Archive for the ‘sequel’ category

The Raid 2

April 13, 2014

20140413-183333.jpg2011′s The Raid: Redemption, which delighted fanboys the world over, was a simple siege film with some of the most elaborately brutal martial-arts sequences seen in years. Its writer-director, Gareth Evans, a Welshman working in Indonesia, had envisioned a much bigger and more complex crime drama called Berandal; the financing fell through, so he and his star, the young pencak silat master Iko Uwais, decided on the more controlled and less expensive story of The Raid. Now, on the heels of The Raid‘s success, Evans has reworked the Berandal script as a sequel, putting Uwais’ indomitable cop hero Rama undercover to infiltrate a major gang.

Now, part of the pleasure of The Raid was that it got in and out in 100 minutes. The Raid 2 goes on for almost an hour longer. In this case, less is more, even if the extended length allows Evans more opportunities for bone-splintering fight choreography. The fanboys, of course, will rise to the added beef. They don’t seem to mind overlength, as witness the success of the Marvel movies, almost all of which come in north of two hours (the latest Captain America tips the scales at two hours and sixteen minutes). They might not even mind that a good percentage of the big action numbers don’t even involve Rama. He sort of drifts through what’s supposed to be his movie, yanked into the fray every so often. I imagine the original drafts of Berandal either kept the undercover-cop character largely on the sidelines or didn’t have one at all. If he was an important element in those drafts, he really isn’t one now.

Ass-kicking females are always popular with the fanboys, perhaps so they can claim that the hyper-masculine entertainment they enjoy isn’t sexist. So here we get a character known as “Hammer Girl” (Julie Estelle), whose specialty is killing people with hammer claws. She wears sunglasses and kills with zero perceptible emotion. She never talks (she’s deaf). She’s cool. She’s also not a person. Aside from her, the only women we meet are bimbos in a nightclub, a strap-on-wearing porn actress, and Rama’s long-suffering wife, whom Rama calls so that he can hear the sounds of his son at play in the background. His wife has been waiting for him throughout his two-year stint in prison (so that he can get into the good graces of a mob boss’s son in jail) and however long his post-prison life among the gangsters takes, and mostly his one phone call to his wife consists of silence so he can listen to his male child. Nope, not sexist at all. But hey, we got a girl who kills guys with hammers!

I shouldn’t have expected more, though the ecstatic notices in the geek press must’ve led me on. As a portfolio of martial-arts moves and ferocious carnage that reportedly won an R rating by the skin of its teeth, The Raid 2 is as chunky and adrenalized as the first one. People are pummeled, slashed, stabbed, shot, and otherwise treated impolitely; one lucky fellow gets a big hole shotgunned into his face. The sound of an aluminum baseball bat connecting with a skull is as viscerally cringe-inducing as it’s always been. As with many martial-arts sequences, though, the villains obligingly attack the hero one at a time; only once or twice do we see a group of men ganging up on someone. This sort of thing calls attention to itself as choreography, though I can see that it fills a desperate need among fans of action films, which too often give us computer-generated people fighting. Here, at least, we can see these are real humans risking and taking injury. It’s probably no accident that the martial-arts genre rose at about the same time that song-and-dance musicals were dying. People crave physical elegance and they’ll take it in action flicks (or in stuff like the Step Up series) if they have to.

Acting is not part of the elegance, and Iko Uwais is a conscientious nonactor; there’s more going on with Arifin Putra, who plays Uco, the mob boss’s ill-tempered and spoiled son, whom Rama must befriend. A smoothie of the type that used to be described as “dashing,” Putra brings a charge of decadence and privilege to his scenes. Uco ends up donating blood all over the carpet, along with most everyone else except the unstoppable cipher Rama. Like its predecessor, The Raid 2 doesn’t do anything plotwise that hasn’t been done 7,498 times before; its distinction is its feral, pounding fight scenes. Gareth Evans films them well. But his movies feel more like demo reels than like, you know, movies, much less cinema. He’s being praised for action you can actually see, follow and get excited by, and for telling tried-and-true stories; in other words, he’s being praised for being competent.

300: Rise of an Empire

March 9, 2014

300-Rise-of-an-Empire-Spoilers-EndingIn 300: Rise of an Empire, this most testosteronal of movie franchises passes into the ungentle hands of women. On Greece’s side, there’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), the Spartan widow of valiant Leonidas from the original 300. On Persia’s side, we have Artemisia (Eva Green), naval commander and all-around vicious warrior. It’s one of the movie’s many failings that Gorgo and Artemesia never have a scene together; they may never have met in actual history, but the film makes such blithe hash of history anyway that an exchange between Gorgo and Artemesia, their words so hostile that their speech balloons in a comic book would have icicles hanging off them, wouldn’t have made much difference other than to add some welcome female camp to a movie loaded with manly camp.

This 300 isn’t exactly a sequel to the first, since its story unfolds before, during, and after the legendary Spartan attempt to hold off the Persians. So it has an unavoidable whiff of “Here’s something else that was happening.” It’s essentially a sidebar to the main story. It’s based, we’re told, on the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller, who also wrote/drew the original 300. Xerxes hasn’t actually come out yet, but, we’re also told, it should show up in comic-book stores sometime this year. I assume Miller made some sketches and preliminary pages available to the filmmakers, as well as the basic plot, but what’s missing here is the graphic charge that made Zack Snyder’s original movie good eye candy for a while. Under the direction of Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire tries hard to follow in Snyder’s footsteps — plenty of speed-ramping slow-mo action — but it just comes across as an imitator.

The heroes here are the Athenians, led by stoic beefcake Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) at sea. The Athenians aren’t as hardcore as the Spartans — remember the Spartans razzed them as “boy-lovers” in the first film — but they still love Greece and freedom, and that’s pretty much all there is to them. The Persians, ruled as before by hulking Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), want to crush Greece, and Artemisia, born Greek but traumatized as a child when Greek soldiers “raped and murdered her family,” wants to seduce Themistocles onto her team. Their resulting sex scene is probably the most ludicrous such thing I’ve seen in a film since Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan went at it in a pool in Showgirls. It doesn’t work on noble Themistocles, though. Afterward, Themistocles does the walk of shame back to his men, while Artemisia presumably does the ancient-world equivalent of eating cookie-dough ice cream and blasting Alanis Morissette.

Laughable as the sex scene is, it at least provides some comic relief, as opposed to the brutal ludicrousness of everything else in the movie. People (mostly Persians) get carved up practically nonstop, impaled, dismembered, stomped by horses. Their blood floats lazily in the air in lackadaisical digital blobs. Is it because the carnage is so stylized that 300: Rise of an Empire got through the ratings process with an R instead of a teen-prohibitive NC-17? If a mere slasher movie boasted this much splatter, it’d have to go back to the editing room many times before qualifying for an R. The problem is, this movie is a mere slasher movie. You go to slasher movies to see psychos slice up teenagers, and you go to the 300 movies to see Greeks slice up Persians.

Sketching in Artemisia’s backstory, the movie seems to want to zip past her motivating rage — uh, your heroes the Greeks raped her mom and killed her dad — as quickly as possible. Eva Green, who between this and Dark Shadows is developing into an actress with a definite taste for outré roles, keeps the rage front and center anyway, becoming by far the reason to sit through the film. Lena Headey, too, does her share of grief-stricken seething. That the movie thinks we’re more interested in faceless men shredding faceless men than in watching these two formidable women is proof that nobody on the creative team (including Zack Snyder, who gets a co-screenwriting credit) was really at the wheel. If some network were to make an entire series about Artemisia and Gorgo — maybe they team up to fight crime, I don’t even care — and the actresses returned to play them, I would sit for every episode five times each and join the show’s goddamn Facebook fan page.

Thor: The Dark World

November 10, 2013

thor_new_still_official1Tiresome as the Thor movies can be, they occasionally yield oddball beauty on a level that you can only see in a movie that cost one hundred and seventy million American dollars. In Thor: The Dark World, for instance, there’s a gorgeously rendered Viking funeral (never mind for whom), and an evil red substance called The Aether that gooshes around in mid-air, and a “Dark Elf” named Malekith (Christopher Huddleston) who looks like a cross between Legolas and Count Orlok and who wants the Aether, but can’t have it because it flows in the veins of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). There’s also a bit when Thor (Chris Hemsworth), our hammer-wielding hero, gazes out at the stars, and there’s just a hint of Kirby Krackle to them — one of the visual trademarks of legendary Marvel artist Jack Kirby, who helped create Thor and so much else of the Marvel universe, and whose heirs will get the following percentage of this film’s mighty profits: zero. Just a reminder.

So Jane’s been Aetherized, and Thor must protect her from Malekith while making sure that the Convergence of the Nine Realms goes off without a hitch. Got it? Heroine has something, bad guy wants it, good guy fends off bad guy. Got it. You need that simple thread to hold onto, because Thor: The Dark World, like so many other superhero sagas, clots its arteries with a great deal of plot cholesterol. The plot, indeed, relies on endless plotting to keep itself going — people are always scheming, and not just Thor’s trickster-god brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). For some reason, Thor has to go behind the back of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to save the day, and this involves brawling with a good many Asgardian soldiers who are just doing their jobs, trying to get through the workday without having to chase some idiot in a spaceship. It also involves putting a large amount of trust in Loki, who, as wryly played by Hiddleston, is much the best reason to see the movie.

