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. 

Taken 2

What I do best

One or two good action pictures make it to the top of the pile each year.  Only once or twice a century, however, does a film sequel outshine its predecessor, especially when the original idea was as thin as a film like Taken.  Don’t be mistaken: the idea is still “any excuse for Liam Neeson to beat up non-Americans” (despite the fact that Neeson himself is Irish), but Taken 2 is better than the original for two reasons: it gives Neeson’s character an emotion or two, and it makes better use of its supporting cast.  The secret?  Acknowledging that they’re people.  Even if they hopelessly revolve around a male action hero, it’s nice that they seem important to him, and Taken 2 focuses more on the theme of fatherhood and responsibility (even if it does so mostly with action) than the first film, which only sought to find new ways of piling bodies as quickly as possible.

The story follows Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) as they try to resume their lives after the events of the first film, in which Mills saved Kim from a ragtag group of Albanian criminals and sex traffickers.  The biggest conflict in Mills’ life is now whether he can train Kim to ace her driver’s test.  He’s also spending more time with his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), whose new boyfriend happens to be a Spiteful Sleaze.  Before the charming family scenes, though, we witness Murad (Rade Šerbedžija), father of Marko, a goon who met a particularly unsettling demise at Mills’ hands in the first film, making plans with his own goons to take revenge upon Mills.  Considering the fact that Mills killed this man’s son in order to save his daughter, I think there must be a circular logic meme in there somewhere.  Long story short, Murad’s men kidnap not Kim, but (surprise!) Mills and Lenore, who are just beginning to reconcile their relationship.

This is where it gets good: in a very nice role reversal, teenaged Kim must save her parents from the bad guys.  It doesn’t happen instantly, either.  A lot of time is spent alone with Kim, who takes some direction from her father over the phone and improvises the rest.  It takes some suspension of disbelief concerning law enforcement and witnesses, considering a few of the things Kim does might render her an international terrorist in real life, but it’s wonderful to see her evolve into a breathing organism as opposed to the cardboard “teenage girl” stock character she played in the original.  And of course, Maggie Grace, who shone as Shannon on TV’s Lost, is second-to-none when it comes to crying convincingly on screen.  Best of all, she gets to play a person with real concerns and genuine bravery – and she gets to do most of it while fully clothed!

Once freed from prison, Mills teams with Kim to rescue Lenore, who is still in the clutches of Murad and his dedicated team of bloodthirsty fighting machines.  The film then becomes a somewhat formulaic two-way cat-and-mouse game between Murad and Mills, who must fight his way through legions of enemies before he, Murad, Kim, and Lenore are the only remaining players.  Refreshingly, Murad’s henchmen are in limited supply, and it’s pretty easy to keep track of roughly how many he has left because the same faces repeatedly show up throughout the chase.  Additionally, it’s easy to sympathize with the mostly one-note Murad, thanks to Šerbedžija’s dependably dedicated acting: he lost his son; why wouldn’t he want some resolution?  But he makes one too many villainous decisions to escape this film alive.  On the other hand, his followers are viciously devoted to torturing and killing Mills.  Marko (Murad’s son) must really have been the toast of Albania for these guys to be so convicted.

Like this year’s The Bourne Legacy, Taken 2 opens the possibility of a sequel, but does not promise, require, or guarantee it.  It’s a good action film with some subtlety and a fair attempt at character.  While it does include the unfortunate trope of non-American villains who could be any race to an American audience (just look at Šerbedžija, a Serbian actor who constantly plays Russian and Bulgarian characters), it doesn’t involve the obligatory sexual objectification of white women that was heavily featured in the original Taken, nor is Mills as much of a ruthless brute as he once was.  Nearly every bad vibe is gone, stripping the film down to a likeable action flick wisely contained in its own drama.  It’s not the highest film art of the year, but you don’t go into something like this expecting Rob Roy, do you?

Taken 2 (2012); written by Luc Besson; directed by Olivier Megaton; starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Jensson, and Rade Šerbedžija. 

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.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

And he almost deserved it

The most magical and complete of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series of children’s novels no doubt presented a tall order for director Michael Apted.  The book is presented in episodic fashion, with Lewis giving us a different tale in each chapter, such that a reader might have a different adventure each night before bed.  As such, the one arc holding the story together is rather flimsy when presented dramatically, and requires a bit of invention on the part of the filmmakers in order to deliver something that feels urgent and complete.

The cast is an amalgamation of familiar faces from the first two films.  Skandar Keynes returns as Edmund, who has graduated from Turkish Delight to solid gold conchs; and Georgie Henley finally takes her long-deserved lead role as Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies, who is now old enough to be concerned with all of the harmful trappings that come with being a teenage girl in present-day human society (trappings that Lewis did nothing but perpetuate by having Lucy obsess about her own physical appearance).  Ben Barnes reprises his role as Caspian (for the last time as a young man, if the books are to be followed); and Will Poulter, a young newcomer, takes on the tough role of Eustace Scrubb, the Pevensies’ obnoxious cousin, who undergoes more than one transformation during the course of the story.  Simon Pegg takes over as the voice of Reepicheep, the talking mouse knight, replacing Eddie Izzard, and Liam Neeson still plays Jesus in lion form.

In the novel, Lucy and Edmund go back to Narnia in order to help Caspian find seven Lords who were once banished by his evil uncle.  That’s all.  In the film, there’s a generous injection of stock fantasy material: not only must the protagonists find the Lords, but they must recover magical swords (MacGuffin time!) in order to repel a dangerous mist that has been whisking sailors away to Dark Island.  This is also an excuse to bring back Tilda Swinton as the dead White Witch, Jadis (I’m not complaining; she is wonderful).  However, instead of adding further inventions, such as a villain, Apted and screenwriter Christopher Markus simply rearrange the adventures from the novel and milk/draw out the already-resolved ones for further drama (and CG opportunities).  For example, a very brief brush with a sea serpent during the first half of the novel becomes an epic battle at the end of the film. Where Eustace is a nuisance through only a small part of the book, lightening up after living a few days as a dragon, both Eustace’s grating personality and his tenure as a winged beast are strung through two-thirds of the film.  It works as a narrative film technique because, as characters are generally expected to change by the end, it only makes sense to have them change at the end, at least in a fantasy film for children.

While Lewis denied any intentional allegory in these novels, he wrote them shortly after becoming a born-again Christian (coming from a life of Atheism), so the Christian themes are certainly there.  The film tones this down (mostly) in favor of providing shallow, Grimm-style moral lessons for children, and lays on a bit of the Christian lessons later.  I prayed (figuratively) that the writers would omit a certain line from the book, but alas, if there’s one thing these films have been, it’s loyal to the bare-bones events of the books.  Ultimately, though, it’s harmless.

Where the film beats the previous ones (and also where it falls short after beginning to succeed) is the development of and the conflict between the characters.  Right off the bat, Edmund and Caspian have a conflict: they disagree on fundamental issues to the degree that they end up drawing weapons and threatening physical violence on one another.  They make up with the aid of Lucy, the level-headed, more intelligent female, but the conflict doesn’t end.  They both have eyes for Lilliandil (Laura Brent), a living star who guides the group to a certain island.  The conflict, however, is abandoned.  The battle at the end is apparently enough to quell any disagreements between two very different young men from very different worlds, thus we are left with a few loose ends.

Ultimately, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is dramatically superior, better-written, and more responsibly handled than 2008’s Prince Caspian, which attempted to add darkness and grit to a story for children, and ended up with a story full of kids and talking animals apathetically committing murder after murder.  This movie brings back the magic – how interesting that this should be the case when a film is taken away from the Disney company.  Georgie Henley finally comes into her own as Lucy, rivaling young-adult heroines such as Dakota Blue Richards and Emma Watson, and the supporting cast, including Gary Sweet as Drinian and Billie Brown as Coriakin the Magician, possess their roles as plot devices well.   You’ll probably notice them more on a second viewing.

Maybe it’s time to stop making these movies.  The Pevensie Trilogy is done.  The remaining four books are going to be difficult to adapt.  Non-readers may wonder why we don’t have the same main characters and the same magic as before – not to mention why the writers apparently hate Mormons, Islam, and the Pope.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010); written by Christopher Markus (based on the novel by C.S. Lewis); directed by Michael Apted; starring Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes and Will Poulter.