Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Wolverine

Year: 2013
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Hal Yamanouchi, Famke Janssen

Plot: Following the events of X-Men 3, Logan now lives in the wild, continually haunted by Jean's death. A dying Japanese man whose life Logan saved during the bombing of Nagasaki, calls him to Japan to bid farewell and offers him a chance to remove his healing ability so he may lead a normal life. However things get ugly when enemies within the old man's family get involved with the Yakuza and Logan gets stuck in the middle of it.

Review: I don't know why people hated Wolverine's origin film released a few years back. Whatever it lacked in substance, it made up with some nice action sequences, and it was still a fun experience. The critical failure of that film though has spurred Hugh Jackman to make a Wolverine film that lives up to the fans' expectations. And I must say that Jackman and director James Mangold have done that.

Now, if you walk into The Wolverine expecting The Amazing Spider-Man, you're gonna be disappointed. This is not THAT kind of movie, it's not Iron Man, it's not Thor and it certainly isn't The Avengers. The Wolverine is a well grounded comic book film that focuses on Logan's character and how he has to deal with his past and who he is essentially. While X-Men Origins: Wolverine focused on how he got the adamantium in his body, this film sheds light onto his character after he was forced to kill Jean in X3.

Now a lost and near broken man, Logan is sought by Yashida, a man he saved during the Nagasaki bombing, who offers to end his suffering from living eternally. But Logan has to contend with many dangers, including the old man's ruthless son Shingen, the Yakuza as well as a mysterious woman named Viper.

Mangold does a great job of making a film that doesn't simply rely on action sequences to be entertaining. The character study approach to Logan's story is a nice change and it is compelling enough to not be boring at all. Together with Jackman he makes Logan worthy to root for and care about, while not forgetting that action is where Wolverine is the best there is, featuring some solid sword to claw fighting sequences. Kudos to them both also for not using too much CGI and over the top stunts (save for the bullet train sequence).

Speaking of Jackman, he's in the best shape he's ever been and plays probably the best Wolverine characterisation since the first X-Men film. Credit must also be given to the filmmakers for hiring two Japanese models who although have no prior acting experience, still manage to nail the roles they were given. Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto play Yukio and Mariko respectively, the former as Mariko's adoptive sister and the latter as Yashida's granddaughter. The two are like two sides of the same coin: one hard, the other soft, but both strong and vulnerable equally. Fukushima gives enough spunk to Yukio to make her very likable, and excels in the sword fighting sequences too. Okamoto on the other hand gives a quiet demeanour to Mariko, who becomes Logan's love interest (I'm not gonna lie, she's real easy on the eyes).

Hiroyuki Sanada once again plays a sword wielding antagonist in Shingen, but he's great in it so I'm not complaining. Will Yun Lee is a bit wasted as Harada, leader of a group that protects the Yashida clan. Svetlana Khodchenkova is okay as Viper, she clearly enjoys the role a lot, but her character isn't given a lot of background or motive here, which would have helped a lot in understanding her purpose.

Mangold did slip up a couple of times with the camerawork, occasionally the fights were filmed too close and the foot chase through Tokyo looked real shaky. But other than that, The Wolverine is an awesome entry into the superhero genre, even if it doesn't have huge special effects and things blowing up every 15 minutes. I think that if you liked Logan in the X-Men films, chances are you'll love him a lot here.

Stay in your seats for the usual post credits scene. X-Men fans will surely enjoy this one. (4/5)   

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Despicable Me 2

Year: 2013
Directors: Chris Renaud & Pierre Coffin
Voice cast: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Steve Coogan

Plot: The Anti Villain League recruits Gru, who has now retired and become a full time father to the three girls he adopted, to assist them in catching a new super villain who is in possession of a deadly mutation serum.

Review: Gru and the kids are back again. The first Despicable Me introduced a bad guy who isn't really a bad guy and made him a hero and a loving father. Now the filmmakers decide to make him an even bigger hero, though it's good to note that for a few moments in this sequel, he gets to be a bit bad, in a fun way of course.

However, the main attraction of this film as well as the last one has always been the yellow, pill shaped minions, and here they have even more screen time, which is good because there's rarely a moment of boredom when they appear. Directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin voice the minions themselves and do an awesome job. Whether you're a kid or not, you'll find them absolutely lovable.

But all films need a plot, in this case Gru has been recruited by the Anti Villain League to stop a villain that is hiding out in a shopping mall. He is paired up with AVL agent Lucy Wilde and put undercover in the mall. Soon Gru has his sights on someone who could be their guy, but there are complications. And would you believe it, the writers decided that Gru ought to have a romantic companion!

The filmmakers' idea to have Lucy become romantically involved with Gru just didn't fly with me. Not that they didn't do a decent job of it at least...they did. But this part of the film took up a significant chunk of the film that it almost made their mission seem secondary. Besides, we already know Gru's a good guy deep down, we don't need him to have a romantic partner, at least I think so. 