These Marvel movies may be full of pomp and circumstance — one legacy left by bombastic, alliteration-smitten Marvel co-creator Stan Lee — but thank Odin they have some humor, unlike the mopey, overlong DC epics we’ve been getting. Kat Dennings helps bring the proceedings down to earth as Jane’s BFF and assistant Darcy; her snark is just what’s needed in this fantasy-sci-fi behemoth that straddles worlds. Other women in the film, from Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaime Alexander) to Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo), get to kick some ass, and Jane’s physics aptitude helps save the universe. It takes a while for this big machine to creak into motion, but once it’s headed for the finish line it involves everybody on every conceivable level — nobody sits on the sidelines, except maybe Odin, though Hopkins is still in full impressive roar, bellowing at Loki, “Your birthright” — the final “t” spat out like a dagger into his bad son’s heart — “was to die!”

If I don’t sound overly enthusiastic about most of the new Marvel movies, it’s partly because they blur past, leaving scraps of ghost memory. Nothing much is, or can be, at stake because we know Thor can’t die — not when Chris Hemsworth is under contract for another Thor film and two more Avengers films. (Not that superheroes ever die for long in the comic books, either.) Good must always defeat evil resoundingly, though not enough so that the villains can’t return for a sequel or two. And what’s Thor’s weakness? That he’s in love with a mortal woman, and so his loyalty is torn between two realms — that’s about it. He’s a bit impetuous, and does stuff against Daddy’s orders, but things turn out okay, so hubris is not his fatal flaw — if anything, it’s having a father who thinks he’s always right but isn’t. But again, Thor puts a thoroughly visually-imagined fantasy world on the screen, and doesn’t lumber around in it like Peter Jackson dawdling in Middle-earth for three more movies. It brings some awe and brawny excitement into comic-book cinema. I just wish these Marvel-verse movies weren’t so nerdishly interconnected that we feel as though we’re not getting the whole story until all 674 films have come out. It’d be nice to be able to skip one, once in a while, but by this point we’re too deep into it; we have to see it through until Iron Man 12 or Avengers 9 or whatever.

Machete Kills

October 12, 2013

Machete-Kills-20For an actor who trades endlessly on one basic mode — dour hard-ass — Danny Trejo gets a lot of fanboy love. I think Trejo’s fans respond to his presence, his authenticity (he spent most of the ’60s in and out of prison), and perhaps his craggy, unapologetic Mexican-ness. Danny Trejo is as far from stale whitebread as you can get. He’s the real deal. In Machete Kills, Robert Rodriguez’s sequel to his 2010 Machete, Trejo seems to hold almost everyone he meets in cool contempt. Why do these people want to start shit with him? He’s only going to kill them; it doesn’t make sense. Trejo’s Machete, like Snake Plissken, just wants to be left alone. Unlike Snake, Machete can be pulled into heroism by appeals to his sense of justice. Trejo, who does work some subtle shifts in tone into his dead-cool demeanor, stoically pushes forward while the rest of the cast goes nuts.

Here, for instance, we have Sofia Vergara as a character named Madame Desdemona, who runs a brothel, seethes about how much she despises men as she whips a client, and wears outfits studded with quick-draw weaponry. Vergara is often helplessly funny on Modern Family and elsewhere, and she’s funny here, too, but also a little terrifying — she plays vengeful rage as an over-the-top joke, but she plays it huge, operatic in scale, emptying her guns and shrieking and flipping the Iberian slap. And she isn’t even the craziest critter in this menagerie, not in a movie that also includes Demian Bichir as an agent with at least three personalities and Mel Gibson — yes, him — as an arms-running billionaire with plans to colonize space and a penchant for wearing a luchador mask to do dirty deeds.

Gibson, however deplorable he may be out in the world, is amusing and low-key insane here. He takes the spot held by Lindsay Lohan in the first Machete, proving that Rodriguez is good-hearted enough to hire just about anyone if they’re willing to do the work. (Maybe the promised next installment, Machete Kills Again…in Space, will have a role for Miley Cyrus.) Lady Gaga also shows up as La Cameleon, a bounty hunter and master of disguise — she also turns up looking like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Walton Goggins, or perhaps Cuba Gooding Jr. and Walton Goggins turn up looking like her. Rodriguez never explains; he’s off and running. The story is credited to Rodriguez and his brother Marcel (Kyle Ward worked it into a script), and it feels like something a couple of brothers would cobble together in their bunk bed when they’re supposed to be asleep. Decapitated heads! A three-bladed machete! A molecule gun that turns people inside out! Dude, that rocks!

Rodriguez makes jam-packed B-movies, but what has always separated him from colder, more impersonal practitioners of neo-grindhouse is that he seems to be having so much fun, and he lets us share it; he throws loud parties and cheerfully invites us to drop in. There’s a freewheeling honesty to the way he works, and an utter lack of pretense. His movies are what they are, and they are not for those with snobby or refined tastes. Too bad, because those people are missing some of the most vital, full-blooded pure filmmaking American cinema has to offer at the moment, especially at a time when even movies based on comic books slouch into our view like emo teenagers, all brooding and gloomy. Machete may never crack a smile but his stoicism is hard-earned; he grounds the craziness with which Rodriguez surrounds him.

