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The Wolverine (2013)

wolverine_ver4I grew up in the 90’s watching the X-Men animated series, and that’s what my main knowledge and fandom of the property stems from.  It’s been sorry to say that the live action movies have, to me, failed to be remotely as faithful.  Simply said, I have had a number of issues with all of the previous films of this franchise, and I was skeptical about The Wolverine going into it.  Color me pleasantly surprised – I REALLY liked this movie.  I have barely a major issue to levy against this film, directed excellently by James Mangold.  While Wolverine has been a very central character in all the previous films, save for First Class, this film actually puts forth the honest effort to make him more than just an action bad ass.  Some might find the film less than exciting, but for me, this steers this character into the right direction.

After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has become a vagrant lost and detached from society until he is sought out by Ichiro Yashida, the man whose life Logan saved at Nagasaki in 1945.  This now powerful businessman seeks to repay this debt to Logan by absolving him of an unending life via his mutant healing factor.  Regardless of consent, Wolverine is left physically vulnerable by secretive forces as he attempts to protect Mariko, Yashida’s granddaughter and heir to his empire, from the Yakuza and a band of deadly ninjas.  Wolverine is now pushed to his physical and emotional limits as he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality to emerge more powerful than ever before.

This is one of those reviews where I’ll address my minor issues with the movie first before delving into what I very much enjoyed.  The Wolverine has a rather good tone keeping things mainly dramatically based, but it does inject some humor and levity.  However, it possibly could have pulled back in a few places.  Stuff like Logan and Mariko hiding out in a hotel which ends up being a “love hotel” where couples go to get it on.  Some humor comes out of this which is rather gratuitous.  The first half of the movie has these moments where there’s already been a fine balance of levity and drama, but adds in just a little more humor that makes it feel a tad extraneous.  It throws that balance off just enough to slightly detract from the dramatic progression of the film, but by the halfway point, these issues evaporated.

Also, I wouldn’t begrudge this movie if it intentionally disavowed X-Men Origins: Wolverine from its continuity.  I say this because in that film we clearly see that Wolverine’s memories were robbed from him via an adamantium bullet to the head.  However, in this film, Wolverine easily remembers events from Nagasaki, 1945, more than thirty years before his memory loss.  While the previous X-Men films have shown him recovering memories, particularly from the Weapon X program, it’s a bit of a shady area as to how he is able to so clearly remember these events.  Even then, if you went by the continuity of Origins, he was still going by the name James Howlett at that point in time, but Yashida knows him only as Logan, which he doesn’t adopt until the 1970’s.  This franchise’s continuity is extremely shoddy, and it’s that reason why I both eager and skeptical about how next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past will possibly resolve these continuity issues.

However, a more significant issue is very valid.  Wolverine’s healing factor is repressed for the bulk of this film where his wounds heal at the rate of a normal human being.  Yet, he is constantly extending and retracting his claws with not a drop of blood or sight of a wound on his knuckles.  I did buy many X-Men comics in the 90’s including X-Men #25 where Magneto ripped the adamantium from Wolverine’s body, and his healing factor is overloaded to where to stops working.  Thus, his knuckles continually bleed out every time he unsheathes his bone claws, and he keeps them wrapped in bandages.  I can understand that the PG-13 rating would never allow Wolverine going around bleeding profusely in graphic fashion through most of the runtime, but it is a serious oversight.  It didn’t take me out of the film at all, but it’s a definite flaw in the film’s logic that I felt should be addressed.

Now, onto the good stuff.  Undoubtedly, this is Hugh Jackman’s most dimensional performance as Wolverine.  The film takes him on a journey from this man living in the wilderness, cut off from everything after Jean Grey’s death, and vowing never to hurt another person.  We get an arc for Logan where he rediscovers his purpose, and finds a reason for living.  He reinvests himself in a reason to fight for someone else, and become that honorable, yet animalistic warrior that he once was.  Jackman does an excellent job showing the rugged anger early on, but he contrasts that with the vulnerable, physically weakened Wolverine.  There’s a great balance in his performance that really shines through, likely due to James Mangold’s smart direction.  I also like that despite having no healing factor, Wolverine still proves to be one of the toughest bad asses on the planet.  He gets shot up, slashed, and beaten, but does he ever push forward with everything he’s got.  And of course, Jackman is in the best shape of his life here as he finally achieved the lean, muscular physique he always wanted for Wolverine.  He is totally ripped, and that creates a real raw, intimidating presence.  The fight scenes are some of the best he’s ever done as this character.

