Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wolverine has claws,
but they're a little dull

I'm probably the last person who should be reviewing a movie based on a comic book. I read a few comics when I was younger (and worked at a comic book store!), but I have not really moved on to the graphic novels that have taken comic books to a more mature level. I love the movies made from these comics and graphic novels, but I really have no reference on which to base an opinion except for the movie.

And so it is with Marvel's latest superhero movie, The Wolverine, a sequel to the pretty dismal X-Men Origins: Wolverine which was a prequel to the X-Men trilogy, and now works its way into being a lead-in for the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past (make sure you stay part of the way through the end credits). Got all that? Apparently, The Wolverine is based on a graphic novel in which the plot takes Logan, tired of being a superhero after having to kill his love Jean Grey in the third X-Men movie, out of the wilderness he's banished himself to and straight to Japan at the request of an "old friend," a former Japanese soldier whom Logan saved from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Logan believes he's going to say goodbye to the dying old man, but the man actually has a deal for him: he has a cure for Logan's immortality. Haunted by the spectre of his beloved Jean (Famke Janssen, reprising her role), Logan briefly considers the deal, but the man dies before he can come to a final decision. Meanwhile, the yakuza are after the old man's granddaughter, Mariko, because she is now the most powerful woman in Japan after being the sole benefactor in the will … something her father is not too happy about. Logan suddenly finds himself as Mariko's self-appointed bodyguard, but there seems to be much more going on than meets the eye.

The Wolverine is certainly a better movie than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, adding a few bits of much-needed humor, but it's also a missed opportunity. Plopping Logan down in the middle of Japan was an inspired bit of plot development, and casting mostly unknown Japanese actors in the supporting roles (plus Russian Svetlana Khodchenkova) puts the audience in Logan's fish out of water shoes. The best of the Japanese cast is Rila Fukushima as Yukio, a Harajuku-looking girl who is a badass with a sword and has some special powers of her own. Will Yun Lee is probably the most recognizable of the supporting cast, but he really has very little to do but react to situations and fight. The film's downfall is Tao Okamoto as Mariko. Okamoto is just perpetually blank throughout the film, whether she's in danger or attempting to romance Logan. Her performance is so bland that I could never tell if she was truly a victim who needed saving or if she was in on the plot to steal Logan's immortality. Okamoto is basically the Japanese Kristin Stewart.

Where the film succeeds is in its action sequences, which are unfortunately top-loaded in the first third of the film, which leaves a truly leaden middle section where Logan and Mariko are hiding out, plotting their next move. The attempted assassination/kidnapping of Mariko at her grandfather's funeral is staged brilliantly, and even as silly as it is (think the Chunnel Train scene in Mission: Impossible), the fight on top of a bullet train is one of the film's highlights. The problem with the plot, though, is the fact that we know that Logan is never in danger of losing his abilities or dying, so where is the suspense? It's hard to care about a character's journey when we know he ain't really going anywhere.

I went into The Wolverine with the lowest of expectations, so to say that it wasn't as bad as its predecessor is at least faint praise. I was just really hoping it would have been better, but a predictable plot and some bad casting have nearly de-clawed everyone's favorite mutant.

Photo: Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox/Marvel

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim is a gigantic hit

Sometime this year, the world was/will be invaded by gigantic monsters, or kaiju, from beneath the sea. Literally, beneath the sea as they are coming from a large fissure on the ocean floor that has a sort of wormhole to another dimension. Got that? And why are we suddenly under attack from these behemoths? Seems they were here once before (the dinosaurs) but the environment was a bit too inhospitable for them. But now, with all of mankind's contributions to the earth's atmosphere, we've basically made the planet a great place for them to live and us to die so the Jaeger program was created to construct gigantic war machines (robots, but not really robots since these are actually piloted by humans) that are our last defense against the kaiju (no other conventional weapons work against them).

But there's a problem … the kaiju are getting bigger and stronger, and some government muckety-mucks think a giant wall around earth's coastal cities will be enough to keep the kaiju out, so they dismantle the Jaeger program. And then the kaiju break through the wall. It's up to retired Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) to save the day by rejoining what's left of the program, but his memories of losing his brother during a fight (the Jaegers require two linked pilots basically sharing one brain, so he still has his brother's memories) and the trauma experienced by his new partner may be larger obstacles to overcome.

Pacific Rim is the definition of a summer blockbuster. Director Guillermo del Toro wastes no time in getting the movie started. We get a brief recap of what started in 2013 that leads quickly up to the story of Raleigh and his brother in 2020, to the film's present of 2025. By that time, Raleigh is a construction worker on the wall when he's called back to duty by his former commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The film wastes no time on any major character development, giving us archetypes for supporting characters (a Chinese team of pilots and a Russian team of pilots never get to say a word, but are stereotypically identifiable just by their looks) including a father/son team from Australia, with the son having a chip on his shoulder about washed-up Raleigh returning to the program.

Of the three main human stars, Hunnam is handsome and stoic, but he's almost a bit too bland and reserved. Elba is a commanding presence and really puts his all into the performance, especially when he gets to bark out the film's iconic line, "Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!" Rinko Kikuchi, as Pentecost's right hand, Mako, who becomes Raleigh's left hand, isn't given a whole lot to work with but she manages to take her character's inner pain and put it all right on her expressive face. She really has to have the most internalized performance, but you still can feel her trauma and need for revenge against the kaiju. The little girl who plays the young Mako in a flashback is amazing, registering the child's pure terror while trying to save herself from a kaiju.

But Pacific Rim isn't really about the humans, it's about the kaiju and the Jaegers. If you've ever seen a Japanese monster movie ("kaiju" comes from that particular genre), you should get great joy from Pacific Rim. Del Toro obviously loves the genre of giant monsters smashing major cities, and has gone to great lengths to make each of the kaiju look different and have different abilities. The addition of the Jaeger as an opponent to the kaiju makes the fight scenes more thrilling because, unlike a movie like Transformers where it's hard to tell the robots apart when they're fighting, you have two distinct adversaries so there is no question as to who is fighting who.

The film, however, rests on the success of the CGI effects and they are flawless. You marvel at the effects, knowing these are not people in rubber suits. These characters have real weight to them even though they exist only on a massive computer hard drive somewhere. The film would have fallen apart completely if the audience did not buy what they are seeing, and after the initial wow factor of "how did they do that," you settle back into your seat and enjoy the ride. I had the opportunity to see the film in IMAX 3D, and the experience was amazing. The film looks beautiful, the 3D worked well although it's questionable if it was really necessary, and the sound design pummels your ear drums while helping to sell the illusion of the weight of the CGI creatures.

With only a few minor quibbles (lack of characterization, and the late-in-the-game appearance of a new weapon that should have been used much earlier), Pacific Rim is a blockbuster that should be seen on the big (or biggest) screen. It's a summer popcorn movie, but it's not a sequel or a remake, and it's not a movie based on a TV show, so audiences need to show Hollywood that we can support something original.

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures