Saturday, July 27, 2013

Movie Review: The Wolverine

The Wolverine is a movie incredibly fortunate to have found itself in a position where it is essentially impossible to fail. Following as it does X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film that was an embarrassing train wreck even for the chronically mediocre X-men film franchise, even just "pretty bad" would be seen as an improvement at this point. You see, The Wolverine kinda sucks. But it's the followup/reboot to a movie that really sucked, therefore "kinds sucks" still counts as a win.

The film follows essentially the same curve of quality that this first X-men film did back in 2000, meaning it has a really strong first act, a decent second, and an abruptly awful third. It opens with a nearly beat for beat translation of the opening vignette from the comic miniseries from which the film is otherwise loosely adapted. It involves Wolverine avenging the death of a bear that was illegally poisoned by irresponsible hunters. Good stuff, but unfortunately after that we have to get back to the actual plot, which is far less interesting than it should've been.

The script borrows the setting and characters from the original miniseries by Chris Claremont, but little else. The plot concerns an aging Japanese billionaire, IchirĊ Yashida, who's life Wolverine saved from an atomic bomb back in WWII (how Wolverine remembers any of that remains unexplained, since it was very emphatically established in every previous movie that he remembers nothing before Weapon X). Nearing the end of his life, Yashida offers Wolverine a dubious "gift": transferring Wolverine's immortality granting healing abilities from him to Yashida, so Wolverine can finally die and Yashida can live forever. What makes Yashida think Wolverine is sick of living forever also remains unexplained, after all Wolverine doesn't even remember most of his 100+ years of existence. Also calling it a gift seems like a clever bit of spin-doctoring when it's pretty clear from any angle that Yashida's benefiting from this way more than Wolverine, even assuming he does want to die. Wolverine of course refuses this rather asinine "gift", but Yashida, being old and hard of hearing, apparently heard him wrong, because Wolverine wakes up the next morning to find his powers slowly slipping away. Yashida is also now mysteriously dead, leaving his vast fortune to his granddaughter Mariko, making her a target for many, including her own jealous and dangerous father. Wolverine elects to protect her, drawing him into a conspiracy involving ninjas, the Yakuza, and some snake woman we're told is the comic book villain Viper (once again having little relation to her literary source, presumably because Fox doesn't have the rights to HYDRA).

The miniseries that inspired all this is notable for making a interesting character out of Wolverine, who was previously (and frequently since) a rather one-note brawler. It introduced Wolverine's fascination with the culture of Japan, and the samurai tradition that sprung from it. The samurai honor code gave Wolverine a purpose, and a way to contain his feral urges. He no longer had to be a mindless animal, her could now channel than into being a noble warrior instead. It's this struggle between his civilized and bestial natures that is the sources of just about any good Wolverine story.

Tragically the film does nothing with the concept, paying only passing lip service to it. The "show, don't tell" rule is heavily abused, as we are repeatedly told that Wolverine is a "ronin", a samurai without a master, but none of his actions ever back that statement up. He shows no real interest in Japanese culture, seeming annoyed by their traditions more than anything. He doesn't even speak Japanese in this version. He never makes any attempt to act honorably or according to any Samurai ideals. The closest thing is in the beginning of the movie when he remorsefully promises Jean Grey, his lover who he killed in X-Men: The Last Stand, that he will never kill anyone again. That promise lasts for about 3 minutes of screen time, when he says "screw it" and tries to decapitate the first guy that pisses him off. After that, he spends the rest of the movie merrily dicing his way through dozens of combatants without even an ounce of restraint. This is for the fans, obviously, most of whom come to see Wolverine go kill crazy, ride motorcycles, and remain gruff and cigar-chomping-ly detached about everything. Because that's what badasses do, not give a crap about anything. Being emotionally engaged is for wimps.

Besides failing miserably to motivate Wolverine to not kill everyone who gets within clawing range, Jean's ghost also serves as the barometer for Wolverine's "find something to live for" arc. Despite turning Yashida down, Wolverine apparently does want to die, because Jean's ghost keeps popping up to tell him he wants to die so he can be with her (once again, no regard for "show, don't tell"). By the end of the movie we know he's completed his arc because he tells Ghost Jean he's found a reason to live. What that reason is or how he found it, I couldn't tell you, but the movie insists he's found it.

The plot is also needlessly convoluted and obfuscated. Sure, the original miniseries had it's share on mystery, backstabbing, and surprise twists, but at least character motivations were clearly established to give you something to latch onto. Wolverine leaves you in the dark for most of it's runtime. There are several factions at odds with each other with multiple characters connected to one another in a variety of ways. But most of it isn't revealed until after the climax, and in the meantime you're left watching a lot of meaningless action sequences that're impossible to get invested in. And by the time they start giving us answers the movie has already gone off the rails and become humiliatingly silly and stupid. I mean, it gets really, really dumb. It honestly starts feeling uncomfortably like a deleted scene from X-Men Origins: Cheap-looking CGI, nonsensical plot developments, and laughable execution. The only thing that prevents it from having the worse payoff to a mystery in a movie this year is the fact that Star Trek Into Darkness came out.

The Wolverine is not without merit. Hugh Jackman continues to make for a charismatic action star. The opening scenes, as I said, are strong, with good atmosphere and pacing. And if you've shown up to see Wolverine fight ninjas, you'll definitely get that. But it's not something you can really call anywhere near "good". I'm once again left with the unshakable feeling that the only director who ever really cared about this franchise was Matthew Vaughn. I know we've been harping on this for 13 years now but: COSTUMES. What kind've madness is it that Hugh Jackman has been playing a superhero for six movies now and has yet to actually wear a costume? You want to get me excited about a Wolverine movie? Bring out the yellow spandex, then we'll talk.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

I did not realize how badly I needed this.