The Machete movies gesture briefly towards political relevance: themes of immigration and drug cartels flow through both. Machete runs into corruption at all levels, to the point where the only person he trusts is Michelle Rodriguez as the leader of the Network, which helps Mexicans cross the border into America. Michelle’s word is so good that she persuades Machete not to kill a hitman who once crucified his brother. The scene isn’t terribly important to the plot, other than to explain why Tom Savini is returning from the first film, but it again demonstrates Robert Rodriguez’s good-heartedness. Anyone, even an assassin who nailed a priest to a cross (or even Mel Gibson), can redeem himself. Like its predecessor, Machete Kills is very far from serious, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.

Riddick

September 7, 2013

Karl-Urban-and-Vin-Diesel-in-Riddick-2013-Movie-Image-600x331The anti-hero Riddick, subject of three movies, an animated short, and numerous video games, is probably best suited to animated shorts and video games. I haven’t played the games, but I did enjoy Dark Fury, the 35-minute Peter Chung toon that served as a bridge between 2000’s Pitch Black and 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. Like Conan the barbarian, Riddick is a surly loner and killer who gets pulled into adventures wherever he travels. As played by Vin Diesel, Riddick is also a cold cod whose purpose in life seems to be avoidance. He’s always being pursued — by mercenaries, by Necromongers, by slithery creatures. His function is to send his pursuers abruptly to the next life and then swagger onward. Such a character might fare nicely on a weekly animated series for young adults (or in a monthly comic book, where Conan has thrived on and off for decades), but he doesn’t hold a live-action film together very strongly.

The title of Riddick’s new adventure, just straight-up Riddick, is likely meant to signify a new simplicity, or, rather, a throwback to the old simplicity of Pitch Black. After all, The Chronicles of Riddick was a cluttered and garish thing, with respected actors like poor Judi Dench nattering on about Necromongers or the Underverse while Vin Diesel scowled in the shadows, his silver corneae glowing like the eyes of a sullen cat. Riddick dispenses with the reheated fantasy elements of its predecessor and takes Riddick back to gritty sci-fi, pitting him against phallic, venomous critters and then against two competing bands of mercenaries. Along the way he raises a dingo-like puppy, and if you remember what generally happens to people or animals Riddick grows to care about, you’ll know not to get attached to the dingo-like puppy.

Riddick is leaner and meaner than Chronicles, but that doesn’t necessarily translate as “more fun.” Once again, as in Pitch Black, Riddick defends himself — and, incidentally, the motley group he happens to be thrown in with — from monsters. It feels pointless; by the end, Riddick is better off than he was at the start, but nothing in particular has happened to change his character. He’s the same growly deep-bass sociopath he was in Pitch Black thirteen years ago. At least in Dark Fury and Chronicles he had an androgynous girl, grown up to be a bitter woman warrior, to care about and to worry that she might end up like him. Riddick seems like a side adventure, and the events of the previous movie are blown off in a flashback that puts Riddick back at square one. We feel like idiots for having been asked to invest in the events of Chronicles and in the idea that Riddick had been elevated to a position of importance.

Diesel and series creator/director David Twohy were adamant that Riddick, like Pitch Black, carry an R rating, which allows for a bit of gore and a peekaboo scene that’s so baldly there for fans of Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff that all I could think about was Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz (who fantasized about tubbing with Sackhoff in an episode) wearing out the Blu-ray when it arrived at his home. Sackhoff plays a nerdboy’s idea of a lesbian, a tough chick who beats the crap out of men; her name is Dahl, which phonetically means every guy in the movie appears to be calling her “doll,” and that’s essentially what she is. Aside from Riddick — who spends much of the middle third of the film ominously offscreen — the character who gets the most screen time is Santana (Jordi Molla), the scruffy leader of one of the merc teams. Santana is a dick but at least has some personality; nobody else does.

Vin Diesel, an unabashed fantasy/sci-fi geek, keeps trying to make genre franchises happen. Babylon AD didn’t work for him, and the Riddick series has proceeded in fits and starts — it’s been nearly a decade since the last film, and Diesel, who turned 46 this summer, is very much not getting any younger. He puts a lot of physical effort into these meathead movies he does (Furious 6, for the record, was much more fun), and there’s a valid question as to how much longer he can continue to do so. Diesel started off promisingly — I urge you to seek out his 1994 short film Multi-Facial on YouTube so you won’t think I’m insane when I say he’s really a good actor — but he got sidetracked into dumb Saturday-night blockbusters for teens, and he perhaps needs to stop working out (and stop listening to his agent) and do some genuine acting again. Riddick, which by all indications will be a box-office disappointment, may put the kibosh on at least one going concern that has kept Diesel in lucrative stasis.

