Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Last Wolverine

James 'Logan' Howlett, aka 'Wolverine,' has always been my favorite X-Man.  Unlike other X-Men (or X-Women), he can't fly, manipulate the weather, teleport, steal other mutant powers or shoot laser beams from his eyes.  Though his Weapon X 'gifts' are formidable indeed: instant self-healing and a virtually indestructible adamantium endoskeleton.  Not to mention those retractable adamantium claws of his are pretty nifty too. 
'The Wolverine' is the second spin-off of the popular X-Men character, following the much maligned 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' back in 2009.  While that movie wasn't terrible, it was a bit of a messy affair, overwrought with action set-pieces piled on one after another to the point that you stopped caring.  With that in mind, 'The Wolverine' is a welcome change of pace and scenery.
Japan is the setting of the new Wolverine movie, which should be familiar to X-Men fans well versed in the comic books.  While visiting an old WWII acquaintance at his death bed, Logan found his abilities impaired and became embroiled in the Byzantine affairs of the Yashida family, in particular the well-being of the granddaughter of the patriarch he came to say goodbye to in the first place. 
'The Wolverine' is richly textured and layered with nuances, a subtle, character-driven and at times poignant story without all the excess of action too common in summer blockbusters nowadays.  And when the action scenes do come, they are not only exciting but memorable, such as the fight atop the Bullet Train and the final set-piece between Wolverine and the Silver Samurai.  The movie captured the essence of Wolverine perfectly, a tortured man living by his own personal code of honor (Bushido).  There's also romance: the budding love between Wolverine and Mariko, and Yukio's J-Pop schoolgirl crush on Logan as his 'bodyguard.'  Perhaps hiring a respected director more known for 'art films' like James Mangold to impart 'The Wolverine' with the feel of 'The Last Samurai' isn't such a bad idea after all.

Grade: A-

'Wolverine' is a study in contrast, of light and shadows
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Seeing RED

'RED' was a sleeper hit and one of the great success stories of 2010.  The movie made an underwhelming $22.5 million on its opening weekend (behind 'Jackass 3D' which drew a younger audience), but went on to eventually surpass the erstwhile #1 movie in America by grossing nearly $200 million worldwide, proving that there is hope for humanity after all.
It is no surprise then that the surviving senior citizens of "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" are back for a second go-round in a bigger sequel.  This time, domesticated Frank and paranoid-as-ever Marvin find themselves the target of state-sanctioned assassination again when their names are published on the internet associated with a Cold War top-secret mission involving the smuggling of a 1-megaton nuclear device piecemeal via diplomatic pouch into the Soviet Union called 'Operation Nightshade.'  Mary Louise-Parker reprises her role as Frank's bored-with-her-mundane-life girlfriend, Sarah, and Helen Mirren returns as MI6 assassin Victoria, but 'RED 2' is decidedly younger with the addition of two fresh faces in Catherine Zeta-Jones and South Korean star Lee Byung-hun, both at the 'tender young age' of 43.

'RED 2' is quite a bit more action-packed and globe-trotting than its predecessor, but with the back story out of the way there is no need to slow down for character development.  With the addition of Katya (Zeta-Jones) and Han (Lee), as well as Sir Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Bailey, the movie is also busier with more subplots and 'complications,' like the tongue-in-cheek love triangle between Frank, Sarah and Katya. 
Still, 'RED 2' is a tad too déjà vu and predictable.  The cool 'fish-tailing car entry' technique is repeated in 'RED 2,' and there's a ludicrous scene in which Victoria pointed pistols out of both windows of a spinning car and still hitting moving targets.  Also, who didn't predict Victoria playing sniper and saving the day again when Frank, Marvin and Sarah were on the firing line, or that somehow the bomb is still on Han's plane when Frank got off?  Never mind the movie's disregard for common sense in its portrayal of a 1-megaton airburst as harmless with a tiny blast radius (destroying only the plane and its occupant) and telling us it's okay to stare into it. 

