The Wolverine (2013) Theatrical review

What You May Like:

  • The new very human-like Wolverine
  • Deep characterization and story are at the forefront
  • Some very passionate and dedicated performances

What You May Not:

  • Most action sequences have novice-level direction and are overly safe
  • Some CGI doesn’t look as good as it should
  • Hugh Jackman cannot fully tackle deeper scenes

What You’ll Remember:

  • A tie between Mega RoboSamurai and Tao Okamoto’s insane level of beauty

Just when you thought we didn’t have enough X-Men films, and especially after the last silver screen disappointing display of the Wolverine character back in 2009 with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, has a very bold attempt and almost “redo” for the beloved classic Marvel anti-hero been given reigns to a more artistic and character-driven director in James Mangold; responsible for ambitious and creative, if not always successful films such as Girl, Interrupted, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Identity, Cop Land, Knight and Day, and Kate and Leopold. Just looking at that resume can make very devoted Wolverine fans raise a few eyebrows; how can such an artistic and at times amateur-like director (Knight and Day much, anyone?) be given primary vision towards a film franchise known for its mostly devoted comic fan-service high standards and creative action reveling in eye-candy and modern special effects? The answer now being a mostly grand very well, thank you. Considering that Mangold obviously didn’t have his eye on making just another futuristic “X-Men” movie at all, bravely switches the focus to take us out of the great U.S. of A entirely and plop Wolverine directly in the face of the Japanese Yakuza political gang wars, as well as giving the clawed superhero an entirely near human-frail makeover, limiting action altogether and rather placing just as much characterization on a female counterpart, who acts much the Yin to Wolverine’s Yang. Or to further elaborate – a branded, shiny, flashy, futuristic typical X-Men film this is most definitely not, granting the audience a man who hardly feels like an X-Man at all. Mangold did not only have his work cut out for him, but treats it like his beloved baby all the way through, and much appreciated it shall be by the vast majority of movie audiences, even the most avid Wolverine fanatics.

The Wolverine‘s title alone is one that implies a character study instead of an adventure or origins tale – who is Wolverine? What are his intentions? What happens to him as a man after all the events of the previous X-Men trilogy? Surely one does not continue to fight crime on city streets, placing pick-pockets in jail and stopping low-brow alley gang fights, especially after taking down such a tremendous world-dominant force as Magneto. The answer, as the film has it, is nothing, really. Wolverine starts off as nothing more than a downtrodden, nomadic hobo of sorts, whose decision to save a Japanese military soldier decades ago from a nuclear explosion, before any other X-Men films took place, comes back to place him in the middle of a Japanese war for corporate power. Being played once again by actor Hugh Jackman, the standards the actor must now meet have been leveled up considering the overall tone and character focus here; thankfully while Jackman doesn’t have the chops to entirely steal the show, one can tell he is giving nothing less than a hundred percent. At start, we do meet Wolverine, or better, Logan (his actual character name) hiding out in a deep well bunker in the middle of a Japanese war, and takes it upon himself to save one man who is about to commit suicide after the dropping of a nuclear bomb nearby that is set to a grand extermination radius. When the young man is saved by Logan, he is dazzled and entranced by his incredible self-healing powers. Having parted ways almost immediately, we meet up with Logan decades later after all of the events of the X-Men trilogy have already taken place, including the downfall of Magneto as well as the death of his love Jean Grey, who still appears to Logan in memories and dreams, played by the always gorgeous Famke Janssen.

Having no real place in society anymore, and doing away with his superhero mutant name, our now broken-hearted and embittered protagonist sets his own small fights for justice, and in the initial instance being the inhumane death of a wild forest bear by some drunken deadbeat local town hunters. Confronting the men in a small bar, Logan is mysteriously and surprisingly confronted by a petite auburn-haired young Asian girl named Yukio, who tells Logan that the most powerful man in Japan wishes to meet with him in order to say a very long-awaited goodbye, the man being the near-dead soldier, Yashida, who owes his life to the Wolverine from decades past. From there on in, we are treated to some creative ideas for special effects as to how now old and sickly Yashida is being treated, as well as very well executed and timed comic relief, a trend that director Mangold certainly has a knack for given the refreshing amount of creative humor in Wolverine. Not yet ready for death even after so many decades, Yashida proposes to “switch” health abilities with Logan, giving his mortality to the former X-Man, who is essentially sick and exhausted from what he sees as a self-healing and immorality curse placed on him, and in turn have Wolverine grant the old dying man’s wish to be immortal, thus ensuring his narcissistic neverending reign of power over his giant Japanese corporate conglomerate. Unbeknown to Logan, Yashida’s ambitious son, Shingen, has had his eye set on his father’s death for far long, in order to take over, yet due to varying circumstances the corporate throne shall instead be passed to Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko, played with dead-on execution and impressive passion by actress Tao Okamoto, to whom Wolverine being her debut feature film. From the start, the film highlights the sheer beauty of this woman, and as does seem Logan is well to notice; Okamoto can arguably perhaps be the most beautiful Asian woman on the planet as far as yours grinch truly is concerned, and her character Makido in all her sullen and humble, yet deeply embedded bravado, presented with a loving soft-hearted kindness is the unexpected absolute show-stopper of The Wolverine.

From here Wolverine becomes a story of cat and mouse, with Logan taking on the role of Makido’s bodyguard, protecting her with a mostly unknown motivation, but perhaps due to his relationship with Yashida as his own son is dead set out to capture her and perhaps worse. This foundational plot device almost feels like something straight out of 80s and 90s action films – run away from bad guys by escaping to various locales while growing as characters together, intermixing new plot twists all the way through; thankfully the story keeps the characters consistent in their mission and even personalities, which works well to keep them relatable to us. Now it’s during this first act that we also meet Yashida’s seductively beautiful doctor alter ego, mutant Viper, played by Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova, most well known for her only American role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Similarly, Makido’s former love interest now self-made protector (due to a personal vow to Yashida), ninja Harada, played by Will Yun Lee; both are secondary characters but have their own motivations for eventually working to get their means finished within the overall plot, they add their own genuinely interesting twists and thrills to the film, including how significantly Viper weakens Logan’s mutant powers. Lee is nothing too special, and Svetlana does well at creating such a mysterious seductive beauty initially, but later during the film’s final act becomes sort of an afterthought, a fairly heavy-handed character, kiddish in her near plastic Barbie doll presentation, and could seriously benefit from a sandwich. These two add a good amount to the film’s enjoyment, bringing about circumstances that affect our protagonists significantly, even if they do not come off as anywhere too memorable themselves.

Even though Mangold does introduce both the main plot template and characters with standard technical efficiency, from the very first action sequence involving a raid on a local Buddhist temple from the Yakuza gang, does Mangold show that his skill to direct enthralling and thrilling action scenes feel like something from a film student with a large budget on his hands. It’s a positive that action in Wolverine is kept to a necessary minimum, because though more enclosed battles do offer some slick martial arts action in impressive and stylized flips and attacks, more broad range ones not only toss in a decent flair of disappointing looking CGI effects (that really should look much better for a 2013 Hollywood film), but contain an annoying overuse of shaky cam and close-up shots, nearly killing much of the wide range establishing foreground viewers actually need to be able to make out what sort of death-defying stunts the characters are actually going through. For example, in a scene where Harada is jumping over various rooftops to chase the Yakuza thugs, Mangold keeps the camera too close to the actor, then cutting away much of his long jumps but leaving the audience completely blind to how high the jumps are, Harada’s expressions before, during, and after them, and ultimately killing our perspective and any real thrills we are supposed to take away from the scene. The same can be said for the martial arts fighting, that are not only too closely shot, with a plethora of unnecessary edits that keep us from seeing who is actually fighting or getting hit, and where the attacks are landing, but due to keeping the PG-13 rating, even Wolverine’s own claws shed very little to no blood, even though he is continuously stabbing and slashing enemies. God forbid we get an R-rated Wolverine film, especially for an anti-hero as embittered and sinister in his approach as Wolverine. Such a safety net just feels unnecessary, and one that it seems the film itself is even discouraged with and crying to do away with. Even one great idea for a train rooftop fight does offer some gripping moments, the just average green screen work keeps it from being more than it was trying for. If you’re interested in the 3D version of the film, just take note that this one train scene is the only one where a 3D viewing would most noticed. Given how artificial the scenes comes off, it isn’t the treat one might be hoping for. In other words, don’t bother spending the extra money on the 3D version. This technical setback of action directing seems the biggest issue during the first half of the film, action sequences later on taking place in more enclosed places fare better, yet have little to do with the direction but more to do with the talent of the actors, most notably the very athletic and tough-as-nails Rila Fukushima, who plays Logan’s self-proclaimed “bodyguard” Yukio, who, for lack of a better description, kicks absolute freaking ass. There is much scene-stealing this young woman achieves as well, much that Hugh Jackman just can’t seem to do all on his own. And while it is unfortunate that Mangold’s action direction is for the most part pretty sloppy, he more than makes up for it when giving us some of the best characterization and story pacing this franchise has ever seen, which makes its audience care so much for the characters that we almost do not even notice the technical shortcomings of the more intense scenes.

