Friday, July 26, 2013

The X factor for ‘The Wolverine’ features incredible action sequences

By Steve Crum

Marvel has the most tortured, flawed superheroes in the comic book universe. Proof positive is substantiated throughout The Wolverine, arguably the best of the shiv-wristed franchise. It is also the most grueling to watch. 

Unlike most superheroes, Marvel or otherwise, Wolverine’s roots have never been fully explained--at least in the movies. We know Spider-Man evolved after Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, and that Superman began as a Kryptonian baby. However, Wolverine aka Logan (played with perfection by Hugh Jackman) is an enigma. He is a mutant suffering from a kind of sleep apnea, and prone to nightmares. During one dream, we see him as he physically looks today, except it 68 years ago when he is imprisoned at a Japanese POW camp located on Nagasaki, Japan. A U.S. bomber then drops the atomic bomb--a sadly historic moment. And Wolverine obviously survives. Unlike other dreams he has, this is a valid memory, not a hallucination. How can this be? (Gasp as you ask.)

It is an intriguing premise, which also opens the movie, immediately hooking the audience. No surprise when the story’s locale easily shifts from the USA to present-day Japan, where it remains until the end of the film. With virtually any movie set in Japan, expectations include at least an appearance by ninjas or samurais. The Wolverine gives us pagodas packed with kicking, jabbing, and arrow shooting ninja warriors. As for a samurai warrior, would you believe a gigantic, silver-plated, robotic samurai? Ah so. 

To take up any slack at Japanese action central, prepare yourself for dozens of lethal Yakuza thugs. Wolverine is multi-challenged. Fortunately, his body absorbs any bullets, arrows, stabs, and punches, and then immediately heals itself. Thanks to some scientific conniving, orally delivered by a lethal babe appropriately called “Viper,” Wolverine’s regenerative powers are jeopardized, affecting his life and those he is trying to protect. 

Time to backpedal a bit, plot-wise, without disclosing too much. Be aware that The Wolverine is essentially a sequel to X-Men: The Last Stand, which ended with Logan in deep depression and traipsing out to the wilderness following the death of Jean Grey, his honey. He has frequent dreams  in which she appears next to him in bed and elsewhere. In each case, she implores him to join her in death. 

Now a recluse, and looking the part of a homeless man with unkempt beard and all, he is tracked down by a pert young lady adept at martial arts, Yukio, charismatically played by Rita Fukushima. She is sent by an old colleague of sorts who immediately needs his help in Japan. By the way, in this early part of the movie, Wolverine has already encountered a Grizzly as well as a half dozen thugs in a barroom. In fact, the fight scenes are plentiful, lengthy, and wow-factor impressive. Listing all of them in detail would be a disservice, but I have to mention one action stunner involving Wolverine battling a squad of killers atop a moving Japanese train zooming 300 mph. Fight scenes on top of moving trains have been around since the dawn of motion pictures, but this new ingredient takes the cake. Sorry, sushi.

For good reason, The Wolverine is reminiscent of a favorite James Bond adventure, 1967's You Only Live Twice, also set in Japan. Both heroes battle martial arts foes, and both fall in love with a Japanese woman. For Wolverine's Logan, she is the young lady he repeatedly saves, Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto).

Director James Mangold and screenscribes Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback, and Scott Frank transition Wolverine on an incredible journey from 1945 to present day Nagasaki. By the finale, the body count is high, and Wolverine’s purpose in life is ascertained. Doubters need only catch the brief epilogue inserted about three minutes into the credits, featuring a couple of major folks in Marvel’s gallery. Set in an airport as Logan prepares to return to the USA, the bit also serves as hype for Wolverine’s inclusion in the next X-Men flick. What brilliant, comic book showmanship.  
GRADE on a Scale of A to F: B+
This trailer previews the thrills:

Friday, July 5, 2013

Return of hilarious minions plus awesome 3-D make ‘Despicable Me 2’ must-see

By Steve Crum

The minions have me hooked again. Despicable Me 2 again wisely features the diminutive little critters, resembling yellow board game pieces with a big eye or two. As in Despicable Me #1, they are dedicated and loyal factory workers for their boss, the once evil Gru. He’s the lanky, pointy-nosed, bald fellow who stole the moon in the 2010 animated film. Gru became an adoptive father in the first movie, reformed his evil ways, and continues to raise his three youngsters here. 

Despicable Me 2 is just as charming, hilarious, clever, and well paced as its predecessor. The credit goes to the same crew who created DM1: co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, and the army of talented Illumination Entertainment technicians and artists. 

Funny how voice actors are now so recognized, given top billing, and paid so well...compared to Golden Age of Animation voice artists like Mel Blanc, June Foray, and Daws Butler. They are better known today, thanks to a wide recognition of their talents during the last three decades. Classic Disney movies like Pinocchio and Snow White seldom employed major name actors to voice cartoon characters. While comedians like Ed Wynn and Phil Harris would occasionally voice for a feature cartoon, their names were never prominently displayed in the titles. 

In this truly second Golden Age of Animation, major stars voicing in animated features have become a given, and several have expressed their pleasure for getting paid so well for the use of their voice talents. Despicable Me 2 is trendy in that respect, featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Russell Brand, and Ken Jeong. Their names are highly touted in movie ads, hooking patrons to see the film. 

The plot of DM2, taking up pretty much where the first movie ended, follows the Anti-Villain League as it tries to find who stole a lab, using a giant magnet (!), which contains a dangerous chemical compound that morphs living things into indestructible monsters. AVL agent Lucy Wilde (voiced by Kristen Wiig) is on the case, and enlists former villain but still super genius Gru (Steve Carell) to join her in the hunt. But Gru is into fatherhood, even dressing up as a fairy princess for his three kids. 

