Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Wolverine: Existentialism the Marvel Way

The Wolverine - Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
"Eternity can be a curse.  It hasn't been easy for you, living without time.  The losses you have had to suffer, a man can run out of things to live for.  Lose his purpose, become a Ronin, a samurai without a master." ~ Yashida (on his death bed) to Logan.

The year 2013 was the Summer of Superheroes.  First, there was "Ironman 3," then there was Superman in "The Man of Steel," now there is "The Wolverine.”  "The Wolverine" is an action-packed, existential look at life, death, and immortality in the world of Marvel Superheroes.  The film stars Hugh Jackman in his fourth go as the character of the Wolverine. Joining the cast are Hiroyuki Sanada ("Sunshine," "The Last Samurai"), Haruhiko Yamanouch ("Push," "The Way Back") and relative newcomer from Russia, Svetlana Khodchenkova ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), and two  total newcomers in their first motion pictures, fashion models Tao Okamoto, and Rila Fukushima.

In this latest edition of the “X-Men” franchise, and within the sub franchise that devotes its story entirely to the Wolverine, director James Mangold (Knight and Day," "3:10 to Yuma," "Walk the Line, and "Identity") and Hugh Jackman  ("Les Misérables," "Real Steel," "The Prestige," and  "The Fountain") work to imbue the Wolverine mythos with some philosophical depth.  The film starts with a prologue of sorts.  It is near the end of World War II, just outside of Nagasaki Japan in a P.O.W. camp.  The date is August 9, 1945; the time is 11:00 am to be exact.  Trapped in a well in the ground, apparently in solitary confinement, Logan looks out of a slit in the side of the top of his prison as an air raid sirens scream from above.  Two B-29 bombers fly over the city while the Japanese scramble for cover.  One soldier, a guard, decides to free prisoners, giving every man the same chance.  As the soldier and the other guards are about to commit ritual seppuku (ritual suicide) Logan stays his hand and urges him down the hole where they will be somewhat safe.  Right from the beginning, the special effects for this film are top notch, from the atomic blast opening the film, to the insane battle on top of the Bullet train, to the chaotic climatic battle that is obligatory in a film of this magnitude.  The audience demands it.

Mangold paces this film very fast, while Jackman plays the Wolverine as both morose and introspective; Logan (Jackman) is a man at one with nature but not at one with himself.  Today, haunted by the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) by his own hands, in "X-Men: The Last Stand," he lives alone in the hills of the Yukon woods.  Jean appears to him in his dreams (or nightmares – you decide), like a dark spirit to taunt him and remind him of the dangerous person that he is.  Of course, he doesn't stay a recluse for long; otherwise, there would be not much of a movie.

The Wolverine - Yukio | A Constantly Racing Mind
Logan has given up his killing ways.  His hair is long and he looks more like a vagrant than a hero.  Finding a campsite torn apart by a bear, he tracks the animal, only to find the wounded animal suffering with a poison arrow in its side.  In an act of kindness, Logan ends the creatures suffering.  He comes into town, finds the saloon, and confronts the hunter who is in the midst of telling his tall hunting tails.  This is an important aspect of Logan’s character not only as the Wolverine but as a mutant being.  His sympathy for the bear instills his character with empathy and honor. While confronting the hunter with is inhumanity, he is intercepted by Yukio (Fukushima), a Japanese, magenta haired woman with a bang cut.  As a mutant, Yukio is also prophetic like Casandra of Homeric tales, as she can see people's deaths before they happen.  She wields a katana, and stares at you with big Anime eyes.  You just know she is deadly in one way or another. Throughout the film, Rila Fukushima not only shows her mastery in the action sequences, but also her comedic timing.  She comes from Japan to collect Logan from his despair.  Yukio's boss is the owner of the largest Japanese technology firm, Yashida Industries.  Her boss is none other than Yashida himself, the same man Logan saved in 1945.

J ames Mangold moves the film along very quickly.  Within the first ten minutes, we move to Japan and have a meeting with the dying Yashida.  The journey that Logan begins is an attempt to show a depth to his character as he searches for a meaning to his immortal life.  Meaning is a shallow concept when there is no end to the madness that we call life.  Hugh Jackman, who also serves as a producer on this film, plays Logan as a tortured and haunted sole.  Not so much the loner he was before, but a man in need of some deep spiritual healing.  Mangold and writer Mark Bomback ("Live Free or Die Hard," "Total Recall," "Unstoppable") tell Logan's tale from Logan's point of view, interjecting flashbacks to 1945 Nagasaki and his time protecting the young guard who will eventually become rich and powerful.

Y ukio tells Logan that Yashida (Yamanouchi) is dying and wants Logan to go to Japan so he can say goodbye to him.  Reluctantly, Logan acquiesces and returns with her to see Yashida.  After the obligatory bath before visiting with Yashida in his own private intensive care unit, Yashida it turns out is not quite ready to say good-bye.  Instead, he offers Logan the ability to end his suffering, his pain, his immortality.  With the help of his "oncologist” Dr. Green (Khodchenkova), Yashida can transfer Logan's regenerative powers to him.  Yashida reasons that if Logan doesn't seem to want to live, Yashida will gladly take the curse of immortality.  We also meet Mariko (Okamoto), Yashida's granddaughter.  She is a fragile and elegant, educated woman, a princess.  We also meet Yashida's loyal and faithful son, Shingen (Sanada). 

The Wolverine - Mariko | A Constantly Racing Mind

A t this point, several tropes begin to form.  First, the rich, powerful, and old refuse to die and grasp at the fountain of youth, with little regard to their children.  The story is as old as the story of Ponce de Leon and his search for the fountain of Youth.  In Wolverine, Yashida's lust for life and Logan's desire for release. As Yukio explains to Logan, that as a warrior, "all he wants is an honorable death."  Characters are not what they seem, or perhaps they are.  Dr. Green turns out to be the serpentine Viper and like a demonic succubus comes to Logan as if in a dream. What steals is Logan's ability to self-heal.  How's that for evening the score. The other trope is the faithful but overlooked servant, or in this case Yashida’s son Shingen.  What level of treachery will he go to get what he desires?

While dealing with Logan's existential problems as displayed in his nightmares involving Jean, writers Mark Bomback and  Scott Frank ("Flight of the Phoenix," "Minority Report") infuse the story with almost non-stop action. While attending Yashida's funeral, the organized crime Yakuza syndicate kidnap Mariko.  Logan and Yukio snap into action in an effort to save the princess.  The Yakuza shoot Logan with a gun and it turns out that he isn't healing as fast as he usually does. One the rooftops, one of  Yashida's kinsmen from the Black Clan, by the name of Harada, is seemingly helping Logan as he chases down Mariko and her captors. His name is Hanada and he we find that he works for Yashida and has vowed to protect the house of Yashida with his life.  Entering  Japan's Bullet Mariko attempts to leave on her own. A battle on the top of train ensues, Yakuza die, and Logan and Mariko make it to temporary safety. Taking refuge in a hotel for lovers, Mariko enlists the help of a veterinary student to dig out the bullets inside Logan and bandage him up. Upon reaching her home in Nagasaki, Logan and Mariko settle down and now we get some real answers.

The Wolverine - Ichiro Yashida | A Constantly Racing Mind

The tension between Yashida,  his son Shingen, and his daughter Mariko becomes more understandable. It seems Yashida gave the company over to Mariko, bypassing his son.  As we can see, Logan is falling for Mariko, and she for him. Logan begins to wonder what the meaning of his life is.  If all is death and destruction.  Remember we are still in the battle between mutants and humans.  Logan is a man of both the past and the present. Stuck in the middle of trying to protect Mariko and the hauntings of Jean Gray, Logan must decide why he must live. As it turns out Mariko, is just as good reason as any – for at least the present.  The Yakuza once again kidnap Mariko is, and Logan and Yukio team up again to save her.  Mariko is once again the princess trapped in a tower with the evil villains using her as bait.

As much as "The Wolverine" intends to be deep and somewhat philosophical, it doesn't pretend to answer any deep questions, nor are any of the scenes pondering on the question.  Mangold's direction is tight; the costumes are beautiful and spot on.  Production designs all around are top notch including the special effects.  One might want to call this a mindless action film; however, I think they would be wrong.  The story is tight, serious, and funny at times, and with a bit of romance.  Marco Beltrami's musical score is poignant at times and gives the film and the characters a certain sense of depth and sadness to the film.  The Yashida family politics are complicated and strained.  It turns out that Yashida willed all of his wealth and power to his granddaughter Mariko – but to what end.  Hugh Jackman plays Logan straight and tight-lipped, a stoic with a passion for doing the right thing as he navigates the complexity between Shingen and his daughter Mariko, Mariko and her fiancée the corrupt Minister of Justice, Noburo (Brian Tee), and Mariko and her grandfather.  As each one of search for meaning in our lives, it seems that the Wolverine has found his – doing the right thing for the right people, and for the right reasons.

A fun film to watch, not only for the action but for the story as well  “The Wolverine" is rated PG-13 and runs just over two hours.

Movie Data

Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Year:  2013
Staring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hal Yamanouchi
Director: James Mangold
Producer(s): Hutch Parker. Lauren Shuler Donner
Writer: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Date:  7/26/2013

Sunday, January 5, 2014

47 Ronin ~ Almost Capturing Your Imagination

I am Ōishi Yoshi; you betrayed and murdered my lord.  Prepare to die.

What's up with Keanu Reeves' new action film?  Not a whole lot really.  "47 Ronin" is a mildly entertaining film with a little bit of history, a dash of "The Princess Bride," a pinch of the "Last Samurai" and a healthy dose of "The Lord of the Rings" type of visual effects. 

"47 Ronin" tells the story of a group of men left without a leader after a witch tricks their daimyo, Lord Asano into attacking rival Lord Kira’s while a guest in his house.  As this is an act of dishonor, the Shogun (their military leader) orders their lord to commit seppuku.  The Shogun orders Ōishi and the remaining Ronin to not seek revenge but to disperse and go their separate ways. Without direction, the Ronin spend the next year waiting to seek revenge, as they felt honor bound to do.  The film stars Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix" trilogy, "The Day the Earth Stood Still") as Kai, as a half British, half-Japanese outcast.  Hiroyuki Sanada ("Sunshine," "Ringu," "The Last Samurai") leads the group of 47 loyal and dutiful former samurai in their quest for vengeance and honor.  Lord Kira, the focus of vengeance is played by Tadanobu Asano ("Battleship").Adding additional layers to this traditionally male warrior story are Rinko Kikuchi from Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim," and Kō Sandasaki from 2000's "Battle Royale" making her Hollywood film debut as Kai's (Reeves) love interest.  "47 Ronin" runs just under 2 hours and the MPAA rates it PG - 13.

I think it is wonderful idea to bring historical events from other cultures, particularly Asian stories to Western audiences.  However, I am not sure of the point of interjecting a white guy into an already perfectly good story.  Keanu Reeves whose Sci-Fi apex was "The Matrix," gives a lackluster performance to this film. As the character who is the "outsider," Kai is not only a half-breed, but may also be a demon.  Although the story follows Kai's journey toward acceptance by the Samurai, his character never grows.  Actually, there is very little growth for any of the characters during the story arc.  In fact, Kai's storyline and Asano's daughter Mika, played by Ko Shibasaki will remind one of the Dread Pirate Roberts and Princess Buttercup's as Kai hurries to stop Mika's wedding to Lord Kira.  The usually very good Hiroyuki Sanada plays Ōishi, the leader of the Ronin and who ignored Kai's warning that witchcraft was afoot.  Although the film doesn’t flesh out Ōishi’s character, it turns out he is the Inigo Montoya type.  After spending about a year in a dark pit after his fall from grace, he plots his revenge, gathers the former samurai, and sets off for revenge.  Tadanobu Asano's plays his character, Lord Kira, with a chip on his shoulder and an annoying grin on his face.  Rinko Kikuchi plays the shape-shifting witch who tends to be a bit on the slutty side.  Whereas Mika sits like a proper lady, Kikuchi's witch plays her character as if she was channeling Sharon Stone. Not only is she a seductress, the addition of Japanese mythology, and magic is not only interesting, but the most compelling parts of the film. For me, the real actor who gave the film any sense of dignity was Min Tanaka as Lord Asano, Mika's father, Ōishi's lord and Kai's patron. Tanaka plays Lord Asano as if he truly was a Samurai Warrior.  Tanaka also starred with Hiroyuki Sanada in the critically acclaimed "Twilight Samurai."  Most of the other Samurai/Ronin are pretty much nondescript, however a few of them stand out, like Takato Yonemoto as Basho, the large but friendly warrior. Another warrior that stands out is that of Chikara  played by Japanese pop star Jin Akanishi. He is Ōishi’s son and Kai’s friend.

Disappointment comes quickly when you begin to realize that the best of the story and the best of the special effects are in the trailer.  I had hopes that this, the seventh attempt at bringing this classic Japanese story to the Western audienc, would be not only enjoyable but also interesting.  I am not sure where the fault lays for a lack of drive in "47 Ronin."  I am not sure whether the lack of focus belongs at the feet of director Carl Rinsch, or at the door of screen writers Chris Morgan, who was responsible for writing the "Fast & Furious" franchise films, and the Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy action-thriller, "Wanted."  Or, does the lack of drive and focus belong with screen writer Hossein Amini whose past credits include "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Drive," and "Killshot,” who came in for the rewrites to Reeve’s character.  Is it possible that the executives at Universal, in trying to please both foreign and domestic markets wanted a watered down formula story that they felt would appease the lowest common denominator.

The problem as I see it is that in its attempt to appeal to a Western audience, the focus was neither on story, nor the building of characters, but on some almost impressive special effects that are sparsely scattered throughout the film.  The action was predictable, and Kai's journey was not that of a hero, but that of a man of few words, who knows more than he is given credit for.  The visual effects, along with the action scenes, seem more like smoke and mirrors rather than having some solid purpose in the film other than just dazzle the audience.

A bright spot is John Mathieson’s beautiful cinematography.  Impressively beautiful shots of the landscape, dark and muted warm tones contrasted with cold blues.  The mood is set for an adventure that is bogged down immediately with unnecessary exposition.  Another area of kudos goes to Ilan Eshkeri's musical score.  Known for films such as "Centurion," "Kick-Ass," and “Stardust," Eshkeri brings a sense of soaring grandeur to an essentially mediocre action film.  

As I am not typically a fan of 3D, I cannot comment on the quality of the film in that format. However, I doubt that the introduction of 3D would do anything to improve the story. 
“47 Ronin” is not a bad film, it had potential for much more, but fails to deliver a compelling story.  Many will find it entertaining, but not epic.  Perhaps, like myself, they will feel that “47 Ronin” took itself too seriously in areas and with a loose sense of story and a cinematic direction that spreads itself too thin to keep an audience in that fantasy world where we all want to find ourselves while sitting in a dark theater on a Saturday afternoon.  Perhaps it would have been better to just leave out Keanu Reeves, tell a more literal tale of a historic event, leaving in the magic and witchcraft if you must, and dump the damsel in distress trope, but more importantly, let the Japanese tell us a classic tale of honor in their language with English subtitles.  By doing this, I think this film would’ve been more authentic with a sense of dignity that stories about the legendary Samurai deserve.


Movie Data

Genre: Action, Drama, Fantasy
Year:  2013
Staring: Keanu Reeves, Rinko Kikuchi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tadanobu Asano, Kō Shibasaki
Director: Carl Rinsch
Producer(s):  Pamela Abdy,Eric McLeod, Scott Stuber
Writer: Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini, Walter Hamada
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date:  12/25/2013

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow - Tome Cruise & Emily Blunt | A Constantly Racing Mind
Warner Bros. released this first trailer on December 11th, 2013. from director Doug Limon

Doug Liman, director of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," and "The Bourne Identity" is bringing an adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka's "Young Adult" novella, or as the Japanese call it a "Light Novel" to the big Hollywood screens.  The film stars some pretty big names including, Tom Cruise ("Oblivion," "Minority Report ," "War of the Worlds") and Emily Blunt ("Looper," "The Adjustment Bureau") .  Also included in the cast are Bill Paxton ("Apollo 13," "Predator 2 ," "Aliens"), and Brendan Gleeson ("28 Days Later...," " A.I. Artificial Intelligence").

In the trailer (above), Tom Cruise, in a bigger, badder exoskeleton type of battle armor than Matt Damon's from "Elysium," takes on the invading Mimics. 
The synopsis goes something like this.
"The epic action of “edge of tomorrow” unfolds in a near future in which an alien race has hit the earth in an unrelenting assault, unbeatable by any military unit in the world. Major William Cage (Cruise) is an officer who has never seen a day of combat when he is unceremoniously dropped into what amounts to a suicide mission. Killed within minutes, Cage now finds himself inexplicably thrown into a time loop—forcing him to live out the same brutal combat repeatedly, fighting, and dying again…and again. But with each battle, cage becomes able to engage the adversaries with increasing skill, alongside special forces warrior Rita Vrataski. And, as Cage and Rita take the fight to the aliens, each repeated encounter gets them one step closer to defeating the enemy."
Although, based on a book, writers Christopher McQuarrie ("Valkyrie," "Jack Reacher") and Jez Butterworth ("The Last Legion") adapted the concepts and idea into a film that hopefully, packs the not only the adrenaline fo the scenes from the trailer, but also the emotional, and thoughtfulness that a concept of instant reincarnation deserves.

In my mind this sounds either a great First Person Shooter (FPS) game come to life, or weatherman Phil Conners reliving "Groundhog Day" repeatedly

Warner Bros. is releasing "The Edge of Tomorrow" to theaters in the U.S. on June 6 (D-Day), 2014. 


Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Year:  2014
Staring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Jeremy Piven, Brendan Gleeson
Director: Doug Liman 
Producer(s): Jason Hoffs, Gregory Jacobs, Tom Lassally, Jeffrey Silver
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date:  6/6/2014