July 30, 2013

The Wolverine (07/30/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

For whatever reason - maybe just by default - The Wolverine wound up being the popcorn movie I was most looking forward to this summer. And yet, whilst watching it, I found myself a little under-stimulated for big sections, despite the fact that I think I appreciated on an intellectual level what director James Mangold was trying to do. If you had asked me, I would have said that I'd be all for an X-Men movie that takes moments for contemplation and philosophy. Now that I've seen one, however, I can't say that the extra screen-time made the character much more engaging than I found him to be previously. This movie is a little classier than the prior stand-alone Wolverine movie from 2009, but is it bad to say that at the same time it just isn't as much fun to watch?

Maybe the main problem is that the set-up is kind of shaky… This is Hugh Jackman's sixth (!) time playing the character… there were the original three X-Men movies, which appeared in theaters between 2000 and 2006. In them, Wolverine was a mysterious self-healing mutant who couldn't remember who he was, where he came from, and how his bones (and the claws that protrude from his hands when he gets upset) happened to be coated in nigh-indestructable "adamantium." 2009's moderately crappy prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, filled in a lot of those gaps, detailing how the character fought in every major war over the last 200 years for the sheer thrill and blood-lust of doing so, before being shot in the head with an adamantium bullet and permanently losing his memory during the 1970s (a good decade to forget).

But on to what confused me… So this new picture opens with a scene where Wolverine saves a Japanese solider's life during the Nagasaki bombing of 1945. We catch up with Wolverine in the present day… he now lives alone in the woods, having killed Dr. Jean Grey at the end of X-Men 3 and feels really bad about it. Jean's memory appears as night visions, beckoning him toward an afterlife which his mutation will not allow him to reach. He is tracked down, however, by a mysterious woman employed by the solider whose life he saved some 60-70 years earlier. The soldier became a successful technology businessman after the war, and wants to repay his debt to Wolverine by taking away his immortality, thus allowing him to live to a ripe old age and die a natural death at some point down the line.

But wait… Chronologically in Wolverine's life, the Nagasaki scene is followed by his cameo in 2011's 60s set X-Men: First Class (where he tells the younger Professor X to "fuck off" during a scouting montage), then the events of the 2009 movie (at the end of which, once again, Wolverine PERMANENTLY LOSES HIS MEMORY), then the first three X-Men movies, in which Wolverine CANNOT REMEMBER WHO HE IS OR HOW ALL THAT ADAMANTIUM WAS GRAFTED ONTO HIS BODY, AND DOES NOT REGAIN ANY OF HIS OLD MEMORIES, before picking up with the rest of this new movie. Why, then, does Wolverine not utter some variation of "Hey, who the hell are you?" after flying to Japan and meeting with the guy?

Believe it or not, the fact that the movie is very unclear about how much Wolverine remembers or does not remember about this soldier and his life before the 1970s is the main thing that sabotaged the first half for me. My thinking is that Wolverine would look at the guy not as an old friend, but as a stranger. What, then, is his personal stake in protecting the man's granddaughter from an assassination attempt in the first third of the movie, and going on the run with her through Japan with the Japanese mafia in full pursuit? It seems to me that the Wolverine from the other movies would have been a little more like, "Wait, who are you again? Okay, fuck this: I'm outta here!" and gone to the airport.

Instead, however, Wolverine is protecting a person he doesn't seem all that motivated to protect, and spends a lot of time contemplating deep, quasi-symbolic imagery that doesn't really seem to play into the film's conclusion at all, nor does it mesh well with the film's aggressive action bits. I hate to admit this, but I found my interest peaking up a bit in the movie's 2nd half, when it falls a little more into the genre traditions, if only because the material became much more straightforward at that point. Unlikely, implausible plot twists… a doomsday machine that musn't be activated… insurmountable odds that are somehow surmounted… and well, you know the rest. There's even a big section at the end where Wolverine must fight a large mechanical Samurai warrior that's sort of like the Japanese version of Iron Monger from the end of the first Iron Man crossed with ED-209 from RoboCop. This segment isn't terribly inspiring, mind you, but it doesn't have the problems that the first half has in terms of being unclear about what Wolverine knows and why he's doing anything that he's doing.

Jackman is again really solid as the title character. He might even appear a little more ripped and savage in this movie than he has as Wolverine in the past. The largely Asian supporting cast is decent as well, with Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima playing women who romance and help Wolverine along the way. The weak link is the main mutant baddie… she's called "Viper" and is played by Russian supermodel Svetlana Khodchenkova. I'm almost entirely convinced that her voice was dubbed (poorly and out of sync, at that), but that aside, her body language alone sinks her performance and turns her part into ridiculous caricature.

