Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Wolverine Review

In this corner...Edward Scissorhands!

In this corner…Edward Scissorhands!

I’ve always had a problem with the Wolverine character in comics and in the movies, particularly in the movies. My problem was that the nature of Wolverine’s fighting ability, using six foot-long claws, meant that in order to defeat a foe, it would mean killing them. What else can you do with claws against an enemy? And that would always mean that in a Wolverine fight scene, he would have to get his ass kicked for a good five minutes before delivering a death blow, so as not to make the fight scenes ridiculously short. Witness the fight scene in the original X-Men with Mystique. Witness the fight scene in X2 with Lady Deathstrike. Witness the fight scene in Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine where…oh, hell, I don’t remember much about either of those films.

Well, all that’s out the window with The Wolverine. This movie, whose story is loosely based on the defining Wolverine comic mini-series of the early 80s, is easily the best portrayal of Wolverine in any of the X-Men films. This is Wolverine doing what he’s supposed to do, mainly slash, gut and eviscerate anyone who steps to him. Granted, most of the people he goes up against are secondary characters, but as there are technically no true supervillains in this film, we finally finally finally get to see Logan square off against his adversaries in true “let’s get it poppin'” badass form. The fight scenes are excitingly choreographed, although they suffer from the PG-13 rating, which means when Wolverine uses his unique weaponry against a bad guy, we see the bad guy crumple over and we hear a sound effect akin to a heavy boot stepping into a pile of thick mud. If only this were an R-rated movie, so we the audience could see Logan engage in his bloody handiwork unfettered. The fact that you don’t see the blood doesn’t make it any less violent, in my opinion. So why not go all out? If I’m allowed to see zombie heads being severed on AMC, why not a little blood splatter in a movie about, um, the Wolverine, hello? But no matter, this is Wolverine at his fighting best. In full disclosure, I’ll also say that I never really took to Jackman in the role, not because he was too tall (the comic character reportedly stands at 5′ 3″) but because he was too much of a pretty boy. I always pictured Gary Sinise in the role, an excellent actor with the right stature and a natural scowl. But after reading about 44 year old Jackman’s training regimen and insanely rigid diet of seven chicken breasts a day around the clock, and seeing him acting every bit the part (for the first time, in my opinion), Jackman definitely earns his stripes in this one. Or his claws, if you prefer.

The underlying story is simple. Dying Japanese billionaire industrialist Yashida summons Logan to thank him for saving his life during the bombing of Nagasaki (Logan’s healing factor renders him veritably ageless) and offers him a proposition: the chance for Logan to transfer his mutant healing ability into Yashida’s body, thus saving Yashida’s life and ending Wolverine’s curse of virtual immortality. Things get hectic when it becomes known that Yashida has willed all his holdings to his daughter Mariko; everyone from the Japanese mob to the mutant Viper set their sights on Mariko to gain control of the industrial empire, or so it seems. Wolverine, for reasons not completely clear, becomes Mariko’s protector and these initial scenes grab a tight hold and don’t let up. The first act of the film culminates in a stunning fight scene aboard (literally) a 300 mph bullet train. This is a scene to rival the Air Force One midair rescue acrobatics in Iron Man 3. As the film convenes its second act, it become a little muddled and slows significantly. While there are still some really kick-ass fight scenes, characters and motivations become hard to follow. However, by this time, I was completely enthralled by the noirish aspects of the film (who doesn’t like being a little confused by a good whodunit?) and the Japanese mise en scene.

I’m hearing that the third act is where the film falls apart for most people. Whereas the beginning and middle of the movie takes itself seriously, and justifiably so, the third act devolves into a trite comic book film. It becomes rather silly. I completely understand why these criticisms are leveled at the last half hour of the film, but I say that if we were able to accept that in the first X-Men movie, Magneto was able to build a machine that would turn regular humans into mutants by hooking Anna Paquin up to it, there’s really no ground to criticize the third act of this film whatsoever. It requires about the same amount of suspension of disbelief. That is to say, it does become a bit of a head-scratcher, but I would say the same for some of the previous X-Men installments as well. I will say that once you exit the theater, if you stop to analyze it a bit, you will pause and ask yourself, “Well, why did this/these character(s) go through all THAT when they could’ve just done THIS?” I engaged in that for about three hours afterwards. I will say that I was less bothered by this last act than by the numerous dream sequences that hit us over the head with the fact that this movie picks up where X3: The Last Stand ended.

