Retrospective: Crossroads

I went to bed last night pondering the idea of music as a weapon, and paid for it. In my dreams I was assaulted by guitar-wielding psychopaths whose riffs crushed my will and forced me to sink neck deep into the earth. That’s not what happens in Crossroads (1986) but it’s what happens when you watch it with an overheated imagination like mine. The film is almost unheard of these days, which is too bad. It mixes The Devil and Daniel Webster with Huckleberry Finn, throws in homages from underdog dramas, and finishes on a blistering guitar showdown inspired by the “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. And yet for all the pastiche it still feels original after 30 years; it’s certainly aged better than most films I saw in high school. Watching it last night was rewarding, the subsequent nightmare notwithstanding.

The plot involves a guitar student named Eugene, who attends Juilliard on a scholarship. He’s a prodigy of classical music but wants to play southern blues instead, and so tracks down the legendary harmonica player Willie Brown in a nearby nursing home. The two strike up a curious relationship. Eugene is star-struck, and Brown is a bit of an asshole with a mean temper. He’s openly contemptuous of this New York kid who has the balls to call himself a bluesman, since real bluesmen, as he sees it, come from the Mississippi Delta. But he’s also amused by Eugene’s passion and makes a promise to teach him a lost song written by Robert Johnson, in return for breaking him out of the home. Eugene agrees and they hobo all the way down to Mississippi, having some interesting road encounters. They hook up with a girl who is on the run from abusive parents. They go into segregated bars and get fistfuls of southern racism. It’s an introspective film that seems more ’70s than ’80s, and unassuming in what it tries to accomplish. It has a natural charm that draws you in to the southern blues subculture, even if you don’t like blues music (as I don’t).

Eugene’s tutelage under Brown is one of musical instruction and insulting put-downs in about equal measure; at one point Brown even belts him in the face for giving him lip. On top of that, it turns out that the “lost song” is a lie, and that Brown has just been using Eugene to get back to his old stomping grounds. This shatters the kid, but a friendship grows between them despite all this, which they will need for the final act.

Brown’s reason for getting back to Mississippi has nothing to do with settling down and teaching a protégé how to be a new Robert Johnson, far less nostalgia for his own roots. Just the opposite: he needs to re-find a crossroads where he made a deal with the Devil, cancel that deal, and then leave the south forever. As a young man he sold his soul to become famous, and while he got the fame, he’s been in torment for it. Eugene makes light of this crossroads “folklore” whenever Willie brings it up (which is why he gets slapped in the face), but it’s a good thing he thinks it’s bullshit. It will allow him the confidence he needs in the final showdown.

The crossroads is located somewhere between Yazoo City and Vicksburg, and when they arrive the Devil appears as a wide smiling African American in a suit and tie (see left), speaking the local accent. This modest incarnation of Satan somehow manages to be more diabolical than some of the devils seen in horror films. He needs no supernatural supplements to exude menace; everything is conveyed in a predatory smile and lean sarcasm. Brown begs him to tear up their contract and set him free, to which the Devil replies, “Now why on earth would I do that?”

This is where things get interesting. Eugene doesn’t believe this man is supernatural, let alone the Devil, but he can see the tormenting effect he has on Brown and so steps into the conversation to help. The Devil turns on him and offers a challenge: If Eugene will attend a special concert and win a guitar battle, then Brown will get his soul back. If Eugene loses, then Eugene’s soul is forfeit to the devil just like Brown’s. Brown strenuously objects to the proposal, but Eugene tells him not to worry, because he’s just calling the guy’s bluff as he sees it, not realizing the hell he’s just thrown himself into. He and Brown suddenly find themselves in a music hall, awaited on stage by a heavy metal-blues guitarist named Jack Butler, (played by, yes, Steve Vai).

What commences is an extraordinary performance that resembles less a contest and more a lethal duel. The guitars of Eugene and Butler seem weaponized as they alternate their riffs, then play at the same time, get in each other’s faces (though this is more Butler than Eugene), and desperately try to one-up the other’s notes. They get assistance from the floor: a woman leaps and dances and shakes her ass around Butler, cheering him on; Willie whips out his harmonica and plays to Eugene’s music. Finally, Butler lets loose a furious solo that seems impossible to top, but Eugene is able to do so in a stroke of genius, by falling back on his classical training and blending classic and blues in a way that Butler tries to outmatch but utterly fails. It’s worth nothing that while Butler’s performance is real (he’s played by Steve Vai after all), Eugene’s is staged, but his finger work on the guitar looks so goddamn real that I once thought Ralph Macchio was a professional guitarist. (You can watch most of the duel here.)

With the challenges of portraying music as a dangerous force, the Devil as a southern black, and an unbalanced friendship that ends with appropriate payoff, Crossroads does a remarkable job — far better than its reputation suggests. It bombed at the box office, but then I was never surprised by that. It was a mainstream effort that dealt in issues outside the mainstream. Eugene’s odyssey is one of hard lessons and heartbreak; Willie’s torment owes to a myth no one believes. The triumph of the former and liberation of the latter are well earned.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

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The Massive Failure that is It

I admit I was seduced by the hype, but It was a major disappointment. Saying that it improves on the TV version from the ’90s gives new meaning to damning with faint praise. The mini-series was an abomination. Muschietti’s film is an abject failure. Trying to elevate the latter by comparing it to the former is like eating mud to chase down feces.

There are two problems with the film. First is that it’s not scary at all; it fails its own genre. The critic at Pop Matters nails it:

“There are no scares in It. None. Think about how hard it is to make a clown not scary. Pennywise might be the most ineffective murderer in the history of murderers. He jumps, he chases, he concocts elaborate puzzles for the kids to navigate, but he struggles to deliver the coup de grâce. That’s pretty amazing, considering he can do anything. He can change shapes, he can impersonate anyone, he can possess people, he can stretch his mouth wider than a freaking python, AND YET… he has a tough time actually murdering people. It’s hard to feel genuine fear when a horror movie sounds more false alarms than a low-battery smoke detector.”

Georgie dies at the start of course, and in the end we see plenty of corpses floating around in Pennywise’s lair. But for some strange reason, the characters we are invested in are impervious to the clown’s murderous designs, despite the fact that he can invade them in the most private areas of their homes, pounce and grab them, and get up in their faces and show a mouthful of obscene teeth. On the other hand, he kills Patrick Hocksetter with complete ease; but then Patrick is a bully, and thus an easy throw-away character.

Even the favorable reviews (88%) at Rotten Tomatoes come with caveats, acknowledging that it’s not the most effective horror piece but works as a coming of age story. But even that’s not true, and here the second problem: The kids are just single-note ciphers. They are defined by virtually nothing beyond their loser-traits. Eddie is a hypochondriac, Mike a black outsider, Richie an (admittedly amusing) vulgar insult machine, Stan a sensitive Jew, Ben a heavyweight (called “Tits” by one of the bullies), Beverly an outcast tomboy, and Bill a speech freak. Unlike the kids in Stranger Things, the Losers aren’t fleshed out so that we can engage with them. Eddie whinges, Richie drops F-bombs and wise-ass remarks (with lame humor coming even in places that should be terrifying but aren’t), Bill stutters, etc., but that’s all they do. Beverly gets some added depth in the scenes with her abusive father, but that issue is handled so ridiculously (she, an 11-year old, easily dispatches him when he makes advances on her) that it would have been better to omit it altogether.

It’s not that these kids do a poor acting job; just the opposite. They are talented for their age — especially Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, and Jaeden Lieberher — and do fine enough with what they are given. They’re certainly a vast improvement on the kids used in the unspeakable mini-series from the ’90s. But they’re not given much to care about.

I admit that I’m jaded and hard to scare, but seriously, anyone who is frightened by Muschietti’s film shouldn’t be watching real horror films at all. Shame on the studio for not supporting Cary Fukunaga. He directed Jane Eyre and the brilliant first season of True Detective, and judging from his original It script leaked online, the film could have been great. Instead, the studio played it safe — with loud bangs, cheap thrills, and underdeveloped Losers who don’t matter to us.

(Actually, what we really need is a director and studio willing to shoot the sewer orgy scene — but that’s a whole other story.)

Rating: 1 ½ stars out of 5.

The Sewer Orgy Revisited

It would appear that the sewer orgy scene from Stephen King’s It has been on everyone’s mind. For the past few weeks, my blogpost on the sewer orgy (posted in April) has been getting loads of hits. Today, for example:

Read the post here if you missed it before. And remember, the sewer orgy won’t be in the film released tomorrow. Which is a shame, because it’s the novel’s most important scene, though admittedly understandable. In the 21st century, no studio would dare take on the subject of an 11-year old gang bang.

Stranger Things “’80s Posters”

What a neat idea. The official Stranger Things Twitter account is promoting #StrangerThursdays, which involves a rewatch of each episode of the first season on every Thursday, live tweets with commentary, and behind the scenes details. The best part is that they start each episode by revealing a new Stranger Things poster inspired by an ’80s film that influenced the show. I’ll update this post as the posters roll out each Thursday.

“Stand by Us” (August 3)

Modeled on Stand by Me.

“A Nightmare on Mirkwood” (August 10)

Derived from Nightmare on Elm Street.

“Don’t walk. Run.” (August 17)

From The Running Man.

“No One Can Hear You Scream.” (August 24)

From of course Alien.

“Normal in every way but one.” (August 31)

From Firestarter.

“The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Curiosity.” (September 7)

From the smashing Evil Dead.

“Don’t Go In the Void” (September 14)

From Jaws. (“Don’t go in the water”)

“Join the Adventure.” (September 21)

From The Goonies.

The Best of Martin Scorsese

This is a long-delayed installment in the favorite director’s blogathon. It was a given that Scorsese would be covered, but I needed to do a marathon of his films. Some are better than suggested by earlier viewings (notably Shutter Island) while others don’t quite live up to their reputation (get ready for a couple of blasphemies). Of his 24 feature films to date, here are what I consider the top 10.

