The Wolverine

The Wolverine has everything a summer blockbuster needs to have: Epic battles! Cool effects! Menacing villains! Triumphant (despite flaws) heroes! Asian characters! Robots! 3-D!

Bonus points to The Wolverine for also having arrow-wielding Ninja warriors!

The Wolverine has a relatively complex plot involving a Japanese family’s internal rivalries. Logan, the Wolverine himself (Hugh Jackman, in a non-singing role), meanwhile, is fraught with haunting memories of past horrors and of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), fellow mutant and former squeeze.

The film opens with the Nagasaki A-bomb explosion in 1945. As the bomb’s fireball approaches, prisoner Logan takes Japanese soldier Yashida into the hole where he has been confined. In so doing, he saves the soldier’s life.

Decades later, as Yashida, now a wealthy industrialist, lies on his deathbed, he summons Logan to Tokyo to thank him for saving his life. (The elder Yashida is played by Hal Yamanouchi.) Logan is delivered there by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a feisty woman with unnaturally bright red hair, who seems to pop up at opportune times throughout the movie.

Yashida has willed his empire not to his son but to his granddaughter Makiro (Tao Okamoto). Yashida asks Logan to protect Makiro from her father and his henchmen.

Among Yashida’s employees is another mutant, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) whose intentions are not always clear. Hers is not the only character whose motives and allegiances seem to shift during the course of the movie.

The Wolverine has one of its epic battles atop a bullet train. Train top face-offs are nothing new, but this one is memorable, in part because of the train’s apparent high speed.

The ultimate epic showdown happens within a multi-story mountainside lair, where a shiny metal creature jumps into the fray. Is it a robot or is this a spectacular suit of knightly armor?

The Wolverine meets all the requirements listed above. It features (according to many) the most popular of the X-Men. Hugh Jackman is excellent in the role, as usual.

But the movie has some pacing issues. It gets a bit bogged down in the middle, only to provide an awesome payoff with first, the Ninjas, and then, the finale. In a summer full of action blockbusters, The Wolverine ranks near the top of the heap.

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The To Do List

There has never been a movie with as many totally non-erotic sex scenes as The To Do List. The sex is sometimes quite funny, but it’s doubtful that anyone could be turned on by what happens.

The To Do List reverses the normal pattern of teen sex movies: this time it’s a girl, not a guy, who’s anxious to become sexually active. Writer/director Maggie Carey brings many teen sex comedy staples to The To Do List, but delivers them from a different point of view.

Recent high school grad and virgin Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation) is told by her older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) that she, Brandy, needs to learn everything about sex before she gets to college.

The To Do List is hardly wholesome, but it’s not sleazy. Brandy’s list of sex acts (some of which end with “job”) is composed not with an attitude of unrestrained lust, but with an almost innocent curiosity. The To Do List is, appropriately, rated R, but there are no bare boobs to be seen here.

Bill Hader of SNL-fame has become, for me, one of those actors whose mere presence onscreen makes me primed for laughter. He plays Willy, the manager of the pool where Brandy works as a lifeguard. Also in a lifeguard perch at the pool is Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), who Brandy has targeted to be her deflowerer.

As with most teen sex comedies, there’s that person who’s always been a friend but has kept unrequited love for the main character hidden. In The To Do List it’s Cameron (Johnny Simmons). He is the beneficiary of a certain sexual favor on the list, the conclusion of which prompts him to shout out to Brandy, “I love you!”

Brandy’s mom and dad also weigh in on their daughters’ sexual exploits. Mom (Connie Britton) is realistic and helpful. Dad (Clark Gregg) is a straight-laced judge who wants to know as little as possible. Also vital to the story are Brandy’s gal pals, Fiona (Alia Shakwat) and Wendy (Sara Steele), who offer feedback, but are impressed by Brandy’s exploits. Donald Glover and Andy Samberg each have minor roles in the film.

The To Do List is set in Boise in 1993. Brandy, Fiona and Wendy are anxious to watch chick flick Beaches together. Email is referred to as “electronic mail.” And Brandy’s first “all the way” time is to the accompaniment of “Dreams” by the Cranberries.

Aubrey Plaza is a funny woman. As anchor of a strong ensemble, her talent and charm shine through. The To Do List should help her move up a notch or two on the comedy casting pecking order.

The To Do List is not for those who are offended by sexual terminology. It’s probably not a good first date film. But it is pretty dang funny!

The Way, Way Back

You may not recall how uncomfortable it feels to be 14 years old. But I do. Not old enough to drive, attracted to girls but uncomfortable around them, wanting to be active but having few opportunities to do things.

The Way, Way Back is the story of Duncan (Liam James) and his summer in a Massachusetts shore town, spent with his mom Pam (Toni Collette) and her recent boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell). Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is along for the ride, too. She’s an older teen who snubs Duncan and helps herself to her dad’s beers.

Trent is a total dick to Duncan who instantly resents Trent and his relationship with his mom. Truly, he’s more despicable in this movie than in Despicable Me 2 (which, by the way, is already the #3 movie for all of 2013).

While the grownups drink and toke and cavort, Duncan finds a friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of a water park. Owen offers Duncan a job and the kid finds a place where he has a purpose. Slightly older neighbor girl Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) becomes a friend. And, eventually, so does her nerdy little brother Peter (River Alexander).

Parallel to Duncan’s discomfort is that of his mom Pam. She’s not quite the party person that Trent and his shore friends are. She tries to be just as carefree, but she can’t quite pull it off.

The Way, Way Back has a timeless feel. Trent’s car is an old Buick station wagon with a rear-facing back seat (which gives the movie its title) where Duncan sits. The shore town has a mid-20th century look. Duncan first meets Owen at a Pac-Man game in a pizza joint. The water park appears older, more like Raging Rivers (Grafton, Illinois) than Hurricane Harbor (Eureka, Missouri). We don’t see characters grabbing laptops, iPads or smartphones—or even watching TV.

The original script is by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who worked on the Oscar-winning screenplay for 2011’s best movie, The Descendants. Faxon and Rash also are co-directors of The Way, Way Back.

Special acting honors go to Sam Rockwell, whose character has warmth and charm but is also a hilarious goofball, and Toni Collette, who is brilliant as the insecure girlfriend who has to balance her relationships with Trent and Duncan.

The Way, Way Back is a perfect summertime movie. It’s a drama; it’s a comedy. It has characters, locations and situations many of us can relate to. And, after a spring and summer of loud and explosive movies, The Way, Way Back is a breath of fresh ocean air.

 

Girl Most Likely

Kristen Wiig is terrific. She is funny. She’s a pretty woman who’s not vain. This is obvious from her work on SNL and in films. In Girl Most Likely, she brings her charm and goofiness to a quirky, disjointed movie. Does it work? Well, sort of.

Girl Most Likely stars Wiig as Imogene Duncan. She has talent as a playwright, gets a fellowship, but her dysfunctional upbringing sabotages her big opportunity in New York. When a boyfriend dumps her, she fakes a suicide to get his attention. Because she writes such a convincing suicide note, she is detained in a psych ward before being released to the custody of her mother.

Mom, Zelda (Annette Bening), is a mess: an OCD gambling addict who has hooked up at her Ocean City, New Jersey, home with the mysterious George (Matt Dillon). Also in the home are Imogene’s dorky brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) and a boarder, Lee (Darrin Criss).

The homecoming has mixed results. Imogene takes mom’s car and heads back to NYC but doesn’t get very far before wrecking it. Her initial disdain for the boarder Lee melts away when she sees him perform in his Backstreet Boys impersonation group and he takes her out with friends for drinks and dancing.

Lee takes Imogene and Ralph into NYC on a special mission (not to be revealed here), which yields big disappointment. The return to the shore leads to the film’s climactic scene and a resolution of sorts.

Girl Most Likely is a movie that I’d guess certain individuals might warmly embrace, because of its cast of weird, zany characters and an offbeat, unlikely plot. Some may appreciate the fact that Imogene’s quest has parallels to the Wizard of Oz story. In fact, it begins with a childhood version of Imogene reciting the words “There’s no place like home.”

A big problem with Girl Most Likely is that some of its humor is not quite as funny as it should be. When you shoot for guffaws but only elicit snickers, you’ve missed your mark. But despite this shortcoming, it’s great to have Wiig, who knocked it out of the park in 2011’s Bridesmaids (and was tremendous in the less-seen 2011 film Paul), back on the big screen.

(Yes, I know, she’s been back for a couple of weeks in Despicable Me 2, but voice acting is different.)

 

 

 

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim throws bigger-than-life robot/monster battles and a good mix of human characters at moviegoers and keeps it all PG-13. Grab a tub of popcorn, slap on your 3-D glasses and hang on for the ride.

Despite being derivative on many levels, Pacific Rim somehow feels fresh—not unlike certain musical acts that combine familiar influences to bring output that sounds new. The effects are impressive. The monsters are enormous. Unlike the mid-20th century Japanese film monsters that moved haltingly, movement in Pacific Rim is smooth and fast. The bots are gigantic. They, too, move well, though a bit more deliberately.

