The Wolverine

Why are these Wolverine movies unsatisfying? Have they not gotten to his heart yet?

I don’t know.

Happily, The Wolverine is better than the first flick about this most interesting of Marvel comic book heroes. It delves into a lot of the old comic book story bits, particularly relating to Wolverine’s experiences in Japan and with Japanese culture and people. This is nice.

You will probably enjoy The Wolverine if you liked:
Any X-Men movie
Iron Man 3
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Dark Knight
2 Guns

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released July 26, 2013

Written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank

Directed by James Mangold

Starring Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Hal Yamanouchi, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee, and Hiroyuki Sanada

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Logan (Jackman) has removed himself from society, sick of being the mostly human killing machine who is also immortal and clearly broken from having to kill Jean Grey in a previous battle. He’s in a remote, northern, chilly wilderness, going into town only for supplies and booze.

Of course he gets in a fight. And of course a mysterious person shows up. Her name is Yukio (Fukushima) and she is an unusal-looking and strangely prescient Japanese woman. She also knows how to use a katana pretty well.

Yukio tells Logan that someone from his past would like to see him. We start finding out through flashbacks that Logan was a POW in Hiroshima on the day the A-bomb was dropped. We also learn that he saved a Japanese man’s life. That man is Yashida (Yamanouchi).

Yashida is now very old and he tells Logan that he can give Logan what he wants– mortality. But of course, Yashida has other plans too. Other people have plans as well, including Yashida’s doctor (Khodchenkova) and some other shady folks, one of whom uses a bow very well and who has a history with Yashida’s daughter, Mariko (Okamoto).

Suddenly, Logan is embroiled in a plot of power-plays, ninja, Yakuza, and forlorn-looking women. There’s lots of Japanese without subtitles (fun for those of us who speak Japanese) and really cool cultural stuff. There are also some nifty set-pieces which use Japanese architecture and transportation to great effect.

All leads to a showdown that most people will probably see coming. The old guy is not what he seems and Logan has got to rely on others for help.

Critique

We still don’t know why Logan hates immortality, invulnerability, and his ability to grow adamantium claws. Because we still don’t know this, the emotional impact and satisfaction level of the film is diminished.

That said, the plot is surprisingly rich and textured, with real characters populating the scenes. The acting is very nice, although Khodchenkova needs a few different snarls. The fights are good and utilized Wolverine’s abilities well. Interestingly, the writers pulled a kryptonite/Superman on this film, which hopefully does not become an overused trope in these flicks.

You’ll enjoy this movie. Hugh Jackman is convincing again and he lends a lot of depth to a character that really does need more depth– and far more clarity.

Content warnings: Plenty of superhero violence, some of it a little bloody. Some salty language.

Writing: 4          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4

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Les Miserables (2012)

Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is quite an interesting animal. It’s the kind of animal that you can’t look away from, but that evolution is pretty much going to have its way with. Some fine performances and hit and miss production value add to the absolute and total lack of baritone and bass– reducing the impact of a film that one supposes was supposed to knock you silly.

Instead, it comes off a little silly.

Here’s a trailer. Warning: quavery voices ahead.

The deets:

Released December 25, 2012

Written by William Nicholson, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil (screenplay), based upon the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

Directed by Tom Hooper

Starring Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham-Carter, Isabelle Allen, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, and COLM WILKINSON

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Odds are that if you are interested in this movie, you know the story. That said, here’s a summary. Jean Valjean (Jackman) was sent to prison for theft and had his sentence extended due to escape attempts. But he has now done his time and his parole office, Javert (Crowe), says he is able to go about his life but will always be a thief and must check in always.

Valjean, who went to prison after simply trying to feed his sister’s son, has become a hardened criminal and he goes about trying to scratch out some life. When a bishop (WILKINSON!!!!) takes him in, Valjean makes off with some valuable silver but is caught. But then the bishop acts as if he gave Valjean the silver, gives some more valuables, and tells Valjean that Valjean must now live a life of giving and forgiveness; the bishop has ‘bought (Valjean’s) soul for God.’