Grade: B

La Femme Katya likes her guns and wine
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Sunday, July 21, 2013

'Conjuring' Fear

Malaysian-born, Australian-raised director James Wan is a rising star in the horror genre.  The virtually unknown director who started the 'Saw' franchise in 2004 had come a long way since, steadily evolving as a 'master of horror' and setting himself apart from other schlocky directors (or hacks) in a crowded genre by going back to classic old school horror filmmaking of the '70's.  He's gotten progressively better with each directorial effort and his latest, 'The Conjuring,' is not only his best movie to date but also the most well crafted and effective horror movie I've seen in quite some time.
I admit, I'm a bit of a gorehound.  But sometimes I get jaded with all the gratuitous in-your-face graphic violence in movies like 'Evil Dead' or 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and long for something more subtle along the lines of 'The Sixth Sense' and 'The Others.'  'The Conjuring' falls into this latter category  and is scary as hell to boot.  Based on the true story of the Perrons and the strange events which occurred in their Rhode Island home in 1971, and the paranormal investigating couple (the Warrens) who tried to help them, the movie is a haunted house story with elements from 'The Exorcist' and 'Paranormal Activity' plus a dash of 'Ghost Hunters,' but without the gimmicky shaky-cam and 'docudrama' tropes popular today.  Instead, James Wan utilized old school methods such as pacing, mood, atmosphere, lighting, pauses and a very creepy doll (Chucky's new bride?) to build tension and a sense of dreadful anticipation. 
Other than a great story, what made 'The Conjuring' so effective and terrifying are in no small part due to the fine performances by Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga and the supporting cast.  All of them had to 'sell us' that their primal fears are real in order to make this movie work.  And to be frank, I haven't felt so 'invested' or focused in a horror movie as I have in 'The Conjuring' in quite a while.  Well done, James.  William Friedkin couldn't have done it any better.

Grade: A

Totally R.I.P.D.

Poor 'R.I.P.D.'  Even before it hit theaters on Friday, it was all but R.I.P.D.ed to shreds by movie critics and declared D.O.A. by those who predict how a movie will perform on its opening weekend based on advance screenings and tracking data.  Who can blame them?  Universal didn't release 'R.I.P.D.' for critical review until right up to the movie's opening, and it's competing head-to-head against 'RED 2,' another action-comedy expected to draw the same demographic.
'R.I.P.D.' has been billed as 'Men in Black' meets 'Ghostbusters,' and it does bring to mind these two earlier films.  Like MIB, it is also based on a Dark Horse comic title, and as derivative as it may be, it's still a fun-filled popcorn flick and entertaining as hell.  For those unfamiliar with the title, 'R.I.P.D.' stands for 'Rest In Peace Department,' a law enforcement agency staffed with dead cops from different eras who are tasked with apprehending 'deados,' fugitive evil souls who have escaped eternal judgement (okay, going to 'hell').  In that sense, it is reminiscent of the short-lived but well liked WB series 'Reaper.'
As a supernatural buddy-cop comedy, 'R.I.P.D.' surprisingly works due to the chemistry between Jeff Bridges as a gunslinger lawman from the Old West and Ryan Reynolds, a contemporary cop murdered by his corrupt partner (Kevin Bacon).  Bridges is simply a hoot throughout the movie as Roy Pulsipher, but Reynolds is also very good with his sardonic deadpan humor.  And as the villain, Kevin Bacon portrayed his role with the same stab-you-in-the-back smarminess as he did in 'Super.'  In a very funny twist, which is no less funny despite the fact that it's given away in the movie's trailer, the two lawmen appear very different to mortals on earth.
Let's face it, 'R.I.P.D.' is far from a great movie, but it's not nearly as bad as the critics would have us believe.  It's really a shame that this movie, with a budget of $130 million, is all but assured to be the latest summer blockbuster to bomb at the box office.  Too bad.
Grade: B

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Robot Jox

Japanese kaiju gets a big boost in 'Pacific Rim,' Guillermo Del Toro's action-packed, visually stunning mecha-versus-monster smackdown guaranteed to fill every fanboy's heart with joy.  Being a kaiju fan (I grew up watching Ultraman and Godzilla), PR is one of my most anticipated movies of the summer.  The movie is also influenced by Japanese mecha anime such as 'Mobile Suit Gundam' and 'Neon Genesis Evangelion.'

The story of PR is straightforward enough.  Giant monsters emerge from an extra-dimensional portal beneath the Pacific Ocean.  They terrorize and perform 'urban renewal' to cities along the Pacific Rim, killing millions, and humanity is forced to create its own 'monsters' in the form of towering, nuclear reactor-powered mechas called Jaegers (Hunters) to fight them.  When a movie is premised on a supernatural conceit like the fact that the monsters come from another dimension, or that they can magically spawn more frequently and evolve to ever deadlier 'categories' (like hurricanes) in a war of escalation,  we really shouldn't be asking overly logical questions like why earth's defenders didn't just nuke the monsters before they reach the coastline or why the Jaegers are armed mainly for hand-to-hand combat rather than with stand-off, long-range weaponry to engage them from afar. 
As in his 'Hellboy' movies and 'Pan's Labyrinth,' Del Toro is a true auteur when it comes to visual style and aesthetic.   In PR, the kaiju designs are inspired by dinosaurs, reptiles, crustaceans, and even Francisco Goya's famous painting 'The Colossus.'  The Jaegers likewise are all distinctive, designed to give each its unique 'national' character: USA's 'Gipsy Danger' (below) looks 'western,' combining elements of Halo and Iron Man. 'Cherno Alpha' is a behemoth of brutal functionality, a superheavy tank of a Jaeger you will have no trouble at all identifying as 'Russian.'  The Chinese Jaeger with a 3-man crew, 'Crimson Typhoon,' is red, high-tech looking and very stylish, as befits the rising 'Dragon from the East.'  The gladiatorial-style clashes between heavy-metal Jaegers and tough flesh-and-hide kaiju, up close and intense, were either fought in the rainy night or underwater, lending the movie its atmosphere and tone. 

Curiously, PR reminded me a little of 'Top Gun,' because the main Jaeger pilot in the movie, Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam of 'Sons of Anarchy'), sought redemption after a tragic incident, like Tom Cruise's 'Maverick' after 'Goose' died.  The Jaeger pilots are an ultra-competitive and territorial bunch; there's even friction between Beckett and a cocky young Australian pilot, reminiscent of the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman. Idris Elba did a fine job as the authoritative 'father figure' holding them all together and Rinko Kikuchi infused her role with equal measures of toughness and vulnerability.  Comic relief came in the form of Charlie Day (playing the same character from 'It's Only Sunny in Philadelphia') as a scientist holding the key to vanquishing the kaiju, and 'Hellboy' himself (Ron Perlman) as a black marketeer of kaiju parts.
Bottom line: 'Pacific Rim' is a fun and entertaining giant robot mecha versus monster mash-up that should not be missed.  Just be sure to watch it with the mindset of a 12-year old kid.  Awesome!

Grade: A-

What do you mean Japan has to wait til August 9 to see this???!!!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Adorable Me