However, my bottom line is that this is the Wolverine that I’ve been wanting to see since the year 2000, when the X-Men debuted onscreen. The supporting characters; Yukio, Mariko Yashida, Shingen, Harada and Viper are all on point. I loved the noir mystery tone the film sets once Logan arrives in Japan. I loved the fact that the movie is set in Japan and that Japanese dialogue is subtitled, adding realism and an international dynamism to the film (as well as increasing its chances to make a mint overseas). I loved the Silver Samurai. But most of all, I love being able to say finally that Hugh Jackman killed (again, literally) as The Wolverine. 4/5 reels

P.S. I’d heard that the bonus scene, which appears soon after the credits begin to roll, was as good as the entire movie. I guess I’m in the minority there. If you’ve read the X-Men story arc entitled “Days Of Future Past,” which by now, should be no spoiler to say is the basis of the next X-Men film, then I’m not sure why you’d be more than just mildly entertained by this scene. What it did for me was show how the great Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan have aged since X3.

 

Pacific Rim Review

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 1.19.23 PM
"Make one black C3PO joke and I'll give you a right pasting, you wanker!"

“Make one black C3PO joke and I’ll give you a right pasting, you wanker!”

Pacific Rim is about giant robots (Jaegers) fighting giant monsters (Kaiju).

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. I could end this review right there. Because it doesn’t matter that Charlie Hunnam is as bland as vanilla ice cream and sucks the life out of the set whenever he’s onscreen. It doesn’t matter that there’s hardly any plot other than what I mentioned in the first sentence of this review. Doesn’t matter that most of the beats of this film are lifted directly from Independence Day. Doesn’t matter that there are completely implausible premises, the most glaring (to me anyway) being that humanity would have the technology to create 60′ tall robots in the present era. All that matters is that this is a movie that delivers on what it promises: big robots fighting big monsters. On that level, the movie is a success.

So even though I acknowledge that this movie doesn’t set out to be more than a live action anime, with all the tired tropes we’ve seen thousands of times–the reckless hero who must redeem himself after experiencing a tragedy, the young rookie upstart who has something to prove, the rival out to steal the hero’s glory even though they should be working together, the hard military leader who has no problem kicking ass to get things done, the gratuitous martial arts fight scene–we’ve seen it all before and it would be an injustice to a movie like this if those elements weren’t included. But I think about a movie like Starship Troopers, which had a similar tone but presented these mainstays so much better, including the lead actors (one of which was Denise Richards, so that’s saying a lot). I also look back to Independence Day, which as I said, Pacific Rim cribs heavily from. Maybe it’s not fair to pit the preternaturally charismatic Will Smith against Mr. Hunnam, but it is what it is.

While Idris Elba gives his usual command performance and Rinko Kikuchi does a decent job, even at times when she comes off as a lost puppy dog, two standout performances are delivered by Charlie Day and Ron Perlman. In any other film, these characters both would have come off as extremely annoying, but perhaps here amidst all the so-so performances, these two breathe a little life into their scenes. There’s another character of a rival scientist, played by Burn Gorman, who is a full out cartoon and easily the most grating character on the screen. But then all is forgiven for the most part, when the big robots start fighting the big monsters.

