Sunday, May 17, 2009

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "Star Trek" - REVIEW(s)

So, I actually did manage to see both of my other "must-sees" from the first half of May, and despite forewarning about one of them, neither ended up being a disappointment, although one is certainly miles ahead of the other:

X-Men Origins: Wolverine - This whole "origins" story arc has become something of a staple in superhero franchises, spurred by the critical and commercial successes of "Spiderman" (2002) and "Batman Begins" (2005). Now, after three massively successful films, the X-Men series returns to the roots of one of its iconic characters: John Logan AKA Wolverine. Of course, some series will do it better than others, and while "Wolverine" is definitely on the lesser end of the spectrum of origin stories, it's surprisingly far from the train-wreck that people have been labeling it as; it is in no way the next "Catwoman". Really, the film only suffers from a handful of problems, but unfortunately, they're problems that cover the entire story, or even beyond. The first is the pacing. At just and hour and 45 minutes, and with so much ground to cover, "Wolverine" hits the ground sprinting, and never really takes time to slow down. While there is a pretty cool time-montage showing Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) fighting through the American Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, and Vietnam, the first stage of the prologue, which actually has dialogue and "emotional trauma" is played at the same speed. This results in a setup that has young Logan say a few words to his dad before going to sleep, hearing a ruckus, finding his "father" dead, and sprouting his claws for the first time...all in barely 2 or 3 minutes. After an incident in Vietnam where Victor decapitates a commanding officer, the brothers are put before a firing squad which does little except "tickle" them. They are then introduced to Maj. William Stryker (Danny Huston, taking over the Brian Cox role from the original trilogy), who says he's "putting together a special team of people with special powers". That team consists of Logan, Victor, electricity-controlling Bolt (Dominic Monaghan from "Lost" and "Lord of the Rings"), fast talking swordsman Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), teleporter John Wraith (wil. i. am), Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), and Fred Dukes, AKA the blob (Kevin Durand). The mercenaries bust up a Nigerian...diamond mining ring? in order to secure a not so subtle I'm-sure-that-will-come-back-later plot point. After witnessing a massacre of innocent civilians, Wolverine quits, moves to Canada with his girlfriend Kayla (Lynn Collins) and works as a lumberjack...until Stryker shows up again. Things obviously take a turn for the worse when Kayla winds up dead, and Wolverine realizes that someone (I wonder who!?) is killing off the old members of the team (umm...Watchmen rip-off, anyone?). All of this happens in what feels like 30 minutes. That's a lot of stuff, considering the amount of time the supporting players receive. And here we come to problem number 2: character juggling. Yes, this is Wolverine's story, but honestly, why bother to throw in some of these cool characters if they're never going to be heard from again, or at least only shown in a limited capacity. Wade Wilson basically gets one blade-tastic action scene and then...GONE. Bolt uses his electro powers three times...GONE. Kayla shares a handful of really quick moments with Logan, and then she's GONE, which makes her death not as impactful as it should be (you'll probably just think "well that sucks", and move on). Even fan-favorite Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), who appears much later, only gets about two real scenes in the movie, one of which is completely pointless (why did he have to disrupt Wolverine and Victor/Sabretooth's New Orleans street fight???). On the other end of the spectrum is Stryker, who, instead of appearing too frequently, appears too often and too conveniently (at times it feels like that one Seinfeld episode where George seemed to pop up wherever Jerry was). So after all of this ranting, what could problem number 3 be? This is the trickiest one, and would have still been present even if the script hadn't felt so hopped-up on speed: William Stryker. No, not the character himself, but rather, the script's choice to focus on this part of Wolverine's early life. Since even most casual views (me included) know that Stryker shows up in a later part of the X-Men saga, it renders his part as an antagonist slightly limp: he can't die, and neither can Wolverine (well...duh) or Sabretooth. So while the dozens of fight scenes are actually well executed, there's never any true suspense; they are exciting enough, but not to the point where they inspire a sense of triumph or dismay in their outcomes. That said, the movie isn't a total waste. Fight scenes, though generally quite short, are usually well executed despite their lack of surprises in terms of victors, and the special effects, some of which seemed slightly wonky in the trailers, are actually solid throughout the film. Acting-wise, there are no bad performances; everyone clearly trying hard, even when they have so little to work with. Kitsch's Gambit hints at enough personality that make him deserving of a return where he might have a better showcase for his character, Reynolds nails the fast-talking Wade in his barely-10-lines of dialogue, and Schreiber has enough wicked charisma as Sabretooth to (mostly) cover-up some of his embarrassingly cliched lines ("look what the cat dragged in"...seriously?); they suggest that in better hands, these pseudo-cameos could have become a memorable supporting ensemble. Director Gavin Hood, more known for character driven films, does a solid job with establishing a darker tone, even when his efforts are undercut by the script and/or studio meddling. Sets look lived in, as opposed to overly polished, from in the research facility where Wolverine's bones become coated in adamantium, to the streets and alleys of New Orleans where Gambit resides. But at the end of the day, this is Jackman's show, and this is perhaps the movie's greatest strength. He has the looks and charisma to pull off this role even in the worst of circumstances, and as the film's only real lead, holds the often-rushed plot together, which is pretty impressive. So, at the end of it all, how does the film stack up? Well, it's no masterpiece, and I certainly wouldn't rush out to tell people to see it as soon as they can, but, as I've said before, it's no trainwreck. There are no head-bangingly awful moments, mostly thanks to the efforts of the cast, and I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't entertained, or that I was bored. So really, Wolverine isn't so much a bad or terrible movie, as it is an average one that fails to deliver the on the level of Spiderman or Batman, but still manages to provide a decent movie-going experience. It's just that, in the comic-book movie canon, it's simply not one of the memorable entries.

Grade: C+

Star Trek - Despite any hints of an origin story, J.J. Abrams' reboot of the classic sci-fi TV series, shares that much in common with "Wolverine", but the similarities end quite shortly. The opening alone settles that, as a Federation star ship comes under attack by a massive Romulan vessel comandeered by Capt. Nero (Eric Bana). So, if that previous sentence made you think that I'm a "Star Trek" fan who knows the ins and outs of its universe, you'd be wrong. Before walking into the theater, I only had a loose idea of what the Federation is, and I'd never heard of this "Romulan" race, (same goes for the Vulcans). But that's part of what makes Abrams film such a roaring triumph; there is plenty to appeal to die-hard fans, but more than enough to bring in countless new fans. It's the first Star Trek movie for, well, anyone who loves a good time at the movies. There's not too much more I can talk about plot wise, because it's probably best if you go in knowing as little as possible, so I'll just stick to the other aspects. Re-casting the iconic roles of the original USS Enterprise crew had to be a daunting task, but everyone succeeds with flying colors. Chris Pine is fun as the rebellious, impulse-driven James T. Kirk, and is foiled perfectly by Zachary Quinto's Spock, a half Vulcan, half human who is constantly torn between his logic-filled upbringing and the emotions buried deep beneath the surface. Rounding out the delightful cast are Karl Urban as wise-cracking doctor Leonard McCoy, John Cho as sword-wielding pilot Hikaru Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Russian math wunderkind Pavel Chekov, Simon Pegg as Scotty, and Zoe Saldana as feisty Uhura. Quinto still turns in the most memorable performance, but thankfully, there are no weaklinks, and I can't wait to set sail with this cast again in the near future. Story-wise, what I CAN say, is that the structure is beautifully handled. The opening scenes with young Spock and young Kirk perfectly establish their adult personalities, and set up for their inevitable head-butting early on. Unlike in Wolverine, where events just kept happening, quiet scenes are actually allowed to breathe and grow, giving the film greater heft. What finally completes Abrams' space odyssey are the visuals, and they're glorious. Starships, exploding supernovas, space monsters, lasers, gun blasts, and set design are all gorgeously rendered. Much like Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings", the vision is very complete, and wonderfully detailed. This alternate future wasn't just thrown together casually; the crew put in a lot of work, and it shows. But even with all of its great effects and sets, Abrams never forgets story, character, or even humor, which is more than I can say for another recent set of sci-fi epics (I'm looking at you, "Star Wars"). I know that this is a totally cheesy way to end a review of this movie, but...I can't resist: I hope Abrams, the cast, and this film all live long and prosper. They wholly deserve it.

Grade: A-

Number of 2009 films seen: 14

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