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1. Silence. 2017. 5 stars. This is the film I thought Scorsese was aiming for all his life but never had a hope of pulling off. His other forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — were so bad that I said he should avoid the subject. He finally hit a home run. Silence is not only one of the best religious films of all time, it’s Scorsese’s very best film. I had to ponder this hard for the past two months and be sure I really believe it supplants Taxi Driver. The film is a special treat for someone like myself who loves the novel Shogun, set in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635) and portraying the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Scorsese’s film draws us into the “post-Christian” period of the late 1630s and he is just as shrewd as James Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than a glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame, and essentially reaped what they sowed. It’s a deep story with a lot of thought behind it, one that I’ll be returning to many times.

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2. Taxi Driver. 1976. 5 stars. What can be said about Taxi Driver that hasn’t been chewed over by the Scorsese cognoscenti? Nothing probably, but I’ll offer this: that there is some of Travis Bickle in all of us. The misanthrope who thinks, with no conscious malice, that society is degenerate and beneath contempt. The sociopath driven to loneliness after failing to connect with people. The frustrated citizen who thinks his country needs an enema, and will assist in this regard by using violence. It struck me as I watched Taxi Driver for the umpteenth time that this ugly potential has more relevance than ever in today’s world — of increased income inequality, alternate facts, social media bubbles, and the ascendance of Donald Trump. Trump won the election on the platform that America is in shitty decay, thanks to regressive liberals and foreigners. (There’s plenty of truth to the former, unfortunately.) There’s a Travis in everyone, yes, but especially in disaffected white men who think it’s time for Travis to take action. I know it cheapens a masterpiece like Taxi Driver to reduce it to a political metaphor, but no one needs me to say the obvious, that it was the first Hollywood film for cinephiles and so brilliantly avant-garde. The metaphor in this case does it justice.

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3. Casino. 1995. 5 stars. The first heresy on my list is that Casino is superior to Goodfellas. Sue me, but it’s true. As Natasha Vargas-Cooper puts it, it’s more epic in the characters’ rise and fall: “In GoodFellas, the hoods, even with all their cheerful sociopathy, get progressively smaller and pettier as the movie progresses. It is, after all, about the grind of small timers. Casino, on the other hand, elevates Scorsese’s favorite themes — greed, hubris, the primal lure of violence — above the street corner and into the inner working’s of America’s Sodom.” Whenever I watch Casino I’m completely swept up in this dark vision of Las Vegas and people driving themselves to disaster. I’ve always said that Sharon Stone’s performance — raging alcoholic tantrums and all — is way underrated, and Joe Pesci’s psychotic mob enforcer, though a repeat from Goodfellas, is less comical and more terrifying for it. Robert De Niro offers a more sympathetic character than he did before, and doesn’t hold us at a distance. Casino uses the mob world to speak to our fallen state and makes me feel like a true insider to that world — that I share more in common with these thugs and pathetic people than I care to admit. I always feel like I’m watching it for the first time, and that’s true magic.

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4. Goodfellas. 1990. 5 stars. Which isn’t to deny Goodfellas‘ excellence. It was an instant classic for every good reason. And this may be another heresy: it’s superior to The Godfather. Everyone talks about the opposite approaches of Coppola and Scorsese as if they’re equivalently great in their own ways. The Corleones were tragic figures who held our sympathy; gangsters like Jimmy and Tommy are brutes who kill people just because their piles are itching. But the latter is less an alternative than a corrective to the romanticized myth. The life of a gangster is empty and devoid of attraction, pure and simple. Critical to Scorsese’s success therefore is Henry’s character and the way we experience this repulsive mob world through his gradual disillusionment. The character of Tommy provides the jaw-dropping shock value and trigger-happy mania, and is also sickeningly funny in the way only Scorsese can write. Could any other director have come up with the scene where Tommy taunts the barroom kid, shoots him in the foot, and then later shoots him dead when the kid gets fed up and swears back at him? Or the scene (above image) where everyone in the restaurant (and certainly every audience member) is convinced he’s about to beat the living shit out of Henry for laughing at him?

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5. Shutter Island. 2010. 4 ½ stars. This one keeps getting better. On first viewing I was enraged by the elaborate role-playing reveal. I thought it was a cop-out, and a variant of the “it’s all in his mind” trope used by the laziest script writers. But I was wrong, and Shutter Island’s whole point is appreciated more on subsequent viewings. (As with The Sixth Sense, those later viewings show how obvious everything is.) It’s one of the best psychological horror films ever made, enhanced by the expressionistic style, ominous score, and constant sense of creeping unease. Ultimately it’s about the human drive to reinvent ourselves, which we all do, but most of us in small enough degrees so that we can function and know ourselves reasonably as we should. Andrew Laeddis has completely revised his identity, unable to cope with having killed his wife because she murdered their three little kids. Shutter Island becomes an experimental playground for him to tame his trauma, while we think all the time that he’s actually uncovering a hideous plot of doctors performing Nazi-like experiments on the psychologically disturbed. It’s a brilliant film, and a lot like David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me — easy to misjudge and be angered by for the wrong reasons when you first see it.

