).  Maybe its the simple fact that Gunn’s style is so retrospectively groundbreaking.  Either way, we need more.  Not just in the MCU, but cinema in general.  We need movies that can deliver a solid story, solid action, and deep character development, without taking itself too seriously.

The trudge to Infinity War marches on.  Its been fascinating to see the pieces fall into place for some nine years or so, but part of me grows weary of it.  In addition, nobody seems to be wondering what in the world will the public watch after the mother of all climaxes?  After the entire known superhero world bands together to fight the Mad Titan Thanos, what can possibly be entertaining?  Answer: Guardians of the Galaxy…Guardians of the frickin’ galaxy.

Moana

Nominated for several awards, among them Best Song, and Best Animated Picture, and winner of the “Best movie for adults that don’t want to grow up” award (I hadn’t heard of it either), Moana has received an unusual amount of critical acclaim, especially for what it is, and how it was marketed.  It is however, a very well made film.

Moana follows the story of the titular character, a young heiress to a Polynesian island chiefdom who, from a young age has felt a calling to the water.  Unfortunately, she lives in a tribe that lives by strict rules forbidding water travel.  Spurred on by her spiritually minded grandmother, but held back by her well-meaning but overprotective father, she is torn by what she sees as her duty to her people, and what she feels in her heart.  When the island’s food supplies begin to dwindle, she decides to venture out and search for Maui, a Demigod who is said to be able to find a special stone, that is the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess who brought prosperity to the islanders.

One thing that Moana does well is its portrayal of the relationship between Moana and her parents.  They are not stifling, nor do they tear her down necessarily.  They only want to keep her safe, and teach her the importance of serving her people, which she ultimately learns as her quest progresses.

Moana does have a lot going for it.  The movie also offers a decent dose of comedy, an impaired chicken — voiced by Alan Tudyk of all people — being the butt of a good many jokes.  The music is a soundtrack to be reckoned with; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning anthem “How Far I’ll Go” , promising to be stuck in your head long after the credits role.

With all that said, there is a certain contrived quality to some parts of Moana.  Disney is most definitely cashing in on female empowerment, and while its inspirational message is in itself an important one, some parts of it still feel a bit inorganic.  Honest Trailers said it best, dubbing How Far I’ll Go, “The Let It Go Song”.  Nonetheless, Moana is certainly an enjoyable viewing experience, and a masterfully constructed movie that will entertain, even if it doesn’t necessarily break new ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lego Batman

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Following the success of The Lego Movie, and preceding the release of The Lego NInjago Movie, The Lego Batman Movie is a absolute laugh train from start to finish.  When Batman begins commenting on the movie’s different opening logos, you know you’re in for a fun ride.  The opening sequence is hilarious to say the least, spoofing batman’s existence as a superhero, and cleverly mocking the narcisism behind dressing up like a bat to beat up thugs at night.

The most clever thing about Lego Batman is the way it pokes fun at the duality between Batman and The Joker.  They complete one annother, each a ying to his opponent’s yang.  When Batman declares that he doesn’t need Joker, it sends the clown prince of crime rushing into a quest to prove otherwise.  Speaking of Joker, Zach Galifanakis rendition felt a bit uncharacteristic.  And the writing didn’t help.  He worked fine as a simple storytelling device, but Joker is a character almost as iconic as Batman himself.  Disregarding this, the script rarel makes him the subject of any humor, which I found odd given that Batman’s very nature made for some excellent humor throughout the movie.

However, the movie is exceptionally well done in all other respects, from animation to an epic finale that includes a whole gaggle of classic movie villians, including Voldemort, Sauron, and Agent Smith from The Matrix.  The movie is enjoyable to watch, both as a heartwarming story of a man conquering his fear of being in a family, and as a genre satire, that cleverly mocks Batman, and superhero movies in general.

 

Logan

The following review will likely be filled to the brim with spoilers.  If you are looking for validation of already excellent reviews, or a recommendation, suffice it to say that Logan is a modern masterpiece.  It is a must see for any cinephile, or lover of comics (of age…this is a rough one).

From the beginning, it was clear that Logan was different.  Beside’s its R rating, its first trailer had a much darker tone, but seemed hopeful at the same time.  In the same frame of time, we saw wolverine shish-kebabing a baddie, and holding the hand of a young girl.  I was hooked.  I’ve always been fascinated by Wolverine’s capacity for nurture.  Despite his hard exterior, he played mentor to x-women Kitty Pryde, and Jubilee.

The movie begins near the Texas-Mexico border, with some thugs trying to boost the rims off of Logan’s limo.  He beats them off, as expected, but struggles to do it; later we see him struggling to push the bullets out of their wounds, which anyone who saw Days of Future Past will recall as a fairly easy task back in 1973.  It is easy to let Logan’s healing factor define him, especially for followers of the comics, but the movie does a great job of adding perceived danger, through the continual slowing of his healing.  The average gunshot wound won’t kill him, but it’ll put him out of action for a few seconds, a few seconds he may not have.

The action in Logan is more serious as a result.  I don’t think I’ve seen combat in any movie that made me so uneasy.  Superheroes these days are more or less invulnerable, and its a powerful statement to see a man who is supposed to be inherently impossible to kill struggling at the thing he does best.  There are a couple moments when the movie seems a little too excited to finally be free to show all the blood it wants, but the more intense scenes are rather sparsely distributed, and that’s a good thing.  Logan doesn’t use them as a crutch, but rather as a supplement to the story.

Jackman’s, Stewart’s and Keen’s acting are all superb as well.  Professor X is fascinating this time around as a version of his character gone senile, and unable to control his powerful psychic abilities.  He routinely undergoes episodes of outputting paralyzing brainwaves, that continue until he is given an injection of something to sedate his abilities.  He isn’t all there, but he has moments of surprising clarity, as he is still able to impart upon Logan, wisdom, just as he did all those years ago.  After having dinner with a normal family, he explains that “this is what life is”, and that it is what Logan is missing.

Dafne Keen does an excellent job in this movie.  I was initially uneasy about the prospect of a child actor maintaining an equal role to the likes of Hugh Jackman, but she more than holds her own.  It is not until about an hour and a half into the picture that she speaks for the first time, but her emotions, and motivations are perfectly conveyed from the beginning.  She shows a sense of anger, at everyone she meets, but also the wonder of a neophyte with all of the new experiences she has.  She also has claws on her feet, which is interesting, simply my merit of being different.  Her combat is as wonderful as it is viscous; her primal scream of rage is befitting to a fighting style as brutal as hers.

Wolverine however, begins this story as a shell of his former self.  The apparent extinction of the mutants somehow, has reduced the once strong and virtuous hero, to a bitter, and weak man; driving around in a limo to barely scrape by.  More than just a battle against a robust enemy though, this is a battle for Logan’s soul.  Where he once was a selfless warrior, now he cares only for himself.  Enter X-23, a girl who, while a great fighter, needs his help.  As he helps her, motivated by the money she offers at first, he learns again to put someone else first, and by the film’s finale, he no longer cares about himself, and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect those he loves.  I’m not the type to cheer or clap at the movies, but at about the two minute mark — when mutant children flee evil Transigen gaurds, we hear Logan’s howl, and see him hurtling towards the enemies, the righteous fire within him ignited once again — I desperately wanted to.

We live in an age of cinema that, I think, will be known in 30 years or so as “the golden age of superhero movies” or something to that effect.  Just as in the age of the westerns, I believe that a select few films will be remembered as classics, and the rest cast by the wayside.  Sam Raimi’s Spider Man, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, Joss Whedon’s Avengers, and Captain America Civil War, by the Russo brothers, will likely all be remembered.  Logan, which is not unlike a western itself (James Mangold did direct 3:10 to Yuma) offers up excellent character and emotional development, as well as some satisfactory combat; I think, it will not be forgotten anytime soon.