I think Mangold is an interesting director… I was a big fan of Copland, his debut movie, in 1996 and thought that the way in which he combined story movement with musical performances in his 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line was brilliant, exciting filmmaking. I'm always happy to see a quality director like him take on material which might otherwise be visual effects driven pulp in other hands (ahem, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but at the same time, I kind of wish the end result packed a bit more of a wallop.

I will say, however, that as an American who has always been fasciated with the ways and culture of Japan, I did find the scenery and the tour of the country that the film takes you on to be very enjoyable. More than once, I thought of Sean Connery's fifth James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, which saw the secret agent taking residence in Japan himself in order to unravel yet another plot by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. to hold the world hostage. Wolverine's adventure in the land of the rising sun isn't quite as consequential as James Bond's was, but I guess that if they're going to keep making these things, at least they're choosing pretty scenery for the actors to stand in front of.

My entires on
X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class.

July 19, 2013

Pacific Rim (7/19/2013)

Lettergrade: C

I don't think I'm engaging in much hyperbole when I say that Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is the finest motion picture yet made where people in giant robot suits punch interdimensional lizard monsters that have arrived to Earth via portals at the bottom of the ocean.

That said, it's also a movie that I enjoyed greatly for a good hour or so, but ultimately kind of tuned out on during the third act. I'm not sure why that is... I think it's because the picture ultimately descended into a flurry of hard-to-follow action (and a climax that was bizarrely identical to the climax of The Avengers from last year) without generating enough interest in its lead characters to justify the bulky 132 minute running time.

The movie's main dude is played by Charlie Hunnam, whom I've really liked in various roles in the past (particularly Douglas McGrath's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby in 2002). Here he plays a down-on-his-luck robot (or "Jaeger") pilot who was thrown out of the Robot Fighter Academy (or whatever) when he pulled a cocky move on a mission and got his co-pilot brother killed as a result. Now, with the program on its last legs due to political issues, and the monsters increasing in size and frequency, Hunnam must come out of involuntary-retirement and team up with a petite, untested rookie played by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi. I've got to say that she's a little more interesting than he is in the movie, but by and large we're not really talking about a significant threat to the "great screen couple" status of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn here.

All in all, Pac Rim is kind of like Godzilla meets Robot Jox and Top Gun seasoned with Rocky and a dash of Rush Hour in there (at least, that's how I'm imagining the pitch meeting went). I took a lot of enjoyment in the intentional ridiculousness and the over-abundance of testosterone, but the whole concoction didn't entirely work for me as a satisfying movie.

As is true of the other del Toro pictures that I've liked (Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army) - and even the ones I haven't (Hellboy 1, Blade II and his English debut, Mimic) - the creature designs are imaginative and exciting, and the action feels very real and visceral, even when it's largely computer generated. The supporting cast is delightfully full of del Toro regulars - Ron Perlman, to be specific - and there are a few first timers in there as well, most notably the scene-stealing Charlie Day (from It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia) and the freakish-looking Burn Gorman as a pair of scientists studying the alien "Kaijus."

When I think back through the movie, the scenes where Day runs around Tokyo trying to find a way to telepathically communicate with a Kaiju brain are the ones I remember enjoying the most. Many of the others sort of run together. I seem to recall a complicated backstory for Rinko Kikuchi involving her family dying in a much earlier Kaiju attack when she was little. The movie makes a big deal out of the fact that she was saved by Idris Elba (who plays the Robot Boxer League's crusty supervisor, and serves as sort of a Burgess Meredith / Pat Morita figure to her), but it didn't seem that shocking to me when the reveal happened. Honestly, though, I don't really remember much else other than some cool fights. And I saw this movie in the middle of the day when I was wide awake, so there's no real excuse other than that it just must not have left much of an impression.

My only other real thought about this movie is that it is another good example of a big expensive Hollywood blockbuster stacking its cast with actors who are popular in other countries... in order, I presume, to play to a much larger international audience. I actually think this practice is kind of cool: 2011's fantastic Mission: Impossible: Ghost: Protocol did this in spades (which I suspect contributed to the movie doing so well both domestically and abroad) and Iron Man 3 earlier this summer even contained an "extra scene" that was only part of the Chinese version of the movie and designed to play to that audience. I don't much like the idea that different counties might ultimately see different versions of big popcorn movies, but the overall trend seems to indicate that movies like Iron Man 3 and this summer's Japan-set The Wolverine, and this one will embrace other cultures (and pop-cultures) a bit more aggressively moving into the future.

There's something a bit more exciting about that to me than in seeing new action-adventure movies return to the same three cities in Canada that all the other ones have been filmed in lately, and I think it's a clear sign of things to come.

Other movies I've seen throughout the years where giant robots punch shit:
The Transformers (07/06/07)
Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen (07/04/09)
Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon (7/24/2011)
Real Steel (10/08/2011)