First off, I’m not a big fan of G or PG-rated animated features churned out on a regular basis from studios like Disney’s Pixar or DreamWorks.  I can count the number of such movies I’ve seen on the fingers of one hand (Toy Story 1-3, The Incredibles, Despicable Me), so it is something of a big deal that I would see one in the first place.  I saw 2010’s ‘Despicable Me’ based solely on its preview trailer I’ve seen at another movie (the name of which I cannot remember no matter how hard I try) which featured these cute little yellow critters with big eyes (or eye) doing something stupid but inexplicably funny.  They cracked me up with their shenanigans and I just couldn’t resist.  The movie, about an aging supervillain with a heart-of-gold voiced by Steve Carell, three little orphan girls, and a bunch of the aforementioned little yellow thingies (which I later learned were called ‘minions’) who speak nonsense but proved to be as hilarious as the preview trailer promised, was such a delight that I even bought the DVD.
If it were possible, ‘Despicable Me 2’ is even bigger and more charmingly funny than its predecessor. In DM2, Gru retired from his evil ways and became a jam maker, but not a very good one.  He’s recruited by the AVL (Anti-Villain League) to uncover and stop a supervillain who got ahold of a super-serum called PX-41 which turns normally nice creatures (like ‘Minions’ for instance) into vicious monsters.  Apart from the usual spy-versus-spy stuff influenced by early James Bond and vintage ‘60’s spy thrillers, there is also a romantic subplot involving Gru and his AVL partner, Lucy Wilde (voiced by SNL’s and Bridesmaids’ Kristen Wiig).
As in DM, the real stars in DM2 are the minions we all came to love.  So what are Gru's minions anyway?  According to 'Despicable Wiki':

Minions are small, yellow, cylinder-shaped, genetically humanized kernels that have one or two eyes and are one of the most notable characters in the film. The minions possess one additional physiological characteristic; with a snap and a shake, they can double as glow sticks for activities in the dark, such as going through ventilation ducts.

A rambunctious bunch of simple-minded homunculi, the Minions are a similar size and shape, but have unique features to tell them apart, such as height, number of eyes, roundness or secondary features such as hair, eye/pupil size or clothing. They choose to express themselves through actions, not words: their "language" is fairly basic, they speak in a strange jabber; except for the odd human word every now and again and occasional Spanish-sounding words like "Para tú" (roughly "for you") as well as french in the second movie (poulet tikka masala, et pis c'est tout) , their language is incomprehensible to most humans, though they do understand English. It is also possible to isolate elements of Japanese from their speech patterns.”

Yup.  Carl, Dave (my favorite of course), Kevin, Phil, Stuart, Tim and the whole gang are back with more silly mischief and wacky fun.  All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the show.

Sorry, Lone Ranger and Tonto, you never stood a chance.

Grade: A

Who knew Twinkies in denim overalls can be so freakin' funny?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Never take off the mask, Kemosabe

Disney revives a classic western pop icon in 'The Lone Ranger,' the big-budget summer blockbuster starring Johnny Depp and Armand 'Armie' Hammer brought to you by the people behind the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise.  Reportedly with a budget of around $225 million, Disney gambled that a character derived from a popular 1950's TV show (and before that, a 1930's radio show) will still have relevancy and resonate with moviegoers today. 

Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp reprise the roles most famously known for Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels in the television show.  As he did for Jack Sparrow in POTC, Depp infused the role of Tonto with his own quirks and a good dose of irony and humor.   In fact, his Tonto was so charismatic that the sidekick overshadowed the titular hero.  Speaking of whom, the man named after baking soda (or is it the American industrialist?) played the straight-laced Lone Ranger with so little personality and so much naïveté that I found the movie's caricature villain, Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), to be a much more interesting character than the masked upholder of justice.

At two-and-a-half hours, 'The Lone Ranger' tests our patience with a jumbled mess of a plot that could have been handled in two hours or less.  The simple good-versus-evil storyline about the devious schemes of an evil rail tycoon did not need to be overbloated with so many over-the-top, CG-heavy action scenes; they become tedious after a while and each successive set-piece action sequence just get wackier and more unlikely than the last.  It got to the point that, in the end, I felt like I was watching Road Runner on Looney Tunes.  Screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio tried to follow the same formula as their POTC and Zorro flicks to the extreme, but in 'The Lone Ranger' these tropes fell flat and seem contrived.  That isn't to say the movie is not without any redeeming feature; it shined in its slower moments when Hammer's Lone Ranger and Depp's Tonto built their rapport and camaraderie with humor, and when it took detours to portray colorful secondary personalities like Madam Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter) with her leg gun.  Be that as it may, I just can't bring myself to whole-heartedly embrace this movie.  Sorry.

Grade: C+

Yeah, I'm wearing a dead bird on my head.  Whatcha gonna do about it?