If anyone had a problem with the carnage in Man Of Steel, this movie should have been pure torture because it’s worldwide carnage. But unlike MOS, here at least we get scenes of people being evacuated before mass destruction ensues. Of course, the global economy would collapse under the burden of rebuilding all the decimated infrastructure around the world. But let’s stick to the theme at hand: it doesn’t matter as long as there are giant robots and giant monsters fighting each other. The Jaegers make the Transformers look like Tinker Toys. The monsters are misshapen bulky spewing masses. They were spectacular. That is, when you could make them out. I counted about two and a half fight scenes that took place in daylight (I added the half because one of those scenes was from the perspective of a TV monitor). The rest of the scenes all took place at night in the rain, making it very difficult to make out the action. And at the conclusion of one spectacular fight scene north of an hour into the film, where a kaiju hurls a Jaeger out of the bay deep into the city, one would think the movie would start to wind down. Not by a long shot. After that, there are a good 45 minutes to go and it becomes a test of endurance for the audience. Not to say there weren’t entertaining moments yet to come; a scene where Ron Perlman does a great impersonation of Samuel L. Jackson in 1999’s Deep Blue Sea comes to mind. And I appreciated a scene where we’re treated to some back story for Kikuchi’s character, where she’s portrayed as a little girl (warning: the scene ends in a terribly corny fashion). But by the time the final showdown takes place, it’s to the point where you’re looking at your watch and asking the filmmakers to move it along. And to top it off, after squinting through the darkness and rain to make out what’s going on during the numerous fight scenes, the big showdown takes place underwater, making it even more difficult to follow what’s going on.

By the way, if you should find yourself piloting a 60′ tall Jaegar while in a battle with a giant kaiju, lead off with the sword. 1) It looks cool as sh*t and 2) um, it actually works!

I didn’t feel as though I wasted my money sitting through Pacific Rim. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for it. What I didn’t know was how bland some of the performances were going to be, how similar to Independence Day the plotting was going to be, and how murky some of the fight scenes were going to be. Which is the real injustice in a movie where all that matters is–all together now–giant robots fighting giant monsters. 3/5 reels

 

Fruitvale Station

Strange Fruitvale

Strange Fruitvale

I saw Fruitvale Station in the wake of the ubiquitous media coverage of the Trayvon Martin verdict. I’ve had some pointed opinions on the whole affair, namely how tragic and seemingly unjust the verdict was, then I tell myself that only Zimmerman and the departed Mr. Martin know what happened that night and the jury deliberated purely on the evidence presented to them. I also scratch my head at how the African-American community mobilized in the wake of the initial shooting and the verdict, whereas the death toll of blacks at the hands of other blacks have reached nearly genocidal levels in Chicago, yet not much is said or done. With that in mind, I went into this film determined to keep my intellectualism and my penchant for discernment intact. I’ll come back to this point later.

In a prologue, we see the actual cell phone footage of the shooting, which was viewed over and over on You Tube by the entire country, yet more than four years later, it’s still shocking. After the credits, we’re eerily plunged into the relative calm of the life of Oscar Grant, as portrayed almost sedately through the majority of the film by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle, The Wire). By way of handheld camera work, and the utmost natural, unaffected performances by Jordan, Melonie Diaz as girlfriend Sophina, Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother and the majority of the remaining cast, we feel like voyeurs watching the latest reality show, only this show has a premise that we’re not likely to see on TV: a young black man who has made mistakes in the past but is attempting to atone for the sake of his girlfriend and their daughter. I say you’re not likely to see this reality show on TV because this young black man doesn’t have numerous women on speed dial, he doesn’t rock gold chains or teeth, nor does he have a gaggle of kids. And as evidenced by current reality programming featuring African-American performers, Oscar is way too tame.

That’s not to say he’s an angel. When we’re first introduced to the character of Oscar, it’s during a late-night argument with his girlfriend over an affair. In subsequent scenes, his temper drives his mother away during a jail visit. He can’t hold a job due to irresponsible behavior. He sells weed. He and his friends use the N word with each other far too much (well, that’s a personal pet peeve of mine, but that’s a debate to be had in another forum). In other words, this guy has problems. But wait a minute. Does director Ryan Coogler go a bit overboard in trying to elicit sympathy for Oscar? The opening argument with his girlfriend concludes with him proclaiming his devotion to her only and forevermore, as their daughter jumps into bed with them and they sleep in each other’s arms. After displaying a flash of bad temper to his ex-boss at his former job at a local market, he calmly goes back to assisting a young Caucasian woman who has no idea what kind of fish to fry for her husband’s black friends. And in scenes that are particularly transparent in their foreshadowing, he’s almost brought to tears over the death of a stray dog, a victim of a hit and run in the shadow of the BART train (the train he was riding on the night he was shot) as well as the scene where he’s play-fighting with his daughter who has him pinned to the ground while he smiles broadly, in direct contrast to his demeanor while being pinned to the ground by the BART police.