Gru relents, and the ensuing chase includes bouts with TNT, an active volcano, a wig store, a Mexican restaurant, a giant shark, and dealing with his oldest daughter’s new boyfriend. The boyfriend might be connected to El Macho (Benjamin Britt), who is an AVL suspect. Factor in visual jokes via the hundreds of minions being experimented upon with the evil chemical, and fun ensues. In fact, it is fun for the entire family, a rarity in Hollywood movies these days.

If you can see Despicable Me 2 in 3-D, do so. Particularly during the clever closing credits, the three dimensional effects are the best of any movie. Ever.
GRADE on a Scale of A to F: A
Even the film's trailer is above average:

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Unfortunately, 'The Lone Ranger' is really Tonto’s variety show

By Steve Crum

Lone Ranger creators George W. Trendle and Fran Striker are surely doing pinwheels in their respective graves. This new take on the legendary masked man is far from what the radio pioneers had in mind back in 1933. The Lone Ranger (2013, not the 1956 feature film) is an odd mix of parody, homage, and re-imagining of the legend. Tis pity, since just about all the basic elements are present: sidekick Tonto, horses Silver and Scout, the mask, a silver bullet (but only one), bad guy Butch Cavindish, and The Lone Ranger himself. Even the famous theme music,  Rossini’s William Tell Overture, is included big time in the film’s exhausting finale.

The primary reason The Lone Ranger fails is because cohesiveness is missing. Written by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio, the story plays out like three drafts meshed together. The marketing strategy was obviously to please three targets: elderly Lone Ranger fans, pre-teens who have never heard of The Lone Ranger, and hard core action movie fans. As for the latter, the head outlaw cuts out and eats the heart of one of his victims! Why has Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) become Hannibal Lector? 

God knows there have been endless send-ups of The Lone Ranger, including Lenny Bruce’s famous routine, Thank You, Masked Man, which was even made into an animated short. Stan Freberg satirized the Ranger on radio and record, turning him into a psychiatrist on horseback, The Lone Analyst. Pronto was his sidekick. Freberg even hired the “real” Lone Ranger and Tonto, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, to appear fully costumed in a pizza commercial: “Hi-o, pizza rolls!” After a dud revival movie, 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger, how could the Ranger be salvaged in 2013?

Disney Studios hired Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski to fashion this Lone into a makeshift Pirates movie,   substituting trains for ships, and starring Captain Jack himself, Johnny Depp, as what used to be The Lone Ranger's sidekick. However, in this bastardized version, Tonto is the star and the masked man is his sidekick. Depp’s Tonto is definitely the reason to see this movie, from his quirky, mystical silliness to his elaborate Native American war paint and dead crow head gear to his obviously superior intelligence. The Lone Ranger aka John Reid (Armie Hammer) is characterized as a half-witted, cowardly, Eastern dweeb. His only save is that he has traveled West to practice law and visit his brother, a truly heroic Texas Ranger. Hammer plays the role the best anyone could, that of a drab, one dimensional character. 

I do need to sandwich in a couple of actors whose roles call for flamboyance, and they succeed fabulously. One is the always watchable Tom Wilkinson as a seething railroad bad guy, and the other is Helena Bonham Carter’s saloon owner, Reed Harrington. Her role is definitely one Striker and Trendle could and would never have created. Not only does she dress like the madam she is, she sports a pistol firing mechanism at the base of her false, porcelain leg. Just another goody for the kids in the audience.

At the outset, Tonto’s disdain for his future saddle pal includes him dragging a wounded Reid across the prairie, and through horse dung. It is Tonto who opens the film, come to life in Night at the Museum fashion, in a San Francisco museum, circa 1933. His skin looking akin to Jack Crabb’s in Little Big Man, Tonto becomes storyteller to a young Lone Ranger fan, who is a museum patron. In flashback, we learn how Tonto met John Reid in 1879 after saving him when he, his brother, and a band of Texas Rangers are left for dead after being ambushed by the Butch Cavindish gang. The huge rewrite here is that Tonto reluctantly rescues Reid. Mentoring Reid by teaching him to ride and shoot was never remotely in his plan. Incidentally, the great horse Silver miraculously appears in the desert when John Reid needs transportation. Even Silver has more savvy than Reid/Ranger, and certainly more sense of humor. Tonto refers to the steed as a “spirit horse.” 

For 80 years, the legendary Lone Ranger has endured pop culture, and much of that is debunked during this nearly two and a half hours of misguided storytelling. Much like Silver’s sudden appearance, The Lone Ranger himself undergoes a miraculous transformation via the visually stunning finale. All of a sudden, he and Tonto work as a team; the Ranger rides the great horse Silver across the top of a speeding train; and all his pistol shots are bullseyes. Without explanation, via Tonto’s sage recollection, a superhero of the Old West is born. Clark Kent indeed becomes Superman, per se. 

Hollywood has already done its hack job, rather successfully, on Sherlock Holmes, making him a kick boxing sleuth. Now it’s the Lone Ranger. Prepare yourself for Armie Hammer as good guy spy Illya Kuryakin in next year’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., based on the TV series. Henry Cavill, currently playing Superman in The Man of Steel (another hero reworking), will star as Napoleon Solo. 

It seems everything old is new again, but not nearly as entertaining. 
GRADE on a Scale of A to F: C-
Is The Lone Ranger really depicted as a wimpy idiot in this movie? The answer is in this trailer:
Compare it with the trailer to 1956's The Lone Ranger: