The Wolverine

Only Hugh can prevent the technological apocalypse

THE WOLVERINEWhen I go to superhero/ine films at all, I go in cold (for reasons that probably don’t apply to this piece).  I don’t know (or care) much about what Silver Samurai does in the X-Men comics.  Objectively, however, James Mangold has put together a superhero movie that actually manages not to be a superhero movie, but a movie that happens to feature a guy with superpowers as the lead.  While still fitting into the seven-installment movie franchise, The Wolverine sheds preconceived obligations and limiting crossover lore in favor of telling a story about the character of Wolverine and what he may have done after the events of the original X-Men trilogy.

The story follows Logan (Hugh Jackman, no longer singing, but returning to curt delivery of laconic dialogue), now a hermit in the Canadian wilderness.  Having fought in pretty much every war in American history, we begin with Logan’s survival of the atomic bombing on Nagasaki, during which he saved a Japanese soldier named Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) – given Logan’s immortal nature, it’s difficult to imagine how he was captured, but never mind.  In a touching flashback, the young Yashida offers Logan a special Japanese sword, which he instructs him to hold with two hands.  Logan refuses, stating that he will “come get it someday.”  In the distant future, long after the events of every subsequent X-Men film, the elderly and dying Yashida wants Logan to fulfill his promise, and sends Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to fetch him.  Reluctantly heading to Tokyo after completing the superhero trope of knocking around a bunch of disrespectful thugs (in this case, hunters who have provoked and killed a grizzly bear), Logan finds that Yashida, now a billionaire “zaibatsu,” hasn’t called Logan here to say goodbye – he’d rather absorb Logan’s unwanted powers of immortality and live forever.  Logan refuses, Yashida dies offscreen (i.e. doesn’t die), and Logan decides to protect Yashida’s granddaughter, knife-wielding business mogul Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from two parties who seem to want her dead: Yakuza assassins hired by her own father, Shingen (LOST‘s Hiroyuki Sanada), who wishes to inherit Yashida’s legacy, and an enigmatic clan of black-clad bowmen led by a female gaijin known only as Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and her right-hand man, Harada (Will Yun Lee), the film’s resident “frenemy.”

Due to a mild case of Island Syndrome, Logan nearly becomes a Boring Hero, and is saved only by the frequent appearance of Famke Janssen as Jean, the love of his life, whom he was forced to kill in the third film due to her destructive second personality.  This presents a much needed layer to Logan, a drifter directed only by hallucinations and animal instincts (and more than occasionally, convenient plot points).

The women of the film, like most in the series, are presented as independent people with their own strengths – Yukio is an unrivaled bodyguard (count how many times she saves Logan throughout the film); Mariko is a competent businesswoman and knife-thrower, and is fiercely dedicated to her family despite her desire not to own Yashida Corps; and Viper, the most one-note speaking part in the film, is actually an accomplished oncologist in addition to being a toxic mutant who spews villainous threats you’ve heard a million times before.  In various ways, this is a superhero movie that relies on its female characters despite none of them taking the lead (similar to the ways Unknown was actually about Diane Kruger’s character consistently rescuing Liam Neeson in spite of her better judgement and the sheer lack of credit received, this film, if told from another angle, could really be about the complicated sisterly relationship between Yukio and Mariko, and how their interactions with an impossibly-muscled foreigner help shape the direction the future takes).  This is unlike Iron Man 3, which presented the illusion of female empowerment by having Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), after being a damsel for two hours of reel, briefly take up the mantle of the male character to dispatch the villain (read: rather than being an empowered character on her own merits, she becomes the male character).

This is, as my father would say, “a pretty good movie,” considering the genre and the countless comic book reboots clogging theatres and shoving great indie work aside.  Most of the actors do their best to turn stock characters into believable people and formulaic shlock into viable drama.  The lion’s share of characters are normal humans, not mutants who exist for the sole purpose of showcasing cool CGI powers.  There’s just enough nuance for genuine interest; real questions about what Logan’s immortality means (albeit answered either with laconic statements or unanswered altogether); women who get to do things, and moreover, decide what they do; and ultimately, a mite of character growth not really seen in The Last Stand (which contained so many characters and plot alleys that the only dialogue I can remember is Vinnie Jones’ silly reference to a Juggernaut YouTube video).

I’m conflicted about the obligatory mid-credits lead-in to a full reboot of the core X-Men story, wherein Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) approach the finally-free Logan in an airport and inform him that yet another deadly force is out to extinguish all mutant life.  Can’t these sons of bitches leave well enough alone?  I’m not sure if I mean Professor X and Magneto, or their real-life supervillain counterparts at Marvel Entertainment.

The Wolverine (2013); written by Christopher McQuarrie; directed by James Mangold; starring Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukishima, Tao Okamoto, and Hiroyuki Sanada. 

2012 Favorites

We now return you to 2013, already in progress

feature_presentationI keep hearing myself say, “I told you the best movies from 2011 were Take Shelter, Another Earth, and Jane Eyre.”  In part so that I can cite the fact that I “told you,” and mostly just because I’ve been wanting to for awhile, I will now hold the Richard Lives equivalent of the Oscars once annually (called “Favorites” because I don’t presume to be any more of an authority on the subject than I seem to be [not to say I don’t make better decisions than the Academy, but I digress]) .  The rules I set for myself are as follows:

I.  Only include movies that I’ve seen/written about here.

II.  Set early February as a deadline.  Do it during awards season.  As such, I won’t have seen every movie of the year, in large part because of my location (for example, I am doing this list before having seen Rust and Bone, as I may not get to it anytime soon.  Apologies to Marion Cotillard, who surely doesn’t need my approval).

III.  Only include movies from the year in question.  Sometimes I see films from the previous year that I never got around to and write about them if I need to, so you’ll see them mixed in with the new movies.  Look at the year of release, listed at the bottom of each review, if you’re wondering why The Lie isn’t included in this year’s list.

IV.  No more than 5 nominees for each category.  Some have fewer.  Some have only one, such as “Favorite Character,” which we’ll also call the Highlander Award, just for fun.

V.  Be honest.  As much as I may like to be seen disagreeing with the Academy, Les Mis was pretty damn good.

I’ll explain the categories as we go, if the parameters aren’t obvious.  The “Body of Work” actor and actress awards refer to actors who had the most prolific year (varied roles, great performances).  2011’s winner was, of course, Jessica Chastain, with seven major roles and no equal in performance and character assortment.

Some categories have several nominees.  Some don’t.  Categories with multiple nominees may have a star (*) next to one, indicating my personal favorite of the year’s best.  However, since the nominees aren’t actually receiving anything from me (positive encouragement notwithstanding) and considering the fact that many of these roles/films are really not comparable (for instance, how do you compare Hugh Jackman’s performance with Woody Harrelson’s and Daniel Day-Lewis’s, and then decide which is somehow “best”?  “Best” according to what characteristics shared by all three?), you may consider all nominees equal winners if I’ve chosen not to “star” anything.  Click the links (movie titles) to see my original reviews.

Without further ado:

Best Pictures

Safety Not Guaranteed             

A Late Quartet                        

Moonrise Kingdom

Les Misérables

Zero Dark Thirty

Best screenwriting

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained 

Derek Connolly – Safety Not Guaranteed     

Martin McDonaghSeven Psychopaths    

James Ellroy/Oren Moverman – Rampart

Brit MarlingSound of My Voice 

Favorite character

Léa Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Best Actress (single performance)

Jessica Chastain as Maya – Zero Dark Thirty*

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Juno Temple as LilyLittle Birds  

Jennifer Lawrence as TiffanySilver Linings Playbook 

Sarah Hayward as SuzieMoonrise Kingdom 

Best Actress (body of work)

Jennifer Lawrence

Best Actor (single performance)

Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown – Rampart*

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnLincoln

Michael Fassbender as DavidPrometheus

Richard Gere as Robert MillerArbitrage

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Robert – A Late Quartet*

Best actor (body of work)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Best supporting actress

Brie Larson as Helen – Rampart*

Imogen Poots as Alexandra A Late Quartet*

Brit Marling as MaggieSound of My Voice

Diane Kruger as Marie AntoinetteFarewell, My Queen

Best supporting actor

Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz – Django Unchained

Robert De Niro as Patrizio SolitanoSilver Linings Playbook

Ben Whishaw as Robert FrobisherCloud Atlas

Best director

Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty*

Oren MovermanRampart

Quentin TarantinoDjango Unchained

                                                                                                                                                   Best book-to-film adaptation

Anna Karenina

Les Misérables*

Silver Linings Playbook       

Dark Horse Favorite

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Biggest letdowns

Skyfall

The Expendables 2

Ruby Sparks
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Most Popular Review

The Moth Diaries

Actors who wrote to me

Lily Cole

Lauren Ashley Carter

———

Thanks for reading.  See you next year.

Farewell, My Queen

Wake up, Sidonie

Marie Antoinette was in some ways the Marilyn Monroe of her time.  Hearsay about her sexuality, relationships, and social exploits was as important to the general public as politics or war.  It made no difference that she was running France (alongside Louis XVI) and not starring in glitzy rom-coms; her life, misconstrued and misunderstood by her audience, may as well have been one.

Benoit Jacquot’s biopic, Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen), however, does not reflect the formula tale of romantic dithering and sexual deviance so many love to attach to Antoinette.  Based upon a historical novel by Chantal Thomas, who co-wrote the screenplay, the film is not so much a plotted movie as it is a fascinating character study.  This intimate narrative centers around Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), the Queen’s reader, who observes the ongoing routine of the royal family before, during, and after the storming of the Bastille.  The most mesmerizing element of this routine is that the higher Sidonie seems to climb in the castle, the less it seems to change: on the ground, people scuttle about, nobles abandon the Queen, citizens desert.  Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), though, despairs because she knows she’ll soon be separated from her lover, Gabrielle de Polastron (Virgine Ledoyen), duchesse de Polignac.  In the novel, the protagonist plays a sort of fly-on-the-wall (not dissimilar from the role of Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick), but in the film, we tend to care about her a bit more than anyone else.  She gets involved, she feels, she loves, she hurts.

The film’s transitions are accomplished via an effective motif: Sidonie is repeatedly awakened from dreamless sleep, and rarely by natural causes.  She is shaken to life by fellow servants, especially Louison (Lolita Chammah), her excitable friend who insists she’ll die an old maid if she doesn’t start seeing men.  Louison goes so far as suggesting Paolo (Vladimir Consigny), a snarky gondola driver who knows some Italian and acts like a bit of a lecher.  Sidonie’s single tryst with Paolo, however, is cut short, and her heart isn’t truly in it.  Instead, she dwells upon an earlier meeting with the Queen – in the scene, Sidonie instinctively scratches some mosquito bites on her arm, and the Queen personally rubs a home remedy into the bites while the two share bounteous eye contact.  Seydoux’s expression here (ingeniously focused upon for longer than it might be in the nonexistent Hollywood version of this film) reveals multitudes: we instantly know that Sidonie is falling for the Queen – no definite statements about sexuality are needed; in fact, the Queen’s own affair with Gabrielle is not even given a sideways look by her ladies in waiting – but we also know that her heart must eventually be broken.  She pledges to stay by the Queen’s side forever, and Marie Antoinette soon uses her meetings with Sidonie to vent about her love for Gabrielle, and it’s evident (without use of so much as one flashback) that Sidonie is thinking the same thoughts about her Queen, wondering if she can once again achieve the same smile she had after leaving the Queen’s chambers that day.  Nicolas Moreau (Michel Robin), an old-timer who works in the library and befriends Sidonie, sees right through the latter’s claims of loyalty and recognizes the love she harbors for one who is absolutely off-limits.  Our feelings for Sidonie, a protagonist who truly deserves the best, make it all the more difficult to witness Antoinette’s histrionic monologues about Gabrielle, whose motivations and feelings about the affair are left (perhaps wisely) ambiguous (note, however, that she never once cries for the Queen).

Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux, two of the best actresses (bilingual and otherwise) working today, make a great pair, and the sparsity of their encounters makes their scenes together all the more tense and desperate.  We know their time together is limited and we know the Queen is becoming unstable; we need Sidonie to make the most of every conversation, and Léa (who oddly enough appeared as the primary villain in Hollywood’s Mission: Impossible 4 earlier this year) spares absolutely nothing.  She glows with a sort of anti-Hollywood beauty, showing off what they’d tell her to hide over here (I’m thinking in terms of what can be seen on her face).  Kruger, the standout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a few years ago, plays Marie Antoinette without stylizing, glamorizing, exploiting, or judging her, and that’s something I’m not sure we’ve yet seen onscreen.  In fact, the whole package has a vibe similar to last year’s My Week With Marilyn in terms of its treatment of the subject and the eyes through which we see her.  You could not have asked for a better pair of actresses to fill these roles.

Because the film is a character study and not one of the climactic biopics to which some of us are accustomed, the story feels unfinished in the end, if only because the action ends where the action of most of these types of films begins.  In a brash act of selfishness, the Queen asks (or perhaps commands) Sidonie, with whom she now shares a great trust, to dress as Gabrielle and accompany the real Gabrielle (who will dress as a servant) on her exeunt from the capital.  The intention: if any of the numerous folks calling for Gabrielle’s head discover her, they’ll kill Sidonie instead, and Gabrielle will be spared.  Despite Madame Campan’s (Noémie Lvovsky) rather bold instructions not to accept this proposition, Sidonie realizes that this is the one way she can show her devotion (not necessarily as a romantic partner, but as a friend, follower, and keeper of a precious trust).

Here is where the film’s other motif (an image pattern consisting of only two occurrences) closes: there are two “undressings” in the story, the first of which occurs when Sidonie is sent by the Queen to wake Gabrielle.  Instead, Sidonie compulsively removes the single bedsheet from Gabrielle’s body and beholds her naked form flung haphazardly across the bed.  Later, the Queen instructs Sidonie, who has worn the same outfit (rather, been stuffed into the same corset and gown) throughout the entire film, to undress and get into Gabrielle’s clothing.  As her clothes crumple onto the floor and she stands nude before the Queen, Sidonie lifts her hands to cover herself, assuming a position similar to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.  While she’s being sized up and transformed, tears stream from her eyes, though she makes no sound and her face remains solid and straight.  Does she cry because she’s afraid she’ll be killed?  Does she feel betrayed by the Queen?  Or is it the crippling knowledge that she’ll never see this woman, who never truly knew her but may have loved her in another life, again?  When the Queen finally touches her lips to Sidonie’s (and I’ll leave it up to you as to why it happens), Sidonie does not kiss back.

As the entrancing look at these characters ends, Sidonie introduces herself to us.  “Soon,” she says, “I will be no one.”  Little does she know, the hearts of patient film-goers will disagree.  Sidonie, where are you now?

Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen) (2012); written by Chantal Thomas and Benoit Jacquot; directed by Benoit Jacquot; starring Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger, and Virgine Ledoyen.

Unknown (2011)

Wait… who’s the trained assassin?

The only thing more popular than a thriller these days is a thriller in which the audience is not required to figure out much of anything.  If you’ve seen the trailers for Unknown, Jaume Collet-Serra’s new flick, you have to ask yourself: “Did they really want me to go see this movie?”  So much is given away in present-day film trailers that I’m not entirely convinced films themselves won’t soon be thirty seconds long and inserted into ESPN News’ commercial breaks.

Unknown is a film in which questions beget questions, and you have to forget half of them in order to accept what’s next.  It begins on a quiet note, with scientist Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Liz (January Jones) visiting Berlin for an important botany summit (it’s a thriller, I swear).  Somewhere in all the hassles of settling into the hotel, Harris leaves his briefcase behind.  He goes back to retrieve it, and the cab in which he’s riding takes a not-so-refreshing dip in the river.  His life is saved by the cab driver, Gina (the amazing Diane Kruger).  After emerging from a four-day coma, Harris returns to his wife to discover that not only has she forgotten him, but he has been replaced with another man (Aidan Quinn) going by the name Martin Harris.  Through one thing and another, Harris must seek out Gina’s assistance in figuring the whole thing out.

At first, there seems to be a traceable breadcrumb trail – Harris’ notebook with little codes in it, constant (and almost random) flashbacks to tender moments between Harris and his wife, and so on – just little bits and pieces to sink our sleuthing teeth into.  But the eventual revelation of what’s really going on is nothing you could have figured out from the clues, most (if not all) of which turn out to be the reddest of herrings.

Not giving the audience the ability to solve the puzzle doesn’t make a poor thriller.  What makes a poor thriller  is overkill, or in this case, overthrill.  When David Copperfield made a fighter jet disappear, he made a fighter jet disappear.  He didn’t start with a rabbit, then a limousine, then an elephant.  If he had, you’d have been exhausted and unimpressed by the time the curtain had even closed on the plane.  Unknown earns its title.  A lot of why? is thrown at us, not least of which is Why does this film have two and a half climaxes?

The film shines when it comes to the performances.  Liam Neeson does the same thing he did in Taken, and he does it well, even if it is just running around, looking bewildered and beating the shit out of non-American people.  Bruno Ganz appears as yet another former German military man, but doesn’t seem the least bit convinced that he should stop.  Frank Langella even shows up in the film’s third act as an important character, but the brevity of this appearance leads me to wonder whether Langella is only allowed to appear in each of his movies for under ten minutes.  Is it in his contract?  Diane Kruger, however, steals this movie, and not just in performance: I’d argue that Gina is the real hero of the story.  She saves Harris from certain doom on three separate occasions, and disposes of the film’s villains herself.  She doesn’t need to.  She has no investment in this Harris guy, who may very well be insane, but she does it anyway.  Why?  She’s a person who helps.  It’s in her blood.

(Spoilers ahead, because you’d feel betrayed if I didn’t warn you)

To round out this piece, I need to reveal the big secret: Harris is a trained assassin, and his “wife” is actually just his professional partner.  The Martin Harris story was just a cover for the duo to kill a famous botanist (Sebastian Koch), and when Harris slammed his head into the cab window, he didn’t forget who his wife was, nor did he create a whole scenario around a woman he’d never met – he just forgot he’d made it up himself.  The problem here is an old fashioned case of irresponsible writing.  This plot twist causes the film to change from drama/thriller to thriller/action movie.  Gina saves Harris a final time after Langella clumsily spells out all the answers, as diabolical villains often do just before failing to kill the hero, and this should be the end.  But no, there’s another climax: now the super duo need to infiltrate the botany summit, disarm a bomb, save everyone, and kill the two uninteresting characters (Liz and the fake Martin, who was actually just a replacement for Harris himself after the car crash), neither of which have anything to do with the story at this point.  Even the dialogue changes to action-movie dialogue.  “I didn’t forget everything!  I remember how to kill you, asshole!”  This choice leaves us with no chance for a satisfying ending.

Was the car crash set up?  If so, how did they know Harris would forget his briefcase, which just happened to have the Collected MacGuffins inside?  By the same token, why would a longtime master assassin leave his mission’s most important tool on a hotel trolley?  Why wouldn’t the other assassins (four are shown in the film) go collect the briefcase?  Why would it be necessary to execute Harris after he woke up?  Couldn’t they just explain to him what happened if he had truly forgotten, and welcome him back to the “family,” as it were?  How would Harris regain his “assassin” bull-shitsu in a single instant, but not regain his desire to be an assassin?  Why don’t we see Harris confront Liz after trying to get to her throughout the entire film?  Why does Langella’s evil character mention his grandchildren so much?  Are we supposed to feel bad?  The laundry list of questions goes ever on, but if you can take the film’s twists with a fistful of salt, it’s an enjoyable and well-made thriller (note the differences between well-made and well-written).

Unknown is Collet-Serra’s best film, and it comes very, very close to being excellent.  We just needed one more rabbit pulled out of the hat (perhaps that the story of him being an assassin was, in fact, just another lie to throw him off course).  Instead, the filmmakers just tore the rabbit’s ears off.

Unknown (2011); written by Oliver Butcher; directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, and January Jones.

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