Kick-Ass 2

August 17, 2013

kick-ass-2-mindy-macreadyThe problem with being shocking is that you can only shock once. 2010’s Kick-Ass packed a fair amount of shock for those who hadn’t read the comic book it was based on. Here was a high-school boy, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who took to the streets in costume as the self-styled superhero Kick-Ass and found that fighting crime was grubbier and bloodier than it usually was in the comics. Here also was an eleven-year-old moppet, Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who rattled off unprintables and drenched entire rooms with the arterial spray of gangsters. The whole affair was a winking satire of what the superhero genre had become, in comics and in the movies.

But, again, this sort of thing can only be fresh once. The Kick-Ass comic’s creators — writer Mark Millar, artist John Romita Jr. — turned out two sequels to the first series (Hit Girl and Kick-Ass 2), and are currently cranking out a third. The comics, trying to top the original story, have gotten progressively nastier. The movie Kick-Ass 2, based on elements drawn from the first two follow-ups, softens those elements considerably. Gone, for instance, is a scene in which Kick-Ass’ nemesis (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who went by Red Mist in the first film but has rechristened himself the Mother Fucker, guns down four little kids and goes on to rape Kick-Ass’ girlfriend. The movie, showing more satirical wit than Mark Millar did, short-circuits the rape before it begins, and no little kids are harmed. In some ways the movie is more ruthless: the Mother Fucker will not be back for Kick-Ass 3.

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, Kick-Ass 2 does deliver spatially clean action set-pieces that build nicely and sometimes, as when a fearsome brute called Mother Russia deals with a pack of cops, outdo what John Romita Jr. drew. (The use of a lawnmower in particular made me happy.) The Kick-Ass movies have also succeeded in attracting eccentric stars for support: the first film had Nicolas Cage as Hit Girl’s doting superhero dad, and here we have Jim Carrey, obviously enjoying himself at the time despite his post-Sandy Hook misgivings later, as a superhero team leader named Colonel Stars and Stripes. Carrey satirizes this gravel-voiced born-again-Christian hero but doesn’t ridicule him — in his way, the Colonel is a man of honor trying to redeem his past as a mob enforcer. When Carrey leaves the movie, a substantial amount of energy goes with him.

The movie is most interesting when Hit Girl, now living with a cop guardian and trying very hard to be a nice girl named Mindy Macready, navigates the social pitfalls of high school (she’s fifteen now). Hit Girl has always been a bit softer onscreen than on the page, because Chloe Moretz projects the warmth and charisma denied her comic-book predecessor, and she’s fun to watch here when trying to cope with mean girls in the cafeteria. The least interesting character continues to be poor benighted Kick-Ass himself, who functions here only as a target for the Mother Fucker’s vengeful fury. He often gets lost in the crowd — many of the folks on the Colonel’s team, like Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) or the parents looking for their missing son, are far more intriguing. They do it, like Batman, out of pain; Kick-Ass didn’t.

The Kick-Ass franchise has been a reliable piggy-bank for Millar and Romita, though it might not look as bright on Universal’s books — Kick-Ass 2 doesn’t seem to be packing ‘em in on its first weekend, and might peter out much as the Mother Fucker does. The comics haven’t been particularly inspiring either — just more of the same foul language and slice ‘n’ dice and political correctness used as a piñata. Some things just shouldn’t be ongoing concerns, and perhaps the satirical world of Kick-Ass is one of them. The first Kick-Ass comic and the first Kick-Ass movie said that the concept of superheroes is absurd, an idealistic bubble that pops bloodily against the sharp edges of reality. Once you’ve said that, what can you say that isn’t merely saying it again louder?

The Wolverine

July 28, 2013

2013-movie-preview-the-wolverineWhen writer Chris Claremont and artist Frank Miller collaborated on the four-issue Wolverine mini-series in 1982, it was more or less immediately received as the definitive Wolverine story, and in many quarters still retains that status. It took the X-Men’s runaway fan favorite and gave him new depth and vulnerability while keeping his mystique. In the story, Wolverine, or Logan, goes to Japan, where his old flame Mariko has been forced into marriage to an abusive weasel. The real villain of the tale is Mariko’s father Shingen, who gets into a teasing wooden-sword fight with a drugged Logan. About to lose the duel, Logan pops his razor-sharp adamantium claws to defend himself, and Logan’s narration explains that Shingen has manipulated this whole encounter to make Logan look cowardly in front of Mariko: “I couldn’t dishonor myself more in her eyes if I tried,” Logan mopes.

