Even if it doesn’t entirely clear away the stench of its misbegotten predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this latest adventure of grizzled mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) feels like a return to form for the oft-erratic “X-Men” series. To wipe the slate clean, Jackman and director James Mangold (Knight and Day; Girl, Interrupted) have teamed up to bring out the claws once again in The Wolverine. While it’s definitely a more entertaining and far deeper film than the last Wolverine outing, it still falls short of the top tier of Marvel tentpoles like Iron Man and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s much-loved 1982 comic-book arc, The Wolverine is an existential (and at times soddenly heavy) story about our razor-taloned hero grappling with the burden of immortality and loss. But before we wade into that therapy session, the film opens with a harrowing sequence set, like most of the film, in Japan. It’s WWII, and Jackman’s Logan is imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp in Nagasaki as B-29s fly overhead to deliver the atomic bomb. During the blast he saves one of his captors, a soldier named Yashida, who, during the explosion, learns of Wolverine’s invincibility and ability to heal his own wounds.
Decades later, Logan, who hasn’t aged a day, has renounced violence and lives as a hermit bonding with grizzlies in the Yukon. There, he’s tracked down by a punky, red-haired Japanese girl named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who informs him that the man he saved back in the prison camp is now a powerful industrialist on his deathbed. He’s requesting Logan’s presence to thank him and settle the karmic debt that he believes he owes him.
Logan heads to Japan to pay his respects and discovers not only that the dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) wants to steal the secret to Logan’s immortality, but also that he has a granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who’s about to inherit his fortune and is in need of Logan’s unique brand of badass protection. Why Logan complies is never really explained, perhaps because of justice? Regardless, Logan and Mariko are on the run from a lethal posse of tattooed Yakuza and some other samurai-style baddies straight out of the Kill Bill playbook, including Yashida’s femme fatale blonde nurse (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who possesses certain viper-y gifts of her own. Although Logan doesn’t even speak one lick of Japanese in any of the scenes.
As Logan and his charge hit the road, sparks fly, ninjas attack, and Wolverine begins to experience something he never has before — the actual fear of death. You get to see how he’s both physically and emotionally vulnerable. In other words, human. All of this makes for a Wolverine tale that’s more loaded with psychological questions (his immortality is seen as a curse) and makes the haunted character more interesting. Still, that’s no excuse for the film’s gauzy dream sequences with Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey haunting him from the beyond.
Still, in the final wash, The Wolverine provides a compelling look into a beloved screen character and offers up enough excitement to merit its existence. That said, it’s worth pointing out two things that The Wolverine gets right (aside from Jackman’s always excellent, strong-and-silent-type performance as Logan). The first is an action sequence that occurs mid-way in the film, when Wolverine is being pursued on top of a bullet train. By now, we’ve all seen so many beat-downs atop locomotives that they’ve become numbingly similar. But the one in The Wolverine is so frantic and adrenalized (not to mention the only part of the film that takes advantage of 3-D) that the familiar becomes new again. The film also sticks the landing on a brief teaser scene after the end credits that hints at future developments in the X-Men universe. I won’t spoil the pleasure of what happens. But you have to hand it to Marvel for managing to leave audiences breathless in anticipation of a sequel after making them sit through two-plus hours of merely satisfactory storytelling.
I’m pretty sure that being Superman isn’t as simple as it once was. Not only does he stand for truth, justice, and the American way, he also has a virtual monopoly on the men-in-tights genre. Didn’t director Bryan Singer already pay due diligence in 2006′s Superman Returns with Brandon Routh? The box office can’t be the only reason to revive a franchise.
“We needed to juice him up,” admits director Zack Snyder. I’ll say. With Batman getting all the bad-boy love, Supes needed to roughen his do-gooder image into something towards a cooler, more conflicted image. And here he is in Man of Steel, directed by Snyder, with story input from producer Christopher Nolan, the sinister genius behind the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan knows from moody. Snyder knows from fireworks. Nolan knows from holding back. Snyder, uh, doesn’t. Together, they could have spawned a movie at war with itself, which admittedly this one often is. Against those odds, Man of Steel soars high on its own schizoid ambition. Lacking the old-school humor and charm of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman and Christopher Reeve’s iconic performance, Man of Steel pretty much starts from scratch.
At the risk of damning Henry Cavill with faint praise, the British actor wisely takes on the role as if it’s never been played before. Fellow Brits like Christian Bale (Batman) and Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man) took the same approach. Cavill can do hunky in his sleep (Immortals or The Tudors). It’s the banked fires he brings to Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, that make his performance such a potent surprise. Cavill, square-jawed with a hip sense of alienation, doesn’t let the suit act for him. Hell, he doesn’t put it on till halfway into the movie. This Clark is a haunted loner grappling with issues, an alien from the planet Krypton, raised on the Kansas farm of the Kents – Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane, finding depth where there isn’t any).
How’d he get there? As told in DC Comics, Krypton is nearing extinction due to not having enough natural resources to suffice the planet. The scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his infant son, Kal-El, off to Earth. Enter the Kents, his adoptive parents, then Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon, nostrils flaring), the Krypton fascist who follows Kal-El to take over the planet. Blah. Blah. Blah. What else is new?
In approach, lots. Snyder follows no linear pattern. Baby Kal in the rocket is followed by a smash cut to Clark, age 33, as a sort of existential loner who drifts from town to town. Flashbacks fill in the rest. Papa Kent – Costner’s heartfelt portrayal lifts the film – tells Clark to hide his special gifts under wraps. Out of fear of becoming popular, Clark never smiles or makes friends. He’s made for bigger things. Before the gloom can settle, Snyder overkills with Hans Zimmer sound and FX fury as Supes rescues humans from fire, flood and twister.
When Clark finally puts on the suit, its colors are muted, like he is. Maybe that’s why Snyder has him punching everything in sight, with one exception: In the Arctic, to find the codex holding the key to (what else?) global domination, the Man of Steel falls for Daily Planet’s Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Lois Lane (a tough, terrific Amy Adams). You don’t hire four-time Oscar nominee Adams to play Lois if you want a compliant bimbo who can’t see the superman behind Clark’s glasses. But there’s a distinct lack of heat between Adams and Cavill, and their stabs at sub-sitcom humor fall flat. Even when Snyder pulls out every computer-generated trick in a climax that won’t quit while it’s ahead, there are moments where Cavill and Adams give the movie a beating heart. It needs it. Caught in the slipstream between action and angst, Man of Steel is a bumpy ride for sure. But there’s no way to stay blind to its wonders.
Star Trek Into Darkness opens with a thrilling set piece on Nibiru, a primitive planet, where Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Bones (the sly, loose-limbed Karl Urban) are on the run from a tribe of angry natives on the planet. Meanwhile, a raging volcano, in mid-eruption, that threatens to destroy Nibiru and its inhabitants, traps First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) around a boiling ocean of lava. Naturally, the Vulcan stays cool as a cucumber, ready to die to save his crew — an impeccably logical decision, but also building to a classic “Trek” standoff between Vulcan logic and impulsive human emotion. But Capt. Kirk has other plans. He’ll rescue Spock, even if that means violating a Federation rule that says the Enterprise can’t be exposed to the planet’s uncivilized hordes. Kirk, who never met a regulation he couldn’t trash or care for, guides the starship up into the air and over to where his comrade is about to perish, and the warriors, decked out in head stare at the ship as if it were a god. It’s a sensation that the movie transmits to the audience, since the Enterprise, emitting an awesome thrummm, never looked quite so massive.
Like Abrams‘ first Trek movie, this one is positioned as a prequel to the original TV series and subsequent films, though it also lifts (and twists) elements from that sacred text, 1982′s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Kirk and Spock, each following his own nature (hothead, detached logical brainiac), are usually at loggerheads, but even when they wind up coming to the same conclusion, they can’t stop arguing about how they got there. The film builds particularly well on their burgeoning friendship and that’s part of the movie’s texture of cocky one-upmanship. The whole Enterprise crew has become a collection of colliding egos. Zoë Saldana’s badass Uhura, who’s in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel with Spock; John Cho as the so-stoic-he’s-cool Sulu; Simon Pegg’s frantically funny and resourceful Scotty. But make no mistake — these characters pop out at us with a new dynamism. Plus, they all confront a villain who has been brilliantly retrofitted to throw everyone, including the audience, off guard.
This dastardly dude is a boyish-looking rogue Starfleet officer named John Harrison, who starts off by striking a note of urban chaos. He’s played by rising British star Benedict Cumberbatch in a totally original way, with the physicality of a dancer and an eager, slippery, yet puckish sincerity, when given the chance, ingeniously disguises his vengeful mission. Once Harrison’s been captured and placed in a cell, Kirk has to listen to his own hunches about who this man is and what he wants. That’s the real ”darkness” the film’s title is referring to: the place where you’re no longer certain what the right thing to do is and that’s a place of genuine excitement. Into Darkness is a sleek, thrilling, beautifully modulated and sustained epic that’s also a triumphantly witty popcorn morality play. It’s everything you could want in a Star Trek movie.
The Great Gatsby. The title raises two immediate questions, one of which is easily answered. Why is Gatsby great? Because F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel embraces all the urgencies of the decade he dubbed “the Jazz Age”: the fast cars and easy money, the plentiful cheap booze and available sex, the nexus of big businesses on Wall Street and in the underworld, all appraised in luscious prose.
A second, thornier question: Why is Gatsby great? Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious figure in Manhattan and Long Island lore, attracts thousands of revelers to his sensational parties either because the guests don’t know the source of his wealth or because they do, and that knowledge gives them the thrill of vicarious outlawry. Born as James Gatz (“gat” was ’20s slang for a gangster’s pistol) to a Midwestern family of no particular means, he reinvents himself as a successful bootlegger with a dandy’s suave manners. He accumulated all this class and notoriety in hopes of winning back Daisy Fay (Carey Mulligan), the girl he left behind in Louisville, and who is now married to the aristocratic “polo player” Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Daisy’s second cousin and the book’s narrator, sees greatness in Gatsby’s abounding “hope”. But to Tom, and perhaps to even Daisy, Gatsby’s new money is just tainted, and so is he.
Any movie of Fitzgerald’s novel has to take Nick’s view: that Gatsby is the noble man and Tom the thug; that Gatsby’s ambition to reclaim Daisy is not new money chasing old but rather a romantic, chivalric quest; and that the prize may not be worth the effort. Hollywood is well suited to dramatize these issues. It spends vast sums on the veneer of class, swank, luxe. It loves love. It is Gatsby.
The novel’s Nick has retreated to his own Midwestern home after his New York interlude to consider what made Gatsby great. In the movie, Nick has taken residence in a sanitarium, where he spills out the tipsy story of what happened during the summer of 1922 to Dr. Perkins (Jack Thompson) and begins putting his thoughts on paper — a memoir that will become The Great Gatsby.
For the film’s first half-hour, Gatsby is known only through his ravishing parties and the outlandish stories that have turned his biography into instant urban legend. This early section of the movie shows Baz Luhrmann rampant. Phones literally jiggle when they ring; passages from the novel are scrawled across the 3-D screen, like fevered entries in a schoolgirl’s diary. The proletarian night town where Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) lives with her mechanic husband George (Jason Clarke) is spiffed up with a black gentleman blowing sax on a fire escape across from the garage. The camera of cinematographer Simon Duggan seems to think it can’t simply capture an image; only rarely do you notice it in a pronounced way and yet it really does add something to the experience, drawing you in as if escorting you through a series of opening gates, doors and emotional states.
Gatsby’s parties are Ziegfeld Follies raised to orgasmic pitch. The Cirque du Soleil-style party scenes with hundreds of swells, flappers and ’20s celebrities dance madly to purposefully anachronistic songs by Jay Z and Beyoncé, as the night sky erupts into fireworks and a blizzard of confetti. The precision and economy of Fitzgerald’s style gets coverted into the famous Luhrmann flair, expressed in art-direction adjectives and visual exclamation points.
In a way, this excess of opulence suits the setting. From Wall Street to the Long Island suburb of West Egg, where the ostentatious mansion Gatsby owns abuts Nick’s more modest rental, to the old-money East Egg across the bay, Fitzgerald’s New Yorkers think too much is never enough. So more drinks, gamier sex, and posher clothes. The Great Gatsby, in novel or film form, shows a young man’s instant attraction to a town radiant with promise and threat. That’s one thing the movies have always been able to do: put the money on the screen.
Gatsby, when he finally materializes, is money incarnate: a true golden boy if you will. His character does something that such a serious actor like Leonardo DiCaprio, who often seems to flee from his charm, hasn’t tried in ages: smile. Gatsby claims to be from old money, to have studied at Oxford and dabbled in painting, like the best class of America’s postwar emigres in Europe. He calls Nick “Old Sport,” in a clubby drawl, no doubt carefully cultivated to disguise his origins. Nick can see through Gatsby’s pretense, but he warms to the native gentility, the dogged hopefulness behind the affected airs and dirty business deals. If the story is about Gatsby’s love for Daisy, it is even more vital and convincing about Nick’s love for Gatsby. The narrator has fallen for his new friend’s star quality.
When Gatsby the man seizes control from Gatsby the rumor, Luhrmann slows down, content to play out the rest of the story. It’s people talking in rooms — gorgeously appointed rooms, filled with smartly dressed folks. Hearts and flowers, mountains of flowers, eventually cede to heartbreak, in the grand Luhrmann tradition, and the actors emote up a summer storm. Maguire’s otherworldly coolness suits the observer drawn into a story he might prefer only to watch. DiCaprio is persuasive as the little boy amongst the grown-ups lost impersonating a tough guy, and Mulligan finds ways to express Daisy’s magnetism and weakness.
Yet the emotions stirred here are not nearly so volcanic and the reason might be that, this time, only one of the parties can imagine dying for love. But it’s also because Daisy understands that her feeling for Gatsby could be as fictional as the imaginary ideal he has tried to embody.
I suspect that it’s been a while since most folks have reread a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel, so I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that like the giddy period it chronicles, the fizzy high comes with an inevitable crash. There’s a reason The Great Gatsby continues to be taught in classrooms nearly 90 years after it was written. It’s a dazzling time capsule of a shimmering era and a devastating look into the dark side of the American dream.
The third official trailer for Despicable Me 2 has been released by Illumination Entertainment.
Despicable Me 2 releases in theaters on July 3, 2013.
Iron Man 3 is an ominously exciting, shoot-the-works comic-book spectacular. While many people have dreams where they fly through the air and suddenly, disastrously lose altitude. It keeps throwing things at you, but not with the random, busy franchise indifference that marked the hollow and grandiose Iron Man 2. Iron Man 3 is closer to a vision of the world teetering on the edge. (Imagine The Dark Knight Rises with less apocalyptic hot air.) The film was directed and co-written by Shane Black, the former action screenwriter (Lethal Weapon) who in 2005 directed the quirky, half-baked Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. His work here isn’t just skillful — it’s fast and furious. He wires each scene for maximum intensity, and the result is that rarity, a superhero thrill ride with something at stake.
Robert Downey Jr.’s defining trait as an actor — the way he tosses off each line with speedy, nattering insouciance, as though he were talking to himself, which he basically is out loud — can make it seem like nothing he’s saying really matters. This time, though, Downey turns Tony Stark’s reflexive motormouthed mockery into something at once dread-fueled and humane: a barely camouflaged expression of his fevered anxiety. It is a harbinger of career suicide. At the beginning, Stark is testing out his latest brainstorm, a kinetic-based system that allows his Iron Man armor to zip through the air in pieces and cling to him as if he were magnetized. The hurtling metal almost appears to be attacking him, and that’s a metaphor for what he’ll face at every turn.
There’s an ultra-terrorist on the loose, a global troublemaker called the Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley with a scraggly beard and medieval hair. With his methodical low voice, he’s a scarily ”rational” psycho cult leader. When the Mandarin takes over the airwaves, he’s like Osama bin Laden recast as a Bond villain, and Kingsley bites into the role with lurid gusto. The film’s other villain is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, at his most sleekly nasty), a former geek scientist who’s working in cahoots with the Mandarin (and thanks to a great twist, that’s putting it mildly). He has turned a group of the damaged and the maimed into walking super soldiers with molten flesh using his invention: Extremis, which can essentially “hack into the hard drive of any living organism” and upgrade its DNA. Goaded by the press, Stark invites the Mandarin to come at him at his specific home address, and boy, come at Stark he does — with disguised news helicopters built with rocket launchers that destroy Stark’s home in the first of many darkly bedazzling action sequences, all edited with a detonating precision that renders the violence that much more voluptuously threatening.
Iron Man 3 is mostly liberated from the market-tested three-act structure that hobbles too many comic-book films. This one feels like a deep-dish middle installment that strands Stark without any protection — in this case, in the hinterlands of Tennessee, where he crash-lands, only to learn that his Iron Man suit no longer works. There are hilariously tense encounters with the local yokels, a testy camaraderie between Stark and his War Machine friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), an abiding romantic tension to his bond with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), and a climax that’s a flat-out epic piece of action-fantasy engineering. Besides rehabbing a hero who overcomes anxiety to save the world and defeat the terror-industrial complex by the simple matter of cloning his body armor, the movie proves that there’s still intelligent life on Planet Marvel. As you’re propelled out of the theater on IM3′s hydraulic lift of pleasures, you’re likely to say, “That is how it’s done.”