The Wolverine

Genre: Action

Director: James Mangold

Writers: Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, based on Wolverine by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller

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

Running Length: 126 minutes

Synopsis: Based on the celebrated comic book arc, this epic action-adventure takes Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the most iconic character of the X-Men universe, to modern day Japan. Out of his depth in an unknown world, he will face a host of unexpected and deadly opponents in a life-or-death battle that will leave him forever changed. Vulnerable for the first time and pushed to his physical and emotional limits, he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality.

Review: The Wolverine is somewhat of an anomaly in the roster of summer blockbusters – although this is the sixth time Wolverine has featured in a movie, the film’s only name actors are Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen, with the rest of the cast being relative unknowns. And despite what the trailers might have suggested, this is actually a rather intimately shot film, with only a handful of action set pieces in  itstwo-hour plus running time. While the storyline is undoubtedly engaging, and the film as a whole is definitely superior to the dreary X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it remains to be seen if the film’s box office would be impacted by mismatched expectations of the audience.

The Wolverine comes off to a pretty slow start – the initial exposition takes up more than half an hour before any true action is witnessed on screen, by which time it’s abundantly clear to audiences that this movie is trying to be more than just the typical summer action blockbuster. Credit must be given to Mangold for trying to delve deeper into the psyche of Wolverine and what makes him tick, but it isn’t always very successful. All the Jean Grey visions in particular are cheesy and cringe-worthy, but there are moments of introspection that feel as though he has succeeded somewhat.

Apart from this, The Wolverine is a pretty formulaic superhero movie offering up few surprises. There’s the obligatory (in this case, extremely obligatory) romantic interest, the typical action sequences, and the final showdown. The finale is particularly disappointing, because the villains seem to pose very little threat to the heroes and are quite quickly dispatched. Wolverine’s loss of his super healing powers (much vaunted in the slew of trailers and pre-publicity) also don’t manage to make too much of a difference. Thankfully there is at least a refreshing take on the typical “brawl atop a speeding train” sequence, since it happens on a bullet train travelling at 300km/h, which changes the rules of combat and physics somewhat.

Placing Wolverine in a foreign locale does also help to shake things up a bit. Apart from Wolverine, Jean Grey and Viper, every other character of note are Japanese, often speaking in their native tongue. This is an interesting gambit for a summer film, since subtitles are popular amongst the typical movie-going crowd, but suffice to say it being of the X-Men universe will ease the discomfort somewhat. Mangold and the writers do play quite hard and fast with the canon of the story arc the movie is based on, which may annoy the hardcore Marvel and X-Men fans, but otherwise there’s really nothing glaringly out of place with the plot. X-Men fans would be particularly pleased with the coda just after the first segment of the end credits, which alludes to the already-announced X-Men: Days of Future Past, coming our way summer of 2014.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Before Midnight

Genre: Drama

Director: Richard Linklater

Writers: Richard Linklater & Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Running Length: 109 minutes

Synopsis: In Before Midnight, we meet Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) 9 years on. Almost 2 decades have passed since that first meeting on a train bound for Vienna, and we now find them in their early 40’s in Greece. Before the clock strikes midnight, we will again become part of their story.

Review: It’s rare for a movie these days to be entirely about dialogue, but Richard Linklater’s sequel to the well-loved Before Sunrise and Before Sunset movies is exactly that. Yes, this is about as much of a “talkie” as one can get, but when the dialogue is of such high quality it’s impossible to fault. Before Midnight bucks the increasingly popular trend of dumbing down movies for the largest possible mass audience, and yet remains such a pleasure to watch that audiences who are mentally prepared for the movie would find themselves richly rewarded.

A caveat: although Before Midnight can be viewed as a standalone movie, much of the context would be lost if one has not watched Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, so much so that it should almost be a prerequisite. Having gotten that out of the way, for viewers who are familiar with Jesse and Celine, this movie answers the “what if?” definitively – the two have become an item, and in the time the audience have spent apart from them, they have also become parents to a pair of twins. While it was all magical romance in the previous instalments, Before Midnight takes the duo in a slightly different direction. Interactions between the couple are now tinged with more real world weariness and bitterness, although it’s still clear that love remains between the two.

The truly impressive feat about Before Midnight is how real it all feels. There are moments in Before Midnight where it almost doesn’t feel like a scripted movie at all, and there’s a distinct sense of deja vu because all of it feels so familiar and so true to real life. The centrepiece in the latter part of the film is an argument between Jesse and Celine, and I dare say anyone who’s attached or married would find that scene eerily close to at least one occasion that they would have experienced themselves.  The first half of the film also features a dinner table conversation amongst friends that would possibly rank as the most memorable and impressive dramatic set piece this year. It may all seem prosaic at first, but the way that scene builds and builds (and its eventual conclusion) is simply remarkable writing and filmmaking.

