Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Wolverine

I'm a pretty big fan of the X-Men film series thus far (see my review of X-Men: First Class), and even though the last Wolverine film was a bit of a let-down I still had relatively high hopes for The Wolverine. With the promise of Wolverine's well-known Japanese exploits to be heavily featured as well as a  highly skilled craftsman in the director's chair, I had a feeling this might be the surprise superhero hit of the summer. Surprisingly, this summer has been full of pretty decent entertainment (I didn't expect to give so many positive reviews at this point in the year) and I was a little worried that a steep decline in quality was on the horizon. Part of me wondered if my initial reaction to the positive vibes of the trailer was wishful thinking, giving the unflattering perception of Wolverine's origin film. However, it finally seems like they knew what to do with Wolverine in this film and pulled off a much-needed course-correction for the future of the X-Men franchise.

The Wolverine begins with a dream sequence in which Logan saves the life of a young Japanese soldier as the atomic bomb detonates over Nagasaki. Waking up in the present day, Wolverine is tortured by the death of his love, Jean Grey, a death that came at his own hands in the third X-Men film. He has since banished himself to the Canadian rockies, living as a hobo and trying to stay out of trouble. Just before he engages a few locals in a bar fight, however, a Japanese girl named Yukio intervenes and takes Logan to her homeland as a favor for her employer. The man Logan saved in Nagasaki has become the CEO of the most powerful technological corporation in Japan and wishes to thank Logan in person for saving his life all those years ago. Once Logan arrives however, he realizes that the man is offering more than he bargained for - a chance to become mortal.

Unlike the previous Wolverine solo film, this story offers the audience brand new concepts and dramatic stakes that have never been hinted at before. Logan's journey to Japan might seem a little uncharacteristic at first glance, however the culture clash adds a whole new dynamic to the typical Wolverine storyline. Once the film gets to Japan, I have to admit a personal bias - I love Japan. Having served a two-year mission there for the LDS church, I was absolutely loving the authenticity of the locales as well as the surprising lack of subtitles. Normally when taking a mainstream character into another country, the filmmakers can't help but rely heavily on captions for all the foreign dialogue. I found it impressive that director James Mangold was willing to take a chance by stranding the audience in a foreign culture to experience the same thing that Logan does throughout the film.

One of the great things about the Wolverine character is his gruff demeanor. Hugh Jackman does a tremendous job of channeling his best moments from prior X-Men films into an emotional performance that allows for us to empathise with the immortal mutant (which is no small feat). Also, his odd pairing with Yukio provides a great juxtaposition that creates moments of humor and emotional vulnerability for the surly Logan. Mangold does a great job of balancing the drama, the action and the humor in what could otherwise be a strangely uneven film.

While I found the first 3/4 of this film to be on par with the best of the X-Men series, the final act was a bit of a let-down. This seems like a recurring issue with summer action films, so I'm not going to get too hung up on it. I just wish the climactic battles at the end of these kinds of films were as clever and gripping as the epic fight atop the shinkansen in the second act. Some of the storylines don't really resolve in a satisfying way, but all of that can be forgiven once the after-credits scene begins (please don't leave the theater early!).

Overall this is one of the better films in the X-Men series (only X-Men: First Class and X2 are better in my opinion), and anyone who is a fan of the Wolverine character is surely in for a treat. It may seem like I'm giving a lot of positive reviews this year, but at the risk of losing credibility I have to say that I'm predisposed to enjoy movies when I sit down to watch them. What can I say, I'm a fan of movies. Normally I don't spend money to watch films I don't think look good (hence the reason why no review of R.I.P.D. exists on this blog... yet...). Having said that, I don't take my star-ratings too lightly either. For example, I saw this film at a pre-screening on Tuesday and needed a few days to decide how much I really enjoyed it. While it may seem like the default rating for my 2013 reviews, I give this film a slightly generous three and a half stars.

THE WOLVERINE is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

There are a couple of reasons why I've chosen to write this review: A) I needed an excuse to break out my "one and a half star" image; and B) I wanted to offer a comparison to all those who look at the trailer for Pacific Rim and say "that looks stupid". For some reason, American audiences have chosen this summer to look down on an effects-heavy action film when every summer a Transformers film is released Paramount makes a killing at the box-office. To give a little background, I first saw this film when Lara and I were in our first year of marriage. I remembered having a positive reaction watching the previous film and hoped for a similar experience going into this one. Admittedly, we went to a dollar theatre to watch it, so my expectations weren't through the roof. I'm going to attempt to summarize this convoluted and often nonsensical plot as the first exhibit in my defense of Pacific Rim:

Thousands of years ago, an ancient race of transforming entities arrived on the planet Earth, hoping to establish a "Sun-Harvester" that would sap the energy from our sun and convert it to Energon (the Transformers' source of power). However, their laws restrict harvesting suns with life-sustaining planets in its orbit. Breaking this law, a rogue Transformer tries to start the Sun-Harvester but is banished by the Primes and christened "The Fallen". Flash forward to present day, where Sam Witwicky is about to leave for college. By pure happenstance, a shard of the Allspark falls out of the pocket of Sam's sweater and starts bringing appliances all over the house to life (as well as passing some "important" information to Sam). For reasons unknown, Sam travels across the country for college leaving his super-hot girlfriend and extraterrestrial guardian behind (though of course they're going to reunite later in the film).

While in an Astronomy class (Why is Sam even going to college? Shouldn't he be helping the Autobots do whatever it is they're doing?), Sam has a break-down of sorts and speed-reads his text-book before writing Cybertronian symbols on the blackboard. Later, Optimus meets Sam in a graveyard in a (very, very misguided) attempt to convince him to be the Autobot advocate with the U.S government. Claiming this is not his war, Sam promptly gets abducted by a Decepticon and nearly killed. Meanwhile, Megatron is brought back to life with yet another shard of the cube (How many of these things are there?) and the remaining Decepticons regroup with The Fallen on one of the moons of Saturn. Claiming Optimus is the only one who can kill him (though he's still somehow the "leader"...), The Fallen commands Megatron to kill the Autobot leader and capture Sam, as he now has the full knowledge of where the Matrix of Leadership (the key to ignite the Sun-Harvester) is hidden... nevermind the fact that Megatron was just resurrected with a shard of the Allspark, which would logically have transferred him the same information it had just given Sam... but the brief moment of contact with Sam's fingers was clearly far more impactful... Anyway, the Decepticons attack and kill Optimus as Sam makes a run for it with his girlfriend Mikaela, Bumblebee, his annoying roommate, an even more annoying mini-Decepticon, and two characters so abhorrent I won't even bother to type their names. After a lot of nonsensical exposition and a gaggle of bathroom-humor hijinx, they meet up with an ancient Decepticon named Jetfire who magically teleports (He's a jet, people! Have him fly there, not teleport!) them to Petra, where the Matrix of Leadership is kept hidden. 

To wrap things up, Sam finds the matrix in pieces and despite the fact that there is no possible way it can be reconfigured, he insists on carrying around the shattered remains of the Cybertronian relic with the hopes of resurrecting Optimus. With the help of their deplorable comrades, they somehow manage to stop the Sun-Harvester, run through a battlefield completely unscathed, travel to and back from Transformer heaven, and magically rebuild the Matrix of Leadership so that Optimus can return to life and destroy The Fallen (though of course Megatron and Starscream survive to appear in another sequel... I mean, fight another battle...).

Whew, that was rough! Michael Bay has never been my favorite (see Transformers: Dark of the Moon for more on that), but never have I seen a movie that is so reliant on special effects and potty humor than I have in this complete mess. Whenever I think about one of the worst films I've ever seen, this is one of the first that comes to mind. Part of the incoherence of this screenplay is due to the writer's strike of 2007, but that is not an acceptable excuse. Any aspiring writer could come up with a script far better than this with a word processor and an hour of free time. The loops and swirls of the storytelling doesn't cohere into a fun and exciting tapestry like Indiana Jones (a film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen clearly wishes it was), but rather a tangled, garbled mess that leaves no reward for the questions it raises.

Here's the argument Transformers fans are sure to bring up at this point: "Well, it's all about the action scenes. The story doesn't have to be amazing." True, if all you care about is catering to the least demanding viewers then you can settle for that. But even dumb fun doesn't insult the intelligence of its audience like this film does. It's constantly writing itself into corners and rather than establishing a logical progression of events that ties up loose threads from the beginning of the film, it simply creates some new unexplainable character or situation that "solves" that problem and promptly disappears inexplicably. This is why I get so frustrated when people see the trailer for Pacific Rim, a movie that for all its faults doesn't go on a wild goose chase of incomprehensible story threads just to give you adrenalized action sequences. It sets up a relatable (if slightly contrived) scenario where two titanic foes can do epic battle while giving us characters we like and a spectacle that isn't muddled by inexcusable storytelling.

That's not even getting into the ridiculously stupid humor that Michael Bay force-feeds the screenwriters. I don't want to see dogs or robots humping peoples' legs, giant wrecking balls positioned to look like a scrotum, offensive African-American stereotypes personified in the most deplorable Autobots, or seasoned actors like John Turturro running around an air museum with his pants down. This is the epitome of Hollywood crap. I give this film a generous one and a half stars for the visual effects technicians that did what they could with the terrible hand they were given.

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, language, some crude and sexual material, and brief drug material.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pacific Rim

Somehow a regularly proportioned poster of this film just wouldn't suffice. Ever since I first saw the trailer for this film, and with a visionary like Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) at the helm, there was no doubt that Pacific Rim would be unlike any blockbuster action movie out there. It looked like a combination of a throw-back Godzilla film and Transformers (in a good way) with a touch of Independence Day thrown in. Every time I've mentioned this movie to people they always seem to have an excited gleam in their eye, even as their response voices a healthy dose of skepticism. To all those people let me just reassure you right now, this is a massively entertaining film and should be seen in a theatrical venue if at all possible. 

In the near future, a group of massive monsters (referred to as "Kaiju") gradually materialize from an inter-dimensional portal that lies in a crevice on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Attacking cities across the world, humanity's resources are depleted in the losing battle against the Kaiju. Over time the human race begins building a new kind of weapon: enormous sky-scraper sized robots known as "Jaegers". The Jaeger program proves successful, as more and more Kaiju are eliminated. However, adapting to the fighting style of the Jaeger pilots, the Kaiju overcome and destroy all but a handful of the giant robots, causing the united governments to pull their funding. With the alternative plan of constructing massive walls to keep out the inter-dimensional creatures proving folly, humanity's last hope lies with the few remaining Jaeger pilots launching an all-out assault against the rapidly approaching apocalypse.

I had the pleasure of seeing this film with a friend on the biggest screen available last night, the IMAX theater at the Jordan Commons Megaplex. If you can, I definitely recommend seeing this film on the largest format possible, as the bigger the screen is the more immersive this epic monster film will feel. As indicated in the trailers, it bolsters action on possibly the grandest scale I've ever seen and will definitely give moviegoers an experience they've surely never had in a theater. From the thumping bass of the score to the crushing sound effects of the titanic battles, Pacific Rim is a film that demands to be seen in the cinema.

The most magical and astounding part of this film is the design and realization of the Kaiju monsters. As del Torro will tell any reporter who asks him, this movie is very much a love-letter to the monster movie genre. After seeing this film, however, I would have to go a step further - this is the monster movie to end all monster movies. I just can't imagine another one that could compete with the colossal destruction beautifully captured in this film. Next year's reboot of Godzilla certainly has its work cut out for it to duplicate this level of excitement and adrenaline.

Despite the thrill-ride this movie is, the characters are surprisingly fleshed out and complex. Each one has unique characteristics that add another dimension (pun intended) to the story, making it so much more than just another Michael Bay car commercial. Del Toro brings so much to even the most minute details that every scene gets you more invested in humanity's plight and more interested in the Kaijus' ultimate purpose. Even the method in which the pilots operate the Jaegers (a two-person neural bridge) allows for back-story and emotional development even while in the midst of incredibly tense moments.

None of the actors in this film are household names, but each one of them comes to play with the part they're given. Charlie Hunnam (a relatively unknown actor who I only recognize from Nicholas Nickleby) plays the lead hero, Raleigh Becket, who is struggling to cope with a recent tragedy. His physicality definitely sells the toughness of the part, but it's his emotional vulnerability exuded through his eyes that gives the character a soul. Idris Elba also does a great job as the head of the Jaeger program, bringing authority and weight to what could be a pretty thankless role. The only performance that didn't quite match up for me was Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, a prospective Jaeger pilot with unparalleled fighting skills and a tortured past. She definitely pulls off the fighting scenes and even some of her dramatic moments are done well, but her lack of command for the language was a bit distracting at times.

This film might not be the most dramatically satisfying, but it's one of the most entertaining and unique movie experiences of the year. It's difficult to discuss all the intricacies that make the plot so unique without getting into spoilers, but suffice it to say that Pacific Rim is a visual masterpiece and a surprisingly original take on the "end of the world" movie trope we've so often seen. I give this movie a solid three and a half stars.