There’s nothing comparable to that painful moment in The Wolverine, which takes bits and pieces from the Claremont/Miller story — the Tokyo setting, some character names — but goes afield for a more sci-fi narrative in which Logan (Hugh Jackman) saves a Japanese soldier, Yashida, from being obliterated in Nagasaki in 1945, then is summoned to visit the now-dying man decades later. Yashida has become the head of a major tech corporation, and he has been trying to cheat death; Logan, with his mutant power of instant self-healing, may be the old guy’s ticket to immortality. Mariko now becomes Yashida’s granddaughter, and there’s no love or even much affection between her and Logan. So basically Logan is pulled into the story not by his heart but by a guy who’s afraid to die.

There’s also some gibberish involving a character named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who takes away Logan’s healing powers by breathing toxic fumes on him or something, and embedding some sort of spider around his heart. The movie does bring in the assassin Yukio (Rila Fukishima), who in the comics fell in love with Logan and was jealous of his sappy attachment to Mariko, but here comes across as a sexless anime cosplayer with a bright red wig. I don’t know how you start with such a simple, effective story as the Claremont/Miller series, take out whatever’s interesting, and throw in stuff that doesn’t belong in this or any story.

The director-for-hire here is James Mangold, who started out telling small, human stories (Heavy, Girl Interrupted, Cop Land, Walk the Line) and in recent years (Knight and Day and this) just seems to have given up. In Marvel Comics’ heyday, there was a cynical maxim: “You don’t work for comics unless you work for Marvel.” Nowadays it’s more like “You don’t work for Hollywood unless you work for Marvel.” The sequence most people will point to as a highlight unfolds atop a bullet train going 300 miles an hour, with Logan and various assassins stumbling around trying to stay attached to the roof with knives or claws. It’s fun, and contains some of the rare levity in an otherwise humorless movie, but it’s just there as an action beat; it doesn’t establish or strengthen character. All that money, all those CGI techs working into the night, and it doesn’t pack a fraction of the impact of a wooden-sword battle between two men in the comic.

So instead of working Logan’s emotions, the movie seeks to make him vulnerable by sapping his powers of healing. This means he gets shot and stabbed a bunch of times, but still doesn’t die. It also means that he somehow doesn’t bleed to death every time he pops his claws, which emerge from the backs of his hands; we’re to understand that in his usual mode, the flesh heals around the claws when they’re out and seals up again when he retracts the claws. The climax involves a huge Silver Samurai also made out of adamantium, and by then the movie has abandoned pretty much any interest in making this a story about Logan, or a story about anything.

Boldly photographed (by Ross Emery) and scored (by Marco Beltrami), The Wolverine at least looks like more of a real movie than the awful previous solo Logan effort, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. By virtue of basing itself glancingly upon one of the seminal Wolverine stories instead of one of the most useless and uncalled-for Wolverine stories, the movie gets comparatively high marks, but only because it follows such a stinker. And this is yet another comic-book movie in which dozens of people are slashed and stabbed to death and we see nary a pinprick’s worth of blood. In his early days, when comics still had to abide by the violence-phobic Comics Code, Logan had to get around becoming a mass murderer by subduing his enemies in more oblique ways. But in a PG-13 movie, apparently it’s perfectly fine for Logan to shish-kebab everyone within reach, as long as you don’t show the thirteen-year-olds of America what those claws would actually do to a human being — or to the powerless Logan’s hands, for that matter.

Furious 6

May 25, 2013

Fast-and-the-Furious-6-7It’s easy to see why the Fast and Furious series — which started rather modestly twelve years and five films ago — has developed into a major going concern and reliable ATM for Universal. Yes, the vehicular mayhem has gotten crazier and more convoluted with each new entry, but it isn’t just that. Partly it’s the same reason a TV show succeeds: people like the characters and want to hang out with them. The reason for that, in the F&F movies, is simple: they show a well-calibrated team, a tight unit, a family, and without much bickering (aside from some good-natured ribbing). Over and over again, Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto spells it out: family this, family that, all that matters is family. And this family is a bunch of people of different colors and genders working smoothly to get the job done.

This franchise has turned, very lucratively, into a fantasy of being part of a super-cool group, being part of something larger than oneself, where everyone is respected (once they’ve earned it by right of talent) and nobody is judged (as long as they stay true to the family). Former FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) once betrayed the trust of Dom and his crew, but has since made up for it to the extent that Dom is now the proud uncle of Brian’s son (by way of Dom’s sister Mia). Dom’s girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), presumed dead but discovered alive at the end of 2011’s Fast Five, has gone to work for a group of international thieves, but only because she has amnesia. You see, once you’ve been in Dom’s family, only a catastrophic memory loss can break the bond.

