Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wolverine

So there's a scene in The Wolverine in which the title character, Logan, is eating food with the young woman he's protecting, Mariko. And as he dives in, he leaves his chopsticks standing upright. Mariko specifically plucks the chopsticks up and lies them down, explaining the purpose behind her actions as she does so, how it's a bad omen in Japanese culture to leave the chopsticks as such. She then continues to talk about other traditional Japanese customs, and ends the scene by mentioning that Logan wouldn't be familiar with said customs, since he's not Japanese. And as she finishes talking, she plucks the chopsticks up, again, and lies them down, again.

Nobody stood the chopsticks back up, and yet there she was, plucking them up and lying them back down, as if we hadn't not only just seen her do that mere moments before, but explain why she was doing it, as she was doing it. And somehow, nobody caught that. And yes, this may seem nit-picky from me, but this was an example of the kind of sloppiness within an otherwise legitimately intriguing scene that stood out to me and frustrated me as such, and though it wasn't a big deal in the end, it continues to stand out, as my reactions towards this scene pretty much sums up how I feel about the movie as a whole.

"Get to the point, bub."

We pick up after X-Men: The Last Stand, as Logan wanders about, lost with no further purpose in life after he had killed Jean Grey at the end of that movie. The story takes Logan to Japan, where circumstances see him losing his powers, and getting caught up in a struggle that ultimately sees him acting as the protector of the young woman, Mariko. For the most part, I actually liked the scaled down story in comparison to all the prior X-Men movies, the first Wolverine included. There's only a small handful of other mutants here, and none of them really stand to steal the spotlight away from Wolverine, as he fights on to find a new purpose in living.

I also really liked the removal of his healing factor. In doing such, it actually added a new layer to the character, and it added certain stakes to his fights, stakes that I honestly was never even aware were even missing while watching him in action in any of the prior movies. However, the downside to this is that, just like the chopsticks, since the movie makes such a deal of pointing out these new stakes to us, once he ultimately regains his powers leading into the climax, suddenly it feels like he's this invincible man who we don't have to worry about anymore, thus removing those stakes and leaving me no longer feeling too concerned for his fate, which really stood out.

Speaking of the action scenes, these are actually the weakest part of the movie. They're all just so dull and generic, and I often found my mind wandering whenever the story was put on hold to start up yet another action scene. And this is a movie where you could definitely feel that several of the action scenes were written into the script purely because a certain amount of time had passed since the last one, and not because it was an organically appropriate time to start up the action again.

However, not all of them were bad. In fact, the one that I expected to be the least impressed with, based on how terrible it looked in the trailers, was the fight atop the moving train. And yet, surprisingly enough, this one actually turned out to be the most impressive action sequence in the whole movie. And sure, the train scene might not have been the most original idea, though then again, there were also scenes taken straight out of Lord of the Rings (Boromir), The Matrix (that creepy bug thing), and even Beauty and the Beast (the tub scene), among others, so it reached a point where I wasn't too worried about the movie wowing me with its originality.

But this movie's biggest weakness lies in the way that the story pans out. Specifically, I feel that the ending held off for far too long on getting to the point and explaining many of the characters' motivations, because by the time we enter the final showdown, I stopped being intrigued and instead merely felt frustrated. And considering how long they held off on the big final reveal, I was disappointed to see it be the most predictable outcome possible. It just bothered me, and it felt sloppy in execution.

In fact, this movie was ripe with sloppy plotting and editing throughout. For instance, there's a scene where Mariko gets caught, is engaged in conversation with the villains who caught her, then she's knocked out. Cut to the very next scene, she wakes up, walks into the next room, and instantly resumes her conversation with said villains as if nothing had even happened. So... what the hell was even the point of knocking her out? Was there a scene that explains its relevance that just got cut from the movie, yet they still decided to keep the scene of her passing out anyways? I don't know, but it was sloppy, and it stood out, and it just reeked of poor planning and execution.

Which is a shame, because, somewhere in this mess of a movie, there are some really good ideas. Logan dealing with Jean's death and finding new purpose in life, all while experiencing just how vulnerable he is when he doesn't have his powers to rely on anymore, these are all truly intriguing aspects whenever the movie placed focus on them. And even when things quieted down and they went over such things as Japanese traditions, again, all interesting stuff. And it really makes me truly curious more than ever how Darren Aronofsky would have tackled this movie had he not pulled out of it when he did. But after he left the project, I was always worried that this was just going to become yet another generic superhero film, no matter who replaced him. And, sure enough, despite how intriguing this movie may at times get, in the end, the other stuff overpowers it and makes this just another bland action movie in a vast ocean of bland action movies. It's not bad, and what we got was enjoyable enough. But it truly could have been great in the right hands, and that's what's most frustrating of all.

There's also a scene after the credits that pretty much sets up the next X-Men movie, but seeing as how it immediately contradicts the last scene of the actual movie itself, it was clearly tacked on as an afterthought. Though, considering how wonky the continuity is throughout the X-Men movies already, and also considering the tacked on nature of much of what occurred within The Wolverine itself, I suppose this actually is a sort of fitting way to close out the movie and lie down its chopsticks that nobody stood back up one last time.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Naruto Shippuden 322: Madara Uchiha

Going from one of the worst animated episodes in the series last week to one of the absolute very best this week, Naruto Shippuden 322, "Madara Uchiha", is another rare classic. It's episodes like this why I still even bother to keep up with the anime, on the rare occurrence that the source material is actually treated with respect, and the even rarer occurrence nowadays that this high quality level of animation is actually dedicated to a canon episode at that. Because when it happens, it's truly something special, and that's precisely what we got from Naruto Shippuden this week.

The real Madara was finally summoned into the war by Kabuto last week, and this week's episode was the first showcase of his raw power. With slick, fluid animation we witnessed as Madara single handedly took on the shinobi alliance. And what I especially loved was the level of creativity involved when he was in the thick of it. Scenes such as a ninja throwing a paper-bomb strapped to a kunai at him, only for him to catch the kunai, tear the paper-bomb off, toss the kunai back into its original owner, then slap the paper bomb onto another unsuspecting ninja and kick him away to blow up alongside his allies, is just the sheer level of genius that we could only wish we'd get more often from this series' animators.

But episodes such as this that are given the special treatment with top tier animators also have a tendency to let loose and take a few liberties. While most episodes are content with merely using the manga as a storyboard itself and animating the manga panels as they appear on the page (and oftentimes poorly at that), this is one that chooses instead to use what happened in the manga as an outline for their own better interpretation that truly utilizes the images to their full artistic potential in a nice, smooth presentation. And while they may not have gone as far as summoning an entire damn ocean, like they did in episode 167, the slight changes that enhanced the mood and setting to the benefit of the action were still very nice touches.

As a lone Madara faces off against the army of ninjas, the clouds move overhead, casting a dark shadow over the setting as the genuine feeling of despair sweeps over the shinobi alliance. And the scene where Madara summoned the meteor had a sincere sense of desperation to it, adding a weight that was very much lacking in the manga. Even knowing full well what was going to happen, the way the scene played out with Gaara and the Tsuchikage using all their might to stop the meteor as the alliance cleared the area gave me chills watching it. So while this episode might not have moved me to tears or anything, it's still the most emotionally stirring episode we've gotten since the Kyuubi flashback over a year ago.

There's just so many awesome touches to this episode that I could probably sit here writing all day about every little scene or detail that I loved, but I think you get the picture. So yeah, add 322 to the list of awesome, top tier episodes in the Naruto series. And the only bad thing about getting such high quality episodes is that we're almost certainly going to be returning to the normal, typically mediocre quality following this. But I hope it's not too much longer before we get this level of animation again, as I think it's possible that some of the more ridiculous aspects in the upcoming fight between Madara and the five Kages could be of great benefit with this level of care and creativity involved, which could definitely help fix some of the more idiotic moments to come. But I suppose we'll have to wait and see on that, and for now, just be glad about what we have now with this episode. A true classic that I'll be sure to revisit on countless occasions.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Only God Forgives

Director Nicolas Winding Refn returns with star Ryan Gosling with their first project together since Drive. However, it's quite possible that I hyped myself up a bit too much, as this new foray fell well short of expectations. Where as Drive might've been an instant classic, these two don't quite manage to strike lightning twice, as their latest movie, Only God Forgives, feels like a rather empty experience for the most part.

The plot is a pretty bare bones revenge story. Ryan Gosling's brother is killed, but due to complications in the matter, their mother, Kristen Scott Thomas, has to fly in and ensure that proper vengeance is taken care of. But standing in their way is Lt. Chang, a sword wielding cop who takes matters into his hands to enforce his own brand of justice. So it's pretty basic for the most part, as it churns along steadily enough to its conclusion that'll leave you going, "... Wait, that's it?"

Where as a movie like Drive has a gradual build to its sudden onslaught of violence, this one is relentlessly brutal from the get-go, and it doesn't let up to the very end. In fact, it got to the point where it felt like the movie was actually violent just for the sake of it at times. As I mentioned in Drive, the violence is built up to the point that it's shocking, and there's a real impact felt when it happens. We as the audience can very much relate to Carey Mulligan's character as she witnesses the brutality before her eyes, and there's a real gut-check as certain characters are killed off.

But here, the violence is treated like just an everyday occurrence, as we act as witness to a series of terrible events transpiring, with no one to really root for or get behind. It gets to the point where even a scene that should be shocking, such as a man completely gunning down a restaurant full of people, lacks any kind of weight behind it. And I suppose that you could say that this is the point of the movie, but it makes for a very shallow experience as a result.

Adding to the shallow feeling is the fact that, in addition to Ryan Gosling himself, just about everyone else is playing different variations of Gosling's quiet, reserved bad ass schtick. Hell, the only real character in this movie is the creatively foul-mouthed Kristen Scott Thomas, who is actually quite good in the role. Now, they do make attempts to add some layers of depth to these character, such as Lt. Chang's tendency to perform karaoke, in complete contrast to his otherwise serious demeanor. But where a role such as Gosling's worked so well at speaking volumes on the character without actually saying very much himself in Drive, here the character almost feels a bit contrived as a result.

In this movie we watch as Gosling deals with his jealousy and mommy issues in his bottled up manner, translating into issues with women in general, a trait he shares with his late brother, though the two went in polar opposite directions on the matter (their mother kinda messed these kids up a little). And there's also a fascination with hands throughout. For instance, as Gosling sits and watches a prostitute pleasure herself, he'll have his hands binded, holding himself back from what he might do, all the while showing us those possibilities as he fantasizes using his hands to either please or maim. But as the weapons ultimately responsible for all the violence in the movie, whether it be by pulling the trigger, wielding the sword, or just swinging a fist itself, I suppose it's fitting that hands are such a recurring image in this movie, and by contrast, as are their removal.

While the movie may feel rather hollow, the stylized way in which it's shot is pretty stellar. The lighting scheme and the use of colors is truly breath taking at times, and the clear way in which the action is shot is reminiscent to films from an older era, with the camera pulled back to really show off everything that's happening. And being accompanied by the haunting '80s style music feels fitting given the tone and atmosphere. There's even a scene that feels like it'd be right at home in one of those torture porn movies such as Saw, so the addition of a horror sounding soundtrack really works to this film's credit.

In the end, though, when the violence finally settles, I was left feeling quite underwhelmed. The movie's not bad, it's just that, despite its mild attempts at character depth here and there, there's very little meat to bite into narratively. So no matter how bloody and brutal everything gets, it just leaves you unfulfilled. But like I said, I honestly believe that that very well was the point of this movie, to drop us into this inhumane world of endless violence and bare witness with a sense of barbaric complacency that the characters on screen feel, basically asking of us to experience the opposite of my Carey Mulligan example above and to relate to the violence, rather than react to it. But the thing is, without any substance to back that violence up, I'm given little reason to care one way or the other about the actions taking place, which kinda defeats that whole point. So yeah, I was really hoping for this movie to blow me away like Drive did, so it's quite possible that I set myself up for disappointment here. Instead, what we got wasn't nearly as satisfying.