Archive for July 2013

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.

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The Conjuring

July 20, 2013

the-conjuring-10580-p-1363956340-645-75According to the demonologists in The Conjuring, there are three stages of demonic activity: infestation, oppression, and possession. I don’t know about the other two, but the sound design of the movie is oppressive beyond belief — this goddamn thing is louder than Pacific Rim. The soundtrack rumbles and moans ominously, doors creak open at the volume of the earth cracking open, doors slam shut with the impact of a bank vault falling five stories. Once, a few framed family photos crash to the floor with such aural aggression that they could wake up people in the next county, though most of the household sleeps through it. And that’s all before the main event begins, with the shrieking and the howling and the Latin-shouting and the deep-bass Dolbying.

Most of the power of The Conjuring derives from its use, or overuse, of sound and shadow and menacing mood. The director, James Wan (who issued the surprisingly lucrative demon flick Insidious two years ago), seems interested lately in spooking audiences the old-fashioned way; the movie is rated R, though there’s no sex/nudity, scant swearing that I can remember, and pretty much no blood except for a cop who gets bitten on the cheek. Indeed, this was a big story in the online film-geek press some months back: it seems that The Conjuring is simply too scary for a PG-13 rating. The MPAA’s official decree as it appears in ads is that the R indicates “sequences of disturbing violence and terror,” which I guess is true, if by “disturbing violence and terror” they mean “the same jump scares you’ve seen in a hundred PG-13 ghost/demon horror flicks, only really loud.”

The movie is allegedly drawn from the real-life attempts of the paranormal-crusader couple Ed (demonologist) and Lorraine (psychic) Warren, played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, to contend with otherworldly bullies making home life hell for a Rhode Island family in 1971. The demon appears to be the shade of a “witch” who hanged herself from a tree in the front yard centuries ago, and has since amused herself by making mothers kill their children. To this end, the demon targets Carolyn Perron, played by Lili Taylor in her first major-release haunted-house film since 1999’s The Haunting remake; at least The Conjuring is better, and I’m always tickled to see a one-time indie-film goddess like Taylor in a summer creepshow for the masses, though she spends most of the climax in a burlap bag. Even The Haunting didn’t treat her so disrespectfully.

Ron Livingston, looking like a cross between Kyle Chandler and Paul LeMat, is the lumpily amiable and useless husband, and the family is rounded out by five daughters I could never tell apart, except for the youngest, who’s always talking to a little-boy ghost via the mirror in a music box. The movie runs for a while on minor portents gradually ratcheting up, sometimes cutting away to show the Warrens at home with their daughter, who, fortunately for her always-on-call ghostbuster parents, has a nanny to look after her. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga make a pleasant and intriguing team — I might sit for a TV show about the Warrens if they reprised the roles. The Warrens seem admirably cool in the face of demonic hissy fits — they’ve seen it all, though Lorraine is haunted by something she saw during an exorcism. What was it? “I don’t know and I won’t ask,” says Ed, and the movie — to its credit, or perhaps saving something for a sequel — is equally taciturn about it.

I don’t know much about the actual Perron case, other than that weird stuff happened and the family lived in the house for ten years. As the movie has it, they’re there for maybe a few months or even weeks, and it all builds to a climax in which a scissors-wielding Lili Taylor chases a little girl through a hidden passage in the walls. This, I am reasonably sure, did not actually happen. I also cannot comment on whether the thing that truly saved the family was not the power of Christ but the memory of a really nice day at the beach. In some ways, The Conjuring, set in the ’70s, seems to have been made in the ’70s; all it needs at the end is a heartwarming freeze-frame of the happy, no-longer-demonized family. But the score cheeses things up quite enough as it is, leading to a final onscreen quote from Ed (dead these seven years now) admonishing us to believe in God and Satan. Wait, and here I thought all you need is love and a family beach photo.