Scenes like this make one wonder if, somewhat like Jackie Robinson’s portrayal earlier this year in the film “42,” the director is overly eulogizing Oscar. Even though he shows us a bit of his negative side, as I outlined previously, some of these scenes are obviously meant to pander to a certain degree. There’s a scene near the end of the film where a Caucasian gentleman engages Oscar in a conversation while waiting for his wife, a little after midnight on New Year’s Eve. Not to be cynical, but I would like to visit the world where white businessmen openly converse with black urban youth on the street at night (would that we lived in that world today); the gentleman, an entrepreneur who has a successful internet business, offers Oscar a business card and tells him to call if he needs anything. In light of the events on the night Trayvon was killed, this scene smacks of ingratiating political correctness, but more than that, it’s clear that the scene implores us to see hope in Oscar’s circumstance, so as to make the outcome of the film all the more devastating. It’s the reverse of Ricky’s mom getting his college acceptance letter in the mail after Ricky has been shot dead by a gang-banger (for the uninitiated, see John Singleton’s film debut).

Now, back to my intellectualism. Let me first say, there’s a really implausible and contrived coincidence in the third act whose only purpose is to push the plot forward to its inevitable conclusion, but for the most part, as manipulative as some of these scenes are, the movie is powerfully effective. And eerily timely. After having seen the You Tube clip, after having seen that same clip at the beginning of this film, the crowd still gasped when the bullet was fired into Oscar’s back. The tension was palpable when Kevin Durand, an actor who plays slimy characters a little too well, appears as a cop who is downright abusive to Oscar and his friends on the Fruitvale platform. Durand is the one character who is played almost as a caricature in the film, then again, who’s to say the real cop wasn’t a living caricature? During a credit summation when it’s revealed that the cop who shot Oscar was sentenced to only two years for involuntary manslaughter and released after only eleven months, there was audible cursing in the theater. My breath caught as well when I read that. I say all this to make the point that, while watching this film, I knew I was being manipulated at times and I was proud of myself for being able to discern that and maintain objectivity. I was sufficiently moved, mind you (I’m not a robot for God’s sake), and I remained emotionally attached but intellectually intact, even when Oscar’s daughter asks her mother the next day after the shooting, “Where’s Daddy?”

Flash forward and I’m walking out of the theater feeling surprisingly positive and energized, I guess due to endorphins released as a counteragent to the downer experience I just had. I’m sitting in a diner in NYC near the theater having dinner. I look up to a bank of TVs to see Piers Morgan discussing the case of Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman in Florida who received 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot at her abusive husband. Her attorneys used the Stand Your Ground law in their defense. Piers goes on to compare that case to the Martin case, in which Zimmerman went free based in part, if not completely, on the same law. Then I see in my head once again the onscreen text which proclaimed that the cop who shot Oscar went free after only eleven months. The shooting scene replays in my head. The scene of the doctor delivering the news of Oscar’s death to his mom replays in my head (none of this can fairly be considered spoilers at this current time).  My bottom lip starts quivering, my eyes well up. Intellectualism and discernment be damned. At that moment, I was angry. I was sick and upset with all the foolishness perpetrated by white people AND black people which continues to lead to more senseless violence in the black community. What this movie did was sneak up on me and disarm me. I left the theater with a rating in mind but I hadn’t yet finished digesting the film. I can say that despite a few scenes that pander for emotion, this film does what it’s meant to do; humanize a young man who, despite all his flaws and errors in judgment, despite how society may view him, even in a clearly unjust death, didn’t deserve what fate had in store for him. Particularly given that he was turning his life around.