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6. The Departed. 2006. 4 ½ stars. It may not have the artistic merit of Casino and Goodfellas, but every single moment in The Departed — every line of dialogue, act of treachery, and shocking death — is a genuine thrill. Scorsese went all in and produced a gangster film of pure entertainment, and one that keeps you guessing. The mob boss (Jack Nicholson) has planted a mole in the Massachusetts State Police (Matt Damon), but there is another mole (Leo DiCaprio) working undercover for those same police to nab the boss. And then in a twist, it turns out the crime boss is a “mole” himself, an informant for the FBI. The supporting Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin characters steal the show, which is saying a lot considering how good Damon and DiCaprio are as the leads. It’s very refreshing to see Irish American gangsters instead of the usual Italians. That said, it was a serious blunder on Scorsese’s part to have all the actors put on Boston accents. It’s a difficult accent to master and everyone sounds absolutely horrible, especially Jack Nicholson, but also Baldwin (whose heavy New York interferes) and Sheen and Farmiga. Only Damon and Wahlberg sound right, naturally, since they’re from Boston. The accents are so embarrassing that I wonder if Scorsese intended it for comedic effect.

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7. Bringing Out the Dead. 1999. 4 ½ stars. This is Taxi Driver with the nihilism dialed down, or as one critic has said, “Travis Bickle wants to cleanse the world and Frank Pierce wants to clean it”. Frank can’t obviously — aside from a few saving moments here and there — and is fated to work the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in a chronic state of depression. The aesthetic is even stronger than Taxi Driver‘s, as we see Frank drive his ambulance through the streets at night, as steam rises from hellish-looking manholes. It’s a great locale metaphor of sin (Scorsese only did better by Casino‘s Vegas = Sodom). The three supporting actors who play Frank’s ambulance partners blow away Nicholas Cage, who I’ve never been a fan of anyway. The first-night partner is John Goodman’s character, who avoids grief and depression by eating all the time. The second night is Ving Rhames, who plays a gospel Christian thriving on bloody emergencies to “demonstrate” Jesus’ healing power. The last-night partner is even more dramatic, Tom Sizemore, who finds his own releases through, yes, beating the shit out of helpless patients he can’t stand. Bringing Out the Dead is no masterpiece, but it’s powerful surrealism that deserves more praise than it gets.

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8. Mean Streets. 1973. 4 ½ stars. It’s amazing how good Mean Streets still is after all these years. When watched alongside Goodfellas and Casino it seems quaint, but this film made the later masterpieces possible. And I love the look of ’70s films (aside from the hideous dress and hair styles); it was the golden age of cinema when directors dreamed big and explored style without pretension. On the surface Mean Streets is about guys hanging out and getting into trouble, and a fond look at the gangs and troublemakers of Scorsese’s formative years in New York. It’s the first movie he had complete control over, his personal examination of Catholic guilt, and his attempt to reconcile that guilt with the world of crime. It was released during the transgressive peak of the early ’70s, the year 1973, during the streak of Malick’s Badlands, Lumet’s Serpico, and Friedkin’s Exorcist (what a feast!). I often say if there was a single year in the 20th century I could go back and live through, it would be 1973. That was the moment of the greatest cinematic breakthroughs, the best of progressive rock (Selling England by the Pound), and bubbling dark energies that would be released as the Dungeons & Dragons game in January the following year. A film like Mean Streets captures the essence of this awesome point in American culture.

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9. The Wolf of Wall Street. 2013. 4 stars. This is Goodfellas for corporate business, showing the mayhem of unrestrained greed, and some critics put it on the same plane of excellence as Goodfellas. They’re wrong, but I should be clear what I’m not faulting the film for. It doesn’t glamorize the lifestyle it portrays, any more than Goodfellas does; there isn’t a fiber of my being that is remotely seduced by stock broker lifestyle when I watch it. The better objection is the opposite problem — that Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t give us any sympathetic entry at all into the characters. Goodfellas did this through Henry Hill, who was scum, yes, but a scum with enough moral compass to be outraged over the senseless murder of a kid, to be sick and vomit over the sight of corpses, and he began as a low-level wannabe (and beaten by his father) unlike the thoroughly savage people who initiated him into the gangster world. There is no Henry Hill analog to anchor us in Wall Street’s insanely repugnant world, and that, I think, is what prevents the film from achieving the heights Scorsese was aiming for. But on whole Wolf is still very good, and there are individual scenes showing Scorsese having fun at his best, not least that in which the Jonah Hill character infamously suggests that someone take the suitcase of money and shove it up his wife’s Slatvian cunt.

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10. Cape Fear. 1991. 4 stars. My tenth slot was a toss up between this one and After Hours. I really wanted to include After Hours since it’s a comedy — a genre I seldom enjoy — and the obscure gem in Scorsese’s bad run of the ’80s. Alas, I simply can’t exclude Cape Fear. I got endless rewatch out of it, and in my opinion De Niro’s Max Cady is a more terrifying psychopath than Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter (a subject deserving its own blogpost). It’s Scorsese’s most commercial effort, but a very good one and vast improvement on the ’60s original. Not only is the acting leagues ahead, the creative innovations up the ante. The most obvious is the pivotal scene between De Niro and Juliette Lewis (above photo) in which he corners her in the high school theater and seduces her, which is far more insidious and frightening than the original scene involving a chase through the school halls. My father was a lawyer, but thankfully not a criminal lawyer. I’d hate to think about the copycats Max Cady has inspired to go after their lawyers and families.

