POSTED ON JULY 31, 2013:
Clawing Their Way to Justice
Superheroes and regular joes
It's easy to forget that there aren't really any great X-Men movies. 2000's X-Men (God, where did those 13 years go?) was a passable origin story but little more than that, sorely lacking in scope and saddled with the feeling that the creative team and director Bryan Singer were pulling their punches. It felt like a mere springboard for X2, which (seemingly) came closest to earning a place in the pantheon of great superhero films. But time hasn't been as kind to that one, either. By the time The Last Stand limped to screens, the sense of blah couldn't even be blamed on pitch hitting director, Brett Ratner. Tempting though that may be.
But where Singer got things right was in the casting. Whether it's Patrick Stewart's Professor X, Ian McKellen's Magneto, Famke Janssen's Jean Grey and especially in plucking Australian song and dance man, Hugh Jackman to play fan favorite, Wolverine; their performances leave long shadows. Sure, X-Men: First Class might be equally well cast, and perhaps the best film of the series, but no matter how good Michael Fassbender is, nobody really thinks of him as Magneto. That's why Jackman's cameo killed. He is Wolverine.
So when we finally got a standalone film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, fandom rejoiced. Until they saw the film. Hopefully the bad taste left in our collective mouths won't put people off of The Wolverine--because we finally have a movie deserving of the character.
After an opening that reveals Wolvie (Jackman) saving the life of a Japanese solider at Nagasaki, just as the bomb is dropped, we meet him again in the present day, a recluse in the Canadian wilderness, avowed to exile from his superhero self. Logan is still having forlorn nightmares of his lost love, Jean (Janssen) whom he was forced to kill when she turned to evil.
When some idiot hunters kill his grizzly bear friend, though, the claws come out and Logan is discovered by Yukio (Rila Fukushima, in her feature debut), a mutant seer who can see the future deaths of others. She has been sent to find Logan and bring him to Tokyo by Ichir Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi, The Life Aquatic), the Japanese officer he saved, whose dying wish is to thank Logan and bequeath the gift of mortality to the tortured mutant.
But it becomes quickly apparent that there is more going on then there seems. After Yashida dies, a yakuza attack at his funeral nearly leads to his granddaughter, Mariko's (Tao Okamoto) kidnapping. Wolvie becomes her protector, as well as a mysterious lone ninja who stalks them both. But after a dream of Jean, Logan mysteriously loses his ability to regenerate. Wounded and on the run, Logan must figure out how to keep Mariko alive while finding out who wants them both dead.
What is probably most appealing and surprising about The Wolverine is its confidence with its characters within a story that is more concerned with letting them breathe than getting to the next eye-popping action sequence. Not that there aren't a couple of those--including a nicely executed fight atop a speeding bullet train.
Based on the '80s Frank Miller comic run of Wolvie's adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun and scripted by Scott Frank (Minority Report) and Mark Bomback (Unstoppable), The Wolverine's story already had a heads up over the silliness of Origins. It's more like a noir mystery, full of unexpected turns and twists as Logan, Mariko and Yukio descend further down a rabbit hole of corruption, double crosses and red herrings that always keep the audience off guard.
Director James Mangold (Knight and Day) has been called workman-like in the past, which is sort of unfair. While most superhero adventures don't go for subtleties, it's precisely that quality that sets The Wolverine apart from just about every superhero flick of this and last year. That and a tone (at least for the first two acts) that possesses a sort of '70s visual aesthetic, with warmly personal compositions and subdued pacing as Mangold confidently navigates the narrative waves. If anything, the third act comes off as a bit incongruous, with its overwrought Silver Samurai battle. But it's not enough to derail the film.
Of course, Jackman owns the role. No one knows the character as well as he does, at this point -- he's played him now in six films for three different directors, not counting the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past. He nicely balances the seething anger, abiding sadness and wise-cracking humor like a champ. Rila Fukushima, as Yukio is fine -- and otherworldly -- as is Haruhiko Yamanouchi as Mariko, key characters both. The score is great and the gorgeous design work is pleasing, But, Jackman is the reason you're buying a ticket.
And you should. Origins is a low bar for excellence, but The Wolverine is a far better than expected follow up. One that makes you wish it was the movie we got four years ago.
If you're anything like me, you probably heard about Oscar Grant on the news a couple of years ago. A young, unarmed black kid gets shot, sparks an outrage and a trial whose outcome wasn't everything the bereaved had wanted. The pundits weighed in on party lines and ultimately the identity and humanity of the deceased wound up lost in a wash of opinion and conjecture from people who never knew the man.
Doesn't sound familiar at all, does it?
Fruitvale Station, the film detailing his final day on Earth, espouses the obvious: that Oscar Grant didn't deserve to die.
Portrayed by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle), Grant was a 22-year old, Oaklandite whose life was in transition. Recently let go from his job due to a case of chronic (in both senses of the word) lateness, on the rocks with his girlfriend, Sophina, (Octavia Spencer, The Help) the mother of his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal, Repentance) while trying to make ends meet for his family by dealing weed, Grant was far from a role model. But faced with the consequences of his decisions, he began putting his best foot forward, ditching the drugs and the girl on the side and owning up to his mistakes.
On New Year's Eve, 2009, after a family dinner celebrating his mother's birthday, Grant and Sophina, with some friends decided to hop the train to San Francisco to catch the midnight fireworks. In a sad case of deus ex machina, a figure from Grant's past set in motion the events that led to his untimely death.
Written and directed by Ryan Coogler (in his feature debut), Fruitvale Station is a powerfully emotional work, delivered with the easy grace of a born filmmaker and storyteller. His beautifully grainy, 16mm images pull us personally into Oscar Grant's world, riding a fine line between a documentarian's fly-on-the-wall immediacy and an artist's intimacy. The textures on the screen are a counterpoint to Grant's gritty, imperfect life.
Coogler doesn't deify Grant (after all, who is really a saint?), and he doesn't have too. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the tragic nature of his death and the desire to return Grant's humanity to him would have made it easy to pummel us with sanctimony and sentiment: a turn-off in general, and fuel for ideologues, at worst. That Fruitvale comes on the heels of Trayvon Martin is already eyed suspiciously by those inclined to read Drudge and listen to Hannity. Prescient though the timing may be, it has more to do with the fact that getting shot just for being black (bear in mind, again, that Grant was unarmed) happens so often.
It's a potent story, told with grace, but what really seals the deal for Fruitvale Station is the breakout performance from Michael B. Jordan. "Oscar-worthy" doesn't really cut it. "Electrifying" and "revelatory" only scratch the surface. Jordan is simply outstanding, giving a beautifully organic performance that effortlessly captures an entire range of emotion and personality. We feel Grant's fears, hopes, joys and desires in a way that crosses a sort of uncanny divide. It a powerhouse turn that takes an already great film and elevates it to the level of masterwork. There aren't enough adjectives to describe the amazing cinematic alchemy on display here.
But in the end, it's the way Fruitvale Station reaches out and firmly grasps the soul of Oscar Grant, and brings him back to the world that feels like the real miracle. And no matter who you are, or what you believe, that miracle is born through the power of our shared compassion and human dignity.
It's the best film of 2013, so far.
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