Furious 6 (as it’s actually titled onscreen) doesn’t have as much tough-guy sentimentality or, consequently, as much amusing inadvertent (or perhaps advertent) homoerotic subtext as its predecessor, which offered hostile staring contests and a brutal fistfight between Dom and the oak-necked special agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). Here, Hobbs recruits Dom and his crew to help catch the thieves who took Letty away. Yeah, blah blah, the thieves also possess a MacGuffin that threatens national security, but the real mission is to get Letty back in the family. Other things have to happen first, though, including a mad chase through London employing “flip cars” (which, as advertised, ram into oncoming vehicles and flip them), a highway chase involving a tank, and a climax featuring a plane trying its best to take off while weighed down by several cars attached to it by grappling hooks.

None of this is quite as much hilarious fun as the endgame in Fast Five involving two cars dragging a ten-ton vault at high speed through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. But it’s fun enough, with a satisfyingly vicious fight between Letty and agent Riley (Gina Carano, pretty much as wooden an actress as she was in Haywire) and frequent comic relief via Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. The villain this time (Luke Evans) isn’t much, but the villains have never been the point of the F&F series; the plot of the next sequel — and there will be a next sequel — could be about how Dom and his posse have to stop a movie critic from drinking too much iced tea as he writes a review, and as long as it retains the family dynamic and somehow involves outlandish stunts, it’d still fly.

These last four F&F installments have been directed by Justin Lin, who has taken a shaky franchise and beefed it up into the monster it is today. Furious 6 is his farewell to the series, and I think he’s getting out while he’s ahead. Where else can the stunts go? Will Dom and his people be chasing a space shuttle in Faster and Furiouser? Or will the series do a U-turn with Slow and Mellow, featuring Dom and his family sitting around their picnic table and encountering no bigger adversary than the occasional mosquito? The end-credits stinger promises the introduction of a new Big Bad played by a veteran of not one but three recent action franchises noted for their cranked-up excess and machismo. The thought of the sullen staring contests between him and Dom is more exciting than the idea of however the new filmmakers plan to ramp up the action.

Star Trek Into Darkness

May 18, 2013

header-star-trek-into-darkness-first-volcanic-clipStar Trek Into Darkness is such a brooding, portentous title for such a zippy goofball of a movie. Why Into Darkness? Probably because it sounds cool. The movie also sounds cool — the decibel level, as usual with these summer behemoths, is punishing — and looks cool. “Cool” has seldom been an adjective associated with Star Trek, at least among non-Trekkies; what franchise rebooters J.J. Abrams (director) and his writing cohorts Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have done is to make Gene Roddenberry’s gentle humanist daydream safe for consumers of more steak-and-potatoes fare like Fast and Furious. To that end, lots of things explode and there are many, many chases, many races against the clock. This is a movie in which an event that would climax a frailer movie — Spock (Zachary Quinto) setting off a cold-fusion device inside a volcano to quell its eruption — is just the throat-clearing opener, explaining why impetuous Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is busted down to First Officer.

Kirk saved an entire planet, but he wasn’t supposed to — he broke the Prime Directive, observe but don’t mess with alien civilizations — so, for his troubles, he gets demoted and loses his ship, the Enterprise, to his mentor, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood). That doesn’t stick, though, because soon a terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) has someone set off a bomb in London (it’s nice to see that London will still have trees in the 23rd century) and tries to kill all of the Starfleet’s captains. This is bad, so Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) authorizes Kirk to take off after the terrorist and terminate him with extreme prejudice. The terrorist turns out to be Khan, a name familiar from a thousand internet memes featuring William Shatner bellowing it.

This is not quite the Khan we remember from the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” and its feature-length sequel The Wrath of Khan; this rebooted Star Trek follows an alternate timeline, which theoretically means the crew of the Enterprise should be free to have all new adventures and encounter fresh new threats, not face off once again with a reiteration of a villain they battled 31 years ago in a different timeline. Benedict Cumberbatch seems to know he can’t compete with Ricardo Montalban’s beloved and richly campy reading of Khan, so he doesn’t even try; besides, he doesn’t have the dialogue. (And this movie, chasing as it does the Vin Diesel crowd, wouldn’t dream of having a Melville-quoting Khan spitting venom at a Dickens-reading Kirk. This Kirk might only pick up a book if it were lying atop an issue of Playboy, but it’s amusing that he’s still listening to the Beastie Boys.)

A Star Trek film lives or dies on the chemistry of the crew, and on that level the new movie sort of works. I like how actors such as Simon Pegg and Karl Urban seem to have enough reverence for James Doohan and DeForest Kelley to mimic the late actors’ mannerisms, but also enough of their own wit to make the characters their own. The characters are fun to spend time with. But the script deals in so many pointless twists and so much parking-lot logic (i.e., the kind of plot holes that make you go “Wait a minute” on your way to your car, and perhaps sooner) that there never seem to be any serious stakes. The movie hits the ground running and never stops; it gets winded with the frantic efforts to keep hustling us over all the plot speed bumps. Also, the movie ends with a glaring cheat that essentially means nobody in the Star Trek universe has to die any more. At least Spock stayed dead for a while, back in the ’80s when death still mattered in movies.

