The Wolverine: Mutton-Chopped Magnificence

After the relative disaster that was “X-Men Origins,” the world really needs Wolverine to kick ass again. Hugh Jackman, who has been playing the clawed mutant since 2000’s original “X-Men,” is certainly game. The actor has aged as well as the regenerative character he made famous. But having Wolverine in a movie isn’t enough. He needs to be surrounded by interesting characters to complement his inner and external struggles, as well as a guiding filmmaker and screenwriters who can play to the character’s strengths.

Cue “The Wolverine” and director James Mangold (“3:10 to Yuma,” “Walk the Line.” Mangold and company have crafted a film that, in all the important ways at least, gives us everything we want in a Wolverine movie, while cutting away the many, many things we don’t. The result is a refreshing return to form for the mutton chopped mutant.

The film takes place after the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” with Logan aka Wolverine experiencing haunting visions of the woman he loved and lost, Jean Grey. While drifting through an Alaskan village, he is tracked by the mysterious Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who convinces him to travel to Japan to pay last respects to a man he saved from the bombing of Nagasaki during WWII.

This man, Shingen Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanada), is the wealthy owner of a tech corporation. When Logan arrives, Yashida offers him more than just a goodbye. He claims he can make Logan immortal. And when a man has experienced as much pain (both physical and emotional) as Logan has, it’s an enticing offer. Yashida is also afraid for his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who is being threatened by Yakuza assassins.

The plot sets up several enticing scenarios but devolves by the end into generic sci-fi/action tropes. Until then, it’s a pretty engaging ride. But we’re not really here for the story. We’re here to see Wolverine stab dudes with those glorious adamantium claws, something he gets to do plenty of here. “X-Men Origins” couldn’t even get that right, but here we get some pretty great action set pieces that let Wolverine be the Wolverine.

The problem with Wolverine as a character, much like Superman, is that he’s, well, invincible. Although Wolverine still feels pain, he can’t really die. This film is smart enough to find a way to rob him of his regenerative powers for a good portion of the movie, giving a weight to the action that has been sorely missing from Logan’s encounters in previous films. Also, Wolverine fighting ninja assassins? Yes, please.

Don’t let that fool you into thinking this is an all-out action film, though. It’s quite talky (in both English and Japanese), and Logan has a lot of emotional baggage to carry. That’s a very good thing: “Wolverine” is one of the more intimate comic book movies in memory, which also makes it one of the more engaging. Logan’s growing emotional attachment to Mariko, as both protector and potential lover, is sidelined by his inability to detach from the memory of Jean, and its easy to see that, even for a mutant, some scars will never heal.

Director James Mangold, always a consummate visual stylist, directs with a sure hand, allowing emotional scenes and dialogue to play out without the desire to gum up the works with needless extraneous characters or villains to fight. The breathtaking Japanese vistas and emphasis on Japanese culture are a welcome change of pace for a comic-based film.

That is, until the last half hour, where things get rather silly (and convoluted) rather quickly. It’s also a total “Iron Man” rip-off. Still, nothing here comes close to the cheesiness of Logan’s last outing, and most of the film feels solidly grounded in the real world.

That’s truly the strength of the “X-Men” franchise; no matter how outlandish its characters’ powers may be, we can see them fitting into our everyday society. We can identify with their ostracized, outcast nature because we ourselves can sometimes feel ostracized or “different.” It makes it, in my mind, the most engaging of the Marvel film universes.

Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine for a long time, and I’m so glad to see he isn’t done with the character quite yet (stay after the credits for an awesome tease of what’s to come). Until the whole gang is rounded up for 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” this is a pretty darn good holdover, and certainly the most engaging superhero film we’ll see this summer.

Redefining escapism at the movies

I saw “Pacific Rim” the other day, and so did the rest of the audience in the theater I was in. Nothing new there. But there’s a difference between watching a movie and viewing it, and it’s a big one.

Much debate has occurred over the distracted nature of our modern society. In a movie theater, this normally looks like people texting or talking during a movie. But what I witnessed the crowd in that theater doing the other day went beyond that.

Several people in the theater didn’t just look distracted; they looked like they were actively struggling to sit still for a couple of hours. I don’t imagine it was the movie’s fault; it was great, and there was quite a bit of applause when the credits rolled. But not everyone in the theater saw the same movie I did. A man sitting in my row kept staring at his phone as if expecting an important message. He got up and left the theater three times during the movie, but he always came back.

The theater used to be a place of escapism, a place where we could forget our troubles for a few hours and become immersed in the magic of cinema. In our connected culture, that way of thinking is going the way of the drive-in theater. At home, people can pause a Netflix movie to run a quick errand, or they can stop the movie entirely if they don’t like it, with nary a penny wasted. Why waste valuable time and money sitting in a sticky dark cave?

But what about the really good movies? The ones that make us think, feel, dream, the ones that challenge us or maybe remind us of important truths we knew all along? Are these worlds not worth getting lost in? That is where the theater comes in. Complete immersion cannot occur when sitting on the couch.

But it has never been just the location that makes the theater special. It’s the mindset behind the eager theatergoer; the one who is willing to pay sometimes-exorbitant amounts of money because they want to escape the cares of their everyday lives for a few hours. They want to escape into the magic of movies. At least, that’s how it used to be.

