Last week, I was in California for the annual UFVA conference, which was, as always, a tremendously worthwhile experience, and a great opportunity to meet and speak with my peers in the field. Before the conference began, I managed to see three summer films that I had previously missed. Seeing, below, which films they were, you may wonder why I bothered. Or you may be the kind of person who completely understands why I would choose to subject myself to more blockbuster fare. Wherever you stand, here we go. I didn’t take notes during the screenings, so these are just reactions to what I remember.
In order of best to worst:
The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)
As with all of the other films featuring Marvel Comics’s Wolverine character, the best part of this movie is Hugh Jackman, himself. An extremely personable and charismatic actor, even in mediocre films (such as Australia), Jackman has the gift of the true movie star: he fills the screen with his presence. I enjoyed the comparatively weak X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in spite of its numerous flaws, largely on the strength of Jackman’s (and Liev Schreiber’s) charm. He was also one of the main reasons to see the first X-Men film. When his character’s role was downplayed in subsequent films in that series, I began to lose interest.
One does wonder, however, how long the owners of the X-Men and Wolverine copyrights hope to keep the story going. As a virtually immortal mutant, is Wolverine ever in any actual danger (other than from his own, internal demons)? That’s a question that this new film does, to its credit, try (somewhat) to answer. But it’s not a great, or even a particularly good, movie. It’s entertaining enough, but only in a I-just-hiked-9.2-miles-in-Joshua-Tree-National-Park-and-I-really-want-to-be-in-an-air-conditioned-theater-right-now kind of way.
The story is too convoluted to recount here, and if you are unfamiliar with the Marvel universe, it won’t make sense, anyway. To those who do know something of Wolverine, here’s a short synopsis: Having unwillingly killed the woman (also a mutant) he loved (in a previous X-Men film), Logan (Wolverine) lives like a recluse, adrift in a world he no longer wishes to inhabit, yet cannot leave, since his body always heals itself. When an old friend sends an emissary to him, offering a chance to rid himself of the burden of immortality, Logan is tempted. Will he accept death, or will he live to fight another day?
The bulk of the movie is set in Japan, which neither helps nor hurts the story, but does allow Twentieth Century Fox to court the lucrative Asian market. It has fine – if often ridiculous – action sequences, and decent supporting performances. The funniest character – and most unbelievable screen doctor ever, complete with unbuttoned revealing white lab coat – is Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper. If you buy into her, you’ll love the movie. I saw it in 2D, and am pretty sure that I missed nothing by it, so I’d recommend this as a good home rental. But unless you’ve just gone for a hike in the dessert and need some cool-down time, I wouldn’t say you need to go see it now.
The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013)
When the summer began, there was much consternation about the lack of visible or substantive roles for women in this year’s crop of films. But then along came The Heat, which I didn’t like all that much but which did pretty good box office, and suddenly the summer looked a little less bleak for women. As of this writing, that film is at #10 on the 2013 box office chart (though, depending on when you read this blog, its position may have changed). And then came The Conjuring, which did quite good box office, as well, and the critics started to see the summer in a very different light. Reading some of the positive reviews, I decided to go see it at the Hollywood Arclight (what a great theater!). I didn’t love it, but nor did I hate it. It’s like a mix of The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and Child’s Play, and less than the sum of its parts. The best thing about it is the excellent cast, and the best members of the cast are the two central women, Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor. Patrick Wilson and Ron Livingston each do a credible job as the respective spouses.
The Conjuring tells the “true story” (ha!) of the Warrens, lay Catholic demon hunters, who protect our world from evil spirits. As the on-screen title card tells us, the movie recounts the “most terrifying case they ever dealt with.” Believe it or not (I choose not to), but it’s hard to avoid seeing the parallels to the plots of the films I listed, above. Directed by James Wan, who gave us Saw, among other disgusting horrors, The Conjuring thankfully avoids any of the grossness of the gore-no genre, and instead focuses on the usual mix of spooky sound effects, chiaroscuro lighting, and its very own “the power of Christ compels you” moment to sell its chills (a moment spoofed so beautifully in This Is the End). It sort of works, but it also feels incredibly derivative. See it for the actors, if you must, but at home.
Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013)
There are three ways to describe this film:
- Transformers meets Godzilla meets Independence Day.
- What would happen if a 10-year-old boy wrote a script and was then given $200,000,000 to direct it.
Any of those sound appealing? Then go see it. Nice knowing you.
Hungry for monster movies, however? Then perhaps we should just wait for Monsters director Gareth Edwards’s own upcoming Godzilla . . .