So… what about Raging Bull?

Thus my second heresy: Raging Bull (1980) is obscenely overrated; it’s not the masterpiece it’s made to be. The aesthetic is impressive (shot in black-and-white) and the acting performances are beyond criticism, but what’s left after that? A “profound examination of masculinity”? I’m sorry, I don’t see it, and I certainly don’t get Raging Bull’s place in the American Film Institute’s hall of fame, the 4th best film of all time after Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca, or Entertainment Weekly’s ranking it the 5th best film of all time, after the same three others plus Chinatown. I may personally not care for Casablanca, but I can at least understand why it’s deemed precious. Raging Bull may as well be Any Given Sunday. And I’m in good enough company. When the film was released, the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman and scriptwriter Paul Schrader were thoroughly unimpressed with the result: “Wow,” said Chapman, coming out of the theater. “Marty really fucked that one up, didn’t he?” Schrader: “Yeah, he did. I don’t know what went wrong there.” But next year it won the Oscars, and the film would go down a legend. I have seen Raging Bull four times now, and I have paid lip service to its greatness in the past. No more. This list is an honest exercise, and I must honestly confess that the film is okay (3 stars) but not great, and one that I will probably never see again.

Great Performances from Kids

It’s hard for kids to act naturally, but some are truly born for it. These are my ten acting picks from young actors, by which “young” means the actor was no older than 14 when playing the role. So for example, one performance that didn’t qualify is Ellen Page as the 14-year old Hayley Stark in Hard Candy, since Ellen was actually 17 (believe it or not) and thus had more resources to draw on than a younger actor. (Ellen does make the cut for another role.) Natalie Portman takes the top slot in a slam dunk.

Mathilda (Click for video)

1. Natalie Portman (12), as Mathilda in Leon the Professional (1994). If Natalie Portman killed her image in the Star Wars prequels, she made up for it a thousand times before in Leon. I’m glad I missed the film when it first came out, because the American version wrecked it by removing 25 minutes that are the whole point of the love story. Alas, Americans aren’t equipped to handle that sort of thing between a 12-year old girl and a man in his 40s. The international version of the film is an uncensored masterpiece. Portman plays a girl whose parents, older sister, and 4-year old brother get gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with a hitman in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t quite know how to handle it, but before long, he’s training her how to kill and taking her along on his hit jobs, while she takes every blatant opportunity to hit on him. Mathilda is Portman’s best performance (which is saying something, given Black Swan) and I’m in awe of the emotional range she summons here. She’s vulnerable and tender, sensuous, moved by inner furies, and none of it ever goes over the top. You believe her in every frame.

The kids of Stranger Things (Click for video)

2. Finn Wolfhard (12), Caleb McLaughlin (14), Gaten Matarazzo (13), and Millie Bobby Brown (12), as Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven in Stranger Things (2016). All four of these kids come in at a close #2. They’re incredibly natural actors and the boys represent my ’80s childhood — the hours-long D&D campaigns being the obvious point of contact. It’s almost impossible to say whose performance is the best as they complement each other with personas just as striking. Mike is the group leader, the most sensitive, and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin a non-stop riot ruled by his appetites. The chemistry between them is extraordinary to watch. Their most iconic scene is probably their prepubescent horror at Eleven when she starts to take off her clothes in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are gut-busting hilarious. (Lucas: “She tried to get naked!” Dustin: indignantly mimics her taking off her dress.) Eleven herself is no less brilliant, and she conveys far more in her silences than most gifted actors do speaking. Simply put, there has never been a group of kids who set the screen on fire like the quartet of Stranger Things.

Mattie (Click for video)

3. Hailee Steinfeld (13), as Mattie in True Grit (2010). The role of Mattie Ross, like Mathilda in Leon, depends on just the right casting that makes or breaks a film. Which is ironic considering the two characters are so opposite. Mattie is completely unsexualized and humorless, living by a stern Presbyterian ethic which allows her to hold her ground in the face of adults who are otherwise inclined to dismiss her. Young characters who bark orders at adults are usually a fail in cinema, and scenes like Mattie running roughshod over a colonel in a horse-trading transaction by rights shouldn’t work. And yet they astonishingly do; at no point is Mattie anything less than 100% believable. When she and Rooster go off into Indian territory to hunt down the bad guy, the result is one of the best sidekick-adult relationships in movie history. Think how awful Short Round was in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. He gave youthful side-kicks a silly reputation. Steinfeld proved that kids can hold their own as the right-hands of heroes on missions of dirty work.

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4. Danny Lloyd (6), as Danny in The Shining (1980). The youngest entry on my list places high. Lloyd was perfect in this horror classic, able to focus beyond what most six-year olds are capable of. Jack Nicholson may be the star of The Shining, and obviously very good, but he did go over the top; I always thought Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall were the true stars for the way they acted (reacted) to their maniacal father/husband, but especially Lloyd. Duvall gave an emotional performance that wiped her out; Lloyd portrayed the inner terror of a child so convincingly and under Kubrick’s careful guidance didn’t for a moment overact as kids this young inevitably do. It’s interesting that Lloyd was apparently not aware he was acting in a horror film — told by Kubrick that this was a “family drama” — which I find rather hard to believe given some of his lines and action sequences. Like when he’s being chased by the ax-wielding Jack, or when he conveys how terrified he is to his imaginary friend Tony, or when he’s shaken by his crying mother who wonders why he’s battered and bruised.