Now, its seems, people have more important things to do. I imagine my row-mate, sitting at a Friday morning screening, really wanted to see “Pacific Rim.” But showing up to the theater isn’t enough. He clearly had more important things to take care of that day. And that’s great. But why did he have to come to the theater to realize that?

If I can’t put my life on hold for a few hours to see a movie, I just won’t go. It’s that simple. I love the movies too much to treat them as a sideshow to my self-importance. We all bring baggage with us into the theater; it’s exactly that baggage that we’re trying to escape from, after all. But I’ve gone to the theater before with too much going on in my life, too many stresses and anxieties, and I’ve been miserable even while watching great movies. I would not allow myself to get lost.

If the movies are going to continue to provide escapism from the routine of our everyday lives, we must allow ourselves to escape. If they are going to transport us, we must allow ourselves to be transported. Otherwise, we might as well just go home.

Pacific Rim Review: The monster movie you’ve been waiting for

The formula for a film like “Pacific Rim” is not complicated. Take giant aliens who come from the ocean, add giant man-made robots to fight the global threat, add in a little Guillermo del Toro-inspired madness, and voila.

In truth, formula alone does not make a movie, but it is in its simple structure and stick-to-your-ribs genre purity that “Pacific Rim” stands out as the best big-budget release of the summer.

When the menacing Kaiju emerge from the sea and start wreaking havoc on not-too-distant-future humanity, we decide to create Jeagers, giant robots controlled by top military combat personnel around the world. The humans’ resistance seems to be working, but the Kaiju are getting stronger, and the UN decides to shut the Jaeger program down after too many soldiers (and their pricy machines) are killed.

Our main character, the impossibly good-looking soldier Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), disappears after his brother Yancy is killed during a Kaiju attack. Jaeger pilots work in pairs of two via a “mind meld” (each controlling one hemisphere of the Jaeger’s “brain,” and the team works in tandem to control every aspect of the Jaeger’s movements. But the mind meld allows each pilot to see the other’s memories, and Raleigh hasn’t gotten over his severed mental connection to his brother.

Meanwhile, world governments have resorted to building large walls to keep the Kaiju out, but they don’t seem to be working. The Jaeger program has turned into an underground resistance movement, led by the intimidating Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, and yes, all the names in this movie are ridiculous), who tracks Raleigh down, Raleigh, one of the last living Jaeger pilots, in hopes of recruiting him to help carry a nuclear bomb to the Kaiju’s dimensional rift and closing the portal once and for all.

As Raleigh agrees, he comes across a refreshingly diverse set of supporting characters in the form of fellow Jaeger pilots, including a father-son Australian team and a mysterious Japanese recruit named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who senses an immediate connection to Raleigh she can’t quite explain.

I couldn’t imagine a movie like this being made by someone other than Guillermo del Toro. The dude can shoot an action scene. The towering Jaegers are impressive digital creations, and the imposing Kaiju even more so. This is a filmmaker who has staked a career on boundless visual creativity, and it holds true here. The combat sequences are truly something to behold. I suppose some might find some of the environments and cityscapes a bit derivative, but it’s hard to argue when there are so many things for your eye to catch in every scene.

As far as plot is concerned, mostly everything is predictable, but one advantage del Toro has over the monster movies he so clearly pays tribute to is smart dialogue and surprisingly three-dimensional characters. In particular, Idris Elba as Stacker manages the tricky feat of having a sympathetic backstory while still being a complete badass (even when half his dialogue is reduced to grand speechifying). The evolving relationship between Raleigh and Mako is also refreshing in its unpredictability. There’s even some tremendous comic relief in the form of a scene-stealing Ron Perlman (who else) as a shady black-market Kaiju organ dealer.

As the film’s conflicts ratchet up, it thankfully avoids the curse of “science-ese” that has plagued movies like “Man of Steel.” Just because things get more complicated doesn’t mean we have to stop understanding why, and “Pacific Rim” strikes that tricky balance by keeping things light and allowing the audience to keep pace in understanding all the plot’s technological developments as they happen.

On that subject, thank God for a summer blockbuster that doesn’t talk down to its audience. Del Toro is that rare director who is aware of what his audience wants, and is intent to give it to them. It’s a modern monster movie; not a revision, not an interpretation; not a re-boot. Instead of trying to bog his film down with grand messages and morals, he decided to go all the way in making the most kick-ass action movie of the summer. And honestly, why do we need more than that? It’s del Toro’s playground, and I want to see him play. And does he ever.

Hollywood seems to think audiences crave summer movies with brooding anti-heroes, dark themes, and grand statements about the human condition. We don’t; that’s for Oscar season. We want stuff to blow up, but we also want to remember why it did. We also want to laugh in-between the carnage. In that regard, “Pacific Rim” is one of the few truly successful movies of the summer. At a (relatively) brisk 131 minutes, it has a good balance between action and story, and, most importantly, doesn’t overstay its welcome (unlike another metal man I can think of).

In terms of a film delivering on its formidable-yet-gleefully-juvenile promise, “Pacific Rim” is the movie of the summer.