Is Pacific Rim just a new spin on the Transformers movies? No. Despite the audio similarities (abundant metal clangs) and a dependence on spectacular robots, Pacific Rim tells a better story. Director Guillermo Toro (of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth fame) has crafted a film that’s entertaining visually and has a decent narrative.

Along with the old Japanese monster movies and the Transformers films, my son, a huge anime fan, notes many similarities between Pacific Rim and the Evangelion series.

Rather than build up gradually to the first look at the huge kaiju monsters, Pacific Rim jumps into action immediately. The world’s nations unite to fight them. Turns out the best way to do it is with giant robots called Jaegers, controlled from within by humans. (My mother-in-law informs me that the word “jaeger” is German for “hunter.”) Because the job is so daunting, the bots require two people to guide them. Partners must do a sort of mind meld (they call it a “drift”) with one another, so as to assure they are simpatico.

Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) bails on the bot gig after his brother/partner is killed in a kaiju battle. Five years later, world leaders decide fighting kaiju with Jaegers is futile. (Their new strategy is building large walls along coastlines.) The battle bot boss, known as “Marshall” (Idris Elba), has stashed the last few remaining Jaegers in Hong Kong and brings Becket back for the final assault on the kaiju.

Hong Kong introduces new characters into the mix, including Mako Mori (Rinko Kiruchi) as Becket’s eventual robot mate, geeky kaiju researcher Dr. Newton Geizler (Charlie Day) and kaiju body parts harvester Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman). The sexual tension between Becket and Mori is instant. Mori’s backstory (shown frighteningly by Mana Ashida as a young Mori) complicates their relationship.

The final faceoff with between the kaiju and the Jaegers is fought underwater, deep in the Pacific. You might be able to guess the final outcome.

Should Pacific Rim become a hit—without a single bankable Hollywood star, by the way—I would speculate that more previously undetected kaiju might suddenly emerge from the depths. And a sequel might emerge from Legendary and Warner Brothers. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 is sweet and funny. It’s perfect for all ages. In fact, the new one might even be better for the little kids than its predecessor. It’s rated PG, but I think the only guidance necessary from parents should come at the concession stand. (My suggestion: go easy on the high fructose corn syrup.)

Steve Carrell does a wonderful job as lead voice talent. His voicing of Gru, in an Eastern European accent that’s not exactly Russian, delivers a character who’s lovable, but still has a sinister side. Kristen Wiig demonstrates notable voice acting skill as Lucy.

Two notable differences exist between DM2 and the first DM. Gru was an evil villain who crossed over from the dark side and became a loving adoptive father in the first film. In the new one, he’s already a good guy (though one with a tempestuous streak). Also, DM2 has a greater quotient of inspired silliness.

Providing a large amount of the silliness are the minions, those small yellow capsule-like creatures who mumble mostly double talk and do the bidding of whichever leaders they have allegiance to. The minions, who seem to have multiplied like wet Gremlins since DM1, bounce and giggle like Teletubbies—good news for the four-year-old demographic. (The next movie in the series is actually titled Minions, due at Christmas, 2014.)

Also in the silly mode is the goofy fun the filmmakers have with 3-D effects, especially during the closing credits. As with DM1, you’ll want to hang around for a few minutes instead of dashing for the exits.

The movie’s plot involves Gru being recruited by the AVL (Anti-Villain League) to find out who’s doing some treacherous deeds. His AVL liaison is Lucy who points him toward the Paradise Mall. She also becomes his romantic interest! (Despite his success as a villain, Gru is revealed to have been a flop with chicks.)

Gru’s inklings suggest that a former villain colleague El Macho, now a respectable restaurant owner named Eduardo (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), may be the perp. (Web gossip tells of Javier Bardem and Al Pacino as having been earlier choices for the role, but Bratt does an okay job.)

Adding to the cute factor in Despicable Me 2 are Gru’s daughters who bring on the charm here just as they did in DM1.

The first Despicable Me movie made a quarter billion at the box office, finishing ahead of 2010 animated rivals Shrek Forever After and Tangled. DM2 should equal, if not exceed, that figure, based on good will carryover from DM1 and strong word of mouth likely to follow the release of this new one

Note that the 3-D business at the end doesn’t work quite as well on the home screen—an additional reason to see Despicable Me 2 in a real movie house. (But, remember, go easy on the high fructose corn syrup.)