Tapping into the vulnerability of Logan are two women.  The first is Yukio who seeks him out, and seems to have a great deal in common with him.  They are both warriors who have lost loved ones in their pasts, and are brought together by Yashida as wayward souls.  Yukio is able to keep Logan on his toes as she is as smart as she is deadly, but has formed a bond of trust and respect with him.  Rila Fukushima does a very, very good job in this role handling all the physical demands amazingly well, and making this a character who is enjoyable as well as dimensional.

Mariko is the one who peels back the vulnerability of Logan’s heart.  While there is never an overt romantic connection between them, the film builds an intimacy with these two.  They get very deeply involved with each other learning the pain and love that have affected them.  Logan is driven to protect her at every cost, and the emotional bond is built up with a lot of subtlety and grace.  I really found this to be the main cog towards exploring Logan.  Through Mariko, we see the change in him from the lost, fractured man to the fiercely determined warrior.  The chemistry between Jackman and Tao Okamoto is really sweet and endearing as the two characters grow closer.

I feel this film is filled with a strong set of characters that are well cast.  Will Yun Lee impressed me thoroughly as Harada, a ninja and archer who has dubious allegiances, and demonstrates some amazing physical feats early on.  When the Yakuza are chasing Logan and Mariko through the Tokyo streets, he’s jumping and flipping from one rooftop to another and picking guys off with his bow and arrow.  To me, he essentially put Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye to shame with just that one sequence.  Beyond that, Lee simply grabbed me right from the start with his edge and presence.  Plus, Harada has a really enjoyable arc as his loyalties and honor are certainly in question as he is associated with certain underhanded individuals, but has the best of intentions.

There are many characters that have their own personal sense of honor, however misguided it might be, and it creates this very strong gravity to each character.  Shingen Yashia, Mariko’s crime boss father, is really damn good exercising authority and conviction with a really imposing presence.  Ichiro Yashida is also solidly portrayed with a more honest breadth of honor, but he still has some turns to show for himself later on.  These characters all have depth and dimension making them intriguing and engaging.

However, the femme fatale villain of Viper was possibly the least captivating character.  The character is very well portrayed by Svetlana Khodchenkova giving her plenty of juicy material to wrap this venomous character up in, but ultimately, she’s just a hired villain with little purpose or motivation of her own.  So, she’s not nearly as interesting as all these characters who are enveloped in honor, tradition, culture, greed, and betrayal.  Their stories are much more strongly interconnected because there is family involved, and it is all tangled up in a treacherous web of deceit.  Regardless, there’s not a single weak link in this cast, and they all put forth great efforts that truly impressed me.  I cared about so many of these characters due to the strong performances behind them, and a solid writing by Scott Frank, Mark Bomback, and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie.

What I really found refreshing in The Wolverine is that is doesn’t feel the need to have to throw action sequences down your throat to engage you.  I believe some may disagree and find the film lacking, but it really hit the spot for me.  Like I said, these characters are compelling enough all on their own for me, and it is quite a while before we get a real action sequence here.  The film invests you in following Logan, and seeing what kind of man he is now.  It peers you into his mind and pained heart as its central focus, and introduces action where the story requires it.  Especially with superhero films, we tend to see action thrown at us right from the beginning telling you that action is the central focus of this movie.  Director James Mangold tells you otherwise with how this film begins and progresses.  It has important substance to introduce you to so that when the action occurs, you can be invested in the danger faced by these characters, and that is highly admirable in my view.

And the action here is rather stellar.  From the trailers, I thought the bullet train sequence would not be very good, but I was so proven wrong.  I found it exceptionally well constructed especially with how Logan and his combatants have to keep dodging the overhead structures that keep flying over their heads.  Sometimes they duck, sometimes they jump over top, and sometimes, an unfortunate adversary goes on a very rough flight goodbye.  There’s more to it than that, and every clever element just made it work very well for me.  While it is all clearly CGI settings and backgrounds, there was still a sense of danger involved considering this is a train rocketing along at hundreds of miles per hour.

There are also some excellent fight scenes.  I have to love me some samurai sword fights mixed in with perilous acrobatic martial arts maneuvers.  When Wolverine faces off with Shingen, claws versus sword, it’s really the moment where the bad ass hero that we know re-emerges, and it’s a great moment and pay-off.  There is plenty of slashing and impaling of Yakuza upon Wolverine’s claws early on.  Now, I didn’t think of it at the time, but really, Wolverine never gets a full-on bezerker battle with ninjas.  I know that’s appalling because that’s practically the signature moment every die hard fan would want to see.  There is a confrontation leading into the third act, but there’s very little close range combat in it for Wolverine to start ripping at ninjas.  Also, the use of blood on his claws is rather inconsistent.  Sometimes, we’ll see blood on them after he impales a guy, but most times, we either don’t get a good look at them or there’s simply nothing shown.  James Mangold did do an interview this past week hinting at a bloodier, more violent unrated cut of the film on Blu Ray, but we’ll have to wait and see.  He supposedly did remove a more elaborate fight between Wolverine and the ninjas.  Why, I couldn’t tell you.

I honestly think this is the best score I’ve ever heard from Marco Beltrami.  Up until now, I don’t think he’s ever done anything this diverse or exceptional.  He really captures the flavor and feel of Japan in subtle ways throughout his score.  He never seemed to go for anything easy or expected in that realm.  It’s a very fine piece of work that also highlights some great moments with due weight.

The cinematography is indeed damn good.  I had desired a Wolverine film that was dark, gritty, and raw from when Darren Aronofsky was attached, but Mangold and his cinematographer did a lot to make this more polished look work.  The Wolverine gives us a strong, vibrant color palette, and the nighttime scenes have a pleasing neo noir quality.  It gives the film some mood where needed.  I especially found some beauty in the Wolverine / Shingen fight with his dim blue backlight, and the ninjas converging upon Wolverine in the snowy landscape.  The action sequences are essentially filmed very well keeping things steady and competent.

I can definitely say that the digital effects of The Wolverine are superior to those of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Surely, there are places where it’s not superb, but it’s fairly on par with your general effects-heavy summer film.  Believe me, I saw worse CGI in the trailers before this film, but there were areas for improvement at times.  Frankly, I can forgive some undercooked CGI if the film surrounding it is damn good enough.  That very much applies here because this is exponentially superior to its Gavin Hood-directed predecessor on every level.

The Wolverine might not reach the level of greatness, but I feel it is an almost perfectly solid piece of work.  The film takes its time to explore its characters, and give us a sense of depth and emotion with its title character.  Even the dream sequences with him and Jean Grey are very poignantly handled starting out as something that haunts Logan, but slowly reflecting his ability to absolve himself of the burden he has at the film’s beginning.  As you can likely tell, I very much respect and like this film’s focus on character instead of action.  It also doesn’t overload us with more and more mutants, trying to cram every last cameo it can into the runtime.  It takes the characters it needs, and builds the story around them tightly.  I can only imagine how insane X-Men: Days of Future Past is going to be with somewhere in the range fifteen to twenty characters populating the story.  Speaking of such things, stick around for a few minutes after the end credits begin.  There is a special scene that you will certainly not want to miss that sets up next year’s big sequel.

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The Omen (2006)

So, thirty years later comes the remake which had one hell of powerful marketing campaign.  Script wise, the film is practically a carbon copy, but does have a few minor alterations and better polished quality.  It’s not a perfect film, but if my opinions of the original weren’t polarizing enough, I can tell you that I liked this 2006 film more in the first fifteen minutes than I did the whole of the 1976 version.

When a Vatican observatory priest sees the appearance of a prophesized comet, the Church is sure that it confirms the eve of the Armageddon.  Meanwhile, the United States President’s godson Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) is informed in the maternity in Rome that his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles) has just lost her baby, and she had troubles with her uterus and would not have another pregnancy.  Father Spiletto (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) suggests Robert take another newborn child, who lost his mother, as his own.  Robert accepts the child and gives him the name of Damien.  After a tragic accident, Robert is promoted to U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, but years later, bizarre occurrences begin to center around Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick).  When his nanny commits suicide at his birthday party, a substitute, Mrs. Baylock (Mia Farrow), comes to work and live with the family, but Katherine has come to realize that Damien is evil.  Meanwhile, Robert is contacted by Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite), who tells him that Damien is the son of Devil.  Soon after, photographer Keith Jennings (David Thewlis) shows evidence to Robert that confirm Brennan’s prophetic statements.  Thus, they commit themselves to a journey to discover the truth about Damien, and how to ultimately stop him.

What so immediately engaged me into this remake more than the original is the depth of real emotion and humanity in the performances.  I really do hold Liev Schreiber in high regard.  I think he’s really a fantastic actor with a fine range of talent.  I love that you can see the deep concern he has for his adopted son, but also, the internal conflict he has over the secrets he hides from everyone about Damien.  That knowledge is always in the back of his head, and builds up a sense of guilt as the foretelling words of Father Brennan become truth.  While Schreiber surely doesn’t have the dramatic presence of Gregory Peck, Liev brings something more valuable with that depth of emotion and relatable humanity.  He feels like a man with realistic struggles that define him as a conflicted, sympathetic person who only wished to bring happiness to his family, but brought evil in instead.

This remake wisely strengthens Katherine Thorn’s role.  She is given so much more emotional turmoil to grapple with over her fears about Damien.  Julia Stiles does a hell of a fine job.  Where Lee Remick left me with nothing to say about her performance, Stiles brings a strong breadth of traumatic emotion.  You can feel her pain seep through the screen with a lot of sorrow.  The filmmakers added in a series of surreal and startling dreams for her which are very foreboding as manifestations of her fear.  She is so afraid that there is something grossly wrong with Damien that the thought of this child being born from her psychologically and emotionally damages her.  This creates further turmoil for Robert who does not know how to tell her the truth without damaging her or their marriage further.

The late and very great Pete Postlethwaite does a far more realistic job as Father Brennan.  Instead of coming off as a frayed crazy man, he shows the immense fear and dread in the character.  He’s very much a prophet of doom who sells that sense of doom with every fiber of his terrified being.  It’s not a big splashy performance, but more subtle and foreboding.

I also enjoyed Mia Farrow’s different take on Mrs. Baylock.  She’s very kindly and unassuming, but is actually so nice to the point where it seems like a mentally unhinged disorder.  She makes the character the perfect nanny, to a fault.  Farrow is much more subtle in how she plays the role, making her evil nature less obvious and more subversive.  The performances of both Mia Farrow and Billie Whitelaw are excellent in this role in their respective films, and both work equally as well on different levels.

Unfortunately, David Thewlis’ turn as Keith Jennings is about average.  It’s nothing tremendous, but it services the film decently enough.  Between Thewlis and David Warner in this role, I would certainly choose the latter, even with that bad 1970s hair style he had.  On the whole, the acting in the remake is more dimensional and real instead of the more surface level performances of the original.  With a film that’s more heavy on ideas than plot, it is ultimately the performances which have to carry the film, and convince the audience of the validity of everything that is occurring.

On the down side, it is rather distracting how much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the 1976 original.  I honestly would’ve preferred if the screenwriter freshened it up a little.  You can still stay true to the spirit of the original dialogue without making radical changes.  Say the same thing in a different way is all I suggest.  In fact, this screenplay differed so little from that of the original film, Dan McDermott was not awarded a writing credit by the Writer’s Guild of America for his work on the remake’s script.

One significant addition to this remake that I felt was very effective were the Vatican scenes.  There, a Cardinal recites lines from a prophecy which correlate with real world horrific events.  These events foretell the coming of the son of the Devil.  I would say it’s more than a little controversial to use images of 9/11 to this effect, but one cannot deny the weight those images hold.  It’s a very good sequence that really sets up an ominous feeling that something terribly evil is coming, and it is bookended at the film’s conclusion.

I also like that a scene I felt was poorly handled in the original, where Damien disappears on the Thorns as they take a walk, is revamped into a much more effective scene here.  This time, Katherine pushing Damien on a swing set when she gets pulled away by a cell phone call.  When she turns around a moment later, Damien is suddenly gone, and she realistically panics.  It’s actually Damien playing a mischievous prank on his mom, one seems to take a little pleasure in frightening her with.  It’s a much more realistic and tonally appropriate scene that also strongly establishes Katherine’s deep, motherly concern for him.  The music here appropriately goes for a tone of dread as opposed to the original’s melodramatic punctuation.

This remake of The Omen does look absolutely gorgeous using a rich but restrained color pallet of ambers, blues, and greens.  That coupled with some excellent, shadowy lighting creates a very moody visual atmosphere.  While it might look a little too polished at times, on the whole, it’s a very well shot film.  Director John Moore also made vibrant use of the color red as a signal of supernatural events which you can take or leave at your discretion.  It’s artistic symbolism which I am generally indifferent about.

The score by Marco Beltrami might not be iconic or especially memorable, but it is entirely new and original.  He goes for a more traditional score that enhances mood and emotion instead of bludgeoning you with bombastic music cues.  It highlights the horror very effectively, and solidly supports the various subtle tones of the film.  It is a very good piece of scoring by Beltrami which works immensely better than the overbearing Jerry Goldsmith score for Richard Donner’s original film.  While Goldsmith’s would probably be a rousing listen on its own, apart from the film, Beltrami’s does what a film score is meant to do, and that automatically gets my praise.

Another thing that is mostly quite improved are the death scenes.  The impalement might not yet be perfect, but it is far better executed with quicker timing and stronger impact through use of digital effects.  Katherine’s fall from the balcony, again while not perfect, is vastly improved with a greater sense of the height from and force of which she falls.  The decapitation death is pretty good giving us more gore, but it’s not as elaborate or prolonged of an effect.  I could’ve done with a little less CGI where some of the latter deaths are concerned, but for the dramatic size of them, there really wasn’t much of an alternative for the filmmakers.  Still, many of these deaths did hold more dramatic weight for me between the strength of the performances, and quality of the execution of each one.

On the opposite end of the critique spectrum from the original, the makeup design on this film’s Father Spiletto, the burned priest, is actually taken too far for my tastes.  The extreme look feels out of place in the film evoking some sort of freakish ghoul.  I can imagine it’s hard to present a burned flesh make-up design that is scary without it looking like Freddy Krueger.  However, there must have been a happy medium these filmmakers could’ve gone for that would’ve felt more realistic.  Still, what I can merit this version for over the original that the quality of the make-up is vastly superior.

Enjoyable so, this film actually delivered some suspenseful scares for me.  This is, again, due to the atmosphere director John Moore forged for this picture.  He is able to create some tension leading up to some frightening or traumatic moments.  The characters are genuinely scared, especially Katherine, and become more so as events unfold which solidify their fears.  Also, I mentioned before that there are a series of dream sequences.  They haunt Katherine early on, but eventually, Robert Thorn starts having his own.  I really, really liked these.  They progressively got more creepy and disturbing.  As most dreams do, they are a little hard to read into as what every image means, but on the surface, they showcase very occult and frighteningly evil acts which do feel in line with Damien.  The final one, seen by Robert, is probably the best with some very chilling faces and images startling the Ambassador onward to what he must come to grips with.

I also really like that this Damien seems to be more aware of the power he has as he appears to silently conspire with Mrs. Baylock, at times.  During the zoo scene, he’s aware that the animals are afraid, and likely of him.  He uses his power against a police officer standing guard while Mrs. Baylock is in the next room committing murder.  I will state that Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick doesn’t have as strong of a look as Harvey Stephens did in this same role.  He can appear a little too dour, but he is able to conjure up an eerie, unsettling expression when needed.  He does quite well in the role.  If the original film had been written with this more self-aware Damien, I think Stephens would’ve had an even more effective performance.  In comparison, I think this Damien is better written while the original’s actor just had a consistently better look.

Now, while this remake generally takes the same amount of time for the same series of events to occur, what makes it work better, in my opinion, is the development of emotional depth and turmoil which establish a foreboding atmosphere.  We get characters who are dimensional, and a director who knows how to create an ominous, foreboding tone.  This version of The Omen definitely has a more natural flow of events with the emotional weight carrying the drama and horror along with cohesion.  You feel the tragedy, horror, and emotion pile up from one scene to the next creating dramatic momentum.  It’s interesting that both the 1976 and 2006 versions have about the same runtime, but this remake seems to move along at a smoother, quicker pace.  There are even a few new scenes in the remake, and thus, this film is able to traverse a little more ground in the same amount of time.  While little extra substance is added into the pages of the script, it really are the performances that add the substance.  And while I criticized the 1976 original for taking just as long to develop its plot, the key difference here is that emotional depth which develops the characters, and creates that impending sense of dread that the original sorely lacked.  This film always feels like it is building towards something whether in plot, character, or emotion.  Robert Thorn has internal struggles he’s dealing with which show through in Liev Schreiber’s performance, and we see Katherine’s struggles very outwardly.  The film gives the audience something to invest themselves in as the plot gradually forms.

So, obviously, without question, I do honestly believe that John Moore’s 2006 remake of The Omen is much more effective than the original.  It’s better in vastly more ways than it is not.  Still, while I believe it is a good film, it certainly did not propel The Omen into greatness in my view.  I enjoyed watching this film, and I felt it delivered some very strong, well rounded acting with a real skill for atmosphere and horror.  Yet, if ever someone were to revisit The Omen again, I would really like more substance put into the script, and add in some new ideas that enhance what’s already there.  Develop things further to build more dire urgency into the plot, and make the stakes bigger or, at least, more real.  This remake took some good steps towards that effect, but I think there’s still room for improvement, if ever another filmmaker wants to re-fashion The Omen for a future generation.