Jake and Tony (Click for video)

5. Theo Taplitz (13) and Michael Barbieri (13), as Jake and Tony in Little Men (2016). I have strong attachment to these boys, because I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was just the movie I needed to see — a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Taplitz plays the shy Jake, Barbieri the uninhibited Tony; Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor. The boys are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people. Their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents. I cried with Jake at the end; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people.

Iris (Click for video)

6. Jodie Foster (12), as Iris in Taxi Driver (1976). It’s funny how Foster has played against the very best and been terrified for her efforts. In Silence of the Lambs she never spoke to Anthony Hopkins off-camera (until the last day of shooting) because he scared her so badly in his Hannibal Lecter role. And that was when she was an adult. As a kid in Taxi Driver she was intimidated by Robert DeNiro — as she tells it today, he was “even quieter and more strange” back then — but I suspect it’s precisely this sort of thing that has always summoned the best out of Jodie Foster. After all, her roles as Iris and Clarice Starling are her best, and she deserves extra accolades for Iris given that she was only twelve. Both her real and in-character attempts to act and appear older as befitting a prostitute underscore all the more that she’s a child.

Maggie (Click for video)

7. Ellen Page (11), as Maggie in Pit Pony (1999). Here’s a family-friendly entry, just to prove I have a soft spot: Ellen Page’s first role on Canadian TV. I wish I’d grown up on Pit Pony instead of Little House on the Prairie, which was made insufferable by the self-righteous figure of Michael Landon’s Pa. The parental figures in Pit Pony are fallible and likeable. The locale is better too, set in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in the time before unions (1901) when men and boys — and ponies — had a rather nasty time working in the coal mines. Ellen Page is the hidden gem, playing the younger sister of the boy who does more than his share in the mines. It’s amazing to watch her before she became famous as the castrating psychopath of Hard Candy and the pregnant teen of Juno. In this series she’s positively endearing — and even more tiny, as if possible — and I chose a clip from the episode where she runs away from her aunt and comes home to find that things have changed, which she doesn’t handle well.

Jack (Click for video)

8. Jacob Tremblay (7), as Jack in Room (2015). Like Danny Lloyd (#4), Tremblay played a five-year old confined in a horrible place, though I think I’d take the 400-plus room haunted hotel over a one-room tool shed. Tremblay had a tall order in Room. He had to convey a belief that the entire universe consisted of a single room that he never left, and then, in the second half, a child’s reaction to the real world never seen before and zillions of people living in it besides his mother. He nailed it; when Jack sees the sky for the first time, Tremblay looks genuinely poleaxed. Even more convincing and disturbing is the deeper sense he conveys at having been deprived of life’s necessities for the first five years of his life, he doesn’t want them when they finally come. They’re just too overwhelming for him — living in a big house with toys and a backyard — and it’s heartbreaking when he asks his mother if they can go back to live in “Room”.

Regan (Click for video)

9. Linda Blair (13), as Regan in The Exorcist (1973). It’s easy to overlook this one, but Linda Blair did a lot of Regan’s scenes. Her stunt double (Eileen Deitz) only stepped in at a few points. Even the crucifixion masturbation scene was done mostly by Blair. And she did, after all, win a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice Award, and an Oscar nomination. So even if most of her performance comes filtered through the mask of demonic makeup in the latter half, she deserves high praise. And some of her early scenes are frankly as disturbing without the demon involved, as notably when she is strapped down in the hospital getting an arteriogram. Friedkin used real doctors to get the arteriogram procedure exactly right, and it’s just as painful for real-life patients as it looks for Linda Blair. It requires the patient to be conscious. And doctors have actually used that footage to train radiologists who will perform arteriograms, because the procedure — and Linda Blair’s tormented reaction — are so accurately depicted.

Alexander (Click for video)

10. Bertil Guve (10), as Alexander in Fanny and Alexander (1982). I have difficulty assessing performances in foreign films, because when I don’t know the language I’m often clueless as to whether or not the actor is using poor inflection or overacting. But I’ll say this about Bertil Guve: he was obviously a natural. Bergman chose him because he “acted with his eyes”, and I never needed to understand Swedish to see that. And any boy who can act the Ishmael scene is top notch. It’s the pivotal scene where the androgynous figure physically caresses Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Speaking of which, the scene in which Alexander defies him and gets beaten for it is also a stand-out, for his non-verbal cues as much as verbal. Because the film is ultimately about what Alexander perceives is happening, it depends on Guve being able to make us believe in the magic — that ghosts and such really exist. That’s what he does, and it’s a first-rate performance.

The X-Men Films Ranked: All 10 of Them

Seventeen years ago saw the dawn of a millennium and a reboot of the superhero genre. Many consider the first X-Men film the most important superhero film ever made, and everyone is saying that Logan is the best in the franchise. I agree with both assessments. Here’s how I rank the franchise.

