Monday, July 29, 2013

"The Wolverine" . . . was pretty darned good

Mom and I went to see The Wolverine its opening weekend. I liked it quite a bit; Mom thought it was just okay, Hugh Jackman's butt-baring bathtub scene notwithstanding. Before I go into the review, let me talk a little bit about my background with the character. 

When I was 6 years old, I got a board game called “Marvel Super Heroes” for Christmas. I had no idea who these characters were, but they were a darned sight more interesting-looking than Batman or Superman. I mean, on the box alone there was a picture of a scowling, muscle-bound green man, a dour-faced man in a star-spangled costume with little wings on his head, a guy in a cobweb-patterned red-and-blue costume with his entire face covered, a fanged, drooling, black-hued monster with some kind of strange white pattern on its chest, and a guy in a brown-and-tan suit and a pointy-edged mask with knives coming out of his fists. These were not the G-rated heroes I was familiar with. 

Whoever dressed those poor children should be ashamed. I know the kids are.

The knifey-guy, Wolverine, really stood out. I mean . . . knives. Coming out of his fists. Plus, his costume was a stark contrast to the bright colors and friendly faces of most of the other characters. His character card, drawn by Jim Lee (who soon became my favorite comic book artist), showed him in a smug pose, flexing a bicep and showing off his claws. Even my mom thought Wolverine looked awesome, and when I started getting into comics, she showed the most interest in those that featured Wolverine.

He even looks cool when he's traipsing around in a sewer, unlike most ninja turtles.

Flash forward almost 19 years. Mom still loves Wolverine (Hugh Jackman playing him in the movies didn’t hurt), and the X-Men are still among my favorite comic book characters. I loved the first two X-Men films, and First Class was pretty good, too, but the two in between, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine really dropped the ball, screwing with the continuity of both the comics and the films and generally feeling like they were made by stupid kids playing with action figures. 

Still better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine!

The Wolverine was a chance to get things right, a self-contained story that wouldn’t contain any shoehorned-in cameos (like Cyclops and Emma “not Frost but kind of” in the previous Wolverine film) and would focus on Wolverine just doing his own thing. 

Living like a wild man and looking like a hobo.

This is definitely the closest we’ve come so far to seeing the Wolverine of the comics translated to film. Hugh Jackman is in top form both physically and in terms of characterization, and despite being a foot too tall for the role, he finally has that proper stocky look about him.

And, as Warren Zevon would say, his hair was perfect.

Also impressive is the way various comic storylines are incorporated into the film. Although they’re not exactly handled the way they are in the comics, it’s fun to see Viper and the Silver Samurai in the same film, and Wolverine’s rivalry with Shingen Yashida, although watered down from the Frank Miller epic, is still a welcome plot point. 

When I first heard this movie would take place in Japan, I was excited, but then I started to worry. My first concern was that it might be too far removed from the larger X-Men franchise, and I also worried the lack of known characters (and American actors) might make it less accessible to general audiences. I feared it would be boring, as, in many ways, Miller’s miniseries was kind of boring.

"Wanna take a step closer and say that, bub?"

What we get, though, is a very rich, immersive experience as Wolverine dodges the Yakuza and tries to protect heiress Mariko Yashida from the forces that seek to do her harm. The scenery, ranging from urban chase scenes to quiet rural environs, is lush and detailed, and there are plenty of thrills and laughs that come about as a result (the hotel scene is hilarious).

We also get to see another classic character from Wolverine’s comic book history, Yukio (played by Rila Fukushima). She doesn’t quite have the catsuit-clad lesbian biker vibe she has in the comics, but the movie’s creation is effective nevertheless. Her insistence upon acting as Wolverine’s bodyguard is simultaneously cute and insulting at first, but she quickly proves herself as a valuable and dangerous ally. Her ability to foresee death, however, was an unnecessary addition. It spoils the ending in the first 20 minutes and does nothing else to further the plot except tease Wolverine’s possible demise. 