I said earlier that this movie plays as a 90 minute eulogy to Oscar Grant. I want to amend that; this movie is not a eulogy to only Oscar, it’s a eulogy to Trayvon Martin as well. 4.5/5 reels

Fruitvale Station in limited engagements.

The Heat Review

"No, Paul, I'm not undoing any more buttons. I'm an Oscar winner, dammit!"

“No, Paul, I’m not undoing any more buttons. I’m an Oscar winner, dammit!”

 

As I sat down to write a review for this film, I found myself struggling with what angle to take. See, I think movie reviewers take a position on whether or not they like a film, whether or not they would recommend a film, then they find a clever or witty angle to present their position. Granted, I’m not a professional reviewer, although I’d love to be, but for now, I just do this for fun and I have an opinion on just about everything. But, be that as it may, there are a few ways to approach this and I’m not sure which is best. So let’s just get the basics out of the way:

I didn’t like this movie.

OK, having said that, now I need to find the ice breaker, the witty way of presenting my reasons why I didn’t like it. I could go with:

Comedy is more and more a difficult sell, particularly in movies. In my opinion, the last really funny movie (outside of Bridesmaids, which lost me in the last act) was 2010’s The Other Guys. Before that, off the top of my head, I gotta go with Meet The Parents, yes, all the way back in 2000 (note to self: rent Ted). Unlike drama, which reliably has a protagonist who is beset with any number of obstacles he or she must overcome and there is usually an antagonist, be it a person or an event, that is meant to undermine the protagonist, comedy is very subjective. I don’t think anyone in comedy could honestly tell you why something is funny, let alone why something is funny to one person and not another. Comedy is more intimate; I believe comedy usually plays better on the small screen in small doses. Plus, comedy is subject to the changing times, the changing mores of society. What passes for mainstream comedy today most often consists of raunch, filth, shock and so on. Not saying I have a problem with that, but many comedies take the approach that the raunchier and filthier it is, the funnier it is. Not so. Something funny, with the right amount of raunch and filth, can be hilarious. But this movie is far from hilarious.

The Heat stars Sandra Bullock as the straight-laced by the book FBI agent Sarah Ashburn, the Stan Laurel to Melissa McCarthy’s Oliver Hardy; the foul and obnoxious Det. Shannon Mullins. It’s the mismatched cop story you’ve seen a million times except for the absence of Y chromosomes in the two leads. While Melissa McCarthy provides a few laughs, she is proof of what I said earlier: comedy, or rather what passes for comedy today, plays better in small doses. Putting aside the few and far between laughs McCarthy provides, this movie clocks in at 117 minutes, an eternity for a comedy, and McCarthy becomes so over the top obnoxious, I wanted to plug my ears at a certain point. Some of the funny moments are in scenes where she resorts to ad-libs; the funniest scene of the movie involves McCarthy’s character arresting a john, played by Tony Hale (superb on Arrested Development and Veep). What makes it funny (as I attempt to explain humor after saying it can’t be done) is that McCarthy approaches the perp with a charming smile and does her shtick to entrap the guy, but we the audience are in on the joke and we laugh at the poor schmuck who doesn’t realize she’s a cop. Because Hale is so brilliant, the two of them make the scene very funny. But unfortunately, that scene occurs at the very beginning of the movie and it’s the only scene in which Hale appears. And as mentioned, McCarthy’s shtick becomes grating fast, as in a joke that goes on WAY too long about her looking for her precinct captain’s balls.

Inevitably, through an improbable series of events, Ashburn and Mullins team up to take down a Boston drug lord. Sandra Bullock, bless her heart, does her best to move mountains in order to make this movie work. It’s not that she’s not funny, she has sharp comedic timing, but I just couldn’t help feeling bad for her, as the Oscar winner is made to strip off clothing, dance badly and shove a guy’s head in her cleavage (as you watch this scene, remember the filmmakers want you to believe her character is a top notch agent). As she’s made to wrestle the plus size McCarthy through a door. As she’s made to wrestle McCarthy over a cell phone. Are you getting the pattern here? Then there’s the inevitable montage sequence of drunken revelry, where we smash cut between vignettes of the two leads in various supposedly funny activities with the locals at a dive bar. But I give them credit for one thing: the montage doesn’t take place in a kitchen while cooking and dancing as a 60s Motown song plays in the background.