PACIFIC RIM is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief language


Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Lone Ranger

The long-awaited reboot of The Lone Ranger has had a notoriously troubled production, delaying its release by over a year. I had nothing personally invested in this film, as I knew hardly anything about the original radio series or any other screen adaptations of the character. I did know that the team that brought us the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films were working on this project, which could have been a good or a bad thing (depending on your opinion of director Gore Verbinski's aesthetic). I was mildly anticipating this film as it was, even though I feared for the worst, given its production woes. So when critics left and right began ruthlessly panning this film, I was surprised that so many of my close friends and family actually enjoyed it. This allowed me the freedom to approach this film with a pretty open mind, and I gleaned something from it that I think may help others appreciate it more than they might have otherwise.

John Reid is a by-the-book attorney returning to his Texas home via train after receiving a job offer. Before he arrives home, however, the train is ambushed by a group of miscreants who promptly free the prisoner Butch Cavendish before setting the train on a collision course. His life is saved, in part, by another prisoner aboard the train, the Comanche outcast Tonto, who failed in his attempt to kill Butch thanks to John's intervention. With his brother Dan's assistance, John places Tonto in prison to await trial and accompanies his brother on a quest to track down the band of outlaws led by Butch. But with a traitor in their midst, the Reids' company are ambushed en route and all seven of them are killed. At the bequest of a white spirit horse, however, Tonto later learns that John has been chosen as a "spirit walker" (a man who cannot be killed in battle) to help him in his quest to destroy Butch for his crimes against the Comanche tribe.

In pure Gore Verbinski style, this film is a very peculiar beast. There is no shortage of quirkiness, either in characterization by Depp and his frequent collaborator Helena Bonham Carter, or in cringe-inducing moments of grotesque slapstick. Having followed this film's production since the screenwriting process, I remembered that Disney originally intended for this film to have more of a supernatural element (much like the Pirates of the Caribbean films) that would include some version of werewolves as a central antagonist. A lot of the framework for this idea is still present in the script with the inclusion of silver bullets and nature being "out of balance". Part of me wishes they had chosen to tell that story, but while it wasn't expertly re-written, the fix they implemented does manage to satisfactorily tie those loose threads into the narrative.

One thing the movie absolutely nailed was the cinematography and the wonderful choices for location shooting. The landscapes of Utah, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California are shot to breathtaking effect in this film and the style in which the movie is photographed makes this somewhat rote western surprisingly accessible to people like myself that prefer a more modern aesthetic. No matter how many historical inaccuracies or jarring tonal shifts this movie has, the visuals are undeniably stunning to watch.

While I doubt it's controversial to say, this is far from a perfect film. For one thing, some people are claiming (somewhat accurately, I might add) that this film is a little tough and even brutal for what we have come to expect from Disney. I've even heard some say that the PG-13 rating is being pushed with some of the content presented. While this is certainly one of the most violent Disney films I've ever seen, I don't think it's that much darker than any of the Pirates films which depict many of the same things. The difference here is the gritty, grounded universe being portrayed in this film makes the gruesome aspects more disturbing, as opposed to the fantastical world of the Pirates films that leaves room for emotional detachment.

Given all the negative reviews flooding the internet, I feel the need to defend this film a little against the somewhat unjustified hate it seems to be getting. Most of the problems other reviewers have cited are perfectly valid, but the saving grace that allows me to mostly overlook these flaws in storytelling and editing is the fact that the story is told completely by a much older Tonto (who may not be a very reliable narrator). As the film progresses, the audience comes to understand that Tonto isn't perhaps the most mentally sound character, which gives me the impression that many of the eccentricities depicted in this story are merely the bizarre recollections of a slightly delusional storyteller. It's a major mulligan, but I think looking at it from that perspective might make the film a little more enjoyable for critical moviegoers.

Despite the flaws in this film, I actually found myself really enjoying it. The action is intense throughout the film (though highly implausible), and the performances are quite good. The standout, as always, is Johnny Depp who brings a wonderfully understated humor to the part of Tonto, while layering it with a tinge of sorrow in the few emotional parts of the story. I can't say this film is tremendous, but compared with the recent Cowboys and Aliens I think this film is a lot more fun. It doesn't have a great deal of emotional weight to it, but I didn't approach this movie with that expectation. To me, that would be like disliking The King's Speech because it didn't have enough action set pieces. I enjoyed this film for what it was, and while I would have liked for a bit more coherence and character development, I still give The Lone Ranger a slightly generous three stars.

THE LONE RANGER is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material