Pacific Rim

July 14, 2013

pacific-rimNow that Peter Jackson seems to be lost in Middle Earth until further notice, Guillermo del Toro is the most lovably rabid fan of monsters that cinema has. I like to imagine del Toro as a kid, slathering paint on his Aurora monster models, devouring dog-eared issues of Famous Monsters, and staging epic fights between his toy robots and his toy monsters, going “Rrrrgh” and “Dssssh” and other clash-of-the-plastic-titans sound effects that little kids vocalize. Unlike a hack like Michael Bay, who was only in the Transformers movies for the money, del Toro lives and breathes this stuff like mythopoetic oxygen.

Pacific Rim, del Toro’s first directing gig in five years, follows the blueprint of his other semi-mainstream stuff like Blade II and the two Hellboy films — it’s loud and bombastic, with copious imagination and perversity snuck through a side door. Time will tell if del Toro is still interested in making smaller, more intimate masterpieces like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, but at least here he shows he can play the game. Pacific Rim is del Toro back in his childhood bedroom, slamming his toys together in a gleeful death match. In one corner you have the kaiju, gigantic sea monsters who slither ashore and decimate entire cities. In the other corner you have the jaegers, gigantic mechas steered by two pilots joined by neural “drift.” Whenever a kaiju shows up — and they’re starting to show up with greater frequency — the jaegers drop in via helicopter and punch the everloving shit out of the kaiju. Rrrrgh! Dssssh!

There’s a bit of what, these days, is forlornly called “the human element” here. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is a former master jaeger pilot, inactive for five years following the death of his brother and jaeger partner. Raleigh mopes around in construction — the world’s leaders have unwisely decided to build walls against the kaiju instead of continuing with the jaeger program — until his commanding officer, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), pulls him back in. Raleigh teams up with newbie pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who as a girl lost her family in a kaiju attack on Tokyo. There are other humans, like scientists Charlie Day (a kaiju enthusiast) and Burn Gorman (a mathematician), and various jaeger masters from different countries — it’s almost an Olympics of dragonslayers — and the highly amusing Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, who salvages kaiju organs and does a brisk black-market business out of Hong Kong.

But the script, credited to del Toro and Travis Beacham, isn’t overly convoluted; the filmmakers know why we’re there, and it isn’t necessarily to see the friction between Raleigh and a hotshot young Aussie pilot. No, we’re there to see rrrrgh and dssssh, and del Toro gives it to us on a massive scale, often with a rising line of adrenaline that translates in the awestruck moviegoer’s mind as “Holy fuckin’ SHIT.” Pacific Rim brings the wow and the chthonic thunder on a level that no other blockbuster this summer has managed. Still, del Toro is human, and he tosses in little gags and asides; a bit involving an executive desk toy stands out in my memory. The movie is rapturously sincere but never takes itself too seriously. At its peak efficiency it’s one king-hell good earth-shaking time.

And yet … I miss the del Toro who found beauty in all the rugose freaks in the Hellboy films, who wove tapestries of frightened good and nightmarish evil in his foreign-language films. The same anticipatory excitement that draws some of us to a giant-robot-vs.-giant-monster epic directed by Guillermo del Toro — how could it not be the awesomest thing ever? — ultimately leads to a bit of a letdown when it isn’t, in fact, the awesomest thing ever, but just relatively awesome: awesome relative to the movies that got it wrong (ahem, Transformers) and relative to the mostly wan franchise place-holders preceding it this season. If Pacific Rim, as del Toro intended, fires up kids’ imaginations and sends them running off to the better old Toho monster mashes or to the more recent Gamera films of the ’90s, it was money well spent. It’s not really meant to appeal to us older del Toro fans, who know he’s capable of richer and darker dreams; it’s for the boys and girls building creatures in their bedrooms, who will look at Pacific Rim, the way del Toro looked at Gojira or King Kong, and say “I wanna do something like that when I grow up. I wanna build that world, make that happen. Rrrrrgh. Dssssh.

The Lone Ranger

July 7, 2013

the_lone_rangerWell, it sure was a strange and subversive Fourth of July gift Disney decided to give the country with The Lone Ranger. The movie, which is actually a lot better than most critics would have you believe, inspires feelings ranging from disrespect to downright scorn for the following institutions: the U.S. military, the U.S. government, American capitalism, and the Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer), who starts out as a bumbling tenderfoot lawyer named John Reid. At one point, his savior Tonto (Johnny Depp) drags kemosabe through horse manure. That’s right, the Lone Ranger gets scat-bombed by noble Silver himself. I can picture, with some glee and schadenfreude, the apoplexy of such cultural guardians as Michael Medved at the notion of the House of Walt exposing millions of American children to such … such blasphemy!

Perhaps predictably, I had a fine time. The Lone Ranger stays up a bit past its bedtime at two hours and thirty minutes, though such blockbuster bloat is par for the course with director Gore Verbinski, who guided Depp through the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies (not being a fan, I only saw the first). The film lurches forward with the weight of serious money, much of which is put to good use evoking the American West of 1869 on a scale you’re not likely to see again on the big screen any time soon. The budget is also on the screen in a clear-eyed and exhilarating climax involving two trains. Verbinski shoots action cleanly and unabashedly, the way Spielberg in his prime used to, and the way James Cameron still does, on the rare occasions these days that he can be bothered to do so.

There’s been some kerfuffle, some of it understandable, at the presumption of Johnny Depp playing Tonto instead of a Native American actor. Depp, who claims (like seemingly eight out of ten other Americans) Cherokee or Creek ancestry and was last year adopted into the Comanche Nation, has his heart in the right place, I think. If you can find the only film he directed, 1997’s The Brave, you will find a man very in tune with the bitterness and rage of indigenous Americans. And then there’s Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man, wherein Depp’s dying white man William Blake was befriended by a Native American and sent off to the other side in ceremonial raiments. At times, The Lone Ranger plays like William Blake’s final fever dream in the canoe carrying him across the river of ghosts, only here he imagines himself as the Native American who saves a white man. Depp’s Tonto is weird and unstable, driven mad by the genocidal treachery of white men. I would place Tonto as the missing link between William Blake and Raphael from The Brave. It’s not the goofball redface-Jack-Sparrow turn the ads lead you to expect; the performance has the derangement of pain in it.

The official plot motor has John Reid and Tonto teaming up to capture the evil Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner in a performance of supreme scurviness), but just nabbing him doesn’t get the job done; the tendrils of corruption that animate Butch reach deeply out from the “values” on which America was founded (along with a thick layer of non-white bones). You can’t just shoot this bad guy: there’s a whole government/nascent-corporate apparatus backing him up. Against this, Reid and Tonto are obliged to obscure their faces and charge forward. By the way, this is all related to us in flashback by the old and decrepit Tonto, as in Little Big Man, and the film tries on costumes from what must be dozens of other westerns. It’s an epic western amusement-park ride, though “amusement” isn’t quite the word — bemusement, maybe?

“The Noble Savage,” reads the condescendingly oxymoronic banner underneath the old, posing Tonto (it’s 1933), and The Lone Ranger puts the lie to both words while redefining most every white man on the screen as an ignoble savage. I don’t mean to harp so much on the political message of what’s essentially an escapist summer blow-out, but there is more under the hood here than the media wants to talk about (mostly the angle is how much it cost and how poorly it did over the holiday frame). There is probably a valid reading of the film as klutzy white-guilt self-congratulation: See, at least one white man joined forces with the insulted and injured against the behemoth of Manifest Destiny. Despite his best efforts, though, an entire Comanche tribe gets mowed down by America’s great new innovation, the Gatling gun. (The weapon is some five years anachronistic for 1869, but we’ll let it pass.) Since few ticket-buyers were up for this Fourth of July history lesson, there will be no Lone Ranger 2 in which Reid and Tonto continue their fight against injustice. For that, I gather, we must look to superhero franchises for the foreseeable future.