Now Valjean must choose, and he chooses to live a life of prosperity and charity, becoming true to the good inside him. But Javert is always at his heels. Fast forward many years and Valjean owns a factory and in a moment of neglect, allows an innocent single mother to be fired. This mother is Fantine (Hathaway), whose life spirals out of control and she ends up on the streets, partly because the people she has caring for her daughter are cheating her out of every penny.

As Fantine closes in on death, Valjean intercedes in a squabble at which Javert has shown up. Javert finds out that this is Valjean, but Valjean cannot go back to jail; he has to help Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Allen). He gets the girl away from the terrible couple that have been ‘caring for’ her, the Thenardiers (Cohen and Bonham-Carter). Javert and Cosette escape Javert.

Fast forward again and Cosette (now played by Seyfreid) is a lovely young woman who falls in love with Marius (Redmayne). But Eponine (Barks) loves Marius too. What’s more, Eponine is the daughter of the Thenardiers, so she recognizes Cosette. A love triangle ensues, while the Thenardiers try to find Valjean and steal his money and Javert shows up to still try to catch Valjean. All of this is done with the French Revolution happening. Indeed, Marius is one of the student revolutionaries along with Enjolras (Tveit).

We have multiple showdowns between the revolutionaries and the French army, as well as between Javert and Valjean– which leaves Javert questioning what he thought was his righteous cause. When all is said and done, the truth of who Valjean is revealed and the lovers are together and tragedy has been the mother of wisdom.

And this is all done with singing.

Critique

Which is why it isn’t very good.

The book and stage production are obscenely powerful. The book is a sprawling epic that explores humanism, royalty, forgiveness, redemption, charity, sacrifice, heroism, dreams, truth, love, loyalty, and honor. The book is written by a remarkable novelist at the top of his game.

The stage production cuts through much of the detail and narrative and highlights the most dramatic events of the book with music and lyrics providing the connecting bridges between these events. The stage production is produced and performed by professionals for whom this is their livelihood. You don’t get on that stage unless you are a world-class singer and performer.

The movie cast almost entirely actors, some of whom might even be able to sing. The cast sings on set, right into the camera; no lip-syncing– which is a nice gimmick and does add immediacy but these people generally just can’t sing at the level required by the characters, the melodrama of these events, and a production that is loved by millions.

Setting aside a set design that wavers between kind of amazing and then very small-fry and seeming like a plywood stage set, and setting aside a plot and pacing that seem to be in a massive, helter-skelter rush, the singing simply doesn’t get it done.

Sure, for those who haven’t got a long history with this production, it’s passable. And for a crazed fan like this reviewer, there are moments that are effective, but so much of the singing is so darn weak and lacking in power, that I wanted the director to have said, “Dear heaven, we need to do better.”

Russell Crowe, you sounded like you were out of breath, your heart was in your throat, and like you had no idea that you should be singing more than two very high-pitched notes. You were the worst of the bunch.

Amanda Seyfried, you are adorable, but the quaver is distracting and actually shreds any emotional power you were trying to transmit.

Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter, it’s not your fault. You were both good, but the director didn’t give you time to be sleazy enough.

Hugh Jackman, you started strong, but stayed at the exact same level.

Eddie Redmayne, dude, you can sing. Now get some freaking baritone.

Samantha Barks, thank you for being amazing.

Colm Wilkinson, I nearly died when I saw you as the bishop. You are flawless.

Tom Hooper, and for that matter Alain and Claude-Michel, what the freaking frak? Not one bass note was sung in this show. Maybe two baritone notes. Every dude singing in 2nd tenor? Seriously? “Singing the song of angry men?” If they’re men, where are the basses?

Ugh.

Also, slow down. Seriously.

See this movie, enjoy it for what it offers, but don’t expect powerful musical performances.

Content warnings: Plenty of melodramatic violence and implied terrible things. 

Writing: 4 (story will always be amazing)       Acting: 4       Singing: 2       Overall: 2.5

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Real Steel

I kid you not. Real Steel is one of the top 5 movies of the year. It’s better than The Help. That said, I remind you: I am a sucker for boxing movies. Rocky is one of my favorite movies of all time. And I liked the last two Rocky films, too.