Linklater never allows anything to overtake the interaction between the couple, with camerawork (and even the soundtrack) kept to a very simplistic level. Together with the fact that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both intimately acquainted with their respective characters (they are also credited as co-writers in this instalment, as they were in Before Sunset), it is little wonder that the level of verisimilitude is so high. It’s tempting to suggest that these characters are at least in part a reflection of the actors’ true selves, because it almost doesn’t feel like they are inhabiting a character at times.

While the previous films have been left relatively open-ended, the denouement of Before Midnight feels more definite. There seems to be little wiggle room and does seem to close off the possibility of another sequel, but when the level of enjoyment one can obtain from the trifecta, it would be a pleasure either way. It’s hard to imagine any other movie being able to reach such dramatic perfection this year.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)


Pacific Rim * * * 1/2

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Max Martini, Ron Perlman

Running Length: 131 minutes

Synopsis: When legions of monstrous creatures, known as Kaiju, started rising from the sea, a war began that would take millions of lives and consume humanity’s resources for years on end. To combat the giant Kaiju, a special type of weapon was devised: massive robots, called Jaegers, which are controlled simultaneously by two pilots whose minds are locked in a neural bridge. But even the Jaegers are proving nearly defenseless in the face of the relentless Kaiju.

On the verge of defeat, the forces defending mankind have no choice but to turn to two unlikely heroes – a washed up former pilot (Charlie Hunnam) and an untested trainee (Rinko Kikuchi) – who are teamed to drive a legendary but seemingly obsolete Jaeger from the past. Together, they stand as mankind’s last hope against the mounting apocalypse.

Review: Pacific Rim is what the Transformers film should have been – it’s a behemoth of an effects movie, loud and brash and all guns blazing from the word go, but doesn’t eschew a proper storyline in exchange for CG effects and action sequences. Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a very impressive film here – minus some bad science and logic, this is about as entertaining as the monsters versus giant robots sub genre gets.

It’s clear that the film is targeted mainly at teenaged boys (just like Transformers), and so the proceedings remain very chaste throughout – there’s very little true violence and bloodshed (barring kaiju blood, but it’s about as gruesome as an ad for diapers, blue liquid and all), and virtually zero sexual chemistry between the two leads. The focus is really on the mecha and the monsters, which fortunately are rendered very well. Action sequences are cleanly shot, with none of the confusion that plagued all the Transformers movies, and the film is pretty evenly paced with little downtime.

Pacific Rim is also a rare action film which successfully balances the OTT action sequences with exposition, which allows audiences to feel more vested in the proceedings. There’s also immense attention paid to the finer details of the universe that Pacific Rim is set in – for example, Jaegers each have their own unique look and feel, and it’s readily apparent that a lot of painstaking work was put into making the Shatterdome and other environments look just right. Unlike Transformers and the ilk, there’s no lazy filmmaking to be found in Pacific Rim. This is also a film in which paying for a third dimension doesn’t feel like a pure money grab – the action sequences felt enhanced and even more visceral when viewed in (IMAX) 3D.

That’s not to say that the film is without issues – apart from the junky science (apparent even to a layperson like me), one of the biggest problems the movie has is with the choice of its main lead. Although Charlie Hunnam bears the looks and build of an all-American hero, his thespian skills leave much to be desired, and some of his line delivery is so poor it’s almost comical. To be fair, the rest of the cast is perfectly serviceable (Rinko Kikuchi and Mana Ashida, the child actress playing the younger version of Mako, are the most memorable), and the one scene where Raleigh and Mako face off in physical combat is flirtatious fun.   

Guillermo del Toro has not attempted a project of this size prior, but he has now shown that tackling a big summer blockbuster is not out of the question for him. Pacific Rim borders on being a guilty pleasure – it is hugely enjoyable with the standard trappings of an action film, and yet delves just enough beyond the superficial that it doesn’t become featureless, mindless action tedium. The final title card in the end credits pay tribute to Ray Harryhausen (master of stop motion animation films like the original Clash of the Titans) and Ishiro Honda (the director of Godzilla – the original film, not the pale Hollywood remake), and the film indeed is a shining example of how Harryhausen and Honda’s films would look like if made with the trappings of 21st Century technology and modern sensibilities.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)