I have been looking forward to Pacific Rim ever since it was first announced. An American take on Japanese kaiju movies and mecha sci-fi directed by monster lover Guillermo del Toro? I was sold three times over before a single piece of advertising was released. So I knew I would enjoy it. I knew I wanted to see it. But I didn't know just how much I needed to see it.

Summer movies have become increasingly hard to enjoy of late, for the simple reason that they've begun taking themselves far too seriously. They've developed the mindset of sulky teen whose mistaken pessimism for realism*. They've developed ambitions of something far different than mere entertainment, to the point that they seem to think entertainment beneath them somehow. Pretentiously long running times, twist-filled scripts trying to be far too clever for their own good, modern cinematography's unhealthy preoccupation with grit and realism, etc. It's as if the industry has forgotten that the whole point of the summer movie season was always to just have fun.

Guillermo del Toro has not forgotten.

And that is not meant to imply that Pacific Rim is so-called "dumb fun", like the recent surprise hit Sharknado. The whole problem with this era of summer moviemaking is the failure to recognize that fun and intelligence are not irreconcilable opposites. Pacific Rim is old school storytelling in the finest tradition of action/adventure film going all the way back to the genesis of the blockbuster in Star Wars. The story is both vital and unassuming, a solid foundation that makes the film function on an emotional level while calling very little attention to itself. There's none of that JJ Abrams nonsense of scribbling a needlessly convoluted plot that adds nothing to the experience except allowing the writer to show off.

The central conceit of the film is brilliantly simple yet provides great opportunities for character interaction. The giant war machines known as Jaegers, necessary tools in the human race's war again an interdimensional invasion of colossal creatures called Kaiju, are controlled through directly interfacing with the brains of their human pilots. But the strain is to much for any one man to handle thus necessitating two people to literally join minds in order to control the Jaeger. Naturally such an intimate connection requires two people who are exceptional close and in sync with each other emotionally. Our first protagonist, Raleigh Beckett, once piloted a Jaeger with his brother, who was killed in combat with the Kaiju. Naturally he's reluctant to return to the cockpit, but changes him mind when he feels a strong connection to a rookie pilot named Mako Mori. It not hard to see where things are going, we're all familiar with the tried and true "mismatched duo must learn to work together" arc. But in a pleasant surprise they manage to do this without making both of them act like assholes. Too often with stories like this, the central conflict does not come from character differences, but from both parties simply hating each other and bickering the whole movie. By the end they're usually still bickering, but since they had that one kinda personal moment in one scene, now we're meant to understand that it's some twisted version of friendship. But Raleigh and Mako connect immediately and form a friendship that carries them through the film as feels genuine**. The only real character conflict comes from the untested Mako, one of the best female protagonists I've seen in recent sci-fi, who must prove her worthiness more to herself than anyone else.

The film is well cast, and the actors really embody their characters beautifully. Charlie Hunnam manages to give Raleigh a tough edge without turning him into the stereotypically prickish image of "badass". Rinko Kikuchi's Mako is vulnerable but courageous. Charlie Day & Burn Gorman have surprisingly good chemistry as the comic relief duo. And of course Ron Perlman's small role as black marketeer Hannibal Chau is a scene-stealer. But the MVP who really runs away with the movie is Idris Elba as Raleigh & Mako's commanding officer Stacker Pentecost. Without saying a word, he conveys with every move, every expression, and every gesture the intense pressure his character is under as a leader. You can literally feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. His screen presence is potently commanding, and unlike other authority figures in fiction, he is neither a close-minded obstacle for the heroes to defy, nor an all-knowing Mary Sue/exposition machine. His actions are perfectly formed around a character that feels like a real human being, flawed but noble and the very definition of a hero.

In fact, that's another rare thing this film has to offer: heroes. In an year so cynical that not even Superman, Captain Kirk, or the Lone Ranger can offer unambiguously admirable heroism anymore, Pacific Rim offers an infectiously childlike sense of optimism that is badly needed. This film has the simple but uplifting theme of humanity being at its best in the face of destruction, the indomitable power of the human spirit. Gone is the petty nationalism of many American action films, replaced with a tone of global cooperation and unity. The Jaeger pilots come from all over the world, a rainbow of colorful characters joining together for a common cause. Even the obligatory "jerk" character is ultimately noble and heroic.

And though it should go without saying, the action set pieces are astounding. The grandiose scale of the Jaeger vs Kaiju fights is utterly rapturous. In stark contrast to the grime & grit aesthetic of the typical modern action movie, Pacific Rim's imagery is full of color and clarity. The often overused shakey cam technique is used only inside the Jaeger cockpits, where it makes sense for increasing the feeling of immersion. The Jaegers themselves are shown crystal clear, and del Toro creatively maintains the immense sense of scale without becoming overly reliant on low-angle shots.

I cannot emphasize enough what a breath of fresh air Pacific Rim was to view. The film is so entertaining on such a basic human level I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying it. Don't be fooled, this is not just some nitsch film for the Power Ranger generation, Godzilla fans and otakus. This is by far the best film of the summer and one of the greatest quintessential blockbusters of all time. If you have kids, you owe it to them to take them to see this. Tell others to do the same, and if the don't have kids, tell them to go anyway. There are only a handful of films out there than can tap into your inner child like Pacific Rim can. Don't pass it up.

*That a line from Flex Mentallo. Look it up, it's awesome.

**Bonus points for not turning Raleigh & Mako into a romantic couple just to have a superfluous love story.