On the bright side, the three girls are still adorable as ever, especially the youngest one, Agnes. And there's the minions, and as stated above, they never disappoint. In fact they get to sign off the film with a couple of great song performances. Great job, guys.

So other than an unnecessary overblown plot element, DM2 is a nice feel good film for people of all ages. Stay during the end credits for more minions. (3.5/5) 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pacific Rim

Year: 2013
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Ron Perlman

Plot: When gigantic monsters from another dimension rise up from the Pacific Ocean and destroys everything in their path, humanity responds by building giant robots to combat them.

Review: Someone described Pacific Rim as director Guillermo del Toro taking a bunch of toys to his backyard and playing with them, and it shows. The film depicts a large amount of carnage and citywide destruction at the hands of both monsters (dubbed Kaiju) and robots (dubbed Jaeger) alike, and damn it's fun to watch.

You could say that del Toro and writer Travis Beacham made lots of references to old Japanese monster flicks and maybe Gundam as well, but they certainly succeeded in making Pacific Rim their own animal. The story is pretty straightforward: monsters show up to destroy everything, man makes giant robots to fight back.

Our protagonists are two people who have to team up and pilot a Jaeger together: Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori. Of course they have problems as we would expect, but it's not from working together, it's from their pasts, each of them having personal demons that they have to exorcise. Charlie Hunnam and Babel's Rinko Kikuchi make a great team on screen, though it's fortunate that Pacific Rim is more of a cast led picture, since Hunnam isn't really leading man material yet, at least not here. But he's good in his role, and so is Kikuchi.

Idris Elba makes a commanding presence as the Jaegers leader while Charlie Day (annoying voice and all) and Burn Gorman play two over eccentric scientists that contribute to the fight against the Kaiju. Guillermo's favorite guy Ron Perlman shows up as an illegal Kaiju parts trader and absolutely owns the role.

As for the Jaeger Kaiju fights, it's needless to say that they are awesome to behold. Watching these huge monsters punch, lash, burn, throw and pummel each other to a pulp is immensely fun and never gets boring, thanks to del Toro's direction and some great cinematography by Guillermo Navarro. My only gripe is that most of these battles take place at night and during rain, probably to make them look more convincing and to hide the obviousness of CGI. But there were a couple of times when you couldn't see where a punch or move was being thrown, it's just a minor complaint though.

To del Toro and Beacham's credit, they put a fair amount of focus on the human characters to ensure that the monsters don't hog the spotlight, but admittedly some of these characters' pasts are quite stereotypical (losing a family member, personal trauma, fatal medical condition etc). Overall it does work for the purposes of the film, so I have no problem with them.

Pacific Rim is fun, what else is there to say? If you like summer blockbusters that feature tons of wanton destruction, this is the film to go see. (4/5) 

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Lone Ranger

Year: 2013
Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Ruth Wilson, James Badge Dale, Barry Pepper, Helena Bonham Carter

Plot: John Reid, a lawyer by profession, puts on a mask and joins forces with a Comanche Indian named Tonto to avenge his brother's death.

Review: I wasn't familiar with The Lone Ranger, it was way before my time, though I have heard of the adventures between him and his trusty partner Tonto. Thus I can't make comparisons of any kind, which means I can judge this film a bit more fairly.

That being said, this adaptation, although quite fun, isn't as entertaining as it could have been. The same team that did Pirates Of the Caribbean chose to make this western much like they did that franchise: by throwing in loads of humour instead of playing it straight. As a result, both Tonto and The Lone Ranger don't seem like real heroes, at least till the film's climax.

Johnny Depp makes Tonto a very eccentric character even when he's serious, kinda like a cross between Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter, but it sort of works. Armie Hammer plays John Reid aka The Lone Ranger as a man who is by the book and abhors violence, and not very good at confrontations. It weakens his heroic status somewhat, at least till the final third of the film, but one wishes he got to that point sooner. I don't blame him for this, but the writers for doing so.

The supporting cast fare better. Tom Wilkinson and the ever reliable William Fichtner are the villains here, with the latter being really good in his role. The relatively unknown Ruth Wilson makes a strong case as Rebecca, John's sister in-law whom he has feelings for. James Badge Dale is also solid as John's brother Dan. However Barry Pepper and Helena Bonham Carter are wasted in their roles, especially Carter who plays a brothel owner with an ivory leg (don't ask).

The best parts of the film are the opening and final action sequences, both involving trains. This is where Verbinski is in his element as he throws Hammer and Depp into a thrilling fight with the bad guys, jumping from train to train or car to car. Also worth mentioning is Verbinski's decision to have this story being told by an aged Tonto (the makeup on Depp is pretty good) to a young boy dressed as The Lone Ranger visiting a county fair. It puts a different yet interesting angle on the film.

However, one can't help but wonder if it would be better had they all tried to take themselves more seriously and play it straight. With their approach, they made the film unnecessarily bloated, much like the Pirates sequels (though On Stranger Tides was good).

All in all, The Lone Ranger is fun enough for one watch. I just wished it was better than that. (3.5/5)


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