Not sure who's more intense, her . . .
. . . or her.

When he’s not romancing Mariko and flirting with Yukio, though, Wolverine has to deal with another woman from his past: Jean Grey, who he was forced to kill in the still-terrible-after-all-these-years X-Men: The Last Stand. She haunts his dreams, beckoning him to join her in death despite his immortality. And then, when that immortality is taken away, she taunts him. Famke Janssen is gorgeous in this film, by the way. She’s going on 48 years old, but a minimum of CGI tweakage goes a long way. There is one giveaway, though: her hands. Dem be some ol’ lady hands. 

That said, waking up to her is NOT a bad thing.

I was also concerned when I found out one of the plot points would be Wolverine losing his healing factor. I’m sorry, I don’t care how broken up Wolverine is about life in general, I just didn’t see any reason why Wolverine would willingly give up his immortality. And that’s where the film surprised me: he doesn’t give it up willingly; he warns Yashida that his gift is actually a curse, and it’s taken from him by force. Aaaaand that’s the moment when I realized the movie wasn’t going to stink. 


Probably the only glaring plot hole is the idea that Wolverine actually seems to remember World War II and meeting Yashida. The best explanation I can think of is that he didn’t, but played along to humor the dying man. Then, when he finds the site where they first met, something clicks (can I get a No-Prize?). But hey, that’s just the master of nitpickery talking. Another question is what Viper's motivations are, as she's just kind of . . . well . . . there, but that can be overlooked as well. And what exactly do the bad guys want with Mariko? 

One would assume the same thing Wolverine wants.

As for action sequences, there really aren’t that many. If you’re going into the film hoping to see Wolverine being Dr. McBad@$$ and slicing and dicing bad guys left and right, you’re going to be disappointed. This is Ang Lee’s Hulk as opposed to Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, a character study more than an action film. However, the action sequences we do get are great. Wolverine’s first scrap with the Yakuza is fun and violent, and it’s when he first starts to realize his healing factor is gone. His battle with the Silver Samurai has two distinct “Oh, snap!” moments, but is ultimately forgettable. Yukio’s fight scenes, particularly with Viper, are kinetic and fun. And Wolverine vs. Shingen, adamantium claws vs. samurai swords, is surprisingly not as one-sided as it sounds, and is the best fight in the movie. If only the stakes were as high as they were in the comic . . .

Winner of the dance-off gets Mariko!

Something that has consistently bothered me about Wolverine’s portrayal in film so far is that he has never gone into a proper berserker rage. Sure, there was that little tantrum he threw in X-Men Origins: Wolverine when he broke out of the adamantium bonding tank, but even after that unimaginable trauma, he was back to his mild self in minutes. But that didn’t bother me so much in this film. This Wolverine has been beaten down by the world and is frustrated with his own immortality. He is tired of watching those he cares about get killed, and he is tired of killing people himself. He’s a quieter, more introspective Wolverine, and it works. 

With a taste for the more sophisticated things in life.

The special effects are really good. The bullet train fight scene could have been an embarrassing failure, but it somehow manages to not look ridiculous. The scenes of Wolverine healing from his various wounds are handled well (although I still don’t understand how Wolverine’s exact haircut heals after severe head injuries). Wolverine’s claws, in both their bone and adamantium-coated forms, finally look right (without the obnoxious CGI sheen from X-Men Origins: Wolverine). And when Viper literally sheds her skin . . . *shudder* 

Talk about nightmare fuel!

There have been a lot of complaints about the use of the Silver Samurai in the film. He’s certainly an unorthodox adaptation, a CGI behemoth that shares a great deal in common design-wise with the Destroyer in Thor. However, I wasn’t overly offended by the liberties taken. He was definitely presented as a viable threat, an adamantium fiend who can cut through anything with his swords (and he does, in a horrifying moment reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back). 

I would argue, though, that any scene involving Yoda was horrifying.

Also, as with most Marvel movies, it’s wise to stick around through the credits. There’s a really nice setup for X-Men: Days of Future Past, and although one cameo was to be expected, the other is a delightful surprise. 

If only . . .

Ultimately, James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) has given us the best cinematic portrayal of Wolverine to date. It’s not a perfect movie, and the ending leaves a little to be desired, but it’s a great stand-alone film that really gets into the head of the character. Go see it! But skip the 3-D. 

Kind of like that.

My rating: 3.5/5

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Evils Dead: A comparison

The 2013 Evil Dead reboot came out on DVD last week. Naturally, a comparison is due.

The Evil Dead franchise is one of the most treasured in my DVD library. The first one, admittedly, was “so bad it’s good,” but the second was something magical—a delectable blend of gross-out horror and slapstick comedy. Then, with Army of Darkness, the series became something else entirely. Yes, it still had its grisly moments, but these were overshadowed by some of the most quotable one-liners and hilarious visual gags . . . ever. 

Aaaand some stuff that was just weird.

Although most people love Army of Darkness, there are some who felt it drifted too far from the whole “evil dead” concept. Rumors of a reboot started to surface some years ago, with the goal of returning things to the gnarly old cabin in the woods. 

And chainsaws. Gotta have chainsaws.

Personally, the last thing I wanted to see was a reboot of Evil Dead. I wanted a real sequel, with a grizzled Ashley J. Williams continuing to shop smart and kick butt. But, alas, this became less and less of a possibility as Bruce Campbell got older and Sam Raimi got distracted by the likes of Spider-Man and the land of Oz. So, as it became clear that a sequel wasn’t happening and a reboot definitely was, I grudgingly had to admit that maybe a different Evil Dead was better than no Evil Dead at all. 

And, as news and early reviews flowed in, I grew cautiously optimistic. I fully intended to watch it opening night . . . but it didn’t work out. One of the many frustrations of being a college student is that one doesn’t always have money to go out and do fun things. This penniless dilemma extended through the run of the film, and, alas, I missed it.
As soon as it came to DVD, however, I hurried to the nearest Redbox. I was excited. I wanted to see how this one compared to or improved on the original. Well . . .

Jane Levy (TV's Suburgatory) is no Bruce Campbell. That said, in 1981, Bruce Campbell was no Bruce Campbell, either. He spends most of the first film cowering in a corner, helplessly clutching an axe but doing nothing with it. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn was his time to shine, and boy, did he ever. 


That said, though, it's still difficult to judge the two films on acting merits when the over-the-top spectre of BRUCE-FREAKING-CAMPBELL from later films is still lurking in the back of my mind. 

You don't forget a face like that.

The new film tries to create compelling characters, as well as a legitimate reason for why they're out in the middle of nowhere. Levy's character, Mia, is a recovering drug addict, and this is their intervention. No matter what happens, one character says, they are not going to leave. She's right about that. 

"Wanna know how I got these scars?"

Mia's brother, David, was absent for most of this, leaving her to take care of their dying mother. Thus we have a redemption story of sorts when he's unwilling to give up on or abandon Mia when she gets all drooly and bitey. 

Then we have generic blonde no. 1, who dies in gruesome fashion along with generic brunette no. 1, who is shown above applying a homemade Glasgow grin. Then there's this nincompoop, Eric, shown here doing nincompoopish things. 

Say "hi," Eric.

The book has "DON'T READ FROM THE BOOK" written all over it—literally on some pages. Whole passages are blacked out. Soooo what does he do? Yep. And then this happens:

If you guessed he's about to die horribly, you're right.
Although he comes back as a Deadite first.

The old film had some pretty terrible acting. Granted, it's 30-plus years old, but there are some scenes that are just plain painful. However, it establishes its group pretty well, and it keeps the audience guessing as to who's going to make it out alive, if any of them. 