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1. Logan, James Mangold. 2017. 5 stars. This is one of two superhero films I award a 5-star rating, the other being The Dark Knight. Which is obviously a way of saying that I’m not the biggest superhero fan, because these are “anti-superhero” films for adults. (Deadpool also falls into this realm of adult cinema but in a satirical way: a potty-mouthed anti-hero attracts pretty much the usual audience of nerdy guys.) The year is 2029, and Logan is now trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is an undeniable masterpiece that fuses a trilogy of genres — superhero, western, and post-apocalyptic — much in the same indie vein as The Wolverine (also directed by Mangold), but three times as good, and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.

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2. X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer. 2014. 4 ½ stars. It’s difficult choosing between this one and United for the second and third slots. As a film United is more polished and objectively better. But I go with Days of Future Past for the emotional power and high stakes. From the start, the X-Men series has been pointing to an all-out war between mutants and humanity, and we finally get that. The time travel plot is handled well and without cheap resets, and so we have our cake and eat it as X-Men die but live to fight another day. The time warping also bridges the cast of the first three films with their younger versions from the First Class prequel. Things are so dire that Magneto teams up with Xavier, but as in the second film it’s a fragile alliance. The Catch-22’s are exploited for maximum effect: Magneto was right all along that humanity would eventually commit genocide on the mutants; but that’s only because of his own aggressive policies, which caused Mystique to set the genocidal plan in motion; Xavier is paralyzed in both the past and present, ashamed that Magneto was right, ineffectual to do much about it, even as he clings to an altruistic morality. I remain annoyed, however, that we never find out how Xavier came back to life after being killed by Jean Grey in The Last Stand.

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3. X-Men: United, Bryan Singer. 2003. 4 ½ stars. It was overshadowed by The Return of the King, but in that year X-Men: United emerged as the best superhero film ever made. It was The Dark Knight of its day. It took the dark themes of the first X-Men film and expanded the scope with confidence. Xavier and Magneto join forces to stop a military colonel intent on wiping out all mutants from the planet, though of course Magneto has his own counter-agenda to reverse the colonel’s purpose and wipe out all human beings instead. The White House assassination attempt is still one of the best opening sequences of any superhero film, and an adrenaline-rush no matter how many times you see it. Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison (above image) is pure genius, as he sucks the iron out the guard’s bursting skin, and fashions it into levitating plates and bullets. Jean Grey’s death is a noble sacrifice, and the final act in the Oval Office may well be my favorite conclusion to a superhero film, as Xavier, backed by his fellow mutants, schools the president on accepting others in a civilized nation.

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4. X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn. 2011. 4 ½ stars. Many consider this the best X-Men film, and I can understand why. It’s superbly acted and exploits the historical event of the Cuban missile crisis to nail-biting effect. The missing ingredient is the dark brooding feel which is the point of the X-Men franchise. Matthew Vaughn was having a blast at the expense of Singer’s subversive tone. Critic Darren Finch has noted that First Class comes off as a “dude movie” against its own grain. Mystique has to choose between two handsome men — the young swaggering versions of Xavier and Magneto — and she’s now played by Jennifer Lawrence, who looks like a classic all-American blonde. Singer portrayed unambiguously weird kids, but with Vaughn they come off as “cool kids with problems”. First Class is a great film but it’s not very good at being an X-Men film. What it misses in mood, it more than makes up for in emotional power. We see Charles and Erik in the days of their friendship, and that Erik is the one who crippled Charles; and how Mystique began with Charles and grew up for many years with him before joining Erik.

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5. The Wolverine, James Mangold. 2013. 4 stars. This is how you focus on a single X-Men character. Not by going back to his origins, but by moving forward to another level. The Wolverine feels less like a superhero film and more like indie martial arts. If you like dark films suffused with existential turmoil (as I do) and if you love honor dramas set in Japan which are upended by an intruding western “barbarian” (as I do), then chances are this one will work for you. Logan has left the X-Men and rejected his Wolverine identity after being forced to kill Jean Grey (the Phoenix) in The Last Stand. It turns out he also has baggage from being a POW in Nagasaki when the bombs dropped. He’s not up against the high-stakes threats of political bigotry or rogue mutants. Now he’s in exile embroiled in a family feud. Ultimately this film is about death — Logan wanting to die to escape his guilt, his Japanese “friend” wanting to conquer death but at Logan’s expense, Jean Grey speaking from the grave in his nightmares. I’m not surprised that Mangold returned to focus on Wolverine again in Logan, which is hailed by everyone and their mother as the best film in the franchise.

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6. Deadpool, Tim Miller. 2016. 4 stars. Immensely entertaining, yes, but it needs saying that Deadpool isn’t quite as anarchistic as it thinks it is. Super is a more transgressive and better film that remains woefully underrated. Nonetheless, this standalone X-Men piece is very good. The hero-villain we cheer is a potty-mouthed contract killer whose black-market treatment for cancer has made him into a super-powered mutant. He’s hunting the guy responsible for his facial ruin, and he has graphic flashbacks to a failed relationship with a prostitute. You would think that ceaseless swearing and redundant violence would soon wear out its welcome, but Deadpool remains enjoyable from start to finish. For an adolescent fantasy about torture and sick revenge, that turns out to be precisely its strength — a purposeful shallowness that would be diminished by any toned down supplements. The character made his first appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but as I say in that entry below, you should avoid seeing that film at all costs. This film works perfectly fine on its own.