Wolverine‘s focus here is primarily two different relationships – first being the one between Logan and Makido, to which there is much chemistry, most thankfully to actress Tao herself, who through a dedicated performance delivers dialogue with realistic essence and body language that goes beyond enough to charm the viewer throughout; she does it with wisdom and maturity, not by being blatantly and superficially cute. Though Jackman does meet her eye to eye for the most part in dialogue, it can become apparent that he is actually trying very hard to do so. Such effort is well appreciated, but the acting chops on Jackman’s part for deeper more serious scenes between the two do not flow naturally out of Jackman as well as from Tao, yet the story between the two is still there, and does offer so much worthwhile growth that there is very little need for any action in the end. We of course must remember though that this is primarily labeled as an action picture. The second relationship focus here is that of Wolverine himself, the continuous struggle with having to deal with this self-made protection gig over Makido, his desire to leave his superhero status and name altogether, as well as his own embittered nature due to much of the grief over the loss of his former love Jean who he simply cannot seem to forget or take steps in overcoming. Likewise, Makido can parallel Logan’s self struggles with those of her very own family, who at some point only becomes Yukio herself considering everyone else’s betrayals. Yet whatever the two endure, director Mangold’s desire and specialty for close-up shots, the ones out of place during those initial action scenes, does come as an advantage in this regard, as one can tell he has his heart invested in each character’s expressions, emotions, circumstantial fears, and sense of self. Steady use of zoom-in and establishing shots when there is more than one on screen, the viewer feels almost romanticized by their expressive fears, doubts, and subtle mannerisms, thus making way for more involving intense scenes when they just escape death by hairs; you truly start to root for these characters as they become one with the audience. This kind of direction is completely fitting with Mangold’s true artistic strengths. As mentioned earlier, all protagonists remain focused on their primary mission throughout, and while it leads to them becoming more and more reliable as people to us as the audience, it is Logan himself who comes off so vastly frail, broken, human, and real, one cannot help but ache during his weakest moments. This is the crux of what makes Wolverine so vastly different from previous X films. Are there still those typical Hollywood last minute contrived clutch saves? Of course, but at this point those are all just expected from movies, regardless of quality. Once things culminate during the film’s climactic battles, it seems Mangold gets a better sense of how to direct his final action scenes in a way that make more sense and are more satisfying. though it is perhaps just do to the fact that there are far less characters on screen. The CGI itself even begins to fare better. Overall Mangold is given a much better script to work with by the second half of the film, not that he goes about it badly the first half, but in terms of plot twists, surprises, character growth, and the revealing of newer enemies, including one of the most far-fetched yet intimidating foes in Marvel’s villain resume, a giant steel robot Samurai, Wolverine ends in a fine hoorah of bombastic action, one set to please audiences completely granted some technical quips from the first half that are easily remedied.

Final Verdict:

The Wolverine never truly fails or falls flat in any department minus the technical setbacks of the first act that may not immediately be noticeable to everyone, but despite however much better the film could be, it could very easily have been worse. Taking on a central character story after such a bomb with Wolverine’s last film outing was a risky endeavor, something that could have buried not only the character but also Jackman’s career as an action star. Fortunately, the film succeeds where any truly great film should – story and characters. Since Mangold holds such priority to bring us one with these two, Logan and Makido, this is what we’ll take away from the film most. Logan as the Wolverine is much more man than mutant this time around, in physical ability as well as complexity of heart, and his aiding leading ladies throughout the journey are brought out and highlighted just as wondrously with Makido and Yukio – two characters who do just as much to bring out Logan’s true realizations of self as Logan himself. He would have been lost without either of them, even though he was set out to protect one of them. Even going to such a detail as the Wolverine claws, they are kept to minimal use, a plot element at times to act as a character accessory the way someone like Dirty Harry is with his revolver – it never overtakes him and just feels like an arm or leg given how subtle and unobtrusive it is.

Whether Mangold does direct another adaptation has yet to be seen, and granted the sheer level of originality displayed here, that would be a wise choice, granted if the technical quips could also be addressed. The Wolverine is fast-paced, funny, fully entertaining, emotionally gripping, and could be argued as on par or even better than the last X hit, First Class. It’s great to see that a franchise would take such a risk as to worry more about people than effects, even if in the effects department things could have been a bit more realistically portrayed, regardless if the teenage crowd would be turned away due to an R rating or not. Given the level of emotional depth and plot investment, the film is quite honestly more geared towards mature audiences anyway. Let’s hope any sequel bring just as much and more. Definitely recommended, a strong and bold 3 Yakuzas out of 4. Add a half Yakuza if you’re already a fan of the X film series.

Les Miserables (2012) Blu-ray review

The classical world famous epic musical gets the feature film treatment in a mostly entertaining, mostly greatly cast, fantastically directed film, even if some aspects aren’t able to please everyone given such a transition; such attempts are understandably difficult due to normal film dynamics audiences are accustomed to can’t help but be inevitably be sacrificed. Still, such an opera opens doors of creativity which are able to present emotions and settings that simply aren’t as easy in a regular film. Fortunately, due to great direction, Les Miserables uses these unique elements well.

Les Mis takes place during the French Revolution of the 19th century, and follows the story of a slave prisoner Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, and the tyrannical officer Javert, played by Russell Crowe. Right off the bat, Crowe has received some unfair criticism of his performance and singing voice, which I personally believed to be mostly decent, even though his lower octave vocal work can come off as a bit plain and flat in sections. Anyway, to continue, Jackman’s character struggles to get by as a homeless young man until helped by a local priest, then some years later is established as the town mayor with a compassionate heart for the needy (he achieves mayor by methods we don’t get to see, which is ok), and soon comes across Crowe’s character once again, to eventually lead to more tension between the two. We then are introduced to Fantine, who is a poor peasant worker that is fired from her job and must turn to prostitution to survive and aid her young daughter, Cosette. Fantine is played absolutely brilliantly by Anne Hathaway, and is easily the greatest performer of this epic. Valjean (Jackman) then takes Fantine under his wing, but must now hide his identity from Javert (Crowe) due to years earlier breaking his parole. He agrees to care for the young daughter and we are then transported years later when Cosette is around 18 years old; the first street battles of the revolution are then played out as we meet new characters who take a significant part in the Cosette’s life, yet we still have Javert following Valjean.

As many will already know, the entire story is played out as an opera, where song is the means of telling the story, and all the actors perform their own parts. There are very few plain talking transition sections but they don’t last more than a few lines. Many may first look down on this aspect and unfortunately labeled it as a “chick flick,” or too hard to follow, but this would be a mistake, as the film’s plot is not as convoluted as many may first assume, and taken as a piece of great filmmaking and musical art, there is much to be had.

Initially, the film begins very well as we are introduced to the poor suffering peasants of France and perspective lives. Direction during approximately this first hour has a great appeal and is what makes this entire segment work, as there are many darker scenes, close-up and angled shots that give the atmosphere a jerked yet intriguingly somber mood. I would say that if it weren’t for this form of direction the characterization of these people would have been mostly lost. Seeing such close-up shots lets the audience feel their pain and sorrow all the more, and the angled shots subtly tells us how broken their lives really are. Given this is a musical, these unique ideas are what is necessary for this play to transition well to film. Other subtle filmmaking decisions play extremely well, and the songs are mostly all catchy, fun even if sometimes saddening. The climax to this first act takes place in Madam Thenardier’s bordello (Thenardier played by Helen Bonham Carter, whose performance is mostly ok but ultimately forgettable). The end of this seductively twisted scene gives us a solo act by Hathaway, which is easily the best singing performance and beautifully directed scene of the entire film – if you remember nothing from Les Mis, you WILL remember Hathaway’s final song. This one performance is worth the entire price of admission, it was such a heartbreak that Hathaway’s part in this film was so small.

The second half of the film is where things take a somewhat less interesting turn. The movie lightens up and there are some cute comedic portions thrown in, even if the lead Thenardier, played by Sasha Baron Cohen, feels a bit miscast. Now with Cosette being a somewhat affluent young adult (remember, Valjean raises her and was mayor, thus, wealthier), we are given a fairly overly long and uninteresting introduction to a strange love triangle she finds herself in, with a young man, Marius, who is part of the revolution fighting for the poor oppressed; another poor girl, Eponine, is the third part of this triangle, who we are told grew up with Cosette. This portion of the second half is where things don’t really pick up until the end, because the aspects of this love triangle don’t really make much sense, and given that it’s a musical, it makes it even harder for audiences to really feel for characters who are singing. This is why I mentioned earlier that some aspects of modern filmmaking need to be sacrificed. In this case, it is about explanation of plot and general characterization and character motivation. On a live stage, this part of the film perhaps comes out better because the environment helps these characters more appealing, but the same simply cannot be done in regular film, especially when we don’t see these new character’s pasts. The film during this portion almost feels like it doesn’t know how to tell us about these characters so simply elongates this scene with some blander songs, and flatter scenery. Those jagged camera work ideas and dark atmosphere are gone as now we just get normal directional work, which makes sense considering this second act is no longer about suffering peasants, so such dynamics would not fit the characters. Still, the audience is left missing and wanting to see more of Hathaway and gang as before. Cosette’s character is also almost never focused on, therefore we never really get to know her as an adult. Jackman and Crowe, although continuing their places and characters, don’t grip us as they did from that better first act.

The film continues and although the revolution battle scenes bring some appreciated energy, it is safe to say that overall we get less character relatability, flatter songs, and plainer direction. The scope of the film does grow though, and we get a better sense of what is really going on in greater France, we just wish we could’ve done so with more interesting characters. While I do appreciate that Eponine’s character, played by Samantha Barks, who ALSO played the part in the live broadway musical is here, I can only guess that due to the differentiation of stage and silver screen, the character may just work better on stage. Now although it does sound like I really disliked the second act, the movie still tries hard, and even though things aren’t as good as before, they are still done well, and the film does continue to entertain (mostly after the uninteresting love triangle build-up ends). The songs it should be mentioned are really a case of subjectivity; some may like the songs that others find bland, but since the film could not rewrite the real songs from the live play, my telling that lots of these second act songs are blander should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.

Once things feel like they are over, we get our climax with Jackman’s and Crowe’s characters, but to some may feel like it ends cheaply, not to also mention taking too long to just end. When the very last few scenes of the film comes, I began to realize that a good 10 minutes could have been cut from this, and also wondered why people claimed to have cried at all during the film, because overall I feel like nobody besides Crowe and Jackman themselves were featured long or deeply enough for anyone to really care about their circumstances, no matter how sad they may have tried to be depicted. Yet, a great refresher was the very last few minutes of the film which was satisfyingly epic to say the least (I could then understand better why some people would have cried). The film ends the way a play would, and even though you may have enjoyed the first half over the second, you still may find yourself wanting to stand up and clap.

In the end, I would have to say that I did enjoy and appreciate Les Mis, despite its flaws. Many critics claimed that the film jumped around much and things weren’t as cohesive as they should have been. This is simply untrue as the story does do a good job at pacing the character introductions as well as their circumstances. For those who only saw this in theaters, i would recommend seeing this on video with the subtitles turned on. Watching the film I did just that, and felt I was better able to follow the story and get more from the characters. I believe this is not simply a film that is an acquired taste or only good for people who are into musicals or operas; again, by watching the film with subtitles, not only does one get to enjoy the songs (at least the ones that are good), but also follow a fairly straightforward story that they may have missed in theaters. The songs were mostly good and there is one tune in particular that repeats and will most likely stick in your head after the credits roll. Performances were done well, even if some actors will be better remembered than others (specifically, Jackman and Hathaway). I mostly wish that more of the movie was done like the first act of the film, yet would enjoy to view this again because the songs do keep things entertaining, as well as give more personality to the settings themselves. Les Mis would be more greatly appreciated by those who do have a knowledgeable eye and ear for filmmaking and music as an artform, and not just a way to entertain yourself for 2 hours. Yet, I would not even say this is an artfilm or even so much of a period piece. I would recommend giving this a try for anyone who is open-minded enough to get out of their comfort zone, as there is much good here. I’m glad I purchased this.

On a technical level, the best thing about the blu-ray is the sound quality. Given that it’s a musical, things need to sound well, and I am happy to say that things could not have been more perfectly balanced. Songs, instrumentation, vocals, never get in the way of sound effects, or vice versa. Everything comes off as crystal clear, and it only helps the film be more easily enjoyed. Visually, I did feel that although darker scenes showed a great amount of detail, in more colorful daytime scenes, colors at times were a bit too bright and contrast was a tad on the plainer side. It was nothing extreme but perhaps I’m just being picky.

There are some good behind-the-scenes extras on the blu-ray that are not on the dvd, so as always, I recommend getting the blu-ray copy if you can. There is a good amount so it is definitely worth the full purchase price.

So Les Mis may have a few flaws that keep it from being the spellbinding epic it was perhaps originally slated to be on paper; but the film tries very hard to do so, and what it does get right, is great. There are some great ideas here that make for a mostly wholly entertaining film, even if you wish you could’ve felt for the characters more. A musical like 2002’s ‘Chicago’ did a better job of characterization, but that was only because regular talking and songs were broken up into separate sections, yet with Les Mis, it would make the stage transition harder due to the ENTIRE film’s plot being done only through song. The good news is that the film is mostly successful. I would more recommend this for more mature and sophisticated film goers, and perhaps not so much to those who like their films straightforward and typical. I liked it, didn’t love it, but did love a few nitpicked aspects (namely, Hathaway, and directional ideas). I give this 3 octaves out of 4.