Fairly early on, I figured out how dumb Star Trek Into Darkness was going to be, so I just relaxed into the dumbness. It’s a top-notch light show (I saw it in 2D, so can’t comment on how effective the post-converted 3D is), scored with excitable flourish by Michael Giacchino. After a while I laughed at myself for watching a movie that climaxed, more or less, with a chase on foot between Khan and a really pissed-off Spock. This, I remind you, is a movie that begins with Spock stopping a volcano from erupting, and eventually winds up with the same mechanics — minus the hopping from airship to airship — that you see at the end of every fifth-rate cop show. The poor movie. It just wears itself right out. You almost want to offer it some iced tea and sit it under a tree for a spell.

Iron Man 3

May 4, 2013

357553-iron-man-3-pepper-potts-gwyneth-paltrow-armors-up-in-new-teaserCan you name a third film in a franchise that was better than the previous two films? You’d probably have to go deep — A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, perhaps? — but Iron Man 3, despite my misgivings as someone who yawned through Tony Stark’s first two adventures, turns out to be deft summer entertainment, cheerfully amoral (I’ll get to that) and lightly coated with terrific little bits of comedic business. The difference here, it’s clear, is director/cowriter Shane Black, whose scripts for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout still hold up as winking macho fantasies. Black doesn’t take much seriously unless it involves a hero trying to rescue or avenge his loved one. Everything else is fair game, all in fun, the clatter and concussion of action tropes as syncopated as the dialogue.

Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is up against some heavy hitters this time: exploding, supercharged assassins — juiced up with some form of nanotech called Extremis — who do the bidding of a shadowy, preening terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). The Mandarin, probably the most durable of the rather forgettable rogues’ gallery in Marvel’s Iron Man comics, is sort of tossed aside in this movie, in a wittily cynical fashion that almost reads as subversion. Black doesn’t take mustache-twirling supervillains seriously either. Mostly, the movie is a matter of Stark up against amputee war vets whose exposure to the putatively healing Extremis has made them aggressive and vicious. Someone in a bad mood might find Iron Man 3 unforgivably callous and thoughtless, especially after the events in Boston, where we saw real terrorism, real explosions, real amputees.

But the combination of Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr., which worked a treat in 2005’s little-seen but well-loved Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, wants only to put you in a good mood — especially if you were there for the ’80s and ’90s action bonanzas from which Black emerged. Right down to its holiday setting — every scene is sprinkled with festive (and patriotic) Christmas lights — Iron Man 3 is a slick late-’80s throwback, with a bad guy (Guy Pearce) whose mullet and glib smile recall Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight in Real Genius, except this real genius is bent on domination via manipulating the terrorist market. (Kilmer, of course, was also Downey’s co-star in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) Black expands his boys’ club a bit, though — one of the more fearsome Extremis brutes is a woman (Stephanie Szostak), and even the unfortunately named Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark’s loved one, gets to administer some beatdowns. Iron Woman!

If the thought of William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer — two character-actor favorites of the action era this movie fondly references — as President and Vice-President puts a spring in your step, welcome to Iron Man 3. (I wish Black had time to throw in Michael Ironside or Tom Atkins, just for me.) The rapport between Stark and fellow armor-wearer James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) likewise calls back to Riggs and Murtaugh. The action, framed by legendary cinematographer John Toll, is clear and crisp and satisfying, harking back to the days when directors felt it was important for us to see what was happening to whom, and where. (I’d advise skipping the 3D on this one — it works just fine in plain old 2D, and the colors most likely pop better.)

Downey is as blithely smug as he usually is in these hefty franchise events, but with Stark suffering Post-Avengers Stress Disorder, Downey has something new and likable to play: the current reality of gods and monsters has tweaked Stark’s head a little — he’s no longer the biggest kid on the block, and he’s a bit more humble. Technology, too, smacks him down to size, and at the end, after a symbolic fireworks show casting off tech support he no longer needs, we feel that Stark has grown up, left his toys behind. While we wait for the loud climax we have diversions in the form of witty banter between Stark and various admirers (including a fatherless kid who’s around just long enough not to wear out his welcome), and Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley making meals of their sinister dialogue, and Rebecca Hall, looking like an odd amalgam of Liv Tyler and Scarlett Johansson (Betty Ross! Black Widow!), as a botanist and former Stark one-night stand. The theme of the movie seems to be that the past — whether a woman scorned or a nerd snubbed at a New Year’s Eve party — will come back to bite you, and that extends to ghastly experiments on war veterans and destructive technology that can be used against its maker. For all its snark and lighter-than-air pyrotechnics and aesthetic, the movie has a bit more going on under the hood — or helmet — than it’ll get credit for.


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