I don't think anybody was placing bets on our fluffy-headed friend on the left.

Indeed, it isn't Ash but Scotty who emerges as the resident bad@$$, willing to do what's necessary to stay alive while Ash snivels and hides.


But Raimi throws the audience for a loop when this happens:

Scotty goes off his meds.

. . . and Ash is forced to kill him, thereby winning this season of Zombie Cannibal Survivor . . . or does he? *Cue the ambiguous ending*

Ultimately, the 1981 version wins in this category. I really didn't care about . . . well . . . anybody in the new film. Although I did have the expected knee-jerk "Oh, dear!" reactions when bad things happened to them, there seemed to be an ongoing sense of "Here we go again . . ." every time somebody turned evil. In the original, though, I found myself much more invested in what was happening. Perhaps because we really didn't hear any backstories in the original, it was easier to play along, whereas in the reboot, I thought I could hear the director whispering "See? You MUST care!" every time David or Mia told a sad story, or Eric whined about how David never hung out with him anymore. 

The effects in the reboot are really good. Like, gut-wrenchingly good. As bones snap and blood spills, it’s all extremely sickening and visceral. And, fittingly, director Fede Alvarez said no CGI was used save for minor touch-ups, so there's that going in the film's favor, too. I approve wholeheartedly.  

"All-natural, baby!"

Compare this to the $350,000 budget of 1981's The Evil Dead. I watched the trilogy last Halloween, and let me tell ya, the effects in the original have not aged well. 

"We're gonna get you . . . to change the channel."

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, that doesn't matter. As ridiculous as the effects are, the original version of The Evil Dead is still a labor of love, and although Raimi didn't quite hit his stride until the sequel, the first one's still well worth watching.

For Bruce's unibrow, if nothing else.

Here’s where the reboot fails. Is it scary? Terrifying. We have the expected array of possessed zombie violence, tree-rape and self-mutilation, and it’s all shown in graphic detail. One girl cuts off part of her own face. Another saws her arm off with an electric carving knife. And then another RIPS HER OWN HAND OFF when it’s trapped under an overturned vehicle. That’s intense stuff. But it all seems by-the-numbers. Things that should have made me jump out of my skin instead just made me cringe a bit. 

"It's just a flesh wound!"

What made the original work was the fact that nobody had seen anything like it before. I mean, tree-rape?!! Possessed, soul-hungry campers lurking in the basement? Gratuitous dismemberment? Yowza. And even though it looked ridiculous on screen (due to budget constraints and Sam Raimi’s childlike glee), it was nonetheless awesome to behold in its silly way. 

That’s the primary difference between Evil Dead and The Evil Dead:

Evil Dead isn’t fun. It’s gory, it’s gross, it’s everything the original was probably intended to be, but I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a darned sight better than a lot of other “cabin in the woods” films, but it’s no Cabin in the Woods, which was nothing but fun with the genre. Evil Dead is a fairly solid horror film, but it’s not an Evil Dead film by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, the best part of the movie—perhaps the only thing worth watching for a fan of the classic trilogy—is after the credits.

And yes, it involves this guy. 

Evil Dead is a humorless exercise in gratuitous mutilation and gut-churnery, and it's completely, utterly heartless. You don't get the feeling that Ted Raimi is barreling through the woods with a camera mounted to his bicycle, or that Fede Alvarez is laughing his butt off with cast and crew between takes as practical effects go awry. Like I said, for what it is, it's not terrible, but what it is . . . is by no means a fitting addition to the Evil Dead franchise. Just as "Don't Fear the Reaper" needed more cowbell, so also did Evil Dead need more Campbell.   

The verdict: Redbox it if you must, but don't expect great things. Don't expect to laugh. Don't expect clever one-liners or outstanding action sequences. Don't expect to have fun. Seriously, abandon all hope, ye who watch this movie. 

Two stars and two stars only. Let the Raimis handle the series from here.