So Real Steel is tremendously good fun. If you don’t like it, you are a cynical, heartless fogie who deliberately steps on ants and other innocent critters. And you’re unpatriotic.

Here’s a preview:


Now the deets:

Released October 7, 2011

Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven

Directed by Shawn Levy

Starring Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lily, and Anthony Mackie

*     *     *     *     *

Real Steel is no Transformers movie. In those Michael Bay spectacles, the characters are conveniences and the robots are contrivances used to set up absurdly loud and vivid battle scenes. In Real Steel, the robots are essentially avatars for the humans controlling them. And in truth, Real Steel is a real movie filled with real-seeming people who are working through real conflicts.

Story

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former boxer with some emotional baggage connected to a fight where he may or may not have given up. He now spends his days touring around with a junky robot trying to make ends meet by getting his robot boxer into the ring with other robots. Or in one case, a bull.

But Charlie is easily distracted and is without purpose, so he loses it all on one final wager. Now the person who beat his robot is after him and is looking for blood. Charlie is desperate.

Next, toss in news that a previous girlfriend of his had died, leaving a son named Max, played by Dakota Goyo. Charlie has to show up in family court and sign away custody of the kid to his ex’s sister, played with a nice touch by the lovely Hope Davis. But Charlie sees an opportunity to make some cash and get his feet back under him, and through a complicated deal, he ends up with Max for the summer as well as a pocketful of cash.

Charlie plans to leave Max with his childhood friend Bailey, played by Evangeline Lilly. There is clearly an attraction between Charlie and Bailey, but, of course, they fight it. Max, however, has other ideas. He is a devotee of robot boxing and is also very handy with the technical aspects of robot building and maintenance. Through some determined negotiation, Max is brought aboard for a robot boxing tour.

Max and Charlie end up at a robot junkyard and through some genuinely tense events, find an old sparring robot. It has a shadow mode wherein it will mimic the movements of a person and it can take a serious beating. Its name is Atom.

Max feels a connection with the robot and cleans it up. He convinces Charlie to put the robot in a fight and Atom comes out pretty well.

Thus begin several journeys. First, the journey of Atom from lowly fights to the biggest stage in robot boxing: a bout with reigning champion Zeus. Second, the journey of Charlie to become a responsible and self-sacrificing father. Third, the journey of Charlie and Max toward each other as father and son. And fourth, the journey of Charlie and Bailey towards mutual admiration and love.

Critique

External conflicts, internal conflicts, victory against overwhelming odds, genuinely engaging tension in robot boxing matches, father and son dynamics, and a convincing group of bad guys– all with a satisfying climax where the bad guys get theirs and the good guys achieve the right victories. How could this movie not be good?

The emotional depth is brought into the film by a deft script and some very solid performances by both Jackman and the lad, Dakota Goyo. Jackman shows real levels here as he does not usually have the look and body language of a jerk and layabout. He is quite convincing. His journey to overcome his demons lends serious emotional.. well.. punch to the climactic scenes. Dakota Goyo has an unusual name and an unusual talent.

I dearly loved this movie. As mentioned, I adore boxing movies. When you’ve got a father-son relationship thrown in along with some serious underdog issues, I’m pretty much a lock. But Real Steel is so heartfelt and so tightly made, with a very sympathetic robot in Atom, that it earns my fanhood. Spielberg, who produces, has a real knack for crafting nonhumans into creatures that humans want to hold close to their hearts. Watch for the moment where Atom seems to notice himself and has a moment of introspection. This is where the sequel begins.

Real Steel begins at #4 on my movie rankings for 2011. It is there because of the way it affected me. I don’t know if it will affect you in the same way, but it’s a must-see for the year. Great soundtrack, too.

Content warnings: Some rough language, a meaningful kiss and flirting, and plenty of robot violence. One scene of human fighting.

Writing: 5          Acting: 5           Overall: 5

Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.

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