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7. X-Men: The Last Stand, Brett Ratner. 2006. 3 ½ stars. For reasons that escape me, this one gets a lot of hate, and some lists rank it below even Wolverine’s Origins. That’s just wrong. It’s true that Ratner is a commercial director given to flash and dazzle and lame dialogue, and when he gets things right it’s more by accident. But the fact is that The Last Stand does do a lot of things right — things I wish more superhero films would have the balls to do. The glaring one is the point that pissed off so many fans: the death of Professor Xavier. Ratner killed off the most important character of the franchise, as well as Cyclops, both in the first half of the story. Frankly, I think the entire Jean Grey/Phoenix story arc pays off wonderfully. The tender Jean has returned to life as a hideous killer, and it’s downright tragic when she begs Logan to kill her in the end. I also like the film’s premise involving a medical cure which some mutants want and others are naturally offended by. Rogue for example chooses the cure for understandable reasons (she can’t even kiss a boyfriend without harming him), while Mystique becomes human against her will, and is shockingly rejected by Magneto whom she saved. There’s good payoff all around in the character arcs, even if the central plot is hollow.

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8. X-Men, Bryan Singer. 2000. 3 stars. It’s difficult to rank the first X-Men film objectively. On the one hand, I consider it the most important superhero film ever made. It rebooted the genre and saved it from probable extinction. Batman & Robin made people embarrassed to express any interest in superheroes, but even aside from the ’90s travesties, most comic-book films that predate 2000 look lame and horribly dated. Bryan Singer found a way to connect with nerdy material in a serious way, offering darker and morally complex heroes, and playing up to social commentary (civil and gay rights) without being preachy. X-Men marked a huge step forward. But in retrospect it’s just not a hugely impressive film. It was finding its way as the first of its kind; the budget was modest; the action scenes show their age; green-screen backgrounds are a bit obvious (this was 2000, but still a year before the Lord of the Rings revolution); the plot not terribly ambitious. If I were grading this in the year 2000, I’d give it 4 stars unreservedly, but today it’s competing with too much advancement in the genre. It’s still decent and enjoyable, but feels like an extended prologue to the rest of the franchise.

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9. X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer. 2016. 2 stars. There’s no polite way of saying for all its ambition and great ideas, X-Men: Apocalypse is an artificial bloated mess. It’s too many stories crammed into an overarching plot that doesn’t feel anchored in any conviction. And it’s too bad, because this really could have been as good as Days of Future Past. The scale is just as huge and the stakes as high. The lead villain is the world’s first mutant, En Sabah Nur, ruler of ancient Egypt who was sealed in his pyramid tomb and has now risen in 1983 to ravage the planet and rule in a new age of mutants. To do so, he has rounded up his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of whom (as we’d expect) is Magneto, the others being Storm (whom I certainly did not expect), Archangel, and Psylocke. A solid premise, but it’s just window-dressing for a mess that takes its first hour to set up loads of new characters who are never used well. Sophie Turner as the young Jean Grey, for example, is a brilliant casting choice but her moment of truth in the end doesn’t pay off well because of the story’s deficiencies. I give Apocalypse A for its ideas and ambition, a D for the results, which lands the 2 ½ star rating.

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10. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Gavin Hood. 2009. 1 star. Most everyone agrees this is the worst X-Men film, and some even say it’s the worst superhero film ever made. I’m not confident that it’s worse than Superman III and Batman & Robin, but you get the point: it’s really, really bad. The script is atrocious, the direction worse than amateur, and the acting so dreadful… it’s as if Gavin Hood was trying to make the worst film conceivable. The idea of exploring a single mutant’s origins was a good one but went to waste. This is a film I would urge not seeing under any circumstances, even if you’re a die-hard X-Men fan. Not only because it makes you laugh (or cry) at every ridiculous thing that happens next, but for the continuity problems it creates: it’s supposed to lead up to the events of the first X-Men movie, and while it lamely explains why Wolverine won’t remember any of the X-Men when he meets them “for the first time”, it certainly doesn’t explain why they won’t remember him.

The Critics

These are the rankings by Rotten Tomatoes scores. They coincide pretty closely with my rankings.

1. Logan: 92%
2. X-Men: Days of Future Past: 91%
3. X-Men: United: 86%
4. X-Men: First Class: 86%
5. Deadpool: 84%
6. X-Men: 81%
7. The Wolverine: 69%
8. X-Men: The Last Stand: 58%
9. X-Men: Apocalypse: 48%
10. X-Men Origins: Wolverine: 38%

Viewing Order

This is the best viewing order of the franchise (ignoring Wolverine Origins which shouldn’t be seen at all, and Deadpool which is self-standing):

The first series:

X-Men (2000)
X-Men: United (2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The Wolverine (2013)

The “prequel” series:

X-Men: First Class (2011)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Logan (2017)