But as I said, one of the secrets of comedy is to know when to get off the stage. Hell, Seinfeld devoted a whole plotline to this concept with the Costanza character, and we all agree that Seinfeld knows a little about comedy, right? 117 minutes, jokes and bits that go way too long, setups and scenes that become repetitive, etc. I mean, how many different times can we see one guy with a gun get the drop on another guy with a gun before it gets boring? And there are really big missed opportunities as well. Take for instance the scene where Mullins introduces Ashburn to her family. Of course, the family members are as loud and obnoxious as she is; but unfortunately, characters that could’ve been funny are grating from jump because we’ve already been subjected to McCarthy for nearly an hour. They do wring some small laughs out of the Bah-ston accent, but at this point in the film, it’s just more annoying characters. Take another scene where the movie decides to take a grisly turn and we get to see an emergency tracheotomy performed. Could’ve been funny, but as this movie does all too often, it goes for forced shock value as opposed to coaxing a laugh. Take yet another scene where Ashburn is stabbed in the leg not once, not twice, but three times. Laughing yet?

You want more unfunny repetition? OK, well, there’s a scene which follows a needless subplot about Mullins’s evidently numerous flings as guys plead with her to take them back. See, it’s supposed to be funny because she’s so fat, yet all these guys want her so bad! Get it? Yeah, maybe the first time, but twice? However, it was cool to see the reunion of McCarthy and real-life husband Ben Falcone (the air marshal from Bridesmaids). But much like the ridiculous subplot, the scene kind of goes nowhere. And then there’s the subplot about a black street dealer who gets arrested not once, but twice, and gets a watermelon thrown at him. Seriously. No, I didn’t make that up.

I haven’t really delved into the plot. There’s a reason for that. It’s because it makes little sense and it really doesn’t matter. Even if the movie were good, it wouldn’t matter because the point of this film is to laugh at the two mismatched characters. But there’s the rub: IF the movie were good. And it’s not.

OK, I could take that angle. Or, in keeping with the spirit of the film, I could take a ruder, raunchier angle:

What the hell is going on with Sandra Bullock? Why does she keep appearing in lame comedies? Jesus f**king Christ, didn’t she learn ANYTHING from All About Steve? I mean, she’s a f**king Oscar winner! Is she aware that the Oscar clique consisting of Halle Berry and Cube Gooding, Jr. is one that she DOESN’T want to join?

And what the f**k’s going on with her face? In certain lighting and in some camera angles, she looks like f**king Joan Rivers. Not that I would kick her out of bed for eating crackers, she’s still got a smokin’ body, just check out the scene where director Paul Feig makes her debase herself by ripping off her clothes! Man, I’ve got some swollen goods she could take into evidence! I’m just disappointed they didn’t make her do a striptease since that’s the “thing” now. Just ask Jennifer Aniston or Gwyneth Paltrow. And THANK–GOD they actually wrote dialogue into the script as to why McCarthy is not required to strip. That would’ve been a tragedy. The filmmakers make it clear that McCarthy’s girth is meant to make us laugh by putting her in weird situations where her size is a detriment. And she seems all too eager to please in that endeavor.

This movie just ain’t that f**king funny. 2/5 reels

P.S. I don’t know if it was the speaker system in the theater where I saw this, but even the sound was off. There’s a club scene where the music is mixed way low and the crowd walla is non-existent. It literally sounds like it was shot on a soundstage and they forgot to foley the scene. This happens in a few other scenes. And the rap background music seems unnaturally loud, further amplifying the unnecessarily crude lyrics. It seems forced and out of place, particularly when they go into a Boston Southie bar. Rap music in a Boston corner bar, really?