Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Wolverine

2013, James Mangold - DVD

It's interesting to note that this is the sixth feature in which Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine (having a cameo in X-Men: First Class) but that it's truly the character's first solo endeavor.  X-Men Origins: Wolverine was such a convoluted mess trying to cram in as many cameos and sideshows as possible that any sense of character or individuality was left absent from the production.  It truly seemed less a Wolverine spotlight than a new mutant showcase.  This feature quite squarely puts the focus on Logan, applying a sense of meaning to who he is, what he's been through, and how his abilities, particularly his regenerative ones, affect him.

The film opens in 1945, just outside Nagasaki as American planes loom in the distance.  The sirens raise and the soldiers begin to flee.  Captives are freed, all the while, in what looks to be a well with a steel lid chained to the top, eyes peer out from a slot missing a brick.  One soldier thinks twice and opens the well screaming at the man inside to leave.  The soldier joins his commanding officers where they perform seppuku rather than face whatever horror to come, but the soldier loses his nerve, and the man from the well shields him from the firestorm.  Once
In the present day Logan lives a secluded life in rural Canada (northern British Columbia perhaps?), following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, he's taken a vow of non-violence.  He's haunted by the woman he loved, and killed, Jean Grey, and he can't seem to escape his own remorse and heartache.  Living a pained existence, alone, this does not seem like an unfamiliar situation for Logan.  But he's a man who will not be left alone, as the man he saved over 65 years ago is facing his deathbed, and has requested his presence in Japan.

There's a 1960's-style sense of wide-eyed adventure, of Japan feeling like completely foreign territory, much in the same way as James Bond's journey in You Only Live Twice.  Jackman plays it as foreign terrain and (unlike the comics) is oblivious to what is said about and around him, and yet he seems acutely aware of meaning through physical mannerisms and expressions.  It may be a different country and language but Logan knows how to read people.

Yashida, in the decades since he first met Logan, has grown staggeringly rich, one of Japan's most prominent businessmen.  He's spared no expense in extending his own life, and having sought out Logan, seeks to convince him that his regenerative mutant ability can be transferred.  Logan's dreams of Jean often end with a request of joining her in the afterlife, which he laments that he cannot... so Yashida's offer is intriguing, if only a little.  The old man passes that same night, with Logan as a guest in the household he's witness to all manner of ugly family matters, which only escalate later at the funeral.

Yashida's granddaughter Mariko is to be named the heir to his empire, much to his son, Shingen's contempt.  At the funeral Yakuza make an attempt on Mariko's life, unprepared for Logan, save for the fact that Yashida's nurse, the mutant Viper, was able to implant a device in Logan that slows and ultimately nullifies his mutant regenerative ability.  In fighting the Yakuza Logan takes bullets and a beating that continue to plague him.  It's naturally the crux of the tale, to see a near-invincible man suddenly deal with his own mortality.

It's a remarkably cracking three-quarters of a film, with great characterization, some honest intrigue, and a decidedly unique viewpoint for a superhero film.  However, partway through the last act (just after Logan gets taken out by a few dozen ninjas), the film gets bogged down in a conventional "boss battle" fight sequence, involving a giant robot suit of armor and that nurse Viper (a pointless character overall), where everyone apparently dies twice over.  It's a frustrating, tedious and nonsense fight that only exists because that's what happens in these things.  It's like the final act of Iron Man (and Iron Man 2, actually) which even more makes it feel less than unique.  The entire third act distances itself from the rest of the film, which is too bad, because there's an otherwise excellent film here.

The Wolverine is a drastic improvement over the twin abominations that were Origins and The Final Battle but it still could have been a much tighter, more satisfying film.  I do have to say though that the closing sequence -- finding Logan and the young pre-cog mutant Yukio boarding one of Yashida's jets, playing Ingrid Bergman to Mariko's Humphrey Bogart -- that I definitely wanted to see where the pair's adventures would take them.  Shame then that the mid-credits sequence, set 2-years-later find Logan alone, confronting Magneto and a resurrected Charles Xavier...not that that's not cool on its own other merits.

[David's take]

Monday, February 24, 2014


2014, José Padilha - in theatre

The original Robocop -- a violent, R-rated sci-fi/crime/action feature -- came out when I was 11 years old.  I was certainly not old enough to see the movie in the theatre, but I was old enough to have the movie marketed towards me.  A steel warrior with a fancy gun and a cool voice?  What kid wouldn't be into that.  After the success of the first film, toys, cartoons, Marvel comics, a television series, and two lesser-than sequels (of equally diminishing returns) would follow, all with an eye on captivating children as much, if not moreso than adults.  I was the right demographic to be totally into all of this, and I was insomuch as I knew all about the story of Alex Murphy and I gave all of his differing adventures in different media a shot, but it was more that I felt I needed to, lesser so that I particularly liked any of it.

I've watched the original Robocop a handful of times over the past 25-ish years, even owning a copy of the trilogy on VHS at one point (I only ever watched those sequels one time each though) but it's not something that's ever endeared itself to me.  It's cold and nasty and ever so much a Paul Verhoeven film.  I know there are die-hard fans out there, but I'm not one of them, and even amidst all my many geek circles I don't think I've ever met one.  Still, they're out there.  When the reboot film was announced, and after the first trailer was released, they reared their heads and were quite vocal about everything, from design changes, to casting, to tone of the film.  The BoCos (as I just now thought of to call the character's fans) seemed rather adamant to hate this movie straight out.  I really couldn't have cared less, not until the wildly diverging reviews started popping up.  How could some reviewers be so positive while others were so negative?

I think it comes down to expectations.  Authentic Robocop fans would go into the picture with a preconceived notion of what should be in the film and what they should be getting out of the film... the original was a caustic satire of futuristic culture based on the trends of mid-1980's Reaganomics.  It's played out many elements in a campy or broadly theatrical manner, and its tone was more exploitative than sincere.  I think anyone else looking at a trailer or even just the idea of a Robocop reboot would be thinking its cheap brand exploitation, loaded with explosions and things meant to be "cool" (starting with the new sleek black look).  Being a product of the original's tainted demographic skewering, it's fairly easy to be cynical about it all.

In all cases, this new iteration defies expectations.  Like the original, it's a satire of today, set in the future, only unlike the old film, this isn't meant to be funny.  The lens we view this satire through is a Fox News-style opinion/interview show, the Novak Element, in which Sam Jackson's host character, Pat Novak, uses his influential position to not report and discuss news but attempt to influence the populace for reasons never quite clear (he quite clearly has an agenda, but as we only ever see him as host, we're not privy to what the agenda means to him).  The issue of the moment is that of robot drone soldiers, both bipedal, humanoid-shaped ones and larger, tank-like ones, deployed around the world in "peacekeeping" efforts by America, but a bill has passed keeping them off American soil.

Omnicorp, the company that manufactures the drones, estimates about 6 billion dollars of lost revenue by being unable to tap into their home market.  Looking for a means to skirt the bill, Omnicorp CEO Ray Sellars looks to humanize his robots by, literally, putting humans inside them.  Dr. Dennett Norton is Omnicorp's chief bioresponsive-prosthetics and is tasked with the job of actually designing, building and making the product a success.  The primary consideration is not functional, but promotional, how good does it look.  The inaugural candidate will have to be just right.  Enter Alex Murphy.

Murphy, as a police detective, went undercover with his partner to find the kingpin of the local drug manufacturing and distribution syndicate.  Things went south and Murphy's partner was almost killed.  Murphy suspected corruption within the Detroit police force and was narrowing in when targeted with a car bomb, nearly ending his life.  Dr. Norton convinced Murphy's wife to let him be part of their program, thus saving him, and Robocop was born.

The film progresses through Murphy's emotions as his humanity is slowly stripped away by the politics of Omnicorp's business.  Dr. Norton struggles with the reality of his own actions, under the sway of his boss, and the desire to reach his own goals, bucking against the emotional toll of manipulating another's entire being.

Director Padilha expertly juggles multiple character threads -- the Novak Element's political dancing, the drug lords and police corruption, Murphy's family, Omnicorp's business and ethics, Dr. Norton's personal crisis -- in a manner that plays out more like television's long-form large ensemble storytelling (in the vein of Game of Thrones or Mad Men and the like) less that a stand-alone cinematic production.  What results is a surprisingly rich story with a meaningful cast of characters that, equally surprisingly, doesn't get bogged down by action setpieces.  There are three prominent action sequences in the film and I'd be surprised if any of them lasted more than three minutes.  It's a welcome respite in a genre film, particularly one whose existence seems to be predicated on action.

If Robocop fails its intended audience, it's in this regard, providing far more drama than a conventional blockbuster would ever dream of.  It's curious, given the name recognition factor, that Robocop's release was buried in the middle of February (where typically troubled or lame duck productions are released for a hibernating audience) but in this regard it feels like a smaller film, and more successful for it.  In February, we're not expecting an authentic blockbuster, and Robocop is more interesting and cerebral than that, and that's something I never expected from this reboot.  With drones and murder-by-remote as well as the morality behind it being a hot topic of conversation, this film approaches that conversation in a very literal sense. 

 Much has been said about the redesign of Robocop, based solely upon the trailers, and that, amusingly enough, is addressed head on in the film, a minor plot point in fact.  So much of the advance griping from the BoCos in advance of film seem to have been predicted by the script and its director.  It doesn't necessarily mean the fanboys will like it, but there's an in-story logic to virtually everything that goes on.

I was impressed, highly impressed, with how this film made me feel.  A typical blockuster will generally just leave me with tingles of excitement, but I was quite invested in the journey here and what it meant to the characters involved, not just the main one but most of them.  Once it was over, I wasn't clamoring for a sequel but instead digesting what was already presented to me.  Design wise everything is modernized, but the story and the storytelling here is leaps and bounds beyond the original in maturity.  It obviously doesn't have the same camp flair, and for some it'll be worse off for it, but I do believe a better film has been made.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I Saw This!! More Mythical

Monsters University, 2013, Dan Scanlon -- download
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, 2013, Harald Zwart -- download
Odd Thomas, 2013, Stephen Sommers -- download

I just have to clean some out.

Monsters University was a disappointment, but only in that it was not as good as the first, typical of sequelitis. I love the first, being both a buddy movie, a work movie and an incredibly creative exposure of the monsters under the beds. Everything about it is brilliant, from chameleon villain Steve Buscemi to John Goodman playing off oddball (*rimshot*) Billy Crystal, as best pals and workmates. It added "kitty!!" to my lexicon.

The followup is by the numbers, well done but just too typical. You cannot fault it for anything in particular as it is a good use of the frat boy micro-genre (really, are there any other current examples?) to explore the pasts of favourite characters. But it doesn't do anything new with the old story that people my age are familiar with. I hate when animated movies are just done for the kids who will buy the franchise, but this seemed to be the purpose for this entry. Glad I didn't waste my money on it.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, is the beginning of a series, thus the use of a colon. I think people believe that by adding in the colon between franchise titles, they are going to reclaim the throne left empty by Harry Potter. The Hobbit had to do it, purely because... well, you know why. Potter did it well because it was always Harry Potter and the... That just works. This one just seems wonky, as if they are trying to convince us of how great this new mystical creatures teen romance story is already great. It doesn't work for me.

The movie itself is not so bad. Surprisingly, I wasn't as annoyed by the goo-goo eyes being made between characters and was actually impressed they tossed a gay man into the love triangle. The world itself is interesting, more like the plot of a 90s RPG from the White Wolf Vampire series, but that is as far as it goes. Interesting. Nothing here is very startling, the plot very familiar the special effects as well as can be expected. I think the whole franchise would be better suited to TV than movies and I doubt we will see another.

P.S. It was about half-demons fighting half-angels and a destiny being revealed to a young girl.

Speaking of destinies, if you are going to add teenage angst to the mix of having a mystical destiny, then Odd Thomas is the way to go about it. This is an odd movie, excuse the pun, and also the introductory entry to a franchise of people fighting the supernatural. Strangely enough, Dean R Koontz wrote the novel, which I dug up before seeing the movie.

It leaves behind the beautiful people and cool cultural environs for a small story in small town California. Odd, yes that's his name, is a kid who can see mythical creatures he ends up naming bodachs, bogeyman like creatures that are invisible to all but him and are attracted to death. Odd also sees the occasional ghost, often murder victims or some, like Elvis, who hang around for the fun of it. Odd and his odd friends, including a sympathetic local sheriff, and his gorgeous Destined To Be Together Forever girlfriend, help him deal with the ghosts. Its a fun premise but it derails itself almost immediately, going from light and bouncy to dark and tragic. Destiny can be a bitch.

This movie was under the radar, having come into a few cinemas and probably not doing very well. OK, I have to revise that. It never did make it to the cinemas, until now. And it comes out in the dead zone to slide into second place for the weekend, behind The Lego Movie. Should I expect a sequel? It does such a good job at laying down the world and the character and handled the heartbreaking climax with such sincerity. This is one of the times where in both the book and the movie, I had my heart utterly wrenched from me knowing what was about to happen. That works for me in such stories. I hope it makes some slow burn money.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Lego Movie

2014, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

It's easy to be cynical about The Lego Movie, ostensibly a 100-minute commercial for a product that, at this stage, needs very little help in advancing sales.  Lego is a juggernaut in the toy market, some stores dedicating an entire aisle to its output, not to mention the fact that Lego stores have begun to pop up in shopping malls the world over.   There are a few competitors to Lego, but over the past few decades Lego has drilled it into kids minds to accept no substitute, to the point where getting a Kree-O set is a disappointment.  In the past decade Lego has taken great pains to expand its scope, particularly by licensing, taking on all sorts of established and popular brands like DC and Marvel Superheros, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and more.  Beyond these obvious sorts of properties, Lego has also developed kits that replicate famous landmarks (one I saw recently, in a gargantuan box of just under 3000 pieces, was a recreation of the Sydney Opera House for roughly $350), which only confirms both at price point and subject matter that Lego has extended itself beyond just appealing to children, sustaining and promoting itself among adult collectors and builders as well.

However, with the proliferation of all these building kits, for the most part gone is the idea of free play.  Instead the richly detailed visual instructions have taken over.  Follow the rules rather than create your own. In may ways, Lego has become 3-D puzzles, where the only real challenge is finding the right piece in a pile, and following along.  Hidden in the Lego aisle, if available at all, are simple kits of just blocks, and encouragement to do your own thing.  The Lego Movie, which could have so easily just been a vehicle for selling new model kits and "gotta get em all" mini-figures, instead wisely acknowledges the reality of Lego's branding, the conflicting ideas of following the instructions versus doing your own thing.

The moment I heard that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were involved, I knew that The Lego Movie was going to be something more than crass commercialism.  Lord and Miller were responsible for the way off-beat, short-lived but cult-favourite cartoon series Clone High, and went on to make Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs not only a surprise hit but one of the best comedy features (animated or otherwise) of the the past decade.  Their comedic sensibility is well honed, and they excel at the surprise gag, delivering laughs from the unexpected as well as toying with cliche and convention.  Even more, they are masters at building a running gag, one that continues to pay off the more it's used.  Even if the film wouldn't deliver on the story, I knew long before even the first trailer appeared that it would be a funny movie.

But there's something to The Lego Movie beyond product placement and gags, there's both a message (or two) and some sentimentality within, and further to that, some great world building, creating a "universe" that I actually wanted to see more of and spend more time in.  The central figure is Emmet, an nondescript construction minifigure who goes with the flow, follows instructions to the letter (err, image) and seems to have no desire for independence.  He lives in a city where it seems everyone is pretty much just like him, until a chance crossing with Wyldstyle draws him into a whole new reality, exposing the walls between dimensions and awakening him to the threat of Lord Business.  Lord Business has forced the different brands of Lego to remain separated, and those who seek to undermine this segregation will be punished.  Emmet and Wyldstyle meet up with the crazy and blind wizard Vitruvius, who unveils the prophecy that the wielder of the Piece of Resistance, (naturally Emmet) will be the one to stave off Lord Business' evil plan to destroy the universe through stagnation (by literally gluing pieces in place).

The band of rebels (joined by 80's Spaceman Benny, cyborg pirate Metal Beard, a cutesy hybrid unicorn/kitten Unikitty, and Batman... Wyldstyle's boyfriend) are all "master builders" and Emmet, being the "chosen one" of this piece, should be preternaturally gifted at building objects, but he constantly disappoints and questions his own validity.

There's heavy shades of the Matrix at play here, and I can't really tell if it's overtly intentional or if it's just retreading the same heroic prophecy-type story elements.  While it's definitely a tale we've seen before, it's not been seen quite this way, where the characters are constantly undermining seriousness of their journey by acknowledging the cliche of it without fully undercutting the intensity of their plight, it still means something to them.  Emmet's journey is one of finding self confidence and learning to think for himself, exploring creativity and problem solving.  As far as character journeys go in these types of films, it's a good one for kids (and most adults too).

The plot sticks firm to "stopping the bad guy's plan" until midway through the third act where it side steps into a stimulating meta story that explores the main theme even further.  There's more than an acknowledgement that Lego, for all it's increasing fanciness and complexity, is still just a toy, a building block system meant to stimulate children's creativity.  Lord Business represents an adult's sense of conformity and compartmentalization, and how oppressive that worldview can seem to children.

The animation in The Lego Movie is phenomenal.  There have been animated Lego features and television shows (Ninjago, Chima) but they're stripped down, feeling like animation.  The Lego Movie feels like the characters are living mini-figures inhabiting environments completely and plausibly built out of Lego.  The level of detail is dizzying, every brick seem accounted for, and it can take a while to visually adjust to the film's environment, but it very quickly defines itself as a unique place.  There's a kinship here to Wreck-It Ralph, where in that film it interconnects videogames into a shared universe.  Here, it's the many realms of Lego colliding, both sensibly and nonsensically, and is responsible for part of the film's charm.

The voice cast is stacked with great talent.  Burgeoning superstar Chris Pratt takes the lead as Emmet, who's close to an extension of his Parks and Recreation character, kind of dumb, but sweet and excitable.  Charlie Day is perfect for the ever keen-come-disappointed 80's spaceman who just wants to build a spaceship, dangit.  Morgan Freeman plays the delightfully daffy wizard Vitruvius, well against type, while Nick Offerman usually recognizable timbre completely disappears under Metal Beard's pirate speak.  Alison Brie is the perfect choice for the cutesy Unikitty who's bottling up her rage, and likewise Liam Neeson shuffles between the temperaments Good Cop and Bad Cop.  Will Ferrell revives Mugatu from Zoolander for his Lord Business, and Elizabeth Banks has a lot of heavy lifting in the love triangle between Emmet and Batman, as Emmet's master builder mentor, and sufferer of Vitruvius.  And one can't forget Will Arnett's Batman, smug, cocky, and a bit of a dink, with a shallow emotional side... Batman's demo tape is brutally funny.  And rounding out the heroes are Channing Tatum's Superman suffering the clingy-ness of Jonah Hill's Green Lantern, and the possible conflict of interest with Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman.

This is a tremendously enjoyable film, super funny, visually exciting, with a variety of moving parts that make a richer whole than most children's entertainment.  Yes, it's a 100 minute sales pitch for plastic bricks, but it's also a rich little universe both that's at once big and small that's worth spending time in.